Is Civil Disobedience A Sin? - Part 1
Who doesn’t want their child to respect them? Or respect the law? Every Christian parent wants to raise kids who obey governing authorities without complaining. What I want to offer you today is a thought that our obedience to civil authority can’t solely be based on Hebrews 13:17 and Romans 13:1-7, and that Jesus teaches us the principle behind civil disobedience.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Romans 13:1-3 (I recommend reading the whole passage!)
Lately, I have been thinking about civil disobedience, specifically how both Martin Luther King Jr and the American colonists dealt with laws they believed were unjust in the eyes of God. They didn’t hesitate to disobey governing authorities, but believed that they had God’s endorsement to disobey certain manmade laws and decrees.
So would God approve if we disobeyed a mandate or a law or were MLK and the colonists in sin by disobeying laws?
(I refer to mandates of any kind, not just the popular ones these days…)
By the way, Jesus’ example shows us that He desires reform to laws that are ungodly. Compare Leviticus 20:10 to John 8:1-11.
“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 10:10)
In the NT, the scribes and Pharisees were just obeying an accepted law when they were stoning a woman for adultery. But John 8 shows us that Jesus destroys this law by putting it under a higher principle.
1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
Render to Caesar What Belongs to Caesar, Render to God What Belongs to God
During Jesus’ day, Caesar was the boss. His leadership and the authority of those he delegated was to be followed or else serious penalties were enacted. Who else had a place of authority during that time? The Sanhedrin. This was a council of priests and scribes that had authority over the religious life of the Jews. However, their problem was the Roman empire. Roman tyranny put them in subjection to Caesar and as a result the Roman powers-that-be in Judea could override a religious practice if they believed it would interfere with Caesar’s rule.
The sin nature of humankind loves domination and control.
“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, render to God what belongs to God!”
This was Jesus’ response when a coin was put before him by disciples of a group of scheming Pharisees. Before stating these now famous words, Jesus had asked the group of trouble-makers to show him a coin and to tell him whose image was on the coin. Their answer was correct, “Caesar’s”. Jesus then responded, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. His point astonished them and they went away. (Render – (1) to return; to pay back, (2) to inflict, as a retribution, (3) to give on demand; to give; to assign (Webster’s Dictionary 1828)
What was Jesus’ point?
I believe Jesus was releasing a principle that we need to understand for today. Remember, Jesus went against Levitical authority at times. On occasion, He broke or transformed laws to teach a higher principle. (Matthew 15, Matthew 5)
When we read this famous phrase, we must remember the object referred to: the coin.
The coin was manmade and bore the engraved image Caesar.
But human beings are God-created and bear His image.
I believe that Jesus was teaching that human beings belong to God alone, not to the state. Social conscience must keep God’s rule in mind, and this implication in Jesus’ reply gave the group something to think about.
“Caesar” (a government) has no right to subjugate human beings to do anything that would affect our ability to be an imager of God. In other words, if civil government demands us to do something that would not reflect the One whose image we bear, we must answer or render to God first. Jesus was teaching that civil government needs to recognize the authority of God and that His authority trumps their authority. As far as the taxes referred to in this passage, unless the Jewish people got free enough to develop their own monetary and economic system, they are going to have to pay taxes to Caesar because they use his money.
“But what about what Paul taught in Romans 13:1-7”
Verse 1 states, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
The canon of Scripture shows us that God likes delegated authority for the purpose of the function of roles. For example, the Bible teaches that husbands have the final say in a family matter, that rulers have the right to incur equitable penalties for wrongdoing, and church elders are responsible for church discipline, as well as preaching the Word, and humbly shepherding their flock. While honor and respect is something that God expects of us, if a husband tells a wife to do something sinful, she must refuse and render to God’s ways – the care of her spirit, soul, and body, because she belongs to God first.
Are local, state, federal, health care, private entities telling us or requiring us to do something that God considers is sinful?
Go to Part 2
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