Render to All What Is Due Them: What Every Christian Needs to Know about Honoring Civil Authority and Paying Taxes

David G. Hagopian, Esq.

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 3 (July 1995). Part 2 is also available.

Not long ago, one passionate Christian implored his fellow believers to join him by resisting the authority of the government with these stirring words: “We ask our fellow Christians to consider in their heart a question which has tormented us, night and day.... How many must die before our voices are heard? How many must be tormented, dislocated...or murdered? How long must the world’s resources be raped in the service of legalized murder?” With equal passion, still another advocate of disobedience to governing authorities defended his conduct on the well-known news program Nightline by taking the following tack:

Interviewer: Did you break a law?
[Advocate]: Yes....
Interviewer: How in the world do you expect a jury to find you innocent?
[Advocate]: Well, we hope to show in this trial that the reason I broke the law was more important than the reason the law was made.
Interviewer: And the reason you broke the law?
[Advocate]: The reason I broke the law was to save lives.

It is not surprising that those who uttered these stirring words of resistance appealed to the cause of saving life, since there really is no higher moral road anyone can trod to justify such resistance. What is surprising about these words, however, is who uttered them: not a Christian pro-life advocate, as you might very well imagine. Rather, these stirring words were uttered, respectively, by Father Berrigan of the Catonsville Nine as he protested the Vietnam War and James Walker, who was arrested a few years ago for illegally distributing sterilized needles to drug addicts, ostensibly to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Not only do activists, both Christian and non-Christian, appeal to the cause of saving life to justify their disobedience to governing authorities, their distinctively Christian counterparts often appeal to the “higher law” of Scripture even when their reasoning is often unscriptural. What, then, does the “higher law” of Scripture really say about our duty to obey civil authorities? When, if ever, must Christians disobey the state? And what about our obligation to pay taxes, even when they may be unjust or oppressive?

In the following two-part study, we will answer those all-important questions by examining what the “higher law” of Scripture says about the nature and limits of our obedience to the state in general and about our duty to pay taxes in particular. In this article, we turn to the more general issue of what the Bible says about the obedience or honor we owe the state. With that general foundation firmly in place, the next article will address the specific issue of our obligation to pay taxes.

Avoiding the Extremes

The critical question before us in this article is relatively straightforward: when, if ever, must Christians disobey the state? History reveals a whole host of answers to that question, two of which are mutually exclusive but equally erroneous in light of a truly biblical view of “higher law.”

At one end is what we can call the anarchist extreme, which holds that because the state is inherently evil, Christians should never, in principle, obey it. No one can deny the fact that the institution of the state postdated the Fall. But that does not mean that the state is an inherently evil institution. After all, the institutional church postdated the Fall too, but that fact alone does not make it an inherently evil institution. Far from being an inherently evil institution, we shall see that the state was established by God, is vested with legitimate, albeit derivative, authority by God, and is generally to be obeyed. We are under a general obligation to obey those in authority over us.

Just as the anarchist extreme erroneously teaches that obedience to the state is never biblically justified, so some have gone to the other extreme by teaching that disobedience to the state is never biblically justified. We can call this latter view the statist extreme. This view has come in many guises, but was particularly prevalent among those who attempted to defend the divine right of royalty. Among other things, the statist extreme holds that because the state is a divinely ordained institution, we should always obey it and should never disobey it.

The Anarchist Error The Biblical View The Statist Error
Never Obey/Always Disobey Generally Obey, Except Disobey
When Satisfy Biblical Criteria
Always Obey/Never Disobey

While Scripture teaches that Christians are generally obligated to obey those in authority over them, it also teaches, as we shall see, that under certain circumstances, Christians not only are entitled, but actually obligated, to disobey the state. That is, Christians are required to obey God rather than man. Most of the time, obedience to God will result in obedience to man. But sometimes, obedience to God will require us to disobey man.

Finding the Balance

Having briefly seen how the anarchist and statist extremes fall short of the standard of Scripture, we will now examine in detail what Scripture says about the nature and limits of the obedience we owe to the state, which can be summarized in five basic principles. If we properly understand these five principles, we will find that they help us wade our way through the sometimes difficult matrix of arguments for and against any movement calling on Christians to disobey the state.

Principle One: All Authority Belongs to God

The Westminster divines were right on the mark when they wrote that God is “the supreme Lord and King of all the world...” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 23:1). What they were saying, of course, is that absolute authority belongs to God alone. He is the sovereign Lord who possesses “all heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:20, all quotations taken from the NASB). He created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1) and everything in them (Ex. 20:11; Neh. 9:6). All things are “from Him and through Him and to Him” (Rom. 11:36). Not only did He create all, He also possesses all. “The earth,” declares David, “is full of God’s possessions” (Ps. 104:24). He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 90:10), a symbol of the whole earth, which also belongs to Him (Ps. 24:1). In fact, absolutely everything belongs to Him (1 Chron. 29:11; Gen. 14:19; Ex. 9:29; Deut. 4:39; 10:14; Job 41:11).

As the eternal Creator and Possessor, He alone is the eternal Ruler, the One who has jurisdiction or control over everything. There are no boundaries to His authority. He is not like a law enforcement officer whose authority is limited to certain territorial boundaries. God’s authority knows no boundaries. His jurisdiction is absolute. All that is in heaven and on earth is His because He is exalted as head above all and has dominion over all (1 Chron. 29:10-11). He is the Lord who has absolute authority and dominion everywhere, over everyone and everything. His reign, we are told, extends to the ends of the earth (Ps. 59:13; 103:19; Neh. 9:6). The Lord has “established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Ps. 103:19; Matt. 28:18). And His rule will never end: His throne is everlasting (Ps. 93:1-2; 97:1-2; 99:1-2; Dan. 7:13-14). He is, and will forever be, preeminent in all things (Col. 1:18), for He is the head of all (Eph. 1:17-23), the One who has been given the Name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9-11). He is truly the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16). He alone is the Lord. He alone has absolute authority.

Principle Two: God Has Established Civil Authorities

Scripture not only teaches that God alone has absolute authority, it also teaches that God has established legitimate authorities here on earth and has given them real, but limited, authority. Put differently, all human authority in every sphere of life ultimately comes from God through Christ and is ultimately limited by His absolute authority: (1) at the individual level, each man is to exercise authority over his own life under God (self government, Gal. 5:23); (2) at the familial level, the husband is to exercise authority over his wife under God; and parents, over their children under God (family government, Eph. 5:22-6:4; Col. 4:18-21); (3) at the ecclesiastical level, elders are to exercise authority over their congregations under God; and presbyteries (or their equivalents), over elders under God (ecclesiastical government, Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-3; 1 Tim. 5:12; Heb. 13:17; Acts 15); and (4) at the occupational level, employers are to exercise authority over their employees under God (occupational government, Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 4:22-5:1).

In addition to teaching us that God has ordained different spheres of government in the individual, familial, ecclesiastical and occupational realms, Scripture also teaches us that God has ordained government in the civil realm (civil government), whereby magistrates exercise authority over their citizens under God. In his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul teaches us about civil government when he writes that “there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God” (Rom. 13:1). Wisdom personified continues in much the same vein when, in Proverbs, she declares, “By me kings reign, and rulers decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, all who judge rightly” (Prov. 8:15-16). God is the one who “establishes” one ruler and “removes” another (Dan. 2:21; Ps. 75:6-7), for He is the Most High who rules the kingdom of men and “bestows it on whom He wishes” (Dan. 4:17). Rulers are given their authority by God (Jn. 19:11).

In fact, it is precisely because God vests civil rulers with legitimate authority that Scripture elsewhere refers to them as “gods” (Ex. 21:6, 22:8, Ps. 82:6), “ministers” (Rom. 13:4) and “servants” (Jer. 27:6, Rom. 13:6). These exalted titles are bestowed on them not because they are deities or clergymen, but because they receive their authority to rule from God Himself. They are vested with divine authority from God and are to rule in a representative capacity for Him. According to Scripture, then, rulers do not rule by chance, fortune or happenstance; nor do they rule because of some contrived “social compact” or even because of “the will of the governed.” Ultimately, they rule because God has ordained and established their rule by His sovereignty and upholds their rule by His providence. Succinctly put, God “hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him over the people” (WCF 23:1).

Principle Three: Christians are Generally Obligated to Obey Civil Authorities

Because God has established civil authorities and vested them with legitimate, albeit derivative, authority, we are generally commanded to obey them. This general command to obey civil rulers is rooted in the fifth commandment, which teaches, at the most general level, that we are to honor (respect and obey) those in authority over us (“Honor your father and your mother,” Ex. 20:12; Deut. 20:16). While the fifth commandment focuses on one particular type of authoritative relationship in society—that between parent and child—the obligations flowing from the fifth commandment by no means end there.

Properly understood, the fifth commandment teaches us to respect and obey those God has put in authority over us. The basic idea behind the fifth commandment is obvious: just as children are to obey their parents, so we are to obey those whom God has put over us in every sphere of life: wives are to obey their husbands; children, their parents; congregations, their elders; employees, their employers; and citizens, their rulers. To the question, “What does the fifth commandment require of me?” the Heidelberg Catechism correctly answers:

“The fifth commandment requires that I show all honor, love, and fidelity to my father and mother, and to all in authority over me; submit myself to their good instruction and correction; and also bear patiently with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand” (Q. 104, emphasis added).

And the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us that the fifth commandment

“...requireth the preserving the honour and performing the duties belonging to every one, in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals” (Q. 64).

In other words, the fifth commandment teaches us about how to honor those in authority over us in every sphere of our lives, and the duties we are to perform as we submit to them.

Even though the fifth commandment, standing alone, would be sufficient to impose a general obligation on us to obey civil rulers, Scripture quite explicitly teaches us the same truth in other passages. Proverbs 24:21, for instance, commands such obedience: “My son, fear the Lord and the king. Do not associate with those who are given to change.” Far from running with rabble-rousers (“those who are given to change”), we are to fear God and those He has put over us. In Titus 3:1-2, Paul commands Christians to subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be uncontentious, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.

Along the same lines, Peter commands the readers of his first epistle:

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.... Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:13-17).

As opposed to cursing rulers (Ex. 22:28; Eccl. 10:20; 2 Pet. 2:10; Jude 8), Peter tells us to honor them and to submit to them. Paul adds that we ought to pray for them, as well (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Elsewhere, he expands upon our general duty to honor and submit to civil rulers when he tells us we are required to obey them, since by so doing we are obeying God Himself. In the first seven verses of the thirteenth chapter of Romans, he writes:

Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil. Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

Paul and Peter not only inform us that generally we are to obey civil authorities; they also tell us why we are to do so. First, we are to obey civil rulers as a general rule because they have been ordained by God and because God commands us to obey them. Generally speaking, to obey civil rulers is to obey God, and conversely, to disobey them is to disobey God. That is why the apostle writes that “he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (Rom. 13:2). Peter goes so far as to classify those who “despise authority” with those who “indulge the flesh” (2 Pet. 2:10). Obedience to civil rulers is thus a moral duty binding upon the conscience of the true believer (Rom. 13:5).

Second, we ought to obey civil authorities because those who unjustifiably disobey may very well be punished by the state (i.e., suffer the wrath and perhaps the “sword” of the state, Rom. 13:3-4). They may also subject themselves to divine punishment (i.e., they will receive a sentence of “condemnation upon themselves,” Rom. 13:2).

Third, God commands us to obey civil rulers because obedience generally provides a sound Christian testimony. In the words of Peter, when we obey rulers, we “silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Pet. 2:15).

Notice, as well, that Paul and Peter are indifferent to the particular form of government in power at a given point in time. We are commanded to obey the de facto government, no matter what form it may take. As the Protestant reformer John Calvin reminds us:

“...obedience is due to all who rule, because they have been raised to that honour not by chance, but by God’s providence. Most people are in the habit of inquiring too closely by what right power has been attained, but we ought to be satisfied with this alone, that we see that they exercise power. Thus Paul cuts off the handle of useless objections when he declares that there is no power but from God” (Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians [at Rom. 13:3]).

Whether the government is a monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, republic, democracy, some combination thereof, or something altogether different, is simply beside the point. Generally, we are to obey whatever power God has ordained precisely because it is ordained by Him.

Principle Four: Scripture Does Not Permit Christians to Disobey Unjust Civil Authorities Who Are Evil or Who Merely Permit Evil

So far we have seen that God possesses absolute authority, vests civil rulers with legitimate authority, and commands us generally to obey such rulers. This general obligation to obey civil rulers applies even when they may permit evil in our midst. To be sure, Scripture admonishes rulers to rule justly and righteously. Toward that end, they are to render careful judgment for the Lord and fear the Lord (2 Chron. 19:5-7); rule righteously in the fear of God (2 Sam. 23:3); show discernment, worship, and do homage to the Son (Ps. 2:10-12); deliver the oppressed and those led away to death (Ps. 82:1-4, Prov. 24:11-12; 28:16); rescue the needy and the destitute (Deut. 1:16-17); judge impartially and turn their faces from bribes (Deut. 16:19; 2 Chron. 19:7); hate unjust gain (Prov. 28:16); and punish the disobedient while encouraging the obedient (Rom. 13:3; 1 Pet. 2:14). In short, they are “to do justice and righteousness” (2 Chron. 9:7-8; Jer. 22:3). The only way they can do so, though, is by ruling in accordance with God’s standard of justice and righteousness as revealed in Holy Scripture which is a transcript of the justice and righteousness of God.

Despite these admonitions, no human ruler will ever perfectly obey God’s perfect standards of justice and righteousness as revealed in Holy Scripture. Often, in fact, rulers are unjust and permit injustice to reign supreme. Sometimes God even raises a wicked ruler to judge His people (Job 34:30; Hos. 13:11; Is. 3:4, 10:5; Deut. 28:29).

But what is our responsibility to rulers who fall short of their divine mandate by being or permitting evil? Some Christians have asserted that we may actually disobey rulers who are evil or who permit, rather than command, evil. On the contrary, Scripture nowhere permits Christians to disobey rulers who are evil or who merely permit evil. When the state permits (instead of commands) evil, Christians can avail themselves of every legal means of effecting a godly end or of protesting or reforming the permitted evil. But they do not have a biblical prerogative to turn state-permitted evil into a license to rebel against the state. God clearly commands Christians to submit to rulers who permit, instead of command, evil.

As we have already seen, our general duty is to obey civil rulers. This general duty means that obedience is the rule, and disobedience, the exception. In addition to our general duty to obey civil rulers, several biblical examples, recorded in Scripture for our instruction (Rom. 15:4), teach us to submit to rulers who may permit evil or who are personally evil themselves.

To begin with, Scripture introduces us to the not-so-venerable king Saul, the first king of Israel. Toward the end of his reign, Saul was bent on wickedness. Even though David had already been anointed as the king-elect, even though Saul pursued David’s very life, even though David justifiably could have taken Saul’s very life in defense of his own life, David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declares, “...who can stretch out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be without guilt?.... As the Lord lives, surely the Lord will strike him, or his day will come that he dies.... The Lord forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 16:9-13; 24:6, 11; 26:9-11). Hence, even though Saul was wicked and abused his God-given authority by seeking David’s life, David refused to lift his hand against Saul because he realized that to lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed was to lift his hand against the One who anointed him: the Lord of Hosts. Instead of rebelling against the unjust Saul, David knew that Saul had been ordained by God and that vengeance belonged to God alone.

Not only does Scripture tell us that David refused to rebel against Saul by slaying him, Scripture also teaches us that God’s people were to submit to Nebuchadnezzar, the same wicked ruler who oppressed them by taking them into captivity in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was a wicked ruler who permitted evil of all kinds. Nonetheless, Scripture declares in Daniel 2:21, 37-38:

“[I]t is He [God] who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings.... You, O King [Nebuchadnezzar], are the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the strength and the glory; and wherever the sons of men dwell, or the beasts of the field, or the birds of the sky, He has given them into your hand and has caused you to rule over them all.”

Although Nebuchadnezzar was a wicked tyrant, he was nonetheless ordained by God and was, for that reason, the servant of God. All nations, he was told by the prophet, would serve him, and any nation that refused to serve him would be cursed by God (Jer. 27:5-8, 17). In addition to being raised by God and called God’s “servant,” the wicked Nebuchadnezzar was also to be supported by the prayers of the people he conquered. After being taken captive into Babylon, the people of God were commanded to pray for the very tyrant who captured them and took them into captivity: “And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” (Jer. 29:7).

Then there is the example of Nero, perhaps one of the most wicked tyrants the world has ever known. As the fifth Roman emperor after Julius Caesar, Nero died in A.D. 68. As such, he was the emperor who was most likely on the throne when Paul wrote Romans and Titus and when Peter wrote his first epistle. Yet in Romans, Titus, and First Peter, Paul and Peter commanded Christians to obey civil government. In fact, Paul and Peter wrote to quell any insurrectionism or revolutionary ambition on the part of the apostolic church. Even assuming that Romans was written between A.D. 55 and 59, several years before Nero’s famous bloodbath of A.D. 64, the Roman Empire was far from “model” at that time. Even before A.D. 64, Rome was no heaven on earth. The Roman Empire permitted all sorts of evil, including abortion and oppressive taxation. Yet even though Roman emperors permitted abortion and exacted oppressive taxes from their people, New Testament writers did not issue a call to armed revolution. Nor did they call on private citizens to take up the sword of the state. In fact, they never even came close to issuing a call to civil disobedience or tax resistance. Rather, they explicitly commanded Christians to obey, and to pay taxes to, the very civil authorities who permitted abortion, exacted oppressive taxes, and promulgated other evil statutes and decrees. Scripture, then, takes great pains to teach us that we must obey civil rulers who may even permit evil.

Thus, Scripture provides no safe harbor for those who teach that Christians may disobey rulers who merely permit evil, or who may use otherwise lawfully collected taxes for evil purposes. On this score, Calvin rightly observes that the propensity of rulers to sin and to allow others to sin is no reason for Christians to fail to submit to them. Because God has appointed rulers, Calvin writes that however much they may fall short of their divine appointment, the Christian must not on that account cease to cherish what belongs to God.

Elsewhere he writes that although civil rulers often depart from their duty to encourage good and punish evil,

...we must still render them the obedience which is due to rulers. If a wicked ruler is the Lord’s scourge to punish the sins of the people, let us reflect that it is our own fault that this excellent blessing of God is turned into a curse (Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians [Rom. 13:3]).

Again, in his commentary on 1 Peter 2:13-16, Calvin encourages Christians to obey rulers who may even be enemies of Christ. After admitting that such rulers abuse their God-given authority, Peter still exhorted the Jews “ show respect to the civil power.” Calvin continues by writing:

It may be objected here that kings and other magistrates often abuse their power, and exercise tyrannical cruelty rather than justice. Almost all the magistrates were like that when this Epistle was written. To this I answer that tyrants and those like them do not do such things by their abuse, without the ordinance of God still remaining in force, just as the perpetual institution of marriage is not subverted even though the wife and the husband behave in an unseemly way. However men go astray, the end fixed by God is unchanged in its place (Commentary on the First and Second Epistle of Peter [1 Pet. 2:14]).

To illustrate the obligation Christians have to obey overbearing civil rulers who permit evil, Calvin draws our attention to the home. In particular, he focuses on the relationship between a godless husband and a believing wife. A godless husband who is disobedient to the word of God must still be obeyed (1 Pet. 3:1). He may be godless and may practice and permit evil of all kinds, but the institution of marriage endures, and his believing wife is to obey him nonetheless. His wickedness is not an abdication of his authority and does not lead to the dissolution of the marital bond. The same is true of overbearing parents. Although fathers in particular are commanded not to exasperate their children or provoke them to anger (Eph. 6:6; Col. 3:21), even when they do, their children are to obey them (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). An overbearing father is still a parent, and as a parent, he is to be obeyed. Just as an overbearing husband and father is to be obeyed even if he is evil or permits evil, so an overbearing civil ruler is to be obeyed even when he permits evil. It is that simple.

Those who claim that Christians may disobey rulers who fall short of their divine appointment by permitting evil have not thought through the logical implications of their position. Were state-permitted evil to justify disobedience, we could disobey civil rulers all the time, since fallible human rulers, in one way or another, will always fall short of God’s perfect justice by permitting evil in one sphere or another. Followed to its logical conclusion, therefore, the notion that state-permitted evil justifies disobedience leads down the slippery slope to continual anarchy and rebellion. Scripture countenances no such position. We ought not to do so either. Perhaps this is why Calvin taught that even tyrants who are “wild savage beasts” ought to be obeyed since there has never been a tyranny which fails to do some good and since “some kind of government, however deformed and corrupt it may be, is still better and more beneficial than anarchy” (ibid.). For these reasons, then, we are commanded to obey rulers even when they may permit evil or even when they may be evil themselves.

Principle Five: Christians Are Required to Disobey Man Only When They Are Commanded to Sin and Have No Legal Means to Obey God

If Scripture neither permits nor requires Christians to disobey civil authorities who merely permit evil, may Christians ever justifiably disobey authorities? An accurate view of God’s higher law, unlike the inaccurate views echoing in some corners today, reveals that Christians must disobey civil authorities only when such authorities command them to sin and only when that command to sin leaves Christians with no legal means by which they can obey God. We must be put in a situation where obeying man means disobeying God.

Christians Must be Commanded to Sin

As we have already seen, Christians are not permitted or required to disobey human authorities when those authorities merely permit or tolerate evil. Rather, those authorities must command Christians to sin. Since we can sin by doing what God forbids us to do, or by failing to do what God commands us to do, Christians must disobey rulers only (1) when they are commanded to do what God forbids (sins of commission), and/or (2) when they are forbidden to do what God commands (sins of omission). This truth comes leaping out of the pages of Scripture.

Recall that Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives and Moses’ parents to kill Hebrew male children (Ex. 1:15-22), a command that contradicted the law of God (Gen. 9:6). Exodus 1:22 says that, “...Pharaoh commanded all his people saying, ‘Every son who is born you are to cast into the Nile, and every daughter you are to keep alive.’” Because God’s law forbade unjustified killing, the Hebrew midwives and Moses’ parents were commanded to do what God forbade. As such, they were obligated to obey God rather than man. (Actually, Moses’s parents may have obeyed the letter of the law by “casting” Moses into the Nile!)

Later in biblical history, we learn that the king of Jericho commanded Rahab to turn over the Hebrew spies she was harboring (Josh. 2:3), a command that contradicted God’s demand of her in the situation since it would have made her an accomplice to murder. The text explicitly states that “...the king of Jericho sent word to Rahab, saying, ‘Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house....’” Because she was commanded to sin, she was obligated to obey God rather than man.

We also learn the same biblical truth from the fire-tested faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were commanded to bow their knees to a false god (Dan. 3:1-30), a command which contradicted the law of God (Ex. 20:3-6). In Daniel 3:4, for example, we clearly see that the three Hebrew youths were commanded to violate Scripture: “Then the herald loudly proclaimed: ‘To you the command is given, O peoples, nations and men of every language, that at the moment you hear the sound of the are to fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar has set up.’” Because God forbade idolatry, and because Nebuchadnezzar commanded the Hebrew youths to commit idolatry, the Hebrew youths were obligated to obey God rather than man.

In the pages of the New Testament, we learn that Herod commanded the Magi to report the whereabouts of the Christ child (Matt. 2:1-12) so that Herod could kill the child. Note that God, by special revelation, commanded the Magi not to return to Herod: “And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way” (Matt. 2:12). Since Herod commanded the magi to do that which God forbade, the Magi were obligated to obey God rather than man.

The biblical narrative, then, is exceptionally clear: the Hebrew midwives/Moses’ parents, the Hebrew youths, Rahab, and the Magi were all commanded by force of law to do what God clearly forbade. As such, they were obligated to obey God, not man. But Christians are obligated not only to disobey man when they are commanded to do what God forbids, but also when they are forbidden to do what God commands. Think of Daniel. Recall that the satraps of king Darius cajoled him to enact a binding law which forbade others, including Daniel, to pray to anyone other than the king (Dan. 6:1-30). Because Daniel understood that he was to worship God alone, Daniel was forbidden to do what God commanded. As such, he was obligated to obey God rather than man. The same was true of the apostles who were forbidden to evangelize in Jerusalem (Acts 4-5), even though Christ specifically commanded them to do so in Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8. In Acts 5:28, the Sanhedrin proclaimed: “...We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name [Jesus]....” At this juncture Peter and the other apostles uttered one of the most frequently misquoted verses in all of Scripture: “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).

Those who appeal to Acts 5:29 to justify their civil disobedience rarely understand the true meaning of this text. As we have already seen, Christians may not disobey rulers who merely permit evil. Many who advocate Christian disobedience interpret this verse to mean that any time man’s law falls short of God’s law, we may disobey man and obey God. But is that what Acts 5:29, understood in context, really teaches?

Read in context, Acts 5:29 teaches that when one is put in a position where he must either choose between obedience to God or obedience to man, he must then obey God rather than man. In other words, in order to disobey man, the Christian must face a genuine dilemma: the command to sin must leave the believer with no choice but to obey the one or the other—either God or man. Hence, Acts 5:29, rightly understood, teaches us that the believer is obligated to disobey man’s law only when man’s law truly contradicts God’s law, that is, only when the Christian is put in a position of choosing between man’s law or God’s law. Of course, this is just another way of saying that before any Christian disobeys the state, he must not have any legal means by which he can obey God.

Christians Must Not Have Any Legal Means by which They can Obey God

Just as Scripture teaches that Christians who disobey rulers must be commanded to sin, so it also teaches us that those who disobey must have no other legal means by which they can obey God. As we saw above with Acts 5:29, the Christian is obligated to disobey the state only when he faces a situation in which he must choose between obeying God or man, when there is no other option. Remember that in Acts 1:8, Christ commanded the apostles to evangelize specifically in Jerusalem, then in Samaria, and then in the remotest parts of the earth. In Acts 4-5, the Jewish authorities forbade the apostles to evangelize in Jerusalem as Christ had specifically commanded. They had no alternative but to disobey man and to obey God. Obedience to man would have meant disobedience to God.

We have already seen that God established civil rulers and commands us to obey such rulers, even when they permit evil. If Scripture really teaches us that our general obligation is to obey those in authority over us, then obedience is the general rule and disobedience, the exception. Hence, Christians must try to work within the system before they resort to rebelling against it. If, for example, saving the life of the unborn is your goal, and you can save life legally, then as a Christian you must forego illegality and save life legally. Disobedience, for the Christian, is always a last resort.

This important truth, though, not only follows from an accurate interpretation of Acts 5:29 and by good and necessary consequence from the presumption of obedience to the state already discussed at length in this article, it is also taught in a number of passages. One need only think of Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh (Ex. 5:1-21), Ezekiel’s legal public protest (Ezek. 4:1-5:17), Daniel’s diplomatic request (Dan. 1:8-16), Obadiah’s legislative reform (1 Kg. 18:3-16), Esther’s self-humiliation (Esth. 5:1-2), Peter and John’s defense before the rulers, elders and scribes (Acts 4:1-20); and Paul’s judicial appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:1-27) to name only a few illustrations. While it is true that many of the individuals named above eventually turned to disobedience, they first tried to work within the system before they rebelled against the system.

Against this backdrop, George Grant has rightly observed that a “veritable arsenal of Scriptural tactics has been supplied to the believer in order to stay him from the last resort of rebellious confrontation.” With poetic prose, Grant continues by asserting:

Though tyranny may incline zealous disciples toward...activism, though godlessness may provocate grief in their bowels of compassion, though the barbarism of inhuman humanism may rankle their wrathful ire, believers have a Scriptural mandate to do God’s work, God’s way, in God’s time.... To advocate civil disobedience before the exhaustion of alternate resistance is to thwart God’s redemptive program and the rule of law (The Changing of the Guard, p. 159.)

In our era it seems that many well-intentioned believers have forgotten this all-important truth. But no matter how many forget or attempt to minimize this truth, it nonetheless cuts to the quick any “Christian” movement which prematurely resorts to disobeying the state. Instead of allowing our activism, compassion, and ire to lead us down the path of unwarranted disobedience to the state, Christians who are true to Scripture must seek to channel that activism, compassion, and ire toward fully exhausting their legal alternatives before they resort to disobedience. We are required to disobey man only when obeying man requires us to disobey God.

Summing It All Up

While Christian proponents of civil disobedience often tout a “higher law,” this brief survey has shown that their actions often reveal a profound misunderstanding and misapplication of that higher law. God’s higher law, properly understood, teaches us that God (1) possesses absolute authority, (2) establishes civil authorities, (3) commands Christians generally to obey such authorities, (4) does not permit Christians to disobey authorities merely because they are evil or may permit evil, and (5) requires Christians to disobey authorities only when such authorities command them to sin and only when that command to sin leaves them with no legal means by which they can obey God.

In light of this accurate view of God’s higher law, we will be able to work our way through the arguments for and against any civil disobedience movement. Next time, we will build upon the foundation we have laid in this article as we discuss the sometimes taxing question of our obligation to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

David G. Hagopian, Esq. is an attorney with a Los Angeles based law firm. He has written other valuable material relating to this subject for Antithesis, vol. 1, nos. 3, 4, but, regrettably, this publication is no longer available.

Part 2