When is civil disobedience permissible for the Christian?

A couple of Sunday nights ago I preached on 1 Peter 2:13-17, in which Peter writes,

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority,  14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.  15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.  16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.  17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.

Peter explains that one of the ways we keep our behavior excellent (2:10) and proclaim the excellencies of Jesus Christ (2:9) is by submitting ourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, and specifically in this passage Peter was speaking of our governmental authorities.

I believe the Scriptures teach a pretty radical submission to our authorities, and in my sermon I put forth the thought that we are exempt only when we are being told by the government to sin against God, or when we are being told by the government to do something God has plainly revealed is the right thing to do.

Some of the discussion in the church that followed that sermon was both encouraging and challenging, so I decided to expand upon my thoughts from the Sunday sermon the next Wednesday night. What follows is a bit of what I said that night.When is civil disobedience permissible for the one who trusts in Jesus Christ? Where is the fine line between obeying God in civil disobedience and sinfully rebelling against the government God has ordained? And how fine is that line?

At first glance it might seem that any answer to those questions that doesn’t end in the word “Never” contradicts the kind of submission I believe Peter is commanding in 1 Peter 2:13-17, but I don’t believe that to be necessarily so, especially when we open our bibles and see that it wasn’t necessarily never in the Scriptures.

In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus is in Jerusalem, days before His crucifixion, and the Sadducees and Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus with questions so that they might accuse Him. One of the lawyers of the Pharisees asked Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus responded with words that are familiar to us:

And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

The Old Testament has hundreds of laws and regulations the nation of Israel was to obey, and every single one of them had to do either with how they related to and worshipped God or how they related to one another. The Ten Commandments, it is often said, are divided up into loving God (the first four) and loving others (the latter six). In Matthew 22 Jesus is saying that the entire Old Testament is about these two commandments: loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.

Therefore, when we ask the question “When is civil disobedience permissible for the Christian?” it is prudent, even necessary, for us to examine the question through the lens of these two greatest, all-compassing commandments.

When Peter wrote that we are to submit, to order ourselves under the authority of our government, he probably had in mind the same kind of submission Jesus Christ displayed, ordering Himself under the authority of His Father. We are not, however, to blindly follow our government down a pathway of unrighteousness.

Jesus didn’t have that problem because His Father was, is, and will forever be perfectly righteous. We, on the other hand, are governed by sinners. We don’t submit blindly. If we did and we lived in Germany in the 1930s and early 40s we would be the most devout followers of Adolf Hitler. If we lived in certain places in the Middle East, Africa, or southeast Asia we would be the most militant Muslims. But we don’t submit blindly and the Bible gives us examples of other saints who didn’t submit blindly.

The Fiery Furnace

In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, made an image of gold and ordered all people, when the horn and flute and other instruments sounded, to fall down and worship the image. It didn’t take long for it to be brought to the king’s attention that certain Jews were disobeying him; most notably Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who we know better by the names the Babylonians gave them – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego.Nebuchadnezzar’s fury burned against the three, but even more so against YHWH, the God of Israel; therefore, he turned this situation into a personal quest to show that he as a god was more powerful than YHWH.

So into the fiery furnace went Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego.It is worth noting that the young men went willingly for the sake of righteousness, confident not in the fact that God would save them from the furnace, but that God was able to save them from the furnace if He so desired. They knew that God was faithful and so going into the furnace was not something that gave them a moment’s hesitation. They were willing to suffer the retribution of the earthly authority because they recognized that the heavenly authority was far superior. Much like Polycarp, the second century pastor at the church in Smyrna, they were willing to face the flames if it meant obeying the Lord.This is the mindset I pray the millions of Christians who are persecuted today have, and it’s the mindset I pray we will have, even at the risk of our own lives, when and if we are ever told by our governmental authorities to disobey God.

Well, we know how YHWH responded to the king of Babylon’s bombastic threats. The men who threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego into the furnace burned to death, but the three young men did not. The king looked into the furnace and saw a fourth man in the fire, one like “a son of the gods.” I believe this to be a preincarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And how did the king respond? He blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego and issued a decree that if anyone spoke bad of God they would be torn limb from limb, and the three young men prospered in Babylon.

We have no promise of earthly prosperity when we defy our government for the Lord’s sake, but then again neither did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. Nevertheless, Christians are called to remain faithful to the very end and never disobey God, even when kings tell us to, because Jesus is the King of Kings.

The Lion’s Den

In Daniel 6 we find Daniel himself serving the Medo-Persian Empire after they had defeated Babylon. Darius was the king and he was cajoled by his commissioners, who didn’t like Daniel, into making a law banning any petition to any god or man besides the king.Of course, that violated God’s will for His people. God had told the Israelites to pray to Him and Him alone. They were not to seek other gods before Him. They were not to recognize another man as god, so Daniel continued to pray to YHWH and inevitably he was caught in the act. The commissioners told the king, who did not want to punish Daniel. He liked Daniel. But the commissioners reminded the king that a royal proclamation could not be revoked, so into the lions’ den went the prophet Daniel.What’s great about this episode is that Darius himself had faith that Daniel’s God would save him. The king couldn’t sleep that night and refused to be entertained because he was concerned for Daniel.When morning came Darius went to see if Daniel was alright, and we find this in 6:20-22: “When he had come near the den to Daniel, he cried out with a troubled voice. The king spoke and said to Daniel, ‘Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you constantly serve, been able to deliver you from the lions?’ 21 Then Daniel spoke to the king, “O king, live forever!  22 “My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths and they have not harmed me, inasmuch as I was found innocent before Him; and also toward you, O king, I have committed no crime.”

Note that Darius acknowledged the God of Daniel and Daniel acknowledged both the sovereignty of God and the earthly authority of the king. “O king, live forever” sounds an awful lot like the spirit of Jeremiah 29:7, in which Jeremiah was speaking the words of the LORD before Judah was even taken into exile by Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” Daniel was seeking the welfare of the foreign king.

Daniel submitted to his government inasmuch as it didn’t cause him to sin or not worship YHWH. He kept his behavior excellent, and the excellencies of the one true God were proclaimed. Darius told his entire empire to fear the God of Daniel, and verse 28 tells us that Daniel enjoyed success during the reigns of Darius and of Cyrus the Persian.

“We Must Obey God Rather Than Men”

The apostles found themselves in a position of necessary and right civil disobedience in Acts 4 and 5. First, Peter and John were brought before the religious leaders of Israel, the Sanhedrin, and told to quit preaching the name of Jesus. They responded by saying they couldn’t help but proclaim the things which they had seen and heard. Later, all of the disciples were brought before the Sanhedrin and told to stop. They said, in Acts 5:29, “we must obey God rather than men.” To obey the Sanhedrin would have been to disobey the Lord’s Great Commission. Easy choice for the apostles, and they would continue to do that until almost all of them were killed for it.

The Hebrew Midwives

In Exodus 1:15-17 we read the story of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, ordering the Hebrew midwives to kill all of the newborn boys. What is interesting about this little case of government rebellion is that Israel had not yet been brought out of Egypt, and had thus not been given the Law of Moses. They had not been told specifically by God, “You shall not murder.” Yet, not only does the Bible tell us that His law is written on our hears (Rom 2), but the Hebrews could also look back on the lives of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and remember not only His promises to them of innumerable descendants, but also that He celebrates good morality and condemns evil immorality.

So even though the midwives would not have been guilty of any specific violation of codified Law, by obeying the Pharaoh they knew they would be doing evil in the sight of the Lord, and so they not only let the boys live, but then this we read this in verses 18-21: “So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this thing, and let the boys live?’ 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.’ 20 So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. 21 Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.”God rewarded them for knowing to honor Him, honor life, and not sin. Scripture doesn’t even condemn their half-truth (at best) in response to the Pharaoh.

Saul’s Strange Command

In 1 Samuel 14:24-30 we read of King Saul forcing the people to take a vow not to eat until the Philistines were defeated, but his own son Jonathan did not hear the command, so when he saw some honey he ate it. He had won a victory for Israel, but it couldn’t been an even greater victory had the people not been weary. Down in verses 43-45 King Saul found out about what Jonathan did and ordered him to be put to death, even though Jonathan was innocent of disobedience because he never heard his father’s strange command. The people of Israel, therefore, rebelled against the king’s order that his own son be killed. They disobeyed the king to rescue an innocent man.

These last two examples would seem to show us that there is a God-given warrant to defy governmental authority when it comes to protecting the innocent. True religion, according to James 1:27, is to tend to orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

No one is ultimately innocent with regards to sin before God, but there is another kind of innocence, a human innocence, that man has before other men. It would seem, then, that when it comes to protecting the innocent God allows for some sense of civil disobedience. This is a way in which we live out Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?”

Note something very important, though, and it is that the motive for any civil disobedience must never be the dishonor of the one in authority. The people of Israel were never trying to dishonor Saul by protecting Jonathan. It was not the goal of the Hebrew midwives to dishonor the Pharaoh. The apostles didn’t have it in their minds to shame the Sanhedrin. Daniel most definitely was not trying to dishonor King Darius when he set his face to Jerusalem to pray. And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego were not dishonoring Nebuchadnezzar when they refused to bow to his image. They were merely refusing to dishonor God by giving Nebuchadnezzar honor he did not rightfully have.

Would I have given up Jewish refugees to the S.S. in the 1930s and early 40s so they could be taken to concentration camps and killed? No, I don’t believe I would, and as I understand it, I believe I could stand upright before the Lord in that. I wouldn’t have been trying to dishonor to the government in that case, but preserve innocent lives in the face of evil. Could I even mislead the S.S. as to their location, as the Hebrew midwives did Pharaoh? Yes, I believe I could.

But what about a man like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor in the 1940s who was involved with conspirators in a plot to assassinate Hitler. I agree with much of his theology. He argued for the relevance of truth in the face of liberal theology that was abandoning the Scriptures and moral absolutes with reckless abandon. But where do you fall on his association with a conspiracy to murder the governing authority of his country?

On the one hand killing Hitler was doing away with a man who had wrought so much evil in the world. But on the other hand assassinating someone isn’t submitting to their God ordained authority, and killing Hitler would have only been indirectly tied to the possibility of saving innocent lives. I’m glad I’m not the ultimate Judge, but as I understand the Scriptures, I have to err on the side that his involvement in that plot was wrong.

To Bonhoeffer’s credit, I guess, he didn’t try to justify his actions. He wrote,“when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it…Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” And I thank God that He is the Holy Judge and knows better than me.

So where does that leave us? Well, I think there are some general principles we can take away from Scripture about this idea of submission vs. civil disobedience.

  1. If there is any ever doubt ever whether or not to engage in rebellion against God ordained authority, don’t.
  2. If your motive in civil disobedience is the dishonor of the one in authority, that is sinful and you should not do it.
  3. Christians ought to be very careful to obey the laws of whatever land they are in, as much as they possibly can in service to the Lord Jesus Christ, always remembering that He is the ultimate authority, the King of Kings, who has ordained all other authority. Keep your behavior excellent, because what kind of integrity does the witness of a criminal have?
  4. Beyond that, Christians ought to go out of their way not to dishonor their earthly authorities in action, word, or thought. It is so easy to slam or ridicule a politician you don’t agree with. Do the hard thing. If you disagree with a politician, let them know by contacting their office by phone, in writing, or in person with a well-articulated argument. I’m as guilty of the easy thing here as anyone. But we don’t promote the gospel or even Christian values in our world by ridiculing and badmouthing those who make decisions. That’s just a lazy, sinful way to make ourselves feel better. Don’t dishonor authority.
  5. Finally, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you believe civil disobedience might be the right course of action, then you make sure that the purpose is the glory of God through the preservation of innocents.

It is my prayer that we never find ourselves in a situation where we would have to make such a choice, but if we are, that we would be found faithful to our Lord, faithful to His word, and faithful to what is right in His sight… loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Author: Matt Privett

Christian. Husband. Father. Pastor.

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