The Case for Civil Disobedience

This article forms part of our three part exegetical class on Christians and government in our Morning Bible Class at the church on Sundays at 8:30. We will be discussing this last section this coming Lord’s Day. 

World governments have a recurring knack of not being what Christians would like them to be. As believers, many of us would love to be ruled by a government that we feel honours all the biblical principles that we hold dear. Unfortunately as church history shows us, that is seldom (if ever) the case. So the temptation to disobey government regulations has been a temptation for believers for two thousand years. As we are living in a moment that is governed by a slew of regulations, we are feeling this temptation a lot more than usual. How do we know which regulations to obey and which to disregard? As an addendum to the letter we sent a few weeks ago as well as the last part of our class on “Christians and Government,” we wanted to outline what the Scripture says about civil disobedience.

In our class we discussed in detail the meaning of Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13 -25. The notes from these sessions will be emailed to the church, and you are welcome to email me if you would like a copy. Because of this, we will assume the knowledge that we discussed in those exegetical lectures. Particularly, I will assume that we understand that the New Testament teaches that the general posture of a believer is that of patient submission to all governing authorities, be they just or unjust. Our focus now in this last session is to discuss legitimate exceptions to this rule.

In discussing exceptions to this principle, it is worth noting that neither Paul nor Peter say anything with regard to when you should disobey the government. Paul is writing an important doctrinal letter to the Romans, where he has spent a lot of time imagining people’s objections to what he is saying,[1] and yet he does not spend an iota in explaining any exceptions to this principle. It is no stretch to say as far as Paul is concerned, a Christian’s general attitude toward government is that of subjection in light of the Lord’s commands.[2] In the same way, in writing a general letter to the saints in Asia Minor Peter also says absolutely nothing about when we should disregard this principle. This does not mean that Peter and Paul see no scope for when that will need to happen, but empirically we can say that it does mean that they see it as rare.

So, when should we disobey the government? 

We do not have a teaching passage in the New Testament that explains to us exactly when we are to disobey the authorities. However, a survey of the Scriptures will give us insight into how we should think about when it becomes our duty to not comply. Consider with me a number of categorized examples below.

A; When Governments Unjustly Kill

In Exodus 1, the Egyptian Pharaoh gave a clear command to two Hebrew midwives that they were to kill all male Jewish babies. Fearing God, these midwives disobeyed Pharaoh and they “let the boys live” (Exod. 1:17). This act of defiance was honoured by God (Exod 1:20-21). When Jezebel was killing prophets, Obadiah hid a hundred of them because he “feared the LORD greatly” (1 Kings 18:3-4). 

B; When the Law Requires False Worship

In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar builds a golden statue that everyone must bow down to. An edict goes out that when the bell rings, everyone must bow down and worship the king’s statue. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego say, in no uncertain terms, that they would rather die than worship the king or his idols. In a similar fashion, Darius signs an edict that for 30 days everyone must pray to him (Dan 6:6-9). Daniel, the man of God, continues to pray to the living God and, as you know the story, the Lord miraculously saves him from Darius’ punishment. 

C; When the Rulers forbid the Preaching of the Gospel

IIn Acts 4, the ruling council in Jerusalem forbade the apostles Peter and John from preaching Christ. They famously replied, “whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge” (Acts 4:19). The apostles here saw that the authorities were directing something that is in direct opposition to what God requires. And they went out and continued to preach.[3] 

From the examples above, we see that it is not only allowed but it becomes a duty to go against the ruling authorities when their reasoning is what Richard Baxter calls “profane.”[4] A government’s reasoning is profane before God when it requires citizens to act immorally; that is, to act in disregard of God’s law. To require citizens to not worship the living God, or to kill unjustly or to prohibit the preaching of God’s Word is an affront on God Himself and believers cannot cower in the face of such edicts. 

It is the same for all the spheres of authority that God has put in place. The family (whose head is the husband/father), the church (whose governing leaders are the elders) and the state are all to be submitted to insofar as what they require does not go against God’s law as revealed in the Scriptures. This is why at Heritage we disobey the government every Sunday when we proclaim that homosexuality is a sin or that loving corporal punishment is biblical.

What About Jurisdiction?

But does the government have a right to tell church leaders what to do in their churches? And does the government have a right to direct fathers how to lead their homes? This is where the discussion must be nuanced. Technically, the government does not have jurisdiction over the church’s practice or doctrine. That is to be supremely governed by God’s Word. In the same way, pastors do not have authority over a church member's home affairs. This is the head of the home’s jurisdiction. But members of a church are citizens of a country, and husbands are members of a church. By their very definition, these jurisdictions lawfully overlap at certain points. For example, a church building has to have a fire extinguisher by civil law.  That is in case of an emergency (fire) that has a very miniscule chance of happening (way more miniscule than your chance of dying from COVID). And yet we cannot argue that this law requirement is tyranny and an overstepping of jurisdiction; it is very much a concern of the public good that all buildings have fire extinguishing plans in order to avoid unnecessary death and destruction of property.

A further contemporary example will elucidate the issue of jurisdiction. When the government under level 3 and above tells the church not to meet, that is an overstep of their jurisdiction. The government does not have a mandate to dictate the church’s practice. So if the government was merely telling us to not meet for profane reasons like trying to suppress our message or trying to advance idolatry, it would be an obligation to resist. But the government is directing churches to close because of a real threat to human life. And the good of society is within their realm of rule (Rom 13:3). Therein lies the overlap, and to discern this overlap requires prudent assessment from church leaders. This is why many believers are landing on different sides of the spectrum on this. Some, because of the intrusion of the directive itself, feel that it is a matter of principle to resist. Others, like ourselves, believe because the disease is real and witness at this particular juncture in history is important, see it a worthy thing to comply. Those who comply do not just comply because the government simply said so (that would be a dereliction of duty and jurisdictional violation), rather they are complying because of a myriad of reasons.[5]

What about the principle of protest?

As citizens, we have the right to protest. Even the Apostle Paul exercised this right a number of times (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-28). A wife or a church member also has certain avenues (not least of which is charitable discussion) when they feel a decision that is about to be taken or has been taken is not the wisest. Discussion within each sphere is both healthy and largely required for the functioning of society. So if there is a law that is passed that we disagree with, we have the freedom to follow the right protesting channels afforded to us by the constitution. 

But as Christians, everything must be done charitably and with godliness. We must be very careful to not demonise the other side and say things about them that would justify a protest but that are factually not true. It is factually incorrect to say the RSA government is persecuting the church; if you have said that, you must repent. The dean at my seminary instilled in me that even if I was reviewing a paper written by the worst heretic, I must make sure to represent his views as if he was looking over my shoulder. Whatever you say about the government, it must not be some sensationalistic vitriol but rather it must be measured and documentable. You are not God; you do not know each man’s heart. 

Concluding applications

For the Christian, civil disobedience is not an option when faced with immoral laws. It is a duty. What must be clearly discerned is that the law is immoral or at-least achieves an immoral end. We cannot choose to be submissive only when we agree on all finer points with the government, just like we cannot just pay taxes only when we agree that they are used well. In our country, we have many reasons why we would not want to be submissive to the government.

Generations of believers in history would have loved to enjoy the freedoms we have in South Africa. Our 1996 constitution, though not perfect, gave all South Africans expansive freedoms that we can easily take for granted. It is good for us to be thankful to God for them. It is equally good to not let those freedoms dissipate our hearts in such that any sign of them being taken away makes us act like children and throw tantrums. The command to control ourselves and to guard our speech applies even if we live in a country with the worst persecution. Even the Apostle Paul had to repent when his frustration with those striking him unlawfully led him to respond in an ungodly fashion.[6] Any blessing from the Lord is dangerous if when we are threatened with losing it we cannot manage ourselves. I say this so as to arouse us to think carefully on these things, and not to speak or act impulsively.



[1] Consider Romans 4:1; 6:1, 15; 7:7, 13; 9:19.

[2] Even his general admonition to Titus is that of a “reminder” that God’s people ought to be subject and obedient. Titus 3:1.

[3] Some have argued that when the government is telling churches to close because of the pandemic they are doing exactly the same thing as these rulers in Jerusalem. The reality however is not so simple. While I admit that it is possible that in some country somewhere that a government might be using clandestine means to stop the gospel from going out, it is simply not the case in South Africa. We are allowed to preach. Even under the strictest level (level 5), as a minister of the gospel I was a issued a permit by the government that allowed me to evangelize people in their homes, visit people from house to house, and even generally, when I tell the police that I am a minister of Jesus Christ they allow me to go on my way with a respectful tone. In fact, under some of the lock down levels, we were able to reach more people with the gospel through virtual bible studies and our live-streams. What is happening today in our country is absolutely not related in any respect to what happened in Acts 4. They were being forbidden to proclaim the name of Christ, we are not. To say that these two situations are the same violates the fullness of that text and anachronistically inserts considerations into the text that simply are not there.


[5] See

[6] Acts 23:1-5.

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