Orders are orders! Anyone who has ever been in the military can attest to this statement. Military personnel are taught from the very beginning that an order is to be obeyed without question, without regard for personal safety or conscience. “Do as you are told, or else! Move, dammit!” When a person’s life is in danger, this may be a good avenue to follow. Certainly, soldiers in the army do learn to trust their superior officers and expect that they will do what is right and necessary to protect those under their command. It is also a fact that blatant, widespread disregard for orders would result in a breakdown in the chain of command, causing havoc throughout the entire system.
Sometimes, however, personnel do disobey or disregard orders for one reason or another. This usually results in a swift and serious inquiry into the matter, with those declared guilty punished severely. Court-martials of those charged with infractions are not for the faint of heart, with good reason. Order must be maintained and orders must be followed.
Is there ever a time or circumstance where an order may lawfully be disobeyed or disregarded? Theoretically this is possible, but in reality it hardly ever happens. Generally, we don’t hear about it. One time, however, it did and changed the life a of man and his family so dramatically they were never the same. Documentation of this can be seen in Acts 16: 16-34.
The Apostle Paul and his associate Silas had been thrown into a prison under lock and key. Prisons in those days were brutal places where many of the prisoners did not come out alive or, if they did, were severely physically and emotionally wounded. The guards in this case were probably Romans since Phillipi, the city where this happened, was a Roman colony. They were responsible to see that none of the prisoners escaped and kept guard at the potential cost of their lives. It was highly imperative that no prisoner under their watch, absolutely no one, ever got out except at the order of an official who had authority to grant freedom.
The keeper of the jail knew this. In fact, he knew this so well that when he found out the earthquake had broken the cells open and the prisoners were free, he didn’t wait for the “court martial” to pronounce judgment. He understood that he was a dead man and he drew his sword intending to make the realization into a fact. Immediate suicide by his own sword was preferable to a protracted inquiry and execution by someone else.
On finding out, however, that the prisoners had not escaped and that his life was not forfeit, he acted completely contrary to custom and to orders. He had been told, literally commanded by the magistrates, “keep them securely”, but verse 34 says that he brought them into his house, feeding them, and tending to their wounds. This cannot be seen as keeping them securely by any stretch of imagination. To say that he “kept them secure” by bringing them into his house is nothing more than trying to make the most of a bad argument. The fact is that he set them free. He gave them liberty against orders to keep them imprisoned. He deliberately disobeyed what his superiors had instructed him to do and acted in another manner altogether.
My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that he didn’t question his orders or try to rationalize his action to anyone. He simply acted. He knew that God was orchestrating the situation and that his duty was to a power far, far superior to the town magistrates. He knew what was right, knew what he had to do, and did it. Because of this, the Bible tells us that his entire family was saved and baptized. I will go so far as to say that because of his actions, the episode was written down and recorded as a remembrance and lesson for future generations.
History is full of accounts of men and women who stood up to authorities and defied their orders. There is a case of this mentioned earlier in Acts where the apostles had been commanded by the Jewish authorities not to speak about Jesus or to preach the gospel in His name. What was their response? They continued on regardless, boldly talking to anyone who would listen. They did not allow fear of retribution or punishment to stop them from doing what they knew they should. This resulted in their imprisonment which would have probably been followed by severe punishment, except that God miraculously released them.
Ultimately, the apostles were brought before the council during which the high priest asked them whether or not they had been told to refrain from their message. Immediately, they answered him with these words, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Basically, what Peter and the other apostles were saying was that even though the authorities ordered them to speak and act in a certain way, if it went against what God ordered them to say and do, they would disobey and disregard the orders of the authorities. No ifs, ands, or buts!
Is there ever a time when a person is to disobey a direct order from an authority above him? Can a member of the military ever refuse to carry out an order which he knows is contrary to the orders given to him by God? The answer is and must be an emphatic, unequivocal, unwavering “Yes, absolutely!” How far would the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany have gotten if the individual persons involved had refused to slaughter and incinerate their families, friends, and neighbors? Would the Comanches at Sand Creek have been massacred if Colonel Chivington’s soldiers had refused to fire repeatedly at point blank range into the defenseless tipis?
What does this mean for someone who is not a military man? What about those of us who are Christian and doing our best to live our lives in a godly manner? What if the Supreme Court decides that it is not legal anymore to protest or to speak out against abortions? What if we are prohibited from “preaching” against the homosexual lifestyle? What if we are told to spy on our neighbors and to turn them in if we think that they are doing something subversive, knowing that doing so means we probably will never see them again? What if…? What if…?
The question for us is something we need to answer in our own hearts and it is something which should be settled before any scenario like those above ever happens, if they happen at all which is not certain. Regardless, unless we know what our answer is and how we will respond, we will probably be caught in a state of fear, ambivalence, and non-action. We need to have it fixed in our own minds, souls, and spirits that when we have to make a decision between what man says and what God says, our answer is going to be the same as Peter’s—“We must obey God!”
As the social, political, and financial structures of the world deteriorate and fall apart, the conflict between man’s edicts and God’s Word grows more and more pronounced and visible. It is very possible that some of us will have to make a choice between following orders and acting in disobedience to God or following orders and defying man’s authority. We may come to the point where obeying God means the loss of everything we hold dear, up to and including our lives. This is not new, however, because many of the apostles, including Paul, were murdered because they simply would not be quiet and accept the status quo. Would we have that much courage? It’s something we should think about. The times, they are a-changing, and we may have the opportunity to find out.