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Obeying church and state

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Freedom of religion conceptual image United States flag overlayed by the Constitution and a crucifix (Credit: JcJg Photography - Fotolia.com)

The nation’s Catholic bishops recently “urged resistance to laws that church officials consider unjust.”  They encouraged “fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad.”  The Obama administration and Catholic leaders clashed earlier this year over requiring most employers to cover birth control costs for their employees; this conflict has not yet been resolved.

I write each week for the Texas Faith blog of The Dallas Morning News.  This week we were asked to respond to this timely question: “How far should people of faith go in resisting laws they consider unjust?”  Here’s my response:

Scripture commands loyalty both to secular laws and to biblical principles.

Paul taught that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), for “the authorities are God’s servants” (v. 6).  Peter agreed: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (1 Peter 2:13).

Yet Paul was beheaded by Nero because he would not obey Rome’s command to stop preaching the gospel.  When the supreme legal authority in Israel ordered Peter to stop preaching the Christian message, he responded: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).

How are we to resolve this apparent conflict between secular and spiritual compliance?  By obeying our highest authority.

Insofar as we can submit to secular laws, we must do so.  But if we are faced with laws that cannot be obeyed without violating clear biblical mandates, Christians must obey God rather than men.  Peter taught us to “show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17).  Our culture fears the king and honors God, but Scripture teaches the reverse.

A free church in a free state is best for both.  John Leland, one of the most important Baptists in colonial history, stated in 1791: “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics.  Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, or no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.”

This is the American, and biblical, ideal.