Responding to Government Tyranny
In the previous two posts (see here and here), we have established a framework from Scripture for how we should view the government. To recap quickly:
- Human authority is not bad in and of itself
- God has ultimate authority
- He has delegated some authority to human governments
- Human governments serve God and people by enforcing a righteous moral law
- Christians should generally be submissive and obey human governments
The word “generally” in that last point is the kicker. Although Scripture calls on believers to submit to human government (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17), the very same Bible also lays out many cases where God’s people were disobedient to human government and commended by God for doing so. Are these principles in contradiction?
Certainly not. This is because human government carries limited authority. Their authority is not absolute. The only absolute authority in the universe belongs to God. The government is not God and is subject to him. Thus, when we see cases of civil disobedience in Scripture, what we find are instances where obedience to the government and obedience to God conflict. These are situations where obedience to God must take precedence.
To some extent, even secular people recognize that human laws are sometimes unjust. Simply because a law exists does not mean the law is morally right. Virtually all people recognize that there is a transcendent moral law that exists above and beyond earthly laws. We can look at a government edict and say “that’s wrong”, and when we do, we are appealing to some standard of right and wrong which is supreme over human opinion. Secular people have nothing in their worldview to support this action other than personal preferences. Those who believe in the existence of God ground their judgment in the transcendent nature of a supreme law-giver.
Because human government is comprised of sinful man, it is bound to get things wrong. If man were perfect, then the law would be perfect. If only it were so! But since moral perfection belongs to God alone, we must judge human government according to the standards of God. God’s standards are revealed in his law, expressed in the Bible. Jesus himself prays to the Father and says “your word is truth” (John 17:17). 2 Timothy 2:15 tells us the Bible is “the word of truth”. This is consistent with the Christian worldview and virtually all Christians would affirm this reality.
Since Romans 13:1-7 tells us that God has given the government authority on earth to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer”, the government must first assert what is considered morally right or wrong. Western nations were largely founded under the influence of Christianity, and thus their original law was loosely based on the ten commandments, as well as the general thrust of Scripture. Even though nations like Canada and the United States explicitly refer to some of these concepts in their founding documents, the government has strayed a long ways away from this moral foundation. The secularization of culture has led to a secularization of government (or maybe the other way around?). As such, laws of the land are increasingly based on personal preference, ideology, ungodly moralistic thinking, popular opinion, and human philosophy.
The result is that some government laws will end up reflecting ungodly morality. When this happens, the government betrays their God-given role of punishing wrongdoers and instead uses their sword to punish those who do right. Again, I speak here of right and wrong according to biblical morality. What should a Christian do when the government inevitably falls into this trap?
The prophet Isaiah spoke of such things. In Isaiah 5:20 he says “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” Likewise, in 10:1 he says “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees”. There is nothing new under the sun. History is rife with governments gone awry through mixing up good and evil and overreaching on their authority. Therefore it should not surprise us that Scripture has quite a bit to say about this issue.
An Important Distinction
It is imperative that we do not call everything that the government does wrong “tyrannical” or “immoral”. Sometimes government errors do not constitute wickedness but rather ineptitude or inconvenience.
Consider the command of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41). Historians have noted that this verse refers to the practice of Roman soldiers forcing civilians to serve as a guide (helping them navigate an unfamiliar area) or a porter (carrying supplies on their behalf). Evidently, this law could be applied arbitrarily for a distance up to one Roman mile (something like 1,000 paces). We see a biblical instance of this law in action when Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross of Christ to the place of crucifixion (Matthew 27:32).
An objective look at this law would raise some reasonable questions. Is it fair for Roman soldiers to interfere in civilian life in such a manner? Since this was not an act of punishment for lawbreakers, isn’t it a rather trivial law? Isn’t the application of this law far too discretionary? Is it right to inconvenience a law-abiding citizen who might have other worthy tasks to attend to?
Jesus, no doubt, would have been familiar with these complaints. And yet his command to his followers is not only to obey this law, but voluntarily go over and above. The modern phrase “go the extra mile” comes directly from Jesus’s admonition to serve a commanding solider for twice what is expected of you—literally to go the extra mile.
This tells us that Jesus does see a distinction between tyranny and triviality, between injustice and inconvenience. We should be very slow to resist a law simply because we don’t like it. Disagreeing with a government law is not the same as it being immoral or worthy of disobedience. Such distinctions must be made carefully. The general thrust of Scripture is that believers are to be obedient to the law and even be those who go above and beyond in order to serve others. This should be our overall demeanour even if some laws don’t align with our personal preferences.
Some laws, however, go beyond a difference of opinion to the point of being immoral or unjust. I have heard Christians describe our response to such instances this way: “We have a duty to disobey when commanded to do something God forbids or forbidden from doing something God commands.” The apostles of the New Testament put it this way: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). If obedience to the law causes us to sin against God, obedience to God’s law trumps obedience to human law. In those cases, civil disobedience is our moral duty.
Possible Responses to Government Tyranny
What might resistance to unjust laws look like? The Bible gives us many examples. Although there is no detailed procedure laid out in Scripture, I have listed these out in the order that makes the most sense to me.
Don’t skip reading this one. Our first and most important response is to call upon God for help. Sometimes Christians think “yeah yeah, I already know that one. Give me something practical to do!” Prayer is practical. Prayer is powerful. The Bible tells us specifically to pray for leaders and those in authority over us. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 tells us “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Believers should be in prayer for their government leaders every day. It is God, after all, who can change the human heart. Proverbs 21:1 “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” God changed the heart of other human authorities in the past (Daniel 4). He can certainly do it again!
Prayer also helps us to gain necessary wisdom and courage. We need wisdom to discern between our personal disdain for a law and it being unjust according to God’s standards of righteousness. We also need wisdom to know the proper way to respond to unjust laws. And lastly, we need courage to take a stand when the situation demands it.
Unjust rulers can be removed from power using the legal means of voting. Though the modern democratic form of voting is not known in Scriptural times, a somewhat similar procedure is used in Deuteronomy 1:9-15 where leaders are chosen from among the people to lead the people. Unjust laws can be reversed by changing those in power over the law-making process. Though the Bible does not command believers to vote (and thus abstaining is not a sin), it does seem generally like a wise thing to do. Christians should prayerfully consider which candidates would best uphold a righteous rule of law and then support them through voting.
Access to policy-makers is not always as direct as one would hope, but often there are means to communicate directly with those in authority. For instance, during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote to the Ontario Premiers office through their official website, as well as to the regional health unit using the contact information on their website. Since these offices held direct influence over varying public health mandates, and there was a line of communication available to me, I wanted to share with them any concerns I had over their approach.
This type of action is modelled in Scripture by Moses who directly appeals to Pharaoh to release the enslaved people of God (Exodus 5:1). The persecution of the Israelites under Pharaoh’s rule was in contradiction to the will of God, and the first step to correcting this wrong was the commissioning of Moses to go directly to the man in charge. The rest of the story, we know, involves God’s personal intervention to free his people. But we should not overlook the human method used by Moses which involved a direct appeal to an unjust ruler to change their mind.
Appeal to Lesser Magistrates
Since human government has various levels of power, unjust or immoral laws can come from a variety of levels of authority. When such a law comes from a high level of power, lower levels of government (aka “lesser magistrates”) have the opportunity to resist it. They would take this action because, by enforcing an immoral law, they too would become complicit in immorality. It is the brave duty of lesser magistrates to stand up for the people under their care and resist unjust authority that comes from above them.
Again, examples of this could be seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. When Ontario officials gave the go ahead to police to stop vehicles at random and question civilians as to why they were not home, police forces across the country refused to enforce the edict. As a result, the edict was rescinded. Many examples of this kind of resistance from lesser magistrates could be given. It is perfectly acceptable for citizens to appeal to lesser magistrates regarding unjust laws in the hopes that they will stand in the gap for them.
A Scriptural example of this procedure can be found in Daniel 1. After the Babylonians conquered Israel, some of the finest young men were chosen to serve in king’s palace. They were to be given a portion of the royal food by decree of the king. Daniel “resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way” (1:8). The chief official initially hesitated to grant this request, but eventually made a compromise to do so. The lesser magistrate overrode the decree of the greater authority in order to protect the conscience of an individual. Similar actions can be taken in other scenarios as well.
Virtually all legal systems contain forms of checks and balances. One form of legal appeal is through the court of law. A law may be challenged in court through a filed suit, following the legal process outlined. For example, when Grace Community Church continued in-person services in contravention of California lowdown mandates, the case went to the courts. The church eventually won a lawsuit against the State of California and were awarded an $800,000 settlement to cover their legal fees. Such an appeal is an example of the kind of legal options that are available in the case of unjust laws.
The apostle Paul on at least one occasion used legal means to appeal unjust actions against him. In Acts 22:22-30, Paul appealed to his legal rights as a Roman citizen to escape being flogged and earn a hearing before the Sanhedrin. The series of events cover several chapters, where Paul’s case goes up the chain of command to Felix, then Festus, and eventually to king Agrippa (chapters 22-26). This entire process was following the legal procedures available to Paul under his rights of Roman citizenship.
Legal options are available to those who believe their rights are being trampled on by others, including by the government itself. Believers should not shy away of making use of these rights just as the apostle Paul didn’t shy away from using his. This does not make someone a contentious person or one who is not submitting to government. Rather, using the legal process available is a form of submission to the government even if it ends up challenging their own authority. It is a “legal appeal” after all. While Christians should not be challenging each other in court (1 Corinthians 6:1-8), they are free to challenge ungodly authority in court the way Paul modelled.
By “prophetic confrontation” I have in mind a direct moral challenge to the actions of a tyrant. This is similar to the “direct appeal” method although I do see one distinction. The direct appeal intends to challenge a ruler over a specific law they oversee, whie the prophetic confrontation method challenges the personal actions of a ruler.
Consider a few Scriptural examples. In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan confronts king David for his actions of adultery and murder. It is not exactly a national decree that is being challenged; rather it is the ungodly conduct of the king himself. Because of that confrontation, David repented for his sin. In a similar fashion, John the baptist confronted king Herod for his adultery, as Herod was sleeping with his brother’s wife (Mark 6:18). The outcome in this instance is quite different. Though Herod believed John to be a holy man and therefore feared to hurt him, he was eventually tricked into having John beheaded.
I believe these examples permit God’s people to confront and challenge immoral conduct from governing authorities. In some instances, immoral conduct warrants action against a leader, through methods like impeachment or recall. At the very least, it certainly demonstrates that while those in authority are worthy of respect and honour, they are not above criticism. Both private and public criticism are valid means of challenging ungodly leadership when such criticism is warranted.
When obedience to human authority leads one to disobey God, defying human authority is a moral duty. Our ultimate allegiance is to God and not the state. The above paragraphs reveal that dissenters have many options on the table when it comes to dealing with unjust rulers and laws. When all else fails, defying an unjust law is necessary.
We celebrate some modern-day heroes for this very reason. We champion the likes of Martin Luther King Junior, Rosa Parks, and Corrie Ten Boom for refusing to do what they were told. They understood that just because something is law does not make it moral. Right and wrong are determined by God.
Scripture has many examples of godly men and women defying ungodly human leadership. In Exodus 1:15-22, Pharaoh demands that the Hebrew midwives kill every baby born to the Israelites that is male. The midwives however “feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” They feared God enough to disobey an immoral command.
In Daniel 3, king Nebuchadnezzar builds a giant golden statue in his likeness and demands that everyone in the region bow down and worship it. Those who do not will be burned alive in a fiery furnace. Recognizing it as wicked idolatry, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse. They say “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (v 17-18). They were right to disobey.
Later in Daniel chapter 6, Darius the king sends out an edict that all in his kingdom are to pray only to him. Again, realizing this as gross idolatry, Daniel refuses. He continues to pray to God as he had previously done. As punishment, Daniel is thrown into the lions den.
In Acts chapter 4, Peter and John are questioned by the Sanhedrin for their public preaching about Christ. When they are charged to stop doing this, they refuse. “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard'” (v 18-20).
Just one chapter later, they are again arrested and questioned by the Sanhedrin with a very similar outcome. They are reminded that they had been charged to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. Once again the apostles refuse to comply, stating “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29).
These biblical examples, among others, verify that there are times and places to defy governing authorities. Again, if following human law causes you to sin against God, we have no other choice but to engage in civil disobedience. Christian history is rich with examples of God’s people standing up to tyranny when the need arises, often at risk of great persecution or death. Even now, believers all over the world continue to study God’s word and sing his praises in defiance of governing laws. They are right to do so and should be commended by other believers for it. Indeed God does and will commend them.
One final option for the believer is to flee tyranny. Sometimes this is the best option. This was, after all, the way the life of young Jesus was spared from certain death. In Matthew 2:13-15, Herod became jealous that magi had come from the East to worship the Christ. In an effort to protect his throne, he decreed that all boys aged 2 and under be put to death in the region of Bethlehem. Having been warned by God of this plot in a dream, Joseph, Mary, and little Jesus secretly fled to Egypt.
Early in the life of the Church, persecution arose against believers. The religious leaders in Jerusalem had Stephen stoned to death in the public square. Acts 8:1 tells us “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” As you can see, most of God’s people fled for their lives.
Another example comes to mind. Acts 9:23-25 records the apostle Paul (formerly Saul) fleeing a plot on his life: “After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.”
Jesus also spoke of a time when Christians will need to flee intense persecution (Luke 21:21, Mark 13:14, Matthew 24:16). The book of James is written “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1). Likewise, the epistle of 1 Peter is written “to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces” (1:1). Although we are not commanded to flee any and all persecution (indeed that would be both impossible and undesirable), it is a valid option on the table.
Historically, countries like the United States and Canada have been places of refuge for those fleeing government tyranny. Increasingly it seems that even those within the US and Canada are seeking refuge in specific states or provinces that maximize personal freedoms. There is nothing inherently wrong with relocation to a district that is governed more justly than another, so long as it is done prayerfully and in good conscience.
The government’s role is to apply God’s standards of righteousness to the law of a given region. They are given the sword by God to punish wrongdoers. Sometimes the government will abuse its power and use the sword to punish those who do right and reward those who do wrong. When such a situation arises, the Bible reveals that Christians have a variety of tools at their disposal to respond to a corrupt government. These options must be weighed carefully and be driven by prayer, devotion to God, and love for neighbour. Ultimately we know that God is in control and his own purposes will prevail.
I would remind you of the verses from Isaiah quoted earlier in this article. Isaiah cries “woe” to those who mislabel good for evil and evil for good. He cries “woe” to the one who is “unjust” and issues “oppressive decrees”. It is a biblical way of warning “heads up!” to those who do such things. God is watching. If the biblical story shows us anything, it is that God judges nations that defy him. In God’s own ways and in God’s own time, he thwarts the plans of man and brings to nothing the nations that reject him. Nevertheless, there is hope for those who repent and call out to God for deliverance.
2 Chronicles 7:14 If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.