This article is part of a series of posts regarding how Christians should view and engage the great institution known as government. If you are just now jumping into the series, then welcome to the ride! I would recommend you start at the first post, second post, and third post.
A Sobering Consideration
Now, that we have covered much about how government ought to function and how citizens ought to behave, it is now time to discuss how Christians should view civil disobedience when things don’t go as they ought. The starting point is to perhaps consider our own tendencies on this matter. Some individuals are naturally gifted rebels who oppose any form of order in society. They are not against evil, they are against authority. On the other hand, many folks tend to believe they are obligated to obey those in authority regardless of the morality and legality of the commands being given. They act like indoctrinated robots who adhere to the computer program inserted into their system on any given day. Both of these extremes are incorrect. What we need is the helpful assistance of God’s Word which exposes each person’s sinful tendencies and also the path of obedience in this realm. Civil disobedience is a most sobering topic, a tremendous responsibility, and yet often a biblical necessity.
The Submissively Disobedient Apostles
I use the phrase “submissively disobedient” purposefully at this point. Because the Apostles of our Lord demonstrated an eagerness to submit and a willingness to disobey authority as necessary. No better example is found of submission than Paul’s willingness to die if he had committed an offense worthy of this penalty (Acts 25:10-11). This shows a submissive spirit that if Paul had earned the death penalty due to wicked actions on his behalf, then he would submit since it is just. Now, really think about what he is saying, he is saying he will die if it is required because of his guilt. He is not fighting against true justice here, he is quite willing for the civil authorities to exercise the death penalty upon him, that is submission to legitimate and good authority being exercised. He knows the responsibility of the state to bear the sword (Romans 13:4) and he will not oppose the correct exercising of that duty.
However, this man is the same Apostle who defied the civil authorities in Acts 16. Paul and Silas were not only unjustly imprisoned in that passage but also illegally beaten. Paul was a Roman citizen and it was illegal for them to receive a beating without a conviction from a trial. The magistrates send a message by the jailer to tell Paul to leave the prison (Acts 16:36). Paul utterly refuses this order on the grounds that they had been beaten publicly in an unjust way and so he wanted the magistrates to take him out of prison themselves (Acts 16:37). The police report the words of Paul to the authorities and they were immediately fearful once they found out Paul and Silas were Roman citizens so they came and acquiesced to his petitions (Acts 16:38-39).
This story perfectly illustrates Paul’s willingness to defy illegitimate demands from the authorities. The magistrates had broken the law, there was not a biblical reason why the Apostle could not submit to their commands in this case. He knew they had violated Roman law and he held them responsible to the legal system. Therefore, Paul was willing to disobey particular authorities when they conflicted with the laws they were to uphold.
The Motivation For Disobedience
Here is the vital question, why did Paul disobey the authorities in this way? They were not commanding him to do something unbiblical, but Paul refuses to submit to their desire for him to just walk quietly out of the prison. The only reason Paul disobeyed was to send a clear message to these magistrates that they cannot illegally beat Roman citizens according to the Roman legal system. In other words, Paul stood up for his rights under Roman law so that individuals in the future would not be placed under an abuse of authority such as he and Silas were subjected to in this instance. The Apostle is doing this for the good of others. Such is always the motivation of true Christian civil disobedience. It is always done for the good of others and the glory of God.
The Apostles also refused to stop preaching the Gospel in Acts 5 when specifically commanded to do so by the authorities. This example yet again illustrates their willingness to disobey if a command from authority contradicted their allegiances to Christ. If the government commands you to do something Scripture forbids, then you must disobey government. If the government forbids you to do something Scripture commands, then you must disobey government. If the government does something illegal by their own laws, then you must disobey the government for the good of your fellow man. All of these things are not done towards the end of acquiring vigilante status, but with the heart of love for God and others.
The Foundations of Proper Civil Disobedience
If you are to exercise disobedience to the authorities in a biblical manner, then you are going to have to understand God’s commands in His Word. Do you know what He has commanded of you? Are you familiar with Scripture so that you know your duty before Him? If you do not know these things then how are you going to clearly comprehend when an authority violates God’s Word? You will not only not know what you are to do in obedience to God, you will not know what not to do. Therefore, if the government commands you to do something God forbids, and if you don’t know what is forbidden, you will then be found walking the path of disobedience to God through ignorance of His Word. So, you must then know the Word of God if you are to disobey the magistrates in a way that is glorifying to God.
The next thing you are going to have to comprehend if you are going to correctly disobey the civil authorities is the laws of your own country and local region of that nation. Paul clearly knew Roman law for he understood the magistrates had violated it by beating him as an uncondemned man. So, he knew exactly how he could stand against this tyranny and best support the rights of others since he had a knowledge of the legal system he was under. This information allowed him to correctly apply the Word of God in his situation by knowing the best legal course of action to take. All of this means you need to be familiar with the rules and regulations of the country in which you live. Take time to study the legal documents of your nation and you will find yourself much more prepared to know the wisest route for civil disobedience should the need arise.
Lastly, it is said of the men of Issachar that they understood the times (1 Chronicles 12:32). We as Christians must also have a robust understanding of the period in which we live. Politically, culturally, economically, and in every realm, if you are going to exercise civil disobedience well, then it is imperative to understand what is going on in society. Imagine a Christian pastor in Nazi Germany disobeying the government and thinking he will stand before Christian authorities. That would be a dismal failure of understanding the times because he will most certainly not be judged by Christians. You will fall prey to just as foolish a fate if you do not understand the current climate in which you live. Understanding the times is as simple as accurately hearing and seeing what is going on in society and then applying the never-changing Scripture to those areas. You see the political arena, and you apply biblical principles to that realm so you can understand where it is headed. By doing all of these things, and by having the right motivations, you will be prepared to stand against evil civil authorities whenever the need arises.
Different Levels of Civil Action
The final area we must consider is exactly how do we disobey? There are going to be varying levels of action taken in a circumstance where the government goes astray. In some cases, the correct course is to simply come to the authorities and ask them to change an edict. There is a biblical example where Daniel and his companions are told to eat a certain food, they ask if they cannot do so, their request is granted, and the results are favorable in the end (see Daniel 1:8-16). Therefore, many times just by going through proper legal procedures and also engaging the authorities in legal questioning, we can find the situation settled through this process and this procedure alone.
In other instances, citizens may have to break from the governmental authorities. I am thinking of issues such as the American Revolution where the British government was acting illegally according to agreements, and after time the Americans saw that their duty was to separate themselves from England. Such action should only be a last resort after legal processes and the proper procedures have taken place first, but nonetheless, it may be necessary for some in specific instances. Other routes that can be taken may include writing to specific politicians about issues, challenging the rulings of courts, petitioning for amendments to be added or laws to be changed, and so forth. Whatever method is used, the exercise of challenging the government should be thoroughly thought through and not done in a flippant manner. Civil disobedience should not be in the hands of irresponsible loud mouths who act with carelessness. Rather, it should be led by men who have thoughtfully considered their duty before God and the best way by which they are to carry out that responsibility.