In light of recent events at our nation’s Capitol Building and the close association of Christian banners and symbols with that event, I began to think about the whole question of when Christians may or even should defy the governing authorities over them. The fact that yesterday was the day celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and that tomorrow is the Presidential Inauguration, makes it all the more relevant.
Anytime I am faced with questions like this, I find that the only real answer is to explore the scriptures, what we call the Old and New Testaments. Far too often when people argue for things they think are “the Christian” way to do something, there is little time spent actually studying what God has already said about the issue. When it comes to obedience to governing authorities, the story of Daniel in the Old Testament as well as Matthew 22:20-22, Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 are essential to the conversation. (If you have not read and understood those, you are most likely off base when it comes to answering the questions surrounding civil disobedience and I encourage you to read and wrestle with them before diving into the conversation). As with any subject, especially one as complicated and emotionally charged as this one, it is essential to look at the full scope and context of what the Bible teaches.
The three passages from the New Testament make it clear that all governing authority that exists, does so because in God’s sovereignty, He has granted it to be so. Anytime we oppose that authority, we run the risk of opposing God. However, that does not mean that there are never times when a Christian may oppose those in authority. The story of Daniel, as well as the Apostles in Acts 4:19, gives us the guidance we need to understand the limits of obedience to authority and when disobedience is called for. When I speak of those in authority that can mean those in government, the workplace, or even the home.
What we get from studying the Scriptures is this; there are two times a follower of Jesus may and in fact should, disobey those in authority. The first is when they command you to do something God has forbidden. The second is when they forbid you to do something God has commanded. In the case of the Apostles, they were being forbidden to preach the name of Jesus, something they had been commanded to do by the Lord. That is why they said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” In the case of Daniel he was being commanded to do something that God had forbidden and to not do something God had commanded. He was commanded to pray only to King Darius, and forbidden to pray to God.
There are only two times a follower of Jesus may and in fact should disobey those in authority. The first is when they command you to do something God has forbidden. The second is when they forbid you to do something God has commanded
There are two words of caution and clarification here. The first is, you need to be sure that what you are being forbidden from doing or what you are being commanded to do, is actually in violation of God’s commands and not a violation of your preference or some cultural value. As an example, some Christians have run afoul of local ordinances that are designed to make life good for everyone in a neighborhood. They can be things like, how many parking spaces you need to have for every seat in your worship space or how many people are allowed in the building. These are established as safety measures for everyone. They are NOT forbidding you to gather to worship. You may have ordinances that prohibit the noise level that can he heard so as not to disturb neighbors. These are also not forbidding you from worshipping. They are forbidding you from annoying your neighbors. There are all sorts of local ordinances like these. I have seen Christians object that these things are infringing on their “right” to worship and they they must obey God rather than man. I believe that opposing the governing authorities in those instances is not justifiable from the Bible. In those cases, worship, which is commanded by God, is not being forbidden. What is being forbidden is an unsafe practice in the case of capacity, or an unloving practice, in the case of annoying your neighbors. You may need to add worship times to accommodate everyone to be safe, or turn down the volume of your sound system in order to love your neighbor better, but you are not being forbidden to worship.
The second caution is to realize that when you do have a legitimate, biblical reason, to oppose those in authority, you must be prepared to face the consequences. Just because you are right and biblical doesn’t mean you will be treated justly. Dr. King rightly opposed the segregation laws of the 50’s and 60’s because such laws were in violation of God’s teaching that we are all made in His image and they required us to NOT love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet, even though he was following biblical guidelines, he still ended up in a Birmingham jail. Even though he was following biblical guidelines, Daniel still ended up in the Lion’s Den. Even though they were following biblical guidelines, the Apostles were still beaten for their faith.
There is one thing to note about the Apostles. They did not moan and complain about being beaten. Rather, they actually rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. We need a whole lot more of that kind of attitude and a lot less moaning and complaining about not being treated fairly by those in authority. We especially don’t need Christians suing the government everytime we find ourselves being put upon in some way and being angry and rebellious because of it.
There are legitimate times when disobeying those in authority is the right thing to do. Your boss may tell you to do something illegal or unethical. The government may enact a law that requires you to violate God’s commands. We need to be strong enough to do so when the time comes. But you better be absolutely certain that it is because you are being required to do something God has forbidden, or forbidden to do something God has required. It is my experience that those times are fewer and farther between than we usually imagine.