But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?” (Acts 4:19)
The question of our relationship to earthly authorities comes out of the gospel itself. The moment you’ve confessed “Jesus is Lord,” the issue is on the table. If Jesus is Lord, then what does that mean for our relationship to the temporal “lords” under whom we live?
If Jesus is Lord, then what does that mean for our relationship to the temporal “lords” under whom we live?
The question is perennial. But in western nations in recent years, it has become more acute. The possibility of there being venues we can’t hire, workplace policies we can’t sign off on, and state schools we can’t in good conscience send our kids to, are now all very much in play.
We Australians have had an especially irenic history of relations between church and secular authorities. We are not a revolutionary society like the USA. Nor do we have recent memories of church submission to a manifestly evil state (think 1930s Germany). Our peaceful past means that we have few traditions to draw on or examples to help us as we look ahead. The soil of Australian culture lacks some of the nutrients needed to grow the fruit of faithful resistance. Our martyrs have been few; our soil has not been seeded by their blood.
Yet it seems reasonable to assume that, at a number of points in the next decade, we will need to make choices between Jesus and earthly authorities. How might we prepare the soil now for that day? Here are nine biblical principles to get us started.
1. Play and pray for peace
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)
As Christians, we are for peace, not conflict. We don’t pray for conflict, nor should we secretly long for it. We certainly shouldn’t manufacture it. In the Lord’s prayer we pray to be saved “from the time of trail,” not to be delivered into it. Peaceful and quiet lives are good and please God our saviour (1 Timothy 2:3).
2. Expect conflict
The kingdom of God is an insurgency.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12)
Don’t be surprised at conflict. This is not strange. Jesus is Lord. The kingdom of God is an insurgency. Don’t be surprised if that brings you into conflict with spiritual and temporal authorities.
3. Don’t be evil
If you suffer, it shouldn’t be as a meddler. (1 Peter 4:15)
Sometimes we suffer for being Christians. Sometimes we’re just jerks. Don’t be a jerk.
4. Don’t expect to choose the hill you have to die on
We often don’t get to choose the hill we have to die on. Personally, I’d like to take my stand on the resurrection of Jesus, or the power of his death. But it rarely comes that neatly.
In the book of Acts, Christians don’t just get in trouble for believing in Jesus. They get in trouble for ministry without a licence; unofficial public assemblies; undermining the local economy by undercutting the market for the local idol makers. I doubt it occurred to anyone as they were getting baptised that this was what they were signing up for.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Don’t expect to choose the hill you have to die on. Things could come to a head over race-relations, refugees, sexuality, or freedom of speech. You didn’t choose the time given you. But you need to be faithful here.
5. Remember the separate functions of church and state
God is God of both church and state. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is claiming the nations as his inheritance. It’s all his.
The coin bears Caesar’s image, but we bear God’s image. The state may not claim your soul
The church and the state are not separate from God. But they are separate from each other in the functions God has given them.
The state is for law, order, and the administration of justice. It is well within its remit to collect taxes do the work God has assigned to it. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” (Luke 20:25). So pay your taxes diligently and without grumbling. Show due honour to the authorities that God has established. So says Romans 13:1-17.
The state, however, has no right to claim you. Give to God what is God’s (Luke 20:25). The coin bears Caesar’s image, but we bear God’s image. The state may not claim your soul, your personhood, or your final loyalty.
It is completely appropriate to call the state back to its God-given role. If the state is killing babies or abusing widows or mistreating refugees or instigating a holocaust or running a slave trade, we say: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you may not do this.”
There is no need to concoct some secular or instrumental reasons why the state may not do this or that. The fact that Jesus wouldn’t want it is good reason enough. As the Barmen Declaration of the Confessing German Church (the ones who opposed Hitler) puts it:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
Notice that: Not the state. Or the HR department. Or the town council. Jesus Christ.
6. Practice strategic compliance.
Don’t die on every hill. In Matthew 17:24-27 the disciples are told by Jesus to pay a temple tax he did not believe they needed to pay. Let that sink in. Jesus both (a) established the theological cases for not paying it and (b) made provision for its payment.
Sometimes earthly authorities will have requirements that make your eyes roll or your blood boil. And it may still be prudent, wise, and good to go ahead and do it anyway. Don’t die on every hill.
7. Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves
Read the play. Signing off on “inclusivity and diversity” might be completely appropriate. Or it might be part of a wider play. Don’t just ask, “What is this” but ask “where is it heading?” Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).
We will need wisdom to decide between point 4 (don’t expect to choose the hill you die on) and point 6 (don’t die on every hill).
8. Pray for courage
Enable your servants to speak with great boldness. (Acts 4:29)
Our children will need to be bolder than we were. Pray for them.
9. Be relentlessly cheerful in Jesus.
Rejoicing because they have been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the name. (Acts 5:19)
The situation is too serious to give in to the temptation to be continually serious. Jesus wins. In the end, Jesus saves the world. Act like it! Sing songs and write poems and share meals and laugh loud and play chasey and make fun of yourself. Jesus wins. Everything is going to be okay.
 N.b. If there is someone reading this article in 2030 with a bemused look on their face thinking to themselves, “What was he talking about?! The 2020s we so peaceful”—well, praise God! God answered our prayer.