Is civil disobedience ever allowed since the Bible says Christians must submit “for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14).
This is the same Peter who said “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Notice that Peter does not specify in what situations it is permissible not to obey governors. This is an important point to note when we consider Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:14.
Charles Ryrie states that “Scripture teaches complete civil obedience on the part of Christians and does not indicate any exceptions to this principle.”1 Is he right? Let’s begin with the Old Testament.
Murder by the State Requires Civil Disobedience
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The Hebrew midwives were commanded by “the king of Egypt” (notice the word “king”: 1 Peter 2:13) to put to death all the male children being born to the Hebrew women (Ex. 1:15‑16). The Hebrew midwives disobeyed the edict of the king: “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live” (1:17). The midwives had to make a choice. Did God’s law overrule the command of a king, even “the king of Egypt”? God shows His approval of their actions: “So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. And it came about because the midwives feared God, that He established households for them” (1:20‑21). In 1982, a Juvenile Court judge, the Honorable Randall J. Hekman, “in direct opposition to the law of the land, which said women cannot be denied an abortion,” refused to grant permission for a pregnant thirteen-year-old to obtain an abortion. Was he wrong? His decision parallels that of the midwives who refused to follow the directive of the king of Egypt. In a letter to the editor of a Grand Rapids, Michigan, newspaper, Judge Hekman explained why he refused to grant the abortion to the thirteen-year-old:
“[In 1972] a judge in Michigan would be guilty of a felony crime if he encouraged, much less ordered that a pregnant girl obtain an abortion. Then, in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that all state laws making abortion a crime were unconstitutional. In one day, that which had been a reprehensible crime became a sacred right protected by the Constitution itself.2
“Hekman was severely criticized in the press and by judicial colleagues. The child,” at that time, was “in grade school and [was] presumably more supportive of the judge’s decision!”3 Moses’ mother, also disobeyed the edict of the king by hiding her child and later creating a way of escape for him so he would not be murdered by the king’s army: “But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it, and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile” (Ex. 2:3). Jochebed even deceived Pharaoh’s daughter into believing that she, Jochebed, was in no way related to the child (2:7‑9). Surely Jochebed was right in her defiance.
Civil Disobedience is Permitted to Deceive an Enemy
Rahab hid the spies of Israel and lied about their whereabouts. When a route for escape became available, she led them out another way from that of the pursuing soldiers. The king issued a command to Rahab: “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land” (Josh. 2:3). She disobeyed a direct command of the “king of Jericho.” Some want to maintain that Rahab was right in “welcoming the spies in peace” (Heb. 11:31), but she was wrong in lying about the whereabouts of the spies. “Welcoming them in peace” means that they would not fall in the hands of the king of Jericho which would have meant their certain death. There is another point that is often missed in this story about Rahab’s lie. “Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim” (Josh. 2:1). Are not “spies” in the business of lying? Why was Joshua right in sending men to spy out the land — which was deception — while Rahab was wrong in lying about the route the spies took in their escape? Rahab is praised by two New Testament writers for her actions: “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace” (Heb. 11:31). Rahab is listed with Abraham as one whose faith was reflected in her works: “And in the same way [as Abraham] was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25). By sending the spies out by another way, she subverted the king’s desire to capture the spies. God commended Rahab for her deception. Again, the circumstances were atypical. “The critics of Rahab’s lie apparently think her case is analogous to David’s adultery with Bathsheba, a union which ultimately produced Solomon. We are not, of course, bound to praise David’s action simply because Solomon’s rule produced many desirable results (such as the construction of God’s temple). We are specifically told that David’s adultery was abhorrent in the eyes of God; we are not so informed about Rahab’s actions.”4 When you go out at night, do you keep a light on in the house? Some people purchase a device that turns lights on and off at random intervals to give the appearance that people are at home. This is done to mislead burglars. Isn’t this deception? Are you not lying? Most every home has an answering machine. A message is left on the machine which says: “No one can come to the phone right now, but if you leave a message, someone will get back to you as soon as possible.” You haven’t said that you are not at home, but you are giving the impression that someone may be in the house when, in fact, no one is at home. Again, deception.
Civil Disobedience is Required When Forced to Worship a False God
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed‑nego refused to follow the command of the king to worship the golden statue: “These men, O king, have disregarded you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up” (Dan. 3:12). King Darius signed a document that prohibited anyone from making “a petition to any god or man besides” himself (Dan. 6:7). Anyone refusing to obey the order “shall be cast into the lion’s den” (6:7). Daniel refused to heed the edict’s restrictions. The Bible states that Daniel went out of his way to disobey the order: “Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously” (6:10). While Peter states to his first-century Jewish Christians that they are to submit to “every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right,” by considering the whole Bible, there are very explicit exceptions, especially when the civil magistrate is a blatant evildoer himself. The Jews reading Peter’s letter would have known about these exceptions (1 Peter 1:1). He did not need to repeat them.
Quoted in Lynn Buzzard and Paula Campbell, Holy Disobedience: When Christians Must Resist the State (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1984), 157. ↩
Judge Randall Hekman, “Letter to the Editor,” Grand Rapids Press (November 19, 1982). Quoted in Randy C. Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?: Breaking the Law to Save the Unborn (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 79-80. ↩
Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?, 79. ↩
Gary North, “In Defense of Biblical Bribery,” in Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 841. ↩