When is it right to disobey civil authorities?
The Church has wrestled with this question since its very inception. In fact the pre-Church people of God dealt with this tension throughout their history, and Jesus himself—the one who faced all of our temptations, yet never sinned—lived out his entire ministry in the midst of it. The Apostle Paul spent much of his own ministry writing and preaching while incarcerated for doing what those in charge commanded him not to do; nonetheless, Paul took pains in his epistles to compel Christ-followers to submit to every authority placed over them. How is a disciple to know?
The Coronavirus pandemic, the death of George Floyd and resulting riots, along with a highly divisive political culture and other factors have brought the issue of civil disobedience or submission in the life of the Christian to the forefront once again. Many are asking, “Why don’t we just open the church regardless of what the state says? Does the government have the right to restrict our worship? Was it sin for Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr., to disobey authorities? Were America’s Founding Fathers sinning by calling for revolution? Is there ever a time when protest, civil disobedience, or revolution are justified in the eyes of our Holy Judge?”
To be sure, the topic is deep and nuanced—far too big for one brief article. Nonetheless, to live for Christ in a sin-dominated world, it is a topic we must wrestle with at length. This wrestling is first for and within our own souls, not in debate. We too often focus merely on winning an argument, not on finding truth. We must find and come to terms with the truth of God’s Word; this is the truth which must inform the whole of our experience.
Trust in the Lord with all our heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 4:5-6)
In considering God’s thoughts on civil disobedience in its various forms and degrees, certain principles stand out. We shall consider them briefly here.
1. In all of creation, God reveals himself in authority and submission.
In the first chapter of Genesis, God chooses order over chaos, and creates an ordered cosmos. From atoms to galaxies, from cattle herds to boardrooms, God has created a universe of system dynamics, in which authority and submission are inherent at every level. Whether a brain to govern the body’s organs and functions or a star’s gravitational pull holding planets in their assigned orbits, God’s ordered creation reflects systems of authority and submission that reflect His “invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature”. (Romans 1:18-20; cf. Psalm 19:1-6)
2. Authority is granted by God, because He alone is sovereign over all things.
God rules over all things and causes rulers to rise and fall. (Psalm 103:19, Daniel 2:21) It is God who allows any ruler to rule, and He does so to serve His own sovereign purposes, even using those who rebel against Him to accomplish His Kingdom agenda in their rebellion. (Isaiah 45:1-25; Romans 9:17, 13:1)
3. Persons in any position of authority are to reflect God.
In keeping with the previous principle, those who have been granted authority by God must wield it in keeping with God’s commands and character or face His judgment. This may mean that God removes them from their seat of power. It may mean that He brings calamity on them or that their subordinates rise up against them in rebellion against abuse or oppression. It most certainly means that they will not escape His wrath. An excellent example of this is the three-chapter Old Testament book of Habakkuk. The book begins with the prophet lamenting the injustice of Israel’s wicked leadership and need for change; God responds by telling Habakkuk that He is about to judge Israel by bringing in Babylon to carry them off into exile. Habakkuk then complains that God would allow such a wicked and godless nation as Babylon to prosper; God assures the prophet that He is indeed the sovereign judge and that Babylon’s judgment would be certain and severe. Those with authority, whether pious or pagan, must stand before God and answer for the use of their power. The call to represent the Lord applies equally both to those under authority and to those who wield it. (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1)
4. All authority is delegated; submit to authority in accordance with its assigned mandate.
Both Paul and Peter command Christians to submit to earthly governing authorities, since they ultimately have such authority because God has ordained it (Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:11-17). Authority must derive from a source; the Sovereign God is the ultimate source of all authority. As the owner of a company delegates his or her authority to managers who delegate authority to others, so God delegates His authority to humans for the stewardship of His creation…including the stewardship of humankind itself. Delegated authority is always restricted to the mandate and will of the greater authority from whom it derives. When leaders violate the law of God, seek to undermine His will, or promote injustice, the children of the Most High King are called to stand for the righteousness God commands. (Acts 3:19, 5:29; Proverbs 31:8-9)
5. No human authority is without flaw; stop expecting it.
All of us are flawed, imperfect, and prone to sin; leaders are no different. (Romans 3:10, 23; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8). Because sin clouds our intellect (Ephesians 4:18), we are not able to reckon reality rightly apart from the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the systems of government developed by flawed humans are inevitably flawed as well. To be sure, some are better than others, but all are innately limited and imperfect. (Note: For the record, I believe the American experiment in ordered liberty, despite all of its flaws, to be the best flawed system in the history of human government; that is strictly my opinion and not authoritative teaching.) We will always be disappointed and frustrated when we expect our government or our leaders to be what they are incapable of being or to do what they are incapable of doing. We must always challenge them to be better and to stand for righteousness, but there will never be perfect peace or perfect government until Christ returns.
6. Lawlessness is innately sinful, and it always harms the innocent.
The book of Judges is the story of God’s people, having entered the Promised Land victoriously under Joshua, wandering from God’s rule and doing whatever the individual considered right, apart from external standard or rule. (Judges 17:6, 21:25) The net result was disorder, chaos, and injustice, and God allowed them to suffer from the removal of His special protection. History bears witness to the horrors of anarchy or anarchism (the belief that government is unnecessary and that individuals can govern their own behavior more justly), because the nature and core of humanity’s sinfulness is a wicked, depraved, and unpredictable heart. (Jeremiah 17:9) While governing authorities may be deeply flawed, the better answer is not anarchy but better, more righteous and just forms of order. Where there is no restraining force in a sinful world, injustice will always prevail.
7. Injustice can never be improved with more injustice. We must be governed by the rule of love.
This principle is at the heart of Biblical teaching on submission, and plain reason affirms it. The rule of love—to love one’s neighbor as oneself, which is the expression of the Great Commandment to love God with one’s whole being—is foundational in both the Old and New Testaments. The Apostle Paul follows up one of the most specific Bible passages on submitting to authority, Romans 13:1-7, with the emphasized instruction of this rule of love, because love fulfills all other commands in doing no harm to others. (Romans 13:8-10) He wrote similarly to the Galatian church (Galatians 5:13-14), quoting both Jesus (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:33) and Moses (Leviticus 19:18). This is the primary governing factor in the Christian’s relationships with others and our interaction with earthly authorities, be they good or wicked.
As we strive to live Biblically driven and contextually informed lives, Christ-followers must exercise wisdom and discernment. Every act of civil disobedience risks anarchy, and such actions must never be entered into lightly. Choosing to disregard laws or rules simply because we do not personally see them as valid is not essentially different than rioting in the street; the difference is merely in degree. When each one does what is right in his or her own eyes, rather than corporately submitting to an external standard of right and wrong, chaos ensues.
Nonetheless, there is a time when justice demands that Christians stand against those in positions of power who have abandoned the authority delegated to them by God and have, in effect, become rebellious vassal kings, seeking their own agenda at the expense of justice and righteousness. Knowing the difference requires discernment. We must always recognize the reality that our every thought and action must first be governed by God as revealed in His Word, not primarily by our own flawed sense of justice. The Lord reigns over all and delegates all authority, and His Word is our ultimate standard of truth and justice. When we rebel against those in authority, we must take great pains to ensure that we are defending, not usurping, the authority of the Giver of All Authority.
In every situation, we demonstrate that we are Christ’s disciples by our love (John 13:35). To do so requires me to empathize with another’s perspective and experience, even when I cannot understand it. It necessitates patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, and forgiveness without recompense or recounting the past. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) Christlike love seeks the best interest of my neighbor, even at great personal cost, and even—perhaps especially—when that love is not reciprocated. (Romans 5:6-8)
As we each wrestle with what God-honoring submission looks like when balanced with standing against injustice, be it related to government pandemic measures or generations of injustice and bigotry, let us be governed by the rule of love and committed to God’s standards above our own.