FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS,volume 11, number 46, November 15, 2012
Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s, Matthew 22:21.
May Christians Engage in Civil Disobedience?
Is there ever a time for Christians to engage in civil disobedience? What does the Bible say about this? Throughout Jesus’ ministry, but particularly near the end of it, the Pharisees were opposing Him. In a desire to expose Him as a miscreant, they asked if they were required to pay a poll tax to Caesar, the Emperor of Rome. Jesus answered by taking a denarius and asking them, “Whose inscription is on it?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus told them to give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to Him. In other words, there is a time and place to obey the government and there is a time and place to obey God above the state. Peter and John faced this same issue when told by the Sanhedrin to stop preaching Christ (Acts 5:29). They said they must obey God rather than man. In the same way Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship the golden image of him, choosing instead to suffer the fiery furnace, from which God delivered them (Daniel 3:8ff). But doesn’t Paul tell us that God has ordained the civil magisrate (Romans 13:1ff)? And doesn’t Paul say that resisting the civil magistrate is to oppose the ordinance of God, that they will receive condemnation upon themselves? And doesn’t Peter teach the same thing (1 Peter 2:13-17). Peter goes even further, saying that we are to honor the king.
Yes, but consider this. Paul and Peter both clearly teach that the civil magistrate’s authority is a derived or delegated authority. It comes from God. The state is never autonomous. It always is accontable to God. God is always above Caesar. Caesar is always to be in submission to God. If a man-made law violates the law of God then it is unjust. This is why Peter and John refused to obey the Sanhedrin and continued preaching Jesus. But some will argue, “Didn’t the early church refuse civil disobedience? The answer is “No.” Why did the Roman government send Christians to the lions? Not merely because they were Christians. The Romans did not care what religion people practiced. Their subjects could be atheists, if they wanted to be, but what brought the ire of the Romans was the Christians’ refusal to worship Caesar. They would not sacrifice to him. Is that not civil disobedience?
There is a long histroy of civil disobedience in the church of Jesus. William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 because he taught that God’s word had supreme authority over the state. John Knox of Scotland, at the time a Roman Catholic priest, began preaching in 1536 the true gospel. The church, closely tied to the state, refused to allow him to preach on Sundays; so he preached during the middle of the week and also offered communion to those who heard him. He no doubt would have been arrested and executed but he was first captured by the invading French army and made a galley slave in the bowels of a ship for two years. After being released in 1549 in England he began his preaching again. When Roman Catholic Mary Tudor came to the throne of Scotland in 1553 he resisted her, calling her a whore from the pulpit. He was forced to flee to Geneva where he imbibed the teaching of John Calvin. While in Geneva Knox fully developed his doctrine of resistance to tyranny, writing a pamphlet he smuggled into England called Admonition to England. Knox had gone furtther than any Reformer and Jasper Ridley has written, “The theory of the justification of revolution is Knox’s special contribution to theological and political thought.”
John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress was jailed three times and spent twelve years in prison because he refused to join the Church of England and preached without a license from the state. And the one who fully developed the doctrine of Christian resistence to the state was Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish Presbyterian, one of the pastors who helped write the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1643. In his book Lex Rex (the law is king), aka, The Law and the Prince, Rutherford denied the going assumption of the day—the divine right of kings. Kings at the time believed that since God made them king, put them in high places, their word was law. Rutherford said, “No.” Their authority was derived from God and if they usurped that authority, then they had forfeited the right to be obeyed by their people. This was scandalous to the monarchy and the landed gentry, men of power. Rutherford was immediately thrown into prison and would have been executed, had he not first died there in 1661. By this time the Puritan revoltion in England, Wales, and Scotland was over and Charles II was on the throne, persecuting the Puritans. John Locke secularized the teaching of Rutherford and the Presbyterian tradition and gave us the conept of inalienable rights, consent of the governed, separation of powers, and the right to resist unlawful authority. These ideas, of course, became the foundation, not only for our Declaration of Indepedence, but for the American Revolutionary War as well. In fact, the influence of Rutherford’s Presbyterianism was so great that King George III referred to the Revolutionary War as “the Presbyterian rebellion.” Rutherford was not saying that people ought to depose a ruler for a single violation of his responsibility to govern under God; but only if the governing structure of the country was being destroyed, only when the ruler was running roughshod over the fundamental structure of society. This, of course, was the rationale of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1963 when he wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail to fellow pastors in Birmingham who were remaining outside the fray of the Civil Rights movement, who chastised King for his “bad timing” on the demonstrations in downtown Birmingham. He put forth the long recognized Christian doctrine of civil disobedience.
So, may a Christian engage in civil disobedience? The answer from Scripture is “Yes.” In fact, Samuel Rutherford said that not only may we, but we must resist! If a law is contrary to God’s law, if it attacks the very fabric of a just society, then it is anti-God; and we must always oppose anything that is anti-God. I find King’s “prophetic word” in his Letter from Birmingham Jail haunting. He wrote, “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” Who will not agree that this is precisely what has happened in the American church. We have become irrelevant to our culture and we are losing our young people in droves.
For a season the church stood against abortion but this is now generally relegated to a very few Roman Catholics and faithful street preachers and evangelists who stand daily at abortuaries, urging the women not to murder their babies. Most of us, however, are too busy with our lives to care about such things. Our religious freedoms are quickly eroding in our country and this is likely to continue. What shall we do? I will have more to say on this next week.