A Biblical Look at Civil Disobedience

By Brannon S. Howse

Under some circumstances Christians are called to disobey the laws of government. True. 

Civil disobedience by Christians is always wrong and unbiblical. False. 


Although God set up the three distinct social institutions of family, church, and state with differing realms of responsibility and authority (we discuss this further in answer 5.3), many Christians mistakenly believe that civil government always trumps church and family government. This false understanding at times has caused Christians to offer more allegiance to civil government than to God by reallocating the rightful responsibility and authority of family and church governments to the state, and there is a serious danger in doing so.

To illustrate this peril, I’ll tell you about my friend Mark. Mark regularly shares Jesus Christ with people because he knows that 60,000 people each day step into eternity. Mark says, “These people may leave this earth, but they are not dead. They are either alive and well or alive in hell.”

Because of Mark’s deep and kindly concern for eternal souls, he shares the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ with as many as he can in any given day. In doing so, he has encountered some surprising obstacles. In 2004 alone, he was threatened with arrest nine times by American police officers for sharing his faith with people in airports, malls, and on public streets.

Amazingly, many police officers, through lack of understanding of the law and their acceptance of the ACLU’s definition of the “separation of church and state,” believe Mark is breaking some state or federal law. He is not, of course, but it may not be long before they are right, and Mark will be subject to arrest.

As America becomes increasingly secular, and the judiciary takes away more and more of our religious liberties, Christians need to become acquainted with the Biblical response to tyranny and to understand the proper time, place, and type of civil disobedience allowed by God. Unfortunately, many American pastors believe God condemns all civil disobedience, and others believe it is so rarely permissible as to be a non-option. I even know people who believe Corrie ten Boom sinned by hiding Jews in her home during the Nazi occupation of Europe!

This view is not uncommon among some Christians who have convinced themselves that we can only disobey civil government when we are personally asked to disobey God and His laws. In other words, Corrie ten Boom was not personally asked to disobey the government of Hitler. She chose to disobey the government by safeguarding Jews.

What would you or I have done if we had lived in Europe during World War II and saw Jews being led off to ovens and concentration camps? If I am not personally asked to round them up or drive the truck that will carry them to their deaths, does that get me off the hook? Hardly. 

In Moral Dilemmas, Kerby Anderson does a great job of describing the most common misinterpretation of Romans 13:

[quote] Some critics argue that civil disobedience is prohibited by the clear admonition in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is not authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (NASB). Yet even this passage seems to provide a possible argument for disobeying a government that has exceeded its authority. The verses following these speak of the government’s role and function. The ruler is to be a “servant of God,” and government should reward good and punish evil. Government that fails to do so is outside God’s mandated authority and function. Government is not autonomous; it has delegated authority from God. It is to restrain evil and punish wrongdoers. When it does violate God’s delegated role and refuses to reward good and punish evil, it has not proper authority. The apostle Paul called for believers to “be subject” to government, but he did not instruct them to “obey” every command of government. When government issues an unjust or unbiblical injunction, Christians have a higher authority. One can be “subject” to the authority of the state but still refuse to “obey” a specific law which is contrary to biblical standards. [end quote]

Similarly, Francis Schaeffer warned, “One either confesses that God is the final authority, or one confesses that Caesar is Lord.” We will serve God or serve man, but we cannot serve both. We obey government officials except when those authorities support  civil laws that violate the laws of God. First Peter 2:13-14 also makes it clear that God’s plan for civil government is to punish evildoers and to protect and praise those who do right: “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” 

Kerby Anderson describes the significance of “Lex Rex,” a great historical piece written on the subject of civil authority:

[quote] The best articulation of these biblical principles can be found in Samuel Rutherford’s essay “Lex Rex.” Arguing that governmental law was founded on the law of God, he rejected the seventeenth-century idea of the “divine right of kings.” The king was not the ultimate authority, God’s law was (hence the title Lex Rex, “The law is king”). If the king and the government disobeyed the law, then they were to be disobeyed. He argued that all men; including the king were under God’s law and not above it. According to Rutherford the civil magistrate was a “fiduciary figure” who held his authority in trust for the people. If that trust was violated, the people had a political basis for resistance. Not surprisingly “Lex Rex” was banned in England and Scotland because it was seen as treasonous and fomenting political rebellion.  [end quote]


While we can hope never to have to disobey the laws of our communities and country in order to walk in good conscience with God, there is no guarantee that we’ll never be called to civil disobedience. Knowing where you stand from a Biblical viewpoint, though, is the first step in being prepared to do what God requires.


When civil government steps outside of God’s ordained purpose and persecutes righteous people, promotes evil, and does injustice to the innocent, the moral authority of the civil government has been lost, and Christians are free to disobey. As we just said, disobedience to government may be required in the process of opposing evil, promoting righteousness, defending the weak, and providing for the safety of one’s family.

While God allows governments to come into being, that does not mean God approves of every government. To draw an analogy: God allowed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, but God did not approve of them. If, for example, the people of Cuba are sick and tired of the killings, beatings, and imprisonments dispensed by the government of their country, they are Biblically justified in overthrowing Castro (who has clearly not fulfilled the God-given purpose of civil government). 

Scripture calls rulers “ministers of God.” The description “ministers” shows clearly how important the responsibility of a civic leader actually is. Since Scripture calls these people “ministers,” it stands to reason that God would call Christians into this occupation just as He calls some people into the ministry of being a full-time pastor.

Christians in Germany should not have shown “honor” to Hitler. The Bible says we are to give honor to those who are due honor, and Hitler did not deserve any such thing. He was not a “minister of God” and was not a legitimate government official because he violated the God-ordained purpose for civil government.

While God allowed Hitler to come to power, He did not approve of him. I do not believe God would hold it against German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer for assisting in the assassination attempt on Hitler. Pastor Bonhoeffer understood Romans 13 correctly and understood the Biblical mandate to defend the defenseless and to oppose evil. He also understood the Biblical right of self-defense. 

We live in a fallen world where man has a free will to do good or evil. While it is true that the church often flourishes during times of extreme persecution, this happens largely because of the civil disobedience of Christians who worship underground, smuggle Bibles, and distribute Scripture contrary to the laws governing them.  Some governments are so evil, corrupt, and ungodly, Christians are obliged not to support them because to do so would be to participate in what they do. 

According to Christ, the government should work in harmony with the church (Matthew 22:21), and when it does, God approves of the government in power. Understand, though, that church government is not inevitably superceded by civil government. Many people in the Bible took part in civil disobedience as Kerby Anderson points out: 


•    When Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew babies, Moses’ mother lied to Pharaoh and did not carry out his command (Exodus. 1-2);


•    When Nebuchadnezzar ordered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to bow down to his golden image, they refused and were cast into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3);


•    Daniel prayed to God in spite of the king’s dictate to the contrary (Daniel 6);


•    In Acts, when Peter and John were commanded not to preach the gospel, their response was, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

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