A jealous mistress, a jealous God and strange bedfellows

“The law is a jealous mistress.” If a student hasn’t heard that quote before arriving in the hallowed hallways of her law school, she is likely to hear it on her very first day. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story coined the term in the talk he gave when he became a professor at Harvard University in 1829. Law students have been hearing it ever since. Story was noting the law, as study and profession, is demanding of time, thoughts and energy. Some have said, the law is all consuming.

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If married, be assured your spouse will not be enamoured of the idea that you have a mistress, whether another woman, the law or any other obsession, particularly a mistress jealous of other interests or pursuits in your life.

Stipulating ten life-enriching commandments to the nation of Israel, God doubled down on recognition he is the only true God before bridging to the other eight directives. In doing so, he referred to himself as “a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4). Jesus was unwavering on this point, stating the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with the four alls of our existence – all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength (Luke 10:27). That’s the covenant.

It was in 1870 that Charles Dudley Warner turned the phrase, “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Warner was comparing an American political situation with his summer garden. The intermingling of untended berry plants led him to riff off of William Shakespeare, who wrote in The Tempest (Act 2, Scene 2) that “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Whether facing life’s storms or seeking to escape them, people not expected to cooperate with one another may end up doing so for a variety of unintended reasons, particularly when it comes to politics.

The danger with a strange bedfellow is one’s unintended bedmate may well become one’s jealous mistress. An interest in politics can easily become overly partisan, inflaming a desire to make law with one another. In the grips of such passion, we are tempted to set aside an earlier covenant made with someone else. Politics, as hobby or profession, may entice any one of us away from Jesus, who loves us, gave himself for us, and requires from us all, all, all, all.

Manifest political partisanship seductively woos us to regard one political leader as saviour, and another as devil. Both are simply human. Neither is to be to us an idol.

It seems our forgetfulness of actual Saviour and Devil may rival the impetuous collective amnesia of the Israelites who demanded a golden calf be fashioned as their god, despite having been clearly told not to do so. And then doing it within clear sight of a cloud-cloaked mountain where Moses was meeting with the Lord their God, who had only recently delivered them by the hundreds of thousands from centuries of captivity in a foreign land.

I cannot imagine that all of the two million-plus people at the base of Mount Sinai cried out for the calf. More likely, a vocal few rallied part of the crowd – some with convictions on the issue, others less so but inclined to go with the flow of friends or family – and the ensuing mob action pressured Aaron. There were, no doubt, a large number who looked to Aaron, a recognized leader in their community, for guidance. Aaron instead acted on the opinion of the enraged crowd, however misshapen or misleading. Aaron, a spiritual leader of the people, allowed intimidation to steer him to do something other than trust God’s word.

Today’s rallying cries may come through social media memes, tweets, blogs and videos or public statements by people we are convinced can be trusted. Perhaps, they are on the saviour’s team. Maybe they’re on the Saviour’s team, too. We need to dispassionately assess whether their agitation is intended to arouse in us desires that would lure us to join in the pursuit of a contemporary golden calf. What’s their motivation? Who do they want us to align ourselves with? Where will following lead us? We are to embrace neither idols, other gods nor a different saviour. We have one God. And he has commissioned us to be his ambassadors, ambassadors of reconciliation, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

The authors of the New Testament inspire our participation in society as good citizens. In a democracy, rendering unto Caesar (Matthew 22:21a) means our participation can extend to any and all stages of political involvement, but as Christians our participation must be accompanied by rendering unto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21b).

Before we take action that will lead others who trust our voice, whether through speech, tweet or post, it’s our responsibility to ascertain if the expression is suitable to be shared by an ambassador of reconciliation? Or does the message originate from the tantalizing quest of a jealous mistress or strange bedfellow to stimulate within us a craving for their recommended golden calf?

The Lord our God is a jealous God. He encourages our contribution to the good of the world around us, and endorses no competitors for his tender affections.

Stop signs, speed limits and civil disobedience

“Civil disobedience” is generally considered to be the publicly expressed refusal to obey certain laws, regulations or commands of government in order to draw attention to, and seek change to, government policy that is considered morally offensive. It is not usually a rejection of the political system as a whole.

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So, what does civil disobedience look like?

People who roll through stop signs instead of stopping, looking carefully and then proceeding, rile me. For me, this is a moral issue of road safety.

Drivers who travel at or below the speed limit on a highway, especially in the passing lane, also irritate me. I routinely travel up to 20 km/h over the speed limit on roads signed at 100 km/h.

For Gloria, my wife, both situations present occasions to remind me that the people in other cars cannot hear me admonishing them.

This traffic hypocrisy on my part may be troubling to some, and laughable to others. However, this inconsistency illustrates the error made when the moral decision about civil disobedience is made based on personal preferences rather than principles.

The biblical principle of submission to government authorities is repeatedly stated in the New Testament. (Matthew 22:20-22; Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14) It is reflected in Western democracy’s expectation that citizens will generally adhere to the laws of the land – from traffic laws to the prohibition on taking the life of another person. This social contract is vital to our life together.

But what if laws are inherently evil or harmful to our common good? And, how does one assess whether laws are good or evil?

For Christians in Canada, our first public effort in dealing with a harmful law is to seek to amend or replace it using democratic means. Similarly, we approach unjust laws in other nations first through diplomatic means.

Civil disobedience may be justified when all other peaceful options have been tried, and failed.

Two prominent examples of 20th century Christian pastors stand out. One, the participation of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Flossenbürg concentration camp as a result. The other, Martin Luther King Jr. who led marches and other acts of civil disobedience in pursuit of change to American laws that discriminated against black Americans. King even received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, before leading the massive marches that resulted in passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1968, which became law a week after his assassination.

What resulted in these two men, both trained in systematic theology and holding earned doctorates in theology, making the decision to break the law in the ways they did?

Jesus’ statement that we are to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s” was later supplemented by a statement He made to Pontius Pilate, the representative of the government of the day. Jesus said Pilate had no authority except that given him “from above.” (John 19:10-11) The concept of the state and the Church having separate spheres of authority granted them by God has long been held. Ultimately, each must answer to God for the exercise of their authority. Both are intended to serve people, but in different, although sometimes overlapping, ways.

There is a widespread belief in the Church that, despite the principle of submission to authorities, there is a biblical basis for using civil disobedience, particularly to oppose policies that dehumanize, oppress or brutalize people. The theological support for civil disobedience in such situations is considered in light of several Bible passages. Here are some:

• the Hebrew midwives saving the lives of Hebrew boys ordered to be put to death at birth by Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-22), murder of children being commanded of them;
• Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s law requiring all citizens to worship a golden statue (Daniel 3), worshipping this false god being the law for all, including these high profile devout Jews;
• the wise men disobeying Herod’s directive to return and tell him where Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1-12), having had it revealed to them that Herod intended to kill the child;
• the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in which Jesus endorsed breaking of religious law to help someone in dire need.

John H. Redekop identifies seven considerations for a Christian community before engaging in civil disobedience. I pose them here as questions:

1. Has the religious community concerned made a careful and balanced assessment of the situation, including the risks of potential harm that might result from the civil disobedience?
2. Is what’s at stake of great moral seriousness?
3. Has a specific goal been clearly identified that is indisputably of benefit to the common good?
4. Have all other reasonable steps been exhausted?
5. Will the behaviour planned to challenge the policy in question still demonstrate a general respect for government and the principles of lawful behaviour?
6. Will only suitable means, that make sense to non-sympathetic observers, be used?
7. Are participants prepared to accept the consequences for breaking the law that may be imposed as a result of their civil disobedience?

These questions address well the situation in which King became leader in a movement, promoted from member of the committee that made the decision. Redekop does not explore the matter of an individual decision making process or the complexities of violent civil disobedience. But, his process does parallel that followed by Bonhoeffer.

After Hitler used his position as Chancellor to secure control of the Lutheran Church’s elected leaders, Bonhoeffer co-founded the Confessing Church, which declared its obedience to Christ before Führer. He travelled to the USA and England to demonstrate that not all Germans supported the Third Reich and to appeal for help for the German resistance. And, Bonhoeffer was involved in establishing underground seminaries for the Confessing Church, to train Christian leaders who would put Christ ahead of the state (Lutheran) Church.

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, until he evidenced the escalating atrocities being perpetrated by the Third Reich. He was particularly impacted by the treatment of Jews. John G. Stackhouse Jr., succinctly states the turmoil surrounding the significant personal decision made by Bonhoeffer that would ultimately cost him his life. Bonhoeffer joined the small group inside the Reich’s department of military intelligence that ended up plotting Hitler’s assassination because of the evil they had witnessed; and, the apparent reality that stopping one man would end the reign of terror.

He did so, to be sure, only with the strongly conflicted sense that this was the thing God wanted him to do and yet he was doing something evil for which he needed – and hoped for – forgiveness.

Bonhoeffer did not play a direct role in the ensuing failed assassination attempts, but he knew of them. When arrested, he refused to reveal his co-conspirators and declined the opportunity to escape; choosing instead to put his life fully in God’s hands.

Two well-known 1st century Christian leaders engaged in what may have been the first incident of Christian principled civil disobedience. When ordered to stop teaching about Jesus, Peter and John stated, ““We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:17-42) This was not a general statement authorizing Christians to engage in civil disobedience when preaching is restricted by government, but resolution of a genuine dilemma between obedience to God for the good of others and obedience to authorities. These men were numbered among the disciples when Jesus told them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem. (Acts 1:8) They had been in prison for doing so and were prepared to go back in order to obey Christ’s command to them.

In addition to the general principle of submitting to government authority, Christians are urged to pray for those in authority and lead quiet lives. (1 Timothy 2:1-2) Prayer is an appeal to the authority that Jesus said is above that of government; and, the first action for Christians considering challenge to an immoral government policy. Civil disobedience is the last.

The Church in foreign contexts

Nigeria is a beautiful African country. However, it is divided into two almost even geographic regions based on religion. The religious majority in the South is Christian, and Islam in the North.

When visiting in 2011, I was forever changed by a heart-breaking brief conversation with a five year old. Our chat took place while he was enjoying his first ice cream cone, strawberry.

With the Voice of the Martyrs team in Nigeria (June 2011)

Nigeria (June 2011)

The little tyke was a student at a school for the children of Christian martyrs, those who had been killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. One of hundreds of students at the school, he had my full attention as he shared the details of watching the murder of his parents and sister; then, sitting by their bodies through the night until a relative removed him from the street the next morning. His family, well known Christians in the community, was killed as the result of mob violence that erupted after a Christian candidate was elected President of Nigeria in April 2011.

The circumstance of our conversation required that I hold back my tears, which wasn’t easy, until alone later that night in my room.

Nigeria is most often in today’s news because of the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, which the government has been unable to rein in. Boko Haram was little known prior to April 2011, but boldly escalated their presence with the election of President Jonathan and have not retreated, even following his defeat by a Muslim candidate in the election of March 2015.

I had another life-impacting conversation, in a different walled compound, in Northern Nigeria. I was privileged to spend an evening with a Christian leader who is a former jihadist who started his almajiri training at the same tender age of 5 years, when he was apprenticed to a radical Muslim imam. Conversion to Christianity was, from the perspective of his previous religious compatriots, his death warrant. As a result, his identity and location are not publicized. He uses the pseudonym “Abdulmasi,” which means “servant of the Messiah.”

After dinner, Abdulmasi shared that our meeting the next day with over 100 pastors from Northern Nigeria – witnesses to Jesus in a hostile environment that shelters Boko Haram – was coordinated through word of mouth, as a safety measure. Each pastor was responsible to tell the next, using an established and trustworthy communication chain of mouth-to-ear communication only.

Late last year, I was discussing the current situation in Nigeria with a senior Christian leader from that nation. He stated his observation that the pastors of many of the churches terrorized by Boko Haram, outside of the North, were preaching against Boko Haram instead of preaching for Jesus. This prominent and well known Nigerian church leader shared that he walks freely on the streets, without security or concern, because he preaches for Jesus.

I noted in last week’s blog the situation in Pakistan, officially the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where there are severe social and government constraints on Christians living out their religious beliefs.

I also referenced the situation in communist China, where the Church is growing in members faster than any other nation in the world.

Recently, Christian leaders in China have been in the news for a determined effort to place crosses on the roofs of church buildings. In China, it is forbidden to place above the roof line of buildings any symbols other than those of the Communist Party (e.g. the star) or the nation (e.g. the flag), unless the state symbols are also there, and higher.

In short, the placing of crosses or other symbols in this manner, creating in that culture the public perception of declaring something as greater than the communist state, is not permitted.

While in China last November, I saw a more than 10 metre high cross on the side of one church building and another prominent large cross placed several stories high on the front of another, but neither above the roof line.

Is the behaviour of pastors who are placing crosses on the roofs of their churches defiance that may inhibit the religious freedom of others? Or, is it Holy Spirit inspired civil disobedience that will advance religious freedom?

The Church looks different in these countries from its appearance in Canada, and other nations.

The forms of government, and resulting laws, are different in different parts of the world. As a result, the styles of Christian worship and opportunities to witness to one’s faith may also be different.

In Nigeria, even congregations associated with staid historic Western denominations are vibrant and charismatic in expression. I delivered the main message at the pastors’ gathering, and it was perfectly legal. But certain safety precautions are in order.

In Pakistan, the law prohibits disagreement with Islam. Sharing about one’s belief in Christianity can result in criminal charges; and, mob violence can rule alongside state officials. To preach in Pakistan, a country I have not visited, a Canadian would have to do so in private and hope not to be reported.

In China, the registered Protestant Church is non-denominational in expression. The church we worshipped in reminded me of a conventional Anglican form of worship, including organ and a full choir. The registered Catholic Church follows the traditional Roman Catholic form of mass. Unregistered churches can, I am told, be more charismatic in expression.

It is legal for Chinese Christians to share their faith, as well as Bibles, with fellow citizens. One of the world’s largest Bible printing companies, if not the largest, is in Nanjing. Amity Printing publishes Bibles for both international and domestic Chinese distribution. It is, however, illegal for a foreigner to bring Bibles into the country. Why would you need to? Bibles are readily available nationwide and foreigners can by them by the box and give them to churches for less than it costs to buy them in Canada. It is also illegal for foreigners to proselytize Chinese citizens without permission. To get my visa, I signed an agreement to not proselytize while in China. Chinese Christians are sharing the gospel just fine.

Globally, the Church is consistent in doctrine – the core doctrine of Christianity with variations on nonessential matters – or it would not be the Church. And, the Church is contextual in expression. Established in a Hebrew and Greek, Romanised culture in the Middle East during the 1st century, the Church has adapted to cultural expression (without doctrinal compromise) ever since.

Christianity is not a Western religion or an Eastern religion, the religion of the Northern Hemisphere or the South. Christianity is a relational religion – relationship with God and other people – that is enhanced by cultural infiltration resulting from life together. Cultural expression cannot, however, be permitted to compromise or contaminate the core doctrine of the Church.

Because of its relational nature with God and people the Church remains robust, alive and growing even in environments where Christians encounter social hostility and/or government restriction.

The Church faced these kinds of differences in its early days when non-Jews first started to become Christians. The people were different. The cultures were different. And, often, the laws were different.

The Christian Council at Jerusalem concluded to accept the new converts in their cultural setting by equipping them with core doctrine and to “not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” with traditional Jewish requirements. They also made sure there was a structure in place for continuing relationship. (Acts 15)

Early direction to the Gentile churches in differing legal environments, particularly letters of the apostles Peter and Paul who made “first contact” with these new non-Jewish Christians, also encouraged compliance with the laws of government authorities as part of their expression of faith. (1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1-7)

Foreign countries, foreign courts

Half a decade has passed since the almost expected, yet still shocking, assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti. Minister Bhatti was the first Christian member of Pakistan’s parliament invited into cabinet, where he served as Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs.

With Shahbaz Bhatti, February 2011

With Shahbaz Bhatti, February 2011

Just weeks before his death, Shahbaz was in Ottawa. That’s where I met him in February 2011. In conversation, Shahbaz shared that he had declined the Canadian government’s invitation to remain here and was preparing to head home. He knew his life was in danger. When I asked him about his needs returning home, Shahbaz stated that he did not desire a more trustworthy security detail; another offer from the Canadian government. He asked instead for prayer.

Shahbaz Bhatti was killed, execution style, on March 2, 2011, moments after leaving his mother’s home in Islamabad. His murderer has not been identified.

Death threats against Minister Bhatti had increased dramatically after he expressed support for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who is still in prison after being sentenced to death in 2010. Her crime? In responding to a co-worker’s question about her Christian faith, Asia Bibi is alleged to have made a remark (which she denies) that was found by a judge to be an offence to the Prophet Mohammed. In Pakistan, the penalty for “blasphemy” against Mohammed is death.

A few months ago, I was privileged to visit China as part of a delegation that attended meetings with the leadership of both the national Protestant and Catholic churches registered with, and operating within the requirements of, the Communist government. The delegation also had a significant meeting with the Minister and senior officials from the State Administration for Religious Affairs, China’s department for oversight of religions and religious organizations.

This extraordinary opportunity confirmed for me the remarkable truth that the Church can thrive anywhere, even in cooperation with the requirements of a Communist government.

Years ago, I met with leaders of the unregistered house church movement who were visiting from China. They told me that they were experiencing increased freedom as they purposed and acted to respond to social needs. Their motivation was a statement Jesus made about one aspect by which He would judge the Church, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)

In the setting of Canada’s democracy, we sometimes complain about government or the courts. But, we don’t face open, potentially deadly, hostility because of our religious beliefs. There are no blasphemy laws by which we might be imprisoned for a comment made to a co-worker. We are not confronted with the need to contextualize our religious practices in submission to a government that has either a religious or ideological belief that is determinative of both judicial appointments and judicial decisions.

Several of the more difficult New Testament passages for Christians are found in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome. Among them, Romans 12:1-2 challenges Christians to be living sacrifices for God, transformed in our thinking to follow God’s will, not our own. Romans 13 confronts us with:

1 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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 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, 4 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. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

This is not a message dictating unquestioned subservience. Nor does it require collaboration with the government or compromise of Christian doctrine. But, Paul does appreciably limit the appropriate circumstances for civil disobedience (a topic to be addressed in more detail in an upcoming blog).

Working with and within the political and judicial system can be difficult, but that is what is asked of us.

Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, four young men were abducted from Jerusalem by a conquering king – Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (also known by their Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego). They held fast to their faith in God, refused to bow in worship to King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, walked out of what should have been certain death in a fiery furnace, and found a place, within that foreign culture, to serve as leaders in the nation of Babylon; all the while, worshipping God. (see particularly Daniel 1 and 3)

Early Christians refused to bow to Caesar or his image, the Emperor having been declared to be a god. They kept the peace, were at one time put to death as entertainment, and contributed to their society. Four centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, Caesar was displaced as god of the Empire by this same Jesus. In making this decision, the Emperor Constantine also granted legal freedom to other religions, provided they were not disruptive.

Without judicial independence and sound legal doctrine, the ideology of the state – whether religious or atheist – is determinative in the courtroom; and, judicial decisions become subservient to state doctrine. This is little different from the ancient Babylonian or Roman empires, and was understood by Paul when he wrote his remarks to the Church.

How Christians respond to cultural, societal and political constraints, as well as the decisions of courts – both just and unjust – bears witness to our character as Christians, a word that literally means “little Christs” (little anointed ones). Are we both believing in Jesus and behaving like Him?

The Church, both registered and unregistered, is growing faster in China than any other nation in the world. Asia Bibi’s lawyers continue to appeal the decision of the lower court, many around the world are intervening on her behalf with the Pakistani government, and her plight highlights that she is one of millions around the globe who face persecution for their religious beliefs. Instead of choosing the safety of a land foreign to him, Shahbaz Bhatti gave his life to work within the legalities of Pakistan’s constitutional structure “to serve the suffering humanity, defend principles of religious freedom, human equality, social justice and rights of minorities.” And, he asked me to pray for him.

The request of the persecuted is consistently that we pray. Pray that they – we – might be faithful to God and the Scriptures.

Laying down our lives before the courts

Many consider an appearance before the Supreme Court of Canada to be the pinnacle of practicing law. I’ll admit, I was a little giddy about it the first time. Cool and composed, I sat, listened, made notes and took it all in… for the simple reason that someone else on the team had the responsibility of speaking.

Don Hutchinson

But, the first time I was the one doing the talking before the Court may well have found me at my most nervous, although hopefully somewhat controlled in my appearance and expression. Truth be revealed, I had to watch the video later to really take in and enjoy the experience.

In the moment, it was difficult to remember that such appearances are simply rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. The only reason I was there in the first place was because of rendering unto God what belongs to God. It wasn’t about the pinnacle of a legal career, as I am not a litigator. The cases in dispute had arrived before the court in a way that presented circumstances to serve the Church because of a mix of employment, education, interest, commitment and opportunity. These are the very things in each of our lives that present openings for any one of us to serve where we are.

Sometimes, as in the ancient Roman Empire, Caesar – who in contemporary democracy is embodied in government and the courts – asserts that he is the supreme authority; not only in the rule of his law, but in the judgement of his courts and the limits on what his subjects may do with their lives.

Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada stated the opinion that it is the responsibility of courts to find somewhere “in the comprehensive claims of the rule of law, a space in which individual and community adherence to religious authority can flourish.” The Chief Justice’s conclusion that “the law has been charged with the responsibility for creating this space” was expressed in her 2004 essay “Freedom of Religion and the Rule of Law: A Canadian Perspective,” found in the book Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society.

The assertion that supreme authority resides with the state is not unique to one judge, one court or even one government; and, stands in contrast to the Christian understanding that God makes an all-encompassing claim to our lives, because Jesus is both Saviour and Lord, while creating space for individual and community adherence to law.

So, when it comes to rendering unto Caesar, what then is the relationship between Christianity and the courts? And, what about our constitutional rights?

On multiple occasions, both publicly and privately with his disciples, Jesus said he would lay down his life for the benefit of those who chose to follow him. In one brief discourse he mentioned it three times (John 10:1-18). People didn’t seem to understand what he was saying. Even with the benefit of two millenia of hindsight there are many who read or hear his words and don’t get it.

At the Passover dinner that we now refer to as “The Last Supper,” Jesus again noted to his disciples that his death was imminent. Later that night, he was arrested and taken for trial because of his claim to be Messiah, in Greek “Christ,” the Son of God. Jesus submitted to the High Priest and the authority of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish religious council and tribunal in Jerusalem). But, the region of Judaea and Samaria was under the control of Rome and the Jewish tribunal had limited powers, which did not include the death penalty, so they took him to the court of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. You can read this part of the true story in chapters 18 and 19 of John’s gospel (also in Matthew 26 and 27, Mark 14 and 15, and Luke 22 and 23), including this fascinating part of the exchange between Pilate and Jesus as recorded in John 19:

10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”

Jesus acknowledged and submitted to the authority of Caesar’s courts in Caesar’s realm. He also proclaimed the higher authority of his Father. More on those two realms in a future post.

The last time the apostle Paul was in Jerusalem, he was speaking to a crowd about Jesus when the crowd took offence at Paul’s words. It seemed they were on the verge of rioting. A Roman tribune (a senior police officer in the Roman military) took Paul into custody and was going to flog him for inciting this incident. Paul appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen by birth. There was no flogging. But, there would be court.

Paul, like Jesus, first appeared before the Sanhedrin; because, he was a Jew making statements about a matter of religion. He then appeared before Roman tribunals – the courts of Felix, who by that time had become governor of Judaea and Samaria, Festus, who succeeded Felix (Felix had kept Paul in custody for over two years before Festus arrived), and Agrippa, appointed by Caesar as King of Syria (Acts 21:27 to 26:32). In his appearance before Festus, Paul appealed to be heard by Caesar. This was his right as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:10-12). His journey to Rome is a great story that finishes out the Book of Acts.

In the 21st century, courts come in many forms, just as they did in the Roman Empire. We have human rights tribunals, employment tribunals and arbitration boards, among others, as well as superior and appeal courts and the Supreme Court of the nation. But, in one respect, today’s courts remain little different from those of the ancient world. They are charged with adjudicating the right application of laws established by government.

Whether or not we agree with decisions of the courts is not determinative of whether we abide by those decisions. And, there is no fault in appealing decisions with which we disagree. However, those appeals are to be within the confines of the rule of law – e.g. courts and legislatures. You may be wondering when civil disobedience is an appropriate response to a decision of the courts or government. Civil disobedience, and the forms it might take for a follower of Jesus, will be addressed in a future blog. For now, it’s important to recognize that as Jesus and Paul acknowledged the authority of Caesar, so should we.

When we stand on our rights as a citizen, those rights are interpreted by the courts. Similar rights may be interpreted differently by courts in different jurisdictions or by tribunals with differing degrees of responsibility and authority.

We may be unhappy about decisions of the courts, including how they interpret our rights as citizens, but the example set for us by the One we follow – and recorded as the understanding of his early followers – is submission to their authority. Laying down our lives before the courts.