Civil disobedience (going against the ruling authorities) has been a controversial topic for hundreds of years, it may seem like it has become more of an issue over the last few years but it was a popular topic even in first century BC.
The important thing about civil disobedience is not whether or not we should take part but why, when, and how we should take part and what the Bible says about it.
Why should we take part in civil disobedience?
Like many things, a large part of why you should take part in civil disobedience comes down to what your motivations are. When I was discussing this with someone very wise a few years ago they said that one of the best motivations to take part in civil disobedience is that you are seeking the good for someone else, not for yourself.
An example of someone who did this was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he came from an aristocratic German family and decided to become a pastor and theologian. Bonhoeffer was someone who could have easily made it through wartime Germany without ruffling any feathers – even as a pastor, if he simply asserted that Hitler was Germany’s saviour.
However, he decided to instead stay faithful to God and his word and started teaching ministers in secret underground and tried to oppose Nazism through religious action and moral persuasion.
Yet when they proved after some time to be insufficient, he joined the German secret service as a double agent and used his cover to help Jews escape; he also became involved with a plot to overthrow and later assassinate Hitler.
It is important to note that Bonhoeffer chose civil disobedience for his fellow man at no benefit and great cost to himself. He first tried peaceful disobedience, and as well as trying to bring about the destruction of Hitler was also involved in rescuing those who were victims of Naziism.
If we are to do civil disobedience is it to benefit others or ourselves? Who is foremost in our minds? Have we tried other ways to achieve our aims before resorting to extremes? Are we actively helping those being crushed in the machine of tyranny as well as trying to throw a spanner in its works?
When should we take part in civil disobedience?
There is no clear cut answer for when we should take part in civil disobedience but the Bible lays out some helpful guidelines.
Firstly, we need to acknowledge that God has put governments in place to create law and order and that he is aware of (even if he does not condone) everything that goes on. In Romans Chapter 13 verse 1 Paul talks about this,
“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.”
Secondly, we must choose civil disobedience when our government tells us to do something that is against God’s word. When the apostles were told to stop preaching the gospel they respond by saying, “But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts Chapter 5 vs 29.
Thirdly, In Isaiah Chapter 1 verse 17, Isaiah brings God’s message to the Israelites about their failure to do what is right and says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Regardless of what the ruling authorities say we must always seek justice and look after the vulnerable.
Not every cause is equal however, for some things we need to simply peacefully make our objections known through petitions or purely peaceful marches or gatherings, for others we may need to just obey the rules even if we disagree with them, find them inconvenient, irritating, or somewhat disadvantageous, and for some we may need to deliberately disobey the law and even work to bring down the government - these last cases are extremely rare however.
How should we take part in civil disobedience?
We must never take part in civil disobedience on a whim, or because it is trendy, we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into a frenzy whipped up by other people.
When considering civil disobedience we must think soberly about the long term causes and effects of our actions, we must be prepared to be committed to it for as long as it takes and we must be prepared to accept the consequences of our actions.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not take his role lightly and he was prepared to risk imprisonment and death for the cause. Even after he was imprisoned he continued to hold firm to God’s truth and stay committed to living his life in line with God’s word.
After he was hung as a traitor the prison camp doctor is recorded as saying, “In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
It’s not all up to us
Although God calls us to seek justice and defend the oppressed I am so thankful that is not all up to us, God is the ultimate Judge and he will be the one who ultimately sets all things right.
God uses us in this world to do his work but what a relief it is not ultimately up to us! We can take heart that even when evil prevails and good people are thrown under the wheels of the machine of tyranny we know that there will be a time when all evil will be vanquished and everything put right when Jesus comes in glory to right all wrongs and gather all his people to him!
Jessica McPherson lives with her best friend and husband, Eoin and their family of rescue animals in Christchurch. She loves reading, writing, photography and scrap-booking but most of all sharing God’s love and truth with a hurting world. Jessica is particularly passionate about encouraging children and building them up in gospel truth.