Civil Disobedience and the Believer

(March 1996 – Volume 2, Issue 5) 

In an increasingly secularized world it should surprise no one that the values, standards, and the very laws of God are regularly violated. Many things that are “legal” are nevertheless unbiblical — even sinful. In an effort to deal with such issues numerous organizations and movements (e.g. Operation Rescue; American Family Association; Eagle Forum; the Christian Coalition; and the now defunct Moral Majority) have been founded — most attempting to change our society into a more moral place to live. The issue that believers must address is our response to the legalized sins of society, and the demands of a secular government which often contradict Scripture. This study will attempt to provide a Biblical base in order for us to make wise and godly choices in this regard.

WHEN IS THE CHRISTIAN OBLIGATED TO BREAK MAN’S LAW?

We must first deal with the basic questions concerning civil disobedience. All believers would agree that God’s laws are higher than man’s, and there are times when we must break the laws of man in order to obey God. The question is, when are we obligated to do so? In order to answer that question we must carefully examine Scripture.

BASIC PRINCIPLE:

We are to submit to governing authorities. The two most important passages on this subject are Rom. 13:1-5 and I Pet. 2:13-17. The Holy Spirit lays out for us the following truths. First, every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities, for God has appointed those authorities (Rom. 13:1). It should be remembered that as Paul wrote these words, he too lived in a very worldly and ungodly society. Nero was the Roman Emperor, and his kingdom was based on anything but Biblical principles . Second, to resist God-appointed authorities is to resist God and invite His judgment on our lives (Rom. 13:2). Third, ruling authorities are the ministers of God for our good. It is amazing that God is using even unsaved political leaders to accomplish His purposes, without their consent or knowledge (Rom. 13:3,4). Fourth, we are to submit to authorities not only out of fear of punishment, but also in order to have a clear conscience before God. Therefore, the believer will seek to obey the laws of society even when he is not likely to be caught for committing a crime. Our ultimate reason for obedience is to please God (Rom. 13:5; I Pet. 2:13-14). Fifth, obedience to authorities is a good testimony before unbelievers (I Pet. 2:15). And sixth, we are to honor those who have authority over us (I Pet. 2:17).

EXCEPTIONS TO THE BASIC PRINCIPLE.

It would appear from the previous passages that there is no room for any form of civil disobedience. Yet, we have numerous examples in Scripture of people who honored God by refusing to obey certain dictates of the governments in which they were under. Obviously there are times when the Believer must obey God rather than man. By examining the passages that teach God-honoring civil disobedience we can arrive at a clear picture of the kind of situations in which God would have us disobey those in authority over us.

In Exodus 1:15-21 we see that the Jewish midwives were instructed to murder all male children born to Jewish women. Because the midwives feared God (v17) they disobeyed this direct command from Pharaoh. That this action pleased God is evident from verses 20 and 21 where we find God rewarding them. An analysis of this situation reveals individuals who were commanded by governing authorities to personally do something which would entail violating the command of God.

Joshua 2:1-6,15 tells of how Rahab, the harlot from Jericho, refused to give up the Jewish spies to the authorities, but rather hid them, and provided them a way of escape. Heb. 11:31 reveals to us that this action brought her great reward from God. Since, to turn the spies over to the King of Jericho would have almost certainly cost them their lives, we again have a situation where an individual is asked (by the authorities) to personally do something which would result in disobedience to God’s revealed will.

In Daniel 3:4-6, 12-30 we read of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, thus they were thrown into the fiery furnace as a consequence. God obviously approved of their act of civil disobedience as demonstrated in His miraculous deliverance on their behalf. The pattern is similar to the ones above: individuals were ordered to personally disobey a direct command of God. Their refusal to do so has been an example of God-honoring courage ever since.

Also, in Daniel 6:6-22 there is the famous story of Daniel and the lions’ den. This is perhaps the best known Biblical story of righteous civil disobedience. Daniel reasoned that it would be wrong to cease worshipping His God in daily prayer, even though the king had decreed praying to the true God an illegal act. Daniel’s rescue proved (as in the previous example) that the Lord was pleased with Daniel’s disobedience of an ungodly human law. As in the other examples, for Daniel to obey the king would have necessitated personal sin.

Then in Acts 4:15-20 and 5:27-29, when the Sanhedrin demanded that the Apostles cease preaching the gospel, it was a clear cut case of the dictates of man contradicting the commandments of God. Jesus had sent the Apostles out to preach the gospel (Matt 28:19,20); to disobey Him would be sin. The Apostles had to make a personal choice; they chose to obey their Savior.

Finally, in Acts 16:35-40 Paul explained that he was concerned about future opportunities to preach the gospel. He insisted on his legal rights as a Roman citizen. This is a rather unique situation, but from it we can learn that Christians can (and often should) stand up for their legal rights, especially when the cause of Christ is involved.

CONCLUSIONS FROM THE BASIC PRINCIPLE:

From all of this Biblical evidence, we have learned that there are definitely a times in which believers must disobey governing authorities. These times come when we must personally choose between obeying the command of God or the decrees of man. At no time in the Word of God do we find a believer interfering and attempting to keep another individual from disobeying God’s command (in this type of scenario).

For example, in both the Old and New Testaments infanticide was not uncommon — yet, at no time did believers attempt to stop this horrible sin through the use of force. We do find the Old Testament prophets often preaching out against such practices; primarily because such sins revealed the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel. On the other hand, in the New Testament, (as the church infiltrated a pagan society) the Apostles were silent about the sins of the unsaved world around them. Their mission was to bring people to Christ, not attempt to remedy all the social ills of a fallen society. The teachings of the New Testament imply that not only is the spiritual more important than the social, but that the only real solution for societies’ ills is spiritual transformation, not political reform.

If the teachings of the New Testament and the examples of the early Christians serve as our guide, then we should be focusing the bulk of our time and energy on the transforming of men and women spiritually, rather than working to create an outwardly moral society. Scripture does not prohibit being involved in the political or social process, but we must realize that lasting change take place only by bringing resurrected life to fallen creatures. “To try to impose God’s righteousness upon society apart from regeneration is a task doomed to failure. Yet, that seems to be exactly what so many Christians want to do. In their frustration over apparent lack of success and the moral decline of American society they have given up on the Biblically mandated practices of evangelism, prayer, and holding forth the standard of righteousness. They have instead followed the humanistic tactics (passive resistance) of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to achieve their goal…. The answer to the world’s social problems is not Christian activism and revolution, but the preaching of the Gospel and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit” (Robert Dean, Biblical Perspectives Vol. II #4).

A SPECIFIC APPLICATION: ABORTION AND OPERATION RESCUE

To many Christians, the most important battle facing the church today, as well as our country, is abortion. Many seem to believe that if the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision was overturned it would not only save the lives of millions of babies, but would greatly improve the moral climate of our society. All Bible-believing Christians understand that abortion is morally wrong, and has far reaching consequences in our world. We would therefore love to see abortion abolished, not only legally, but totally. However, in the process of achieving a goal that glorifies God we must not dishonor God by the methods that we use.

One major opponent of abortion is Randall Terry, who with a few others began a movement called Operation Rescue in 1986. The approach of this movement is to blockade abortion clinics in an attempt to shut them down through the use of non-violent resistance. The problem is that many of the methods of Operation Rescue are illegal — resulting in the arrests of the “rescuers.” At first the tactics of Terry and his followers were viewed as radical by the Christian community, but the group has now gained a considerable following. Those who speak with approval of O.R. include church leaders such as James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Kennedy. On the other hand, many other prominent Christian leaders are outspoken against the movement, including Charles Stanley and Norm Geisler (who is on the staff at Falwell’s college).

The question of course is never, “What do men say?” but “What does God say?” The Scriptures would declare abortion morally wrong since it is the murdering of a human life (compare Ps. 139:13-16; Ps. 51:5; Jere. 1:5; Lk. 1:41). God would then, obviously, condemn the sin of abortion regardless of what the laws of the land decree. Now, if we apply the principles learned earlier in this document, we can definitely know the following: no Christian should ever have an abortion, no Christian should perform an abortion, and we as believers must speak out against the evils of abortion. But, do we have a Biblical mandate to break the laws of our country in order to stop SOMEONE ELSE from having an abortion? The Scriptures would neither command, permit, or encourage such action, nor is there any example of godly people (in the Bible) attempting to force God’s principles upon unbelievers in this manner. In addition, while it would be wonderful to stop legalized abortion in our country, such action will not in any sense change the moral fiber of our country. Our call as believers, is to change people through the Gospel, not society through social activism.