Friday, January 16, 2009

Christians and Civil Disobedience

Christians and Civil Obedience
Rev. Richard D. Phillips
First Presbyterian Church, Coral Springs/Margate, FL
September 12, 2004 Copyright reserved

Tonight’s question box asks, “How should Christians think about civil
disobedience?” This has been an important question to believers over the
centuries, especially for those living under wicked regimes.
The main biblical passage on this subject is found in Romans 13:1-7,
which begins, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
This is the Bible’s position, not merely for Christians but for all people:
They are to be submissive to legitimate government powers. Paul explains
this with two arguments. The first of these is theological: it is God, he
says, who put government officials into power and so they are to be
respected as his agents. Verse 1 adds, “For there is no authority except
from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Verse 6
says, “The authorities are ministers of God.” The point is that God has
put governing authorities into place, that they are accountable to God, and
that Christians should be submissive citizens. According to verse 7, this
submission includes paying taxes and rendering honor to those in power.
Paul gives a second and practical reason for civil obedience: “For rulers are
not a terror to good conduct but to bad” (v. 3). Those who do what is
right have nothing to fear from governing officials. This does not deny the
reality of persecution, unofficial and official, but states the general
principle that no government can afford oppose faithful citizens.
So, before we approach exception to this that might call for civil
disobedience, let us first observe that Christians are to be strongly disposed
in the direction of civil obedience, out of respect to God and out of a
desire to “live in peace with all men” (Rom. 12:8). Remember that Paul
wrote this to people living under the tyrannical and godless reign of the
Roman Caesars, so we are wrong to assume this obedience is only due to
rulers of whom we approve. In general, Christians are to concern
themselves with their own lives, living in peace with others, and serving the
kingdom of God, leaving oversight to rulers in God’s hands. In a
democratic system like our own, this does not argue for lack of
involvement in the electoral process, but respectful obedience to all who
are elected and serve in government positions.
This brings us to the matter of civil disobedience. One example of this is
given in the Bible, when the apostles Peter and John refused the Jewish
Sanhedrin’s command to stop preaching the gospel. This tells us that we
must not accept government commands that require us to betray our
allegiance to the Lord, either by sinning or by refusing to proclaim the
gospel. John and Peter responded not by organizing an armed resistance
but by rejoicing at the privilege of suffering persecution for Jesus’ sake.
Church history also provides several examples of Christian civil
disobedience. I think of the English Civil War, in which our Puritan
forefathers not only engaged in armed conflict with their king, Charles I,
but beheaded him when the war was won. Another example is the
American Revolution, in which Christians were divided in their attitude to
civil disobedience. More recently, we have the situation of Christians
under the Nazi regime in Germany. In all three of these cases, some
argued that Christians should obey their rulers no matter how evil, in
accordance with Romans 13:1-7. Some German ministers justified their
collaboration with Adolf Hitler in this way. What was the justification,
then, of men like Oliver Cromwell, who commanded the Puritan Army,
the pious Anglican, George Washington, or the celebrated Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, a theologian who helped conspire to assassinate the Fuhrer?
The historic answer, and certainly that which the English and American
Revolutionaries used to justify their rebellion, is that while private
Christians are called to obey their immediate overseers, Christians in
positions of public authority are required to thwart evil and to oppose
other rulers who have betrayed their basic duties. Therefore, it was a
Puritan Parliament that rebelled against Charles I because he tried to force
false religion on the people. With what I consider considerably weaker
grounds, it was the American Continental Congress – not private citizens –
which rebelled against King George because he required taxation without
What does the Bible indicate? First, Romans 13:1-7, while providing a
strong basic framework for civil obedience, does not determine the entire
biblical stance. In the Bible itself, believers are commended for rebelling
under the following conditions: 1) when the worship of God is being
prohibited (Ex. 5:1); 2) to oppose the taking of innocent life (Ex. 1:15-
21); 3) when the rulers are seeking the lives of God’s servants (1 Ki. 18:1-
4); 4) when it requires the worship of idols or of mere men (Dan. 3:1-7;
6:6-9); and 5) when it forbids the spread of the gospel (Acts 4:17-20).1
In each of these instances, believers were faced with a specific command to
violate God’s law, which they rightly refused and opposed. In most cases,
civil disobedience in the Bible is passive, that is, it involves not rebellion
but simply a refusal to comply or a thwarting of specific evil plans. We
might liken this to non-violent opposition to abortion today. By any
biblical standard, organized rebellion ought to take place in only the most
dire of situations, and should be advanced not by private Christians but by
those entrusted by God with the exercise of authority for the public good.
While Christians must respect the state as having been established by God,
we must never treat the state as if it were God, but in this arena as in every
other we are to be prepared to pay the price for obedience to Jesus Christ
in an evil world, even when it requires reluctant disobedience to the
authorities entrusted by God with our civil oversight.

1 See Norman L. Geisler, “A Pre-Millennial View of Law and Government,” Bibliotheca Sacra 142 (1985): 262.

No comments: