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Civil Disobedience

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
October 23, 2020 12:01 am

Civil Disobedience

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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October 23, 2020 12:01 am

Is it ever legitimate for the church to act in defiance against the state? Today, R.C. Sproul teaches us a principle from Scripture to help us gauge when our submission to Christ requires us to disobey civil authorities.

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Next, on Renewing Your Mind.

We consider both the principle as well as the application. How far is too far? Is there a line the government will cross someday when we'll all know that it's time to disobey? Or is it possible that we've already reached that point? These questions are relevant in any age, but it seems especially timely today.

Here's Dr. R.C. Sproul from his series Church and State. We're going to address an issue today that's somewhat controversial, and that's the question of civil disobedience as well as civil obedience. Is there ever a time where it is legitimate for the church to act in defiance toward the state or for the Christian individual to refuse to act in obedience to the state? This is a highly controversial matter, and it has been from the very beginning of our country because at the time of the American Revolution, Christians were divided on the issue of whether it was legitimate to stand up and declare independence against the crown of England.

And the issues were rather complex and not very easy to sort out. And even to this day, Christian theologians and professors of ethics differ on the answer to that particular question. But today, we're not going to be able to solve that age-old controversy over the American Revolution, but we are going to look at some of the principles that play a part in our decisions with respect to civil obedience and civil disobedience. Let me begin by reminding you of what we looked at earlier in this series of the Christian's responsibility to bend over backward to be in submission to the powers that be. I remind you what Paul taught in Romans 13 when he says, let every soul be subject to the magistrates. He was writing to people who at that time were suffering under oppression at the hands of the Roman government, and Paul called the believers in Rome to be good subjects to the empire, to pay their taxes, to give honor to the authorities over them, and to pray regularly for those who were in positions of power and authority. The Westminster Confession of Faith says with respect to those issues, quote, it is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, to be subject to their authority for conscience sake.

Infidelity or difference in religion does not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them. So what is being said here is that if the state is pagan, if the state is irreligious, if the state differs from us in terms of our religious convictions, that does not free us from our responsibility to honor them as the government and as the powers that be, that we're still called to pray for them, we're still called to pay taxes to them, even if we disagree with what they do with the taxes, even if we think the tax levels are unjust, which I'm convinced they are. Nevertheless, it's still my responsibility to pay for them so that the first principle that we operate with is the principle of civil obedience, which the New Testament calls us to again and again and again.

One of my favorite illustrations of the principle of civil obedience in action has to do with the birth narrative of Christ. We're all familiar with the Christmas story in the second chapter of Luke, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. And so, for purposes of taxation, Augustus Caesar, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, imposed this edict, this decree upon the entire Roman Empire. It came to pass in those days.

This is what happened. And as part of that taxing program, Caesar commanded that everybody return to the city of their birth so that they could be counted in the census and therefore get on the tax rolls. And as a result of this decree, people were subjected to all kinds of hardships, to make arduous journeys and treks, to return, to take leave from their businesses and from their family duties wherever they were living at the time, to go back to their place of their birth just so that they could be enrolled, so that they could be counted in the census to satisfy Caesar's demand for taxation. So, it wasn't like they were returning to their roots for a vacation, but rather to be in submission to the governing authorities. And it's because of that decree, we are told, that Joseph and Mary undertook that arduous journey to go back to Bethlehem to be enrolled. Now, Joseph could have been protesting all over the place and said, wait a minute, my wife is nine months pregnant, and if I subject her to this journey to Bethlehem in order to sign up for the census, I could lose my wife and our unborn child. He could make a great case for the injustice of the law that had been decreed by Caesar and had tried to use that oppression and the affliction of suffering that may follow from it as a consequence as a just means for refusing obedience. But that's not what he did. He risked the life of his wife and the life of his baby to be in compliance to the law, even though the law inconvenienced him dramatically. You see, the principle of civil obedience, biblically, is not that we are called to be in submission to the authorities that reign over us when we agree with them, or when we think they're righteous, or when we feel like it, or that we have a license to disobey if we are afflicted or inconvenienced or disagree with them.

That attitude that we call scofflawism has no grounding whatsoever in the Scripture. Indeed, Christians are called to be model citizens. This indeed was the defense of the Christian apologists of the late first century and the second century when persecution arose in the Roman Empire against them.

Justin Martyr, for example, in his Apologia, his defense, which he wrote to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, he said to the Emperor, look at us. We are your most loyal citizens. We pay our taxes. We obey the speed limit.

We don't drive our chariots in a wild and reckless way. We pray for the government all the time. We are your most loyal citizens. So why are you persecuting us? Because our King, King Jesus, commands us to honor you. And so out of respect for Him, we give respect to you.

That was the case. And Justin Martyr understood the ethic of civil obedience that is so deeply rooted and grounded in the New Testament. In fact, the ethic is so often repeated there in Scripture that one could easily come to the conclusion that we must always, no matter what, obey the civil magistrate. That's not where the Scriptures come out, as we will see in a few moments. But what I'm saying here is the overwhelming emphasis in the Scripture is that we as Christians are to bend over backward to be subjective citizens under whatever government we are moving. Now, does that mean that we must always obey?

Absolutely not. There are times when Christians may not only disobey the magistrate, but there are times when they must disobey the civil magistrate. And that is the case we will show by looking at the New Testament. Let's go now to the book of Acts, to chapter 4, beginning at verse 13, now when they, that is the rulers of the Jews, the Sanhedrin, now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus. And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it. But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, saying, What shall we do with these men? For indeed that a notable miracle has been done through them is evident to all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it.

But so that it spreads no further among the people, let us severely threaten them that from now on they speak to no man in this name. Now by the power of Christ, Peter and John had healed the man that was crippled. And now the rulers who were in opposition to Christianity take counsel together in executive session and they acknowledge among themselves, there's no doubt of what we've just seen.

This man's healing was a miracle, and it was plain and evident to everybody in Jerusalem. We can't deny it. Now you would think, they would say, therefore, since this miracle was performed right in front of our eyes in the power of Christ, that we ought to repent and subject ourselves to Christ.

That's what they should have done, and that should have been their conclusion from what they clearly admitted was the case. And instead they said, Well, you know, we can't deny this. We can't put this under the rug. But we can stem the flow. We can retard the growth of this sect that we abhor with their miracles and all the rest by doing what? Let us severely threaten them that from now on they speak to no man in this name. Let us use the power and authority that we have as rulers over them to give severe threats against them to put a stop to their preaching in the name of Christ. Now what happens? So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. Now stop right there.

Here are the authorities. Command Peter and John never again to speak of Christ or to teach anybody in His name. I want to ask you this. Would we be here today talking about the separation of church and state if Peter and John had obeyed that mandate? Had the apostolic community submitted to the authorities at that point and became subject to that mandate, that would have been the end right then and there of Christianity? But you see what happened was very plain that the magistrate commanded them to be quiet which in effect was they prohibited them from doing what Christ had commanded them to do. Now we're beginning to see a principle emerge here which is articulated in the next verse.

Let's look at it. Peter and John answered and said to them, whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard. You see the principle that is emerging here is that when there is a direct and immediate, unequivocal conflict between the law of God and the rule of men, who do you obey? If it comes down to do I obey God or man, I must obey God. And it's true that human rulers can and do require people to do things that God forbids or forbids them from doing, as it was in this case, from doing what God commands. So the principle is very simple. If any ruler, whether it's a governing official or a governing body, a school teacher, a boss, a military authority, a parent, whatever, anybody in authority commands you to do something God forbids or forbids you from doing something God commands, not only may you disobey, but you must disobey. Now, the principle is simple.

You can memorize it in a few moments. The application of it to real life situations can become exceedingly complex. And we have to realize that we are very prone as sinful people to twist and distort things to excuse ourselves for doing things we ought not to do. So before we run around disobeying the magistrates or the authorities over us, we better have a clear understanding that that conflict exists.

Obviously, if my boss told me to cook the books so that he could be protected from embezzlement and asked me to aid and abet him in crime, I would have to disobey my boss. If my parents told me I was not allowed to go to church and they're in authority over me and worship God, I would have to go to church and defy my parents, because there it's clear. If the authority told you that you would have to have an abortion, you would have to disobey, because you obey a higher authority. And if the authorities say you're not allowed to distribute Bibles or preach the Word of God, you'd do it anyway, because we have mandates from Christ that get these things done.

That's why it's so important that it still exists, although it's very weak, that we still have a right that is set into the law of this nation that guarantees the free exercise of religion and it still gives the right to act according to conscience, although that right is being eroded. Let me give you an example of that. When I was teaching college during the Vietnam conflict, I had many students in my classes who were opposed to the Vietnam War, and they sought to opt out of involvement in it through the process of conscientious objection. And so they would come to me and ask me if I would be willing to sign affidavits that would indicate that I was verifying that they really had the objection. And I did. I signed several of those documents, not because I thought they had a good understanding of the complexities of the war, not because I was convinced that America was wrong for being there because I wasn't. I wasn't sure whether we should have been or not should have been.

I didn't know for sure. But these young people were sure, and all I had to do was testify whether they were sincere in their beliefs in my judgment, and which I did. And so many young people sought conscientious objector status that it became a crisis and the government changed the rules, and changed the rules by the court that said from then on, you could only be involved as a CO if you could prove that you were opposed to all wars. Now, in other words, you had to be a certifiable pacifist in order to get conscientious objector status. And this rule militated against Christians who historically embraced the just war principle that said all wars are wrong, but not all involvement of people is wrong. There are some times when a nation goes to war justly, and there are times when they are unjust.

At the Nuremberg Trials, the constant defense that the German commanders gave was that they were engaged in the things that they were engaged in because they were commanded by their superior officers. And the United States' position at Nuremberg was that they had a moral obligation, an ethical duty to disobey their superiors if their superiors were telling them to be engaged in wrongful acts, and that they had to pick and choose by their own conscience what was right and what wasn't. And that was the principle of conscientious objection that was the American principle until the Vietnam War, which then changed it saying you either have to be in favor of all wars or opposed to all wars. You can't be selective, which, you know, completely collided with the Christian understanding of the citizen's responsibility with respect to warfare.

And so, again, the principle of conscience has eroded in our government. But one thing that's still left, and that is as we saw through the civil rights movement where you had intentional acts of civil disobedience, people violating local statutes because the federal government gave them the right to test local laws by seeing whether they were constitutionally valid. That's what was behind Martin Luther King's peaceful civil disobedience, saying let's get these laws in front of the federal government to see if the state laws in Selma, Alabama and other places are in fact constitutional. And that's how the civil rights thing was overcome by demonstrating that local laws were unjust and violated people's constitutional rights. So even though it's been weakened, the Constitution still is there and still allows certain kinds of disobedience for the right reason.

But again, this matter can become extremely complicated. And so the important thing we do first is that we master the principle, that we must always obey those in authority over us unless they command us to do something God forbids or forbids us from doing something God commands. Coming to the end of this series of the relationship between church and state, obviously there's much more that needs to be said and explored about that relationship. What I've tried to do is help us to see the basic principles that we have here, that there are two realms that God has established, the church and the state. And we are to show great respect and concern in all that we do for both of them. That is such a helpful foundation for us as we think through these issues.

Dr. R.C. 's Sproul series, Church and State, has been our focus over the past couple of days here on Renewing Your Mind. We'd like to send you this series along with R.C. 's booklet, What is the Relationship Between Church and State?

In both resources, he explores the biblical teaching regarding the church's relationship to the state, our obligation to obey those in authority unless, as we heard today, we are called to do something that God forbids or forbidden to do something God commands. We'll send you both resources for your donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. You can reach us by phone at 800-435-4343.

You can also make your request and give your gift online at Chris Larson is with me today. He is the president and CEO of Ligonier Ministries.

Chris, our listeners are used to hearing R.C. address matters of theology, doctrinal topics like justification by faith alone or the doctrine of election, for example. They may be surprised that he taught a series on church and state, but how does this fit into Ligonier's overall mission? Well, theology is imminently practical, and so we're not surprised to find how the Bible speaks to really every issue of life and whether that's how we are to conduct ourselves as part of a larger society and our relationship to government, the family, and the church.

And so we're always thinking about these different spheres. And I tell you, Lee, these past few months have presented some real challenges for individuals as they're thinking through how to live out the Christian life and what God is calling us to do, indeed what God is commanding us to do in terms of worshiping him every Lord's Day and how we're to do that in this time of this global pandemic. And thankfully, over the past few months, different places around the world have been able to open up a little bit, but there are still some very restrictive places and even creating some adversarial concerns. That's a good point of what I'm talking about, where you've had these different types of categories being offered by government and medical officials, and we need to say loud and clear, church is essential. We must obey God. We must gather with God's people. And so we're seeking to apply wisdom to the current situation and where we happen to live. I got a sense that we might be facing these moments back in mid-March when I spoke with our Ligonier Ministries staff and expressing the concerns, of course, that the global health and then the economic crisis we're going to raise, but also the possibility of a third crisis with increased overreach by the civil government into the sphere of the family and the church.

I made the point that just as we must remain vigilant to promote public health in a time of developing medical consensus, we must also acknowledge that there are possible and actual incursions into individual liberty, into property rights, religious freedom, and the right to assemble. And what is unfolding in many states really presents challenges to the church, the public worship of God, and the free exercise of religion. Now, I know Christians do not seek to pick a fight. We instead bring the gospel of peace, and we pray for those who are in authority over us. And so Christians are striving to obey God and the rightly established civil authorities. I know many churches are striving to navigate these sometimes turbid guidelines from the medical and government officials. We should be grateful for many places in which churches have been meeting for several months now during, yes, inconvenient circumstances, yet they're not neglecting the proper elements of worship. And so just taking today's lesson from Dr. Sproul, I'm encouraged to continue to pray for pastors and elders as they are keeping watch over the souls and they're trying to care for their flocks and continue to remember to pray that the church would have a steadfast witness.

And yes, indeed, praying for government officials, just as it says in 1 Timothy 2, verse 2, that we're to pray for all who are in high positions that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. Thank you, Chris. And today's message is a good reminder for us to do just that. And we also thank you for your prayers for this ministry as we continue proclaiming the holiness of God to as many people as possible. Next week we have the privilege of debuting a new teaching series by Dr. W. Robert Godfrey. It's titled The Necessity of Reforming the Church. He'll show us from Scripture and from history why Reformation should be the norm in the church. I hope you'll join us beginning Monday here on Renewing Your Mind. God bless. God bless.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-02-02 09:58:28 / 2024-02-02 10:07:03 / 9

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