Civil Disobedience In an Age of Tyranny:
by Gerald R. Thompson
INDIVIDUAL CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
Competency to Judge Individually
I consider it a settled principle of God’s law that we as individuals have the legal competency (or authority) to make an independent judgment about whether, when and how to disobey civil laws. God’s dealings with mankind indicate a pattern of Him interacting with each person on an individual basis. God’s laws apply to each person individually, and our natural and God-given rights apply to us individually. Ultimately, we are each responsible before God individually.
Therefore, each of us, individually, has the authority to assert our individual rights, to the fullest extent. I do not need anyone else’s permission, oversight or blessing to rightfully assert that which God has given to me. I may be an idiot about it (which is to say, I may exercise my authority in an unwise or scornful manner), I may get things wrong from time to time, and I may offend others when I do so, but I still have the right to assert all my rights. And so do you.
And if I can decide on my own to assert my rights, then I must also have the right to decide when, where and how to disobey laws which infringe my natural rights. To disobey a law contrary to God’s laws is not a privilege anyone grants me, nor a status that I must earn, nor a right that belongs only to some people but not others. It is a universal right, co-extensive with the natural rights of all individuals.
Indeed, when it comes to deciding whether I should obey God or men, who else but me can possibly make that decision? If accountability runs solely to God and all rights are individual, then I am necessarily competent to judge how best to use those rights and whether or not government has overstepped its bounds with respect to them. That’s what being accountable to God means.
Merely because others (such as civil government) may be vested with the authority to protect some of those same rights does not deny or deprive individuals of that authority – the principal (the People) is greater than the servant (public officials and government employees). And I am one of the People.
God created people capable of self-government. Remember what I pointed out earlier: no civil power was given to mankind until over 1650 years had passed since creation, and no civil governments existed until almost 2000 B.C. When God created a nation of people for Himself, he gave them no king, but only a judge exercising a very limited judicial power and a commander-in-chief function. God only gave ancient Israel the barest bones of a civil government, and when you think about it, He never did give them a legislature (or the power of making laws).
Think also of the Greatest Commandments – you know, love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mat. 22:37-39). These describe what? – the jurisdiction of the individual. In other words, God’s expectations for self-government. And when God gave dominion over the entire earth to the family (Gen. 1:28), He did so 2000 years before there was any civil government.
So where does the supposed need to subject our individual legal compliance or noncompliance with either a lower magistrate or some other person in authority come from? God never subjected people to the rule of other people – why do biblical commentators think we must subject ourselves to the rule of others? Perhaps they don’t really believe in God ordained self-government. Perhaps they really believe God did, in fact, put certain people over us to rule us. Oh, I wish to God we could rid the world of that heretical notion forever! We are the principals, and the people who lead us (whether church, state or otherwise) are our agents – they serve us. Not vice versa.
Modern conventional wisdom regards each person as a product of the system, or society, with the result that we are not individually responsible for our actions – but this is a lie.
I completely understand that our system of government, as constituted today, has bought into this lie. God forbid that we should let people decide for themselves how to love their neighbors. We’ll pass a mountain of laws that compels them to do business with people they despise, distrust or would rather shun; forces them to fund all kinds of welfare and charitable programs they disbelieve in; and requires them to join and pay dues to organizations whose social and political views they find repugnant.
We also have a whole mountain range of laws telling people how, and how not, to take dominion; what jobs they can or cannot have; what they can, or more usually, cannot do with their own property; how many kids they can have and how to raise them; what to teach in schools; how much they have to pay other people and how to run their businesses; and make them buy auto insurance and health insurance and tell them what the terms of each policy must contain. On top of that we force every single employer in America to be a federal tax collector, an agent of the federal government, without being paid for it and without the employer’s consent. You know things didn’t used to be that way, right?
Lord knows we can’t let anyone truly make their own decisions! If we actually let people decide for themselves whether or not to buy insurance, the whole world will fall apart! Didn’t I mention it before? It’s right there after Do not covet – Commandment #11: Thou shalt buy insurance. Which is immediately followed by Commandment #12 – Thou shalt not spank thy children.
However, just because the rest of the world has given up on self-government, does not mean God has, or that I need to. Only 300 years ago, civil governments used to see it as one of their core functions to legislate how people should love God, via state established religions. Yet, we threw that shackle off, eventually. Maybe someday, when we have become truly enlightened, we’ll throw of the shackle of forcing people to love their neighbors a certain way. Yes, I know it’s a long shot. But hey – give it a couple million years and we’ll evolve to that level eventually, right? Nothing is quite so satisfying as random chance over time. No, literally – nothing.
Until that day comes, we’ll always have civil disobedience. (At least I like to look on the bright side). I don’t often quote John Calvin, but here I think an exception is warranted.
We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against him [i.e., God] let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates – a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Dan. 6:22), because the king had exceeded his limits . . ..17
Isn’t It Better to Suffer?
I can already hear the truly pious among us urging an objection – isn’t it better to suffer wrong and injustice? Christians have a long history of enduring persecution, even to the point of martyrdom. Isn’t that what Jesus would want us to do? Such questions have long ago been asked and answered. Consider Jonathan Mayhew, a Congregational minister who spoke to this question in 1750:
It has often been asserted that the scripture in general (and [Rom. 13] in particular) makes all resistance to princes a crime in any case whatever. If they turn tyrants and become the common oppressors of those whose welfare they ought to regard with a paternal affection, we must not pretend to right ourselves unless it be by prayers and tears and humble entreaties. And if these methods fail of producing redress, we must not have recourse to any other, but all suffer ourselves to be robbed and butchered at the pleasure of the Lord’s anointed: lest we should incur the sin of rebellion and the punishment of damnation.***
Upon a careful review of the apostle’s reasoning in this passage, it appears that his arguments to enforce submission, are of such a nature, as to conclude only in favor of submission to such rulers as he himself describes; i.e. such as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of anything here laid down by the inspired apostle. I now add farther, that the apostle’s argument is so far from proving it to be the duty of people to obey, and submit to such rulers as act in contradiction to the public good, and so to the design of their office, that it proves the direct contrary.18
If we would only learn from our own history, instead of plowing the same ground over and over again for each new generation, then perhaps we could get to the point of advancing the arguments and scriptural analysis of the past even farther. Which is exactly what I’m doing. Far from advancing a doctrine which is new or unusual, I’m merely in the flow of longstanding biblical tradition. All while I’m pushing the debate further along.
Sure, you can suffer, if you want. No one is going to force you to commit civil disobedience. All I’m saying is that you have the option of disobeying, when it conforms to God’s laws. You have rights – rights given to you by God Himself. He didn’t give you those rights just so you could waive them at every opportunity. Rights are valid, they should be protected, and are given to you to be used. If God really didn’t want you to use your rights, He wouldn’t have given them to you. What kind of steward are you, if you give away what God has given you at every opportunity?
But wasn’t patient suffering modeled for us in the founding of the United States?
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. Declaration of Independence (1776).
Sure, the Colonies endured patient suffering – before they started a war. You might well want to be more guarded in your behavior, and to hold back from taking severe action, when that action amounts to an armed rebellion. But civil disobedience of the type I’m talking about is not armed conflict. Besides, if you think about it, what were the people in the American Colonies doing while they were patiently waiting before starting a war? They were committing acts of civil disobedience. Yes, yes they were. And doing it at the urging of preachers like Jonathan Mayhew.
Thoreau – On Civil Disobedience
Consider Henry David Thoreau’s thoughts on the subject of civil disobedience. It is funny how two people of completely different backgrounds such as Thoreau and myself, for completely different reasons, can come to conclusions which are so similar. Coincidence – or the law of nature?
Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.* * *
Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil.
It makes it worse.* * *
For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation? … There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.19
Can I get another Amen?
Counting The Cost
Make no mistake, civil disobedience often does involve pain and suffering. But so does doing nothing, when civil government goes seriously awry. The decision whether to civilly disobey often comes down to a balancing of the costs either way. However, when that time comes, don’t forget to factor in the psychological effects.
It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State, than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.20
Try looking at things the way our ancestors often did – resisting tyranny is a form of obedience to God. If in so doing, we suffer as a result, then we are suffering for the sake of righteousness. What was it the apostle Peter said?
But even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, … having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Pet. 3:14, 16-17).
Perspective is everything. If you believe we owe a slavish obedience to every civil ruler and public official (people who are mere mortals in every way like ourselves), it colors your view of who is evil, and who is righteous, whenever civil disobedience is involved. However, if you think like those who came before us, heroes of the faith (and the nation), as it were, your whole perspective reverses. The tyrants become evil, and we (the disobedient) act in faith and righteousness.
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:11-12 – ESV). For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph 6:12 – KJV).
Think about spiritual warfare, for a moment. When we wrestle against principalities, authorities, and the rulers of the darkness of this world, what do these mean in the real world? Do you think you, personally, are doing battle with angels? No, my friends – these words refer explicitly to the governmental systems of the world, i.e., the civil governments of Gentile nations. Consider each key word carefully – principality means a kingdom (i.e., a nation and its government), and the Greek word for authorities is the same one used in Rom. 13:1.
As for the rulers of the darkness of this world, who do you suppose they are? What does the scripture say? “And the devil took [Jesus] up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.'” (Lk. 4:5-6). Who rules the kingdoms of this world? – The Prince of Darkness. And when the devil tempted Jesus, referring to kingdoms and authority, was he talking about angels, or about men? My point is made.
Therefore, when the scripture talks about spiritual warfare, what is it talking about? It’s talking about doing battle with the corrupt and tyrannical civil governments of the nations. Which is exactly why our ancestors regarded resisting tyranny as obedience to God – to them, this was doing spiritual warfare. What’s that you say – that’s not what is taught from the pulpit at your church? Perhaps your ministry to rescue the lost has just taken on a new perspective as well, eh?
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (2 Co 10:3-6).
Again, I urge you to look at things practically. When we destroy arguments and lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God, what does that mean in the real world? It means we’re doing battle in the war of ideas, changing minds wherever possible, and confronting false ideas and exposing lies in every instance. We don’t give in – we take thoughts captive, with the intent of destroying false ideas. When false ideas about government come at us, we don’t give an inch. It’s active, not passive.
I also ask that you consider the meaning of the phrase, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with this idea – maybe you are one of them. But this is what the scripture says. When our thinking has been transformed by the renewing of our minds, then our obedience becomes complete. When civil rulers and public officials oppose the laws of God and advance false ideas (especially by coercion), then it is up to us to punish their disobedience by our nonconformity (i.e., civil disobedience).
Yes, you can fully expect to be branded a criminal. No one from the government is going to thank you for your disobedience. The government may very well come after you.
I know the imminent peril to which subjects expose themselves by this firmness, kings being most indignant when they are contemned. . . . But since Peter, one of heaven’s heralds, has published the edict, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), let us console ourselves with the thought, that we are rendering the obedience which the Lord requires, when we endure anything rather than turn aside from piety.21
These days, it is somewhat fashionable to engage in civil disobedience via the means of a mass public protest – it is so conveniently anonymous. Such forms of public displays have their place – but only a very limited one. Participating in a large public protest is very much like praying to be seen, much as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time. If piety is what you truly seek, perhaps you might consider treating civil disobedience the way Jesus suggested we treat prayer:
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mat. 6:6).
If you just think about some of the more famous examples of civil disobedience, they were often carried out in secret, only being disclosed long after the fact. For example, think about all the people who hid or rescued Jews from the hands of the Nazis, or those who hid and transported fugitive slaves in the Underground Railroad. Individual acts of disobedience against duly passed laws, in every instance. Preferring and obeying the laws of God over the laws of men, and done in secret. Wouldn’t have made sense to do it out in the open, now would it?
The point is, each of us has access and opportunities that are unique to us because of position, employment, education, wealth or location, etc. We each have ways in which we can oppose the tyrannical operations of government that others cannot. My suggestion is simply, be creative.
We have liberty
I desire, as much as the next person, “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs.” (1 Th 4:11). If only that were always possible. But we must also be mindful of the times and seasons. The scripture admonishes us to both live quietly and to destroy arguments and punish disobedience with the same degree of forcefulness. They are also equally true at the same time. When possible, living quietly is certainly the normal expectation to the extent it is in keeping with God’s laws.
But remember, I am considering a limited case – where civil rulers are not acting as ministers of God to enforce His laws or to administer His justice, and are instead usurping or repressing authority God has given to others, or are otherwise countermanding God’s laws. In those cases, the rule that we must obey God rather than men still applies, and like it or not, you may be put in a situation (not of your own making) where you must choose between obedience to men in positions of authority, and obedience to God.
I am tempted to say that civil disobedience is not only our right, but also a duty that we must observe. And I admit there are some circumstances in which that duty will come into play, such as if you are forced at gunpoint to “deny Christ or die.” The more usual rule, as I said earlier, is to learn when, where and how to pick your battles. Not all government usurpations will affect everyone equally. You have to decide which ones, if any, are worth disobeying.
All I’m saying really, is that in those situations you are not required to obey the lawless men, but are rather free to disobey them and obey God instead. You have the choice of whether disobey, and you can do it with a clear conscience. If, that is, your conscience and your mind have been properly trained to recognize and understand what God’s laws are, and to know when others are violating or usurping them. It’s hard to have a clear conscience if, in fact, you really don’t know who’s right or wrong, and you’re just making a guess and hoping for the best.
Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is dangerous. Ignorance is also no excuse for not knowing whom to obey, or what God requires. And don’t give me that mere truism, “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). Justice is not some loosey-goosey concept that means whatever feels right to you. Justice means doing the will of God, namely, following God’s laws. Unless you know what God’s laws are, you know nothing about true justice. So, get with it and educate yourself.
The key to the matter is training your conscience, and then staying true to it. Even the scripture says:
For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? … So, whether you [obey or disobey], or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:29,31). [Yes, I changed two words. But isn’t the principle the same?]
However, the conscience is not a static thing. You are born with an innate sense of right and wrong (Rom. 2:14-16). As you mature, your conscience can either be corrupted (Tit. 1:15), or it can be trained to be more discerning (Heb. 5:14). Why not seek to inform your conscience, rather than letting it sit in ignorance?
be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2).
Improved discernment comes from testing. In other words, you consider various ideas, compare them with the scriptures, work out the logical sense of things, and reach an informed decision. You may even have to try some things to see how they affect your conscience and your thinking. This is not a bad thing – it’s a godly thing. It’s what people call learning from experience.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. (1 Cor 6:12). “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. (1 Cor 10:23).
What is Paul saying here, except that we have liberty to decide difficult questions? Sure, not every choice to disobey the laws of men will be helpful, or wise, or will build up. Nonetheless, the liberty that we have means that it is our decision – no one else can make it for us, and we are not beholden to anyone else’s choices.
Finally, let us recall the admonition of David, who extolled the virtues of God’s laws with these timeless words:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Ps. 19:7-11).
When that great and glorious day comes when the kingdom of Christ is established on earth, and the world is ruled by governors appointed by Him, then I daresay we may safely regard all civil laws as righteous altogether and entitled to an irrebuttable presumption of validity. But until that day comes, the opposite will hold true – not just the occasional, but in fact the great majority of all civil laws adopted and enacted by sinful men, are far more likely to be tyrannical, usurpations, and altogether wicked. And so perhaps it will only be in the future Millennial kingdom, with the benefit of hindsight, that people will fully and finally realize the extent to which modern laws run afoul of the laws of God. I pray that people will be mindful of such things long before then.