Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is one of the crucial problems of America today. In violation of legal authority, people lie down on New York City’s Triborough Bridge during the 5 o’clock rush hour; housewives mix up groceries in a supermarket; pacifists disrupt trains carrying supplies for Vietnam; draftees bum their draft cards; policemen go on strike, leaving a city defenseless; nurses strike, abandoning their patients; firemen simultaneously report in “sick” after an unsatisfactory wage dispute; demonstrators sit in the corridors of city hall, disrupting the normal civil affairs; and Negro tenants refuse to pay rent to owners. Civil disobedience is both a symptom and cause of the spirit of rebellion against civil authority. It is leading America to anarchy and chaos.


Civil disobedience is the disobeying of governmental laws that a person believes are morally unjust. In his 1849 essay on civil disobedience, Thoreau wrote: “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right.” He said that if the American Revolution was right because a bad government taxed goods without representation. then we may revolt against the United States government that allows a sixth of its population to be enslaved and that wars with Mexico. If someone would suggest that Thoreau should obey and amend the laws, Thoreau’s answer was that amendments take too long.

He based his theory of civil disobedience on the belief that the government “can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.” According to Thoreau, the individual is a higher than the pupil. In other words, authority is not because of might.

Nor is authority, whether it be governmental or any other kind, based on a person’s or an institution’s wisdom. The politician does not have authority because he is experienced; nor the teacher because he is knowledgeable; nor the church elder because he is matured; nor the parent because he is wise; nor Western civilization because it is more advanced than African.

Neither is color or race the foundation for authority. The Aryans do not have authority over the Jews because of their race. Contrary to the National Muslims, Black Power has no authority over the whites; nor does White Power have authority over the blacks because of their pigmentation.

Authority is not based on one’s national origin. Americans do not have a right to rule over Indians, or Dutch over Bantus, or Spanish over Angolians because of their national origin.

Neither is civil authority based on religion. Being Christian did not give the Americans the right to rule the Indian. Nor does it give the Christian the right to rule the Hottentot.

Finally, the authority of the government does not reside in the people. Thoreau was unbiblical when he wrote that the government “can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.” Likewise, Lincoln’s dictum can be interpreted wrongly: “Government is of the people, by the people and for the people.” Many interpret this to mean that the authority to govern is given by the voters. Such a theory is similar to Rousseau’s ideas as set forth in his Social Contract. He believed that every man by nature has all authority invested in himself. Because of the exigencies of an increasingly complex society, he taught, man voluntarily gave up some of his rights to groups of men. Thus, government derives its authority from the individual.

If human authority does not reside in man–in his might, wisdom, color, national origin, religion, or anything else that is human—what is his source of authority? In one word: God. Never having had a beginning and never ceasing to be, God is the I Am (Ex. 3:14), original Existence itself. All existence outside of God finds its source in him. Apart from him, nothing would be. Accordingly, God has every right or authority to command all being: angels, demons, saints in heaven, Christians on earth, unbelievers and animals. No one else has an iota of original authority.

When Jesus obeyed his Father by becoming man and dying for his people, God exalted him (Phil. 2:9) by raising him from the dead and giving him as Mediator (not as the Second Person of the Trinity) authority over all the universe. After his resurrection and before his ascension, Jesus climaxed his entire ministry with the dramatic statement—the one that Matthew ends his Gospel with: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:19).

Although God the Father is the source of all authority. and although he has made Christ his vicar—his substitute, God the Father and God the Son are pleased to delegate some of it to man. Man becomes a second vicar—the vicar of the Vicar. He acts in an authoritative position for God. The Heidelberg Catechism correctly interprets the fifth commandment (“Honor thy father and thy mother”) in this vein: “Question. What does God require in the fifth commandment? Answer. That I show all honor. love, and fidelity to my father and mother, and to all in authority over me…since it pleases God to govern us by their hand” (Lord’s Day 39).

God has delegated some of his authority to husbands, for example. He ordained the institution of marriage and set up its rules. One of the rules is that wives should not have dominion over their husbands (I Timothy 2:13) but should be in subjection to them (Ephesians 5:22).

God also delegated some of his authority to mothers and fathers and commanded the children to honor them (fifth commandment) and to obey them (Ephesians 6:1).

The authority of ecclesiastical officebearers has its source not with man but with God. Thus Paul writes the Galatians (1:1) that he is “an apostle (not from men, neither through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father).” And Paul tells the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit has given them charge over the Ephesian church (Acts 20:28).

What is true in these three spheres is also true in other areas, including the governmental one: God delegates his authority to men. Peter writes: “Be subject to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake,” i.e., because God commanded it (I Peter 2:13). He adds: “whether to the king as supreme, or unto governors, as sent by him”; that is, God ordained the kings and governors, he sent them, they have authority. and therefore should be obeyed. So he concludes: “Honor the king.”

Romans 13 is especially clear as to the divine delegation of authority. “Let everyone be subject to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God.” In other words, all civil authority has its source in God, as Paul goes on to state explicitly: “and the existing authorities have been instituted by God.” “Therefore,” Paul continues, “he who resists the authority resists the ordinance of God.” The Bible could not be clearer about the divine source of civil authorities.


Because human authority resides ultimately with God, God demands honor and obedience to it. To dishonor and disobey legal human authority is to disobey God. To honor human authority is to honor the God who is pleased to let man act as his vicar.

When a child, for example, disobeys his parents, he is being basically disobedient to God who put them in charge of him. Explaining this to a disobedient child can make discipline much more meaningful.

Because God has delegated his authority to humans, wives are conscience-bound to be in submission to their husbands in all things lawful; church members are morally obliged to listen to and obey the church elders whom the Holy Spirit has set over them; and Peter commands servants to obey their masters.

I n the matter of obedience to governments, Peter is very explicit: “Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake. whether to the king. as supreme or unto governors, as sent by him” (II Peter 2:13–14). Paul, in addition to commanding everyone to be subject to the higher authorities, states: “For this reason you must obey the authorities, not only because of wrath, but also as a matter of conscience” (Romans 13:5). Civil obedience is a fundamental, moral issue, and to disobey the civil authorities is to disobey God. The civil authorities are vicars of Christ.

They are vicars of Christ—even if they are wicked by twentieth century democratic standards. Note the government to which Paul says that everyone must be in submission. It was not a lily-white, democratic-loving, peaceful, just government. Rather it was the Roman Empire that killed Christians, that restricted their religious freedom, that launched wars of conquest. In regard to both its internal and external policies, the Roman Empire resembled more the Soviet Union than the United States of America. Emperor Claudius murdered his wife; Nero, his mother; Commodus, his sister and wife; Caracalla, his brother. Thirty-seven of the first fifty emperors of the first three centuries died a violent death. The major thesis of Stringfellow Barr’s The Mask of Jove (Lippincott, 1966) is that Roman civilization was built on the use of violence as a deliberate policy, until it was so ingrained in the minds of the Romans that violence by the state became a reflex action. According to him, Roman might was disciplined, organized, and ruthlessly applied, all in the name of Jupiter, with whom they had a special contract. Yet, to this wicked, unjust government, in comparison with which America seems angelic, Paul says: “Let everyone be subject.” Not some—the whites and not the negroes, the laity and not the clergy (as has sometimes been advocated by the Roman Catholic Church), the pagans. and not the Christians, who were always in danger of being thrown to the lions. Paul demands civil obedience on the part of “everyone.”


Yet, there is a time to disobey—to disobey the authorities ordained by God, to disobey the vicars of Christ. That time is when such an authority commands someone to sin.

For example, if parents should command a child to sin, it is better to obey God than man. If parents should command a child to steal or to lie or not to go to church, then that child has a moral obligation to disobey the powers that be.

If a labor union should command one of its members to break a contract or to put nails in front of the tires of a non-union member or to threaten car drivers who cross picket lines or to deface property, then the union member should disobey his superiors.

If a church should command its members to sin by giving financial support to modernistic missionaries who are no missionaries, then the church member is God-bound to disobey the God-appointed elders and ministers. In the early church the ecclesiastical authorities commanded Peter and John to sin. In direct violation of God’s revealed will, they forbade them to preach. The apostles correctly answered the authorities: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you decide” (Acts 4:19). And later they told them: “We must obey God rather than men.” Incidentally, this was not civil disobedience but ecclesiastical disobedience. Yet, the principle holds true for all spheres of authority: A Christian must disobey authorities if they command him to sin.

Or if the government commands the Christian to sin, he must refuse to obey in spite of the strong injunction of Romans 13. Pharaoh commanded the Jewish mothers to kill their babies in the time of Moses. But Jochebed righteously defied the law and hid Moses. Daniel was forbidden to pray, but he correctly went about his customary practice. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were ordered to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image, and they followed the only morally defensible action: they stood erect. Jeroboam commanded Israel to sin by ordering them to worship the golden calves in Bethel and Dan; and Israel sinned by obeying the powers that be (I Kings 12:30).


The crucial question in deciding whether or not one may disobey the government, or, for that matter, any other divinely ordained authority, is: Is a person commanded to sin? It is not: Are his rights denied? Are the authorities in harmony with a higher law? These distinguishing questions are the heart of this article. There are no Biblical commands or examples of disobedience when a person is deprived of his rights. The sale criterion is: Is he commanded to sin?

For example, a teacher may be excessively repressive with one of his pupils. He may punish the child out of hate and anger by detaining him after school unusually long or by unfairly singling him out for ridicule or denying him bodily freedom. The teacher may be wrong and unjust, having overstepped and abused his authority. But the child may not rebel by slapping the teacher or refusing to stay after school or refusing to go to school or talking back to the teacher. The child is deprived of fundamental human rights, but he is not made to sin. That is the difference. His solution is to attempt to rectify the situation in legal ways, but it is not to disobey the God-ordained authority.

Under the economy of the Roman Empire with its master-servant relationship, Peter even commanded obedience to unjust masters. He would not allow rebellion or disobedience even when the human rights of the slaves were abused. “Servants, accept the authority of your masters with complete respect, not only when they are kind and considerate, but also when they are harsh” (I Peter 2:18). Obedience is in order even when masters are “harsh.” (The Confraternity version translates it “severe”; The New English Bible, “perverse”; Williams, “cruel”; the Revised Standard Version, “overbearing”; and Beck, “unfair”.) Again, when sin is commanded, disobey; when rights are deprived, obey.

This same distinction applies in the area of the government. In 1770 some Bostonians, angered by the presence of British troops in their city, attacked a British sentinel and caused the riot that developed into the Boston Massacre. Granted that the British may have deprived the colonists of some of their rights, the Bostonians had no Biblical basis for attacking the British soldiers.

The colonists did not like taxation without representation, and so three years later they threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. As Benjamin Franklin said, the Boston Tea Party was an unlawful display of the mob spirit and was open rebellion against the British authority. Parliament had every authority to impose taxes on the colonies. Maybe she was too severe and unfair at times (although the tea tax was very low), but governmental unfairness does not give a citizen the right to destroy private property and rebel against the government.

It may even be asked: Was the American Revolution justifiable? Were the colonists forced to sin? Or were they deprived of their rights? The Declaration of Independence lists a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” all having as their direct goal “the establishment of an absolute tyranny.” The Declaration states that the King refused laws that were for the public good; he dissolved legislative bodies; he made judges dependent on his will alone; he placed an army in the states without the consent of the colonists; he quartered armies among the people; he imposed taxes without consent of the governed; “he plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” But any student of history knows that Britain was as a lamb in comparison with the Roman wolf. Yet Paul commanded that everyone should be in submission to the empire that has been designated by some Christians as the Beast and the Anti-Christ. It seems dubious, to say the least, that Paul would have approved of the American Rebellion.

Upon this Pauline-Petrine principle of civil obedience, it is wrong for government employees to go on strike. City employees are human and have rights, too. Some just way must be found to solve their grievances against their employer, the city. But the Biblical answer is not in the direction of strikes. Policemen have no right to report in “sick” on the same day; public school teachers may not strike; firemen, city hospital employees and municipal garbage collectors may not flout God’s vicar, the government, by going on strike.

Suppose the government should tax all married wage earners but not the single ones or show gross tax favoritism to Michiganders and double-tax New Yorkers. Such poliCies would be an unfair, immoral deprivation of a person’s property. Martin Luther King would say that such laws are no laws because they are not in conformity to the moral law, and he would advocate disobedience to such man-made laws. But the Bible says that the citizen should pay. It gives no authorization for disobedience when our rights are mutilated.

Or, take another example, segregation. Segregation in the United States is wrong, immoral and unbiblical. No individual and no institution—whether it is a school, a church, a restaurant or a hospital—has a moral right to discriminate against the image of God on the basis of skin pigmentation. Yet, because a drug store immorally refuses to serve a milkshake to a Negro, does the Negro have the right to disobey the laws of the land and disrupt pedestrian and auto traffic near the store? Is he forced to sin or is he deprived of his rights? Does a person have a right to violate the old American law forbidding demonstrations in close proximity to the courthouse? Does he have the right to invade private property and rearrange the groceries on the supermarket shelves? Does he have the right in violation of the laws of the land to disrupt the course of business at a school, city hall or church? In other words: Is a person forced to sin when he is given “equal but separate” or even unequal and separate treatment? Segregation is indefensible on every score, but neither Paul nor Peter nor the rest of the Bible gives any hint that the Christian may rebel against and violate the laws of the land because of inequity. On the contrary, Peter and Paul say in the face of an iniquitous and unjust Roman Empire, “Let everyone be in subjection to the higher authorities”; and “Servants, accept the authority of your masters with complete respect…also when they are unfair.”

What measures, then, may be taken to rectify injustices? One is token civil disobedience. To say this is not to negate all that we have said so far. There is a vast difference between token disobedience for the purpose of bringing the problem to the courts for a test case and massive, continuous disobedience which breeds anarchy. Other and highly significant measures are legislation, education, demonstration and divine petition. To someone suffering injustice now, such measures at times seem woefully inadequate, time-consuming and even merciless. Yet, we must not underestimate the social revolutions that have been accomplished by these measures. The conscience of America has not been stirred to the great peaceful revolution in race relations primarily by civil disobedience but rather by peaceful demonstrations, education, and legislation, although civil disobedience has prodded the revolution to a faster clip.


Whether or not to disobey laws should be decided solely on the basis of the command of God and not on pragmatism. But the remarkable fact is that, although man often docs not like God’s commands, in the keeping of them there is a great reward. Man may prefer adultery to monogamy, but faithfulness will bring a great reward of love, stability and peace to him and his family. Man may prefer revenge to forgiveness, but love will give more peace and happiness. Man may prefer to desecrate the Lord’s Day, but the proper observance of it will promote his physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. And impatient man may think that he is wiser than God and that he will enhance his happiness by disobeying the vicars of Christ, but he will find out that he will reap what he sows.

In America there is a growing rebellion against all kinds of authority. Many people no longer want a heteronomy—a law outside of themselves telling them what to do. They want to be autonomous—to be a law unto themselves. The deepest form of this rebellion is against God. God is restricting; so, some shout: “God is dead!” They do not want his authority. In line with this basic presupposition, others deny that truth is absolute and unchanging. From these rebellions man then preaches the New Morality, teaching that there is no known content to the law of love. He rebels against any laws that hamper him, whether they be laws of art, labor, parents, educators, church or state.

When man rebels against authority, throws off external restraints, does what is right in his own eyes, obeys only those laws that he thinks are just, anarchy will result. This is precisely what has happened in some of the vicious race riots in America. Before one riot in Harlem, there was a constant barrage in the communication media, discussing, depicting and even advocating disobedience to the laws of the land. When a spirit of disobedience and rebellion is fostered, the rebellion will not be confined only to unjust laws, but, unfortunately, it will spread into other areas as well. Law and order will break up. Civil disobedience fosters “mobocracy” instead of democracy. The result will be a tyranny of the mob. As Luther said, “It is better to have one tyrant than several tyrants.” It is better and more Scriptural to suffer injustices and obey the law than for each one to take the law into his own hands. “In the keeping of God’s commands is great reward” (Psalm 19:11).

Rev. Edwin H. Palmer is pastor of Grandville Ave. Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan.