POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

To Obey, or Not to Obey...That is the Question

In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were given an order to obey a law which demanded all leaders of the Babylonian empire to bow down in worship before a golden image set up by Nebuchadnezzar.  They willfully disobey the order and get themselves into a bit of trouble for doing so.  This brings up an important question for followers of Jesus in every time period.  Is it right to disobey governing authorities?  As Americans, who revel in individualism and whose country was born by throwing off the rule of a European monarch, this is hardly a question.  Yet there is a great tension in the teaching of Scripture and in human society in general. 

Practical Tensions

In order to have a culture that experiences anything less than chaos, there must be some order.  It has been demonstrated time and again that human beings are quite capable of bringing havoc upon the world.  In light of this, government has been necessary.  Yet at the same time, governments are made up of the same human beings who can tyrannically and unjustly oppress those whom they serve.  Hence we have a tension that must be resolved.  First, we need government and we need to follow certain rules or laws in order to have a peaceful and meaningful existence.   Second, it is true that a government can be wicked or ask its people to do unjust tings.  In such cases that government's rules ought to be disobeyed. Or should they?

Biblical Tensions

There is clear teaching in Scripture regarding obeying government and the nature of rebellion.  Many are surprised that the Bible actually commands followers of Jesus to obey governing authorities.  For instance, Romans 13:1-5 gives this strong exhortation:

1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.

It also goes on to say we should pay taxes, but that is painful to read being a resident of New Jersey.  The point is that we should follow the laws of our land because the state is appointed by God to  correct and punish wrong doing so a peaceable society can flourish.   Furthermore, to go against right authority appears to be sin in light of God's strong words about rebellion (1 Samuel 15:22, 23) That is one side of the tension.

The other side of the tension arises from some clear biblical examples of people who in fact disobey governing authorities.  The Hebrew midwives disobey Pharaoh's commands to destroy Hebrew babies in Exodus 1.  In Acts 4 the early leaders of Jesus' church disobey a command from the ruling council in Jerusalem.  They are asked by the authorities to no longer preach or teach about Jesus; their response was clear:

Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. 

Equally clear was the response of our guys here in Daniel 3.  Their response to Nebuchadnezzar was strong and resolute:

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.

So it seems we have to reconcile God's commands to obey government and some clear cases where God has displayed his blessing upon the disobedience.  The solution to this problem is actually quite simple, the application of that solution can be quite complex requiring wisdom.  Is it OK to disobey the government? Yes, it seems, when it wants you to sin against God. 

Higher Authority

It is clear from Scripture that we are to listen to God's word above the commands of human beings.  We are to submit to a law that transcend the borders of nations and cultures. As the apostles in Acts 4 show us, we are to live in a manner that pleases God and not blindly obey a sinful law from government.   How we are to live this injunction in a world of complex situations and circumstances must be considered.  Additionally, whether the law of the land should be the law of God is a difficult subject which various Christians approach differently.  To proceed into some of the complexity of this I will take two paths.  First, we will simply look at the relationships of God's law to the laws of the state.  This is necessary if we are to be able to compare the two and if the state is to rule justly.  Finally, we will look at two different camps regarding civil disobedience and close by giving a positive encouragement from Scripture.

Laws, Higher and Lower

Both church and state have been called by God to govern and have authority in the lives of Christians.  The church is a body of believers called out by God together as a covenant people by the gospel.  As such, the highest authority in our lives is the Word of God, the Scriptures.  Yet each church is in a realm of state authority as well so the lines of separation must be discussed.  Historically, the Roman Catholic Church and the magisterial reformers (Luther, Zwingli and Calvin) held to a unification of church/state.  The state was legitimized by God and the church endorsed this legitimacy.  Additionally, the state enforced and permitted the establishment of religious authority and unity in a realm. This view had long standing back into Greek and Roman times.  A state and its gods were one.  However, this was questioned by many reformers and evaluated in light of Scripture.  Did not Jesus teach that the rule of Caesar was different than the rule of God?  Does not a marriage between worldly power and the church have a corrupting influence on both?  Such questions in Western culture led the founders of the American experiment to articulate clearly the relationship between church and state.  It is found in the well known establishment and free exercise clauses of the first amendment of the US Constitution.  Here is how it reads: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  The meaning of this statement is quite clear but the implementation has always been a bit fuzzy.  What it means is that there will be no official state religion or church in our country.  Additionally, the government will not prohibit law abiding citizens from freely practices their religion.  It does not make a religion free zone in any portion of society nor does it create a religion of which all citizens must participate.  It means we have freedom of religion - a gracious gift to the people of America.   I take this to be a just solution but it leaves unanswsered how the authority of the church and state are grounded.

The Authority of State - Natural Law

Many thinkers in history, particularly Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke have taught that there is a law built into human existence which dictates to conscience basic categories of a just society.  I do not have time here, but I discussed various types of law elsewhere1.  Natural law would be defined in the Christian tradition as follows: Natural law is the law "written on the heart" (Romans 2:13) - the conscience by which people know good and evil - right from wrong. Sin mars this faculty in man, but it remains none the less. These are things that people "can't not know" which flow from the moral nature of God and presses upon the conscience. People suppress this and hold it down in wickedness, many becoming callous as to be seared against God's witness in conscience (See Romans 1,2). This is shared by both Christian and Non Christian. Some recent works on Natural law would be found in the writings of Princeton scholar Robert George and J. Budzizewski of the University of Texas at Austin.2

The state then governs in accord to the law written on the heart expressed in basic morality found in all cultures.  The so called "second tablet" (commands 5-10) of the Ten Commandments is reflective of such basic moral foundations.  The natural law is an expression of God's authority on all peoples and we disobey this moral law to our own peril.

The Authority of Church - The Word of God

Christians however are called to a higher authority than even the state, the authority of the Word of God.  Scripture is the Supreme Court in all matters of life and teaching for Christian believers.  It is to be obeyed and heeded out of love for Jesus Christ who is revealed in this Word.  It reveals the laws of God which demonstrate to us our sinfulness and need of grace.  It reveals the gospel by which we are saved and restored to right relationship with God.  It reveals the mission of the church in the world as the in-breaking of the ultimate rule and reign of God in the Kingdom of Heaven.  It reveals that we are citizens of two realms...the Kingdoms of earth and the Kingdom of God. Scripture instructs us as to when civil disobedience is warranted while simultaneously calling us to submit to just and reasonable laws.

In this age church and state are separate spheres of authority with Scripture guiding the church.  When Jesus returns he will set up a perfect divine monarchy with himself as King of Kings.  Aristotle once wrote that the best government would be by a perfect and virtuous ruler.  Yet none of this metal is to be found among the sinful throng of humanity.  In the current state of affairs it has been said that democracy is the best of all bad forms of government.   Yet a day will come when authority will be always good, kind and just. 

In summary, the state is called to have just laws and believers are called to follow all such laws.  When the state passes unjust laws we are compelled to obey a higher standard.  The question of the application of this principle has typically found Christians in two camps.  We should disobey a government when it promulgates unjust laws or we should only disobey when it compels us by law to act in a sinful manner.  Let's close by looking at this distinction.3

Promulgation or Compulsion?

The Antipromulgation Position-this position simply states that the law is king and the state is not above the law.  If a government rules contrary to just laws than it is illegitimate or tyrannical, failing in its God given duty to promote and protect the common good.  Such governments that promote and promulgate evil should be resisted by protest and self-defensive force if necessary.  Some advocates of this view have even gone as far to recommend revolution against such tyrannical and unjust governments.

The Anticompulsion Position -  this view holds that a Christian should submit to a government until it actively compels a person to follow an unjust law or disobey God.  In this view the follower of Jesus can submit to the just laws of the state while not participating in the evil behavior the state permits.  A modern example would be a doctor refusing to obey a government which might compel him to perform abortions against her conscience. Typically, non violent4 resistance is the path followed by the person resisting  an unjust state in this position.5 The following table from Norman L. Geisler illustrates the differing views6:

Antipromulgationist Anticompulsionist
When it permits evil When it commands evil
When it promulgates evil lawsWhen it compels evil actions
When it limits freedom When it negates freedom
When it is politically oppressiveWhen it is religiously oppressive

In closing, it is my conviction that Christians should be good citizens of any realm in which they are living (See 1 Timothy 2:1-3). We should be seek to be helpful to all who govern justly and even do good to those who treat us badly (Matthew 5:43-47). The only trouble we should be starting is the sanctified kind.  If we get in trouble for proclaiming the love of God towards sinners, the forgiveness of God the repentant and the salvation of God which comes through Jesus Christ alone-bring it on.  If we get in trouble for disobeying an evil law, then throw us in the flames.  But if you suffer for law-breaking and doing stupid things...well, that's on you.

As to the myriad of questions surrounding the use of force in self defense, or for a people to wage a violent rebellion against an unjust state...that will have to be junk left for discussion on another day.  

For Jesus,

Reid S. Monaghan


1 See my Christianity and Nation States...Law and a Just Society at http://www.powerofchange.org/2005/5/3/christianity-and-nation-stateslaw-and-a-just-society.html

2 See J. Budzizewski Written on the Heart-The Case for Natural Law and What We Can't Not Know-A Guide  and Robert P. George The Clash of Orthodoxies-Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis.

3. This is a synopsis of the treatment in Norman Geisler's Christian Ethics-Options and Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989) 241-246.

4. Note: This is a separate issue from the discussion of just war vs. pacifism. 

5. For a good treatment on why Christians should not favor the use of violence see John S. Feinberg, Paul D. Feinberg Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996, c1993), 402-405.

6. Geisler, 243.