I received an email question the other day about the Christian’s responsibility to government. It is a question we receive often and it is one that must be addressed time and time again. In short, the question is this: “Should we passively accept evil in government, or should we resist it? Do we submit to evil government, or resist it?” Well, what would you say?
This particular questioner referred to a teaching of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus says: “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” This is one of the famous “but I say unto you” verses from this most famous sermon. In this entire chapter, Jesus uses the following structure: “You have heard it said… But I say unto you.” In essence, what Jesus is doing in Matthew 5 is reiterating teaching from the Old Testament—in the case of 5:39, He is responding to Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21—and expanding upon it. He first states the OT passage, with which his first century hearers would have been very familiar, as “you’ve heard it said.” He then brings a new and deeper understanding to the OT passage with the “but I say unto you” response. This is not Jesus denying Old Testament law; it is Him teaching the “spirit” behind the law.
The woman who sent the email question rightly understands that Matthew 5:39 can be taken to mean that followers of Christ should become doormats for evil. If this is what Jesus is actually teaching, she says, then it follows that “any kind of resistance to despots could never been undertaken by Christians… it would be a matter of letting the whole world being taken over by dictatorships and Marxism and other negative forces if there is never, under any circumstance, to be any resistance to evil.” Providentially, this isn’t the only teaching we have on this topic in the New Testament, or even the Old Testament for that matter. The simple answer, of course, is what Peter and John told the high priest when he commanded them to stop publicly teaching about Jesus: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
But what exactly does it mean to obey God rather than men? Does this mean that Christians can do whatever they want? Does it mean they can selectively obey the state, doing only that which seems good to them? No, of course not, this would be anarchy. And obviously, Peter and John didn’t understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 as some sort of slavish obligation to do everything the state told them to do either. It seems as though Jesus and Peter & John are giving contradictory statements here, but are they?
Well, of course, the answer is “no, they are not contradictory.” In fact, they are complementary. Notice that Peter and John were more than willing to suffer the penalty the chief priest and the council decided: imprisonment. They didn’t resist to the point of swordplay, a lesson Peter learned in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:10-11). However, they were unwilling to obey the council’s command to not teach in Jesus’ name. In this sense, it was civil disobedience. They were conscientious objectors to the chief priest’s tyrannical ruling. In other words, they were resisting an evil commandment. If they had obeyed the chief priest, then they would have been disobeying God, which Scripture obviously forbids. The point is that they were willing to obey the civil authorities so long as what they required them to do did not violate the higher commands of God. Once the commands of men and God come into conflict, the Christian is required to obey God rather than men.