Are stoplights and speed limits simply suggestions? Good advice to drive carefully? Helpful reminders to those less qualified in handling the complexities of modern motor carriages?
Why come to a complete cessation of forward momentum when a California stop will suffice? Are you really expected to wait if there is quite literally no one else around? Does stop really mean stop? Isn’t that a bit, well, legalistic?
Frankly, no. Traffic laws actually have quite a bit to do with gospel religion. For how you respond to that octagonal red sign at 2 a.m. says a lot about your sanctification.
Submitting to Authorities
I’ve heard it said that Christians are above the law of Caesar because they are under the law of Christ. But this distinction isn’t helpful because it isn’t biblical.
Rather, the Bible says a lot about submission to authority. There are biblical patterns of subjection established for the home, workplace and church, to name a few. This designed submission is for our good because if we cannot submit to earthly authorities that we see, how can we submit to the One whom we do not see?
The Bible also speaks of submission to governments and governors (Rom. 13:1-7, Titus 3:1,1 Pet. 2:13-17). According to the Scriptures, Christians are not above the law. In fact, one of the ways that we live a life above reproach is by living under the law.
As we obey the laws of the land, we obey at least one command of Christ.
For some reason, many Christians equate obedience with legalism. But obedience is only legalism if done to earn God’s favor. To obey moral laws (not stealing, cursing, etc.) and civil laws (not speeding, paying taxes, etc.) out of a desire to honor the Lord and the authorities that He established is not legalism but, instead, an expression of love (John 14:15).
Exceptions to the Rule
Given this general pattern of submission and obedience, we might ask if there are times to justifiably break a civil law.
The Bible records a number of cases of justified civil disobedience.
A few examples come to mind:
- The midwives’ refusal to slaughter Hebrew boys (Exod. 1:15-22)
- Rahab’s refusal to give up the Hebrew spies (Josh. 2:1-7)
- Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s refusal to fall down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol (Dan. 3:8-18)
- Daniel’s continued prayers in defiance of Darius’ decree (Dan. 6:1-24)
- The disciples’ proclamation of the gospel against the orders of the Jewish council (Acts 4:17-20, 5:27-29)
These examples are not about personal preference, comfort or convenience but are, instead, about principled and reasoned responses to injustice, oppression and wickedness. In all of the cases, it would have been much more convenient and comfortable to obey, unless of course you enjoy fiery furnaces and floggings.
These men and women did not engage in civil disobedience under the delusion that they had the authority to overlook or dismiss the law on a whim. They considered the reality that God’s laws superseded those of the land when the two stood in direct conflict. Therefore, even their disobedience was a form of submission.
Questions to Consider
Before assuming a given situation will parallel these biblical examples, here is a fundamental question to ask yourself: Is this law actually contradicting a clear and currently binding biblical prescription or prohibition?
(Note: “Currently binding” means that it has not been superseded by further revelation. See Christian Responsibility and Mosaic Law for more on this distinction.)
Where the answer to the first question may not be perfectly clear, it might be helpful to further ask if submission and subsequent obedience will truly yield a greater injustice. If so, will your planned disobedience actually contribute to greater righteousness or will it merely muddy the waters? What is the most biblically faithful way that you can exercise your restraint or resistance?
Even more, do you recognize that even if the disobedience is justifiable, there will likely be penalties? Do you recognize that the biblical pattern involves accepting such consequences (though a biblical case can be made for fleeing in certain instances)?
Back to the Streets
Working through all of these and similar questions regarding civil disobedience is complex and complicated and often brings up ethical questions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler or lying to the SS to protect the Jewish couple upstairs. (Why all ethical examples in this area seem to involve Nazis is beyond me.)
These are intricate issues beyond the purview of this post and most of our lives. Though the dark clouds of cultural compromise on sexuality and the sanctity of life threaten overhead, the storm has not yet erupted for the most part, and we have the opportunity to pray that it never does.
In the meantime, our battle is much more subtle and seemingly mundane. Our fight to submit to government is not currently waged on the battlefields and bunkers, but on darkened boulevards and desolate back roads as the light turns red and no one is around.
What will you do?