There’s been a lot of talk about civil disobedience lately, across the political spectrum. Since it seems to me that much of the discussion among my fellow Christians has been out of focus, I thought it might be the time to reconsider basic biblical principles.
To begin with, one of the key distinctives of evangelical Christians is biblicism, or the recognition of Scripture as the ultimate authority for faith and practice (and for everything else); back in 1989, David Bebbington defined evangelicalism with the “Bebbington quadrilateral” of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. For me and my house, then, the directives for addressing the question of civil disobedience are the same as for every other question: we’re going to take our orders not from Thoreau but from Scripture.
Undoubtedly the most well-known biblical statement on the question comes from Romans 13.1-7, where Paul lays down the foundational principle:
- Civil authority is put in place by God. Obey it.
Other lesser-known passages repeat the principle (1P 2.13-14; Ti 3.1).
But that’s clearly not the whole story, for the Bible contains examples of civil disobedience and presents those examples as, well, examples for us to follow. Two of the three most well-known examples are in the OT book of Daniel; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refuse Nebuchadnezzar’s order to bow to an idol (Da 3.9-12), and Daniel himself openly disobeys the king’s order forbidding prayer (Da 6.7-10). In the NT, Peter faces down the Sanhedrin and refuses to obey its order not to preach about Jesus (Ac 4.18-20). Perhaps less well-known is the Hebrew midwives’ refusal to kill the male Jewish babies (Ex 1.15-17).
So there’s a mitigating principle:
- Sometimes refusing to obey civil authority is the right thing to do.
Now we have another question to ask: when should we disobey?
In the four cases mentioned above, the defied order is clearly a violation of the direct commandments of God: idol worship is clearly forbidden; prayer and gospel preaching are clearly commanded; and killing babies, of any ethnicity or sex, is a direct attack on the image of God in mankind. So we can edit our first two principles into a single comprehensive one:
- Civil authority is put in place by God. Obey it, unless doing so is to disobey God.
So far, pretty much all Christians would agree. But here is where it gets sticky. I’d like to start into the key area of disagreement by observing further on the biblical material.
Many times in the Scripture you have evil rulers—both Israelite and Gentile—who rule godlessly. I find it surprising that you find relatively few occasions where those rulers are openly disobeyed, and the disobedient subject (we’re dealing exclusively with monarchies here) is commended. As just one example, we find Paul coming into conflict with unbelieving Jewish authorities and their Roman overlords across the empire, and Paul seems to use cleverness rather than direct disobedience. He’ll leave town—once, over the Damascus city wall (2Co 11.33), and another time leaving Thessalonica in the middle of the night (Ac 17.10). On one occasion he’ll prevent a beating by claiming Roman citizenship (Ac 22.25), and on another he’ll take the beating and then use it essentially for blackmail (Ac 16.37).
I’d like to suggest that civil disobedience in the Scripture is a last resort. Recognizing that God has intentionally and purposefully given us the authorities we have, we should seek to respect the wisdom of his providence and use all our creativity to find a way to obey evil authorities while obeying God. Only when all possibilities—all possibilities—have been exhausted are we forced to disobey earthly authorities.
Do we do that secretly or publicly? Well, Peter defied the Sanhedrin to its face; Paul sneaked over the wall at midnight. Study your Bible and make the wisest choice you can.
But I would suggest that we can’t disobey a law or mandate just because we disagree with it, or it won’t work, or it’s stupid, or it’s an abuse of authority, or it’s applied selectively, or even because it’s unconstitutional. The US system provides legal ways to address stupid or abusive or unconstitutional laws, and disobedience doesn’t seem to be a biblical option in those cases. Seek an injunction, or sue, or protest, but obey the mandate while doing so.
Great word, Dan. I think you nailed it.
Jon Gleason says
Dr Olinger, your thoughtful statement is consistent with what I have always believed and taught, but we are being pressed hard, and I am forced to consider more deeply than in the past.
Would you care to comment on Elijah’s refusal to come down in II Kings 1? Or Jonathan’s refusal to obey the king’s command to summon David (obviously Saul’s intent was evil but the action he commanded, to summon, was not in itself evil for Jonathan). Or the rebellion by the tribes in I Kings 12 (Jeroboam had received Ahijah’s prophecy, they had not). Perhaps also Elisha telling the elders to hinder the king’s messenger (II Kings 6:32) doesn’t fit entirely comfortably with your comprehensive statement (which is what I’ve always believed previously).
If you can find the time to share any thoughts you have on these, I’d appreciate it. I find II Kings 1 particularly hard to reconcile.
Dan Olinger says
I’m glad you’re thinking carefully about this.
In the four instances you cited, I think there are at least two things going on.
1. In the cases of Elijah and Elisha, you have prophets acting under direct revelation from God. In those cases, God is using them to teach the people, including the kings, and God can order anything he wants. In our case, we are limited to what he has revealed through his Word.
2. In the other two cases, you have narrative describing the choices and actions of people. Inspiration requires only that those actions be reported accurately; it does not require that all actions described be morally right. As the post above notes, “you find relatively few occasions where those rulers are openly disobeyed, and the disobedient subject … is commended.” I don’t find the biblical text commending the actors in these two instances or holding their actions up as exemplary. Of course God was directing those choices for his own purposes, as he does all choices, but he can use evil as well as good. Again, in our case we need to go with what God has revealed for us.
Jon Gleason says
Thank you, Dr Olinger. If you are willing to take some follow-up questions, I would appreciate it.
First, your comprehensive statement (ours, since I’ve always agreed with it) is not explicitly stated in Scripture, it is deduced. Is it fair to say the deduction relies on an assumption — that God instructed Elijah not to come down? For if God did not so instruct, the statement would dictate that Elijah would have been required to obey Ahaziah and come down from the hill.
Based solely on what is revealed, Elijah did not behave consistently with the comprehensive statement. Either 1) there is more that is not revealed, or 2) Elijah behaved wrongly, or 3) the statement is perhaps not comprehensive enough. The first is certainly possible, the second seems unlikely from the text, but we don’t know if either of them is, and I think that logically forces us to accept that the third is also a possibility.
Second, is it fair to say the statement relies on another assumption, that Jonathan’s actions in I Samuel 20:31-32 are not pleasing to God? And does not the whole narrative and the descriptions of Jonathan throughout Scripture, plus the fact that Jonathan is described as strengthening David’s hand “in God” (I Samuel 23:16) when David was in hiding suggest that God was not altogether displeased with Jonathan’s actions towards Saul and David?
Third, does Jonathan’s behaviour not have a strong parallel in the case of the wise men in Matthew 2? Again, there was nothing immoral or contrary to God’s law about going back to Herod. Yet, God told them to disobey. Why? Possibly because Herod, like Saul in Jonathan’s case, would have used their disobedience to do evil. So it appears to me there’s an argument to be made that God’s command to the wise men shows His heart in such cases, one that believers share.
Which of us would blithely obey if the government required us to transport single mothers to abortion clinics? Or for that matter, report Jews to a Nazi government? The actions of providing transport or filling in a government form may not be immoral of itself but we know we shouldn’t because it would be facilitating the evil of others. Perhaps we could amend the second sentence to “Obey it, unless doing so is to disobey God, or to directly facilitate the disobedience of others”?
Again, if you have time, I would greatly appreciate your thoughts.
Dan Olinger says
In 2K 1, I would suggest that Elijah’s status as a prophet makes it likely that his responses to the king’s messengers were directed by special revelation. In the absence of such revelation today, I think the statement is comprehensive enough.
I don’t think it’s possible to know whether Jonathan’s action was displeasing to God. The storyline makes it clear that God was working providentially throughout the events to depose Saul and give the kingdom to David. As I said earlier, he can use evil as well as good to accomplish his purposes.
I’d suggest that the situation with the wise men is closer to the Elijah question than the Jonathan one, since it involves direct revelation. If God gives you a direct order in a specific situation, then of course it overrides any other authority.
As to the contemporary examples, my original post posited that the preservation of life is sufficient basis for disobeying government. I would put refusal to transport to an abortion clinic and refusing to direct government agents to the location of Jews for transfer to death camps in the same category.
Jon Gleason says
Thank you again, Dr. Olinger. Perhaps your final paragraph also answers the cases of Jonathan and Elisha.
I’m not sure I can quite articulate this well. If God is immutable, would He give direct commands to disobey (Elijah perhaps, wise men definitely) which are not consistent with the truth of how He wants us also to respond to civil authority? Would He not rather give such instructions only in circumstances that would be consistent with the true and good way to respond to civil authority? If we say, “Well, God commanded,” aren’t we perhaps overlooking some of the most valuable passages about when He would command / want us to disobey?
I shall have to think on this more. We have far fewer freedoms where I am than you have there, from a civil government perspective, which adds to the urgency of really having this nailed down Biblically.
Thank you for the thoughtful interaction, you have helped.