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 and nowhere else. 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.
Members of the early church provide us with the defining example. 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.
It's 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).
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 outside of it. What we must do is simple: love God and worship Him alone, love others, and spread the gospel.
Whether or not civil disobedience is necessary depends on the civil authority and the freedoms it affords its citizens.
- It is not necessary today to break the law of the United States in order to fight abortion; there are organizations and ministries that carry on that fight within the law. The midwives in ancient Egypt, however, had no such opportunity; they broke the law with every Hebrew boy they let live (Exodus 1).
- In the 19th-century America, abolitionists broke the law to rescue people out of slavery. Today, the International Justice Mission works with local officials to rescue trafficked individuals and prosecute traffickers according to governing law.
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).
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