Today's Broadcast

Civil Disobedience

A Message by R.C. Sproul

The Bible teaches that we must be subject to the authorities God has placed over us, including the civil magistrates. Does that mean that Christians must always obey the state? Is there ever an occasion when Christians are allowed to disobey laws issued by the government? Concluding this Church and State series, R.C. Sproul teaches us about the power and limitations of the earthly authorities, and the occasions when we must disobey the rulers God has placed over us.

From the series: Church and State

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Civil Disobedience

  2. article

    The Authority of the State

  3. devotional

    Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience

Christian ethicists have long debated whether or not it is ever legitimate for believers to defy the state. This is understandable since there are many passages, such as Romans 13:1–7, that seem to encourage submission to the ruling authorities no matter what. Paul, however, was not reflecting any sort of naiveté when he instructed us to submit to the earthly authorities. After all, as one who was often imprisoned for preaching the Gospel, he well knew that the state could very easily become an instrument of evil. His commands to obey the state, as with all of the biblical injunctions to submit to the government, carry with them the assumption that our rulers are, broadly speaking, fulfilling the task that God has given them to preserve life and protect the right to private property.

Yet when the state forbids us to do something the Lord commands or commands us to do something He forbids, believers must not submit to the decrees of the authorities. Christians are never given the license to sin, nor are they permitted to abandon the dictates of God in order to obey the orders of other human beings. Christ alone has ultimate authority, as the apostles demonstrate in today’s passage. Given the chance to preserve their freedom and safety at the cost of preaching Jesus to sinners, Peter and John choose to obey the Great Commission (Acts 4:19–20; see Matt. 28:18–20). Make no mistake, they are engaging in an act of civil disobedience, but they are doing so in order to be faithful to the Lord. Such circumstances alone can justify such actions.

The principle that we may disobey the state if it forbids what God commands or commands what He forbids is easy to learn, but difficult to apply. The state will sometimes engage in unfair practices that we must follow because we cannot make the case that such practices violate Scripture. For example, the so-called “progressive” taxation that exists presently in the United States may be unjust, but we have no right to refuse to pay taxes (Rom. 13:7).

Our default position as Christians is to bend over backward to be model citizens. But when the demands of God’s kingdom directly contradict the demands of the kingdom of men, the mandates of our heavenly citizenship must win.

The Authority of the State

Cal Thomas

The late philosopher-theologian Francis Schaeffer taught me to always begin a discussion with a definition. The reason, he said, is that different people define the same word in different ways. Dictionary.com defines authority as “the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.”

The word determine has its own definition: “to settle or decide (a dispute, question, etc.) by an authoritative or conclusive decision.” Interesting how the word determine appears in the definition of authority and authority appears in the definition of determine.

In modern politics, one has authority if he (or she) wins an election. It is conferred upon the elect by our Constitution. But this authority lasts only as long as the person continues in office. When the term is over, the authority expires. Scripture commands us to be “submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1–2). At once this is a witness to others and an acknowledgement that all authority is from God, which He establishes to suit His purposes. No higher an authority than Jesus said so when He stood before Pilate and said, “You would have no authority over me at all if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11).

In perhaps the most profound statement on the Christian’s relationship to government, Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1–2).

There are limits to submission, such as when civil authorities order one not to preach the gospel, or when a Christian is ordered to do something ungodly (Schaeffer used the example of a Christian nurse who is ordered by the hospital for which she works to participate in an abortion. He said she must refuse even if it costs her the job). For centuries Christians have debated whether they should submit to illegitimate authority, such as a dictatorship. Paul wrote under a Roman dictatorship, so does the question answer itself? Does that mean Christians were acting rightly when they hid Jews from the Nazis? Were they rebelling against God when they lied to the Gestapo? Greater minds than mine will have to answer that one. I would have hid them, lied to the Nazis, and let God sort it out at a later time.

These things are sometimes easier to process in theory than in practice.

In our efforts to shape culture according to an Authority in which the world does not believe, too many Christians have it backwards. We ask others to submit to God while rebelling ourselves. 

Divorce is one example. Statistics indicate as many Christian marriages are breaking up as those in the unsaved world. This is because too many of us choose to ignore Paul’s admonition to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 4:21). By submitting to one another, we put the interest of the other person before our own and acknowledge the claim of the Higher Authority — Jesus Christ — to whom we all must submit either in this life, or certainly in the life to come.

Submission is more powerful than “lording it over” someone else. Some years ago while visiting with an editor at a Florida newspaper I was trying to persuade to take my syndicated column, I met a young Christian on the staff who told me he was thinking of resigning because no one paid attention to him on the editorial board. He said he was thinking of going into “full-time Christian service.” The phrase has always made me gag because all Christians ought to see themselves in full-time service for Christ, regardless of their profession.

I asked him if he ever considered submitting to his colleagues by serving them. Did he know the name of his boss’s wife? Did he know how a colleague takes her coffee in the morning and would he get her a cup? Could he go out to lunch with his associates and feel he had presented a good witness if the subject of God never came up, but he took the time to find out about them and not push his own agenda, even a religious one?

I heard from him a year later. He tried all of these things and was subsequently promoted to a New York Times newspaper where he had even more opportunities to appropriate God’s power by submitting to the needs and interests of others. I have had difficult bosses in my professional life, and with few exceptions (and there was one!) I was able to soften them up by submitting to their authority far more easily than if I had been rebellious and defiant.

Why do authorities exist? It is because we live in a sinful and fallen world, and without authority everyone would do “what is right in his own eyes,” resulting in chaos. Those who will not be constrained from within by the living presence of Jesus Christ, must be restrained from without by the state, acting under God’s ultimate authority, in order to “promote the general welfare,” in the words of the Constitution’s preamble.

We have seen the consequences of those who abuse their authority, from Members of Congress who go to jail for breaking the law, to dictators who are brought down by a raging mob, to Justices of the Supreme Court who see themselves as the ultimate authority and decide what the Constitution says, rather than submitting to what it does say.

One of my favorite verses on this subject is found in Luke 7. The order is important. First we are told that a centurion’s servant who was highly valued by his master was sick and about to die. The centurion had heard about Jesus so he sent some elders of the Jews to ask Him to come and heal the man. At first the Jewish elders tried to appeal to Jesus based on earthly and temporal considerations: “[The centurion] is worthy to have you do this,” they said, “for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (vv. 4–5).

Jesus went with them, and as He went the centurion sent friends to Jesus to say to Him: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (vv. 6–8)

Upon hearing this, Jesus exclaimed, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (v. 9). When the men went back to the house they found the servant had been healed. The centurion understood authority and so when he saw an authority greater than his own, he submitted to that authority.

No greater verse on authority exists in Scripture than what Jesus said about Himself: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). And what did Jesus do with that authority? He ordered us not to lord it over others, but rather to “go therefore and make disciples.” He didn’t ask us to make converts to our point of view, especially our political point of view. He didn’t ask us to organize a band of brothers to take over the government and show those pagans a thing or two (which is what the disciples were hoping Jesus would do with Caesar and his Romans). He didn’t require us to make the world a better place or to enlist in causes.

He said, “Go therefore and make disciples.” That is hard work, but it is the only “work” Jesus asks us to do. Causes are easier, politics may be more fun, but He said to make disciples. Are we under His authority, or our own? You can’t “Yes, but” to Scripture. He said it, or He didn’t say it. And we either obey, or we do not. It is not we who have the authority. It is the Lord. His name is Jesus and His title is “the Christ.” And He has it all. He will share it with no one. The beauty of this is that the more disciples who are made, the greater the influence on society. God does things in opposition to man’s thinking and agenda.

Jesus said if we love Him, we will do what He tells us to do. Do you love Him? Prove it by submitting to His authority.

Civil Disobedience

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.

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