The Christian’s Call to Civil Disobedience?

Reading all the Bible’s teaching is crucial.

Jennifer Gray Woods
The Christian’s Call to Civil Disobedience?

Over the years Christians have faced the question of what to do when following religious convictions comes in direct conflict with obedience to governmental authority. There are two ways that this conflict occurs, and there are biblical examples for both. The first happens when a government mandates something that stands in conflict to religious convictions. The book of Daniel offers a helpful example of this form of conflict when King Nebuchadnezzar issued the decree that everyone was to bow down to the golden image, in direct violation of the second commandment (Dan. 3; cf. Ex. 20:4-6). Another example of this can be found in the book of Exodus, where Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all Hebrew boys when they were born (Ex. 1:15-20).

This conflict also occurs when a government forbids something that God commands. Again, we can look to the book of Daniel for the example of this type of conflict, where we see King Darius forbidding everyone to pray to anyone other than him for 30 days (Dan. 6). In both instances God’s people were placed in a position of whether to submit to government authority or to God. And in all three examples, God’s people chose to follow Him and defy the laws of the leaders of the time.

The New Testament doesn’t say that we, as believers, are always to obey government authority, but that we are to be subject to it.

However, when we get to the New Testament, we find guidance that we, as followers of Christ, should submit to government authority because leaders are appointed by God. For example, in Romans Paul says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom. 13:1, 2, NIV; cf. Titus 3:1).1 Peter offers similar counsel when he states, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13, 14).

Jesus also taught that believers have a duty to government when He responded to the question posed by the Pharisees to trick Him regarding whether they should pay taxes to Caesar. In response, Jesus gave the guidance to “render . . . to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21, NKJV; cf. Luke 20:19-26 and Mark 12:13-17).2 

Considering the biblical examples and the guidance given in both the Old and New Testaments, two questions come to mind. First, what is our duty to submit to governmental authority, especially when that authority prohibits believers to freely worship as they see fit? Second, what safeguards have governments put in place to protect an individual’s rights to worship freely without constraints from the government? 

Religious Liberty Protections Basics

Since 1948 the international community has recognized freedom of conscience and religion as a fundamental human right. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including “freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”3 Even before this Universal Declaration, though, the United States has recognized the importance of this fundamental right from when it became a nation. Part of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution known as the “free exercise clause” states that an individual should be able to practice his or her religion, or no religion at all, without constraints from the government.  

This right, however, is not an absolute one, and over the years courts have been defining what it means to freely exercise one’s religion and what the limitations of this right are. Courts have recognized that there is a difference between an individual’s right to hold a religious belief and the right to freely practice that belief.5 While the right to hold a religious belief is absolute, the right to practice that belief is not. For example, the right to freely exercise one’s religion does not include the right to harm others or interfere with others’ rights.   

Early Adventist pioneers also understood that at times civil disobedience may be called for.

Currently the law in the United States is that as long as the federal government has a compelling government interest and the law is the least-restrictive means of furthering its interest, it can place limits on an individual’s ability to freely practice his or her religious beliefs.6 For state governments the standard is even lower: as long as the law is neutral and generally applicable, it will be legal even if it limits religious practice in some way.7 Many countries also have laws regarding religious liberty and the freedom of people to practice their faith, although each country balances the importance of individual freedom versus government interest differently.

While the concept of freedom of religion is a well-recognized principle, there have been times, and will continue to be times, that governments will limit freedom of conscience and religion in the name of fulfilling other government interests. We’ve seen this take place when religious speech is labeled as hate speech, when students and employees are forced to decide between taking school exams and working on Sabbath or honoring God’s day, when governments make laws forbidding proselytizing, or demanding the bearing of arms against an individual’s conscience.

Subordination and Civil Disobedience?

What should we, as believers, do when faced with a law that appears to conflict with biblical principles that impact our ability to freely practice our religious beliefs? 

I believe that the Bible gives guidance on this issue. Following the counsel of Jesus, we should “render . . . unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” recognizing and supporting the government’s right to legislate on secular matters and comply with those laws when possible. But we must also remember our duty to render unto God as our first priority. This means that when laws are in conflict with biblical mandates, our allegiance to God should always come first.8

This brings me to a term that is often used but has many different definitions: civil disobedience. Using the following definition, I believe that we as Christians at times are called to civil disobedience. Civil disobedience for purposes of this article can be defined as “purposeful, nonviolent action, or refusal to act, by a Christian who believes such action or inaction is required of him or her in order to be faithful to God, and which he or she knows will be treated by the governing authorities as a violation of law.”9 Civil disobedience is warranted any time the government commands what God has forbidden or forbids what God commands.

Looking at the two biblical accounts given at the beginning of this article in Daniel 3 and 6, we see both examples of when civil disobedience is warranted. In both instances the decision to act or refusal to act were purposeful—the decisions not to comply with the law were not based merely on individual preferences, but because compliance would be in direct contradiction to the teachings and commands of God. Furthermore, and this is a crucial point, in both instances the decisions were made knowing it would be seen as a violation of the law, and there was a willingness to face the penalty—death. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t try to argue that the law didn’t, or shouldn’t, apply to them. Instead, they were willing to be subject to the penalty that breaking the law entailed, even though the laws were unjust.

While the right to hold a religious belief is absolute, the right to practice that belief is not.

So does engaging in civil disobedience mean not following the New Testament counsel to be subject to authority? No, it’s important to note that the apostles’ guidance in the New Testament doesn’t say that we, as believers, are to always obey government authority, but that we are to be subject to it. As John Yoder, a Mennonite theologian and ethicist, explained: “The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, . . . is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.”10 

Even though Peter and Paul preached subordination to government authority, they disobeyed their local leaders by continuing to preach the gospel when they were told to stop, leading to their arrest and imprisonment (cf. Acts 5; 12; 16). Also, Jesus anticipated that spreading the gospel could and would at times result in being handed over to authorities to be beaten and punished, and prepared His followers for this (Mark 13:9-11). 

Early Adventist pioneers also understood that at times civil disobedience may be called for, while recognizing that this also meant being subject to the law and its penalties. Ellen White counseled that at times civil disobedience was necessary. “When the laws of men conflict with the word and law of God, we are to obey the latter, whatever the consequences may be. The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating this law.”11 

As believers our default position should be submission to authority and when possible, obedience to the laws of the land if they are not in direct conflict with our ability to follow the commands of God. But when we were faced with a conflict that requires obedience to government or submission to God, our first duty should always be to Him, regardless of the cost.

1 Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

2 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

3 https://www.ohchr.org/en/human-rights/universal-declaration/translations/english

4 “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-1/.

5 Reynolds v. United States 98 US 145 (1879) and Cantwell v. Connecticut 310 U.S. 296 (1940).

6 Religious Freedom Restoration Act; 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000bb through 2000bb-4.

7 Unless a state has adopted its own version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

8 Seventh-day Adventist Statement on Church-State Relations, available online at: https://www.adventist.org/documents/church-state-relations/.

9 I’ve taken this definition from Duane Heffelbower, “The Christian and Civil Disobedience,” Direction: A Mennonite Newsletter 15, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 23-30.

10 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 212.

11 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, pp. 201, 202.

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Jennifer Gray Woods

Jennifer Gray Woods is a lawyer and serves as associate director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.