12 Biblical Cases of Civil Disobedience

Yes, there is a place for disobeying the state:

I recently discussed the case of a Canadian pastor who was jailed for five weeks because he dared to keep his church open when the authorities demanded that he keep it closed. He had decided that this was an instance where he had to obey God rather than man.

In that piece I looked at the broader issue of expanding statism and the shrinking church. That article was entitled “When the State Controls the Church.” This article could be entitled “When the Church Defies the State.” The truth is, both Scripture and church history provide us with plenty of examples of the people of God having to resist – even disobey – the state.

Of course, whenever such matters are discussed, you will always get some Christians who will be all rather upset. They will claim that Christians must always obey the state, and that we must never disobey government authorities. They will often appeal to passages like Romans 13:1-7 to try to make their case.

Suffice it to say, they are greatly mistaken, and I have often written on how folks can misunderstand and misinterpret such texts. See these two articles for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/12/03/difficult-bible-passages-romans-131-7/

billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/15/the-state-is-not-absolute/

There is in fact a place for such things as civil disobedience. This too I have often discussed, such as in this piece: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/

And in this article I offer a number of important quotes on the matter from key Christians throughout the ages: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/09/09/the-state-unjust-laws-and-civil-disobedience/

As mentioned, there are numerous cases of folks defying the authorities that are recorded in Scripture – either explicitly stated or indirectly implied. In both Testaments we have examples where the state or a ruler is disobeyed and those doing this are regarded in a favourable light.

Sometimes this involves the direct defiance of a law or government decree. Sometimes it just involves a man of God standing up to an immoral or ungodly ruler. Let me offer twelve examples of this (thirteen, if we include Jesus in the list), in order of their appearance in Scripture, along with a brief bit of commentary on each:

The Hebrew midwives – Exodus 1:15-22

Here we read of those brave women who defied the orders of Pharaoh and kept the Hebrew male babies alive. We especially see the divine approval of this in verses 20-21: “Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty. And so it was, because the midwives feared God, that He provided households for them.”

The parents of Moses – Exodus 2:1-2

We find here the account of how the parents of Moses hid the baby for three months. To highlight how right they were to obey God rather than man, we see these parents mentioned in the “Hall of Faith” found in Hebrews 11 (see verse 23).

Elijah – 1 Kings 18

In this memorable chapter we read about how the prophet challenged King Ahab and the false prophets. This was not the first time he resisted this evil king, since we read in verse 17, “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’”

Mordecai – Esther 3:1-6

King Ahasuerus had promoted Haman and commanded the king’s servants to bow down and pay homage to him. “But Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage (v. 2). As we read in verse 3-4, the servants asked, “‘Why do you transgress the king’s command?’ And when they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them.”

Esther – Esther 4

When Mordecai hears of Haman’s complaint to the king of the disobedience of the Jews, and his plan to have them destroyed, he informs Esther. She says she is not permitted to see the king: “if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death” (v. 11). But she then says, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (v. 16).

Jeremiah – Jeremiah 38:1-6

Poor Jeremiah often fell afoul of the authorities of the day. In this passage we learn about how Jeremiah defied the Jewish officials, telling the Israelites – including the soldiers – not to remain in Jerusalem, but to go with the invading Babylonians. As a result of his disobedience, he ended up being thrown into a miry pit by the officials, with King Zedekiah’s approval.

Daniel’s friends – Daniel 3

In this famous passage we read about how Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego defied King Nebuchadnezzar and refused to bow down to his image. Because of this disobedience they were cast into a blazing furnace, only to be kept alive by the miraculous intervention of Yahweh.

Daniel – Daniel 6

The government officials in Babylon urged the king to establish a law forbidding “making a petition to any god or man for thirty days” (v. 7). Daniel defied this edict and “got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (v. 10). For this disobedience he was thrown into the lions’ den, but he was miraculously saved by God.

The wise men – Matthew 2:1-12

Herod had instructed the wise men to find where the baby Jesus was and then tell him so he could have him killed. But thankfully they disobeyed. As we read in verse 12: “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”

Jesus and the disciples – Mark 2:23-28 (see also Matthew 12:1-8 and Luke 6:1-5)

Here we read about how Jesus and his disciples did that which seemed to be against Jewish law – picking grain on the Sabbath. He spoke about Abiathar the high priest and how what he did was “not lawful.” And in verse 27 Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Some might say this example does not belong in this list, since Jesus never actually broke the law. I agree that he did not – this was the added-on Jewish tradition that Jesus was ignoring, not the Mosaic law itself.)

Peter and John – Acts 4:1-22

Peter and John were arrested for preaching about Jesus and were brought before the rulers at the Jerusalem council. The key part of this episode is what we read in verses 18-20: “So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’.” They were willing to go to jail rather than obey a law which violated the higher law of God.

The apostles – Acts 5:17-42

Here we read about how the apostles are again arrested for disobeying the authorities because they dared to preach Jesus. In verses 27-29 we find this: And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’.”

Consider also what is found in verses 40-42: “And when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”

Paul and Silas – Acts 16:16–40

Here we read about how Paul and Silas were imprisoned. It was said of them: “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (vv. 20-21). Again, as throughout the book of Acts, we see how the apostles defied the civil authorities and were arrested for preaching the good news.

These twelve cases (or thirteen, depending on if we should include the case of Jesus), are the main biblical examples of God’s people resisting authorities, defying rulers, and breaking unjust laws. These examples make it clear that there are indeed times and places where saying yes to God means saying no to man and man-made laws.

Related examples could be mentioned of God’s people standing up to unjust or immoral authorities. Consider Nathan the prophet who roundly condemned God’s anointed King David when he sinned, and John the Baptist who resolutely rebuked the evil King Herod.

Today Christians need to be wise and prayerful about if and when they too should disobey the law and resort to acts of civil disobedience. Let me close with a quote I have used before from Michael Bird’s commentary on Romans. Concerning the Rom. 13 passage he says this:

It is worth remembering, though, that 13:1-7 does not give governments a license to do whatever they want to whomever they want and the citizens just have to take it. Stanley Porter believes that 13:1-7 should not be seen as teaching unqualified obedience to the state. Paul thinks authorities can be called to account because they are exercising divinely given powers and disobedience is warranted when this power is misused… Samuel Rutherford’s seventeenth-century political tract, Lex Rex, contested the idea that Christians have to swear absolute fealty to oppressive governments. Rutherford gave a theo-political reading of Romans 13:1-7 that showed that resistance, even violent resistance, to tyrannical rule could be warranted. So there are occasions when opposition to government is not only required but even demanded by discipleship. Just as we have to submit to governing authorities on the basis of conscience, sometimes we have to resist and rebel against governments because of the same conscience.

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13 Replies to “12 Biblical Cases of Civil Disobedience”

  1. Obedience to God above all.

    Thank you for your encouragement to faithfulness, Bill!

  2. The separation of Church and State is a wise separation although the Queen of England wears two hats, she never the less walks both lines with care and attempts to stay close to God’s commandments in assenting to any law or Bill put before her as she is sworn to uphold the faith.
    The Commonwealth of Australia constitution Act 1900 (UK) reflects our laws are made under God (with the blessing of almighty God).
    Thus, when faced with “obey those who govern you” any purported law can only apply if there is no contradiction between God’s laws and man made laws such as the acceptance of adultery, homosexuality and abortion.
    John Abbott

  3. Where government decrees directly contradict God’s word, there’s no question that we should disobey them. But for cases that are not cut and dried, we need to pray for wisdom about what to do.

    One such grey area is temporary restrictions on church meetings and other large gatherings during lockdowns. If it was a permanent ban on church gatherings, then what you say is applicable. But I’ve seen no evidence of that happening in the past 15 months.

    There are many ways we can meet together (as per Heb 10:25) without directly defying government restrictions. The main one is to meet in small groups in people’s homes. That’s what most early Christians did, and what millions of believers in China do today. Even if gatherings are restricted to only 5 people, didn’t Jesus say “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20)?

    When I became a Christian in my teens, my parents were strongly opposed to my attending any church apart from the Catholic church (even though they didn’t go themselves!) At first I defied them, but I strongly felt that it was wrong. So for the next few years until I finished university, I didn’t attend any church. However, I regularly met with other Christians (including a small group at university), sometimes went to a friend’s youth group activities, regularly prayed, read my Bible, and listened to Christian radio programs.

    So in the current situation, there are many ways we can meet our spiritual and social needs without resorting to flagrant disobedience.

  4. Thanks Denis. As I have said before, it is one thing for Christians to put up with temporary closures of churches. And one can do Zoom meetings for a while. But genuine Christian worship involves far more than isolated individual believers looking at their computer screens. Biblical body life is far more than that of course.

    It is another thing when that goes on for many months – often with no end in sight. Or when church meetings are finally allowed but with greatly restricted numbers – all the while when the state allows all sorts of other groups to have open slather on public meetings. And when the state decides a church is not an essential service but gives brothels, pubs, protest marches and sporting events, etc the green light, then we need to question the double standards going on here.

    In my view all this has been a good test run for the state to ascertain just how easy it is to control the churches. I think they are pleasantly surprised at just how ready and willing most churches were to roll over and submit to anything and everything the state demanded. Very few pastors and church leaders showed any backbone here. That scare me big time to be honest.

    And yes, I did say we need to be wise and prayerful as to when and where we do resort to civil disobedience.

  5. The exchange between Denis and Bill is fascinating for what it includes as well as the realities between Church and state elsewhere the respective intents and purposes of each to the medical crisis associated with the virus and the political crisis associated with the virus. Addressing the medical crisis virtuously consistent with the teaching of the Church is most appropriate while the over reach by the state to be resisted.

    Stateside, we observed early in the medical crisis that the crisis was far more political to be exploited than medical to provide for the common welfare. Cautioned by Fauci (CDC) that hook-ups between intimate strangers were ok as long as the 2 were careful (not to compromise the sexual revolution). Hospital beds provided by Samaritan’s Purse were objectionable because they were simply Christian. The hospital ship under utilized in NYC at their beginning of their panic. Attending casino operating at higher capacities were approved while church services were curtailed and in many cases preluded. The statistics to substantiate the political/medical crisis were gamed as we learned more about the exponential growth curves than we ever imagined. The medical community was award incremental funding that encouraged positive test and attributing the death to the virus irrespective of the cause of death.

    As with any issue, how you define the issues is essential to how the issue is address, mitigated and resolved. The medical issue can and could be resolved in Christian terms consistent with the response of the Church historically. Alternately, the political crisis options are limited to only what the agnostic (at best) state can provide or worse to the extent that the state is “reasonably” atheistic and as you are experience in Victoria even worse to the extent your secular authorities are of the “new” atheists.

  6. Who is Lord and to whom does this world belong?

    Jesus and the early Christians left no room for confusion. They were making a political statement (we have another King, one Jesus). that the church today doesn’t seem to believe. If the church walked in this political truth, we would see more Christians holding parliament to a Biblical account and society looking a lot more like the Kingdom of God than it does atm.

    God the Father Himself told Jesus to sit at his right hand until He makes his (Jesus’) enemies his footstool (Psa 110:1). …he ascended into heaven and sitteth upon the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead” (scripture, summarised in The Apostles Creed).

    When the Son of man returns from his long journey (Mark 13:34-37) he expects a return on the talents given to his servants, not to find his kingdom pillaged. So yes, we urgently need to learn and practice the politics of the early Christians, to defy ungodly rule, and that Jesus is Lord of all creation.

  7. I agree that God wants the churches influencing our states, not our states influencing our churches, so churches should be speaking out and challenging the state’s authority. Also, I believe unscrupulous people have taken advantage of the coronavirus to gain power, influence etc – we need to keep praying that God will remove most of our MPs and replace them with God-fearing ones.
    Parts of NSW has now being hit by a massive one in a 60 or 100-year flood. Floods like these have happened before and they will occur again somewhere but since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide and also full-term abortion in many states we have been hit by droughts, bushfires, a coronavirus and now widespread flooding. There haven’t been as many cyclones or earthquakes/tsunamis yet but things seem to be happening more frequently, I feel. I believe God is taking His protecting power off mankind because of man’s anti-God ways and unless mankind repents and turns back to God these catastrophes will continue more frequently. The Bible says to ‘submit to God and resist the devil’ James 4:7 but people are submitting to the devil and resisting God.
    Loved your article Bill.

  8. But when your church leaders have chosen to follow the state and have limited numbers, social distancing, no singing, no mingling etc, and the whole rest of the church is going along with it, what can you do? Change churches?

  9. Denis I would ask at what length does something go from being temporary to de facto permanent????? Can Christians react at that point or must it be officially permanent to react????

    We are just burning pinches of incense we are burning heaping shovelfuls!

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