Civil Disobedience and the Bible
Vol: 18 Issue: 21 Thursday, January 21, 2016
Ever since the Obama government seized on the opportunity to use gun control to disarm law-abiding citizens, my inbox has been filled with questions about civil disobedience and whether or not Christians should engage in it.
It’s an issue I knew I’d have to address head-on one day, but one I’ve avoided like a minefield, since no matter how I answer it, I will get hammered by the other side.
Today is Martin Luther King Day. Since Dr. Martin Luther King raised civil disobedience to the level of a mainstream political tactic, it seems as good a time as any to tackle civil disobedience and the Bible. It seems doubly appropriate, given that today is Barack Obama’s public inauguration to his second term.
Before addressing what the Bible says about civil disobedience, I thought it particularly interesting that Barack Obama has claimed as his two champions President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King.
Indeed, he decided to have two inaugurations — the one mandated by law on January 20th, and a second, public inaugural on Martin Luther King Day.
At his public inaugural today, Obama intends to use two Bibles — one belonging to President Lincoln and the other belonging to Martin Luther King. Dr. King’s Bible will be stacked on top of Abraham Lincoln’s, so that Obama will actually only have to touch one of them.
What is so interesting is that both Lincoln and King were known to be staunch, Bible-believing Christians, whereas Obama has to run ad campaigns to convince people he is a Christian.
(What does it mean when a person finds it necessary to provide evidence of his Christianity? It usually means there won’t be enough evidence to obtain a conviction).
President Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. So was Martin Luther King. Revisionist historians argue, with absolutely no evidence whatever, that King was a really a Democrat. If he was, then Dr. King was strangely schizophrenic.
Human Events points out the obvious problems with recasting Dr. King as a Democrat:
It was the Democrats who fought to keep blacks in slavery and passed the discriminatory Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. The Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan to lynch and terrorize blacks. The Democrats fought to prevent the passage of every civil rights law beginning with the civil rights laws of the 1860s, and continuing with the civil rights laws of the 1950s and 1960s.
During the civil rights era of the 1960s, Dr. King was fighting the Democrats who stood in the school house doors, turned skin-burning fire hoses on blacks and let loose vicious dogs. It was Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who pushed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sent troops to Arkansas to desegregate schools. President Eisenhower also appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court, which resulted in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending school segregation. Much is made of Democrat President Harry Truman’s issuing an Executive Order in 1948 to desegregate the military. Not mentioned is the fact that it was Eisenhower who actually took action to effectively end segregation in the military.
Democrat President John F. Kennedy is lauded as a proponent of civil rights. However, Kennedy voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act while he was a senator, as did Democrat Sen. Al Gore Sr. And after he became President, Kennedy was opposed to the 1963 March on Washington by Dr. King that was organized by A. Phillip Randolph, who was a black Republican. President Kennedy, through his brother Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, had Dr. King wiretapped and investigated by the FBI on suspicion of being a Communist in order to undermine Dr. King.
For his entire adult life, right up to the very day of his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King’s most implacable enemies were Democrat leaders. That isn’t opinion. It is history, unrevised.
In March of 1968, while referring to Dr. King’s leaving Memphis, Tenn., after riots broke out where a teenager was killed, Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, called Dr. King a “trouble-maker” who starts trouble, but runs like a coward after trouble is ignited. A few weeks later, Dr. King returned to Memphis and was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
That is not to say that there weren’t Democrats involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. But they were bucking against the party line, not toeing up to it. They were engaging in civil disobedience against the government. Which party controlled the Congress during the 1960’s?
John Kennedy was president (1960-1963), followed by Lyndon Johnson (1963-1968). Both are now feted as champions of civil rights. Kennedy and Johnson both presided over Democrat Congressional majorities in both Houses of Congress for their entire administrations.
It still took four years of arm-twisting to get enough Democrats on board to pass it.
The Civil Rights Act barely passed with 96 House Democrats (39%) and 34 Republicans (20%) opposing it. Thirty-four percent of Senate Democrats and 18% of Senate Republicans opposed it.
Turned around the other way, 61% of House Democrats and 80% of House Republicans supported the Civil Rights Act.
To call the Civil Rights Act a ‘Democrat legislative victory’ is to do violence to historical reality.
First, let’s define what we mean by ‘civil disobedience’:
“Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.”
So, what does the Bible have to say about civil disobedience? The first Bible verse most Christians turn to for answers to this question is Romans Chapter 13:1-6:
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.”
The Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen; the ruler that Paul insisted that Christians be subject to was Emperor Nero. Since Nero was among the greatest of the Roman persecutors of Christianity, one would be justified in concluding that the Bible does not condone civil disobedience for any reason.
Especially in light of the Apostle Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 2:13-17:
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
But that is not all that the Bible has to say on the subject. There are times when civil disobedience is demanded by Scripture.
The King of Egypt ordered the midwives among the Hebrew slaves to kill all the male babies born to the Hebrews. Exodus 1:17 says that:
“But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.”
The text further says that God was pleased with the midwives’ act of civil disobedience and “dealt well” with them. (Exodus 1:20) Pharaoh ordered the midwives to violate God’s law against murder — the midwives were justified in disobeying such an order.
In 1 Samuel 14:24-30 King Saul ordered the death of his son Jonathan for violating his order not to eat any food until evening. Jonathan was not aware of the order and was thereforeinnocent of violating it. Saul’s soldiers refused to shed innocent blood in violation of God’s law.
God honored them for it.
There is the example of Shadrach, Mechach and Abdenego, who refused the King of Babylon’s order to worship a golden image he had set up. They refused on the grounds that it violated God’s law. Nebuchadnezzar ordered them burned alive in a furnace. (Daniel 3:1-7)
Instead, they were joined by a fourth Person whom Nebuchadnezzar himself identified as being like the Son of God. God clearly agreed with their decision to disobey the king.
The same also applied to the Prophet Daniel, who chose to disobey the king’s order and was thrown to the lions. (Daniel 6:6-11) God also preserved Daniel alive, agreeing with his decision to disobey the king.
Another example of civil disobedience in keeping with biblical submission is found in 1 Kings 18. That chapter briefly introduces a man named Obadiah who “feared the Lord greatly.”
When Queen Jezebel was killing God’s prophets, Obadiah took a hundred of them and hid them from her so they could live. Such an act was in clear defiance of the ruling authority’s wishes.
One last example of civil disobedience is found in the book of Revelation where the Antichrist commands all those who are alive during the end times to worship an image of himself.
But Revelation says that those who become Christians at the time will disobey the Antichrist and his government and refuse to worship the image (Revelation 13:15) just as Daniel’s companions violated Nebuchadnezzar’s decree to worship his idol.
Those who do NOT practice civil disobedience in this instance will forfeit any chance at salvation. (Revelation 14:9-11)
The government’s order that Christians provide health care coverage for contraceptive and abortion services in violation of their understanding of Scripture would seem to qualify. Not all Christians believe that contraceptives are sinful, but for those that do, it is an order to sin against God.
So, what does the Bible say about acts of civil disobedience?
- Christians should resist a government that compels evil or commands a believer to commit sin or disobey God’s commandments.
- Christian civil disobedience should be non-violent, based on the examples of civil disobedience in Scripture.
- In the Bible’s examples, those who disobeyed also submitted themselves to the government for punishment.
- There is nothing in Scripture that prevents Christians from working to install new government leaders, provided they don’t violate existing law in the process.
As soon as the law of the land contradicts God’s command, we are to disobey the law of the land and obey God’s law. However, even in that instance, we are to accept the government’s authority over us.
This is demonstrated by the fact that Peter and John did not protest being flogged in Acts 5:40-42, but instead rejoiced that they suffered for obeying God.
So there are times when civil disobedience isn’t merely Biblical, it is mandated by God. I mentioned at the outset that my inbox is filling up with questions about civil disobedience.
When is civil disobedience mandated?
I think it is safe to say that the line is drawn at the point when the government orders a believer to commit sin.
“Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17)
It isn’t an entirely satisfactory answer, but it is Biblical. And nobody ever said being a Christian was easy.
Originally Published: January 21, 2013
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