Throughout history civil disobedience (that is, the public, nonviolent conscientious resistance to, or breaking of, a law deemed to be unjust) has been engaged in. Somewhat recent examples of those resorting to civil disobedience include Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
This article will address the issue of the Christian and civil disobedience (only Martin Luther King of the above three men was a Christian). Is it ever right for a believer to commit acts of civil disobedience? Does the Bible ever endorse such behaviour? Do we have examples of it in Scripture?
First, some broad brush themes concerning the role and function of the state need to be discussed. This can only be treated here in a most cursory fashion. Scripture has much to say about the institution of the state. It is God ordained, and it is one of the ways in which God governs a fallen world.
At least three main functions of the state are spelled out in Scripture: to maintain justice, to ensure domestic peace and harmony, and to restrain and punish evil. This may be a minimalist definition of the state, and more obligations may well come to mind, but it certainly differs from the ever-encroaching state of the modern world.
One very well known passage comes to mind here, Matthew 22:21 (=Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25): “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s.” In this important passage we see two realms of authority which are separate but overlapping. But one realm (God’s) is meant to take priority over the other (man’s).
As D.A. Carson comments, “We are at one and the same time citizens of some earthly state and citizens of heaven; the obligations of neither may be neglected. And as we reflect on what Jesus said, we are made to realize that there are limitations to the things that are Caesar’s. People must never allow their obligations to the civil state to encroach on their payment of the things that are God’s.”
Two other key New Testament passages are Rom 13:1-4 and 1 Pet 2:13-17. Both speak about the role of the state, and the responsibility of believers to submit to governing authorities. These passages tell us several things: the state is ordained by God; rulers have delegated authority from God; states exist to keep evil in check; believers are obliged to submit to the state, generally speaking; and we are to pay our taxes.
So the general principle is that God has appointed the state as his servant to administer justice, punish evildoers, and maintain order in a fallen world. All people are meant to obey the powers that be. Yet as we shall see, there may be times when the state must be disobeyed.
This can be for two main sorts of reasons: when the state commands us to do that which the Bible forbids; or when the state prohibits us from doing that which the Bible commands.
Biblical examples of civil disobedience
A number of cases of civil disobedience by God’s people are found in Scripture. The following are some of the major cases.
The disobedience to Pharaoh just prior to the time of the Exodus is one such case. In Exodus 1:15-22 we read of the Hebrew midwives who choose to fear God instead of Pharaoh, and disobey his royal edict to have all male babies drowned. And in Exodus 2:1-2 there is the account of the parents of Moses hiding the baby for three months. Interestingly, the parents are mentioned in the “Hall of Faith” found in Hebrews 11 (v. 23).
A second example is that of Jeremiah as found in Jer. 38:1-6. Here Jeremiah defies the Jewish officials and tells the Hebrews – including the soldiers – not to stay in Jerusalem, but to go with the invading Babylonians. He says those who stay behind will die. As a result King Zedekiah allowed the officials to cast Jeremiah into a deep, miry cistern for his treasonous directives.
A final Old Testament example is found in the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3. The three young Hebrews defy King Nebuchadnezzar and refuse to bow down to his image. Thus they are cast into a blazing furnace, only to be kept alive by the miraculous intervention of Yahweh.
The New Testament also offers examples of civil disobedience, especially in the book of Acts. In Acts 4:18-20 we read about how Peter and John are warned by the Sanhedrin not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. Peter replies, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (v. 19).
Here there was a direct conflict between the order of the Sanhedrin (not to preach and teach the gospel) and the commands of Christ. Clearly the disciples had to choose to obey God in this instance.
And in Acts 5:27-29 we find the apostles jailed by the High Priest and Sadducees. They are miraculously freed, and continue preaching, but are called before the High Priest and Sanhedrin. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name [Jesus]” the High Priest tells them. Peter and the other apostles reply, “We must obey God rather than man”.
Comments John Stott, here is “laid down the principle of civil and ecclesiastical disobedience”. He continues, if the “authority concerned misuses its God-given power to command what he forbids or forbid what he commands, then the Christian’s duty is to disobey the human authority in order to obey God’s”.
Other cases of God’s people obeying God rather than men include Moses before Pharaoh, Elijah before Ahab and Jezebel, John the Baptist before Herod, and Paul before Festus.
So should believers today engage in civil disobedience? Are there times when we must disobey government orders? Over the years, Christians, reflecting on Scripture, have sought to draw up some guidelines to help us out here.
One vital principle is that the law being disobeyed must be one which is clearly at odds with Scripture, and that it is a very significant antithesis to biblical concerns. Thus minor discrepancies between state and faith should not be the stuff of disobedience, but major moral and biblical principles. The examples offered in the Book of Acts come to mind: if a law is passed saying Christians cannot share their faith, then that is a major restriction on Christians to be faithful to their Lord, and it must be disobeyed.
Of course various issues will not be so clear cut. If a law is passed preventing pro-life demonstrators from being near an abortion clinic, should that law be resisted? Abortion is certainly a major sin and moral calamity. But is the inability to be near an abortion clinic a major impediment to carrying out one’s Christian beliefs? There may be some grey areas here, and believers may have to agree to disagree with other believers about some of these matters.
Another guiding principle is that all legitimate means should be tried first to either change a bad law, or legally get around it. We should try to work within the legal and political system first. But if all that fails, then civil disobedience, as a last resort, may be our only option.
Of course believers may live in a tyrannical regime where law change is impossible by licit means. So in some circumstances, what would normally be a last resort may in fact be the only resort.
Another principle is being willing to face the consequences of one’s acts. If the believer is willing to violate the law – even if it is a bad law, an unjust law – then he or she should be willing to pay the price for such disobedience.
This is done in part to show that the believer has a high view of government and the rule of law, and that he is no mere rebel or anarchist. It also demonstrates the moral motivation of the conscientious objector. Thus the early disciples were willing to go to jail as a consequence of their refusal to obey unjust and unbiblical laws.
Christian civil disobedience presupposes at least two primary things. One, it presupposes a high view of the state and the rule of law. Government is a divinely appointed institution, and passages such as Romans 13 make it clear that we should have genuine respect for the ruling authorities. The norm is to obey the state. Disobedience should be the exception to the rule.
Two, civil disobedience presupposes that above all human law there is a higher law, a divine law, which demands our ultimate loyalty and obedience. Human laws are meant to be a reflection of divine law, but sadly they often are not. Indeed, sometimes human law stands directly opposed to divine law. That is where civil disobedience comes in to play for the believer.
As Francis Schaeffer has remarked, “God has ordained the state as a delegated authority; it is not autonomous. . . . The bottom line is that at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state.”
When the state seeks to become autonomous and free of divine oversight, then it begins to lose its mandate. Thus there will be times when a believer must choose to disobey the state. It will not be done lightly, glibly or flippantly, but with a heavy heart, with much prayer and reflection, and a sadness that things have come to such a condition.
Or as Charles Colson states, “We dare not at present despair of America and advocate open rebellion. But we must – slowly, prayerfully, and with great deliberation and serious debate – prepare ourselves for what the future seems likely to bring under a regime in which the courts have usurped the democratic process by reckless exercise of naked power.”
Of course a brief overview such as this will only raise further questions in the minds of many: What about Christians and violence? What about Christians and revolution? Can there be a just revolution? Such important questions are certainly related to what we have considered here, but warrant their own careful exposition. More articles are needed to cover all the territory, so stay tuned.