Civil disobedience has gained popularity since the early 20th century because of the work of Ghandi in India. Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from him and promoted similar tactics to get across his message. Today, some Christians are turning to civil disobedience in order to peacefully combat pornography shops and obortion clinics. While there have been some positive results from such activities, the nagging question still remains. Is civil disobedience a right practice for Christians? The Scriptures contain quite a few examples of civil disobedience.
Biblical Examples of Civil Disobedience
- The Hebrew midwives disobeyed Pharaoh’s order to kill Hebrew babies (Ex. 1:15-21).
- Amram and Jochabed disobeyed Pharaoh’s order to throw baby Moses into the Nile River (Ex. 1:22-2:3).
- Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego refused to bow to the statue as the king had commanded (Dan. 3).
- Daniel disobeyed the king’s law prohibiting prayer (Dan. 6).
- Peter and John disobeyed the Sanhedrin’s orders not to preach (Acts 5:22-32).
In each of these situations, the believers made the right choice. In order to obey the laws given to them by the local government, they would have had to disobey a clear command given to them by God. The midwives and Moses’ parents would have had to commit murder (Gen. 9:6; Ex. 20:13). The three brave men would have had to worship something other than the one true God (Ex. 20:3-5). Daniel would have had to quit seeking the Lord (Deut. 4:29). And the disciples would have had to disregard the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Peter said it best. When you have a choice between obeying God or the government, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
Biblical Commands about Civil Government
What causes some confusion is that God has also commanded New Testament believers to submit to the government placed over them. Of three major passages, this is probably the most mentioned. The apostle Paul wrote this epistle to believers who lived in the capitol city of the Roman empire. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul reminded these believers that human government has been established by God. Any rebellion against government is actually rebellion against the One who set the government in place. That is an incredible statement for someone to make who was imprisoned and later executed by the Roman government. Did Paul really mean that every government is God ordained?
To understand this passage, you must read all seven verses in context. Paul was talking about government in general. The basic function of God ordained government is to provide protection and justice. In verses 3-4, he points out that proper government is not something to fear when you are doing what is right. For example, if you are driving the speed limit, you won’t be afraid when you see a police cruiser. Paul concludes that taxes, customs, fear, and honor are all a required part of a Christian’s life.
So, the major idea here is that God has ordained government to provide order. When government is doing its God given job, a Christian should willingly submit to it. However, even Paul recognized the possibility of corruption. Remember how he responded to Festus? In that situation, he was willing to submit to the government, but was quick to point out discrepancies with the established laws of the land (Acts 25:7-12). However, he did not promote lawlessness or dishonor those in authority (Acts 23:1-5).
1 Peter 2:11-16
The apostle Peter wrote to believers who were facing persecution from the Roman government. And yet, he still tells them to submit to the government and honor its officials. How can these two thoughts be reconciled? Are Pakistani Christians supposed to honor Islamic government officials? Peter gives no qualifiers. He merely points out the need to submit to the king and all government officials. But as he pronounces this command, he also points out the important reason for doing so.
In this section of his letter, Peter is promoting the need for a godly testimony in the commnity. Christians should abstain from ungodly activities which denigrate the believer’s impact on the lost. While rebellion against the government might seem right, Christians who submit to the laws of the government are more likely to make an impact on their community and to bring glory to God. Our actions and attitude toward government can be a powerful testimony to those who do not know the Lord.
Paul wrote just three short chapters in his epistle to Titus. But toward the end, he encouraged Titus to remind his flock of their need to submit to the government. How should they do this? They were to be obedient, gentle, humble, and especially kind in speech. To Paul, a believer’s life ought to be a billboard advertising the change God has made through regeneration. When we interact with unsaved people, we need to work patiently with them realizing that we were once just like them. Everything we have is because of God. So, when things in government are “out of whack,” we need to patiently work with those in authority over us, recognizing their lack of spiritual understanding and our need to be a positive example.
What if … ?
What if the public school principal tells my child not to pray over his lunch?
Christians are commanded to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) and to be thankful (Col. 3:15 b). So, in this instance, it would be right to disobey the principal and pray. But this type of civil disobedience should be done with respect for the authority placed over the school. Daniel disagreed with the law against praying, but he did not flaunt his “rights” in the face of the king. Instead, he submitted to being thrown into the lions’ den (Daniel 6).
What if my civil disobedience leads to jail or something worse?
Some Christians have chosen to disobey the law and blockade abortion clinics. Would you be willing to do this knowing that you might be arrested? It is easy to say you are willing to disobey, but when you actually take part in something like this, you have to consider the possible consequences.
“Those who consider civil disobedience should be willing to accept the penalty for breaking the law. Such an attitude demonstrates respect for the principle of rule by law and distinguishes legitimate civil disobedience from anarchy and insurrection. Acceptance of punishment under such circumstances is evidence of the ethical motivation of the person who has violated the law, and it can also serve to dramatize the situation and arouse the conscience of the public.”
John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1993), 198.
This is something each Christian has to think through. If civil disobedience is the right thing to do, then we need to be ready to face the consequences. Now is an appropriate time for you to read a chapter of two of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Some of these Christians willingly endured great persecution for their faith in Christ.
As I complete this article, I realize that many “What if” questions linger in your mind (and quite honestly in mine as well). Were the colonies wrong to “rebel” against England during the War of Independence? Is it ever right for a Christian to be part of a rebellion if the government is corrupt? Would I interpret these passages differently if I lived in communist China or Islamic Iran? I don’t think so, but my thinking has been shaped in the context of the United States of America.
We may never have to face the troubles of communism or sharia law, but we do know what the Scriptures say. From this limited study, I see four principles:
- Submission to government is part of God’s will (Rom. 13:1-7).
- Submission to government will supplement our testimony to the lost (1 Pet. 2:11-16).
- Submission to government should be a byproduct of our regeneration (Titus 3:1-8).
- Submission to government is not always possible (Acts 5:29).
It is much more interesting to talk about what might happen, but in reality, we have the most trouble fulfilling the clear commands given in Scripture. So, let me encourage you to look at the passages noted above before you begin practicing any form of civil disobedience. If you are not careful, you might tarnish your Christian testimony unnecessarily and become a stumblingblock to those who have not yet been saved.