When the coronavirus crisis started, I could see the handwriting on the wall. The civil government was going to limit civil liberties in order to curb the spread of the disease. Regardless of whether or not these actions were warranted or not, this was going to set some very dangerous precedents.
It turns out that the trajectory I saw governments taking became a reality and the right to peaceably assemble, the right to worship, and the ability to earn a living was stripped from people’s lives due to the edicts of State Governors declaring differing forms of state’s of emergency.
This led me to do some in-depth research on civil disobedience from a Christian perspective. When is it time to engage in civil disobedience and what things are required for it to be sanctioned by God?
I read articles from varied backgrounds. I read articles from the fundamentalists, the Anabaptists, the social justice movement surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. What I read has led me to the following conclusions concerning when a Christian should engage in civil disobedience.
Questions To Ask Before Engaging In Christian Civil Disobedience
Are you being asked to violate God’s law by obeying man’s law?
All of us have heard or made proclamations that we would never deny Jesus or take the mark of the beast talked about in the book of Revelations. However, things are not normally that cut and dried. How about “thou shalt not murder” or “thou shalt not have any other gods before me”? These become more nuanced.
For years the Anabaptists have held pacifist beliefs concerning war. They do not believe in engaging in military service. They are called conscientious objectors. They derive this opposition from the law of God that states you shall not murder.
Some Anabaptists have gone so far as to object to paying taxes to a government that engages in war.
So if you are being required by the government to violate God’s law such as who to worship, engage in murder, engage in theft (which brings an interesting twist to the socialist government argument), then you should consider civil disobedience.
Are you being asked to violate your sincerely held beliefs?
The classic example of this is in the book of Acts when Peter and John were commanded by the governing authorities not to talk or preach about Jesus. (I will list the scripture below.) This was not a violation of the law of God given to Moses but was a violation of the commandment Jesus gave to Peter and John concerning the preaching of the gospel to all nations.
There are many things we as Christians have been asked to do as part of our faith that can fall under this category. Church attendance, the partaking of communion, baptism, praying for the sick and many more. If the government steps in and asks you to stop obeying the scriptures then you may need to engage in civil disobedience.
Are you willing to pay the price?
The next thing you need to carefully consider is if you are willing to pay the price for your civil disobedience. You see there is a fine line between rebellion and acting out of a moral objection. That difference is the difference between blind obedience and willing submission.
We are called to be submissive to the government. That we are to be good citizens. However, being submissive doesn’t mean always being obedient.
The rebellious person will not comply and not be willing to pay the consequence of not complying. The submissive person will not comply and be willing to pay the consequences of the non-compliance. So you have to ask the question. Am I willing to pay the price for my civil disobedience? Am I willing to pay the fine, go to jail, even be executed for my non-compliance?
It is this willingness to pay the price that separates the rebellious from the conscientious. The abolitionists faced death for helping slaves escape. Those opposed to war and serving as an instrument of death to another person faced imprisonment. They willingly accepted those prices in order to obey God rather than man.
Today Christians in many parts of the world engage in civil disobedience to their governments by meeting for unsanctioned church services and preaching the gospel when it is mandated that they do not. They face beatings, jail, and even death.
Civil Disobedience During The Coronavirus Crisis
I said all that to say this. Many of our state and local governments have issued edicts that hinder and ban churches from meeting together. This has caused me great concern and the precedent is not good.
However, for me at least, this does not rise up to the level of violating my sincerely held beliefs for this reason. The edicts against assembling peaceably and closing churches as non-essential businesses are not directly made against the church. They are consequences of edicts that are attempting to protect the public which is one of the roles of government.
However, if the government does not repeal these edicts in a quick and judicious manner, especially as new evidence comes to light concerning the risk to the public, then this issue will change from one of protecting the public to manipulating or subjugating the public. It will then rise to the level of a violation of conscience.
Scriptures I found helpful in thinking through Christian civil disobedience.
The Birth of Moses
2 About this time, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi got married. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that he was a special baby and kept him hidden for three months. 3 But when she could no longer hide him, she got a basket made of papyrus reeds and waterproofed it with tar and pitch. She put the baby in the basket and laid it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile River. 4 The baby’s sister then stood at a distance, watching to see what would happen to him.
5 Soon Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, and her attendants walked along the riverbank. When the princess saw the basket among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it for her. 6 When the princess opened it, she saw the baby. The little boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This must be one of the Hebrew children,” she said.
7 Then the baby’s sister approached the princess. “Should I go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” she asked.
8 “Yes, do!” the princess replied. So the girl went and called the baby’s mother.
9 “Take this baby and nurse him for me,” the princess told the baby’s mother. “I will pay you for your help.” So the woman took her baby home and nursed him.
10 Later, when the boy was older, his mother brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her own son. The princess named him Moses, for she explained, “I lifted him out of the water.”
In this verse, we see Pharaoh’s daughter, the maid, the sister of the mother of Moses and Moses’ mother engaging in civil disobedience to the edict of Pharoah that all Hebrew children must be killed.
Rahab Protects the Spies
2 Then Joshua secretly sent out two spies from the Israelite camp at Acacia Grove. He instructed them, “Scout out the land on the other side of the Jordan River, especially around Jericho.” So the two men set out and came to the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there that night.
2 But someone told the king of Jericho, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” 3 So the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab: “Bring out the men who have come into your house, for they have come here to spy out the whole land.”
4 Rahab had hidden the two men, but she replied, “Yes, the men were here earlier, but I didn’t know where they were from. 5 They left the town at dusk, as the gates were about to close. I don’t know where they went. If you hurry, you can probably catch up with them.” 6 (Actually, she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them beneath bundles of flax she had laid out.) 7 So the king’s men went looking for the spies along the road leading to the shallow crossings of the Jordan River. And as soon as the king’s men had left, the gate of Jericho was shut.
In this passage we see Rahab disobeying the edict of the king by hiding the spies and then lying to the king.
16 “What should we do with these men?” they asked each other. “We can’t deny that they have performed a miraculous sign, and everybody in Jerusalem knows about it. 17 But to keep them from spreading their propaganda any further, we must warn them not to speak to anyone in Jesus’ name again.” 18 So they called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus.
19 But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? 20 We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.”
21 The council then threatened them further, but they finally let them go because they didn’t know how to punish them without starting a riot. For everyone was praising God 22 for this miraculous sign—the healing of a man who had been lame for more than forty years.
In this passage we see that Peter and John refused to obey the government concerning telling people about Jesus.
Respect for Authority
13 Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you.