The willful disobedience of civil laws as a means of protest has a long and established history among world governments. Mahatma Ghandi, a civil organizer of the first half of the 20th century may be the best known advocate for civil disobedience. Known as the Father of India, Ghandi fought against an oppressive system through the use of targeted civil disobedience coupled with an absolute demand for non-violence in all protests. In this country, Martin Luther King Jr. was an advocate of civil disobedience as well and used the protests of the late 1950’s and 60’s to protest racial inequality.
Others have stood beneath the banner of civil disobedience but have allowed and even encouraged violence as part of their protests. These sorts of organizations are today better known as domestic terrorist fronts. With the last month, numerous preachers have joined the ranks of civil disobedients by violating IRS rules and regulations regarding political activities by organizations receiving tax exemptions from the federal government. Is there a place for civil disobedience in Christianity? If so, what guidelines must we employ to decide if civil disobedience is appropriate?
The Bible clearly teaches that civil government is ordained or approved by God. Writing to Christians just prior to the outbreak of Nero’s awful persecutions against Christians, Paul said, “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” (Romans 13:1). Jesus instructed his followers to pay taxes to government when he proclaimed, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). The Egyptians were harsh masters over the Israelite tribes. The cry of persecution was heard by God and Moses was sent to deliver them (Exodus 3:7, Exodus 3:9). The Israelites were so numerous that the Pharaoh of the day imprisoned them so they could not fight against them (Exodus 1:9-11). Yet the masses of Israelites were never disobedient to the Egyptians. Even though God’s plan was to bring them out, God never directed any form of civil disobedience against Egypt. We may conclude that the mere harshness, incivility or godlessness of a government toward its subjects is no reason for civil disobedience.
There are at least two examples of “approved” civil disobedience which will guide our discussion. In Daniel 3, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar erected a great idol image and give orders that all must worship the idol when certain music was played. Three men of God refused. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego wouldn’t bow – they engaged in civil disobedience. Nebuchadnezzar was enraged and called for the three to be brought to him. “He commanded certain valiant warriors who were in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in order to cast them into the furnace of blazing fire.” (Daniel 3:20). We know their actions were approved by God because God delivered them from the furnace. In Daniel 6, Godly Daniel was the subject of a vile scheme in which the King was tricked into making a decree which banned prayer to any other than the King himself. Daniel continued his prayers as before, thus engaging in civil disobedience (Daniel 6:10). He was brought before the King and ordered cast into the lion’s den (Daniel 6:16). His civil disobedience was likewise approved because he was delivered from the sentence of death (Daniel 6:22).
We learn from these two approved cases the following:
1. Civil disobedience is approved when laws prevent obedience to God,
2. Civil disobedience does not expect or ensure freedom from consequences,
3. Civil disobedience only occurs appropriately in rare cases.
While one can agree with the principles of the preachers who oppose IRS control over the pulpit, and I surely do, one must not resort to civil disobedience when other venues are available. Even when other avenues are not available, civil disobedience remains an unsatisfactory tool unless one is prohibited from complying with God’s word or mandated to personally sin by government laws. Christians should be the best citizens possible and must eschew lawlessness.