Our relationship with any authority is complicated. From an early age, we have a strong desire to rebel against authority; anyone who’s cared for a toddler will attest to this. That rebellious spirit ebbs and flows, peaking again in our teen years as we establish our identity. Contempt for, and rebelling against, authority has been going on for a very long time. Although, as a culture, we tend to admire standing up to authority, it’s rebelling against authority that originally got Adam and Eve in trouble. We have been living with the consequences of their rebellious spirit ever since.
Our response to authority is more complicated than most people realize. We place ourselves under God’s authority, yet continue to bristle at instructions and guidelines that are placed for our own benefit. The response of, “I know what’s better for me!” is very common and almost always wrong. Not that we can’t or shouldn’t make our own decisions, they just need to be made within healthy parameters. Guidelines are in place for a reason. Guard rails at the side of a cliff are there for our own protection, but way too often, people step over guard rails for a selfie, or for a better view, and wind up paying the consequences. The attitude of “These rules are stupid and don’t apply to me.” has gotten more than a few people in trouble.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Rom 13:1
Rebelling against authority is not always a bad thing; in the right circumstances, it’s critical. History is filled with corrupt authorities and governments encouraging or legalizing immoral activity. Slavery, institutional racism, the holocaust, are just a few examples of perfectly legal activity at the time, encouraged by governments. I’m good friends with people who have chosen to break laws to fight abortion. We have a responsibility to stand up against what we believe to be immoral or unjust activity. The problem is; where is that line between respecting authority as we are biblically instructed to do, and standing up for what is right?
Daniel served faithfully under a corrupt king. (Daniel 6:1-23). It’s OK to be uncomfortable under authority as long as we are not walking in sin. If the authority or government we are under is not asking us to sin, we can and should live our lives in an upright and righteous way. If we are asked to sin, we must question or rebel against it. Jesus walked in peace until He saw His Father’s house being desecrated by the money changers. He was not beyond flipping a few tables to make His point. But even that was done rarely and with wisdom. What we might call our righteous anger is very rarely more than just simple anger, a toddler acting out.
In missions, people have to make decisions all the time about where the line is between respecting authority and doing what is right. Bringing used clothing into Mexico to donate is not legal, even if people think the law is silly, it is the law. Transporting used clothing doesn’t justify breaking the law. I have a friend who would smuggle bibles, funding, and supplies to underground pastors in Cuba when it was not legal to do so. Was this breaking the law? Yes. Was it justified? I think most people would say yes.
With everything going on in the US today, the question of respecting authority is happening all around us. Many people don’t agree with many of the decisions being made at either the Federal or State level. Disagreeing with directives does not give us permission to act against authority as long as we are not being asked to sin. We might think wearing a mask is stupid, but is it sin? Or just uncomfortable? Not going to the beach or park might be irritating, but is staying home baking bread and watching Netflix a sin? It’s not legal to meet as big a church? We’re just starting to get into gray areas, but even the early church just met in houses; they did OK, (and they didn’t even have Zoom).
As we navigate these difficult times, walk with wisdom. When the desire to rebel against authority comes up, ask yourself, “Is the activity, or a lack of activity, asking me to sin? Or just be uncomfortable?” When you want to share the latest conspiracy theories, ask yourself, “Is this being helpful? Or am I just being divisive?”
This storm is testing all of us. When, or if, things ever calm down, let’s hope we can look back at our responses with pride, and not embarrassment. Rebel when needed, but with wisdom. Our testimony in times of trouble is what counts.
(A great movie to view if you want to think about these types of questions is The Mission (1984) with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. It’s a secular movie but brings up these exact questions in a powerful way.) Link to The Mission info on IMDB
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