A Biblical Perspective of Civil Disobedience
Summary: Christian civil disobedience is disobeying without rebelling, refusing to comply while continuing to submit.
The following is an excerpt from a book by Larry Fox, A Biblical Perspective of Self-Defense and Civil Disobedience (Copyright © 2009).
As we see major changes in our nation and the world in this post-Christian era, many Christians have questions and express concern about what is happening. Much of this relates to the believer’s loyalty to government in an increasingly corrupt world, especially whether believers should ever disobey the government.
God Himself set the pattern for human authorities governing a populace and penalizing those who break the law. Yet the church was founded by a man whom the authorities considered a criminal. Christians will not fulfill their roles in life without coming into conflict with the world system.
There are many examples of civil disobedience in the Old Testament and some of them give insight to God’s expectations of His people. But our covenant has significantly different standards for behavior and motivation, so we will consider primarily Scriptures in the New Testament.
Submission to Authority
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 religious governing body and court. So Jesus and the apostles had two distinct authorities over them: the Roman civil government with its army and local governor; and the religious system, including the Sanhedrin, Pharisees, Sadducees and other religious leaders. In that context, let us examine what Jesus and the apostles said about submitting to authority.
Jesus often sat and taught people who would gather around. One day while He was teaching, He said the following to the crowd and His disciples. “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 is not His point. He acknowledged the scribes (teachers of the law) and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, meaning it was their responsibility to interpret Scripture, so people must obey their teaching from the Scripture because it was the Word of God. He charged the religious leaders of having a double standard, because they personally did not do what they taught, so His followers should not copy their behavior. This appears to be the only statement He made about obeying the religious leaders, and he’s actually saying people should do and observe what the leaders teach from Scripture. He is not advocating unconditional obedience to the religious leaders; as we’ll see later, He clearly did not do that Himself.
Romans 13:1-7 is one of the passages most frequently used to make a case for unconditional submission to authorities, so let us 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 word translated “submit” (hypotasso) 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 acknowledges the legitimacy they derive from God and their divine commission to reward good and punish evil. This does not 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 and all other authority is delegated. Jesus recognized 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 that the authority of human government ultimately lies in the hands of God. Nothing and no one is beyond God’s sovereign control.
With regard to laws, some might argue there is no scriptural precedent for opposing an existing law. While that may be true, we need to consider the biblical context. 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, virtually everywhere the believers went was territory conquered by Rome; there was no chance for changing those laws, either. At the highest level, we are governed by God’s laws, which clearly are beyond our influence. In America, we have a representative government and it is our civil right to influence our representatives. So opposing or trying to change existing laws is not a problem for us. As long as a law is in effect, however, we are obligated to obey it or experience the consequences for violating it.
Back to the Book of Romans and submission to authority. “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; 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).
The purpose of authority is to do good to those who do right and bring punishment on the wrongdoer. From this we can conclude a main purpose of government is to protect the welfare of its citizens. This is a good job profile to keep in mind if you are in any position of authority.
Authority carries the sword for a reason. The sword is an instrument used to inflict major injury and death; it is not just a symbol. The sword represents the government’s right (even responsibility) to use force to maintain the public good. Failure to use appropriate 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 force serves as a deterrent to many potential lawbreakers. Punitive force is also a proper response to lawbreakers, because a ruler is God’s servant, an agent of God’s wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 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). Authorities must have and use force because, regrettably, there are people who will not obey the law voluntarily. Because government’s primary function is to protect the welfare of its citizens, the primary use of force must be to protect its citizens from whatever might harm them. Therefore military action or severe punishment of lawbreakers would be appropriate uses of force if the result was the protection of the citizens.
“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 it is the right thing to do and it conforms to God’s purpose, therefore our consciences remain clear. Our obedience to civil authority is to be motivated by our love and devotion to God. 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 acknowledge that God Himself stands behind the power and authority of civil government. By submitting to human government, we submit to the system 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 are to give human government what it deserves–taxes, revenue, respect, honor. Human government is God’s system for administering justice, and as such deserves our support. Among other things, this means we are to respect and honor the person in the position of authority regardless of their personal righteousness. Don’t rebel against the system. Even if you must disobey an unjust command or law, you must still honor the person and position.
Even unjust authorities are God’s servants. This obviously does not 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 let me offer an extreme example. If your government passed a law that required you to violate your religious convictions based on your understanding of the Bible, it is appropriate for the government to punish you if you disobey that law. In that context, submitting yourself to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1) means accepting the punishment for disobeying their law.
Because Romans 13:1-7 is such a definitive passage, we’ll restate the key points. Submit to governing authorities; don’t rebel (that is, don’t reject authority); do what is right; respect and honor those in authority. If you disobey the authorities or the law they represent, you can expect to be punished. Rebelling is refusing to submit to authority, rejecting their right to enforce the law or impose punishment. Submitting involves doing what is expected or accepting the consequences. It is possible to disobey without rebelling, simply by accepting the consequences of your disobedience. You can give authorities your respect and even honor them, yet refuse to do what they demand.
Slavery was a common practice in the first century, and several Scriptures address the slave’s obedience to his master. There were many forms and causes of slavery, including people selling themselves into slavery to pay off a debt to a creditor. Although we do not condone slavery in America today, these verses are relevant in the context of employees obeying their supervisors.
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free” (Eph. 6:5-8).
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism” (Col. 3:22-25).
“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered” (1 Tim. 6:1).
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Pet. 2:18).
You realize, of course, there were no safeguards for slaves; they were their masters’ property and had no rights. So in most cases they did exactly what their masters wanted and in some cases were abused at their masters’ whims. Yet they were to obey their masters with full respect, with sincerity of heart, wholeheartedly and as if they were serving the Lord, regardless of how their masters treated them. This is not to suggest that free Christians under government authority are virtually slaves. Rather it shows the type of attitude and behavior the Lord expects even of those under oppressive authorities.
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone–for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). This was written about AD 65, as intense government-sanctioned persecution was breaking out against Christians in Rome, after Nero blamed the Christians for the fire that destroyed half of Rome in AD 64. The following was written about the same time.
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men” (Titus 3:1-2). Paul had already spent about two years in a Roman prison and was released a few years before he wrote this. Was the Roman government based on God’s law as given in the Bible? Not at all. Nero certainly was not a God-fearing man, yet Paul’s instructions to submit to the government were given in that anti-Christian context and included no conditions. Some would claim today that a government based on non-Christian or even anti-Christian principles forfeits its right to command obedience from its citizens. But the Roman government Paul lived under was at least as humanistic and wicked as any that exists today, and Paul expected believers to submit to it.
The Book of Hebrews was written about two years later, as persecution was increasing against Christians in Rome. Hebrews 2 states that God crowned Jesus with glory and honor and put everything under His feet. “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him” (Heb. 2:8). At present, not everything is subject to Jesus, though God placed everything under Him.
Those who refuse to be subject to Him eventually will receive punishment. That is, they will be forcefully removed from God’s presence, which will result in eternal torment. Those humans who are subject to Jesus, whom we call Christians, still have sinful attitudes and do not obey Him in all matters, yet accept His discipline because they are subject to Him. So there is a distinction between obedience and subjection, even in our relationship with God.
If one rebels against the authority over him, he not only disobeys, he also refuses to submit to the authority’s discipline. In contrast, those who obey the authority also submit to the authority’s governance. Is it possible to submit to authority’s governance yet not obey? Yes, and that is the essence of Christian civil disobedience: not doing what the authority expects, but accepting the authority’s response.
(End of book excerpt)