a theology of civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is the intentional act of disobeying a civil law or authority because of a conviction that one has a higher responsibility. For a Christian, those “higher responsibilities” are found in our biblical faith. The aim of Christian civil disobedience is to follow God and his leading despite the positions of an ungodly authority.

Biblical examples

The clearest Bible teaching is that Christians ought to be model citizens, and submit to the government’s laws. This requires a proper perspective of who we are: citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). God promises us security in his kingdom, but not safety or prosperity in this world. We have exchanged our worldly rights for submission to God and his plan for us.  In fact, persecution, struggle, and hate are often part of our faith journey (John 15:18-20). Our hope is solely in Jesus, who has a plan for this. Following his example, I believe that healthy relationships outweigh many personal positions, and that–in most cases–we should pray more and argue less (for more, see my post on Christians, Anger, and Trump).

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul enjoins us to avoid rebellion against earthy authority, and to submit to them.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

Paul understands government abuse and overstepping. He himself has been unjustly imprisoned and beaten by government officials. Is this rule to submit offered without exception, as it seems here? Honestly, this has been a topic of considerable discussion in theological circles for centuries, and opinions vary.

I may be wrong. Still, I would suggest that it is not, for it seems as if in some cases in the Bible God directs or endorses standing against the government. Note that in all these cases, seeking God’s will seems to be foremost, and there are often consequences which are accepted by those in disobedience:

• In Exodus 1, the Hebrew midwives disobey the order to kill the boy babies. “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.”

• In Daniel 6, Daniel ignores the edict by Darius that for thirty days no one can pray or make a petition to any god or man other than Darius himself. “Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.”

• In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested by the Jewish authorities and commanded not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they refused. They reply, “We must obey God rather than men.”

We also have the examples of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to bow to state ordered religion of the Babylonian King, Rahab hiding the spies, and the soldiers of Israel refusing to kill Jonathan when ordered to by King Saul.

What, then, does the Bible says about civil disobedience?

It is possible then, even permissible, that women and men of faith may be called upon by God to speak out against the government. The cost for doing so is high, but it sometimes becomes a choice of ultimate obedience to God. The prophets of the Old Testament knew this well. Pastor John Piper sums up the biblical stance of civil disobedience:

  1. There is no authority except from God. The greatest human ruler should humbly confess he is where he is by virtue of God’s sovereign appointment.
  2. Nevertheless, some rules and governments are good, and some are bad. Some reward the right and punish the wrong. Others do the reverse. Most do a little of both.
  3. The demand for subjection is relative, not absolute. It depends on whether the demands of the governing authorities require us to disobey God’s specific instructions. If they do, we will not be subject at that point but will say with Peter, “We must obey God rather than men.” We will honor God above the state when given a specific call from God.
  4. But if the demands of the state do not require us to disobey Jesus, or his specific instruction to us, then we be subject to the government for the Lord’s sake (1 Peter 2:13). We will live at peace and obey the laws. We will treat even our enemies with favor, trusting God to work in all circumstances.

R.C. Sproul agrees, and summarizes this freedom to disobey within limitations:

“When the state forbids us to do something the Lord commands or commands us to do something He forbids, believers must not submit to the decrees of the authorities. Christians are never given the license to sin, nor are they permitted to abandon the dictates of God in order to obey the orders of other human beings. Christ alone has ultimate authority, as the apostles demonstrate in today’s passage. Given the chance to preserve their freedom and safety at the cost of preaching Jesus to sinners, Peter and John choose to obey the Great Commission (Acts 4:19–20; see Matt. 28:18–20). Make no mistake, they are engaging in an act of civil disobedience, but they are doing so in order to be faithful to the Lord. Such circumstances alone can justify such actions.

The principle that we may disobey the state if it forbids what God commands or commands what He forbids is easy to learn, but difficult to apply. The state will sometimes engage in unfair practices that we must follow because we cannot make the case that such practices violate Scripture. For example, the so-called “progressive” taxation that exists presently in the United States may be unjust, but we have no right to refuse to pay taxes (Rom. 13:7).”

Our default position as Christians is to bend over backward to be model citizens. But when the demands of God’s kingdom directly contradict the demands of the kingdom of men, the mandates of our heavenly Lord must take precedence.

What options of civil disobedience we have?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the preeminent Christian authority on civil disobedience, a German pastor who gave his life in opposition to the Jewish solution of Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer repeatedly warned Christians against taking too quick or too strong a stand against duly chosen government. He was a man who trusted in God’s work behind the scenes, and was willing to wait for the “glory of the Lord.” In many ways, he is a pacifist. But he comes to believe that sometimes God calls men and women to stand up against injustice. He speaks out against the Fuhrer, works to hide Jews, and even joins in a plot to remove Hitler. In his book, Bonhoeffer on Resistance: The Word against the Wheel, Michael DeJonge offers Bonhoeffer’s types of resistance against an unjust government:

Preaching the Gospel. The institutional church should clearly pronounce the general goals that a society should pursue and present in every way possible the grace and truth of the Scriptures. The Gospel is the church’s “political word” to the state.

Confronting “pseudo-God leaders.” When people set themselves up as Gods, or dictators without review, the church may legitimately refuse them or directly confront them. Per Bonhoeffer, the church must speak out when humans act in ways only God should, or when the human goals being pursued are evil (as with so-called ethnic cleansing like the Jewish solution.)

Serving those injured. The church has a call to act in love, compassion and justice for those victims of government policies, whether the oppression is intended or not. We are to be the safety net for those becoming the societal debris of corruption or evil.

Resistance through discipleship. The church should be training people, young and old, on the values of a God-centered morality. This instills in the fabric of society a resistance to unraveling immorality.

Living, speaking out, and voting as resistance to state injustice. Individual Christians are called to be responsible, compassionate, law abiding citizens, and model their morality. Per Bonhoeffer: “It remains for the humanitarian associations and individual Christian men who see themselves called to do so, to make the state aware of the moral aspect of the measures it takes in this regard, that is, should the occasion arise, to accuse the state of offenses against morality.”

A warning

Sometimes, Christians must stand against the government. However, because of our fallen nature, it is too easy to twist the principle for civil disobedience into an excuse to avoid the Bible’s command that we submit to the government. In the name of “obedience” Christians can fight popular or private battles, and yet find themselves outside the will of God. A good question to ask ourselves is, “Am I joining the crowd here in my disobedience, or am I following God’s command to me, no matter the risk?” Prayerfulness and humility are required. We should be wary of this in our hearts, remembering that our loyalty belongs to another King, Jesus Christ. And that he has a future Kingdom prepared for us that every ruler will see and no human hand can change:

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.  On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.  Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.                                  – Revelations 21:22-27

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