CULTURE WATCH: Civil Disobedience (Part 2)

By Wendell Cantrell

(This is the second of four articles examining the Christian response to civil disobedience.)

“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Romans 13:1-2).

Last issue we looked at the pastoral protests in New York City over a recent civil court’s banning of religious groups from using public school space. Impressionable children might think that government is endorsing a particular religious belief by allowing worship on the premises when students aren’t even there. Do we need to submit unequivocally to whatever the laws of the land are? Many would say that this is exactly what Romans 13:1-7 teaches, and that acts of civil disobedience like public prayer in schools, pickets and prayers at abortion clinics, and the recent actions of the New York City pastors protesting the looming evictions of churches from public schools are contrary to scripture. The strict interpretation of this passage says that we should not only cease from all acts of civil disobedience, but we should not even complain about these laws.1 Our duty is to pray for our civil leaders and vote based on our convictions. I certainly agree with the prayer and voting part.

Let’s look at the author of Romans and the context for his letter. During the time of Paul’s writing, Christians were already being put to death because they refused to worship Caesar by burning incense to his image or statue. This appears to have included Paul himself who was beheaded at Nero’s command. If Paul thought and taught that we should always submit to governing authorities, he would have submitted to Caesar and avoided martyrdom.

Do you remember the Old Testament story of Rahab?  The author of Hebrews honored Rahab as a great woman of faith (Hebrews 11:31) for disobeying the king of Jericho by lying to him when she hid two spies sent out by Joshua, the leader of Israel, to spy on the city (Joshua 2). This principle would have also been in force in Nazi Germany, as many Christians risking their own lives, hid Jews in their homes or places of business to protect them from being taken to the gas chambers and death camps. The narrow interpretation of Romans 13, without interpreting it based on other scripture, likely would have resulted in them telling Nazi troops the truth and giving the Jews over to death!

Jesus himself teaches balance in Mark 12:17 as he says …give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. This primarily refers to showing respect for authorities by paying required taxes and showing them honor and respect by not revolting. His point is that when we give to God the things that are His, we are not to put any god before Him (Exodus 20:3), including Caesar. This means the honor and obedience we have towards Caesar or any other governing authority has severe limitations and certainly doesn’t include obeying them to the point of worship.

The early church would have quickly become irrelevant and disappeared if Peter and the apostles had blindly submitted to their governing authorities. They were given strict orders by their superiors to cease preaching the gospel (Acts 5:28). This order was obviously ignored by God himself as He sent an angel to set the apostles free from prison so that they could continue to spread the word. The words of Peter (Acts 5:29) to the rulers of the Jews summarizes this whole article in a powerful way: “We must obey God rather than men.”

Finally, I know that most of our readers would consider themselves pro-life. As we consider honoring and giving to God, we would be in agreement that this most surely includes all matters regarding the sanctity of life. Genesis 9:6 clearly teaches that we are not to murder a fellow human being because each is made in God’s image and likeness. Anytime we shed innocent blood, including all acts of abortion, we are in essence killing a being made in the image of God. This supersedes all human laws and calls for those in the medical profession to disobey the law and not participate in any way with abortions, including the dispensing of morning after pills, which abort babies immediately after conception.

Our passage in question is basically teaching that ultimate authority comes from God. Our civil authorities do not have a free hand to rule as they please. We are to submit to earthly rulers only when they represent God. When they decree unjust and ungodly laws like the racist Jim Crow laws, then acts of civil disobedience led by Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1950’s and 1960’s are justified. We are each called to obey God and resist the tyranny of ungodly men. May we have more godly Christian leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died because he tried to usurp the demonic rule of Adolf Hitler!

(1)  Joseph Mattera

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