Civil disobedience isn’t always right and it isn’t always wrong. One of the most helpful passages in the Bible with respect to this issue is found in today’s RMM reading from Acts 5. In Acts 5:20 the Apostles are given a direct charge from God via an Angel of the Lord:
“Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” (Acts 5:20 ESV)
This contradicted a direct command from their civil authorities, as recorded in Acts 5:27-28:
“And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”” (Acts 5:27–28 ESV)
Peter and the Apostles responded as follows:
“We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29 ESV)
This forced the authorities to deliberate as to how to handle these resolved and committed preachers. Their response is recorded in Acts 5:40:
“when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.” (Acts 5:40 ESV)
They were given a punishment, the restriction was repeated, and they let them go.
The response of the Apostles is recorded in Acts 5:41-42:
“Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.” (Acts 5:41–42 ESV)
I believe it is possible to distill a few principles on civil disobedience from this passage:
1. You need to have a clear command of God if you are going to disobey because there is a clear command from God, as a general rule, to be in subjection to civil authorities in Romans 13:1-7. Therefore, you can’t disobey because you think a law is stupid or unlikely to work or probably unnecessary. The law of the land needs to forbid something God commands or command something God forbids in order to qualify.
2. If you engage in civil disobedience on the basis of a clear command in Scripture, that does not entitle you to revile or dishonour civil authorities. The Apostles addressed their leaders with respect. Peter himself commanded his people to honour the Emperor in 1 Peter 2:17.
3. Civil disobedience does not entitle you to resist arrest. The disciples went with the guards when summoned. They did not break out of jail – they were released by an angel. Violence against police or prison officials is never permitted.
4. Punishments must be accepted in a good spirit. The Apostles took their lashes and rejoiced. The Apostle Paul converted several of his guards through Christian kindness. Abuse of prison officials or civil authorities is never permitted.
5. If civil disobedience is legitimate, then the forbidden action (preaching in this case) should not cease after initial censure and punishment. If that should happen, it calls into question the legitimacy of the protest. Think long and hard before embarking on a course of civil disobedience lest you be forced to back down after the first fine, lash or imprisonment.
There are other passages that would no doubt inform our approach, but these 5 seem to emerge rather naturally from today’s reading.
I share these, at least in some part, in reflection upon the new reality coming upon us as Canadians on January 7th. It is not clear at this point whether Bill C-4 will be used to harass Bible preaching pastors. Many claim that is not the intent, and the language of the Bill itself does not seem to indicate that, but it certainly does raise the prospect in the minds of many. Thus, it is probably a good time to start hammering out a philosophy of civil disobedience, whether for use a month from now, a year from now or a decade from now. It will come and God’s people need to be ready.
And may God alone be glorified!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.