“Let 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.” (Romans 13:1, ESV)
When a conversation like this begins, it’s difficult to think clearly. It’s easy to jump to hypotheticals in which either worst case scenarios are presumed as probable or the truth about humanity is ignored as too improbable.
As a Christian, it’s also easy to over simplify the whole problem by quoting the above verse and assuming that it encompasses all situations. Furthermore, many pastors and teachers have a tendency to postulate a Christianity that errs to pacifism, giving the impression that God intends for his Church to constantly be fed to the lions.
Very little consideration is given by modern theologians to the very real possibility that Christians may be called to overtly disobey and/or put off an oppressive government. All civil disobedience seems to be relegated to martyrdom and peaceful protests and all Christians are told to remain calm and give to Caesar all that is his. We are constantly reminded of the Early Church martyrs, the Coliseum, and their blood as the seed of the Church and the Gospel.
The problem is that this all too common teaching has a narrow view of history, an inadequate vision of the Kingdom of Christ, and ignores some important Scriptural descriptions of real, God ordained authority. We can dispatch this extreme obedience view fairly quickly.
Is it the case that we are to absolutely obey governing authorities? Of course it’s not. Most Christians would agree that whenever an authority goes against God’s precepts, we should not submit to them.
Is it the case that civil disobedience always looks like it did pre-Constantine Rome? Of course it’s not. History teaches us that Christians have participated, if not led, everything from hunger strikes to armed rebellions to revolutions, many of which were obviously blessed by God’s providential hand.
Is it the case that the Kingdom of Christ is merely something that is to come and we are to be apathetic about its advance? Even the most devout Dispensationalist should answer with a hearty NO!
On the other hand, do Christians have the liberty under Scripture to participate in a more robust form of civil disobedience? Some theologians say no, some say maybe, history says yes.
Here’s the rub. If it is the case that at least hypothetically Christians may openly rebel (and that term is used very loosely here) against an illegitimate authority, how is it that we will know that that time has come? If we are to do more than simply lose our jobs, be kicked out of the public forum, and maybe jailed or fined, how is it that we can know such a thing?
Okay, I’m probably not going to be able to answer that specifically. I don’t want to jump into those extreme hypotheticals I condemned a few paragraphs ago. I think I can answer it pragmatically, though.
Let me explain.
First of all, I do think that any robust form of civil disobedience will come after a period of suffering. 1 Peter is pretty clear that we are called to suffer not only as a Church but also individually. Not only are we called to suffer; we are called to suffer innocently, for doing good.
“For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:20–21, ESV)
All of that was written in the context of submitting to ruling authorities and even slavery. So we can take from that the idea that our submission is contingent upon our obedience to Scripture, not any intolerance of pain, ability to make a living, or public embarrassment, much less jail or torture.
We are called to suffer. Did you get that? There’s no way around that. So for me to sit here and say that at the first sign of persecution we are to take up arms would be unbiblical. We ought to suffer.
You need to be prepared for this. In my opinion some form of real persecution is imminent in the USA. Become familiar with what you believe. Know why you believe it. Become intimate with your Savior. Maintain honest, repentant, loving relationships. Love your family like Christ loves his Church. Be involved in a real church community. Strive for unity in the Spirit of Christ. Work for the Kingdom of God. Yearn for the return of our King.
If you are not doing these things you will not be ready to suffer. Be the man or woman of Christ you are called to be.
I would not say that any robust civil disobedience must occur after a time of suffering. I am only saying that if it occurs, it will only be after we have been obedient to our calling to suffer.
Outside of that, there is waiting. We must wait for deliverance. God delivers his people into persecution and he delivers them out of it. Sometimes he removes them from the persecutors. Sometimes he removes the persecutors. Sometimes he uses natural disasters or political solutions as a means of delivery. Sometimes he assembles great armies and destroys his people’s enemies. Sometimes his army is his people.
Whatever he choses to do, we must wait on his deliverance.
But waiting is not apathy. There is much to do while we wait.
Pray for deliverance. Obey the Great Commission. Speak the truth of the Gospel. Be ready to give a defense for the hope you have. Look expectantly for your Deliverer. It is the steady march of the Gospel that will eventually bring truth to bare and overcome the culture and yield the fullness of the Kingdom of Christ!
All of this is not to say that we have no right to defend ourselves. I am not saying that we must die as pawns.
I believe ultimately that people have an endowed right to self-defense, even in the case of revolt or revolution. I don’t know if that is coming in the West or in America but we are steamrolling to some kind of full stop. Our nation trends in that kind of history. We are a product of revolution. I believe in that case that we have the liberty to participate and are not held under the commands in Scripture to obey governing authority.
When and if those things do happen in the future, I don’t think there will be a great deal of apprehension by Christians. That is because by then, we will have suffered. We will have been brought through a time of persecution. We will know that we are being delivered, just as the patriots of old and the Puritans. Those Christians in history who have endured suffering have been ready to be delivered and have easily recognized the time and the place to civilly disobey or even revolt.
Until then, be ready for the onslaught. There are those who are chomping at the bit to do you harm because of your faith. Religious liberty is being redefined. The Church is in the crosshairs of the culture.
So our debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.-Frank Bruni; New York Times
There is an impasse here. There is no middle ground. If you believe that you’ll remain a committed Christian and be able to avoid taking a position on this publically, you are hiding your head in the sand.
The time will come that your apologetic aptitude will mean more to you than convincing your co-worker that you’re not some religious nut fooled by your own insecurities. The wheels are already turning. When the Supreme Court rules for so-called same sex marriage, you will then become an illegal, bigoted, discriminator. It is likely that in the next five years you will determine your own financial future by how you answer the question “Do you believe same-sex marriage is a sin?”
When all of this happens, whom will you obey? Will your government remain a legitimate authority? How well will you suffer? Are you prepared to civilly disobey?
“But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29, ESV)
It’s easy to sit in church or Sunday school and pretend that it’s all going to be alright. Right now you can go to work or school and just do your job with no worries. Tonight, you can be concerned only with answering your kid’s math questions. Your next church business meeting may have more to do with foreign missions than your 501C3 status or getting your pastor out of jail. Today, apologetics “might be okay for some people”; you’ll be fine without it, you think. The future is not as bright as all that. Take my word for it.
Begin to think about these things because I only began to answer them.
There will soon be a time for you to answer them more thoroughly. Our culture is demanding that you are ready to give that answer. Apologetics is becoming very practical in America.