Chap 10 CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
The question of obedience or disobedience to civil government is an issue as constant as the sunrise! All crime is violent civil disobedience and essentially revolutionary in intent. But what about non-violent civil disobedience? Is it criminal, or is it Christian? Or, is it neither? Does the Bible ever sanction disobedience toward civil authority? If so, when? And to what extent — overthrowing the incumbent regime by revolution or only verbal activism? While the Bible is silent about some of these questions, it does have something to say about others.
Fundamentally, as discussed in earlier chapters, the Bible clearly stands for obedience to civil government:
Scripture regards the laws of any community as binding on the people of God unless they command or imply disobedience to God's revealed will (Dan. 1:6; Acts 4:18-20; 5:27-29; I Pet. 4:15, 16). The validity of civil legislation in no way depends on the character of the legislator (s), but rather upon the providential ordering of society, in which all authority is ultimately of God (John 19:10,11); Rom. 13:1-7; I Pet. 2:13,14), despite the fact that the rulers of this world are generally spiritually unenlightened (I Cor. 2:8).
Baker's Dictionary of Theology, pub. Baker, p. 319
There are a number of scriptures that are emphatic about obedience to civil government:
Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, in his book, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics, writes at length on this matter:
While under some conditions Christian conscience may indeed approve certain consequences of revolution, Christian social theory neither promotes nor approves revolution itself as a method of social transformation....
Since government's function is to preserve order as well as to promote justice, Christian social theory opposes social change by anarchic methods. When revolution is regarded as a self-sufficient objective (and hence is represented as itself a panacea for social evil) it becomes insupportable and intolerable. Moreover, when revolution is detached from spiritual and moral obligations and proffers exemption from social responsibility it breeds irresponsibility and bestiality and must therefore invite Christian condemnation. Christianity's interest in social change always carries with it the demand for inner renewal, and not simply external readjustment. But contemporary revolutions, advancing anti-Christian concepts of life and society, seem usually to promote social disorder and to displace one form of political injustice by another....
Nonetheless, Christian social theory is free to approve certain results of revolution, including the abolition of tyranny. Social resentment thrives wherever and whenever citizens are deprived of elemental human rights. Totalitarian demands for behavior that violates biblical imperatives arouse indignation and resistance. Such resistance in turn may contribute to a counter-revolution that tries to restore authority to the side of law and justice. The objective of such Christian action is not merely to overthrow one revolutionary form of government in favor of another, but rather to restore government to its proper concerns....
Revolution can hope for Christian sympathy only where it actually protests against an established government's persistent abuse of the norms of government (maintenance of law and order, protection of the innocent, repression of bad works) and where it openly purposes to re-establish these norms. At its worst . . . the State may become almost a demonic power whose organization gives new and terrible strength to the world's hostility to God.... Every form either of rebellion or of passive resistance to the government must justify itself as a protest made in the name of the state as it might and ought to be — it seeks the reorganization of the State itself on a juster model (pp. 176-179).
Citing several examples, Dr. Henry offers them as New Testament perspectives on the subject of civil disobedience:
During the three hundred years when the Roman emperors declared Christianity an illegal religion, Christians were marked as criminals by civil law simply because they were Christians. Against such government the Christian movement generated no revolutionary temper, and to such government Christian believers pledged their prayers and paid their taxes. The Christian does not promote the cause of anarchy, since he knows that government has a biblical role. Even if a government now and then exceeds its proper authority, the Christian's hope of a better tomorrow is sustained by a firm reliance on divine providence more than by enthusiasm for human revolution. The Book of Revelation (ch.13) depicts the saints as preparing for martyrdom rather than for revolution.
While Jesus did not regard the State "as in any sense a final, divine institution," he nonetheless "accepts the state and radically renounces every attempt to overthrow it .... This double attitude is characteristic of the entire New Testament" ... (p. 180).
However, Henry clearly acknowledges that the civil state must be resisted, and that Christians are biblically obligated to do so, when the state goes beyond the biblical mandate with which it is charged:
Yet the Christian need not always "suffer injustice." Obedience and silence are not forever the only course open to him in the face of unlawfully constituted authority. Under some circumstances, in fact, disobedience to government becomes a Christian duty. In Cullmann's words: "It is not our business to take the sword, to wage war as the fellowship of Christians against this (totalitarian) State in order to destroy its existence." Our obligation, rather, is "positively, perseverance in our Christian preaching; negatively, perseverance in our refusal of the idolatry demanded by the State." The Acts of the Apostles leaves no doubt that rulers are to be disobeyed when they forbid the proclamation of the gospel. Christians then resist the ruler not in opposition to civil law but in obedience to God's command. "As soon as the State demands more than is necessary to its existence," observes Cullman, "as soon as it demands what is God's — thus transgressing its limits — the disciple of Jesus is relieved of all obligation to this requirement of a totalitarian State."
The Christian approach to government d1ffers from the anarchist concept in several ways. It gladly obeys where government observes its proper limits, protests where it exceeds those limits, and actively resists where a totalitarian demand requires disobedience to the revealed will of God. "In the Roman State emperor worship is the point at which the State exceeds its proper bounds .... For the rest, the Roman State was a legitimate State, knowing how to distinguish between good and evil." The German national-socialistic state (Nazi government of Adolph Hitler), however, fell away "from the order in which every State is placed; for here the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, no longer prevailed: on the contrary, right was whatever the State required."
Yet the Christian does not then face totalitarian forces in the human spirit of counter-revolution. The New Testament does not approve renouncing the State as an institution, and limits the resistance shown even to a totalitarian state....
The Christian Church is not anarchistic. The Christian Church is not revolutionary. The Christian Church does not initiate movements for political independence ... the Church remains ready to proclaim and ready to be martyred for proclaiming those abiding truths and ultimate loyalties whose surrender reduces every revolution to lawlessness and whose loss casts even a free people into subjection and nihilism (pp. 181-186).
The Bible strongly insists that violent revolution which is aimed at destroying the very concept of civil government (anarchy or nihilism), or any kind of revolution that would destroy one oppressive form of government simply to install an equally oppressive form, is forbidden. The Bible insists (by historical examples) that believers may live, prosper, and even participate in civil governments which are godless and relatively oppressive (Daniel, Esther, Joseph, Christ and his apostles and the first century church). To instigate the overthrow of civil government for any reason is to jeopardize social order, freedom, human life, and destroys all opportunity for the truth of God to be disseminated. That is why Paul urges believers to pray for the stability of civil governments (I Tim. 2:1-4).
John MacArthur writes:
Other than instructing us to be model citizens, Scripture says nothing at all about Christians engaging in politics. It says nothing about Christians engaging in civil change. Those things are not our priority.... We are to be the conscience of the nation through godly living and faithful preaching. We do not confront the nation through political pressure but through the Word of God . . . .
The Christian and Government, Moody Press, p.5
MacArthur illustrates his proposition by pointing to the example of Jesus Christ who came into a world of slavery, dictatorship, exorbitant taxes, and religious persecution:
... but he did not come with power and force to overthrow Roman tyranny. He did not seek social change. He did not attempt to eliminate slavery. He did not come with political or economic issues at stake. He did not come to bring a new government or to wave a flag of Judaism.... Jesus did not participate in civil rights or crusade to abolish injustice; He preached the gospel of salvation. Once a man's or woman's soul is right with God, it matters very little what the externals are. Jesus was not interested in a new social order, but in a new spiritual order — the church. And he mandated the church to carry on the same kind of ministry.
ibid, pp. 6-8
The conclusion Dr. MacArthur reaches from his study of biblical examples of civil disobedience is:
The one time we have a right to disobey the government is when it commands us not to do something God has commanded us to do, or when it commands us to do something God has commanded us not to do....
If our government changes its form, as governments often do, we are still called to submit and be model citizens. We are called not only to obey but to obey with a spirit of obedience. We are to give honor to those who are in authority over us so that evil might not be spoken about the name of Christ. If there are critics who are looking for ways to condemn Christians, please let them condemn us for our faith and not our political viewpoints.
ibid, pp. 15-17
MacArthur cites the testimony of a former Christian citizen of Russia:
George Vins is a Christian who lived for many years in the Soviet Union. He met with our staff one day, and we asked him what it was like to live under tyranny and repression in a communist country. He told us that Christians can't pursue an education or a career. They have no say in the government and no freedoms to speak of. The question was then posed to him: How do you respond to that kind of government? He said, "We obey every law in our nation, whether it appears to us to be just or unjust, except when we are told that we cannot worship God or obey the Scripture. But if we are persecuted, put into prison, or killed, it will be a result of our faith in Jesus Christ, not because we violated some law in our nation.
ibid, pp. 12, 13
The Bible reveals that God, by supernatural interventions or by ordering human agencies, has overthrown certain civil governments. The flood (Gen. 6), the thwarting of the tower of Babel (Gen. 10-11), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), the exodus of Israel from Egypt (Exod. 1-15), all involved destructions of civil governments. Through Samuel, God anointed David to kingship while Saul was still on the throne (I Sam. 16:1-23); God commanded Jehu to kill Jezebel and overthrow her government (II Sam. 9:1-10); Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel all declared that God used the pagan empires of Assyria (Isa. 10:5ff), Babylon (Jer. 25:8-14; 27: 5-15), Persia (Isa. 13:17; 21:2; Jer. 51:11; Dan. 5:28; 7:1ff; 8:1ff; 9:24-27) and others to overthrow and replace existing civil governments.
However, there is no biblical sanction whatever for individuals, believers or not, who have no direct revelation from God, to assume such prerogatives. The terms "rebellion, rebelled," etc., found some one hundred times in the Bible, are almost without exception used disapprovingly:
It is a serious matter for an individual to disobey civil authority and civil law. And it is extremely so for individuals to presume to destroy civil government by revolution, violent or otherwise. At all costs, except denial of faith in God and Christ, civil order and government must be preserved.
Yet, in spite of the extreme gravity of "resisting the authorities," the Bible clearly, by precept, by principle, and by example, declares there are limits to civil obedience for the believer at least. Francis Schaeffer writes:
Has God set up an authority in the state that is autonomous from Himself? Are we to obey the state no matter what? Are we? In this one area is indeed Man the measure of all things? And I would answer, not at all, not at all.
When Jesus says in Matthew 22:21, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," it is not:
GOD and CAESAR
It was, is, and always will be:
The civil government, as all of life, stands under the Law of God. In this fallen world God has given us certain offices to protect us from the chaos which is the natural result of that fallenness. But when any office commands that which is contrary to the Word of God, those who hold that office abrogate their authority and they are not to be obeyed. And that includes the state....
God has ordained the state as a delegated authority; it is not autonomous. The state is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing the wrongdoer, and to protect the good in society.
When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny. ...
Why were the Christians in the Roman Empire thrown to the lions? From the Christian's viewpoint it was for a religious reason. But from the viewpoint of the Roman State they were in civil disobedience, they were civil rebels. The Roman State did not care what anybody believed religiously; you could believe anything, or you could be an atheist. But you had to worship Caesar as a sign of your loyalty to the state. The Christians said they would not worship Caesar, anybody, or anything, but the living God. Thus to the Roman Empire they were rebels, and it was civil disobedience. That is why they were thrown to the lions.
A Christian Manifesto, by Francis A. Schaeffer,
pub. IVP, pp. 90-92
The statement of Jesus Christ, quoted above, is the quintessential proclamation for civil disobedience. There are spheres that belong to "Caesar" and spheres that belong to God. God, because he is the Sovereign Creator of all, including "Caesar," forever takes priority. When "Caesar" presumes to legislate what God has forbidden, or to forbid what God has legislated, Caesar must be disobeyed. Following are some biblical examples and/or principles which provide guidelines for believers in the matter of civil disobedience:
Clearly, a crucial element of gospel proclamation is to exhort the world of mankind to be obedient to civil government. But when any civil ruler or authority of any kind demands that we do anything to disobey God, our reply must always be:
Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge ... we must obey God rather than men ... (Acts 4:19: 5:29).
John Eidsmoe cites five principles which are clearly discern-able from Bible examples of civil disobedience:
God and Caesar, by John Eidsmoe, pub. Crossway, p. 32 \
Any consideration of what the Bible says about civil disobedience for an American Christian inevitably raises the question, "What about the American Revolution of 1776?" The question will always be problematic, and there will always be Bible-believing Christians taking both sides of the issue, just as they did in 1776. Many "Tories" (those who remained loyal to the English crown in 1776) were opposed to the war by their Christian principles, just as there were many others who fought in, or otherwise supported, the war by their Christian convictions. The issue divided many families in 1776, notably among them, Benjamin Franklin and his son William. William Franklin was arrested as an enemy of America and eventually moved to England, never to see his father again. It is our opinion that the American "Revolution" was justified. Other Christians must study the history as thoroughly as possible and form their own conclusion. Here are our reasons:
A Declaration: By the Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress Assembled:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having, in direct object, the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world....
We have condensed the original "facts" as follows:
Great Britain refused the colonies laws for the public good.
Refused to let colonial governments pass such needed laws.
Demanded people relinquish rights of representation in legislation.
Made legislative meetings unavailable to local citizens.
Arbitrarily dissolved representative legislative bodies in some areas.
Refused to reinstitute dissolved legislatures for long periods, leaving such areas open to anarchy and disorder.
Refused immigration to frontier areas and thus hindered economy.
Obstructed justice, refusing to let States establish judiciary powers.
Installed judges dependent entirely upon the Crown, independent of any restraint from the colonies.
Multiplied the bureaucratic system administering the Crown's control.
Posted huge numbers of soldiers in a time of peace in America.
Granted the British military immunity from the civilian governments.
Made and enforced laws contrary to the laws already enacted by the colonies.
Quartered large numbers of troops in private residences against owner's will.
Allowed soldiers to be exempt from civil law (even law against murder).
Cut off the colonies' trade with other nations.
Taxation without representation or consent.
Deprived many in colonies of trial by jury.
Transported many colonials to England for trial in "pretended offenses."
Revoked charters of the colonies (which granted self-government).
Suspended colonial Congress.
The Crown abdicated its governing of the colonies and declared war upon them.
Plundered ships of colonies, burned and looted cities, and killed citizens.
Brought large armies of mercenaries to subjugate American citizens.
. . . free, full and absolute Power ... to ordaine, Make and Enact LAWS of what kind soever, according to their sound discretion.
Charters of other colonies such as Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay Colony, etc., were granted similar self-governing authority. Thus, the coercive measures taken by Great Britain against the American colonies were, in effect, an invasion attempting to overthrow their legally established governments. Americans did not "revolt" they merely took up arms in defense of, not only "inalienable rights" but of legal rights. Americans fought against the aggression of a "foreign" power. Had the Crown acknowledged their right of self-government there would have been no war.
Impressed American seamen into British navy and forced them to fight their own American countrymen.
Incited domestic insurrections among American Indians against the frontiers.
American petitions to King George unheeded for many years.
We, therefore, the representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of DIVINE PROVIDENCE, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
Note that those who made this Declaration did so believing that King George's government had "become destructive" of "certain inalienable rights" which are fundamental rights granted to man by his Creator and not by any government; that human governments are established to "secure" these rights, and when any government makes these "certain inalienable" rights insecure it is the duty of human beings to "alter or abolish" such a government and "institute a new government" as will "effect" these "inalienable rights." These were the "inalienable rights," "life, liberty and property (property is what the phrase "pursuit of happiness" means; see George Mason's draft of the Virginia Bill of Rights)" being destroyed by the Egyptians when God gave Israel exodus and mandate to establish their own government. Note also the caution and reluctance ("Prudence . . . will dictate . . . ") with which this Declaration was made. These men were not nihilists, nor did they enter into this over "light and transient" causes. They had petitioned for redress for over one hundred years receiving only intensified usurpation of rights.
Human beings have inalienable rights. These rights are granted by the Creator and not to be usurped by any other human being or group (government) of human beings. Any government, duly established by the consent of the governed, and securing inalienable human rights for its citizens, has the God-given right to defend itself against the insurrection of a minority or the invasion of an alien aggressor. When any government takes it upon itself to destroy inalienable human rights or usurp another nation's duly constituted government, it ought to be resisted by force or non-violent disobedience, according to the circumstances and the abilities of the victims. Such action, in our opinion, is implied in what the Bible says about civil government.
In Biblical times, in pagan and Jewish cultures alike, especially during the days of the Roman Empire, ordinary citizens suffered extreme political and social oppressions:
In spite of these and many other diabolical abuses of human rights, we find no biblical advocacy of massive marches, "sit-downs," lobbyings, civil disobediences or civil rioting. The Bible does not approve of civil disobedience as an answer to injustice unless there is abuse of "unalienable" human rights or a direct commandment of God.
Copyright © 1990, Paul T. Butler