by Effie-Alean Gross
Civil disobedience differs from the situational ethics of the 1960s where love alone was the deciding principle in moral behavior. No human code of ethics can deliver justice perfectly, however well intended. In a perfect world, where just leaders enact just laws, individuals and groups can conform to rules given by their regulating society or state. However, in our imperfect world, sometimes refusing to obey certain laws is necessary as an inducement to change.
According to both historical and biblical accounts, certain societal laws deserve to be broken. Only two types of law exist: God’s law and human law. It is never right to disobey God, but is it ever right to break human law? Yes. When human law violates God’s law, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29).
A Time to Obey
According to the Romans 13 mandate, Christian citizens are to honor and respect their government. “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (v. 7). An outstanding display of honor was found in David as he fled from King Saul in En-Gedi. When David had an opportunity to kill Saul, he refused and later stooped with his face toward the ground and bowed to him. Greatly moved, Saul wept (1 Samuel 24:1-22).
Today, patriotic nationals vote on Election Day, pay their taxes, pledge allegiance to the flag, volunteer for worthy causes, and pray for those in authority over them. Some even stay within the speed limit and state their true weight on their driver’s licenses.
Funny, perhaps, but obedience is no laughing matter. A structured society governed by a free people for the enjoyment of all is possible only by submitting to a sovereign God who reigns supreme.
He ranks obedience as an elevated priority in his hierarchy of behaviors. “And Samuel replied, ‘Does the lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams’” (1 Samuel 15:22). Any commendable deed, even a sacrificial one, is far inferior to God’s mercy (see Matthew 9:13; 12:7). Who can predict the wonderful workings of God when he chooses to bless obedience?
A Time to Disobey
Thousands of years ago in a lush garden, Adam violated God’s command, “Do not eat of the tree.” All of God’s laws are to be obeyed. No question.
Human law is another matter. Civil disobedience or acting contrary to governmental law has occurred throughout American history. The Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776, was a violation of British law. The 56 signers appealed to the “Supreme Judge of the world” as they set forth their independence in this important document.
Biblical accounts support civil disobedience as well. Consider the following cases:
Two midwives disobeyed the Egyptian king’s order to kill baby Hebrew boys (Exodus 1:15-17).
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego disobeyed a king’s order and refused to bow to his statue (Daniel 3). Daniel prayed to God even when it went against the king’s edict (Daniel 6).
Peter and John refused to stop preaching the gospel after being threatened (Acts 4:17-21; 5:17, 18 and 26-29).
When accused of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus replied that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28).
For the sake of moral conscience, many individuals have chosen to act against unbiblical laws.
A Time of Consequence
For every cause there is an effect, and this principle applies to the violation of God’s laws. The cause of Adam’s disobedience was pride, and the effect was judgment. Our resulting and impending punishment is eternal death. Yet, by God’s grace, he offers us salvation through his Son Jesus.
Compare the laws legislated by human government when broken; a similar cause/effect principle applies. David Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond and refused to pay his taxes because he opposed the Mexican-American War and slavery. Consequently, he was jailed and released only when someone, against his wishes, paid his taxes for him.
A disastrous end result can also come from inaction. Apathy is the friend of tyranny. A quote attributed to 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke puts it this way: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,”
Why were so many Jews killed in the Holocaust? Passivity is one answer. To explore the issue thoroughly would take volumes; yet, the near annihilation of the Jewish people illustrates the devastating effect of an unwillingness to challenge immoral laws. Queen Esther took a chance, risking death by the king’s decree in order to save her people from wicked Haman’s edict. Consequently, she and the nation of Israel were rewarded with life. In a plot reversal, Haman was killed. God rewards righteousness and punishes wickedness.
A Time of Judgment
Human judgment differs from God’s judgment. Sometimes, power-loving authorities bring about unfair judgment and punishment. In an attempt to eradicate an inequitable government, Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia. His ideas, however, failed to do away with corruption or produce an ideal 16th-century society. Beheaded for his refusal to make possible the marriage annulment of King Henry VIII, More died for his convictions. We find a biblical parallel in John the Baptist who stood up to wicked King Herod. As a result, John’s head was delivered on a silver platter (Matthew 14:5-11). The conclusion? No human system, past or present, can trump the greatest law of the land: God’s law.
God’s Word teaches us to respect others, fear God, and honor the king. Obeying God in these matters brings a biblical promise: “But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:13-20). “Doing good” also means disobeying human law when it contradicts biblical principles.
Solomon gave this advice to government rulers, their subjects, and all people: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). No one is above God’s law or his verdict. If someone decides to practice civil disobedience, he must be willing to come under God’s scrutiny. A believer’s rewards or loss of rewards are at stake in eternity. Here on earth, civil disobedience may result in fines, jail, or even death.
A Time of Reward
Is reform worth the cost? The British slave trade was abolished in part because William Wilberforce led a movement in 1807. The Women’s Suffrage Movement (1848-1920) earned women the right to vote. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, weakening segregation in the South. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. national holiday in 1986.
Plenty of revolutionary categories are being challenged today, and civil disobedience is being judged. As Shakespeare wrote in The Life of King Henry the VIII, “Heaven is above all yet; there sits a judge that no king can corrupt.”
“Quiet in the court.”
Effie-Alean Gross is a freelance writer in Fountain Hills, Arizona.
Civil Disobedience Overseas
Our brothers and sisters in Christ living in other countries know the hardship and danger of having to thwart the law in order to worship the one true God.
Sam Gill, minister and director of New Hope Christian Ministries of Pakistan, shares one story from his country:
On Wednesday, March 2, 2011 a Christian Minority Government’s Minister, Shabaz Bhatti, was shot in the head and neck by three Muslim extremists while he was driving to work. Leaflets at the scene, reportedly left by the killers, said Bhatti was a Christian infidel and was working to reform the blasphemy law to help Christian people who have been imprisoned for committing blasphemy.
Pakistan is passing through a critical situation. The government is having a hard time dealing with extremist Muslims. Christian people are growing more cautious when talking about Christ around Muslim people, which is hindering Christian evangelism among Muslims. Please do not stop praying for the safety of Christian people and for the safety of Pakistan.