In Acts 4, we find the first act of civil disobedience to occur within the church (at least the first recorded instance in public). Yes, Jesus was effectively civilly disobedient throughout his entire ministry, both in word and deed, but here is a major, MAJOR example of where his apostles followed His lead:
5On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.12And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
13Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, 16saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 21And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. 22For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old.
Just so you have a little background here, Peter and John not just a a day prior to this moment had healed a crippled beggar outside the synagogue in the name of Jesus Christ. Being at the synagogue, lots of people saw this happen, so they explain exactly what they did and in whose name the did it. Accompanied by the miracle, the people begin praising God and repenting of their sin. Of course, wondering what all of the hub-bub is about, the Pharisees intervene and call Peter and John before them, demanding an explanation.
More or less, the ruling party here is quite concerned about this act. Prior to this there have been many people claiming to be Messiah, most of them leading a small portion of the Hebrews away from the Temple, and getting them killed in the process (historical records show instances where hundreds of political dissidents were crucified en masse, the favorite method of execution for the Roman Empire; Jesus met this fate even without attracted much attention from the Romans). One of the teachers of the law acknowledges this in Acts 5 when Peter and John are caught preaching in Jesus’ name again:
Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.37After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.
They knew that dissent was swiftly punished, and sought to silence it before more were harmed. This time, however, more was at stake, as Jesus’ crucifixion had been ordered at their hand, not that of the Romans*. They’d had an axe to grind with Jesus, who turned their laws on their heads and called them out on their hypocrisy. They wanted the memory of Jesus extinguished, and when some “common, uneducated men” (you can just taste the snobbery, here) came into the synagogue preaching and healing in this troublemaker’s name, they wanted it stopped.
They had no argument against them, so they just decided to let them go on the condition they stop preaching about Jesus. However, Peter, ever defiant, tells them, essentially, “You know what you’ve seen and heard, and I know what I’ve seen and heard. I cannot stop talking about it, nor will I.” Following this they let them go. Later on, in Acts 5, when Peter is caught preaching the name of God, he is arrested and imprisoned, set free by an angel, and found the next day doing it all over. They drag him before the high priest, demanding he stop what he is doing, and what does he say? “We must obey God rather than men.”
This is how Christians respond to opposition to living out God’s commands in the world, because the world will swiftly oppose it, whether for lack of understanding or for fear of loss of their own power:
1) Make sure what you’re speaking out against is something God wants you to speak out against. As the Temple leader said, “If it is of God, you will be unable to stop it.”
2) Give them no reason to punish you. The only law Peter and John broke was not a written one, but a verbal command from a leader to stop preaching about Jesus. It’s not that public preaching wasn’t allowed; the synagogue was designed for such a thing. They were trying to silence an idea. When disobeying authority, resort to no law-breaking which results in the harming of other individuals, but make your point clear: you will NOT follow this unjust law.
3) Make your case clear before the authorities. Don’t act childish and taunt them; be up front and state your reasoning.
4) Be prepared to accept punishment for your actions. Peter was imprisoned, and he and John were whipped for their actions. While it might not be so dire for you, know that you are, in fact, breaking a law, and even if you do it with God’s charge, the authorities will attempt to prosecute.
5) Rejoice if you are punished, for you share in Christ’s suffering.
So that’s it for today!
*Note: I am NOT blaming the Jews as a whole for the death of Christ. Roman soldiers did indeed carry out the order, but the Jewish authorities of the time called for it.