Question of the Week: When Should Christians Not Obey?

Jesus turned over tables in the temple.

He stood up to pharisees and officials and was ultimately killed for it. His disciples broke laws to share the gospel with Jews and Gentiles alike. Throughout the entire history of the church, there is a theme of civil disobedience for the sake of worshiping God and spreading the Gospel. Right now in China, Christians are huddling in basements, worshiping silently in fear of the authorities. There are house churches spreading like wildfire throughout the Middle East and Africa, all of which are illegal and in constant jeopardy of being shut down and persecuted by the government.

True Christianity, the upside down kingdom of God, is by nature contrary to the kingdoms of the world. Being a Christian, abandoning everything and following Jesus, is illegal.

At the same time, Paul in Rom 13 says that we are to submit ourselves to the authorities of this world. Peter as well, in 1 Peter 2 commands followers to be subject to human institutions. Both writers state very explicitly that human authorities are put in place by God to carry out his will for justice and that Christians ought to be law-followers. (Both of these apostles were killed by the government for insubordination and disobeying the laws of the land).

So how can both of these things be true about the Christian experience? It would seem that the bible teaches that we should both submit to authorities and transgress them.

In light of last weeks Question of the week on immigration, and the inevitable discussion of Rom 13 in the debate, I wanted to follow up with lasts week discussion with a more fundamental discussion on the Christians relationship with civil disobedience. Especially in light of Martin Luther King day earlier this week, I feel like this discussion is appropriate. So here is the question: When Should Christians Not Obey?

We live in a country with a lot of freedoms and a government that enforces justice, better than many countries in the world. But that doesn’t mean that the government is perfect and all laws are just. So how should Christians respond?

I look forward to hearing what you all have to say. After hearing everyone’s input and thinking it over myself this week, I will be writing a follow up to the question. Ian Danley, in his guest post last week does address this issue some, so check that out as you think it through.

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13 thoughts on “Question of the Week: When Should Christians Not Obey?

  1. It is a good question that we need to ask ourselves, and one that I have struggled with over the years. I think that ultimately we submit to the authority of government as long as it does not go against the authority of the Bible. If the government tells us that we can’t gather as a group of believers and bear witness to what we believe then we must object. That would be the key issue and the waters get a little more clouded as we move on to other smaller issues but the basic premise remains.

    • Jesus opposed the leaders that were following the Bible, so perhaps the authority of the Bible needs to be questioned as well. I mean the Bible tells slaves to submit to their masters along with many other absurdities that are not followed or approved of any longer. So there needs to be greater individual and group rationale, because no “authority” will ever take the correct stance on every situation.

      • With regards to the statement, “Jesus opposed the leaders that were following the Bible,” I think there needs to be a deeper look at that. Jesus did oppose the religious leaders, but it wasn’t the biblical elements they were following for which he opposed them. Jesus opposed them for the ways they had distorted and added to the Scriptures, and thus muddied the ultimate point of the Law. I wrote an essay on this very thing and I have it posted on the essay section of my blog, entitled, Jesus and the Judaic Laws of Purity and Defilement.

        As for things like “slaves submit to your masters,” we as believers should wrestle through these texts. But, from a scholarship perspective, we need to be careful to not anachronistically imbue 16th and 17th century North American slave culture and prejudices into 1st century Roman slavery.

        I agree Jacob that the Bible can be mishandled as a source of authority in order to exploit and marginalize people, but the problem lies in negative, prejudiced readings of the Bible that are based on sloppy scholarship by agenda driven individuals, and not a problem with the Bible itself.

        I know that this is a much bigger topic and discussion and I don’t believe that in a few short paragraphs I can prove or properly defend my case or give the necessary attention to your legitimate objections. But its an important insight, so thanks for sharing.

        I hope you’re doing well brother, you all need to come down soon!

  2. I have been rolling this around in my head most the day, I did work too, but once home and settled I keep coming back to this thought. I served our country as a Marine both here in country and overseas, at peace and at war. During those years I was promoted in rank, matter of fact I was promoted to one rank twice. But that is a story for a different time. At each of those promotions the warrant was read and in that warrant where these words: ” I strictly charge all those of lesser grade to obey all appropriate orders which may be given from time to time” or something like that. The key word in all of that is appropriate. I was often directed to obey orders from Officers with less experience and time in country, so I relied on my training, battle field experience and community of Marines to discern what was an appropriate order, whether I was following (obeying) or leading (giving).

    So if I look at Romans 13:1-7 with no other context, teaching or experience, then I would have to say I should follow blindly and with out question and trust God and those he has appointed. But the rest of scripture either directly or in directly gives me direction and help to discern what is appropriate.

    So I guess for me it is not a matter of when I should disobey, but would I. Would I, when prayerful, biblical sound, spirit lead discernment calls me to disobey the authorities will I? I tend to think I love my God enough to disobey, but is it really disobedience if what I am really doing is obeying my true King?

    Another thing I must also remember, those in authority are sinners just like me. They are chained to their own self will, sin nature and desires as I. And if that does not cause me to proceed with caution then……………………

    Thanks for the thought provoking writting Cody, see you around campus brother

    • Thanks Jon! I think you are right to read Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 with the underlying presupposition that the authorities Paul and Peter are talking about are those who enact and enforce just and appropriate laws. I will talk about this more when I write a fuller response later in the week, but I think you put it well.

      The real question we have to ask is are we willing to disobey. There are certain things the law of the land prescribe, whether legislative or cultural, that are contrary to the teachings of Scripture. I hope that when the day comes where Christ stands counter to culture, we will all have the faith and devotions to stand with Him and righteously disobey.

      See you at church!

  3. In addition to what Cody said, I think it is helpful to point out that even though the Bible speaks of slavery as a reality during ancient times, and gives rules to structure it, this in no way means that the Bible condones the action, nor did it command it then or now. It is also helpful to know that the effort of many Christian leaders and organizations led to the demise of slavery as we know it.

  4. I do not completely agree that there is a lack of fault in the Bibles handling of many issues (Leviticus 25 particularly), but I do agree that with any object or book, it is not the actual object but people’s usage of it that determines it’s significance and purpose. I personally have a hard time accepting that God is limited to a single book, and I know that following that viewpoint can lead to as much danger if approached incorrectly as if approaching the Bible incorrectly. This is why I think it is necessary to have thoughtfully developed rationale on an individual and group level in order to challenge any questionable beliefs, whether religious or political.

    PS. We are trying to come down the 11-13th of Feb cause Jeff will be back in town so we should definitely get together.

  5. Pingback: Disobedience for Justice’ Sake « Shouts From the Wilderness

  6. Pingback: images of Jesus

  7. I was listening to Alistair Begg at http://www.truthforlife.org/ just this week. He did an outstanding job with this issue from Titus 3. 2 sermons Living in Society 1 and 2. His answer, I think (I was on the way to work and didn’t get it all) was OBEY, unless specifically they tell you not to preach Jesus.

    • That’s an interesting assertion. Is it okay to go out preaching Jesus if you are following blindly unjust laws that marginalize and exploit people? Thinking along those lines I think undermines the full scope of preaching the gospel. If we are only preaching the gospel and not living it as well, then we are preaching the damnation of the gospel because we ruin the credibility of the message. Gospel preaching involves not only logos, but pathos and ethos as well. Seeking justice, even at the expense of laws, is necessary to establish the proper ethos to undergird the proclamation of the gospel.

      Also, what if laws say that we can’t worship Jesus, or that we can’t participate in basic spiritual practices like prayer? Daniel went against the law of the land multiple times because it interfered with his worship of God and his devotional interactions with him.

      To say that the only time in which it is okay to go against the law of the land is when it says we can’t preach Jesus makes both the act of preaching the gospel too narrow, but also ignores the greater call for all nations to worship God.

      • Actually there was more to what Alistair said then simply to obey the government unless they tell us we can’t preach. He talked mostly about what our response is when we see our government fail miserably as they do often. We are to remember that we too fail, and that before God turned the lights on for us, we were just as hopeless as they were.

        Given that, when we see injustice by government we don’t slander government officials or break the law, we come to the aid of others who are victims of their injustice in humility. We pray for those who are blinded just as we were before so that they will change their ways because without the Holy Spirit what hope do they have?

        He gave the example of abortion. When we see the killing of innocent life sanctioned by the state what do we do in response? Do we slander the doctors and burn down their buildings? Of course not, but we pray for them, we help the poor women who are seduced by such things, and when we speak against it we do so with humility and respect with full knoweldge that the only thing separating us from them is Christ and nothing of our own doing.

        You may disagree with Alistair on this but I believe that is what he was saying so I wanted to at least explain it so that if anyone does disagree they do so fully informed

        God Bless

  8. Thanks for that clarification on what Alistair Begg said. That sounds much more reasonable. I obviously don’t think Christians should go out and violently oppose laws we deem unjust. My main objection was not seeing the preaching of Jesus as the only reason for civil disobedience.

    Thanks!

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