As Christians, where is the line between the Biblical mandate to submit to those in authority and the call to civil disobedience?
First, we must recognize that as Christians we are dual citizens. Remember what Jesus told us:
Matthew 22:21 “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
We do live in the realm of Caesar, but we also live in the Kingdom of God. We are to submit to Caesar. Paul says,
Romans 13:1-2 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
We submit to governing authorities in the understanding that they are under the authority of God. The psalmist instructed kings in this way:
Psalm 2:10-11 Now therefore, be wise, O kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
Does the king’s disobedience of God’s commands justify civil disobedience? The answer is definitely, no. If it did, EVERY generation would have had justification for civil disobedience. Paul reminded Timothy that we are to pray for these governing authorities. It is clear from Scripture that submission to these authorities is a serious command and dissent should never be taken lightly.
Maybe it is because of my upbringing, and maybe it is just because I am a sinner, but there is a part of me that is always looking for a fight. I sympathize with Peter when he pulled out his sword and cut Malchus’ ear off. Recognizing that, I know that I must be slow to speak, and SLOW to anger. When do we disobey? Again, we look to Scripture.
In Acts 4, Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching the gospel by the Sanhedrin, the highest authority in Judaism. Their response:
Acts 4:19-20 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
After Peter was arrested again for preaching the gospel, he was again bold in his civil disobedience: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). His faithfulness to God led to his martyrdom by Rome. Paul was also martyred because of his unwillingness to comply with the State’s orders. Both of these men preached submission.
In Daniel 3, the Babylonian king erected a golden image and required all people to worship it. The Jewish exiles Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego testified before the idolatrous king:
Daniel 3:18 “Let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”
They were thrown in the fire. Three chapters later, Daniel refused to pray to the Persian king and was thrown into the lions’ den as a result.
I want to quote something from a 2018 Christian Post article:
In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” He agreed with St. Augustine, who claimed that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
John R. W. Stott was one of the most respected evangelical theologians of the twentieth century. In his commentary on Romans 13, he asks:
“Granted that the authority of the rulers is derived from God, what happens if they abuse it, if they reverse their God-given duty, commending those who do evil and punishing those who do good? Does the requirement to submit still stand in such a morally perverse situation? No. The principle is clear. We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God. But if the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God.”
The question that Christians are asking today is, “Are we being asked to disobey God?” The writer to the Hebrews wrote:
Hebrews 10:24-25 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
This is where the division lies. Some believe that we are being oppressed from fulfilling this mandate, while others say that we are just being rebels and need to chill out. I want to do justice to both sides. Those who say we are not being asked to disobey God point to these truths:
- We are still able to assemble online
- Our governmental authorities are doing this for our benefit
- We are not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together
- The church has effectively reached a broader audience as a result of this, and thus, no harm no foul.
Those who say that our primary orders from the Lord are being circumvented by the lower court of man point to these things:
- We are NOT meeting in person and the Scriptures are clear that this is what church is all about
- While we ARE reaching a different audience, others are falling apart at unprecedented rates. This is evidenced in the increase in domestic violence calls, suicides, and help line calls.
- Our founding fathers gave us the First Amendment to the Constitution to guard against this very thing. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
I do not want to be hasty in calling the church to civil disobedience. I believe the Scriptures are clear this is a matter that must be considered a last alternative. But we are commanded to use the legal system for the protection of the church, and this is the place where I believe we are now. The legal system is not only there to protect us from criminals, but from any rogue elements.
Romans 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.
In theory, if we are doing good, the courts will recognize that the governing authorities are out of line, and side with us. If we are wrong, they will let us know. This is where we are as a church. We are at the place where I believe we are being wronged to the detriment of the society around us. While I am not prepared to take matters into my own hands yet, I am prepared to fight for what I believe God is calling us to do.
You may find yourself in the other camp. I understand that. I hope that we can disagree in love, and you will continue to pray for those that believe it is time to stand up for the church and our freedom to assemble. Continue to pray for Governor Sisolak as well. He is not evil as some would like to portray him. He is simply looking at the world through another lens. Pray that God would open his eyes and give him great wisdom in navigating through the things that he has to address. We WILL get through this, and if we are wise, God will be glorified, the church will be strengthened, and we will all come together soon.