Most Christians are familiar with Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 to obey the government. But does this mean government is to be obeyed no matter what?
Periodically our church does something called “Grace Talk” where the pastors take time during a Sunday morning service to answer questions submitted by the congregation. When can a Christian, in good conscience, engage in “civil disobedience?” was a question I recently addressed in that forum. Here’s an overview of my response:
When Must a Christian Disobey the Government?
Christians must disobey the government when the government forbids something God commands or commands something God forbids. Some biblical examples of this are:
- Hebrew midwives in Exodus chapter 1. They were ordered by the government to kill male Hebrew children at birth and refused to do so.
- The Apostles in Acts chapter 4. They were ordered by the government religious officials to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. They also refused to do so, saying they must obey God rather than men.
A contemporary case would be if churches are told they must perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, obedience to Christ would require them to refuse such a command.
When May a Christian Disobey the Government?
When we may disobey the government is not as black and white as when we must. Let’s start with what the Bible says about government:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. – Romans 13:1-4
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. – I Timothy 2:1-2
Thus says the Lord: “Go down to the house of the king of Judah and speak there this word, 2 and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, O king of Judah, who sits on the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. 3 Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:1-3
These passages don’t just talk about the responsibilities of citizens but of governments as well. Government is ordained by God to:
- Reward good and punish evil
- Do no evil itself
- Keep the peace so the church can flourish and the gospel be preached
The question then is, what should our response be when the government ceases to do these things or even worse, does the opposite?
As Christians, we believe right and wrong are absolutes, not dependent upon popular opinion or circumstances. If that is true, it follows that governments cannot make any laws they choose. There are such things as unjust laws. For example, the state cannot just decide one day that killing your neighbor and taking his belongings is legal. But, this is exactly what happened in Nazi German in the 1930’s and it’s what almost happened to the Jews in Persia during King Xerxes reign, but for the intervention of Esther – which we’ll come back to in a minute.
So, do we have to obey unjust laws? It depends.
In Matthew 23:2-3 Jesus tells the people this:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”
Yet we know He engaged in what we could call civil disobedience with regard to the Pharisee’s stringent Sabbath-keeping laws. On more than one occasion, He healed someone on the Sabbath in direct violation of those laws (not in violation of God’s law, however).
Of course part of the reason for this is because of His authority as God and being Lord over the Sabbath, something we certainly cannot claim. But there’s another element at play as well. In Matthew 12:9-14 we read this:
“He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.”
In other words, human lives, health and safety are more important than the letter of the law.
Taking all this into consideration, here are the principles I came up with, recognizing that some Christians may disagree:
- The default position is to obey the government, even if I don’t like the law, am inconvenienced by the law or am even wronged by the law. I can still oppose the law using legal means, however.There is nothing un-biblical in exercising my rights as a citizen. The Apostle Paul did that more than once. There’s also nothing wrong with publicly calling the government’s actions evil when they are. John the Baptist did this, losing his head as a result.
- However, if necessary to protect and serve others, I can, in good conscience, insert myself between them and an unjust law, refusing to comply. For example, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legally required people who encountered runaway slaves to return them to their masters. Many Christians during this time refused to obey this law.
The trigger for civil disobedience should not primarily be indignation over personal wrongs but over harm or potential harm done to others. It’s the difference in running a stupidly placed stop sign because I’m in a hurry and don’t want to be inconvenienced and running it because I’m on the way to the hospital with a seriously injured person.
Back to Esther, she disobeyed the law that prohibited entering the king’s presence uninvited because the lives of her people were at stake. Key to this is that she was willing to accept the consequences of her ‘civil disobedience’ and we must be as well if we choose that route.