When civil disobedience is permissible

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Sunday LeftoversWhen the Scriptures speak about the Christian’s relationship to the government, the emphasis is consistently on the civil obedience, not civil disobedience. For instance:

  • The believer is to pray for his civil authorities (1 Tim. 2:1–3)
  • The believer is to submit to his civil authorities (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–15)
  • The believer is to obey the governmental authorities over him (Tt. 3:1)
  • The believer is to honor his civil authorities (1 Pet. 2:17)
  • The believer is to do good for the government and his culture (Tt. 3:1; Rom. 13:3-4, 7)
  • The believer who dishonors and disobeys his civil authorities dishonors and disobeys God who put them in authority over him (Rom. 13:2)
  • The believer believes that civil authorities are established by God and are servants of God (Rom 13:4, 6)
  • The believer is to give his civil authorities everything they are due (including taxes; Rom. 13:7)
  • The believer is to be thankful for his civil authorities (1 Thess. 5:18)

So the Bible repeatedly stresses that the believer should submit to, honor, obey, and be thankful for the government and authorities God has placed over him. It is likely that these principles are emphasized in several passages because it is the inclination of the human heart and the flesh to want to disobey and be rebellious. So the Lord repeatedly reminds us of the necessity of obedience.

Since all those things are true, is it permissible for a believer ever to disobey the government? And if so, when?

Yes, there are times when it is possible to disobey, but they are admittedly few. Disobedience is allowable under two large categories:

  1. We must disobey when we are commanded by the government or authorities to worship falsely. The example of such disobedience is given in Daniel 3 with the account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. When commanded to worship the golden image created by Nebuchadnezzar, they replied, “let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (3:18). They were simply following the command given by God in Exodus 20 — ““You shall have no other gods before Me. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (vv. 3–4). So when the government calls us to give allegiance to someone above Christ, we not only can we disobey, but we must disobey that government.

That being said, when we disobey the government, we can expect consequences from the government for our disobedience, and we are not to complain bitterly about the government. So Daniel’s three friends told Nebuchadnezzar, “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods…” (vv. 17-18). In other words, “Do what you must do, but we will not worship a false god.”

Additionally, even when we have a right to disobey, that disobedience must be done respectfully. We see an example of that in Daniel’s life when he and his friends were initially deported to Babylon. Even though they could not defile themselves by eating the Babylonian food, they made the request for a different diet with grace and humility (see Dan. 1:8, 11-14). Their respectful conduct serves as a fitting model for us and demonstrates what Paul would later write to Titus and the churches in Crete: “to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men” (3:2).

  1. We must disobey when we are commanded by the government or authorities to disobey a clear command of God. In fact, one theologian has identified seven specific circumstances when we can and should disobey (note how many of these relate to false worship):
  • When the authorities do not allow worship of God (Ex. 5:1)
  • When the authorities command believers to kill innocent lives (Ex. 1:15-21)
  • When the authorities command that God’s servants be killed (1 Kings 18:1-4)
  • When the authorities command believers to worship idols (Dan. 3)
  • When the authorities command believers to pray to a man (Dan. 6)
  • When the authorities forbid believers from propagating the gospel (Acts 4:17-19; 5:28-29, 40-41)
  • When the authorities command believers to worship a man (Rev. 13)

We should note from these principles and from the example of Peter in Acts 5 that disobedience is only for clear violations of God’s decrees. Disobedience is not for laws I don’t happen to like (like speed limits, taxes, and building codes). I may not agree with a building code, but that code is not forcing me to disobey the Lord and thus I cannot violate that law.

So Norman Geisler concludes, “…whereas believers are always to obey government when it takes its place under God, they should never obey it when it takes the place of God.”

We also do well to remember that civil disobedience is not an option given to us by God to make us more “comfortable” and to give us an easy life. In fact, if we disobey, life may often become more “uncomfortable,” because of the consequences that come from the government. We will honor God when we willingly and joyfully accept the consequences of our disobedience from the government. Peter in similar fashion to Daniel and his friends, demonstrates that there’s no complaining if we suffer as a result of our disobedience (Acts 5:41).

So obey the government as much as you can as often as you can. Disobey only when you are being compelled to disobey God. And when disobeying, do so with humility, grace, and peaceableness.