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/
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.