Civil disobedience is the intentional act of disobeying a civil law or authority because of a conviction that one has a higher responsibility. For a believer, those “higher responsibilities” are found in the Bible. The aim of Christian civil disobedience is to follow God despite the rule of an ungodly authority. When obeying man’s law would put us in direct disobedience to the clear command of God, then – and only then – is civil disobedience warranted.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” But what does the Bible say?
Members of the early church give us a defining answer. God told his children to worship him alone. So they, quite properly, refused mandates to worship the Roman emperor. God told the church to preach the gospel, so they defied orders to keep quiet about Jesus (Acts 4:19-20). However, on issues where God was silent, they fell back on the admonition to obey ruling authorities (Romans 13:1-7). The early Christians didn’t resist imprisonment or abuse or even death. They didn’t place personal safety and well-being above state law. And they didn’t disrespect government officials, even those who seemed bent on violating their rights.
Thomas Jefferson said, “If a law is unjust, man is not only right to disobey it; he is obligated to do so.” But what does the Bible say?
It is easier to submit to governing authorities when we have the proper perspective of who we are. Believers are not primarily citizens of nations but citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). We have exchanged our worldly rights for submission to God and his plan for us. We are not guaranteed safety or prosperity in this world, but persecution and hate (John 15:18-20). And our hope is not in manmade laws, however inspired by biblical principle they may be. Our hope is Jesus and salvation and “that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).
Mark Twain said, “It is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.” But what does the Bible say?
Knowing who we are, we purpose to do good works (Ephesians 2:10) within the context of divinely sanctioned authorities within the God-ordained system of civil government (1 Peter 2:13). This means we do what we can in accordance with the law and what we must do outside of it. What we must do is simple: love God and worship him alone, love others, and spread the Gospel.
Balancing civil disobedience and godly submission is a powerful witness for the Gospel. It shows what our priorities are and where our loyalties lie. If we find ourselves crying “Foul!” at every perceived violation of our rights, it might be an indication that we’ve come to love the things of the world (1 John 2:15). If, however, we limit our protests to issues that are clearly contrary to biblical truth, we’re on the right track. If we face inconvenience, hardship, persecution, and even death quietly, reserving civil disobedience for only those times when a law would force us to directly disobey God’s Word, then we truly are “not of the world” (John 17:16).
Is civil disobedience ever the right response of the believer? Yes. Is it always? No. In the face of increased persecution and the passage of laws that disrespect biblical principles, it is important for believers to remember two things. First, we are not of this world. Second, God is less concerned with changing laws than he is with changing hearts.