ARE THERE ANY BIBLICAL EXAMPLES OF CIVIL REBELLION?
When it comes to the Christian’s duty to submit to the civil authorities, it is important that we rightly interpret the whole of Scripture on this matter. Firstly, it is important to recognize that Romans 13 (the biblical text that is so often being cited for why churches should comply with the current government regulations) says absolutely nothing about Christians being required by God to submit to unrighteous rulings handed down by the civil magistrate. Instead, Romans 13 merely describes God’s ideal purpose for civil governments, and therefore, assumes that Christians would do well to submit to these civil governments. However, when we survey other scriptural texts, we quickly discover that there is a clear biblical principle for Christians submitting to civil authorities, even when these governments hand down unrighteous rulings. For instance, Rome was undoubtedly taxing its citizens at a rate that was wicked in the sight of God. It was clearly unrighteous for the Roman Empire to demand that its citizens submit to this unreasonable taxation. And yet, when Jesus was questioned about this, he responded by saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17). Therefore, although it was wrong for the civil magistrate to enforce such burdensome taxation, it was righteous for Christians in Rome to submit to this civil law. So we can say that Christians are biblically required to submit to the civil magistrate when it is ruling righteously, but also when it is ruling unrighteously.
It was clearly unrighteous for the Roman Empire to demand that its citizens submit to this unreasonable taxation. And yet, when Jesus was questioned about this, he responded by saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
However, the question which still remains is this: Is there ever a time in which Christians are not required to submit to the civil magistrate? In order to answer this question faithfully, we must once more survey the whole of Scripture. In Exodus 1:16-17, we find these words: “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthing-stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live. But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” This was certainly a righteous rebellion on the part of the Egyptian midwives against the king of Egypt (the highest civil magistrate in the land at that time). Also, Rahab refused to report the Hebrew spies in righteous defiance of the civil authorities at Jericho (Joshua 2). Furthermore, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego righteously rebelled against the king’s edict when they were commanded to bow down and worship the golden image of the king (Daniel 3). And in addition to this, we see that Daniel himself was also willing to righteously rebel in Daniel 6:7-10: “All the high officials of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions… When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.” Therefore, when a decree of the king was ordered that forbid Daniel from continuing to act in obedience to his God, Daniel courageously chose to ignore it. And lastly, although more examples could certainly be given, it is important to remember that even the apostles chose to righteously rebel against the Jewish Council (which served as both a religious and civil authority for the Jews at that time). When the apostles were instructed not to preach in the name of Jesus any longer, they courageously and joyfully defied the authorities (Acts 5:27-29).
When a decree of the king was ordered that forbid Daniel from continuing to act in obedience to his God, Daniel courageously chose to ignore it.
In the case of Daniel, it is worth noting that he did not find it necessary to throw any extra “punches” toward the civil authorities of his day. However, notice that he was deliberate not to pull any “punches” either. Daniel was committed to praying three times a day with his windows opened toward Jerusalem. This was in accordance with God’s covenant found in 1 Kings 8:27-30. The fact that the Daniel’s windows remained open was due to the “substance” of his worship, not the “circumstances” of his worship. In 1 Kings 8:27-30, God promised to hear the prayers of his people, even if they were held captive in a distant land (as Daniel was), if they prayed toward Jerusalem where the temple of God was constructed. As it pertains to the New Testament Church, the “substance” of our worship is preaching, prayer, singing, and the sacraments. These elements of worship cannot be changed by Christians, but the “circumstances” of our worship can be changed. For example, gathering in cars in a parking lot may alter the “circumstances” of our worship, but live-streaming a church’s service actually changes the “substance” of worship. This is because the Bible clearly commands Christians to physically gather together (Hebrews 10:25). However, the Bible does not command where, when, and how Christians should physically gather together.
ARE CHRISTIANS BEING SPECIFICALLY TARGETED IN THE CASE OF COVID-19?
Now, certainly there are some distinctions between these biblical examples and the recent rulings issued by our civil magistrate due to Covid-19. But for the sake of this argument, we must all admit that there is most assuredly a legitimate biblical category for Christians righteously rebelling against the civil magistrate. Therefore, the task of those who desire to diligently obey the Scripture is simply to determine the proper “biblical criteria” for when it is both appropriate and right for Christians to rebel.
Some of us may be be tempted to conclude from the previous biblical examples that the common denominator in each of these cases was that the people of God were being specifically targeted, rather than Christians and non-Christians both suffering side by side. However, this is simply not true. In the case of Daniel, the decree of King Darius made it illegal for anyone in all of his kingdom to pray to any “god,” or petition any man. This decree oppressed those who worshiped the true God right along side everyone else. And in the case of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it was exactly the same. The decree of King Nebuchadnezzar affected everyone in the whole kingdom, even the pagans who worshiped false “gods.” However, it is important to recognize that when governing authorities remove civil liberties, Christians will always be affected more severely than others. This is because we have been given clear commandments from God that must be obeyed.
The task of those who desire to diligently obey the Scripture is simply to determine the proper “biblical criteria” for when it is both appropriate and right for Christians to rebel.
For example, in the case of King Nebuchadnezzar’s decree, those who worshiped idols could simply add the king’s statue to their list of false “gods.” Most of these pagans were polytheist, and therefore, there was far less conflict in submitting to the king’s demands. However, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were committed to worshiping Yahweh alone. Similarly, in the New Testament Church of the first century, Domitian ruled as emperor over Rome. His cruelty rivaled that of Emperor Nero. Statues of him were sent all over the empire, and on appointed days, feasts were held where the entire population was required to pass before the images of Domitian and bow before him as “god.” Once again, this was a blanket ruling that affected the whole population of the Roman Empire, but Christians were the ones who most frequently lost their lives, due to their unparalleled allegiance to Christ. So in regards to the social restrictions against gatherings due to Covid-19, although it is true that all Americans are certainly affected, not all Americans are bound by an allegiance to Scripture which clearly commands that we gather for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day.
Although it is true that all Americans are certainly affected, not all Americans are bound by an allegiance to Scripture which clearly commands that we gather for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day.
In my assessment, it is nothing short of a tragedy to discover that some Christians in our nation actually believe that the only valid criteria for Christians righteously rebelling against the civil magistrate is if Christians are being exclusively targeted. If this belief were to be consistently applied to the Christians living in China in very recent years, we would have to say that these precious believers have been righteous regarding their decision to rebel against the civil magistrate in order to gather in underground house churches, but sinful regarding their decision not to submit to the civil magistrate by handing over their “extra” children to be murdered (forced abortions) by the civil authorities, due to China’s “one-child policy.” When we speak of the importance of exercising charity, certainly we should all agree that holding a position that condemns any and all rebellion against the civil magistrate, so long as Christians are not being singled out, is far from charitable. If it was not righteous for Chinese parents to seek to hide their “extra” children from a communist regime which sought to murder them, then I’m not sure I know what righteousness even is. And yet, we must recognize that the “one-child policy” of China was applied evenly across the board. In other words, this grotesque law did not single out Christians.
SO WHAT IS THE BIBLICAL CRITERIA FOR CHRISTIANS REBELLING?
A further problem with this view is that if singling-out Christians is the only valid criteria for righteously choosing to rebel, the civil authorities can simply do what they have always done throughout church history: They can pass a universal law that affects all people, but harms Christians significantly more. And in order for Christians to have the “biblical” option of rebelling, we must then be able to somehow infallibly discern the hidden motives of all the governing officials involved. It is true that in the case of Daniel (as well as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) there were malicious officials serving as councilors to the king who desired to see the downfall of this godly man. These wicked officials worked hard in order to influence the king to issue foolish laws that would effect those who feared God in much more significant ways than others. However, we only know the wicked motives of these civil officials because it has been recorded for us in Scripture. In all fairness, these laws (although they were inspired by sinful officials who aimed at the persecution of godly men) actually affected all types of people, not merely worshipers of Yahweh. If anyone did not bow down in worship of the king’s statue, they would be cast into the fiery furnace. Likewise, if anyone, of any religion, prayed to any “god” (or even if an atheist petitioned any man) other than the King Darius for 30 days, they would be thrown to the lions. There were likely many religious people at that time who urged one another to simply submit to king’s edict. Perhaps they said something like this: “The king has promised that the restrictions against prayer will only last for 30 days. Surely, it is reasonable to simply be patient during this season as we seek to humbly submit to those who are in positions of civil authority.”
There were likely many religious people at that time who urged one another to simply submit to king’s edict.
In regards to our own civil magistrate’s rulings against churches during this present crisis, the reality is that we simply do not know what motives some of these officials had when influencing these decisions. As it currently stands, schools will be permitted to open in California several weeks (if not months) before churches. And although “parking-lot services” are now “legal” in the state of California, I personally just spoke with a pastor who does not have a parking-lot and has not been able to gain permission for his church to use any other parking-lot. So do the civil officials responsible for influencing this decision have wicked motives against the people of God? We cannot say with absolute certainty either way. However, it is quite possible, especially in my state of California. Therefore, it is both unbiblical and illogical to hold to the position that Christians being definitively singled-out is the only valid biblical criteria for rebelling against the civil magistrate.
Civil authorities can simply do what they have always done throughout church history: They can pass a universal law that affects all people, but harms Christians significantly more.
Instead, the clearest common denominator found in each of the biblical examples of righteously rebelling against the civil magistrate is this: Both men and women who feared the Lord, righteously chose to rebel against their civil authorities wherever those officials required them to “partake” of something that God clearly “forbids,” or “forsake” something that God clearly “commands.” This is the only clear biblical criteria for determining when it is appropriate and right for Christians to rebel. Therefore, we must fairly consider whether or not the specific ruling in question requires Christians to disobey God’s Word. So the question for us is this: Does God, by the agency of his Word, command us to regularly attend church? The correct answer, of course, is an emphatic “yes.” This is demonstrated by Hebrews 3:12-13 cross-referenced with Hebrews 10:24-25, multiple other biblical texts, and the overwhelmingly unified witness of church history. Therefore, in order for Christians to “forsake the gathering” in a manner that is acceptable before God, there must be a biblical reason for doing so. And this biblical reason must be something more than merely chanting Romans 13 as an incantation, and then framing the most recent document signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on our bedroom walls. Perhaps, the current challenges we are facing require a little more complex thought than this. Again, we must recognize that Romans 13 says nothing about submitting to governing officials when their decisions are not righteous, and it most assuredly says nothing about submitting to governing officials when their laws require the people Christians to forsake something which God clearly commands.
HOW SHOULD WE APPLY ROMANS 13 AS CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES?
As a final note on this point, it is vital for us to recognize that as Christians in America, we are not subjects in a monarchy. Instead, we are citizens of a republic. We are not ultimately subject to a sovereign human official because the highest civil magistrate in our land is not a human official, but a document: “The Constitution of the United States of America.” Therefore, a reasonable argument can be made for Christians righteously rebelling against lesser civil magistrates (governors, mayors, etc) in order to righteously submit to a higher civil magistrates (US Constitution), which clearly outlines our freedom of worship and the right to peaceable assembly (First Amendment). In fact, it is only because of the courage of some churches here in California who exercised their rights under the Constitution to protest the unjust laws that were set forth by our Governor, that “drive-in services” are actually deemed “legal” by our government.