Public Protests, Civil Disobedience, & The Christian
Christians are told to "be subject to the governing authorities," and "whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom. 13:1-2 NKJV). From this passage alone we are informed that civil government has authority over the citizenry and that those individuals are to obey the ordinances (i.e. “laws”) of their government. But to what extent are we to obey the law? What is the Christian to do when the government that is appointed by God legislates in ways that require the Christian to contradict (i.e. “disobey”) God’s law? Are Christians supposed to obey the governing authorities no matter what? When do we not follow their decree? And what is the Bible’s response to public protests that are promoting a righteous cause? To what extent may a Christian engage in such? Fortunately, the Bible teaches the reader on this subject so as to give us a clear resolution.
The apostles Peter & John, along with the rest of the apostles, had been given the command by Jesus (to whom had been given authority over all flesh by the Father – Jn. 17:2) to preach the gospel everywhere and to all people (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16). However, Peter & John came across authorities who were “greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). They were warned by those authorities who “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (4:18). They were released after the warning. They went and reported what had happened, prayed for boldness to speak the word of God, and as a result “with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33). They were arrested again for doing this and put in prison (5:18). An angel let them out of prison and they went to preach again in the temple. They were then brought by officers before the council and were asked, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man's blood on us!” (5:28). Peter’s response: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (5:29).
What happened in Acts 4-5 was Peter & John committed what is commonly called “justified civil disobedience.” They did not follow the order of the “governing authorities.” For what reason? Because they wanted to protest a certain social issue that was a “systemic” problem in their culture? No, look at Peter’s statement again: we ought to obey God rather than men. The reason was because if they had followed the decree of the governing authorities, they would have been necessarily disobeying God. There was no third option to where they could obey God and men. It was either one or the other. This is a very key point that needs to be made here. As noted in the beginning of this article, Christians are to be subject to the governing authorities. But here we have an inspired apostle giving us the only exception when we are expected not to be subject: when to do so would cause us to necessarily violate the will of God. Are we then “disobeying” those authorities? In a sense, yes. That is, by all appearance it looks that way. The term “disobedience” is used in an accommodative way. But in reality we are not, because the authority God delegated to the civil authorities does not extend into the realm of contradicting the will of God. If it actually was disobedience, then by definition it would be “sin.”
Now apply the above principle. In our current day there have been numerous public protests over several social issues such as abortion, racism, police brutality, etc. And while many of these protests are conducted properly and for a righteous cause, some of these public protests--wherein people block highways, impede the business of individuals, or some other form of interrupting the business of society either passively or actively--are not justified on the basis of “justified civil disobedience”. Why? In these incidents the protesters are not stuck in an “either, or” dilemma, like the apostles. The only way they could justify sitting/standing in the highways, blocking traffic (which is against civil law), etc., is if it would necessarily cause them to sin if they did not do such. But are these protesters in that dilemma? No. Because God is not requiring them to protest in such a manner and neither are the civil authorities. And for that reason, these instances do not qualify as “justified civil disobedience.”
Other accounts have been raised, such as the Hebrew midwives disobeying the Egyptian king’s decree to kill the male children born to the Hebrew women. But this same principle is found applied there. The king of Egypt had specifically stated, “When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live” (Exo. 1:16). Yet the very next verse says, “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive” (1:17). They were commanded by the “civil authorities” to kill any son that is born to the Hebrew women. Why? The king feared the potential Israel may possess against him in the event of war and their possibility of leaving the land. He said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land” (1:9-10). Is that a justified reason to kill the male babies? Not according to God. The king wanted the midwives to, in essence, murder male babies. Yet they did not, “but…feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.” Again, the only way for them to obey God was to not follow the decree of the king, for his command contradicted the will of God. Question: is it contradictory to the will of God for protesters to get out of the road? In fact, it was contradictory for them not to, since the prohibition of blocking a public road is also a civil law. So once again we see a biblical example of "justified civil disobedience" that does not align with the scenario of certain actions of some protesters.
One further thought: if it was justified civil disobedience, then apply the reasoning. Surely there is no more important issue than the fact that most people are lost and without God. What more serious issue is there than a soul in danger of hell? Therefore, would it be “justified civil disobedience” if the church stood in highways and blocked roads and preached the gospel, forcing people to hear? Can Christians go to grocery stores, gas stations, or other businesses and block people from entering so they can teach people how to obey the gospel? What if Christians used their vehicles to encircle another vehicle stopped at an intersection, blocking traffic, in order to teach the person(s) in that vehicle that denominations are unscriptural and sinful? Would it be “justified civil disobedience” if we did this? If not, why not? This is a huge issue in our communities, so what about their souls? Don’t those matter? Or is that just not as pressing of an issue?
Again let me clarify that I have no problem with protesting in general. It is our right to voice our opinions publicly, true. But we must do so with respect to God's commands. Neither Jesus nor the apostles went about interrupting society's business in order to be heard. Yet they spread the gospel effectively. If we want people to respect us, then we cannot expect them to do so if we behave in unnecessary ways--such as law-breaking--that wisdom teaches us will create anger and bitterness in those to whom we are trying to appeal. If we want the community to hear us and listen, then we must first convince them they have our respect as an individual.