Part of our problem when dealing with situations like the one we are facing now is our relative biblical illiteracy, which is why our first response to the widespread silliness in our land needs to be a return to voracious Bible reading.
Second, when people hear the phrase “civil disobedience” it is often assumed that we must be moments away from civil war and the tensions are running uber high, but if we are biblically literate, we should know that civil disobedience runs more on a dimmer switch than a simplistic on/off switch. What I want to walk through here is what we might call informal civil disobedience, what I’ve been calling being cheerfully difficult. There’s a long discussion in Christian history regarding formal civil disobedience, regarding lesser magistrates, interposition, and just war theory. Here, I only want to focus on low level, grassroots, individuals, families, and churches prayerfully pressing for Reformation and resisting injustice.
And finally, as we will see, the Bible does not oppose honoring, submitting to, and obeying civil authorities to certain forms of civil disobedience. Rather, Christians are committed to honoring and obeying civil authorities in the Lord, which includes both God’s blessing on our submission to decisions we disagree with and His blessing on our resistance and disregard for decisions that may require that.
1. It’s not true that Christians must obey every civil ordinance that does not directly require us to sin. Since the appeal is almost always to Romans 13 for a simplistic understanding of Christian obedience to civil magistrates, we should note that the same Paul who penned and lived by those words that He wrote, practiced various forms of civil disobedience throughout his ministry. The typical line of this simplistic approach is that we must obey civil authorities until or unless they require us to disobey God’s clear word. But that is frankly not true. And Paul’s own life demonstrates this. The first example comes shortly after his conversion in Damascus, when a warrant was put out for his arrest and the brothers let Paul down by a city wall in a basket (Acts 9:25). It would not have been a sin for Paul to turn himself in. Going to jail is not a sin. Luke says the Jews wanted to kill him, but Paul shouldn’t have feared death, right? Dying is not a sin either. Toward the end of Paul’s ministry, he did not avoid arrest but went to Jerusalem assuming he would be arrested, and he was, and eventually he was executed. It was acceptable for Paul to be uncooperative in one instance and far more cooperative in another.
2. It can be a faithful testimony to use every legal dodge to not cooperate with governmental overreach. The same Paul who penned Romans 13 availed himself of every political counter measure at his disposal, particularly through his Roman citizenship. When the authorities unjustly beat him and threw him into jail in Philippi, they asked him to leave quietly – which many of our modern, woke evangelical leaders would have counseled Paul to submit to. Just obey, Paul. It isn’t a sin to leave town quietly, Paul. It’s just a personal inconvenience and maybe a shot at your pride. But Paul insisted on the magistrates coming and escorting them from the jail personally (Acts 16:36-40). And according to Luke, Paul and Silas did not rush out of town at that point either. They took some time to encourage and comfort Lydia and the other saints before departing. No doubt this caused some measure of consternation for the magistrates in Philippi, and the disciples do not seem to care that much. They were cheerfully difficult with the magistrates over orders that were not direct commands to disobey God, and every indication is that this was good for the gospel in Philippi.
3. It is not a sin to be enslaved or imprisoned, but neither is it a sin to escape or flee if it is for unjust reasons. Let’s begin with Peter’s famous prison break. And let us acknowledge that this was not exactly legal. It would definitely qualify as civil disobedience. Not only that, but it got the guards killed for their negligence (Acts 12:19). Now was that very loving of Peter? Some of the more fastidious among my readers may be quick to protest that it was not technically Peter who broke himself out of prison: it was an angel. And it might be thought that this creates something of an exceptional situation: if an angel appears, then we have God’s clear blessing to disobey but not otherwise. But the angel really is immaterial. Literally and figuratively. The angel only made it clear that Peter needed to leave. For example, Paul really would have been free to runaway after the earthquake in the jail at Philippi, but he was also free to stay for the sake of the gospel, which he did.
In any case, like in the American criminal system, prison is a form of slavery (sometimes just, sometimes unjust). And while Paul certainly did admonish slaves to obey their masters, even the harsh ones (e.g. Eph. 6, Col. 3), he also counseled slaves to get their freedom if they could, which could have included disobeying them at points, like for example if they commanded their slaves not to run away (1 Cor. 7:21). Finally, the Old Testament law protected runaway slaves and prohibited Israelites from returning them to their masters (Dt. 23:15-16), unless there was some strategic, gospel reason for doing so (e.g. Philemon). How much more so does this apply to civil magistrates who are attempting to enslave their citizens? In America, we are most definitely not slaves of the state (or weren’t supposed to be), but that isn’t slowing some of our leaders down. May we not flee? May we not hide? May we not resist? Peter disappears from the pages of the New Testament a wanted man, and while he was eventually caught and executed, Peter felt no compulsion to hasten that day.
4. It is not necessarily a sin for Christians to disobey unjust mandates and hide it from their magistrates. Gideon threshed wheat in a wine press in order to hide it from the Midianite IRS agents (Jdgs. 6:11). Again, the Gospel Coalition would likely counsel Gideon against this. What kind of testimony will you have with the Midianites, Gideon? Afterall, the New Testament commands us to pay taxes unto whom taxes are due (Rom 13:7). But the Bible does not command God’s people to pay taxes to anyone who asks for them; we must pay them to whom they are due. If you live in Tennessee and receive a tax bill from the Governor of Idaho, I counsel you to burn it or frame it but don’t pay it. Likewise, if the mailman shows up at your door and commands you to eat fruit loops for breakfast by the authority of the United States Postal Service under threat of fines, I would counsel you to ignore the man. He doesn’t have that authority, even if everyone in the house (for some reason) has been submitting to him for the last few years. More on this below. Suffice it to say, Christians are obligated to pay taxes to those they are due, and free to pay unjust taxes as a testimony. But Christian businesses also are free to post the face mask mandate on their front door and cheerfully not comply or enforce the order inside, and they should also count the cost and not put themselves or their children or grandchildren in a bind. But there really is a bind in both directions.
5. Being uncooperative may be the way to render the most honor. David ran from Saul and was thoroughly uncooperative and yet arguably honored him more than all of Israel. Who had more regard for Saul’s life and honor than David? Honor is not blind obedience. Honor is rendered in obedience to the Lord. When Abigail heard that her husband had acted foolishly – and let us again note that Nabal had not required Abigail to sin – Abigail wisely went behind her husband’s back to reconcile with David (1 Sam. 25). While some might argue that David being a difficult refugee was only justified because his life was in danger, Abigail had no idea that her husband had put their lives in danger and her actions honored her husband. Likewise, sometimes honor covers the shame of authorities, like the sons of Noah walking backward to cover their father’s nakedness, perhaps most often by merely overlooking things, but that overlooking can also include disregarding foolish commands or orders. A bunch of our leaders are playing the fool right now, and therefore done in the right spirit, our cheerful disregard of their foolish orders can be full of honor.
6. It is possible to defile yourself with paganism even in the absence of an explicit command that requires you to disobey God’s word. Daniel was cheerfully difficult in Babylon. Now everyone rushes ahead to the statue showdown or the prohibition against prayer. And of course those are the high points of Daniel’s godly resistance. But what many people miss is how Daniel and his three friends arrived at those points. Daniel and his friends were promoted and blessed by God and put into greater positions of prominence and influence because they were cheerfully difficult about the food in Babylon. Our modern missional pastors would tell Daniel to chill out, relax, and submit. It was just food. The kingdom of God is not in eating or drinking, Daniel! The gospel is not at stake! The text mentions nothing about the meat being “unclean food,” and there was nothing unclean at all about wine. Jews were permitted to eat many kinds of clean meat and Israelites long cultivated vineyards and made and enjoyed wine. The point of this resistance seems to have everything to do with Daniel establishing a distinction between himself and Babylon. He would serve the Babylonian king faithfully, but he would not become the king’s man. Let it be clear: the king was not commanding Daniel to disobey God, but Daniel recognized that there was a way that he and his friends could “defile” themselves all while not technically disobeying God.
7. Justice and evil are defined by God not by magistrates. Jesus taught that we are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. This is the context for the apostolic instructions regarding the honor and obedience we owe civil magistrates. They are servants of God, and they must therefore uphold His law. When it says that their job is to punish evildoers, this does not mean they get to make up standards of justice willy-nilly. If they define “evildoer” as a “non-essential” nail salon open for business, a church service with people singing, or someone walking around town without a mask on, they have become the evildoers. They cannot make something evil simply by their declaration. Now, Christians most certainly may obey unjust laws as a testimony to unbelieving magistrates if those laws do not require us to disobey God. This is also what Jesus says. Only strangers pay customs and tribute, but the children are free. “Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee” (Mt. 17:26-27). In other words, depending on the situation, it may be best to pay tributes and taxes cheerfully, and depending on the situation, it may be best to cheerfully forget to.
I titled this post Seven Principles for Reformational Civil Disobedience, and that adjective Reformational really is important. The crucial distinction we need to have fixed in our hearts and minds is that Reformation depends on the Spirit of God and is driven by gospel faith and not certain techniques or mechanisms for change. I said in a previous post that resisting the face mask mandate is like preaching at some guy’s clavicle bone sticking up through the dirt in a graveyard. And I mean that both to emphasize my agreement with the fact that the face mask mandates are not the “end of the world” and “the last hill to die on” and to emphasize why it would be worth standing there and cheerfully resisting. What if the Spirit would be pleased to move there? Where my Jonathans at? Let’s find out.
All gospel ministry is preaching in a graveyard, just like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. We preach, but the Spirit must quicken. The Spirit must give life. But this isn’t just a lesson for preachers. This is a lesson for all Christians in whatever their callings. Sure, we function just like all other human beings in terms of natural laws of physics and mathematics and logic and science (or at least how other human beings used to operate). We build houses and program computers and make meals like everyone else. But because we are Christians we labor with an additional layer in mind. In whatever we do, we want to see God’s blessing on it, and we mean both material and spiritual blessings when we say this. We not only want to fix the car correctly and competently and with excellence, we want God’s blessing on those labors. We not only want to make good food and be healthy and enjoy those good gifts, we want God’s blessing on our eating and drinking and fellowship. We want God’s kingdom to come and will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
If your primary thought in all of this COVID crazy is some variation on “come and make me,” you’re not smelling what I’m cooking. What I’m talking about is gospel resistance. I want millions of believers being cheerfully difficult with all the groundless mandates because Jesus is King, because their sins are forgiven, because they have been given a joy that cannot be taken away from them, because they are not afraid of death, because they love their neighbors, and they want to see them come out of the shadows of guilt and shame and fear, and come into the marvelous light of Jesus Christ. And they want that for this whole country, for the whole world.