The Christian and Civil Disobedience

Twice in my recent sermon series (Basic Christian Growth, based on the Book of Acts) and once in my Christmas series (when we got to the Magi), I made a comment that raised some eyebrows.  I said, “If there is a conflict between the law of the land and the command of God, we must choose to obey God.”   I based this on the clear teaching of the Bible.  The Apostles chose to disobey the Sanhedrin in Israel and the Magi chose to obey God instead of reporting back to King Herod as they had been instructed.

Apparently, many people started thinking about these things and asking me questions.  “When is it appropriate to disobey the law of your nation?”  “How do you justify it to yourself and others if you do so?”  “Is what is typically called ‘civil disobedience’ in American life appropriate for the Christian?  And, several made it personal, “Would you—Pastor Jack—ever commit an act of civil disobedience?”

It is a touchy subject for Americans, for we like to see ourselves as a Christian Nation and we have therefore equated obeying the law with obeying God.  And there is strong Biblical justification for doing so, for there are many passages such as this one from the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-2, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”  Peter said something very similar in 1 Peter 2:13-14, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”

Clearly, the default position for believers is to obey the law of the land.  This is what God wants for us, and He has promised that He will bring judgment on those who disobey.

Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of civil disobedience in the Bible.  And there are enough of them for us to take notice and modify our thinking about obeying the law of the land:

  • The Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 (Shiphrah and Puah) refused to kill baby boys as they had been instructed by the Pharaoh.

  • Rahab refused to obey the King of Jericho and turn in the Hebrew spies; instead she hid them and helped them escape. (Joshua 2)

  • A prophet named Obadiah hid 100 of the Lord’s prophets from Jezebel, in direct disobedience to the Queen. (I Kings 18)

  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to obey King Nebuchadnezzar and bow down before a false God. (Daniel 3)

  • Daniel was told he couldn’t pray to God; he did so. (Daniel 6)

  • Jesus, of course, was crucified because He defied Roman and Jewish law.

  • And the entire New Testament was, at least in part, a declaration of the believer’s right to obey God rather than man and to preach Jesus even if it led to imprisonment, beatings, or death. (See Acts 4:18-20 and Acts 5:29, in which Peter declared, “We must obey God rather than human beings.”

The “default” position of the believer is to obey the law of the land, but there is a clear exception to that position.  When there is a conflict between God’s law and man’s law, we must choose to obey God’s law rather than man’s law.  It may bring penalties and even death and we willingly take that risk, but our ultimate allegiance is to God.

That exception, however, is not to be taken lightly.  We cannot claim—apart from clear Biblical support—that God led us to disobey a law of the land.  We cannot take verses out of context to support our right to disobey a law of the land we do not like.  It is not enough to claim some vague spiritual sense of direction from God that is not supported by Scripture.  If we are going to choose to disobey a law of the land, we need clear and overwhelming Biblical support to do so.

Martin Luther King, Jr., thought deeply about this issue.  In his Letter From A Birmingham Jail, he described civil disobedience in terms of “unjust laws.” He says that there are both “just” laws and “unjust laws.”  An unjust law “is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” of God.  We are obligated both morally and legally to obey just laws, but we have a moral responsibility to resist and even disobey unjust laws when they violate God’s law.

That’s why Shiphrah, Puah, Rahab, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Daniel, Obadiah, the Magi, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and hundreds of believers could disobey the law of their land.  They chose to obey higher and more important laws—God’s laws.

That’s why William Tyndale could honor God by translating the Bible into English at great personal risk in defiance of the King.  That’s why Harriett Tubman could defy the law of the land and lead slaves to freedom.  That’s why Corrie Ten Boom could choose to hide Jews during the holocaust.  That’s why Rosa Parks could choose to sit in front of the bus.  And that’s why millions of believers meet to worship Jesus in countries where it is illegal to do so.

We are called to obey the law of the land.  But when there is a clear conflict between the law of the land and God’s law, our greatest responsibility and ultimate allegiance is to God’s law.

Why is this important?

It’s important for us to know because we are not a perfect “Christian nation.”  Our laws will not always be in line with God’s laws.  And, to tell the truth, our laws have never been perfectly in line with God’s laws.  We’ve had laws that allowed slavery.  We’ve had laws that protected and promoted racism even after slavery was abolished.  We’ve had laws that discriminate unfairly against women.  We have laws that protect the right to abortion.  And we’ve had otherwise “just” laws that were enforced “unjustly” against minorities or to protect the rich.

We’re now beginning to see laws (or court decisions) that limit religious freedom in various ways, and our fear is that our right to evangelize and promote our faith may be curtailed, just as it was in the days of the Apostles.  We will resist these laws, and even break them if necessary.

I’m not a crusader.  You’re not likely to see me marching in the streets or bringing signs to rallies.  Though I’ve been tempted, I’m not likely to run for public office to change the laws.  God’s called me to be a pastor, not (at least not yet) a politician.

But I want to make one thing perfectly clear.  My first allegiance will be to God and His laws.  So I will worship Him.  And I will accept His call to love people—all people.  I will stand up for the unborn, help the homeless, care for the aliens in our land, visit the criminals, and seek justice for those who have had it denied.  I will preach Jesus and follow Him.  I will take a stand against sin, but I will love the sinner and err—if I must err—on the side of grace

At the same time, I will love the USA and I gladly pledge allegiance to our country.  I will obey her laws, respect her leaders, pay my taxes, vote faithfully, and pray for my country.

But my first allegiance is to Jesus. If I have to commit an act of “civil disobedience” in order to follow Him, I will do so and accept whatever penalty comes my way.

I love our country, and I will follow our laws in every respect—except when they violate God’s laws.

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