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.