Acts of the Apostles 5:27-33
27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.
“We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Simple and straight forward, right? We face this quandary even today because we must obey God and civil authority. What happens when being a good citizen here on earth conflicts with being a good citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven? This dilemma is magnified when one considers how easy it is for people (including us) to confuse God’s will with my will. The Gospel Evangelists and early church patriarchs were very clear that Christians were to be good citizens of Rome and to obey lawful authority. They did this to gain acceptance and counter the ignorance and prejudice Christians encountered daily. What does it even mean to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s”?
It means recognizing and honoring the image of God in all persons we encounter in our lives, directly or indirectly. Can you imagine how our public life would be transformed if Americans did that with their political opponents? In a certain sense, rendering to God means rendering Caesar the respect and dignity by virtue of Imago Dei. When lawful authority acts unlawfully, we must resist any transgression of God’s law of love. It is difficult to recognize God’s image in those who frustrate us or who make decisions we think unwise or wrong-headed. One thing I have learned to say to myself over the years is, “At least it’s not my decision.” That’s not a big thing; it’s just one way I take myself off the hook from having to render judgment on every issue that comes to my attention. I sometimes hear people say, “The bishop (or governor, or president or you name it) should do thus and so.” Years ago, when I was an associate pastor in North Carolina, I was prone to second-guessing the pastor’s decisions. A few years later, when I was pastor, I found myself saying, “That’s why the (former) pastor didn’t do thus and so.”
Let us give one another the freedom to learn and grow, even to be wrong without passing judgment. In so doing, we will also free ourselves of the onerous burden of being judge and arbiter of every conflict or controversy that comes to our attention. Then and only then will we be truly free…free to discern how we can give the due we owe to both God and our brothers and sisters.