Civil Disobedience

Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (vv. 19–20).

- Acts 4:1–22

Christians in every generation must learn how to apply the Word of God in their specific circumstances, and the existing disagreements among believers testify to the fact that this task is often easier said than done. One issue that arises again and again is the extent to which believers are permitted by God to disobey the civil magistrate. Based solely on passages such as Romans 13:1–7, we might conclude that there is no circumstance under which Christians may defy the secular authorities. However, Romans 13:1–7 is not the only set of instructions we have on how to relate to the government from Paul, or even Scripture as a whole. Scripture testifies to the Jews’ long history of defying the civil magistrate—with the Lord’s approval—whenever the magistrate enacted regulations contrary to the law of God (1 Kings 18–19; Dan. 6). Moreover, the Apostles knew from their own experience that the state could be perverted to evil ends. Paul defied the civil authorities when they arrested him for preaching the gospel and witnessed to the guards while he was in jail (Acts 16:16–40). Submission to the state in Romans 13:1–7 assumes that ruling authorities are, generally speaking, fulfilling their call to protect life and private property.

When the state commands us to do something God forbids or forbids us from doing something God commands, we must disobey our rulers. Sin does not cease to be sin when we commit it under orders from the civil magistrate. When Jesus’ law conflicts with the law of the state, His law always wins. We see this throughout the New Testament. For example, in today’s passage, Peter and John obeyed the law of Christ when the state forbade them from preaching the gospel (Acts 4:19–20; see Matt. 28:18–20). Such civil disobedience was justified because it was the only way they could remain faithful to the Savior.

Rightly discerning when civil disobedience is lawful is no easy task. Sometimes, the state makes a law that is unjust but does not require us to disobey God. The “progressive” income tax is unjust, for tax laws in Scripture call for everyone to give the same percentage of income (Lev. 27:32; Deut. 14:22–29). (The census tax in Ex. 30:11–16 that levies the same amount on all is an exception.) Even if the rate is so high that it is a burden, we must pay the tax (Rom. 13:7; see 1 Tim. 5:8). One can pay an unjust tax rate and yet still obey the Lord. God’s law is always our final authority, but we must not use it to justify violating state law when civil disobedience is not warranted.

Coram Deo

Christians must always bend over backward to be models of good citizenship. Thus, we are to obey the law, pray for our leaders, and seek the common good of society. When the demands of God’s kingdom directly contradict the demands of the kingdom of men, we must follow the law of Christ. Nevertheless, we should expect the cases where we must disobey the state in order to obey the Lord to be rare. That is the testimony of Scripture and church history.

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 1:8–22
Acts 5:17–42

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