This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course essays by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy. It is the first installment of a seven part series dealing with Christians and rebellion against the civil authority, originally titled “Christian Views on Rebellion.”
A preacher recently proclaimed: “Rebellion against authority is rebellion against God.” Another pastor once told me: “If it’s illegal, it’s sinful.” (He must be thankful for much grace to cover his sins of disobedience to the state—in light of all the legislation he inadvertently violates.) And a recent caller to my radio show said something like: “Once a proposal becomes the law a Christian must obey it,” implying that disobedience is sin. These Tory principles are widely-held by American Christians. But is such sentiment correct? Is resistance to tyrants, which they call “rebellion”, necessarily sinful? Rebellion against God is certainly always wrong. It is condemned in Scripture as being analogous to “witchcraft” (1 Samuel 15:23). Having a rebellious attitude or to “despise authority” is likewise unacceptable Christian practice (2 Peter 2:10; Jude 1:8). The Bible teaches that Christians are to “be subject to the governing authorities” which are “appointed by God” (Romans 13:1) and to submit “to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake”—both in the case of kings and lower magistrates or governors (1 Peter 2:13). Nevertheless, the civil ruler submission doctrine is surely qualified. No Christian theologian has ever held that the New Testament requires absolute submission to every civil government decree. Even the Apostles disobeyed civil authority when they believed obedience to it would cause disobedience to God. They resisted tyranny by obeying God and were thus wrongly considered “rebels”.
No Bible-believing Christian should consider the commands in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, and Titus 3:1 to be absolute. Indeed, taking into account the “whole counsel of God”, it is clear that God’s people have not and should not submit themselves to “every ordinance of man” (1 Peter 2:13) in an absolute sense. The Egyptian midwives defied Pharaoh’s decree to murder infants (Exodus 1:15-21). Ehud acted against public policy by deceiving the king’s ministers and then slew the king (Judges 3:1526). Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego refused to comply with public policies that mandated religious rituals contrary to proper worship (Daniel 3:8-18; 6:6-10). The wise men from the East disobeyed Herod’s direct order to disclose Jesus’ whereabouts (Matthew 2:7-12). Peter and John forthrightly disobeyed the “ordinance of man” that mandated that they desist from preaching (Acts 5:28-29). Judging from these biblical premises, therefore, the foremost doctrinal issue for a Christian theology of public policy is apparently not whether Christians may ever disobey state decrees, but rather when civil disobedience by Christians becomes mandatory—or, further, when obedience becomes optional or discretionary for a Christian who must be free to act within the parameters of his conscience. Indeed, the core question boils down to when (or at what point) civil disobedience is justified, and what test must be applied to determine when such rebellion is righteous. Remember, civil disobedience and rebellion to the state are synonymous terms, the former being the patriot’s perspective and the latter the tyrant’s. At many points over the course of history, rebellion has been widely held to be a good thing and has thus been proclaimed by church leaders. Their message has been simple and straightforward: to disobey tyrants is to obey God. So it was at the founding of the United States of America.
In the 1770s, American Christians viewed British public policies as grounds for armed resistance. The colonists not only believed that they had a right to resist British “tyranny,” they also held that submission (or not rebelling) would have been sinful. Thus, preachers incited revolution. The arguments advanced by preachers of the day in support of this sentiment were manifold:
(1) Parliament had set itself up in an idolatrous manner by claiming sovereignty “in all cases whatsoever” over the colonies (and it was blasphemy to think that mere human beings could ever have such authority); indeed, Reformed colonists wanted to preserve their identity as a covenant people, and Parliament’s claims represented both tyranny and idolatry, because honoring the claims of the king would be tantamount to forsaking God who says to “have no other gods” before Him;
(2) the vibrant church in the “wilderness” of America represented the “New Israel”, while the King and his cronies represented a satanic onslaught aimed at harming God’s chosen people, thus giving Christians a rationale for self-defense against the civil authority;
(3) Christians have a right to be free from tyranny (citing Galatians 5:1) along with the means to redress grievances regarding unfulfilled expectations in (or violations of) colonial charters and basic human rights; and, more implicitly,
(4) the abuses of life and property which emanated from King George III and Parliament, including their undertaking legal plunder of the colonies, justified self-defense. The civil authority could be resisted in the same way that a homeowner resists a robber or a businessman withstands a thug.
This series of articles highlights the actions of the American Founders—Christian ones in particular—in endeavoring to showcase the various historical Christian theologies of public policy. While many of us believe that the Founders were right in “rebelling”, many other Christians disagree. Thus, I think it is worthwhile to discuss the interaction (and intersection) of faith and civil disobedience, especially in light of the rising onslaught of modern public policies against Christians.
Originally published in The Times Examiner on March 23, 2005.