Civil Disobedience

May 18, 2020
This weekend at Riverview, I preached on a passage that calls on Christians to “submit to every human authority because of the Lord…” (1 Peter 2:13). This passage is a hornets’ nest of controversy in the best of times and Covidland kicks the nest with steel-toed combat boots.
One of the subtopics I didn’t have time to cover in my message is Civil Disobedience and its place in the life of a follower of Jesus. However, I recently podcasted about this so I decided to post the transcript here. If you are not the reading type, you can watch the video or listen to the audio instead. I have made minor edits for the sake of clarity, grammar, and flow but it’s generally the same content.

In light of the shelter in place orders and other governmental restrictions being placed on our lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, a fair number of people have reached out to me to ask about when Civil Disobedience is appropriate for a follower of Jesus. This article is my best attempt to briefly lay out a biblical approach and then, for the most part, I will leave the application up to you. I’m certain that my words will offend a lot of people, but please know I am merely trying to be as faithful to the Bible as I can. That is my sole aim.

To that end, we will start by looking at the Bible itself, and some of what it says about government and a Christian’s responsibility toward it. It’s important to know that a lot of the New Testament was written to people living in the Roman Empire, a nation rampant with sin on an individual, systemic, and institutional level. There was ritualized, cultic prostitution as an embedded and accepted part of the culture, slavery was a societal norm, and extortion permeated every level of the government. For instance, if your were to set a slave free, you would be taxed when you did so. This tax made it too expensive to set a slave free which perpetuated the system.

In this midst of this corrupt governmental environment, the Apostle Paul wrote perhaps the most famous Bible passage about our relationship to the government:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities. Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves.

Romans 13:1-2

In his letter to Titus, a church leader on the Greek island of Crete, Paul gives similar instructions:

Remind them to submit to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to slander no one, to avoid fighting, and to be kind, always showing gentleness to all people.

Titus 3: 1-2

These two passages help frame a Christian’s relationship with a non-Christian culture, which can be stated simply this way:

A follower of Jesus submits to and obeys authority, is ready to do good, avoids slander and fighting, and is kind and gentle.

How does this specifically apply to our relationship with governing authorities?

Paul says, “Remind Christians to submit to rulers and authorities.” Does that mean local, state, or federal government? Yes. Paul doesn’t throw in a whole lot of qualifiers for us. Broadly speaking, this means we do things like pay our taxes. What if you don’t agree with how the government is using their tax revenue? You pay your taxes anyway.

I hate paying my sewer bill to the township I live in. It seems exorbitant and ridiculous and I don’t understand why it’s more than water bill but I pay it anyway and don’t complain (except to make a point on this post). Roman taxes were used for evil and Jesus famously declared, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Mark 12:17 KJV)

So if our general posture toward government is submission and obedience, is there ever a place for Civil Disobedience? Absolutely. When the government usurps God’s authority we must obey God rather than man.

There are several instances of this sort of civilly disobedient posture in both the Old Testament and the New but let’s just look at one (where the above phrase comes from). In Acts 4, the Apostles (these were the guys who launched the church in the first century) were brought before the high council who declared,

“What should we do with these men? For an obvious sign has been done through them, clear to everyone living in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But so that this does not spread any further among the people, let’s threaten them against speaking to anyone in this name again.” So they called for them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” After threatening them further, they released them.

Acts 4:16-21

It gets really good after they are released because the Apostles take that moment to pray…

“For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your will had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God boldly. (Acts 4:27-31)

If you skimmed over all of that, here’s the timeline. Nearly everyone in the empire was anti-Jesus. The governing authorities usurped God’s authority—they didn’t merely limit what the Apostles were doing—when they flat out commanded them, “do not teach or speak at all about Jesus.” That’s a non-starter for a follower of Jesus!

So, what did the apostles do? They prayed to God and in doing so, they laid down their theological beliefs related to their dire situation. They started by acknowledging that when the governing officials tortured Jesus and brutally executed him they were, in a sense, doing God’s will. Yes, you read that right. Go back and look at verses 27 and 28.

They believed that the government, in committing the most heinous of hate crimes (you know, killing the only perfect person that ever lived), they were still somehow operating within the broad sovereign will of God. In other words, some of the time, when the governing authorities do awful stuff, things are still going according to God’s plan.

The Apostles then applied this to their situation, asking God to give them the strength to teach–even though they had been commanded not to–and that’s exactly what they did. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they went out and preached, they performed an act of civil disobedience.

See the paradox? They believed God was in control of all authority and also that there were moments when they should disobey that authority. And in doing so, they showed us when it is appropriate for us to do the same.

When any authority usurps God’s authority and says we can’t worship or obey god, then we may civilly disobey. For instance, if the government says we can’t worship God, must take an innocent life, must worship idols or people, our response is to disobey.

However, civil disobedience isn’t allowed simply because the government limits our freedom only when it negates our freedom for a very basic reason: all laws limit freedom. Taxes limit how we spend our money, speed limits regulate how fast we drive, and every single law follows that same pattern of putting boundaries on our lives. Most of the time, we rebel because we don’t like to be limited. Why? Because we and we alone want to be the ultimate authority in our lives. We think we are in charge and want to have authority ourselves.

When we are tempted to disobey authority, it is usually not because we think the officials are usurping God’s authority but because we think they are usurping our authority. We think they are taking away our right to do the things we want to do.

Suffice all of this to say there are certainly times when we should disobey but they are few and far between. And when those times come, we need to do be ready to do cheerfully and joyfully accept the consequences.

Let me use a culturally loaded example. In our country, gay marriage is legal. However, it is my conviction that Scripture is clear that marriage is God’s idea and that he designed it to be limited to the union of one biological man to one biological woman for one lifetime (’til death do us part).

I have talked with gay friends of mine about this and inevitably the question comes up, would I perform their wedding if they asked me? The answer I have given is that I couldn’t in clear conscience do so because I believe it violates Scripture and God’s will for marriage. But what would happen if the government said if I didn’t perform the ceremony, I would go to jail? Then I would cheerfully and joyfully go to jail because the government would be usurping God’s authority and I must disobey.

Now notice a few important details in that example. Just because someone is gay doesn’t keep them from being my friends. I know that Scripture teaches historical orthodox views on human sexuality but that doesn’t change my friendship with people anymore that any other individually or politically charged issue. In fact, my friends who are gay know my view on this issue and just because the government passed a law, it doesn’t change what the Bible teaches. In fact, I’ll go a step further, the government has the right to permit evil (it often does), but it cannot command me do evil. The day the government tells me to disobey God is the day I will disobey the government. And I’ll bear the consequences.

Remind them to submit to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to slander no one, to avoid fighting, and to be kind, always showing gentleness to all people.

Titus 3:1-2

See what Paul is saying? We should be people who are ready to do good and do it at a moment’s notice because we live on a mission. As soon as we become followers of Jesus, our reputation becomes Jesus’ reputation in the eyes of a watching world.

We should have a posture that is ready to obey and do good every day. When Paul says not to slander, he uses the Greek word “blasphemo,” where we get the word blasphemy. It means to “hurl abuse.” So followers of Christ, even when we feel we must disobey, we do so without hurling abuse and quarreling.

Can we disagree with politicians, celebrities, churches, pastors, journalists?- Of course! But we must do so in a way that does not hurl abuse at them. Paul is saying a Christian keeps his cool, is gentle with other people, and remains humble, regardless of what they’re faced with.

This all raises a big question: when you’re confronted with an authority figure you disagree with, what is your default posture toward them? Gentleness? Humility? Or is it something else?

For we too were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved by various passions and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us—not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy—through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out his Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior so that, having been justified by his grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. 

Titus 3:3-7

As followers of Jesus we are changed people. The way we do everything–the way we obey or the way we civilly disobey–should be different than the world around us. Our litmus test of whether we are representing Jesus well is asking ourselves if the way we are approaching a situation is honorable and showing a changed life by following Jesus’ lead on being gentle and respectful of authority, even when we disagree.

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