When Is It OK to Rebel Against the Government?
The political unrest in the Middle East is incredible. I never imagined a time that I would see the civil wars and rebellions now occurring there. I know that Muslims fighting against Muslims is nothing new; but I find myself feeling so sorry for the many Innocent people who are caught In the crossfire and who are just so much collateral damage in the civil wars now occurring in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia, Syria, and Lebanon–just to name a few.
I struggle with the issue of how and when to support a government which is not governing in the best interests of its people.
My question is, “Are there any biblical guidelines for when it is OK to try to overthrow a repressive, totalitarian government?”
I wish Jesus had been more directive with His answer to this question. Frankly, He never took time to give any guidelines about civil obedience against a totalitarian government. As best as I can tell He only made two references regarding the totalitarian Roman army which occupied Israel during His life time.
In the Sermon on the Mount He discussed loving enemies. In that context He taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, ‘Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles'” (Matthew 5:38-4).
The last statement is the pertinent one. Jesus referred to the Roman law that allowed a soldier to conscript any local person to carry his pack for one mile–no more. He instructed His followers to go another mile to help the invaders.
In answer to a trick question about paying taxes to the totalitarian Roman government, Jesus supported the Idea that Roman rules were to be obeyed without hesitation: “Then he said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.'” (Matthew 22:21).
By the way, I have often wondered why–with one of every three people in the Roman world, living in slavery—Jesus never condemned or addressed in any manner the evils and immorality of slavery?
I suppose that He let nothing detour Him from fulfilling His life’s work on earth. There were a lot of issues that needed addressing; but, they would have to wait for another time.
Based on Jesus passing comments, I wonder sometimes that overthrowing an oppressive government is much less of an issue to God than it is to us.
Paul has a bit to say about whether or not it is OK to ignore or rebel against an unfair, oppressive, sinful government. His reasonings are found in Romans 13:1-7 which I have taken liberty to quote below.
1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Paul wrote these words while in prison in Rome–before Nero came to power and the morals, ethics and good practices of the Roman Empire went “south” in a hurry!
Before Nero, the Pax Romana brought peace throughout the Mediterranean world. Paul wrote that Christians are to “obey the government” because it brings order and justice to society. Paul was writing during a rather peaceful time in Roman history. I wish to goodness that he had written 5 years later when Nero was rampaging and killing Christians.
From the above passages, I conclude that it is never OK for a Christian to overthrow or violate the existence and laws of a government.
But, that conclusion leaves me so “cold.” I don’t like where it goes at all. There just has to be more to the issue.
Immediately I think of Proverb 24:11-12:
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?
Solomon gave every one the obligation of fighting to rescue those who were being killed and persecuted by others–and that includes an oppressive government. Therefore, I conclude that rebellion against a government which has broken its covenant with its citizens (which is to give proper care and protection as Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13) is justified. The citizens are under no obligation to sit quietly by while an unjust government continues to violate its God-given responsibilities.
In Acts 4:17-20 the local law In Jerusalem was, “Don’t preach about Jesus.” Peter and John, however, declared to the governing authorities, “We can’t help but preach. We will continue to do it.” And they did. “We must obey God rather than men!” they said in Acts 5:29.
Let me elucidate several simple principles to apply when deciding whether to obey or disobey the government–to support it or to fight against it.
First, Christians are to be good citizens.
Second, citizens have a responsibility to stop, negate, or overthrow any government which is perpetrating, murder, mayhem, genocide, harm or damage to its citizens.
Third, we are to obey the government, except when it requires us to disobey the laws of God.
Finally, if government orders us to do evil, we must disobey.
Well, Concerned. I hope this gives you some food for thought as you work through your own conclusions and convictions regarding the rebellions now being perpetrated in the Middle East.