On Sunday, we talked about the need to submit to governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13-17). If you missed it, you can find it here (disclaimer: Jeremiah may or may not have gotten worked up a bit). However, a couple of folks asked me after our services if there were any scenarios where it’s ok to disobey our government. It’s a great question. The reason I didn’t address this topic in the sermon was because I see far more problems among professing believers in our nation today who are comfortable slandering and maligning our leaders rather than submitting to them or praying for them*. I wanted to stay on point and challenge us not to ignore passages like this (see also Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Timothy 2:1-4) as we try to think biblically about how to engage politically.
With that said, the answer is yes, there are times to defy the government. The simplest way to summarize these occasions is to ask the question: Am I being forced to disobey God by obeying this leader or law? A clear example of this can be found in Acts 4. Peter and John were preaching the gospel and the leaders had them arrested (4:1-4). The officials then threatened them and “ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (4:17-18). Obeying such an order is a direct violation of God’s Word. Jesus himself commanded us to spread the good news concerning his life, death, and resurrection (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Peter and John were convinced of that. So, they replied, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). This is a clear example of biblical civil disobedience. But even in this situation, the command to show honor to and to pray for the leaders still applies. The command to submit, however, does not.
Once again, we must remember the command to submit is negated only when being forced to disobey God’s Word. This is different than a leader or legislative body passing an unbiblical law. Every government does that. If a leader, for example, is pro-choice. You have a host of biblical reasons to oppose their view and to disagree with them. However, we still called to submit to them and honor them, even if we oppose what they stand for or the laws they create. Now, if that leader (to stick with the pro-choice example), creates a law stating that every person who already has two children is required to have an abortion for every subsequent pregnancy, then Christians have a right (and obligation) to defy such a law. Once again, such a law would not negate our responsibilities to keep praying for that leader and submit to them in other respects that do not violate the Word of God.
Much more can be said about this sticky and controversial topic. The book of 1 Peter is so important to us today. We are called to live faithfully as exiles in a world that opposes our Savior. May we walk with wisdom as we seek to point others to our Savior!
*The overtly hostile attitude by many professing Christians toward political leaders is a subset of a larger problem that is doing a great deal of damage to the church today: Christian Nationalism. Time and space prohibit a deeper dive on this issue but if you’d like to dip your toes in waters of such matters, check out this recent article by Jonathan Leeman.