You open your Bible, seeking wisdom and guidance on a difficult question: as a Christian, do you have a moral obligation to obey an unjust law? This issue has been debated for centuries, with thoughtful believers landing on different sides. As you pray and study Scripture, you gain clarity on how the Bible can inform your response.
Civil disobedience has long been practiced when people of faith believed laws violated biblical principles. In the Old Testament, Daniel disobeyed the king’s decree that everyone must worship idols, choosing to remain faithful to God even though it meant certain punishment (Daniel 6). In the New Testament, the apostles disregarded authorities who commanded them to stop preaching the gospel, saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Throughout history, Christians have refused to comply with laws permitting slavery, segregation, abortions, and other practices they deemed immoral. Their acts of civil disobedience spotlighted injustice and led to legal reforms. However, defying the law is a weighty decision that can have serious consequences. As a Christian, how do you know when civil disobedience is justified?
Here are three key takeaways to guide your approach:
- Pray for wisdom and discernment. Ask God to help you understand His perspective and will regarding unjust laws. Scripture, prayerful reflection, and godly counsel are vital.
- Evaluate whether the law compels you to violate biblical commands. If obeying the law would cause you to directly disobey God, resist with humility and love.
- Consider whether you can influence change through advocacy rather than disobedience. In many cases, working through legal channels and persuading leaders may be more effective.
The rest of this article explores biblical principles, examples, and practical considerations to help you navigate unjust laws. You’ll gain a balanced perspective on both obedience and resistance, equipping you to make wise decisions. The goal is living out your faith with integrity as you strive for justice.
The Bible Calls for Obeying Governing Authorities
One clear theme in Scripture is that God expects His people to respect and obey earthly authorities. Several New Testament passages explicitly command believers to submit to governing officials:
- “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-2).
- “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
- “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1).
These verses make it clear that Christians have a duty to obey laws and not rebel against civic leaders. God ordained earthly governments and gave them authority to maintain order and restrain evil through enforcement of laws (Romans 13:3-4). Therefore, defying rightful authorities who have been instituted by God brings judgment.
However, the Bible also contains accounts of godly people resisting kings’ commands when obedience would require sinning against God. In these cases, they chose civil disobedience, accepting the consequences in order to remain faithful to God’s higher standards.
Biblical Examples of Civil Disobedience
The book of Daniel provides two instances where Hebrew young men peacefully disobeyed the decrees of pagan kings in order to be obedient to Yahweh:
Daniel’s friends refusing to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s image: King Nebuchadnezzar commanded everyone to bow down and worship a gold image when musical instruments played, or be thrown into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3:4-6). Daniel’s three friends—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego—refused to bow, choosing loyalty to God over compliance with the king’s order (Daniel 3:16-18). As punishment, they were thrown into a blazing furnace but miraculously delivered.
Daniel defying the decree against prayer: King Darius signed a decree that anyone who petitioned any god or man except him for 30 days would be thrown into the lions’ den (Daniel 6:7). Daniel continued praying to Yahweh three times a day with his windows open, publicly disobeying the decree (Daniel 6:10). As punishment, Darius had Daniel thrown into the lions’ den, but God shut the lions’ mouths and he emerged unharmed (Daniel 6:22).
In the New Testament, the apostles disobeyed authorities who ordered them to stop preaching about Jesus:
Defying the Jewish ruling council: After Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles continued teaching about Him. The council commanded them to stop, but Peter responded: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). They kept preaching despite beatings and imprisonment.
Rejecting unlawful orders from rulers: When the proconsul Gallio ordered Paul driven away from the judgment seat, believers seized Sosthenes the ruler of the synagogue and beat him in front of Gallio, who refused to intervene unlawfully (Acts 18:12-17).
These accounts reveal that God sometimes honors civil disobedience when human authorities command something contrary to His standards. As Peter declared before the council: “We must obey God rather than men.”
However, these men only resisted after earnest prayer, with humility and reverence, accepting grave personal risk to uphold God’s commands. They remained respectful to authority figures even while disobeying specific unjust decrees. We see civil disobedience exercised in extreme cases where obeying human laws would have required direct disobedience to clear biblical standards.
Biblical Principles for How to Approach Unjust Laws
While the Bible commands obeying governing authorities, it allows resisting direct orders to violate God’s commands. How do we apply these principles to modern laws that don’t explicitly require sin but still seem unjust? Here are several biblical considerations when faced with a law you believe is unethical or wrong:
- Pray for wisdom and discernment. Ask God to help you understand if this law truly requires unethical conduct or violates biblical moral standards. Recognize that laws you personally dislike may not actually be unjust in God’s eyes. Yield your own desires and opinions to what honors Him.
- Evaluate whether the law compels you to directly violate biblical commands. If obeying the law would cause you to clearly transgress God’s moral standards for upright living, peaceful resistance may be justified – but with humility, graciousness, and acceptance of consequences.
- Consider advocating change through permitted channels. In democratic societies, work to elect new leaders, raise awareness, or reverse laws through legal processes. Engage in faithful citizenship to promote just laws.
- Avoid self-righteous or disrespectful attitudes. While civil disobedience may be warranted, retain an attitude of humility and love. Don’t resist just to rebel against authority or promote personal interests.
- Be prepared to suffer. Unjust punishment should be expected. Respond graciously and appeal to legal protections if possible. Righteous ends seldom justify unrighteous means.
- Focus on living exemplary lives. More than anything, live uprightly under both just and unjust laws. Your integrity can powerfully testify to a higher model under Christ’s lordship.
The Bible calls Christians to model good citizenship, honoring governing authorities whenever possible. But if obeying a law requires violating clear biblical principles, faithful believers may humbly yet firmly resist – while continuing to love and serve their society.
Four Cases to Consider Regarding Obeying Unjust Laws
To expand on some of the principles above, it can be helpful to walk through practical scenarios to determine when civil disobedience may be justified – and when it may be preferable to pursue change through permitted channels instead. Here are four cases along the spectrum to consider:
Case 1: Law Requires Direct Disobedience to God’s Commands
Example: A law makes it illegal to pray in public or worship God. It would violate your biblical convictions against idolatry and your responsibility to worship only Yahweh.
Guidance: As in Daniel and Acts, it’s appropriate to defy this law, accepting consequences. But focus on living faithfully rather than instigating change. Your courageous example shines light on injustice.
Case 2: Law Permits Something Morally Wrong
Example: Abortion is legalized, conflicting with biblical teaching to protect life.
Guidance: Work through democratic processes to elect pro-life officials willing to change laws. Engage in advocacy and demonstrate Christlike care for mothers and children.
Case 3: Law Promotes Sinful Conduct
Example: Prostitution is legalized and regulations make it widely accessible.
Guidance: Do not directly participate in or enable this conduct, which violates biblical morality standards. Raise awareness of harms, counsel those involved to find hope in Christ, and advocate for leaders willing to reverse such laws.
Case 4: Law Is Unfair but Doesn’t Compel Sin
Example: Tax policy burdens the poor; education funding is unequal.
Guidance: Unequal treatment is wrong, but may not justify defiant law-breaking that could harm your witness. Promote justice and advocate reforms using your rights as a citizen. Also take direct action to relieve burdens on those impacted.
As these cases illustrate, prayerful discernment is needed to determine when civil disobedience is the best course versus change through permitted means. Above all, remain faithful to Christ and His kingdom while seeking justice.
Four Considerations When Contemplating Civil Disobedience
If after careful spiritual discernment you believe civil disobedience is warranted in response to an unjust law, keep the following guidance in mind:
2. Retain an attitude of love and respect. Do not disobey vindictively or self-righteously, which will discredit your cause. Make an appeal of conscience with humility, grace, and honor for authority figures.
3. Use nonviolent means. Follow the model of Christ and Gandhi. Passive or non-cooperative resistance speaks louder than violence and lawlessness. Peacefully demonstrate your conviction.
4. Aim for righteous ends. While civil disobedience shines a light on injustice, also be progressing toward reforms. Prayerfully consider whether your actions are likely to lead to greater justice or just create further divisions.
Civil disobedience is not to be embarked on lightly. Count the cost and ensure your methods align with biblical values of love and righteousness.
Navigating your response to an unjust law is complex. As a Christian, your ultimate purpose transcends earthly politics and systems – it is living faithfully before God and modeling His selfless, redemptive love to others. When considering civil disobedience, reflect on these key points:
- Sincerely seek wisdom from Scripture and godly counsel.
- Disobey only if directly compelled to violate clear biblical commands.
- In lesser cases, pursue change through permitted means.
- Accept consequences with grace, looking to Christ as your supreme model.
- Focus on living out your faith with integrity amid injustice.
The Bible calls for both honoring governing authorities and resisting ungodly decrees when obedience to God demands it. But even civil disobedience must be carried out in a Christlike spirit. Ultimately, you can trust God’s sovereignty over human affairs while doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before Him (Micah 6:8).
- Pray for wisdom and discernment to understand God’s perspective on unjust laws.
- Only disobey laws that directly compel you to violate biblical commands.
- In many cases, advocate change through legal channels rather than civil disobedience.
- Be prepared to suffer punishment with grace and love.
- Focus on living out your faith with integrity amid injustice.