Do we obey authorities, or not?

1 Peter 2:13 "Submit yourself to every ordinance of man . . . to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors."

Matthew 22:21 "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." See also Romans 13:1,7 and Titus 3:1.

The Bible quite often tells us to respect and obey the laws of men. So what, say the critics, about this:

Acts 5:29 "We ought to obey God rather then men."

Note well: in Acts, the "law" being set down countermanded God's requirements. The Jews told Peter and John to stop spreading the Gospel; that was opposite to Jesus' command to spread it. The other verses do not say, "unless they countermand God's commands" - but we are given credit for realizing that God's orders should not be overruled by any human intervention.

Indeed, the citation of the other verses as contradictory reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of when and why each was written -- truly enough, context is key, but here it is again a case of more than merely textual context.

Consider the social context of the verses from Romans usually cited in this regard (Rom. 13: 1, 7). When Paul penned this letter, Nero was emperor, but he was still in the realm of sanity and was a fairly good ruler; Christians were not being persecuted by Rome. Paul is not here concerned with the hypothetical possibility which eventually became reality: That the government would turn against the Christian faith.

Had these words been penned ten years later, the instructions would assuredly have been tempered quite differently, and be more along the lines of Acts 5:29, where a choice did indeed have to be made between obeying God and man -- because as of the time when this passage was written, there was no human law which was in contradiction to the will of God. Paul could truly say "obey the law" without qualification, because there was no law on the books at the time that was objectionable from a Christian perspective: Christians weren't being persecuted or told to give up or compromise their faith; they were under the protective classification of being a Jewish sect. (This also applies to Matthew 22:21, Titus 3:1 and 1 Pet. 2:13.)

Objection: But it is a fundamental logical and legal principle that a law means what it says.

This principle doesn't carry over in a high-context setting in which legal rulings were abbreviated as much as possible and law codes were didactic rather than administrative in nature -- which is what the case was in the Biblical world.

-JPH