A Biblical Perspective of Civil Disobedience
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The following is an excerpt from a book by Larry Fox, A Biblical Perspective of Self-Defense and Civil Disobedience (Copyright © 2019).
Old Testament Background
After God led Israel out of Egypt, he led them to a mountain in the desert, where he gave Moses a set of laws for the people, known as the “law of Moses” or “the law.” It included religious, moral, dietary, sanitary and civil laws, so it governed every aspect of the people’s lives. After receiving the law from God, Moses served as judge to settle disputes among the Israelites. The task was too great for him to handle alone, so he appointed leaders over the people who served as judges, using the law to decide cases brought before them (Exod. 18:25 – 26). Eventually, the Sanhedrin filled that role as the official legal court over Israel, interpreting and ruling from the law of Moses. But by Jesus’ time, the religious leaders had added hundreds of additional laws, so it was possible to obey the God-given laws yet violate the human laws or vice versa.
During the New Testament period, Israel was under Roman military occupation. The Roman government appointed governors over the occupied territories, and Pilate was governor of Israel. The governor handled matters of civil law, including any crime worthy of the death penalty. Rome allowed the Jewish Sanhedrin to continue functioning as a governing body and court for domestic cases. So Jesus and the apostles had two distinct authorities over them: the Roman civil government with its army and local governor; and the Jewish religious system, including the Sanhedrin, Pharisees, Sadducees and other religious leaders.
God himself set the pattern for human authorities governing a populace and penalizing those who break the law. Yet the Jewish authorities considered Jesus, the man who founded the church, a criminal. Similarly, we won’t fulfill our roles in life as Christians without clashing with the world system. In that context, we’ll examine what Jesus and the apostles said about submitting to authorities.
Submission to Authority
One day as he was teaching, Jesus said something that sounded subversive. “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt. 23:1 – 3). It would be easy to interpret this passage to mean Jesus’ followers must do whatever the religious leaders say, but that isn’t his point. He acknowledged the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, meaning it was their responsibility to interpret Scripture, including the law of Moses, so people must obey what they taught from Scripture. He charged the religious leaders of having a double standard because they personally didn’t do what they taught, so his followers shouldn’t copy their behavior. This may be the only statement he made about obeying the religious leaders, and he’s actually saying people should practice what the leaders teach from Scripture. He’s not proposing unconditional obedience to the religious leaders, because as we’ll see later, he clearly didn’t do that himself.
In Matthew 17:24 – 27, we see that Jesus and his disciples were exempt from the temple tax, but paid it “so that we may not offend” those who collected the tax. This is an important point: They were members of a spiritual kingdom and owed no loyalty to any earthly kingdom, but they submitted to avoid offending the lesser government. The same is true for us.
We see this again in Matthew 22:15 – 21. The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with the issue of paying taxes to Caesar. His response was to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Caesar imposed taxes on regions under his control, so the people should pay the taxes.
Romans 13:1 – 7 is one of the passages most often used to make a case for unconditional submission to authorities, so we’ll consider it in detail. Paul wrote his letter to the believers in Rome during the early years of Nero’s rule, which were years of relative peace before persecution broke out.
This passage begins, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). The Greek word translated “submit” has a range of meanings. Based on the grammatical form used, this verse is a command to be subject to the governing authorities.
Paul continued, “there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Rom. 13:1 – 2). God established all existing authorities, so submitting to them honors their divine commission to reward good and punish evil. This doesn’t mean our obedience must be unconditional, however. If an authority violates God’s laws or commands others to do so, it has violated its God-given commission and that action is illegitimate. Only God’s authority is absolute; all other authority is delegated and accountable to him. Jesus acknowledged this when interrogated by Pilate: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). So obedience to a human authority is obedience to the authority God delegated. To rebel against legitimately exercised authority is to rebel against God.
Does this apply to abusive, tyrannical governments? To harmful or foolish laws? We must recognize human government’s authority ultimately lies in God’s hands. Nothing and no one is beyond God’s sovereign control.
Some argue there’s no scriptural precedent for opposing an existing law. However, the absence of a scriptural precedent may not prohibit legitimate opposition in today’s American system, for example. The Old Testament law set up a theocracy and God made the laws; there was no chance for humans to change those laws. In the New Testament, almost everywhere the believers went was territory occupied by Rome and there was no chance for changing those laws, either. Similarly, God’s laws govern all of us and clearly are beyond our influence. In America, we have a representative government and it’s our civil right to influence our representatives. So opposing or trying to change existing civil laws isn’t a problem for us. As long as a law is in effect, however, we must obey it or experience the penalty for violating it. That’s what it means to submit to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1).
“Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom. 13:2). Rebelling against authority involves rejecting God-given authority and refusing to honor it. This inevitably brings judgment on the rebel, because this is God’s system and he guarantees judgment will occur.
“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3 – 4). According to this passage, the purpose of authority is to commend or praise those who do right by obeying the laws and punish those who don’t. This is a good job profile to keep in mind if we are in positions of authority.
Authorities in the first century carried the sword for a reason. The sword was an instrument used to inflict major injury and death, and represented the government’s right and even its responsibility to use force for the public’s benefit. Failure to use proper force in society leads to problems: “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (Eccles. 8:11). Regardless of popular beliefs in our society, proper use of punitive force serves as a deterrent to many potential lawbreakers. God told Israel to put people to death by stoning for specific crimes, so “all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again” (Deut. 13:11). Regrettably, there are people who won’t obey the law voluntarily. Because one of government’s main purposes is to protect the welfare of its citizens, government must use force against lawbreakers.
“Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience” (Rom. 13:5). Why the reference to conscience? We obey civil authorities because doing so is right and conforms to God’s purpose, therefore our consciences remain clear. Our love and devotion to God should motivate us to obey our civil authorities because he created them. A non-Christian may obey civil authority to avoid punishment, or even because he recognizes the need for such authority. But as believers in the Lord, we realize God himself stands behind the power and authority of civil government. By submitting to human government, then, we honor what he created.
“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Rom. 13:6 – 7). We’re to give human government what it deserves: taxes, revenue, respect and honor. Human government is God’s system for administering justice, and therefore deserves our support. Among other things, this means we’re to respect and honor the person in the position of authority regardless of their personal righteousness. Don’t rebel by rejecting a person’s authority. Even if we must disobey an unjust command or law, we must still honor the person and position.
Even unjust authorities are God’s servants. This obviously doesn’t mean God endorses everything they do, but it does mean they have the authority to punish those who disobey them or the laws they represent. This is an important point, so consider an example.
In the Old Testament, King Nebuchadnezzar made a large gold statue and demanded that everyone fall down and worship it. Three Jewish men refused to worship the statue – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar was furious and said they would be thrown into a blazing furnace if they didn’t obey.
The men replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:16 – 18). We know how the story turned out, but the point is how the men responded when the civil authority demanded they perform an act that violated their religious convictions. They respectfully but firmly refused to worship the statue and declared their fate was in God’s hands.
Now consider what that might look like today. If the government passed a law that required us to violate our religious convictions, it’s the government’s responsibility to punish us if we disobey that law. In that context, submitting ourselves to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1) includes accepting the punishment for disobeying the law. In most cultures, we have the right to appeal the conviction, but the principle of submission still applies until the penalty is overturned.
(End of book excerpt)
So how should we respond when a law or an authority figure’s demands conflict with God’s will? Based on the Scriptures we examined in this article, we can develop some guidelines.
- Obey the authorities and the laws whenever possible. Christians should set an example by respecting and submitting to the authorities over them.
- Pray for government officials and employees to faithfully use the authority God gave them. Also pray against the spiritual forces misleading them.
- Work peacefully and legally to resolve the conflict through whatever means are available to us as citizens. Use our civil rights to influence those in authority.
- Disobey any human command, ordinance or law that would cause us to violate God’s will. Be ready to pay the price, by submitting to whatever action the authorities may take against us.
- Avoid the conflict. If God doesn’t clearly tell us to stay, we may leave to escape oppression.
- Patiently endure suffering.
These aren’t progressive steps. All of us should obey civil laws whenever possible. Some of us know how to change laws and policies. Some can leave everything and flee to a more favorable environment. And others may choose to practice civil disobedience, then submit to the harassment, arrest, legal action or personal loss that might follow.
As with self-defense, there are many factors relevant to civil disobedience, but the most important one is our personal relationship with God. Through that relationship, each of us must determine what he expects of us and realize that may be different than what he expects of others. The essence of civil disobedience, however, must be the same for all of us.
Civil disobedience that honors God involves disobeying without rebelling, and refusing to comply while continuing to submit.