When the King Offers Incense: The Christian Response to Governmental Overreach
It was an unusual scene. The chief priest standing toe-to-toe with the king in the temple with a censer in his hand, tension filling the air instead of the sweet smell of incense.
“Fill my censer, Azariah!” King Uzziah barked. The king was getting madder by the second as Azariah, the chief priest, flanked by eighty valiant priests, confronted him.
“It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense,” Azariah answered in a measured tone. Uzziah’s face grew red, and he defiantly kept the censer outstretched. Azariah looked intently into the king’s face and took a deep breath. Mustering every fiber of courage, the son of Aaron said boldly: “Get out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed! You shall have no honor from the Lord God.”
Uzziah boiled over. “How dare you!” he roared. “I AM THE KING! And you can’t tell me what I can or cannot do! I will have honor from the Lord because I am His appointed sovereign!” Uzziah was about to hurl his censer at the chief priest when he saw Azariah’s eyes suddenly grow wide in terror, but not at the king’s words.
“Unclean!” shouted Azariah, followed by a chorus of other voices saying the same. “Leper! He’s a leper!”
Uzziah’s blood ran cold. He caught a glimpse of his face in the reflection of the censer. There, on his forehead, slowly spreading down his cheeks towards his chin was the cloudy, puffy, red deformity. “NO!” Uzziah shrieked in panic. Azariah, recovering from his momentary shock, rushed forward, his fellow priests with him, to escort the leprous monarch out of the sanctuary, out of the temple, out of sight. Forever.
“King Uzziah was a leper until the day of his death. He dwelt in an isolated house, because he was a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 26:21).
The story of King Uzziah in the temple is one of the most vivid illustrations of the boundaries of God-ordained authority in the Bible. It is remarkable in its clarity and unmistakable in its lesson: authorities do not have unlimited power. Uzziah was a godly king; he sought God and was a friend to prophets like Isaiah and Zechariah (2 Chronicles 26:4-5; Isaiah 6:1). But Uzziah was not immune to the illness that so often besets successful leaders: “But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction” (2 Chronicles 26:16). Hundreds of years earlier, long before there was a Judean monarchy, God had specifically designated the descendants of Aaron, and none else, to offer incense before the Lord (Numbers 16:40). That ancient law continued, even after the division of Israel into two kingdoms.
Uzziah, king though he was, had no legitimate jurisdiction to offer incense to God. And his chief priest and company called him out on it. They saw Uzziah’s action as a “trespass,” which in the original Hebrew, means unfaithful or treacherous. They were prepared to forcibly resist the king if he did not cease from his overstep. But God intervened before it came to that and struck him with leprosy (2 Chron. 26:20).
How do the actions of Azariah and the 80 stalwart priests match with other Biblical commands to honor and obey authorities? After all, aren’t we supposed to “submit [ourselves] to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake?” (I Peter 2:13). Yes, we are. But notice that Peter said, “for the Lord’s sake.” If we survey the entirety of the Scripture’s teaching on government, we will learn that all authority comes from God, but that authority is not unlimited. Jesus taught this principle in His well-known answer whether to pay taxes: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). That statement assumes that Caesar isn’t entitled to all our actions of allegiance. Peter and the early Apostles lived this out in their bold declaration to the Jewish authorities that in regards to preaching the Gospel, they “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The essential New Testament teachings on government, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, define civil government’s responsibility as punishing what is evil and praising what is good. There is a clear boundary line given to the Christian that obedience to authorities is the default, unless such obedience requires the Christian to violate his conscience before God, to do what is “not of faith” (Romans 14:23).
How do these principles apply in the current cultural and political situation we now find ourselves? The same way they have always worked for the thoughtful believer. Prayer for authorities, obedience to authorities, and support for authorities in their God-given role, is always the default setting. But when an authority goes beyond his or her jurisdiction and begins to punish what is good and praise what is evil, the Christian must always do what is good and which honors God. And that may require him to disobey an authority’s edict (as Daniel and Mordecai did) or confront an authority on the unlawful nature of their actions (as Azariah and John the Baptist did).
There is one final application of the Bible’s teaching on government that is applicable to the current situation. Proverbs 28:4 says that “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but such as keep the law contend with them.” It is important for us to realize that just as we are required to obey legitimate authority, so our authorities are required to obey their authority. In the United States, we are privileged to live in a system in which the law is king, or to put it another way, where the law is the authority. Our representative system of government allows us to hold our authorities accountable for actions that are ultra vires, i.e. outside the law.
Imagine two teams playing a soccer game. The referee on the field has been given authority to enforce the rules of the game. He can call off-sides, he can yellow-card players for flagrant infractions, and he can even eject coaches for bad behavior. But there is one thing he cannot do: permit players on the field to play the soccer game with disregard for the rules. Suppose the referee allows a player to pick up a ball with his hands, run down the field, and throw it into the net, and declare that a goal has been scored. The opposing team would cry foul, and rightly so. The player has violated the rules of the game. They make their case to the referee, who shrugs his shoulders and says, “Well, I told the player he could do that—and since I’m the referee, I can do what I like.” The players are left bewildered realizing that their game of soccer has now degenerated into chaos. The one official who was tasked with ensuring lawful play, has now turned the field into lawlessness. The players would be quite correct to confront the referee with a copy of the rule book and insist that he follow it.
This same duty applies to Christians and their government officials. In the same way that the Apostle Paul, as a citizen of Rome, insisted that his authorities follow the law (Acts 22:25-28), so American Christians may rightfully, and in many cases, are obligated to respectfully insist that authorities obey the law. And in fact, when a Christian follows an edict issued in violation of the law, he is not keeping the law, but affirming the lawlessness of the edict. He has lost the ability to “contend” with the wicked.
On May 17, the leadership of Wellspring Christian Fellowship, the governing church for Wellspring Christian Family Schools, made the determination to contend with an unlawful order made by our county executive. Wellspring has abided by Governor Hogan’s orders from the time they were issued, because the laws of Maryland provide him with the authority to exercise certain, limited powers in a State of Emergency. But when the governor delegated power to the local county executives on May 13, permitting them to make their own rules regarding citizens staying at home and the opening of businesses and churches, he acted like the referee in the soccer game: he gave power to others he did not have authority to grant.
Our local county executive determined that despite the governor’s statewide order granting churches the ability to reopen, she would require them to remain closed for potentially an indefinite period. Because her order was not given by any authority invested in her by the county charter, and prevented Christian communities from following the Biblical mandate to assemble together, Wellspring’s leadership felt compelled to confront her overstep by issuing a declaration of intent to assemble and holding a service for members on May 17, in conformity with the governor’s current order. Other churches throughout Maryland did the same.
It is vitally important to understand that when a Christian does what Wellspring has done, it is done in simple, faithful adherence to Biblical teaching. We are not at all suggesting that Christians should pick and choose what laws they follow. We are insisting that the law, under which all of us stand equally, be obeyed by our local authorities. And by doing so we are affirming the example given by the chief priest Azariah millennia ago when he honored God by requiring his authority to follow the ancient mandate and “Get out of the sanctuary!” It is our deepest prayer that our local and state authorities will do the same.
Joel is the WCFS administrator. He holds a BA in Political Science from Thomas Edison University, a JD from Oak Brook College of Law, and is currently a doctoral student in public policy at Liberty University. He is also a member of the California Bar.