In my latest reading of Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America, by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, one chapter that I read was Ed Dobson’s “Religion and Politics: What Does the Bible Really Say?” In this chapter, Dobson argues that the Bible instructs people to respect, submit to, and pray for their government leaders, for “All political power comes from God”, and the leaders are there “to maintain an ordered and structured society where good is promoted and evil is restrained” (page 111). People are to pay their taxes, and they are to honor their leaders even when these leaders are immoral, like Nero was.
But Dobson acknowledges that there are rare occasions for civil disobedience, when Christians can (and perhaps even should) disobey laws. When the Pharaoh instructed the midwives to kill all the Hebrew male babies in Exodus 1, God blessed the midwives after they had disobeyed the Pharaoh’s orders. When King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3 commanded Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to bow down to a golden statue, the three Hebrew young men were correct to disobey the king’s order. And when Jewish authorities forbade two apostles to teach in the name of Jesus, the apostles resolved to obey God rather than man (Acts 4-5).
Looks pretty simple, right? That’s how a number of preachers present situations when they attempt to promulgate what they consider to be the “biblical” position on issues. But Dobson acknowledges that there are times when things get messy. What about the anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, for example? Are they right to block access to abortion clinics, in violation of the law? On page 119, Dobson says the following:
“But what about Operation Rescue? The people who picket and block access and disregard the law of assembling are not being asked to do something wrong. They are protesting the wrong of others and protecting the life of those who cannot speak for themselves. I confess my ambivalence on this issue. On the one hand, we could say that this civil disobedience lies outside the guidelines of Scripture. That is, the disobedience would be in order only if the protesters themselves were being required to have abortions. On the other hand, shouldn’t someone be speaking up for the unborn, and if so, who should that be? Who will give them a chance at life?”
I’d say that the issue of civil disobedience is more complex than even that. So (according to the “biblical” standard) people can spread the Gospel, even if the authorities tell them that they can’t? Is that necessarily a wise policy to follow? If I lived in a Communist country that banned evangelism, then I wouldn’t go out onto the street corner and openly preach a sermon. Why put myself into a situation in which I could land in jail? I’d prefer more surreptitious methods of evangelism. Maybe the apostles were correct to have a more open approach to spreading their faith—-for that was a time when they were trying to get the word out, and God sometimes delivered people from prison, as occurred with Peter. But I don’t think it would be prudent to make that a blanket law for all time.
How about civil disobedience to protect a human life? Dobson argues that, if I personally am told to kill someone (as were the two midwives in Egypt), then I am obligated to disobey that order. But what if someone else is trying to kill a person? Should I intervene? Or what if my money is being taken by the government and is then used to kill people? Right-wingers would say that this happens when tax dollars go to places that perform abortions, or that a similar situation exists when Catholic workplaces are required to have insurance policies that cover birth control that can function as abortifacients. Left-wingers can point to our tax dollars being used for drones, which take the lives of innocent people. Do people have an obligation to refrain from paying taxes that arguably pay for murder?
And should people always honor their government? What about the Revolutionary War, or the conspiracy to kill Hitler? Some, such as John MacArthur, hold that the American Revolution was a violation of Scripture (see here). The government is supposed to insure that people are living peaceful lives. But what if the government is an agent that obstructs peace and prosperity?
Things get messy whenever we try to find a middle ground between, on the one hand, obeying the government no matter what, and, on the other hand, not respecting authority at all. Both extremes are horrible. We don’t want utter oppression, but we also don’t desire an environment of lawlessness and chaos. But at what point is disobedience justified? I’d say that, if a government generally does a good job in keeping order, and if there is some hope that certain reforms can take place through the political process, then the government should be honored. I’d say this about the U.S. system, and also many other governments throughout the world. But, even if there is no political way to reform the system, perhaps the government should be honored even then. After all, the apostles really could not change what the Roman empire did, at least not where they were at the time, and so disobeying a bunch of laws and pursuing revolution would probably not have been a wise course for them to take. No system is perfect, but it’s better than nothing at all, and so even imperfect systems should be honored. But there may be occasions when a boiling-point is reached, when the government is so oppressive that it should be resisted. In such cases, resistance should probably not take place hastily or lightly, but should occur after deep reflection.
I should also note that there is a difference between civil disobedience and attempting to overthrow the government. Martin Luther King, Jr. disobeyed the law, but he was not in favor of getting rid of the southern authorities. He was disobeying the law as a way of peaceful protest, to effect change within the system. Henry David Thoreau, likewise, sought to balance civil disobedience with a respect for the authority structures: his point was that, yes, you can disobey a law if you deem it necessary, but you should honor the right of the authorities to then put you in jail.