SEPARATION OF CHURCH
Render unto Caesar
In this article, we look at the importance of the separation of church and state and discuss our response to civil authority as witnesses of the Message of Jesus.
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Not of This World
In one sense, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God is at war with the kingdoms of this world. However, it’s a very strange war. Not for the faint-hearted nor the war-mongering.
While at distinct odds with the Empire, the King’s war is waged through love, humility, kindness, patience, gentleness and servanthood. It utterly shuns violence, force, manipulation and coercion. As Paul said, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12) and “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” (2 Corinthians 10:4).
While few would disagree with this as a sentiment, many believers are unsure of how to apply this knowledge in today’s polarised, politicised world.
“We need to take back the culture for Jesus! We need to fight for what we believe. We’ve been passive for too long. It’s time to get aggressive…”
While this type of reaction may be fuelled by commendable passion, it can easily result in picking more of the wrong battles and doing more harm than good. Misplaced and misdirected religious zeal is a dangerous commodity.
Many in Jesus’ day mistakenly assumed He was spearheading a militant revolt against Rome. The religious establishment used these fears to instigate trouble for Jesus, ultimately leading to His crucifixion. However, for many Jews, Jesus’ kingdom-talk created the hope of deliverance and victory against the oppressive Roman Empire. Finally, the Warrior Messiah had arrived to set up a geopolitical kingdom like that of David’s.
John, Chapter 6 tells the story of how the crowds misunderstood His intentions. With Jesus’ popularity at an all-time high, a massive hungry crowd of about five thousand “men” gathered to Him (putting the number between 20,000 to 25,000 people including women and children). Jesus fed the multitude through a miracle … just five loaves and two fish filled a lot of tummies and twelve doggie-bags to go (vv. 1-13).
The miracle, however, backfired.
Jesus “perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king” (v. 15).
The multitude misread the moment, equating Jesus’ food distribution with the political manoeuvring of secular leaders, who often provided bread before election time to bribe the people. “Jesus for President!” “Down with Rome!” Can you imagine the visions of triumph this sign-crazy mob entertained (v. 2)?
What an army we will be! No need to carry provisions … just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish will do! Injured in battle? No worry … healing is part of the package! Bad weather? No sweat, He commands the storms! Come to a river? No need to build a bridge … hey, He walks on the water! Even if we get killed … no problem! He even raises the dead! Charge!
But Jesus “departed” (v. 15).
He wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. In fact, Jesus withdrew from the public eye and immediately sought solace in His Father’s presence. He then returned the next day and deliberately set out to thin the ranks and disabuse the crowd of their false notions by talking about eating His flesh and drinking His blood (vv. 22-71).
Later, Jesus spelt it out emphatically,
My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight … but My kingdom is not from here.”
As the ekklesia, reunited with the Father and restored to our God-given stewardship as custodians of this earth, our participation in society and response to civil authority is critical to understand.
Render unto Caesar
Long before Thomas Jefferson penned the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Jesus spoke about the important separation of these two domains.
When asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not—given His claims as King of a new transcendent, otherworldly Kingdom—Jesus discerned their scrupulous motives. After asking whose image was inscribed on the coin (Matthew 22:15-22), Jesus said,
Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In other words, as citizens of God’s domain, we live in accordance with God’s will. As citizens of secular society, we adhere to the authority of civil government. Jesus said we are “in” but not “of” this world; in fact, He has “sent us into the world” (John 17:9-18). Sent into this world, we’re to represent our King with unimpeachable integrity.
The early church took this to heart. Both Paul and Peter called the early believers to honour and submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17), the former going so far as to refer to civil authority as “God’s minister to you for good” (Romans 13:6). And let’s not forget, the rulers they were referring to were tyrants and despots.
Jesus and the apostles had much to say on the issue of authority. In fact, the way we respond to authority is a core value of the Kingdom of God.
The Wall of Separation
Let’s take a moment to explore Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.
A founding father of the United States, Jefferson served as the third US President from 1801 to 1809, having served as the second Vice President between 1797 and 1801.
He believed the tyranny that plagued Europe was due to monarchies and corrupt political establishments, and he was deeply suspicious of the reach of the Church of England. He also believed in limited and decentralised government.
In 1802, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote to him with concerns over their religious freedom. This was not a superficial fear but one rooted in the European religious persecution from which many of the first Christians to arrive on American shores had fled.
Jefferson assuaged their fears, insisting that there was indeed a “wall of separation between church and state”. In other words, the government would not infringe upon their religion freedom. The wall of separation protected them from a political agenda.
The Supreme Court affirmed this as an “authoritative declaration” of the First Amendment in 1879, which affirms, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.
A Two-way Street
However, what many believers fail to understand is that the wall of separation is a two-way street.
To be clear, the Danbury Baptist Association was principally concerned with corrupt religion—like that which dominated much of Christendom in Europe at the time—usurping the fledgling US government and thus, imposing a political-religious agenda upon them.
Jefferson’s wall of separation assured the Danbury Baptist Association that they were protected because government itself was protected from religious agendas.
The wall of separation protects church from political agendas and it also protects the state from religious agendas.
The answer to our world’s problems is not a Christian political party. We don’t actually want any religious party governing the country. Not only would a ruling Christian political party be forced into compromise, such is the nature of civil governance, it would preempt and validate the rise of other religious political parties. That’s one step away from inviting Sharia Law.
No, a healthy, functioning human society needs civil government free of all religious agendas.
If a religious party rules a nation, whether it’s Christian or Muslim, there can be no true freedom of religion. And if there is no freedom of religion, religious bias is inevitable and the spectre of religious persecution looms.
The Purpose of Government
So, what’s the Biblical purpose of government?
This is the key question, one answered by both Paul and Peter. Because they don’t mince their words, let me add them here in full:
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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
(Romans 13:1-7 NIV, italics added)
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”
(1 Peter 2:13-17 NIV, italics added)
Firstly, both Paul and Peter made it clear that all authority stems from God, and they exhorted believers to honour and submit to governing authorities as unto God.
Yes, we live by a higher code as citizens of another Kingdom. Yet it’s this knowledge that informs our honourable response to civil government regardless of whether we think our governing authorities are up to scratch or not. Again, we need to remind ourselves of the rulers Paul and Peter had in mind when giving us these instructions.
Secondly, both Paul and Peter made it clear that the purpose of government is to protect the rights of their citizens.
All their citizens. And all their rights.
This is the reason religious political parties fail in this role. They cannot remain consistently impartial. That’s not a criticism but a statement of the obvious.
While we don’t need a Christian political party, we do need mature followers of Jesus, who know how to govern with wisdom, justice and mercy, to serve within our secular political parties. In doing so, they serve as the leaven of the Kingdom that leavens the whole meal (Matthew 13:33).
The Christian Country Myth
Much of the Western world was founded on Judeo-Christian values and some countries were heavily influenced by Christian men and women in their origin stories. In many countries, Christianity was the official state religion and in some, Christianity remains the predominant religion. Several countries still identify as Christian states or have state churches, including the likes of England, Greece, Norway, Argentina, Malta, Samoa, Tonga and Zambia.
However, today, no country is a Christian country per se. Certainly not in the way ancient Israel was a religious country under King David or the way the Roman Empire was a religious country under papal power. Western world society is multicultural and pluralistic founded on, among other freedoms, the freedom of religion.
More importantly, Jesus nor any of the writers of the New Testament ever advocated for the idea of a Christian country. They never so much as hinted at the concept. Only when Rome co-opted the Christian faith in the fourth century did church and state become one, a marriage that few would deny was unhealthy and at odds with the Gospel.
We are sent into the world but we’re not of this world. Our mandate as salt and light is to transform society from inside out and not through a religious-political agenda.
In my experience, it seems that many believers unconsciously assume that society would be better off with a ruling Christian party or that the ultimate goal is to contend for a Christian country. Not many would say this in so many words, but the sentiment is present.
The sentiment might sound right and it’s probably shaped by a bad copy-paste job of Old Testament Israel onto modern society. That is, we assume that since God’s people lived in a nation state under His rule in the Old Testament, this represents the ideal today.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that God gave Israel a King reluctantly, acquiescing to their juvenile, nationalistic demands: “now make us a king to judge us like all the nations … a king [who will] judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:5, 20). And God only did so after warning them of the grave consequences (1 Samuel 8:11-18).
Secondly, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the spectacular failure of the “king project,” which merged state and religious power. After Saul, David and Solomon all compromised themselves and the nation, which then split three years into Rehoboam’s reign, only 8 of the 20 kings of Judah were righteous; not a single righteous king sat on Israel’s throne.
As John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Nothing speaks of absolute power more than the coupling of religious and state powers.
The marriage of church and state is a flawed union. It was for ancient Israel, even in what may be considered “perfect” conditions (given that all the people were willingly of the same faith).
Preoccupation with the Old Testament Prophet
Along with the false notion that we’re contending for a Christian country (a type of religious nationalism), it seems modern Christianity has a preoccupation with the Old Testament prophet.
That is, assuming we’re contending for a Christian country, the church’s role today is often positioned as that of the prophet. Like the brave prophets of old, we believe we must speak out against the nation’s sins. We assume it’s up to the church, like Israel’s holy prophets, to publicly decry the country’s moral decadence. And like the courageous prophets we admire, we anticipate public backslash and wear it like a badge of honour.
This is not just an assumption based on a form of religious nationalism but it’s an erroneous view of the role of the ekklesia and the New Testament prophet.
Firstly, the prophets of the Old Testament were God’s bullhorn, His mouthpiece: the very words they spoke were God’s Word. And most prophetic utterances were a mixture of warnings of judgement and promises of restoration following judgement. The expected response was that of repentance and obedience.
While this is a subject for an article in itself, the nature of New Testament prophecy is distinctly different. On the one hand, we prophesy in part (1 Corinthians 13:9); on the other hand, our response to a prophetic word is to test it (1 Thessalonians 5:20, 21; 1 Corinthians 14:29-33). In short, New Testament prophecy is more subjective.
Most tellingly, not a single prophecy in the New Testament so much as hints at warnings of judgement. Most of the prophecies centre around encouragement within a gathering of believers (1 Corinthians 14:1-5) and releasing believers into service (Acts 13:1, 2). Agabus, of course, warned Paul correctly of what awaited him Jerusalem but there was no judgement in the prophet’s words (Acts 21:10-13). In fact, Paul interpreted it as confirmation.
The only record we have of New Testament prophecy that addressed a sociopolitical event was when Agabus warned of an upcoming famine (Acts 11:27-30), one that inflicted Judea in AD 46 and 47. Again, it contained no judgement for wrongdoing and no call to repentance. Agabus didn’t condemn the Empire or point fingers at the obvious corruption in the governing authorities of the day. Instead, the prophecy mobilised generous relief work to assist those in need.
Secondly, the Old Testament prophet principally addressed two things: Israel’s idolatry and Israel’s neglect of the poor.
They called Israel out on idolatry because they were a nation essentially founded on The Shema, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Obviously, our society is not so founded. That the church has appointed itself as the moral police can only stem from conflating the role of the Old Testament prophet and our role as the ekklesia. Ironically, had we been consistent with our identification of the Old Testament prophet model and contended for the poor on par with our fixation with morality, we might have more public credit.
Self-appointed Moral Police
As the self-appointed judge and jury on all things morality, the modern church has felt obligated to point the finger at society’s moral failings and this has largely centred around the issues of sex and sexuality.
It goes without saying that every follower of Jesus prizes a society with good morals and prefers to raise their children in a culture resonating with wholesome values.
However, by attempting to impose our moral code on secular society, we’ve provoked the same response that every Christian would have, to say, the imposition of Sharia Law. Moreover, the infidelity and moral failure of many notable Christian figures has only made the church look hypocritical.
Is it not our duty to remind society of the values upon which we’re founded?
Speaking of duty, the answer is no.
Our duty is first and foremost to serve as witness of the Message of Jesus, which, as we’ve seen in A Magnanimous Orthodoxy, involves two things: firstly, being a testimony of the love of God and the unity of the Spirit, and secondly, serving society though outlandish generosity and outrageous good deeds.
That’s our duty.
In being faithful to our duty, and the integrity and credibility that comes with it, our counsel may well be sought.
Then it would be our privilege to serve society with a reminder of the values upon which we’re founded.
But what values are we talking about?
The Judeo-Christian values that have made the Western world one of the greatest civilisations ever centre on the sanctity of the individual and the equality and rights of every human being. For certain, the Western world is far from perfect and we’re only in the middle of completing the project.
However, if the church had focused on advocating for these values, it would have led the way in women’s rights and racial justice, to mention just two hot potato issues. And if the church had “done its duty“, keeping the unity of the Spirit and advocating for the poor and marginalised, it would have held the very heart and soul of society in its hands.
That we’ve failed in our duty and in many ways, opposed the equality of human rights—instead fixating on issues of morality—means we’re reaping a harvest of scorn and suspicion we can now see was coming.
Our Civil Response
As followers of Jesus, our response to civil authority and civil matters include the following…
- Pray for the governing authorities in a spirit of humility and honour.
- Model citizenship that’s above reproach.
- Serve society with particular emphasis on advocating for the poor and marginalised.
- Exercise the responsibilities of democratic citizenship with a clear understanding of the separate domains of church and state.
- Support followers of Jesus called to serve in politics.
Let’s look at each statement in turn.
Pray for the governing authorities in a spirit of humility and honour.
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence … I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting…”
(1 Timothy 2:1-8, italics added)
In his open-hearted letter to his young protege, a letter addressing various spheres of authority, Paul urged Timothy to remind the believers in the influential city of Ephesus to pray for “kings and all who are in authority”.
He reminded them of the importance of their witness as model citizens—”all godliness and reverence”—and urged the “men” to pray “without wrath and doubting”.
Why the men? (He addresses the women specifically in verses 9-15.)
Because only men had legal status in the secular world in the first century; only men were likely to take up aggressive, antagonist action against the civil government. Women had no legal status at all and no platform to express anti-authority notions. In this case, the exhortation was not relevant to them. Paul was urging men to pray and trust God rather than adopt anarchistic attitudes. Why? To do so would undermine the public witness of the faith by courting controversy, picking the wrong battles and provoking unnecessary recriminations. Of course, today, given that women do have civil rights, this exhortation is applicable to them, too. See our in-depth article on Women in Ministry & Leadership.
Aside from honouring the governing authority as unto God, as he taught in Romans 13:1-7, Paul expected the ekklesia to play their part in keeping the peace: “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life”. His primary concern was the good standing of the church in the eyes of the public in order for his primary passion, the Gospel of the Kingdom, to flourish.
Model citizenship that’s above reproach.
Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 NIV, italics added)
What? Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life? Mind your own business?
Yes, this is Paul speaking, the fiery apostle who blazed a trail for the Gospel into the Gentile world.
With unbelievers in mind, “outsiders”, what evangelistic strategy does Paul deliver to the believers in Thessalonica? Knock on doors? Set up a soapbox on every street corner? Put on some loud demonstrative display?
No, Paul urged them to lead a quiet life, to mind their own business and to work with their own hands. In a nutshell, live simply, work hard and be an example.
The goal? To win the respect of outsiders.
Not only did Paul want to demonstrate the beauty of the new society in Christ, it was crucial for the flourishing of the Gospel of the Kingdom.
His consistent appeal was for a faith expression that modelled the peace, unity and harmony found in Christ. His ‘evangelistic strategy’ for the church, for a lack of a better phrase, centred on living as upright, model citizens who, individually and collectively, testified of God’s wisdom and order. A new society that would serve as a tangible witness of the heart and mind of God, both validating the message and enabling further advance of the Kingdom.
In a phrase, our Christ-centred lives and Christ-filled communities are to be above reproach. Unimpeachable.
Now, it goes without saying that if God prompts us to do more in proclaiming and demonstrating the Gospel, we should. Enthusiastically and boldly. However, Paul believed that living an exemplary life, individually and collectively, would create moments where outsiders ask questions about the hope that sustains us (Colossians 4:5 ,6, c. 1 Peter 3:15).
The early church were such model citizens that they eventually won over the Empire despite the capricious and cruel treatment they received at the hands of the Emperors.
Serve society with particular emphasis on advocating for the poor and marginalised.
Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
(James 1:27, italics added)
The most marginalised people of first century society were orphans and widows. Women and children were entirely dependent on the men in their lives, who alone held public status. To be a widow or an orphan left you vulnerable in every way. James was not only concerned with those falling through the cracks of a society fraught with male chauvinism and injustice, but he called us to keep unspotted from the world, too.
However, he was not alluding to personal piety; he was not calling his audience to merely shun worldly vices.
Rather, in the very next verse James explained what he had in mind. He confronted our tendency towards prejudice (James 2:1ff)—the very virus from which injustice goes airborne—before calling us to an exemplary faith backed up by works of justice and service (James 2:14ff).
In other words, the call to a pure, unspotted faith is not a fixation on personal piety, but it has everything to do with a heart free from prejudice, corruption and self-seeking.
While we tend to think of good works as primarily right behaviour, the New Testament focus is largely on good works that relieve the misery and suffering of others.
When Paul recalled his visit to Jerusalem to compare notes with James and Peter about his understanding of the Gospel, not only were they of the same mind concerning the message itself, but they all felt strongly about serving and supporting the poor and marginalised.
They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do.”
(Galatians 2:10, italics added)
To “remember the poor” wasn’t about giving mere mental assent to the idea. The Greek word for “remember” (mnemoneuo) means “to exercise the memory, to rehearse”. It is the word from which the English word “mnemonic” originates. Today, we would say, keep it front of mind.
Furthermore, Paul said he was “eager” to do so, a Greek word (spoudazo) meaning “to make haste, to be zealous”. This was an issue at the forefront of Paul’s mind.
Remembering the poor isn’t an optional extra or something left to a side ministry of the church. Rather, it validates our witness. Without it, the Gospel appears empty.
The question we need to ask is, who are the poor and marginalised today? While this certainly includes orphans (and in some cases, widows, too) and those living in poverty, it also extends to those denied their basic human rights.
Exercise the responsibilities of democratic citizenship with a clear understanding of the separate domains of church and state.
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
(1 Peter 4:10 NIV)
While the above verse refers to spiritual gifts, it is also a general principle about our attitude towards privilege, responsibility and stewardship.
Living in a democratic society, we have the privilege and responsibility to vote and to stand for election (if we feel so led). Applying the principle of 1 Peter 4:10, we exercise our right to vote or stand for election, as faithful stewards and do so in service of others, specifically our community and country.
However, as this article has made clear, a clear grasp of the separation of church and state is critical in how we exercise both rights.
Let’s focus on our right to vote.
Voting for the candidate or party we feel best serves society is a matter of conscience. Hence, who believers vote for in an election will vary. The same is true when voting on issues through a referendum.
The referendum on the issue of same-sex marriage in Australia in 2017 is a good example. Many Christians voted against same-sex marriage unaware there was a valid reason other Christians voted for it.
Most assumed that the only Christian response was a nay vote.
For certain, there is a good argument about the nature of marriage itself and whether homosexual marriage is consistent with what marriage as an institution represents; that is, marriage is not just about protecting the rights of two people but it’s materially tied to the procreation and raising of children.
Christians who voted against same-sex marriage because they concluded a material disparity exists had a valid ground to do so. (Understanding the role of government to protect the rights of all its citizens, Christian nay voters should propose another way for the legal protections of marriage to be afforded to same-sex couples.)
Those who voted against it purely because of “Christian conviction” failed to understand the difference between the domain of church and the domain of state. They erroneously imposed their religious conviction on secular society without considering how it would feel if the same was done to them.
Christians who concluded that there wasn’t a disparity in what constitutes the nature of marriage (procreating and raising children is better in a marriage bond but doesn’t constitute the raison d’etre of marriage) and understood that the role of government is to protect the rights of all its citizens, would in good conscience vote to support the government to do so.
The point here is not to make a case for a yea or nay vote, only to point out that while Christian conviction may influence our perspective on civil policy, it should not determine it.
Properly understanding and supporting government’s role to protect all its citizens and all its citizens’ rights, we can vote on issues based on the merits of the argument without violating Christian conscience.
In other words, we can cherish personal and communal convictions as the ekklesia, rendering unto God what we deem is God’s. At the same time, we can render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, supporting the government to protect and support the rights of all its citizens.
Support followers of Jesus called to serve in politics.
Daniel answered and said:
‘Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
For wisdom and might are His.
And He changes the times and the seasons;
He removes kings and raises up kings;
He gives wisdom to the wise
And knowledge to those who have understanding’.”
(Daniel 2:20, 21)
As mentioned in point four above, we have the privilege and responsibility to stand for election in a democratic society if we feel called to do so.
The answer to our world today does not lie in a Christian denomination, or a Christian organisation, or a Christian political party. It lies in followers of Christ who, anchored in a faith community and devoted to the Body of Christ, serve in the key mind-moulding, value-shaping spheres of society, bringing godly change to politics, education, business, media, science, sports, and the arts.
In terms of government, think Joseph, Deborah, Daniel and Esther.
Like Joseph in Egypt, Deborah in Israel, Daniel in Babylon and Esther in Persia, we need men and women who will serve in corridors of power and platforms of governance with humility, compassion and wisdom. And these men and women need our prayers and support as they navigate the challenging environment of politics.
When Disobedience is Necessary
But 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’.”
(Acts 4:19, 20)
This section wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the exception to the general rule. When the state’s commands conflict with God’s commands, submissive disobedience is required.
Firstly, while submissive disobedience is still disobedience, it is done in such a way as to honour the authority opposed. Our attitude must remain above reproach.
Secondly, this exception only applies when the state commands us to act contrary to the direct teachings of Scripture. It can’t be used to condemn government directives that contract Christian conviction but aren’t imposed upon believers.
In Acts Chapter 4, the religious leaders in Jerusalem banned the early believers from speaking or teaching in the Name of Jesus. Peter and John first responded submissively by lodging an appeal. Secondly, they remained true to God and disobeyed the order (Acts 4:1-31).
From this passage, we might conclude that a state order that impinges on our freedom of religion falls under this exception.