The early church ran with a strange and reckless obedience to God, unwilling to submit to any who commanded them to disobey the teachings of our Lord. What inspired such courage? Eugene Peterson gives as good an explanation as any:
When Paul’s companion Luke set out in Acts to tell us the story of the church, he began with Jesus’ Ascension. Ascension is the opening scene that establishes the context for everything that follows: Jesus installed in a position of absolute rule – Christ our King. All men and women live under the rule of Jesus. This rule trumps all other thrones and principalities and powers. Knowing this, with the knowing elaborated and deepened in worship, the church has the necessary room to live robustly under the conditions of resurrection. If we don’t know this, the church, its imagination conditioned by death and the devil, will live timidly and cautiously. (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010], 43-44)
Peterson’s point is worth chewing on. Because, while Christ is on His throne, “the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us break Their bonds in pieces and cast away their cords from us’” (Ps. 2:2-3). Fallen man is paranoid, and bloodlust becomes a means of self-preservation. Sinful rulers flatten rebellion beneath their heavy hands, clutching their thrones with white knuckles. Insurrection is an unwarranted, yet ever-present fear for ungodly rulers set over Christian citizens. It’s hard to strike fear into men and women who can’t stay dead.
As Peterson notes, the Ascension, the installment of Christ in heaven, is where Christian courage begins. He calls it living “robustly under the conditions of resurrection.” The sting of death is absent from our lives, and we’re no longer blinded by the veil that is spread over all nations (Isa. 25:7) – death. The resurrection and Ascension aren’t merely good news for the day of our funeral. They’re also the 6.7 liter hemi that growls beneath our hoods from day to day, driving us forward in obedience to God now. Without our eyes set on the ascended King Jesus, as Peterson writes, we’ll “live timidly and cautiously.”
The early Christians did have their eyes on the ascended Christ, and they were anything but timid and cautious. Shortly after Pentecost, we see the early Christians defy commandments of men that oppose the commandments of God: “And when they had brought [the apostles], they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’ But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:27-29, emphasis mine). These men, brought before the council in chains, were turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6), and when the authorities told them to stop, they refused.
Imagine the rage the council must have felt. They said, “Do this,” and the apostles said, “No.” Men of such courage are dangerous. Gary DeMar has written that “Christianity threatens all totalitarian regimes because the Christian citizen’s ultimate allegiance belongs to God, who rules all earthly kingdoms and who calls those who rule to rule according to the laws set forth in Scripture, rather than by the whims of men” (Ruler of the Nations [Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987], 87). In other words, Christians always have a higher court of appeals – the throne room of God, where Jesus resides. But unbelievers have no such protection. Without the regenerating work of Jesus Christ, no one seeks a hearing in God’s court. In fact, apart from the Holy Spirit, we’ll do anything to stay out of that courtroom.
Furthermore, by faith, the saints have ascended with Christ and are now seated with Him at the right hand of God (Eph. 2:6). By faith, we’ve come to participate in His reign as members of His royal cabinet who petition Him in prayer both day and night. We have our King’s ear, and He listens to us. In Him we’ve obtained an inheritance – the whole world, from ocean to ocean, from deepest depth to highest heaven (Ps. 2:8; Eph. 1:11). Ungodly kings tremble at the church because it’s a royal priesthood. And wonder of wonders, these people of power are meek, and necessarily so (Matt. 5:5).
The word of God is our ultimate authority; it follows, therefore, that we’re only required to submit to rulers who teach and enforce Scripture faithfully, whether they be parents, pastors, or princes. While we often talk of civil disobedience, we must also learn to talk of ecclesiastical and familial disobedience. Churches committed to right doctrine are some of the most oppressive and conscience-binding churches around. But we shouldn’t put up with this: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine…. Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:17; 19-20). Even church elders are subject to rebuke upon the charge of two or three witnesses.
Jesus also promised the borders of His kingdom would, on occasion, split families, dividing father “against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Luke 12:53; see also Matt. 10:34-37). The absolute claims of Christ rob all other human relationships and institutions of ultimacy.
So, in this article, we’ve seen that the Ascension and reign of Christ our King is the genesis of the church’s backbone, and it’s essential if we’re to “live robustly under the conditions of resurrection,” defying tyrants when necessary. These “conditions of resurrection” are the eschatological hope of physical resurrection and the present reality of being reborn and resurrected through water, word, and Spirit: “most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live” (John 5:25 – see also John 3:5; 1 Peter 1:23; Titus 3:5). It’s this new life, these new affections and commitments, that define the life of a believer. No position or status, whether that be familial, ecclesiastical, or civil, can ever take priority over the royal insignia placed on us in baptism.
In my next article, I’ll examine several scenarios that require disobedience to earthly authority for the sake of obedience to God, as well situations where submission to unjust laws may be prudent in service of the Kingdom.