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Christians and Civil Disobedience

Nov 2, 2008

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.

Application

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.

Conclusion

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.

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15 Responses to Christians and Civil Disobedience

  • Careful Bill, one day, when they come for you, they’ll quote this article first as an example of how you incited sedition. ooooh, bad boy, telling people to follow God when the state gets it wrong! Fancy that! What shall it be next?! 😉

    Mark Rabich

  • Thanks Mark

    I am sure that in addition to sedition, there are dozens of other reasons why they will come and take me away. It may only be a matter of time!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Excellent article Bill. Thanks for putting this concept into such a clear and concise form.

    Ewan McDonald.

  • Thanks Bill for an issue of increasing relevance. We do well to remember that the advent of the anti-Christ will epitomise civil disobedience. By the way, you may have more than a duet to compose in your filthy cell.
    Peter Morreau

  • There is an interesting article here about this issue of civil disobedience where it clearly clashes with an ethical standard that God has given. It has always struck me the tacit approval of our whole society in the culture of death abortion racket as it is underwritten by public tax payer funding through Medibank. All pro life people are in fact co opted by the very govermental medical decisions and pro abortion policy which results in financial compensation given to a woman who is thereby encouraged to exercise the choice to kill her baby. I have even experienced a rabid post abortion woman (Wellington Parade, East Melbourne’s death factory which has clocked up a quarter of a million unborn deaths) waving her medicare slip in my face, gleefully rubbing it in that she got $500 back! It makes feel sick in my stomach just to remember and relate the incident here.Absolutely true unfortunately.

    www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2008/11/03/contradictions-a-righteous-lie

    Bill when you noted this passage of Scripture I have a few additional thoughts: “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) in meant to take priority over the other (man’s).”

    The context is that the Pharisees went to (actively sought out) Jesus and laid plans to trap him. They probably thought of themselves as so clever in all matters legal and ethical. So Jesus reply is to these same hypocritical so called religious leaders. Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for paying the tax ” …..”.Whose portrait is this ? “And whose inscription ?”…..

    In whose image are we all made? God’s. Whose portrait is stamped on to our faces? Again God’s. Who do we belong to? God. We all owe our very life and everything to God. Our life is not our own it is a gift from God. He knew us even before we were concieved and before the very foundation of the world. It is just so awesome! Because I draw portraits, I find this facinating and I always tell my ‘sitters’ how each face is wonderful and unique as we are all a masterpiece drawn by God Himself.The Bible notes that the Pharisees were amazed at Jesus’ answer. They must have been chastened and may even have grasped this eternal truth and the claim of Jesus being their Creator. They did not say any more, didn’t argue or talk back… “So they left him and went away.”

    Jennifer Parfenovics

  • The ‘rule of law’ is going through a process of abuse by the various unelected State Law Reform Commissions and State Parliaments that are implementing laws for which they have no mandate. viz; Victoria.

    Therefore not only do i have a responsibility to a God given guidance but I also have a responsibility to fight against a non mandated law. The latter is dictatorial.

    Ray Robinson

  • Thanks so much for this insightful , timely commentary. I trust many will read strategically act on our responsibilities in accordance with Scripture. I have posted a link to it on my blog.
    Paul Adams

  • Something which has been an issue for many people, and may become an issue here in the US under an Obama administration, is that of government funding of things which the Bible calls abhorrent. As an example, suppose Obama decides to push through taxpayer funding of abortion. Now we have no problem with civil disobedience for some things, for instance if a law is passed mandating that preachers perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, most preachers who are true believers would say “Absolutely not! I will go to jail before I will bless that which the Bible calls an abomination.” But what about paying your taxes when the tax money is being used to fund abortions?

    Some of the things we have to look forward to under an Obama administration are: Government funding of abortions for poor American women, abortions performed in military clinics and hospitals, official US blessing of forced abortions in China, and abandoning of the Mexico City policy which has long prohibited government funding of organizations which promote or perform abortions abroad. So my question, and that of many other Christians I’m sure, is: Should Christians continue paying taxes, if they know that some of their money will be used to pay for abortions? What if it’s used to perform forced abortions on Christian women in places like China? If this happens, what should we do? Thank you for your time!

    Ethan Lamoreaux, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

  • Thanks Ethan

    It was quite common back in my hippy days during the 60s for those who had a conscientious objection to, say, the “military-industrial complex” to withhold part of their taxes so it would not go into the war effort. It seems pro-lifers may well consider such activities today. Indeed, many may already have.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Ethan,

    I do not think that withholding taxes (illegally) is a satisfactory Christian response. (Using legal means to reduce tax is ok, of course.) Governments do thousands of things with our money, and we are never going to agree with all of them. Australia gives money to abortion via overseas “aid”. Medicare funding goes towards abortions here at home. Therefore, some portion of my tax goes to funding abortion. I can’t get around that unless I pay no tax.

    I am sure that the Roman Government in Jesus’ day funded some things that Jesus disagreed with; yet he still said to pay tax to Caesar.

    There is evil all around us and we cannot completely escape it. Catholic theologians distinguish between formal and material coorperation. Material cooperation is further divided into immediate, proximate and remote material cooperation. See these links

    www.catholicreference.net/index.cfm?id=34788
    www.ascensionhealth.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=82:principles-of-formal-and-material-cooperation&Itemid=171

    I would argue that our tax money going to fund abortions is a form of remote material cooperation, therefore we should not withhold our taxes.

    Jereth Kok

  • Thanks Bill.

    A thought provoking, challenging and perhaps most timely article.

    Bless you,

    George Kokonis

  • Further to the Charles Colson quote; it cannot be left up to Caesar to determine what belongs to Caesar, therefore a Christian can only respond to civil issues on the basis of an appropriately informed conscience. Civil disobedience would be mandated by such a conscience in certain grave circumstances.
    Anna Cook

  • Thanks guys. And it only took five years, but here is my 2-part article on revolution. Can believers support the overthrow of unjust and repressive regimes that they are living in?

    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-one/

    Part Two is found here:

    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-two/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • If they hate you it is only because they hate Him. Have faith. He remains a God of miracles and in Him is our salvation. Evil never was happiness. The problems we have because of evil will always remain until man puts off the natural man who is an enemy to God and listens to the Holy Ghost, that still small voice that Elijah heard, and follows the direction He gives.

  • I would like to add, when I took the oath as a commissioned officer in the United States Army I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The oath I took did not include obeying the orders of the president of the United States. I still hold the commission. I never resigned the commission, and It has never been revoked. Therefore, I will defend the Constitution against foreign and domestic enemies, including the president of the United States, and any other organization of the United States that attempts to circumvent the Constitution, so help me God.

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