|A Time to Resist|
Caesar's Due, Part 8 (Second Sight)
Solomon’s observation, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) applies to the realm of civil government as well.
In particular, there is a time for resisting and even disobeying civil government. The Scriptures provide numerous examples of this: the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1), Rahab the harlot (Joshua 2), Daniel and his three friends (Daniel 3,6), Jeremiah, and the apostles (Acts 4,5). Such acts of resistance and disobedience are not intended to overthrow civil government, but to reform it. Governments are given to people by God in order to promote His good purposes among and between nations (Romans 13:1-6; 1 Timothy 2:1,2).
Throughout this series on rendering to Caesar his due we have stressed the legitimacy and duties of civil government and, in particular, our responsibility as the followers of Christ to render to government all that it requires, and all that we can give, in order to help it fulfill its high and holy calling.
So even those occasions—and they are rare—when Christians must stand up to government and say, “No!” must be seen within the larger framework of rendering to Caesar his due. In order for government to stay the course in fulfilling its calling as a servant of God for good, it may occasionally be necessary for the followers of Christ to embark on a path of resistance and disobedience to governmental policies or demands.
But how can we know when it is necessary and legitimate for us to do so, and what policies should we pursue in resisting and disobeying the State?
When civil disobedience is necessary: Injustice commanded
When we consider the various acts of civil disobedience that occur in Scripture, we find some common exigencies that help us in understanding when it is right and just to resist and disobey civil government. In particular, two conditions stand out as calling for civil disobedience.
The first condition legitimizing civil disobedience arises when the State determines to require injustice. We can see this in the matter of the Hebrew midwives, Rahab the harlot, and the three friends of Daniel.
The Hebrew midwives were being required to destroy upon birth all the male children of Israel. This is an obvious injustice, and that along two lines. First, Pharaoh was requiring the unlawful murder of innocent children; second, he was putting himself in the way of God fulfilling His covenant promises to Israel.
On both counts—one “civil” and one “religious”—Pharaoh had overstepped the bounds of the good purposes of God. The midwives, having no legal or practical recourse to seek a reversal of this policy, simply took matters into their own hands. For deceiving Pharaoh and preserving the life of Hebrew boys they were commended by God.
Rahab also deceived the magistrate of Jericho when he inquired of her concerning the whereabouts of the Hebrew spies, and she pursued a course of action in disobedience to his wishes. She was hiding them on the roof of her home, yet she testified that she had sent them away from the city in a particular direction. Again, she seemed to understand that the rulers of Jericho would have detained or murdered the spies—who were on a mission from God, as Rahab knew—and thus would have put themselves in the way of God’s purposes for Israel and the land.
Like the Hebrew midwives, Rahab could not appeal to another authority or try to persuade the rulers to let the spies go. She did what she had to do, and, again, received commendation and blessing from God.
In the case of Daniel’s three friends, the State was attempting to gain control over the religious lives of its people, requiring them only to worship on terms dictated and defined by the ruler (Daniel 3). Nebuchadnezzar had intruded himself into the realm of faith and was seeking to govern even the private devotional lives of his subjects. But Daniel’s friends would have nothing of it and refused to obey. They knew there was no appealing this statute and that their only course was to disobey the law.
In each of these cases, the people who resisted and disobeyed the civil magistrates understood that there were consequences they could expect to bear for their civil disobedience. As we see particularly with Daniel’s friends, they were willing to endure them. The State must be confronted with resistance and disobedience whenever it seeks to impose any injustice on its citizens.
This caveat should be kept in mind, however: As long as recourse through the public square and legal process exists, civil disobedience must be kept on hold. Only when all such recourse has been exhausted or denied should the people of God turn to civil disobedience. When Martin Luther King, Jr. led the civil rights movement to sit-ins in various venues and to refusing to move to the backs of buses, it was because no opportunity for public debate or legal recourse existed in the states where the injustice was most pronounced and where they had determined to press the issue.
However, when, in the 1980s, pro-life advocates determined to sit-in on abortion clinics, they overstepped the bounds of legitimacy as the door of public persuasion and legal recourse was still—and is still—wide open as a means of social change. Frustrated by their own inability to persuade the public, the courts, or legislative bodies, many pro-life advocates unlawfully (I believe) turned to a tactic which, in the end, did more harm than good to their cause. Moreover, by trespassing against legitimate (though abominable) establishments, they flouted the law and scorned the magistrate. If the same tactics had been applied against their churches, they would have been hard pressed to call on the local sheriff to remove trespassers from their property.
In the civil rights movement, it is equally true that African Americans, by flouting the law, invited others to take the law into their own hands against them. However, they reasoned they’d been living with that for 90 years, and that nothing they might do to redress this systemic injustice could possibly make the situation worse. In the end, they were proven to be justified in their reasoning.
When civil disobedience is legitimate: Justice denied
The second situation in which civil disobedience is required in order to reform government is when justice is being denied or inhibited by the magistrate. Daniel (chapter 6) and the apostles (Acts 4 and 5) provide two examples of this.
In Daniel’s case, a careless king had been induced by officials jealous of Daniel’s authority to create a law defining the legitimate times and means of worship. On the surface, this would have made King Darius sovereign in the religious practices of all his subjects for a period of 30 days. Daniel might have reasoned, “30 days? OK, I can live with that” and ceased praying to God during that time. However, he recognized that Darius’ mandate would have blocked his lawful right to worship God as God required of him. He reasoned that this would deny him justice, as he would not be able to worship according to his wont. So he disobeyed, and he suffered the consequences, although the grace of God delivered him from harm.
The apostles were ordered not to preach or teach in the name of Jesus Christ. They listened politely to this attempt to impede the cause of justice—the preaching of the Kingdom of God—and went ahead and violated the command of the Jewish officials. Ultimately, this persistent refusal to knuckle under to government attempts to deny the just practice of their religion to the followers of Christ would lead to 250 years of intermittent persecution against the Church. However, it would also, because of the faithful disobedience of believers, lead to a dramatic transformation in the Roman Empire, allowing Christianity to flourish for a thousand years.
Once again, in neither of these situations was there opportunity for debate or deliberation in order to weigh the proposed actions of the magistrates, whether they were just or unjust. Daniel and the apostles had to act at once to stand up against those decisions and policies which threatened the cause of the Kingdom of God and the just prosecution of the life of faith. They bore the consequences with rejoicing, knowing that they had been faithful to God and Christ in standing up against the State’s attempts to deny justice and impede the work of God.
Civil disobedience: Methods and ends
For the followers of Jesus Christ, the only legitimate end of civil disobedience is that it is a means of seeking the Kingdom of God. Governments have a purpose in the divine economy, and in the progress of the Kingdom of God, as Calvin argued so eloquently and Kuyper demonstrated in so many ways. In order to rein in unjust government policies civil disobedience may be required; otherwise, the work of the Kingdom may be impeded or hindered by State policies. However, civil disobedience is the last resort in matters of public policy, and should only be adopted when all other recourse to rectifying injustice have either been exhausted or denied. In a free and democratic society such as ours, the occasions for civil disobedience must surely be rare.
The methods of civil disobedience are three: refusing to comply with injustice, pursuing just practices even when they have been proscribed (continuing to act justly in violation of government policies), and orchestrating activities designed to expose the unjust actions of civil governments. This last we see demonstrated by the apostle Paul, when, before Jewish and Roman courts, he attempted to bring out for examination the injustice of their actions (Acts 23:1-10) and exhibited the inconsistencies of their actions with their own laws (Acts 26). Violence is never an option in matters of civil disobedience, not even in the protection of oneself against the violence of government as it brings upon our civil disobedience the consequences we knew were possible before we acted.
In these days when Christians are called to pursue as their highest priority the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33; Romans 14:17,18), nothing must be allowed to keep us from pursuing this objective, not even the unjust actions of civil magistrates. God has given civil government to aid in realizing His good purposes. However, when government veers from that path and begins to require injustice or impede the just purposes of God, it may be necessary for the followers of Christ—all prophetic recourse having come to naught or been denied—to act justly and visibly in violation of the unjust laws of the State, as means of returning civil government to its proper function with its calling from God.
Civil disobedience is also, therefore, a resource in God’s toolkit for His people to employ in pursuing all that is good and true and beautiful about the Kingdom of God.
Think of some of the acts of civil disobedience that have been undertaken in America’s recent past. Do they fit the criteria outlined in this essay? Why or why not?
T. M. Moore is dean of the BreakPoint Centurions Program and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition, or sign up at the Wilberforce Project to receive his daily study, ViewPoint, studies in Christian worldview living. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, Va.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or Prison Fellowship. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.