Robert Meyer
Christianity & civil disobedience Part I
By Robert Meyer
September 14, 2015

Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who was jailed for refusing to process marriage license applications for same-sex couples, offers a poignant segue into the issue of whether civil disobedience is an appropriate response for professing Christians.

Some folks would rather sojourn down the rabbit trails of peripheral issues, such as pointing out that Davis is hypocritical in her stance because she has had several divorces. While her past may not make her the perfect poster child for one "standing on principle," it would matter to me whether the improprieties occurred before or after her Christian conversion – an important distinction that would make little difference to her critics.

The publicity garnered by Davis demands that we reexamine the issue of civil disobedience from a Christian perspective.

Recently a secularist quoted a familiar biblical passage as "proof" that resistance against the civil authority is hypocritical.

Romans Chapter 13: 1-3

"Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended."

Of course, this individual forgot to mention other passages which modify or mitigate the unqualified application of this passage.

Acts 4:18-19

"18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, "Which is right in God's eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!"

Acts 5:29

"29 Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than human beings!"

So the question is whether we have a hopeless contradiction, or a historical theological perspective able to reconcile and synthesize these apparently opposing themes.

Paul wrote the book of Romans at a time when the brutal dictator Nero was in charge, so he could hardly have been ignorant or naïve regarding the reality of unjust and evil rulers. It should also be noted that while many people argue that First Century Christians never engaged in civil disobedience, their acts of refusing to worship Caesar as God were considered political sedition, not religious heresy.

Many Christian theologians have argued that the passage in Romans is "prescriptive" and not "descriptive," that is, it articulates the ideal design for how things ought to be, rather than commenting on how things actually are happening. If rulers are to reward the good and punish the bad, is there any legitimate procedure for opposing the ruler who does the opposite? Are there any guidelines for when a Christian is allowed or even required to oppose an unjust law or ruler?

We shall briefly mention three documents developed during the Reformation.

Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos- Defense of liberty against tyrants.

This 16th century document, drafted by French Huguenots, is a catechism-like question and answer treatise which supports the idea of resistance when ruler is deemed not to have faithfully executed his responsibility under God.

Lex Rex – "The law and the prince," sometimes rendered The law is King

17th century document written by the Scottish Theologian, Samuel Rutherford, making points similar to Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos.

Doctrine of the lesser magistrate – John Knox – Appelation

Knox developed this doctrine beyond the scope of his predecessors, believing that the right to rebel belonged to common people and not just the civil authorities. He was more careful then his predecessors to cite biblical references. Knox makes it clear that it is the duty of lesser-magistrates to resist the tyranny of the chief magistrate when he acts or makes declarations which are in rebellion to the law of God, or acts in a manner that exceeds his rightful authority. The general stipulation was that if a ruler did not faithfully execute his duties, he could be deposed in a rebellion led by a lesser magistrate.

The website Got has a page that distills the perspective of these documents into contemporary language and situations with four bulletin points as articulated below.
  • Christians should resist a government that commands or compels evil and should work nonviolently within the laws of the land to change a government that permits evil.

  • Civil disobedience is permitted when the government's laws or commands are in direct violation of God's laws and commands.

  • If a Christian disobeys an evil government, unless he can flee from the government, he should accept that government's punishment for his actions.

  • Christians are certainly permitted to work to install new government leaders within the laws that have been established.
It should be emphasized that being faithful to biblical standards might require enduring civil punishment, just as Kim Davis discovered. Being faithful to God does not exempt anyone from civil punishment no matter how righteous they deem their cause.

We have surveyed a brief history of civil disobedience from a biblical perspective, and in the next piece we will explore practical applications of these ideas.

© Robert Meyer


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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)


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