How Can A Church Faithfully Break the Law?
This is a common question confronting us in the wake of our decision to take Samuel Oliver-Bruno into sanctuary at CityWell. We will assume that this question is being asked by people who genuinely care for the church to be faithful in all things, and for the Bible to be the central guide in the church’s life. This is an important question that deserves a thoughtful response.
Most of the time when people ask this question, they have in mind a couple passages from the New Testament. The first is in Romans 13:1-7: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
The second passage is 1 Peter 2:13, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
The first thing that we, as pastoral leaders, are compelled to say is that Christians, and the CityWell congregation, should obey these exhortations from the apostles Paul and Peter. Obedience to these scriptures is a critical component of a faithful witness to the ways of Jesus in this world.
Simply put, it is imperative that we as individuals, and as a congregation, submit to the governing authorities of our country and state, and the laws of our land.
That said, it is essential to understand that “submission” and “ obedience” are not necessarily the same thing. In fact, in the Greek, the language these letters of the New Testament were originally written in, there are different words for “submit” and “obey.” Therefore, it is not accidental or insignificant that both Paul and Peter use the word “submit,” not the word “obey” in these exhortations to Christian communities. This is much more than a minor semantic difference.
So what is the difference between submission and obedience?
Much of the time, obedience can be a form of submission. So, whenever we obey the law, we are submitting to it in that way. However, sometimes Christians are morally bound to disobey the law, but can still submit to it by willingly accepting the consequences of their actions.
There are multiple occasions in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life where he publically defies the governing authorities and, in their mind, breaks the law. In one instance, he breaks the Sabbath law (at least as interpreted by those in authority in his day) by healing a man’s hand in the middle of the synagogue, right in front of the religious rulers (Mark 3:1-6). On multiple occasions, Jesus touched lepers (Matthew 8:1-3) and ate with sinners (Luke 15:2). All of these are examples of very explicit transgressions of the law of his day and disobedience to the expressed will of those in official positions of authority. In all of these instances, Jesus chooses things like mercy, compassion, and justice, as more important than simple obedience to the law or the will of rulers and authorities. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are also very clear that it is these decisions to break the law that the religious rulers ultimately use against him in order to take his life. However, while Jesus did not OBEY those in authority over him, amazingly, he did SUBMIT to their authority, refusing violent resistance to his own unjust arrest, trial and execution.
The same observations can be made about the apostle Peter. In Acts chapter 4, Peter and John run into conflict with the highest rulers among their people and are commanded to stop proclaiming resurrection in the name of Jesus. If being a follower of Jesus means always and in every circumstance obeying those in authority over us, then Peter should’ve stopped proclaiming the name of Jesus. However, in verse 19-20 Peter and John reply, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” In Acts 10, again Peter flagrantly breaks the law by entering the home of Cornelius, the Gentile. This, too, puts him in conflict with religious leaders in Jerusalem.
The same observations can be made in the life of the apostle Paul, who is constantly in trouble with governing authorities for not obeying their laws and commands.
However, it is hugely significant that, just like Jesus, Peter and Paul both submit to those in governing authority over them, all the way to the point of death. While they did not obey laws and commandments that they believed to be contrary to the will and kingdom of God, they never denied the rightful and ordained authority of those in positions of institutional power (whether religious or governmental, and sometimes these categories overlap), and they submitted to the authorities who executed them because of their faithful disobedience.
So, when we look at the New Testament, we see repeated commands to submit to the governing authorities. We do not see commands to obey them. Perhaps most of the time, submission can take the form of obedience, and whenever possible, Christians should obey the law. However, as exemplified by Jesus, Peter, and Paul, faithfulness to God will often require disobedience to those in authority over us. In these exceptional cases when faithfulness requires disobedience, we must yet remain in a posture of willing submission to the the authorities over us by accepting the consequences of our actions, even if that means death.
Looking beyond the Bible, we can see several historical examples where faithfulness to God required disobedience of laws. Consider the underground railroad. Would any follower of Jesus actually argue that the people helping to rescue other human beings out of slavery were sinning because they disobeyed the law of the land? Would any follower of Jesus actually argue that confessing Christians in Nazi Germany were sinning by breaking the law of their country by hiding/harboring Jews? Today in China, it is unlawful for Christians to gather, except within state controlled and censored churches. Would any follower of Jesus actually argue that the millions of Chinese Christians who gather in underground churches are sinning by disobeying those in authority over them?
Likely, most of us would agree that it is a good thing that many of the laws in the history of our country have been found to be unjust, and have been changed. Consider, for instance, the Jim Crow laws changed as a result of the civil rights movement. Non-violent civil disobedience was a significant contributing factor to the changing of our nation’s vision of what is just and what is unjust. This is why the critical question for followers of Jesus should never be, “what is legal or illegal,“ but rather, “what is just or unjust,“ and, “what is congruent or incongruent with the will and ways of God in any particular situation?”
It is important to acknowledge at this point that it is far more simple to answer the question of what is legal than it is to answer the question of what is just. Justice is always up for interpretation, and as human beings we are always vulnerable to being wrong. And so we do the best we can to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit in our interpretation of scripture, the culture around us, and the circumstances of any historical moment.
At this time, the leadership at CityWell has discerned that our nation’s current immigration policies are not congruent with biblical commands regarding the treatment of immigrants. Consider Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” We are compelled by Jesus teaching that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). We believe Jesus meant it when he said, “when I was a stranger you welcome to me… for whenever you did it onto the least of these, you did it on to me” (Matthew 25:35, 40), and we are hopeful that in welcoming Samuel we are welcoming our Lord. We think that when Paul said, “when one part of the body suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26), that this includes Samuel, who is without question part of Jesus’ body, and who, with his family, is suffering deeply. We are convicted that when Paul wrote, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7), that there is not a caveat to exclude people based upon borders, nationalities, and immigration status. After all, most of us are Gentiles, outsiders to the covenants of Israel, and we have been welcomed into Israel’s story through Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-13).
So, we are doing our best to discern the Spirit and interpret scripture faithfully in all of this. And of course, there’s a chance that we could be wrong. Because that is true, we must remain open to being challenged by other people who see things differently than we do. We must take their questions seriously and do our best to offer thoughtful responses.
At the same time, it is fair for us to ask questions of those who question the faithfulness of our decision to offer sanctuary. Here are a few questions that come to mind:
Can you give a Jesus–centered argument not to welcome Samuel, or other brothers and sisters like him, into sanctuary?
What would you say to Jesus, the apostles, the abolitionists, Christians in Nazi Germany, Chinese Christians, and American civil rights leaders who all disobeyed the laws of their lands for the sake of faithfulness to a higher law?
I pray that all of us, regardless of our convictions on questions about immigration, or anything else for that matter, will remain humble and open to listening to one another. I pray that the Spirit will bring us eventually to a place of unity. In the meantime, I pray that the Spirit will do what Jesus promised, and convict us all of our sin, especially where we do not have eyes to see it. May it be.
For those who want to know more about the Sanctuary Church Movement, how sanctuary works, what the hoped for outcomes are as well as a ton of context information, check out this link.