How should the Christian think about the issue of rebellion?
One of the memes making the rounds on the social media is from the late US comedian and social activist George Carlin. It says this: “Don’t just teach your children to read…Teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.”
Given that I had just earlier penned a piece on how we are increasingly being told not to question what our leaders and experts are saying – especially in light of the Rona crisis and the Big Government over-response, I thought of sharing this meme.
But then, I had second thoughts. I knew about him back in my young lefty days, and I thought maybe I should not share it, as it might send out the wrong message. After all, he is known as a “counterculture comedian” and his resistance to authority and his desire to question everything can lead in the direction of anarchism and wild leftism.
While I always have had problems with radical libertarianism and anarchism – once I became a Christian that is – the whole statist overkill to the Rona has made me lean a smidge more in the direction of the libertarians. That is, I still believe it is God who instituted civil government, and it is not evil in itself.
But increasingly in the West we see the rise of statism and far too much government control and power, with the corresponding push that the masses should just submit fully without asking any questions, and do whatever their political overlords tell them to do.
That whole mindset of ever-expansive government and an ever-more compliant citizenry has me worried big time. Indeed, I even started a new subsection to this site entitled “Resistance Theory” in which I ask theological, historical and political questions about how far we should submit to the state, and when it is right to disobey and rebel against it. That in turn raises the broader question about whether Christians should ever be ‘rebellious’.
As mentioned, I was once a rebel. As an avid member of the radical hippy culture and the political left, I was always rebelling against authority in all its forms, be it the police, the church, middle class values, the government, the military, and so on. We were rebels and we were proud of it.
Of course a conversion to Christianity 50 years ago put an end to all that rebelliousness. I learned that generally speaking, rebellion is wrong and it is not something the believer champions and promotes. And yet, the issue of rebellion needs to be looked at a little more closely and with a bit more clarity.
Is rebellion ALWAYS wrong for the Christian, or is there a time and place for some legitimate rebellion? Here I want to dig into such questions, and seek to get the full biblical stance on this. These are important matters and well worth thinking about.
Of course at this point most Christians will instantly be thinking of a verse they are quite familiar with. They may not be able to tell you just where in the Bible it comes from, but they will readily raise it in a discussion such as this. I refer of course to 1 Samuel 15:23 which says in the NKJV: “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.”
Now as always, context is everything. In this case, 1 Samuel 23 is discussing the Lord’s displeasure with, and rejection of, King Saul. He has been bad news for far too long, and had been flagrantly and consistently disobeying the Lord. Samuel the prophet rebuked Saul after his latest case of disobedience – even though Saul claimed that he did obey. Samuel said this in response in verses 22-23:
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.”
So the clear context is this: God expects of us obedience. When we do not obey God, we are rebelling against him. But does this mean that all types and forms of rebellion are always sinful, and always like the sin of witchcraft? Not necessarily. Let me offer a very brief bullet point arrangement of how we might proceed here:
-Yes, rebellion against God and his laws is a bad thing.
-Yes, rebellion against the just laws and rulings of a justly constituted authority is a bad thing.
-No, rebellion against tyranny and unjust laws is not necessarily a bad thing.
Let me unpack each of these a bit further. As to the first, this should be pretty straightforward. God is always to be obeyed, and his commands and precepts are always to be diligently followed and adhered to. When we reject God’s laws we reject God himself. This sort of rebellion is always sinful and always to be avoided.
As to the second point, God has set up various authority structures that he expects us – generally speaking – to be in submission to. The three main ones of course are the family, the church, and the state. Generally speaking, children are not to rebel against their parents; citizens are not to rebel against the state; and believers are to submit to church leadership.
But as I said several times now, this involves a ‘generally speaking’ proviso. There can be exceptions. And since my main concern here is the matter of if and when we can and should disobey or rebel against the state, let me speak to that a bit further. As texts like Romans 13:1-7 state, we are to submit to the ruling powers that God has set up.
But as we see in various places, including in a number of cases in the book of Acts, there are times when saying yes to God means saying no to the State. “We must obey God rather than man” as Peter told the authorities in Acts 5:29. But see the 33 other articles on ‘resistance theory’ for more details on this: billmuehlenberg.com/category/politics/resistance-theory/
And that leads to the third point I mentioned. Not all rebellion in this sense is wrong. Indeed, at times it is sinful NOT to rebel when failing to do so means that we violate God’s laws or cause greater moral harm and evil. Sure, discerning when it is right to resist or rebel is not always clear cut, but there can be times when this is the right course to follow.
Obviously, great care is needed here. One key aspect of sin is rebellion. We are all sinners, and we are all rebels. We want to resist God and all the authorities he has established. We want to rebel against him and his norms. We want to do our own thing and be fully autonomous.
So if and when we do think there can be a place to not submit, to not obey, and to resist the authorities, we need to make sure this is not just our old rebellious nature raising its ugly head, but is indeed the morally licit way to proceed. We need to be prayerful and careful here.
And things like civil disobedience come into the discussion here. Is it ever right for the Christian to refuse to obey certain laws of the state, and protest – usually in a non-violent manner? I think there is. And that generally means being willing to take the consequences for such actions as well.
Thus a Christian who rightly cares about the mass murder of the unborn may have a prayer-filled silent protest outside of an abortion mill, even though exclusion laws may be in place. In which case he knows that he will likely be arrested and will have to face the consequences for violating that particular law.
And I of course know of people like this who have done this very thing. Some have been put in jail for a while, while others have had to pay fines. But they felt it was their God-given responsibility to stand up for the unborn, even if it meant disobeying human laws and paying a price for that.
But I have written about these matters in much more detail. See these two articles for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/
So the moral of the story is this: generally speaking, a rebellious spirit is not a godly disposition. But there can indeed be a place for rebellion against unjust and immoral laws. And there certainly can be a place to question things, including what our leaders and authorities are saying and promoting on various issues.
There is nothing spiritual or godly or virtuous about blind obedience, unquestioning submission, and idolatrous worship of the state, believing it can do no wrong. In a fallen world the state and our political leaders – like everyone else – will get things wrong. And the Christian is to discern that which is right and that which is wrong.
So as believers we do not want a rebellious and sinful spirit, but we DO want a discerning, wise, and an inquiring spirit where we do ask careful questions, and we do challenge the powers that be when needed. That is all part of what it is to be a faithful biblical Christian.