Must a Christian always obey the government, or are there circumstances when a Christian may (or even ‘must’) disobey the civil authority? Imagine you are healthy, but a new law prevents you from doing your work, must you obey the civil authority? Or perhaps you want to attend a church service, but the government outlaws such gatherings—what to do? Civil disobedience is not an easy topic.
God Instituted Civil Government
God made “from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26, NASB; cf. Deut 32:8). But the King of the Universe also instituted civil government in nations. Once you understand that God is the King of the universal/eternal kingdom, and that He has delegated authority to human governments, it is easier to understand Jesus’ saying that we should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mat 22:21). Commenting on Genesis 9, the Noahic covenant and the divine institution of human government, McClain (1959:47) says:
What we have here, then, is something wholly new upon earth; an institution by which God will now mediate His government over the nations through human rulers who, whether they acknowledge Him or not, are nevertheless “ordained of God” as “ministers” of His; and therefore will be held responsible before God for the manner in which they discharge their duties “for good” to mankind in general and to “execute wrath” upon those who do evil (Rom. 13:1-6).
Because human government is an institution ordained by God, the default position must be to obey the laws of the land—as numerous texts of Scripture make clear (cf. Tit 3:1; 2 Pet 3:13-17). According to Romans 13:1, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” God has delegated authority to human government over a specific realm (land and citizens). Across the face of the earth, various forms of government exercise this authority in various ways, and such authority is almost always expressed through laws.
Purpose of Human Government
Because all human beings are made in the image of God, the main purpose of human government is to protect its citizens from evildoers within in the land (via the police and the justice system) and from without the land (via the army who should patrol the borders, fight wars, etc.). The emphasis is on law and order, on justice. If a government fails in this primary task concerning justice, then it has failed its citizens (not to mention they shall give an account before God). Because the Noahic covenant is unconditional and continues to this day—you see the rainbow every now and then—murderers must be given the death penalty (cf. Gen 9:6). Again, the emphasis is on the protection of the image-bearers of God; on justice. (Incidentally, once this is understood, it becomes easier to answer questions such as: Must a government run an airline? Is the government responsible to provide jobs to its citizens?)
Because civilizations based on the Judeo-Christian worldview recognize that after the fall all human beings have a fallen nature, these countries have usually separated legislative, judicial and executive powers—i.e. not centralizing power in the hands of a few. If a human being does not honour God, but rather serves idols, then the fallen nature of such a person will increasingly take over (cf. Rom 1:18-32). If this process is not stopped by obeying God’s truth, that person may eventually call good evil, and evil good. Regarding authority and the power to rule, it clearly is better to diversify authority. As John Dalberg-Acton rightfully said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Moreover, it is also better to have a diversified pool of human governments—like 70 nations with 70 separate governments (cf. Gen 10)—instead of one global government which could fall into the hands of one or ten evil men. Of course, those who do not believe the Biblical record think humankind is basically good (notwithstanding abundant evidence to the contrary), and consequently these civilizations often see little need to separate power, resulting in more centralized governing structures.
Christian Duty and Civil Disobedience
Christians are firstly called to an unqualified obedience to the highest authority, which is God, the King of the Universe. But secondly, God has instituted human government, and so Christians also have a duty to submit to the governing authorities. Civil disobedience becomes an issue, writes Gill (2001:263), “when these two claims come into conflict, i.e. when God commands us to do something which the civil authority prohibits or the civil authority commands us to do something which God prohibits.” Consequently, civil disobedience is “the performance of an intentional act that is prohibited by the civil authority or a refusal to perform an act that is required by the civil authority” (Gill 2001:263). This disobedience can be carried out by an individual or a group. It may be “directed at a very specific issue or more generally at the governing authorities” (Gill 2001:263). Civil disobedience is public, it is illegal according to the (existing) law, and the aim of these actions is to bring about some change in the laws (Ryrie 1970:154).
Biblical examples of civil disobedience include Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah who refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image (Dan 3). In this particular case, God decided to vindicate these three heroes of the faith and He protected them through the fiery furnace. Notice that there was no possibility of Nebuchadnezzar’s law being challenged in a court of law. Another example is Daniel who continued to pray to God and, by doing so, refused to obey an unalterable law of the Medes and Persians which stated that no petitions may be made other than to the human king (cf. Dan 6:1-29). God intervened to protect Daniel’s life in a den of lions. God does not always intervene like He did with Daniel and his three friends. In New Testament times we see the apostles disobeyed a command of the Sanhedrin, saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19).
Principle and Conduct
A principle emerges from the above Biblical examples: “Disobedience of higher authority seems justified when the authority requires a believer to disobey the laws of God” (Ryrie 1970:159). The most clear-cut example of civil disobedience is when a human government forbids the worship of God. Clearly, such a command must be disobeyed. Or the other way round: when a human ruler requires to be worshipped—that too must be disobeyed.
What should a Christian do when a civil authority requires you to do something which God forbids, or prohibits you from doing something which God commands? Before a Christian jumps onto an anarchic “rebel with a cause” bandwagon, consider the following:
- Pray about it. Search the Scriptures.
- Make sure you understand the laws of God you are living under. For example, Christians today are under the New covenant with its law of Christ; we are not under the Mosaic covenant with its law of Moses. In other words, we are not in Israel in Old Testament times living in a theocracy.
- Iron sharpens iron: If you contemplate acts of civil disobedience, try to discuss this first with mature Christians who will not hesitate to contradict you if your views are in error. As a Christian, you do not want to publicly disobey human government, and then find out in prison that you were, in fact, quite wrong.
- We have the right and duty to work for the repeal of those laws which require Christians to disobey the laws of God. If possible, first attempt to have these civil laws changed through the courts. Admittedly, there is not always time to go through such a process.
- If you are certain you must disobey the civil authority, then consider the best means to achieve the best ends. If possible, do so in a non-violent manner. Try not to assert your individual rights at the expense of the rights of others. Remain humble. And consider that you will likely face punitive consequences for your civil disobedience.
Possible Application of the Principle
Even before the fall, God commanded humankind to work (cf. Gen 2:15). After the fall, human work is more difficult, but work is still an ordinance of God (cf. Gen 3:17-19). The apostle Paul wrote the following to the Thessalonians: “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread” (2 Thes 3:10-12). God is clearly still commanding humankind to work; it is part of the New covenant’s law of Christ. But what if human government makes it impossible for you to work? My personal conclusion is that I must continue to work because this is a clear command from God—and God must be obeyed above civil authority. Utopian, socialist-Marxist promises about “universal basic income” is just that: promises by fallen human beings to other fallen human beings. Human government does not provide or sustain creation; God does. God is the great I AM, not civil government.
How about church meetings? Government has its God-ordained sphere of authority; and churches have their God-ordained sphere of authority. The author of Hebrews commanded Jewish believers near AD 70 not to forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:25). Quite evidently, believers are to meet together. In a local church, the elders received authority from the Lord Jesus Christ over a particular group of believers. Since these elders do not report back to the government, but give account to Christ, they must decide on this matter.
We do not know the timing of end time events, but it seems clear that the global scene is slowly but surely being “greatly reset” for a one world government, out of which a global religious system and ten kings will arise—and out of which the Antichrist will come (cf. Dan 7:23-25; Rev 13; 17). Evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. An anti-nationalist process will gather steam in favour of one global government, ultimately falling under the man of lawlessness (cf. Dan 11:36-39; 2 Thes 2:3-9). The difficult topic of civil disobedience will become more and more relevant. Meanwhile, “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pet 1:19). God laughs and scoffs at the kings of the earth who take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed (cf. Ps 2:2-4). Still, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12). But with the breath of His mouth and by the appearance of His coming, the Lord Jesus Christ will end the lawless one and his evil government (cf. 2 Thes 2:8). Then the King of the Universe will have Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on the throne of David, ruling over all the nations in justice and righteousness. We know the end result of the end times, and so glorify God, grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord, edify fellow-believers, and proclaim the gospel of Christ.
Gill, D.W., 2001, ‘Civil Disobedience’, in W.A. Elwell (red.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd Edition, pp. 263-264, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.
McClain, A. J., 1959, The Greatness of the Kingdom: An Inductive Study of the Kingdom of God, BMH Books, Winona Lake.
Ryrie, C.C., 1970, ‘The Christian and Civil Disobedience’, Bibliotheca Sacra 127(506):153-162.