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Generally speaking, the bible is very clear that:

  • Authority is set up by God.
  • If this authority, eg, a the governing heirachy, is in conflict with God (as was the case in the book of Daniel), then it is to God that we must submit to, not to man.

However, I seem to remember one place where a man's actions, which would have been sinful if he had any choice in the matter, were regarded as acceptable behaviour because he performed them without free will in obedience to his king.

Sadly I can't remember if this was something as trivial as being cup bearer, where one consumes potentially poisoned drinks at risk of great personal harm, or if there was a more significant event.

Could someone tell me of any such situations? This is relevant today if, eg, in the army you are commanded to kill someone, and for some reason you believe that, in that particular case, it might be murder. Where does the bible stand on such grey situations?

(Note: I am not talking about clear situations - some readers here will adopt a hardline answer, to the point where a solder should not kill anyone in the course of battle. That is fine, those readers have a clear answer. I am asking about what to do when the situation is NOT clear, perhaps due to insufficient information, insufficient knowledge, or simple lack of free will).

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@DavidStratton: I am fully aware of that, I have been very careful with the particular wording of that title. The situation is: You are serving under a king. The king orders you to do something. Do you obey, or not? –  Arafangion Sep 10 '13 at 4:21

4 Answers 4

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The situation you are probably thinking of is Naaman, whose story appears in 2 Kings chapter 5. Naaman, 'commander of the army of the king of Aram', was healed of leprosy through the prophet Elisha, and becomes a follower of God. He says:

Your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.” (verse 17-18)

On the other hand, if you read the story of Daniel, he and his companions Shadrach, Mesdhach and Abednego refused to follow the commands of the King and were thrown into a den of lions/fiery furnace for this. So you can't take this as a universal example.

You might also like to read Matthew Chapter 12, where Jesus gives a couple of examples of doing things that were not lawful - especially David, who ate the forbidden bread when he and his companions were hungry.

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That was exactly the one, thanks! –  Arafangion Sep 11 '13 at 0:30
    
I must point out that I don't think your interpretation of Matthew Chapter 12 is correct... Jesus was pointing out things that were lawful, but which had been interpreted as unlawful. –  Arafangion Sep 11 '13 at 0:47
    
The quote is "[David] entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests." Jesus says clearly that it was not lawful. Make sure you read Rick's answer, which also contains important points. –  DJClayworth Sep 11 '13 at 1:36
    
Reading that a second time, I think I will agree, but that is a whole another topic - the focus of Jesus's discussion in Matt 12 was on there being something bigger happening, and the original passage concerning David's situation had the permission of the priest, although it probably still wasn't strictly correct for that priest to give permission like that - I can't make an opinion on that in a few lines here. :( –  Arafangion Sep 11 '13 at 4:11

Dos and don’ts are of the Law; the Law does not save, so why do we continue to trouble ourselves with the Law? Can I? What should I do? How can I know for sure? If this or that, and what about? All of this is chasing after the wind and very unchristian-like.

Romans 3:19-28

Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets…Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Romans 4:16

Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed;

A Christian is one that knows the source of their salvation revealed through the Gospel. A Christian knows whom they serve as Lord. A Christian has the benefit of the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing presence, so Jesus Christ might be born out throughout their life.

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(I was going to make this comment on the question, but it fits here.) This question (and particularly your answer) reminded me of Luther's statement "sin boldly" (see #13 here). Knowing that God is greater than our hearts and our sins does not justify carelessness, but Christians are also commanded not to be anxious about anything (which includes whether a particular action is offensive to God) and to pray (Philippians 4:6-7). –  Paul A. Clayton Sep 10 '13 at 14:22
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@PaulA.Clayton, So true! We know we are saved by grace though faith and we know our works demonstrate our faith; works that one day will be tested by fire. What works will stand the test of fire? I believe it is those that are conceived by the will of the Father and born out in our life by the Holy Spirit. –  Rick Sep 10 '13 at 14:32

1. Peter's Vision in Acts 10

One of the most transformative events in Acts is Peter's vision of the clean and unclean animals in Acts 10.

As a practicing Jew, Peter would not have eaten pork or other unclean animals. In his vision, however, God commanded Peter to eat unclean meat - a clear for Peter. Indeed, Peter objects saying:

14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

To this, however, God responds:

15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

The point of the vision, as Karl Barth goes on to say, is that God's nature supercedes his commandments. God was doing a new thing, insofar as the religious Jews of the day were concerned. God was reaching out to the Gentiles! While Christians can go back and see that this was God's plan all along, for the Jew of the day, that was radically dirty. But God's nature of love overrode his laws on purity.

Thus, God can and has commanded people to do what they considered sin, in order to accomplish his will.

2. Peter's response to the Snahedrin in Acts 5

In a pure man-on-man thing, Acts 5 records a stern admonition from the Sanhedrin concerning Peter's preaching of Jesus' resurrection in the city.

27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Peter famously responds in v. 29:

29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!

30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted Him to His own right hand as Prince and Savior that He might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

From the point of view of the religious authorities, this preaching was sinful. Indeed, even Paul writes in Romans 13 "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God." But, in those instances where the authorities are countermanding God's clear, expressed will, they are no longer acting as an authority.

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Your question reminded me of the concept of "situation ethics," a term coined by--interestingly enough--an Episcopal priest by the name of Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991). See http://www83.homepage.villanova.edu/richard.jacobs/MPA%208300/theories/situationism.html.

"Sometimes called 'contextualism' or 'relational ethics,' situation ethics maintains that the collective wisdom of the past can be used to guide ethical decision making in the present but must be set aside if love requires something else" (ibid.).

As with many, if not most, ethical theories, there is an element of truth to Fletcher's theory of ethical behavior. How big an element depends on a number of things, not the least of which is the situation or scenario to which the theory is being applied!

Hypothetically, if a bad person--and a complete stranger to me--were to break into my home, threatening the life of my spouse, and I had a loaded gun at my disposal, would I be justified in shooting (even shooting to kill) the bad guy? Both the Law of God and the laws of Pennsylvania where I live, would hold me guiltless, particularly if the bad man threatened the use of deadly force (i.e., he himself brandished a lethal weapon, such as a gun, or knife, or baseball bat).

Even this seemingly clear-cut scenario may not be as clear-cut as it seems at first, especially if we "tweak" the scenario a little. What if, for example, I know or sense the intruder is mentally deranged, and he threatens my wife with an imaginary (i.e., invisible) ray gun he's supposedly holding in his hand, while demanding I give him want he wants. The laws of Pennsylvania would likely still exonerate me, but what about the Law of God? Here is the crux of the matter.

We all know that when "the authorities that be" order Christians to stop spreading the gospel, we must appeal to a higher authority (Acts 5:29). That appeal does not exempt us, however, from using sound judgment when we choose to "flout" the law, particularly if in doing so we endanger the lives of other people, Christians or non-Christians alike.

For example, in a repressive regime, the powers that be might forbid the printing of Bibles or any religious literature. I as a Christian have a computer and a printer and my friends and neighbors are unbelievers. Moreover, they are genuinely interested in the Christian faith. Do I then post a sign with foot-high letters on my front door that says "FREE CHRISTIAN LITERATURE AVAILABLE HERE, 24/7"? Of course not.

I'd probably hide my computer and printer under the floorboards inside a closet, and during the wee small hours of the morning would retrieve the printer and proceed to do covertly what I believe to be the will of God. Later I would look for opportunities to distribute the literature covertly. Why covertly?

First, not to do so would be stupid! Boldness in the face of imminent persecution is one thing; stupidity when there is no direct threat of persecution is quite another. How will my friends and neighbors hear about Christ if I am in prison or dead because I stupidly put a billboard on my front door?

This example may seem preposterous, but I hope it at least illustrates the importance of balancing the demands of God's law that we be in subjection to the authorities He has established, with some equally important concepts of love, justice, conscience, and discretionary wisdom. Is there a hierarchy of right and wrong? Of course. Personally, if the authorities come looking for my wife, whom I know has done nothing wrong, and they ask me menacingly, "Do you know where your wife is?", guess what I'm going to do? I'm going to lie to the very best of my ability!

On the other hand, Corrie ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place, tells the story of her sister (I believe) who had a particularly sensitive conscience. Consequently, when during World War II the German soldiers came to her house in Holland and asked her pointblank "Are you hiding Jews in this house?", not wanting to "lie" she said nervously but with a hint of facetiousness, "Why yes, sir, they are here under the table!" The fact was, the Jews were under the table but were hidden by a large tablecloth. Thankfully, the soldiers thought she was kidding and failed to look under the table. She likely let out a huge sigh of relief. Phew!

Was Corrie's sister being overly sensitive, if not foolish? That's not for me to decide. Would I have said anything different? Probably, but then God knows what is in our hearts, and when we act in faith by doing what we think God wants us to do, we can be confident that God has our back!

Similarly, in a war scenario, a Christian soldier may feel perfectly justified in shooting an enemy soldier who is shooting at him. On the other hand, if his commanding officer tells him to open fire on a group of unarmed, bound and gagged enemy soldiers, would he be justified in either obeying the order or in defying the order? It is at that very moment the soldier needs to consult his conscience, say a quick prayer (as did Nehemiah, for example, in Nehemiah 2:4), and make a decision.

Personally, I hope he would choose to disobey the order. Perhaps, however, the Lord might tell the soldier to reason with his commanding officer first, before deciding to obey or disobey. You, on the other hand, might feel differently. That's OK, too, although if you think the soldier is justified in pulling the trigger, I would love to debate you as to why I think you are wrong!

Nevertheless, God is ultimately the judge of us all. As Abraham asked so long ago, "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" The answer of course is yes (see Genesis 18:25).

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