Political prisoner Kim Davis knows all about unjust laws, and the criminalisation of Christianity. She is not the first, nor will she be the last to experience this firsthand. The homosexual militants, and the secular extremists and statists in bed with them, are now waging a full-scale war against all dissenters, and what we are now witnessing is just the tip of the iceberg.
The nearly 200 examples of Christians being jailed, fined and fired from their jobs documented in my latest book is only a smattering of the cases of persecution and anti-Christian bigotry. As more and more anti-Christian legislation is passed, and unjust laws become the norm, increasingly believers will need to revive the noble tradition of civil disobedience.
While such disobedience is part of the Christian heritage, incredibly I keep hearing rather confused Christians insisting that we can never break a bad law or resist unjust government edicts. These folks need to go back and read their Bibles and study some church history. The truth is, this has been a long-standing tradition in Scripture and in Christian history.
Simply consider some of those who defied the state, resisted unjust laws, and suffered the consequences. In Exodus 1:15-22 we read about the Hebrew midwives who chose to fear God while disobeying Pharaoh. They are even listed in the ‘Heroes of the Faith’ chapter in Hebrews 11 for their actions (v. 23). And in Jeremiah 38:1-6 we learn about how Jeremiah defied the Jewish officials, and ended up being chucked into a miry pit as a result.
We have of course Daniel, a government official in Babylon, defying the king and his unjust laws, as found in Daniel 6. Also, Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did the same thing, as we read about in Daniel 3. Peter of course went to jail rather than obey a law which violated the higher law of God.
As we read in Acts 4:18-20, Peter said to the authorities, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (v. 19). And in Acts 5:27-29 we find the apostles jailed for disobeying the authorities. Peter and the other apostles made it clear where they stood, “We must obey God rather than man”.
Throughout human history both Christians and non-Christians have appealed to the right to disobey tyrannical regimes, and to disobey unjust laws. Plenty of quotes can be provided in this regard. Here are just a few:
“An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.” -Mahatma Gandhi
Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? -Henry David Thoreau
But now what? Why, now comes my master, takes me right away from my work, and my friends, and all I like, and grinds me down into the very dirt! And why? Because, he says, I forgot who I was; he says, to teach me that I am only a nigger! After all, and last of all, he comes between me and my wife, and says I shall give her up, and live with another woman. And all this your laws give him power to do, in spite of God or man. Mr. Wilson, look at it! There isn’t one of all these things, that have broken the hearts of my mother and my sister, and my wife and myself, but your laws allow, and give every man power to do, in Kentucky, and none can say to him nay! Do you call these the laws of my country? Sir, I haven’t any country, any more than I have any father. But I’m going to have one. I don’t want anything of your country, except to be let alone, to go peaceably out of it; and when I get to Canada, where the laws will own me and protect me, that shall be my country, and its laws I will obey. But if any man tries to stop me, let him take care, for I am desperate. I’ll fight for my liberty to the last breath I breathe. You say your fathers did it; if it was right for them, it is right for me! -Harriet Beecher Stowe
The famous German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew all about resistance to tyranny, and he knew all about paying the price for doing so. As he wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Of course Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in April 16, 1963. In it he said:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
One more: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
Resistance to tyranny
Indeed, America of course is built on the notion of resistance to tyranny, and the obligation of free men to resist oppressive states. The Founding Fathers, and others, spoke to this often:
“Resistance to tyranny becomes the Christian and social duty of each individual. … Continue steadfast and, with a proper sense of your dependence on God, nobly defend those rights which heaven gave, and no man ought to take from us.” -John Hancock, the first man to sign the Declaration of Independence
“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” -Thomas Jefferson
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” -Thomas Jefferson
“To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” -Thomas Jefferson
“Disobedience to tyrants is Obedience to God.” -Benjamin Franklin
“It is because men are sinners that justice can be achieved only by a certain degree of coercion on the one hand, and by resistance to coercion and tyranny on the other hand.” -Reinhold Niebuhr
More recently Walter Williams put it this way:
Decent people should not obey immoral laws. What’s moral and immoral can be a contentious issue, but there are some broad guides for deciding what laws and government actions are immoral. Lysander S. Spooner, one of America’s great 19th-century thinkers, said no person or group of people can “authorize government to destroy or take away from men their natural rights; for natural rights are inalienable, and can no more be surrendered to government — which is but an association of individuals — than to a single individual.”
French economist/philosopher Frederic Bastiat (1801-50) gave a test for immoral government acts: “See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” He added in his book “The Law,” “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”
The late great Francis Schaeffer spoke about this often, including in a talk delivered in 1982 to the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida. He is worth quoting at length:
Throughout the whole history of the Christian Church, (and again I wish people knew their history. In A Christian Manifesto I stress what happened in the Reformation in reference to all this) at a certain point, it is not only the privilege but it is the duty of the Christian to disobey the government. Now that’s what the founding fathers did when they founded this country. That’s what the early Church did. That’s what Peter said. You heard it from the Scripture: “Should we obey man?… rather than God?” That’s what the early Christians did.
Occasionally – no, often, people say to me, “But the early Church didn’t practice civil disobedience.” Didn’t they? You don’t know your history again. When those Christians that we all talk about so much allowed themselves to be thrown into the arena, when they did that, from their view it was a religious thing. They would not worship anything except the living God. But you must recognize from the side of the Roman state, there was nothing religious about it at all – it was purely civil. The Roman Empire had disintegrated until the only unity it had was its worship of Caesar. You could be an atheist; you could worship the Zoroastrian religion… You could do anything. They didn’t care. It was a civil matter, and when those Christians stood up there and refused to worship Caesar, from the side of the state, they were rebels. They were in civil disobedience and they were thrown to the beasts. They were involved in civil disobedience, as much as your brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union are. When the Soviet Union says that, by law, they cannot tell their children, even in their home about Jesus Christ, they must disobey and they get sent off to the mental ward or to Siberia. It’s exactly the same kind of civil disobedience that’s represented in a very real way by the thing I am wearing on my lapel tonight.
Every appropriate legal and political governmental means must be used. “The final bottom line”- I have invented this term in A Christian Manifesto. I hope the Christians across this country and across the world will really understand what the Bible truly teaches: The final bottom line! The early Christians, every one of the reformers (and again, I’ll say in A Christian Manifesto I go through country after country and show that there was not a single place with the possible exception of England, where the Reformation was successful, where there wasn’t civil disobedience and disobedience to the state), the people of the Reformation, the founding fathers of this country, faced and acted in the realization that if there is no place for disobeying the government, that government has been put in the place of the living God. In such a case, the government has been made a false god. If there is no place for disobeying a human government, what government has been made GOD.
Caesar, under some name, thinking of the early Church, has been put upon the final throne. The Bible’s answer is NO! Caesar is not to be put in the place of God and we as Christians, in the name of the Lordship of Christ, and all of life, must so think and act on the appropriate level. It should always be on the appropriate level. We have lots of room to move yet with our court cases, with the people we elect – all the things that we can do in this country. If, unhappily, we come to that place, the appropriate level must also include a disobedience to the state.
If you are not doing that, you haven’t thought it through. Jesus is not really on the throne. God is not central. You have made a false god central. Christ must be the final Lord and not society and not Caesar.
May I repeat the final sentence again? CHRIST MUST BE THE FINAL LORD AND NOT CAESAR AND NOT SOCIETY.
Not only was America founded by civil disobedience and resistance to tyrannical laws, but this has been part and parcel of the case for liberty over many centuries. Biblically and historically, we have sound precedence to disobey unjust laws on occasion, and as a last resort, and to be willing to face the consequences for doing so.
This must be done prayerfully and carefully of course. As I explain in more detail in the article I link to above, rebellion and disobedience in themselves are no virtues, and are normally great evils. So civil disobedience is something that must be done only in extreme circumstances, and must be undertaken with the greatest of caution and prudence.
But when it becomes necessary to do so, then we must thus engage. Kim Davis, who broke no laws, but in fact faithfully upheld the laws of the state of Kentucky, is now suffering for her obedience to Christ. May God raise up millions of other committed Christians who will remain true to Christ, and stand against evil wherever it is encountered.
And if need be, who will pay the price to resist evil laws and tyrannical governments.