To paraphrase Shakespeare, to obey or not to obey is a very tricky question! There is much ambiguity in the Christian message (there are times when the kingdom of heaven will definitely clash with the kingdom of this world!), and it can be difficult to know when to obey and when not to obey. The general principle in the Bible is that obedience is highly valued by God and we are called to obey parents, leaders and those in authority over us and to submit to them (see Romans 13, Eph 6:1-9), but Peter and John also remind us that our response to God supersedes our response to others at times: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’ (Acts 5:29) John Stott says, ‘On the one hand, as Christian people, we are called to be conscientious and law-abiding citizens, not revolutionaries. On the other hand, the kingship of Jesus has unavoidable political implications since, as his loyal subjects, we must refuse to give to any ruler or ideology the supreme homage and social obedience which are due to him alone.’
Paul and his companions frequently clashed with the authorities over their message. We may claim that the authorities misunderstood their message, seeing political overtones which they took as treason when the message was spiritual, not political; as John Stott puts it, ‘Just as Jesus had been accused before Pilate of sedition, of “subverting” the nation by claiming himself to be “Christ, a king”, so Paul’s teachings about the kingdom of God and about His return (Parousia often referred to an official imperial visit) were misinterpreted.’ Nonetheless, there will inevitably be times when we have to choose between the ways of the world (including its laws and rules) and God’s ways.
We rightly hail the courage of heroes who have stood up against oppression and injustice in the past (including William Wilberforce, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others). The hindsight of history is a wonderful thing! But in truth, choosing to disobey is a difficult decision, often leading to misunderstanding, dissension, persecution and imprisonment. I am concerned about many of the things happening in our world nowadays and about many laws being passed in our own country. I find this dilemma to be ever more pertinent to Christians and believe that we must be prepared for our own ‘day of reckoning’, when our consciences may lead us to defiance rather than compliance. Our journey through the book of Acts surely prepares us for this clash and gives us the assurance that if we honour God above all, He will guide us and help us, though there’s definitely no guarantee of an easy life!