Civil Disobedience: Is It Justifiable?

The civil rights struggle of our day has given rise to considerable discussion and not a few pronouncements on the subject of civil disobedience. It is a subject which can hardly he discussed in the abstract in view of the fact that any conclusions in the matter are arrived at in the light of specific circumstances and are intended to answer specific problems. Today we are involved in a social upheaval, if not indeed a revolution, in the struggle for civil rights. it could, I think, be argued that today’s revolution is not limited to the area of civil rights but is, in fact, much broader. Today’s revolution involves political and religious and cultural changes. The civil rights problem is but one aspect of a much broader change in the spirit of our times.

Abstract discussion on the subject of civil disobedience is today quite impossible. Practically all of the pronouncements that are being made on the subject are made against the background of the struggle for civil rights. The North American Area Council of the World Presbyterian Alliance in January of 1961 made a pronouncement on the matter of civil disobedience against his background of the civil rights struggle. In it they declared that civil disobedience was a legitimate means to be used for the obtaining of civil rights. The Reformed Church in America at its latest General Synod held in June of 1965 “seconded the motion” of the Presbyterian Alliance. Here too the resolution was presented by its “Commission On Race” and was, therefore, obviously drawn up against the background of the present struggle. The General Synod of the Reformed Church in America adopted this recommendation and did so in affirmation of “its agreement with the action taken in January of 1961 by the North American Area Council of the World Presbyterian Alliance.” The following statement was adopted by the General Synod:

“There may come a time in spite of efforts to correct it, when a law prevails that keeps people from receiving justice and thus conflicts with the purposes of God as they are revealed in the Gospel. At such a time, it is our opinion that a Christian, after serious and careful consideration, and after sharing his concern with other members of the household of faith may engage alone or with others in an act of civil disobedience…(if)…his actions are taken first in the spirit of a faithful servant of his faithful Lord, and in sight and knowledge of authorities, and with a fun willingness to accept the consequences imposed. upon him by society under existing law.”

Not only are ecclesiastical bodies making pronouncements on the subject but men of national stature in the area of law enforcement are also involved in the discussion on the subject. Chief of Police Parker of Los Angeles has expressed his opinions on the matter quite in line with J. Edgar Hoover who has candidly stated that these pronouncements about the legitimacy of civil disobedience in today’s context of the civil rights struggle are nothing less than an incitement to riot.



Pronouncements are one thing but the actual fact of civil disobedience is quite another. Instances of overt acts of civil disobedience are very much on the increase. The Los Angeles and Chicago riots are illustrations of this sad fact. In the summer of this year Judge Leighton of the Chicago judicial system freed an individual who had resisted arrest with the use of a broken beer bottle, seriously injuring the arresting officer in the process. The charges were ordered dismissed by Judge Leighton who was of the opinion that this individual was free to decide whether his impending arrest was justifiable or not and when concluding that his arrest was not justifiable had the right to resist. Interestingly a few weeks later police officers had to subdue with force a group of teen age hoodlums who similarly resisted arrest and did so with the expressed notion that the police had no right to arrest them for disturbance and riot.

In any discussion of this highly volitable subject we must necessarily consider first what the Word of God has to say about the nature of government and its power. Romans 13 is surely the locus classicus on the matter when the Spirit of God declares:

“Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers; for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment…for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain : for he is a minister of God, all avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience sake.”

It is apparent at once that properly constituted government with its power and authority is ordained of God and is assigned a place by God Himself in society. It is an agency of God for the restraint of sin and for the promotion of civic good. Here, surely, is the starting point for any consideration of the question of our civil responsibilities. Calvin, in his commentary of this passage of Scripture, makes the observation that, “The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by God’s ordination. For since it pleases God thus to govern the world, he who attempts to invert the order of God, and thus to resist God Himself, despises His power; since to despise the providence of Him who is the founder of civil power, is to carryon war with Him.” Commentaries of the Epistle to the Romans pp. 478.

But having said this, the problem has not yet been solved for obviously no government in this world of sin is ever perfectly constituted and its power perfectly exercised. What now if government is deficient or derelict in the exercise of its authority and power? What is the proper attitude and response of the Christian in such a case? John Calvin offers instructive and pertinent observations at this point.

“The first duty of subject towards their magistrates is to entertain the most honourable sentiments of their function, which they know to be a jurisdiction delegated to them from God, and on that account to esteem and reverence them as God’s ministers and vicegerents…I am not speaking of the persons, as if the mask of dignity ought to palliate or excuse folly, ignorance, or cruelty, and conduct the most nefarious and flagitious, and so to acquire for vices the praise due to virtue: but I affirm that the station itself is worthy of honour and reverence: so that, whoever our governors are, they ought to possess our esteem and veneration on account of the office which they fill.”

“…Hence follows another duty. that, with minds disposed to honour and reverence magistrates, subjects approve their obedience to them in submitting to their edicts, in paying taxes, in discharging public duties, and bearing burdens which relate to common defence, and in fulfilling all their other commands…Under this obedience I also include the moderation which private persons ought to prescribe to themselves in relation to public affairs, that they do not, without being called upon, intermeddle with affairs of state, or rashly intrude themselves into the office of magistrates, or undertake any thing of a public nature. If there be, anything in the public administration which requires to be corrected, let them not raise any tumults, or take the business into their own hands, which ought to be all bound in this respect, but let them refer it to the cognizance of the magistrate, who is alone authorized to regulate tile concerns of the public.”

“…But if we direct our attention to the Word of God, it will carry us much further: even to submit to the government, not only of those princes who discharge their duty to us with becoming integrity and fidelity, but to all who possess the sovereignty, even though they perform none of the duties of their function.”

“We owe these sentiments of affection and reverence to all our rulers. whatever their characters may he: which I more frequently repeat, that we may learn not to scrutinize the persons themselves, but may be satisfied with knowing that they are invested by the will of the Lord with that function, upon which he has impressed an inviolable majesty. But it will be said, that rulers owe mutual duties to their subjects. That I have already confessed. But he who infers from this that obedience ought to be rendered to none but just rulers is a very bad reasoner. For husbands owe mutual duties to their wives, and parents to their children. Now, if husbands and parents violate their obligations: if parents conduct themselves with discouraging severity and fastidious moroseness toward their children, whom they are forbidden to provoke to wrath: if husbands despise and vex their wives, whom they are commanded to love and spare as the weaker vessels; does it follow that children should be less obedient to their parents, or wives to their husbands?” Institutes: Bk IV, XX.

These observations are well summarized for us by the words of the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 39, question and answer 104:

“What does God require in the fifth commandment? That I show all honor, love, and fidelity to my father and mother. and to all in authority over me: submit myself with due obedience to their good instruction and correction: and also bear patiently with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”

Is there then no time when the edict and the authority of government may be refused and denied? The question of the legitimacy of civil disobedience persists for there are instances in the Scripture when God’s people in all piety and with the approbation of God did, in fact, withstand and deny the commands of government and refuse to obey. Daniel had occasion to refuse obedience to the command of the king to bow down to the idol which had been constructed. The apostles in the Book of Acts are on record as having frankly stated that they would not obey the command to speak no more concerning the name of Jesus. Their reply on this occasion was simply that they would rather obey God than man. Conversely the children of Israel were roundly condemned by God for having obeyed the edict of the king. When Jeroboam made his golden calves and called the people to worship them and to forsake the proper worship of God in Jerusalem then God says, “Ephraim is oppressed, he is crushed in judgment: because he was content to walk after man’s command. Therefore am I unto Ephraim as the moth and to the house of Judah as rottenness.” Hosea 5:11, 12.

It seems clear, however, in consideration of passages such as these that the government in each case gave commandments which were in violation of the command of God. In one case God’s people were commanded to do that which was contrary to the expressed will of God and in other cases they were denied the freedom to do that which was specifically commanded to them of God to do.

In the case of Daniel and of the people of God under Jerohoam there was a command to do that which was contrary to the will of God. In the case of the apostles, they were denied the right to obey the command of God. When government denies its calling to be a minister of God for good, when it denies its proper province and purpose, then it denies itself and civil disobedience at such points is to be required. It would seem, however, that civil disobedience, is then the wrong phrase to use, for such action on the part of God’s people is finally obedience of the highest order and is finally for the highest good of society and its government. Our definition of civil and our definition of obedience must be made in the light of the Word of God.

Calvin has here a pertinent paragraph.

“But in the obedience which we have shown to be due to the authority of governors, it is always necessary to make one exception, and that is entitled to the first attention,—that it do not seduce us from obedience to him, to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, to whose majesty all their sceptres ought to submit. And, indeed, how preposterous it would be for us, with a view to satisfy men, to incur the displeasure of him on whose account we yield obedience to men. The Lord, therefore, is the King of kings: who, when he has opened his sacred mouth, is to be heard alone, above all, for all, and before all: in the next place, we are subject to those men who preside over us: but no otherwise than in him. If they command any thing against him, it ought not to have the least attention: nor, in this case, ought we to pay any regard to all that dignity attached to magistrates: to which no injury is done when it is subjected to the unrivalled and supreme power of God.” Institutes IV, XX, 32.

What, then, does all this have to say concerning the present civil rights struggle which occasions this discussion in the first place. For it seems obvious that the negro in our society had, and still has, legitimate grievances because rights and opportunities were denied to him. In some instances these deprivations were sanctioned and promoted by local laws and in other instances the guarantees of law were not extended to include him.

The use of public facilities, public instructional institutions, public transportation and the equal privilege and opportunity to vote have been brought to public attention. There has consequently been a broad updating and expansion of the laws of the land in order that these grievances may he answered properly. De jure discrimination has and is being written out of the law of the land and in this legal arena every legal means may and finally must be employed in order to arrive at the best provisions for everyone under law. But the inadequacies of civil law will not be achieved by a denial of the concept and dignity of law. The gains achieved by legal reforms will finally be guaranteed only when the dignity and the authority of law is recognized by all. Where the spirit of civil disobedience holds sway there the rights under law of every man are in jeopardy.

It would appear that a large part of the negro grievance is no longer in the area of de jure discrimination but in what has been popularly called de facto discrimination. Here the civil rights struggle is no longer in the area of the legal definitions of law but in the area of the social goals which society at large seeks to achieve and which groups in society seek to gain for themselves. There is surely a social problem which calls for an answer. In this social sphere, however, where social goals are sought, proper social methods must be used. A good social goal cannot be achieved by anti-social means. Nor can social attitudes be changed by the exercise of power. Governmental power or mob power will not achieve the desired results. Social attitudes are finally changed by persuasion and not by power. Even the power of government may not be used to force the social goals which one group or another is seeking to achieve.

The church, in this context, must be considered a social organization, though surely in our view it is much more than that. It would seem that to use the power of government to force everyone to be a member of the church is obviously contrary to our thinking and convictions. The evils which accompanied the state-church struggles of past centuries and the evil of “state churchism” of more recent times in Europe give evidence of the necessity of acknowledging the sovereignty of each sphere. Similarly the recent attempts to force union membership upon every worker by legislative power are also contraband to Christian thinking. Union organizations are not a branch of government but are socia-economic organizations which seek to achieve particular goals in society. As such they must utilize methods which are proper for their sphere of activity and not demand government legislative power to assist them in achieving their goals anymore than the church can call upon legislative power to force everyone to be a member of the church and pay their budget. If government does not so use its power to guarantee success for a social movement, it does not follow that such a government in its authority and in its power can be denied. The church may not deny the authority and power of government because its goals are not being achieved, nor may labor unions, normally is it allowed to civil rights groups who seek a social gain in society. Civil disobedience is not a legitimate method to be used in any such case for finally it undermines and destroys the very foundation of society in which all must live.

In the face of de jure and also in the face of de facto discriminations which may exist the use of civil disobedience in the present context is, it seems to me. unpatriotic, unchristian, and unbiblical.

In the face of the continuing problem it is surely the responsibility of government to provide a context of law in which legitimate social goals may properly be pursued. It is the responsibility of the church to seek the reformation of society in obedience to the command of Christ. Every man must be received as an individual in terms of his individual rights and in terms of his individual responsibilities to society as a whole. Before the face of God every man, of whatever race, is responsible for the rights and opportunities which come to him. No right exists without its commensurate responsibility. It is a man’s readiness to be responsible before God and in society which will gain the approbation of God and society. Where responsibility is denied there the approbation of neither can properly be expected nor indeed is it deserved.

We must be done with thinking in terms of one class over against another class. The demonic philosophy of Nietzsche of the survival of the fittest and the inherent right of domination by the strongest has already brought about its disastrous results in Hitlerism, Communism, and Socialism. The exercise of the class struggle philosophy and the utilization of power groups, power blocs, and power politics will not bring the desired results.

If never before, then surely now, it is time for the church to declare the biblical principle of the rights and the responsibilities of every man as an individual before God and man. The reformation of society will not come by the use of brute power one way or another, but by the redeeming and renewing power of the Spirit of God. 1t is in this way that a new humanity is formed and that finally the truly great society will be achieved where there is neither bond nor free, white or colored, but one household of God in Christ Jesus. This is the society of the future. Therefore, let the church preach this gospel of redemption and renewal.

This is not, however. merely a “pie in the sky” program. It is, I am sure, the only way that our society can ever be preserved by and for the sake of the Church.