What Is the Christian Position Regarding Civil Disobedience?

Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002

The Question…

Dear Rev. Schlissel,

What is the Christian position regarding civil disobedience? Is there ever justification to engage in civil disobedience? My question arose while thinking of Hitler’s extermination of Jews and others during WWII. For the most part, the German people seemed to acquiesce in Hitler’s atrocities. Only a few dared to show any kind of civil disobedience and those who did paid for it with imprisonment and death.


The Answer…

Dear PJS,

I must say at the top that I really cannot speak of the Christian position. Many traditions and many Christian leaders have wrestled with this very question over a period of thousands of years and I am not aware of anything like a consensus having yet emerged. Therefore what I offer in response to your question pleads no special authority; I simply hope it is a reasoned response.

First—and this is vitally important—God alone is absolute. He alone is sovereign and His sovereignty alone may be exercised upon all His creatures in such a way that their complete, unswerving, meticulous and wholehearted obedience is required.

It must immediately be added, however, that though God possesses this unique right to unfeigned, unquestioned obedience, He has nevertheless often permitted (and does still permit) His servants to enter into “discussion” with Him concerning His pronouncements and intentions. One thinks of Abraham pleading for the righteous in the cities set apart to destruction, Moses’ plea that God would kill him if God would not change His intention concerning Israel, David’s plea for Bathsheba’s child, even Cain’s complaint that his decreed punishment was too much.

My point is not that these approaches to God resulted in what we might call a changed mind, but that God permitted, even encouraged, these and other approaches. This is important because it gives us insight into the way God administers His will. Though He alone may require unquestioned submission, yet even He permits “discussion.” How much more should lesser authorities be open to hearing from those called upon to submit to them! If THE Authority who is alone entitled to blind obedience permits openings, how much more should those who administer His affairs in various spheres be willing to hear from those they rule on His behalf? This needs to be mentioned because some make too much of their authority in the various spheres.

Which brings us to our second point: The authority of all human rulers is derived, not original and not ultimate. Fathers, elders and magistrates are given authority to further God’s plans and will, not subvert them. This immediately leads us to a rather vast domain where it must be asked, “Must every order of a lesser authority be obeyed?” Here we do have something of a consensus in Christian history: The answer is “No.” Christians are not bound to obey orders which would require them to do what God forbids or forbid them to do what God requires. Fathers may not sexually abuse their children with impunity, elders may not tell congregants to disbelieve the Bible, the state cannot require that we euthanize our parents.

This limitation of the authority of all rulers is quite evident. We see it, of course, in the Apostles’ refusal to abide by the Sanhedrin’s ruling which contradicted Christ’s. We also see it in Shiphrah and Puah’s bravery, defying Pharaoh’s order, as well as other instances.

The question becomes finer when we ask if disobedience is permitted (or required) when no such direct command has been issued to Christians. Must a daughter honor her father’s rule that she may wear only a blue dress to church? Scripture says nothing one way or the other. Is his will final? Always? May she wear a red dress if she marries out? If she remains single but attains to age 50? Circumstances obviously began to color our answers.

Similarly, may elders require that all professing members who drive get whitewall tires on their cars? Scripture says nothing about tires. Are these areas given to the discretion of the elders?

Well then, may legislative bodies demand that we use only whitewalls? Do we sin if we defy them in this?

More seriously, are Christians obliged to civilly disobey when they know of injustices? Operation Rescue, for example, argues that those who witness crimes (such as abortion) are duty-bound to intervene so as to prevent the crimes from occurring, if possible. Others argue that such disobedience may only be justified if all other avenues of redress have been exhausted. Believe me when I tell you that the ethical roadmap can get very fuzzy at this point.

But the contribution of Calvinism at this very point has been excellent. Our tradition teaches that lesser magistrates, i.e., lawfully constituted authorities who rank under the law-breaking authorities, may and must defy their superiors. This approach allows for disobedience that is less likely to produce chaos (every man picking and choosing what he’ll obey and what he won’t). It appeals to lawfully appointed men to give themselves in the service of their calling. Lesser magistrates are in the front lines, then, according to Calvinistic thought, and upon them God has placed the burden to provide leadership against wicked higher-ups.

What happens when this safety valve fails? It’s not a very pretty picture. One lawful alternative is secession, i.e., removing oneself from the domain of the godless and binding oneself to a more righteous people. In Germany, Poland, France, etc., during the War, that might have meant people uniting themselves, formally and informally, with “the underground,” or “the resistance,” which functioned as if a country within a country, in league with allies without the country.

But in North America in the Year 2000, just where are we to go as our nations descend into moral chaos and openly advocate every evil and vice, even subsidizing them? Peaceful secession is a very, very attractive position.

I would encourage our ethicists to fully discuss this very pertinent issue, perhaps in the pages of the Christian Renewal, and I thank you for bringing up this very Good Question.


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