Is Civil Disobedience Biblical?
Dear the many who’ve asked me to address the issue of civil disobedience,
Once upon a time I walked the picket line holding a poster of a bloody, “fetus” that had been killed by an abortionist. I wanted to carry the picture poster of the little girl who was floating inside mommy’s womb, sucking on her finger. But they gave me the shocking one.
They told me to stand by the curb and hold it prominently so that passing motorists would be certain to see it. My poster engendered a few “thumbs up” but most took one look, scowled, and said bad words at me as they passed. At least I assumed that they were bad words—I’m not good at reading lips. However, the middle-finger salutes were easy to interpret.
I was in a group of 200 or so encircling an abortion clinic, being careful not to come closer than one hundred feet as required by law. The police were there to maintain order.
A number of women had abortion appointments that morning. Some looked at the picketers and left. Others held their heads down and crossed the line fully intending to terminate the child growing within.
I had no trouble justifying my marching in protest. God told me to do it. He said,
“Rescue those being led away to death.
hold back those staggering toward slaughter .
If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who guards your life know it?
Will he not repay each person according to what he has done? (Proverb 24:11-12)
Many of our church pastors and congregants were marching that day. We felt empowered and unified as we fulfilled our duty to God and to those being led off to slaughter. Then, commotion ahead!!! Some of the picketers were crossing the line and were immediately arrested and led off to jail! There was Bill, one of my closest associates handcuffed, being led to a police car.
This was civil disobedience in action. It was one thing to legally picket against a law that we considered immoral. It was another thing to break a law.
Bill didn’t do too well spending two nights in the “tank.” He’d struggled his whole life with claustrophobia. No joke, his eyes were still wide open and darting in fear a full day after his release. In a sense Bill’s worth and reputation soared several notches as I explained to our congregation why Bill was in jail.
As I see it, our government is becoming less and less godly. Taxes are used for social engineering. Too many pro abortion laws are still on the books. It is illegal to mention Jesus in schools. A high school valedictorian is denied her free speech rights and told she cannot even mention the name of Jesus in her speech. We are entering wars many protest as immoral and yet the government fights on. Civil disobedience may soon be a choice we’re all forced to face.
My eighth grade daughter and her best friend were forbidden to sing their favorite Jesus song at the school talent show. We protested to no avail. They sang the song any way and replaced the name “Jesus” with humming and a finger pointed toward God in His Heaven! Everyone knew just what was going on! Jesus got a lot of glory and honor that night.
At what point do we Christians draw a line in the sand and disobey a law that we consider to be immoral or against the laws of God?
Let me make this perfectly clear: Disobedience of civil authority is justified when that authority requires us to disobey God.
“When civil law and God’s law are in opposition, the teaching of the Bible sanctions, if not obligates the believer to protest or disobey” (Charles Byre).
Martin Niemöller (January 14, 1892-March 6, 1984) was a German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor who was an early supporter of Adolph Hitler’s conservative Nazi regime. His attitude changed dramatically as witnessed the increasing horror and murderous intention of the Nazi hierarchy. He was jailed for his opposition. He is best known for his statement:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemoeller was arrested in Nazi Germany for preaching the truth. Another minister visited him and remarked that if he would keep silent about certain subjects and respect the government, he would be set free. “And so,” continued the visitor, “Why are you in jail?” Niemoeller replied, “Why aren’t you in jail?”
This is the story of Peter and the disciples when they were forbidden by the Jewish religious leaders to preach about Jesus.
Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:27-6:1).
Continuing to preach was civil disobedience in action.
As I put together so many of the biblical verses that have to do with civil disobedience, (for example, 1 Peter 2:13-14; Titus 3:1; Daniel 3:1-30 and 6:1-28; Exodus 1:15-22; Hebrews 13:17; and Romans 13:1-8), I quickly conclude that there is no one passage that gives the Biblical position on civil disobedience. We must use wisdom in deciding how to proceed in any and every situation.
One man’s jail cell may be another man’s picket line!
I struggle with the fact that Paul never considers civil disobedience as an option even as he lives under the intolerant, immoral, and wicked rule of Nero.
Jesus says to buy a sword and then never mentions the evils of slavery that plagued His era.
It is one thing to picket an abortionist. It is another thing to violate one of the Ten Commandments and bomb the clinic and kill the Doctor and staff.
Civil Disobedience can take many forms.
Think for a moment about our own American Revolution. To our fore-fathers they were freedom fighters seeking liberty. They started a war to throw off what they considered the oppressive tactics of the English government. To the English they were murderous insurrectionists who were willing to kill to get what they wanted. This was civil disobedience turned violent.
The overthrow of the Czar in the Russian revolution in 1917 was violent civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience is sometimes non-violent like Gandhi’s compassionate form of respectful disagreement designed to throw off British rule and eliminate Apartheid. The American Civil Rights Movement is another example of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Timing is important. Laws don’t necessarily have to be broken immediately. Many Christians are working through the legal process to overturn abortion in America. We are getting close. The tide is changing.
A couple of closing thoughts are in order.
First, when believers feel that they should disobey the government, they must be certain that it is not because the government has denied them their rights, but because it has denied them God’s rights.
In America we are at liberty to preach Christ, but Christians should obey ordinances prescribing the time and place of preaching. A Christian’s liberty is not infringed upon if he/she is forbidden to preach in the street in a loud voice in the middle of the night when people want to sleep.
Second, while many turn to Romans 13:1-7 for the Biblical guidelines for civil disobedience, it is good to know that they are looking in the wrong place. This passage addresses the issue of a rebellious citizen, not a rebellious government.
Let me summarize Paul’s teaching in this passage.
This passage declares that a good Christian is a good citizen. You keep the law of the land. You don’t run red lights. You don’t evade your income tax. You maintain the speed limit (“The last part of us to get saved is our right foot.”).
You believe in private property and private rights. You look upon the officer of law as a friend of God, not as a pig. You look upon the judge in the courtroom as the finger of God, that moves under God’s authority, not as someone that’s out to get you.
When one disobeys the law of the land, there should be punishment meted out accordingly. The Bible says, “Be afraid.” It may be as mild as a warning ticket from an officer. It may be as severe as capital punishment (“The government does not bear the sword for nothing.”)
Those who govern us we should respect and honor. They need encouragement and our prayers so they can better care for us. We cheapen the testimony of Christ when we smear the names of men in government with stupid and sick jokes.
We have it pretty good in the United States. We should remember that. Julie and I have travelled and taught in thirty-five countries and met some of the most remarkable people who chose civil disobedience over personal pleasure and/or survival.
I remember one young man who came to a conference we were leading in Turkey. He had recently come from Iraq where Christianity was outlawed until the overthrow of Sadamm Hussain. He was brought in by the secret police who demanded that he reveal the names of other Christians in the country. He refused.
Several fingers on his right hand were missing. Part of his ear was gone. His body was covered with cigarette burns. His feet were bare, swollen, oozing, bloody and infected.
After hours of interrogation they gave him the death sentence. He was taken by jeep far out into the desert, stripped naked and abandoned. His only foreseeable outcome was to perish in the desert. By God’s grace he walked and stumbled to Jordan where he was found by some Christian brothers and sisters who nursed him back to some semblance of health.
Can you image how humbling to speak to several hundred Middle Eastern church leaders while he sat in the back with his bandaged feet still weeping blood and puss?
Stories like his were all over the room. Some much worse…
Yes, even with crisis and tragedies here, America is greatly blessed.