With the Affordable Care Act kicking in, it has certainly stirred up its fair share of controversies. It’s regulations are pretty far-reaching and have started to encroach on some territory held pretty sacred by some major parts of our Christian family. The biggest friction has been with the ACA’s requirement that non-church and ecclesial organizations still have to cover contraception coverage for their employees. Catholics who run non-ecclesial organizations have not taken too kindly to this. NPR recently had an interesting profile about this intersection of faith and politics.
Catholic leaders have vowed Civil Disobedience in response to these regulations, insisting on a religious exemption, even for private companies. In the past, religious organizations have done similar things in response to abortion regulations as well as gay marriage statutes.
Reading through Acts 4 the other day, I read again the account of Peter and John being arrested in Jerusalem and thought it had some powerful things to say about this and how Christians in America have been acting towards their government recently. So, I thought we’d walk through that passage over a post today and on Monday, and discuss some principles behind when and how Christians should fight their government tooth-and-nail for their convictions.
The Background & The Outline
In Acts 3, Peter and John heal a man that had been paralyzed his whole life. He was well-known in the town, so this healing draws a crowd. Peter begins preaching to this crowd and 5,000 people convert to Christianity. The Jewish leaders don’t like this, so they arrest Peter, John, and the healed guy and throw them in jail for the night. (Yes, these rulers functioned as the civil authorities–not just religious ones–they just didn’t have the power to execute, hence why they had to go to Pilate to kill Jesus).
The day after arresting them, they bring these guys before them and interrogate them, inviting another sermon from Peter. They discuss the matter amongst themselves. They feel stuck, because the miracle clearly happened and they can’t simply deny it. But they want the preaching to stop. So they decide to just tell them to stop. That’s where we’ll pick up:
So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened [to the crippled man]. (vv.18-21)
I’d like to point out three things I think this passage shows us:
- how Christians should engage with a political realm that comes in conflict with their faith;
- what is worth Christians disobeying the civil authorities over; and
- the cultural and societal work we are called to that facilitates our Christian living and possible disobedience.
1. Engaging a world that is not the Kingdom
Peter and John give respect to the civil authorities, giving them the right to have the regulations they see fit. They do not call the laws and decrees inherently sinful or wrong. They are simply one instance in which Christians cannot in their consciences comply.
Christians are ambassadors of a different kingdom, and as such, need to follow the rules of their King, even if their geographical homes don’t honor it. Ambassadors don’t try and create laws in their countries of residence. You don’t see them (or anyone in the New Testament) try to change or create laws that are more in line with their distinctively Christian desires. There are simply no inherently “Christian” laws. Further, there is not a giddy glee or arrogance about it. Just a humble acknowledgement and sorrow that this is the way it is.
Civil Disobedience is not seen as conflict or warfare with the civil sphere, but rather an unfortunate occasional necessity that comes from Christians pledging their ultimate allegiance to a Kingdom other than the one they’re living in. It is abstaining from the laws in question, not warfare against them.
2. Picking our battles
In one sense, as in Romans 13, Christians are called to obey nearly all of the decrees of civil authorities (all of which are “secular”; there’s no such thing as a “Christian” nation or government. Political systems can’t believe in Christ).
But there’s a tricky dynamic to this: on one hand Christians, because of the holistic nature of their faith, have an opinion about everything (in fact, even between Christians, many–if not most–of those opinions differ). We have something to say about most anything that a civil arena would touch.
Should we do civil disobedience if regulations limit the materials we can use in building church buildings or require an onerous number of permits, inspections, and licenses? What about, say, taxation issues or the volume at which churches can have services and events? Now these are silly and small examples, but I think most of us would say that, no, Christians should simply comply with these things, no matter if their “biblical” view or opinion differs with any of those things. In such a case, you might think, “yeah, in an ideal world, this would look different, but hey, we’re not in an ideal world, so we should just comply.”
We would do this because, hopefully, we understand that the civil authority does not exist to comply with, bend to, or push our every theological preference and opinion. The government is not our tool to spread our secondary theological views onto the rest of society, no matter whether the majority of society agrees with us or not (are we not called to offer deference, societal flourishing, and freedom of conscience even to the minority groups among us–even the most hardened atheists?)
So there are many secondary and tertiary things that Christians might have views on, that the civil authority doesn’t go along with, and yet we comply with them anyway as part of being good citizens and obeying Scripture like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.
But what about other issues? Contraception coverage in mandated insurance plans? Laws targeting illegal immigrants? The removing of religious expressions in the public sphere? Forcing churches to open their buildings to gay marriages? Making religious hospitals perform abortions? Segregation in the South in the 60s?
How do we discern what things we should simply comply with and those that we look at the authorities and say “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from [insert issue here].”
I think this passage helps and has some more to say. On Monday I’ll discuss that third point above as well as offer some conclusions of my own, but in the meantime, I really want to know:
What do you think? Where do you draw the line? How do you understand how this is done?
[image credit: Laureti’s “Triumph of Christianity”]