Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
October 16, 1969

Of Man And Authority — III.

F. Lagard Smith

Thus far, the relation between ultimate authority and derived authority has been shown to be, at an optimum, harmonious. And the implications have given weight to the importance of man's respect for the one as well as the other. What if, however, there is conflict between the two? Does man-discovered, or man-made law prevail? Even elementary reasoning dictates that derived authority yields to that from which it is derived — i.e., ultimate authority. But man is not left with mere elementary reasoning (and rarely is he), for through revelation man's Creator has set forth sensible, trustworthy guidelines.

Tested by those who sought to entrap him, Jesus was once asked whether his followers ought to pay taxes. To explain the duality of their obligation Jesus asked for a coin and, noting Caesar's inscription thereon, replied: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matt. 22:21) And such is the dual responsibility of man today toward his God and his government.

The question remains: Should it be that God and government require conflicting obligations, which is to be obeyed? Such was the situation when the apostles were ordered by a court of law not to teach in the name of Jesus. Yet they resolved the dilemma without hesitation, saying, "We must obey God rather than men." (Matt. 5:29)

The apostles, on this and other occasions, were acting as civil disobedients, it is true, but only in the most classical sense. Their actions were nonviolent; they did not trespass on other's rights; they did not evade the law. They were neither rioters nor revolutionaries. And like Socrates, who accepted the death penalty for his teaching of religion to youths contrary to state laws, they indirectly showed a respect for the commands of the rulers which they had violated by voluntarily submitting to the legal sanctions. Furthermore, their disobedience was prompted, not by the mere motive of social improvement — noble as that is — but by the command of their Creator to teach his will and to worship him, regardless of all else.

Before some conclude that general civil disobedience is thereby justified, or that "morally unjust" laws are to be ignored, let us examine the life of Jesus himself. First of all, the boy Jesus was not rebellious and disrespectful to his parents, even though — it may be presumed — his parents were as much old fogies to him in his day as parents are to young people today. The scriptures say that, in his relation to his parents, Jesus "was obedient to them." (Luke 2:51)

As a young man, Jesus was neither a violent demonstrator nor a militant revolutionist — and no one would have had more cause to be such. Jesus lived in a time when slavery was rampant, yet never once did he bear arms in support of emancipation. He lived in a society in which the gap between the rich and poor could not have been wider, yet he burned no flags seeking redistribution of wealth. Though he lived under the harsh rule of Roman imperialism, in subjection to civil authority he submitted. Even after one of the most unjust trials the world has ever known, and even at the hands of ludicrously immoral public officials, Jesus submitted — and peacefully so — in agonizing death.

Although on one occasion, when moved with indignation, Jesus did forcibly eject unscrupulous money-changers from the temple — not once did Jesus flaunt the law in the name of civil liberty or agrarian reform. Not once did he call for the forceful overthrow of "unjust" or "immoral" civil laws. Not once did he hurl obscenities to authorities in the name of free speech. And not once did he — like today's pseudo-sacred social reformers — talk of Creator-endowed human rights in one breath while, in another, incite and condone the utter destruction of systems of authority instituted by the same Almighty Creator!

Yes, Jesus sought change — even revolutionary change. But his battle was pitched with the minds of men. It was personality-centered, seeking respect where disrespect, obedience where disobedience, order where disorder, morality where immorality. Furthermore, such are always the results of his teaching when put to practice.

When, therefore, should submission to God's ultimate authority prevail over submission to man's authority? When to do what man commands would be to violate what God commands. After all — of whose creative power are you a product? And to whom do you owe your first obligation? The Creator, of course.

As a point of caution, however, it must be noted that man's obligation is to the Creator's actual ultimate authority — not to what man hopes, or erroneously thinks, it is. Even the most immoral men have spawned social strife under the banner of "moral justice." But man must be careful to determine what the Creator's will actually is before disobeying what he considers to be unjust law.

Furthermore, it must be recognized that even truly nonviolent civil disobedience, whatever its rationalization, is still an assault on legal order and derived authority. Violation of one law invariably subverts all law. (Cf. James. 2:10) Disobedience encourages disorder and disorder courts violence. Even where limited in scope and methods, civil disobedience on the part of some more often than not induces the less restrained to resort to wider scopes and different forms of law-breaking. It tends to disrupt the general applicability of the law, fostering the idea that the more enlightened may flaunt the law with caprice; and no idea could lead more quickly to chaos. For these reasons, among possibly others, the only rationalization for civil disobedience condoned in the scriptures is that of worshipping and serving the Creator, as he has commanded each of us to do.

Is there, then, no room for dissent within democratic systems of government? Certainly there is. The Apostle Paul, though a Jew like Jesus, was also a Roman citizen, with all the rights which accompanied Roman citizenship. When Paul was preaching on one occasion the crowd became frenzied and had Paul taken into custody of the Roman civil authorities. As Paul was bound and about to be beaten, he exercised the rights of his citizenship, asking: "Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen, and uncondemned?" In response, as the account continues:

"When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, "What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.' So the tribune came and said to him, 'Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?' And he said 'yes.' The tribune answered, 'I bought this citizenship for a large sum.' Paul said, 'But I was born a citizen.' So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him instantly; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him."

This passage enounces the general principle that citizenship entitles one governed to all the rights recognized by those who govern him. Perhaps within tyrannous and despotic systems of government this general principle holds little prospect for the governed; but even such harshness does not vitiate the idea. (Nor, incidentally, does such harshness invalidate the authority of such misguided systems. Surely despotic rulers are responsible to their Creator for violating his ultimate authority, but God never ordained any particular system of civil government — whether democratic, totalitarian, or even communistic.)

Fortunately our citizenship is a cornucopia of human rights — not the least among which is the right of dissent. Within this system of derived authority — within it — we have the right to vote on leadership and policy; we have the right to speak or print even ideas denouncing the system; we have the right to assemble in protest; we even have the right to replace the present system of authority by orderly process.

The point cannot be overly stressed, however, that dissent within any system of derived authority is possible only to the extent allowed by those having authority. To allow for more would be to corrupt the systems of derived authority, the importance of which has already been discussed.

As purposely-created men, both young and old must realize the need for authority and our individual obligations under law. The purpose of law as ordained by the Creator is the obtaining of the common welfare of the people. Law, whether spiritual, physical, or civil, is the determination of those with lawmaking authority which orders the means necessary to achieve that common good. Seen in this light, subjection to law and order is not burdensome, but beneficial.

Law by necessity restricts man's activities, but only for the purpose of achieving that which is good for society. It has been suggested that in this sense law is like the rails which guide a lotofil:,- five. They restrict movement from side to side, but only so as to allow for forward progress. Laws, rules, and restrictions, therefore, should be recognized as a very fortunate part of the Creator's wonderful plan for man in this life. And his authority — be it manifested either ultimately or derivatively — must be submitted to with all respect by each one of us, for no man is above his authority.

When a man accepts the idea of being the product of a purposeful creation, he will recognize a personal obligation to his Creator — to do his will above all else. He will likewise accept his equality with, and thus responsibility toward, his fellow man. And thus led by this duality of obligation and responsibility, he will be respectful, obedient, and law-abiding. Because ideas do have consequences, for the sake of society today let each of us join in to spread the right idea — that man is the product of purposeful creation, and bound by all the implications thereof.