When Believers Should Step Out of Line

We have a phrase in English when we disapprove of something that someone does. We say that they are “out of line.” We might say to someone, “When you told […]

We have a phrase in English when we disapprove of something that someone does. We say that they are “out of line.” We might say to someone, “When you told the judge exactly what you thought of him in court today, you were way out of line.” And what we mean is, “You were wrong.” The implication of that phrase is that it is right to stay in line, and wrong to get out of line. This implies that people who have gotten “out of line” have done wrong because they have violated the established order of things.

But what if we are mistaken?

Is it ever right in God’s eyes to step out of line and violate the established order of things … even without permission? In other words, does God ever honor it when we take unilateral actions that may even run counter to the wishes of those in authority over us?

In order to answer that question, we have to use the process that Jesus taught us when He was asked a theological question.  In Luke 10, an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. (By telling us that he “stood up” to test Jesus, Luke was saying that this was not a casual conversation, but a formal challenge of Jesus’ theology.) The theological question was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

When Jesus answered, He taught us the template that we are always to use when settling theological questions. He started His answer with two questions that must always be answered in this order if we want to have correct theology. He asked, “What is written in the law?” followed by, “How do you read it?”

By this answer, Jesus taught us that when we have a question about God’s will, we need to FIRST determine exactly what the Scripture actually DOES say on the topic, and only THEN are we to formulate our answer to the question, “How do I read what that passage says?” In using this template, we will avoid the mistake that the world always makes in considering a controversial question about theology. The world never goes to the Word of God for answers. Instead, the world always asks questions like “What do I want God’s answer to be?” or “How do I feel about this topic?” By asking these particular questions, the world falls into terrible error, because both questions (regarding what I want and what I feel) are based on myself instead of on the unchanging revelation of God found in the Bible.

That is why the world believes such crazy and contradictory things about God! By contrast, Jesus taught us that the two questions for theological discovery are both Bible-based. “What is written in the law?” This is a question of Scripture content. And then, “How do you read it?” In other words, “What is the interpretation and application that you come to … based on what the Scripture teaches?”

So let’s apply the Jesus method to this question: “Is it ever right for you to step out of line without first asking permission, and does God ever honor it when we act unilaterally like that … sometimes even outside the wishes of those in spiritual authority over us?”

Case #1: In 1 Samuel 14 we have the story of Jonathan, the prince of Israel, who was King Saul’s son. The Philistines had completely disarmed the Israelites. Chapter 13 tells us that there wasn’t a single weapon-maker in the entire nation of Israel. In fact, the last paragraph of 13 tells us that no one in the entire nation of Israel was armed except the king and the prince.

The enemy armies were camped in one spot on top of a huge cliff, and the armies of Israel were camped a good distance away on the other side of the gorge. One day Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, “Come on, let’s go over there and challenge the Philistines to a fight. God doesn’t need many to save Israel. He can use just a few.” The armor-bearer agreed, and they sneaked off to start a fight with the Philistines. Verse 1 of chapter 14 tells us pointedly that he did NOT tell his father the king what he was doing.

To make a long and fascinating story short, the Scripture never tells us that Jonathan had received this command from the Lord. In fact, what Jonathan said is exactly the opposite! He said, Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf!” Not only was Jonathan not acting on orders he had heard from the Lord, but he was certainly not acting on orders from his father, or his king (who were the same person, Saul).

Jonathan got out of line, took initiative on his own and attacked the Philistine army on behalf of Israel.

Can we tell whether God honored his initiative or was displeased by his stepping out of line? Yes, we can. Verse 15 says that a great panic fell upon the whole army, which was pushed into terror when there was a giant earthquake sent by God.

Rather than rebuking Jonathan for stepping out of line, God joined the battle and brought Israel a great victory. “On that day, the Lord saved Israel…” (verse 23).

Case #2:  In the New Testament, the church was exploding into life in the Book of Acts. The people were sharing their resources and lands with each other. Barnabas sold some property and laid the money at the apostles’ feet to use as they saw fit for the benefit of the church. After that happened, a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira followed his example, with one significant exception. “With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 5:2).

By entering into the company of the sold-out, they represented themselves as having completely put their resources into God’s hands for the common trust, but in truth they had secretly set some money aside for themselves. It looked as if they had qualified themselves to take part in the combined resources of everyone by combining their own resources with everyone, when in fact they could now have access to the resources of all while secretly maintaining some of their own. And it looked like they were going on record as trusting God with everything. But they weren’t. It was a lie.


The key is found in verse 2 in the phrase, With his wife’s full knowledge, he kept back part of the money for himself …”

When he arrived to present the money to Peter, the Holy Spirit knew that he had lied and, through Peter, confronted him with his sin. Ananias died right on the spot.

Three hours later his wife came in unaware of what had happened. The church, however, knew and was shaken with fear by what had taken place. I imagine they were in suspense as to how her conversation with Peter would go! Peter asked her if the amount of money that Ananias submitted was the entire cost of the land. She said that it was. She lied and she died, just like her husband.

Since she suffered the same fate as her husband, we tend to overlook this crucial statement that Peter made to her just before she died: “How could you have agreed to lie to the Holy Spirit?”

Why is that statement crucial? Because Peter, obviously speaking in the power of the Holy Spirit, was making an amazing declaration by his question. He was saying, “Why in the world didn’t you disagree with your husband and refuse to go along with his plan?” Not only would it have been right for her to step out of line and refuse to agree with her husband, she was judged for choosing not to do it!

I know many Christians who would have praised her for choosing to stay in line and let her husband call the shots come what may. But the apostle Peter didn’t share that sentiment; he asked the melancholy and rhetorical question,“How COULD you…?”

Without doubt, the Holy Spirit agreed with Peter’s conclusion rather than Sapphira’s decision because, when Peter then pronounced judgment on her, it was the last thing that she heard in this world.

At the beginning of this article, we asked the important question … “Is it ever right in God’s eyes for Christians to step out of line and violate the established order of things … even without permission? In other words, does God ever honor it when we take unilateral actions that may even run counter to the wishes of those in authority over us?”

Using the methodology of Jesus, we have (A) examined the Scriptures (although not exhaustively, due to the necessity to be brief in this article) and (B) prayerfully determined what our conclusion is based on what we have studied.

Our conclusion is: Yes, there are clearly times (even if they are exceedingly rare) in which it is right in God’s eyes for believers to step out of line and violate the established order of things … even without receiving prior permission from those in authority over us. In fact, there are even times when it is a sin to NOT step out of line when we are being asked by someone with authority in our lives to agree to a course of action that is ungodly.

Obviously, we need to place this truth in the context of the other truths in the Bible. For example, we know for a fact that God created spiritual authority and is pleased when we submit to those in authority over us, even when we would personally prefer to act otherwise.

And yet Jonathan teaches us that there are certain situations in which God will not only endorse our decision to take action, but will join us in it. The violent earthquakes from God which “finished the job” that Jonathan started are certainly proof of that!

And there are certain situations in which we are dishonoring God if we do NOT stand up to people who are choosing to sin, even if they are in authority over us.

All that remains is to apply the principles we have learned. Here are a few concrete applications:

  1. We each really need to study the Scriptures to receive more light on this subject.
  2. We must understand every aspect of spiritual authority found in Scripture so that we can base our actions on God’s will rather than our own preferences.
  3. We need to prayerfully discern situations in which the Lord may be calling us to take some unexpected action.
  4. It is necessary for all Christians to walk in fellowship with the Holy Spirit so that we will be sensitive to His voice and able to take whatever action pleases Him.
  5. It is sometimes pleasing to God when we (knowing God’s over-all will on a matter) take voluntary action that furthers God’s purposes without waiting to hear a voice from on high tell us to do so. If God sees that our heart is right and we are trying to accomplish His purposes, He will often join the battle personally and bring a great victory.

May the Lord give you insight and understanding as you ponder these things, and may He teach you deep and important truths from His Word every day. Remember! Only the Scriptures can make us wise unto salvation! Brothers and sisters, fellow leaders in the Lord’s churches, study the Bible!