Christians face increasingly radicalized opposition to the freedom of conscience. Secular governments continue to encroach upon freedom of conscience and religion, and as this becomes more frequent, Christians will have to choose whether to obey God or obey man.
If they hope to remain faithful against cultural and political pressure, Christians must be prepared to disobey civil law. To this end, Christians should carefully examine their situations in light of Scripture to approach the question of law-breaking with insight, integrity, and moral clarity. To do so, they need to understand the nature and scope of civil disobedience and when it is biblically justified.
Let’s consider a basic framework.
Ethicists David Clark and Robert Rakestraw define civil disobedience as “the non-violent, public violation of some law or policy, as an act of conscience, to protest the injustice of the law or policy and (in most cases) to effect or prevent change in the law or policy” that seeks to rectify injustice “through selective, socially potent forms of nonconformity.” It entails at minimum the refusal to obey a law in conflict with one’s moral convictions, but it can also mean breaking a law for the sake of addressing injustice.
Using a biblical worldview, we can see at least three pillars that support the use of civil disobedience.
The first pillar is submission to authority. The Bible explicitly says that the institution of government is ordained by God (Rom. 13:1) and those who resist governing authority resist God’s authority (Rom. 13:2). Everyone should obey earthly rulers and authorities (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-17) because obedience to civil authority is a reflection of one’s obedience to God (1 Pet. 1:13, 15). Moreover, Christians should not associate with lawbreakers (Prov. 24:21) and should refrain from using physical violence to overthrow earthly governments in the name of the Kingdom of God (John 18:33-38).
The second pillar is the Christian’s dual citizenship. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God, in addition to their earthly nation. Because they are citizens of two kingdoms, they need to frame their allegiance to one in the context of the other (Mark 12:17; Luke 3:14). Jesus’s command in Matthew 20:21, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” illuminates the difference between the Christian’s membership in these distinct realms. On the one hand, earthly governments hold some jurisdiction over the Christian. On the other hand, that jurisdiction is not exhaustive. It does not include all things in life, especially those things which belong to God alone.
The third pillar is the hierarchy of moral order. God’s Word is always above Caesar’s. At times, governments will attempt to usurp God’s authority. When this occurs, Christian should obey God rather than government (Daniel 3, 6; Acts 4:19; 5:29). When the civil law demands that Christians violate biblical law, Christians must disregard the civil law in obedience to Christ (Eph. 5:24). Biblical civil disobedience, therefore, is a form of submission to God’s moral order in protest of the state’s usurpation of that order.
The Bible offers many examples of justified civil disobedience. The Hebrew midwives hid Moses from Pharaoh’s men (Ex. 1:15-21). Obadiah hid the prophets of God from Jezebel (1 Kings 18:4). Daniel refused to eat the king’s meat (Daniel 1). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image (Daniel 3). Daniel disobeyed a prohibition against prayer (Daniel 6). The apostles refused to stop preaching the Gospel (Acts 4:18; 5:29). In Revelation, Christian saints will refuse to worship the antichrist or to receive the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:14).
These examples have at least one thing in common: They portray God’s people choosing to act righteously even if illegally. They choose to break the civil law in order to obey God’s law.
These examples also help us to evaluate contemporary applications of civil disobedience. In general, Christian should be people of the law, submitted to the law, and promoting the law. At times, however, civil disobedience may be necessary.
Space does not allow us to consider all possible scenarios in which disobedience may be justified, but whenever the choice is made not to comply with a law, Christians must be able to justify disobedience using the Word of God. They also need to consider how civil disobedience should be carried out so that they disobey in a righteous and explicitly Christian way.
To do so, we need a few principles to help us navigate these complex waters.
First, ground disobedience in the Bible, not emotion, self-interest, or prejudice. A clear articulation of moral conviction from the Bible will undergird one’s confidence and conscience in the public square.
Second, do not deny the legitimacy of the entire civil law. Instead, affirm the government’s legitimate claim to enforce law while challenging the government’s moral authority in a specific area of the law.
Third, accept the penalty of law-breaking. By accepting the penalty for disobedience, Christians affirm God’s moral order and simultaneously resist injustice, allowing them to preserve their consciences before God in both respects.
Fourth, use every legal means at your disposal when resisting injustice, even if that means using the legal system as a means of overturning unjust laws. In fact, using the legal system to protect one’s rights and resist injustice can be a morally legitimate way to affirm the rule of law, even if one has deliberately broken the law.
Fifth, be peaceful and respectful. Civil disobedience pressures the government to enforce an unjust law, which may shock the sensibilities of ordinary people and galvanize them into making reforms. Moral sympathy is only possible when civil disobedience is performed in a peaceful, orderly, and respectful manner.
Finally, act with prudence. Christians should determine in advance what can be accomplished by breaking the law and any negative side-effects that are likely to result. Breaking the law ought never to be counter-productive to the cause of Christ, but should be done with grace, humility, patience, and, above all, wisdom.
In the contemporary culture wars, the question of civil disobedience increasingly seems to be a question of when, not if, righteous resistance will be necessary. It seems the battlefields of the culture war are ever-widening as conflict between biblical morality and civil law expand into every aspect of life. And as the forces of secularism and progressivism politicize nearly all areas of life, the spaces that once seemed “safe” from politics no longer seem so.
We do not know where the next conflict will arise, but wise Christians should anticipate that every sphere of existence may ultimately present situations is which civil disobedience is the only legitimate choice for biblically-committed believers. In these moments, the Christian responsibility to remain faithful to Christ will not be easy, but it may be necessary. It is not a question of if, but when, we will be asked to deny Caesar for the sake of Christ. In these moments, in spite of the consequences that follow, may it be said of every Christian that they chose to obey God rather than man.
Follow Tim on Twitter! @TimYonts
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.