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Civil Disobedience Justified

There is a Biblical precedent for civil disobedience.

  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego's refused to worship an idol in Daniel 3.
  • The Israelites' openly rebelled against the government of Egypt in the book of Exodus.
  • In Acts 5, Peter teaches despite being commanded otherwise by the civil authority.

Civil Disobedience Prohibited

There is also a Biblical precedent for obeying a country's laws regardless of whether the laws are good or not.

  • Ecclesiastes 8 says to obey the king's command.
  • Jesus says to pay taxes in Luke 20.
  • Paul instructs believers to obey the laws of their country in Romans 13.

Modern Examples

Here are some modern examples of where this issue is a sticky one.

  • Rosa Parks broke the law by refusing to give up her seat to a white person during the American civil rights movement.
  • Aaron Swartz believed that the current U.S. copyright law was wrong, and practiced civil disobedience by downloading academic articles in a manner that was considered illegal. Copyright law may or may not be Biblical, but if copyright law is harmful, then it's possible that illegal downloading of copyrighted material could possibly be considered a form of civil disobedience.
  • Adolf Eichmann dutifully obeyed the laws of his country by carrying out the execution of Jews. After WWII, he was sentenced to death on the grounds that he was obligated to break German law, but did not.

The Question

I am not able to differentiate between the cases where civil disobedience is justified and the cases where it is not justified. I can make up answers in each case based on intuition, but what is the Biblical criterion for sifting through each case? Under what circumstances is disobeying a bad law justified or even obligatory? Please provide a clear definition of when civil disobedience is justified Biblically and when it is not justified.


Note on similar questions:

The question, Are Christians bound to the laws of their country?, asks if there are some laws that should be obeyed even if they are not Biblical. The question, Should Christians uphold unjust laws that are not overtly immoral?, looks at the same question from a different angle. Neither question sufficiently answers the question: what is the Biblical definition of appropriate civil disobedience?

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A similar question I've been meaning to ask is about civil disobedience that is not directly about disobeying unjust law (example of Daniel, lunch counter sit-ins) but rather about sitting in Capitol/ courthouse to "protest" some law. I wonder if there are any (respected) historical examples of the latter. –  pterandon Sep 30 '13 at 22:19
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2 Answers

Civil disobedience isn't universally condoned or prohibited by the Bible. There's a difference between what God defines as right and just and what man defines as right and just. And in the cases where obeying God requires disobeying man then God wins. In each of your examples it's pretty easy to see that the decisions being made are based on God's rules and not man's rules.

  • The Hebrew boys were obeying God's law to have no other Gods before him. The Exodus story isn't about human rebellion. It's about God liberating his people. The Israelites spend half the time complaining (starting here Exodus 5:20-21).
  • In Ecclesiastes, Solomon continues on to say that "there is a proper time and procedure for every matter" (Ecclesiastes 8:6).
  • Jesus comments on not just paying taxes but remembering to separate earthly things from things of God. "Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s." (Luke 20:25)
  • Paul also says that And he commands the believers to "do what is right" (Romans 13:3)

Romans 13 is one of the hardest passages to reconcile with civil disobedience. But, because Paul says that "there is no authority except that which God has established" (Romans 13:1) and that "they are God’s servants" (Romans 13:4) means that any real authority will follow God's commands. If they don't follow God and if obeying them means disobeying God then they aren't really in charge. Which fits with Paul's statement before the Jewish leaders, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

The best Christian defense of civil disobedience comes from the American Civil Rights Movement. A group of religious leaders in Alabama wrote A Call for Civility as a response to the protests going on in Birmingham. In it they mention several outside agitators. One of those agitators, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail in response. In his letter, King insists that the mistreatment of the Negro in America is contrary to the will of God and goes on to several passages of scripture (including some of the ones you cited) along with several Christian and Jewish philosophers to show that direct, persistent action is the only correct response to immoral authority.

I encourage you to look at the works of King, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and Georg Hegel. King used Hegel's doctrine of right to develop the believe that justice is inevitable.

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"...isn't universally condoned..." What are the cases in the Bible where disobeying a bad law is not justifiable? If I'm not mistaken, all of your examples are of justified disobedience. –  David Englund Sep 30 '13 at 19:56
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Honestly there aren't that many examples of obeying a bad law in the bible. Rather, there aren't many explicit cases where it says hey this is a bad law do it anyway. That's the reason theologies on justice can support civil disobedience. The best example I have is Jesus and the taxes. Presumably he didn't think Rome was an example of good authority. He refused to defend himself when all it would have taken was saying that he'd never said anything against Rome or Caesar. But he told people to pay their taxes because not paying taxes is about keeping your money, not promoting God's way. –  crownjewel82 Sep 30 '13 at 20:32
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One verse that sprang immediately to my mind was 1 Peter2:16. To provide a context for the verse, I'll start with vs.13:

"Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men [and women], and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king" (vss.13-17).

What strikes me in this passage is that Christians are free. Ironically, however, we express our freedom as slaves to God! When we submit to and honor the "powers that be" we are fleshing out our obedience to God, who alone is the One with ultimate power and authority in all the universe.

Notice that Peter was quick to qualify the Christian's freedom. Never are we to use our freedom in Christ as an excuse or cloak for doing something evil. Christians are not to be antinomianists who flaunt the law, whether man's or God's. God, after all, expects His children to fulfill His law's demands as they are led by the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8:4). While we are perhaps wise to abandon the old adage "Let your conscience be your guide," Christians in particular are to have enlightened, sensitive consciences to which they are to listen.

Having said that, however, just as there are always going to be controversial, "grey areas" of behavior within a given community of Christians today (as there was in the first century with the issue of meat sacrificed to idols--see Romans 8:1-9:15 and 1 Corinthians 9), so also will there be differences of opinion among well-meaning Christians as to whose conscience is correct and whose is not, as well as which secular laws and regulations must be obeyed and which may or must not be obeyed.

Clearly an edict from a government or repressive regime making it illegal to preach the gospel is something we cannot obey in good conscience. Other laws will not be so clear-cut, however, as the ban on preaching Christ crucified. (Having said this, I assume the better part of wisdom in countries where "proselytizing" is banned is to limit preaching, teaching, and sharing one's faith either to underground, home churches, or to clandestine gatherings of people, generally, whether in remote locations or any other non-public places. The same would apply, I feel, to bans on disseminating the written word of God, in any medium. Years ago an uncle of mine frequently smuggled Bibles into countries where Bibles were prohibited. Today, an organized effort among Christians in repressive countries to transmit Scripture via email, podcasts, Twitter, or carrier pigeons would be, I believe, sanctioned by God.)

In other less-obvious ways, we must not be dogmatic. For example, to one Christian the seemingly insignificant act of putting money into an expired parking meter as a "random act of kindness" is clearly wrong (particularly if there is a local ordinance making the act a misdemeanor!), whereas to another Christian, it is quite permissible. In such situations, I suggest each Christian must listen to his or her conscience. If the latter believer is doing the good deed deliberately to flaunt the law, then perhaps s/he should re-examine his or her motives! If the former, seemingly "overly sensitive" believer does not feed the meter, does that therefore mean the latter Christian is right and the former, wrong? No, before God each one is right.

In conclusion, when God's word is clear about a given action's rightness or wrongness, and the powers that be agree with God's word, Christians have an obligation before God both to obey and not to disobey. In the few cases in which to obey the government would be to disobey God, we should listen to our enlightened consciences, which are to be informed by God's word, and we should also seek advice from and follow the example of the Christian leaders among us, whether godly elders, deacons, pastors, ministers, priests, mentors, and so on.

If you feel I should bolster my answer with more concrete examples, do let me know and I'll try to come up with a few more. Don

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