“When the righteous triumph, there is great elation; but when the wicked rise to power, men go into hiding” – Proverbs 28:12
At the close of WWII the Allies brought war crimes charges against former Nazi leaders. Many of the accused maintained in their defense that since they were simply following lawful orders, it would be unjust to convict them. What the Nuremburg judges had to decide was, is it ever not only right but necessary to disobey authority.
The dictionary defines “authority” as “one who has power to influence or command thought, opinion or behavior.” Authority is of course integral to government; the military; the business, academic and ecclesiastical worlds; and the family. In all of these areas power is exercised with the expectation of obedience. Are there exceptions to this expectation? Is disobedience to authority ever justified, even necessary? If so, on what grounds?
The New Testament book of Romans, in chapter 13, outlines the ancient Scriptures’ perspective on authority: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…. For he is God’s servant to do you good.”
According to these verses, authority was God’s idea, and he established it for our good. We may not always look at authority as a good thing, but consider how chaotic and dangerous life would be without civil authority, the military, etc. Roman 13 also declares that because all human authorities derive their “right to rule” from God, i.e., act as God’s agents, to rebel against our governing authorities is to defy God, and he promises consequences for disobedience.
This passage of course assumes that human authority is not requiring something contrary to God’s moral law, as revealed in the Scriptures. But what about when those in power establish laws that are clearly opposed to God’s law? Surely this would constitute an exception to the mandatory obedience that Romans 13 requires.
The Bible confirms this exception. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew it says, “‘Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, ‘…. Do you have a coin? Let me see it.’ They handed him a silver piece. ‘This engraving – who does it look like? And whose name is on it?’ They said, ‘Caesar.’ ‘Then give to Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.’”
Jesus explains that “Caesar” is to be obeyed within the bounds of his authority. However, if to obey Caesar would at the same time be to violate God’s moral law – as was the case in Nazi Germany, for instance – then Caesar has exceeded his authority and his laws must not be obeyed.
Allow me to close with a couple examples that fall closer to home. Much has been made lately of whether the government may fine owners of closely-held businesses who, because of their sincerely held religious beliefs, refuse to provide their employees with health insurance that includes abortion services. In addition, some states have passed laws requiring business owners to deliver services that violate their Scripture-informed consciences. I would suggest to you that these are cases of “Caesar” exceeding his rightful authority (the Founders understood this, which is why the First Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids the making of any law that impedes the free exercise of religion). In such instances Christ-followers not only may but, if they are to obey God, must decline to obey Caesar…and be prepared to accept the consequences.
Dr. Jim Furr