Christianity was established during the days of the Roman Empire with a radical claim: God made Jesus of Nazareth Lord and King, declaring Him the Son of God through His resurrection (Acts 2:36, 17:6-9, Romans 1:4). All Christians, therefore, recognized they were part of the great spiritual and trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ over whom Jesus rules as Lord (Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:12-20). Yet subjection to God in Christ in the Kingdom did not automatically mean rebellion and resistance against the earthly Roman power: Paul explained how earthly authorities have been empowered by God for their purpose, and both he and Peter encouraged Christians to honor the Emperor and remain subject to civil authority (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Early Christians were therefore expected to maintain primary loyalty to Jesus, the King of kings, while remaining subject to the Roman Emperor. But what was to happen if and when a Christian would be forced to disobey the commands of God through the Lord Jesus in order to obey the decree of Caesar or his appointed local or regional authority?
The New Testament provides two examples of such circumstances. In Acts 4:15-18 and Acts 5:27-28 the Jewish Sanhedrin, a recognized authority for intra-Jewish matters, commanded Peter and John to no longer teach in the name of Jesus. Had Peter and John obeyed the Sanhedrin they would have proven disobedient to the Lord Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20. In both circumstances Peter responded by indicating that he and the others would obey God rather than man and could not stop speaking of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20, 5:29). Peter and John would go on to absorb the threats and beatings of the Sanhedrin but remained faithful to Jesus (Acts 4:21, 5:40-42). In Revelation John, in figures, speaks of the Roman authority persecuting Christians to the point of death (Revelation 2:12-14, 13:1-8. 15:2). Later documents make explicit what the Christians experienced: they would be sought out by the Roman authorities or denounced as Christians before them, told to curse Christ and offer sacrifices to the genius of the Emperor, or to suffer execution (ca. 111-113 CE; Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97). Christian literature from the first three centuries are full of martyrdom stories of Christians who preferred to suffer death rather than deny the name of the Lord Jesus.
We can see from these examples that there are times when civil disobedience is justified. Nevertheless we do well to recognize that a spirit of disobedience or rebellion is never commended or justified in the New Testament: Peter, John, and others did not wish to disobey the authorities nor were they fomenting insurrection against the regime, but instead exhibited greater loyalty to the Lord Jesus and obedience to His purposes. In Acts 5:29 Peter does not speak explicitly in terms of disobedience or rebellion but of obedience: he must obey God rather than man. In every other respect Peter obeyed the civil authorities and exhorted others to do likewise (1 Peter 2:13-17); throughout Peter and the other early Christians respected the civil authorities, not resisting the punishments imposed as the consequence of civil disobedience, even if it meant death (Acts 4:21, 5:40-42, Revelation 12:10-11). Paul frequently insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen and strenuously disputed false charges against him, yet even Paul proved willing to suffer the consequences of the state if he had acted wrongly (Acts 25:10-11). Both Peter and Paul would be executed by the Roman authority for holding firm to their faith (John 21:19, 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Many in our modern world maintain a strong skepticism of inherited authority and government. Yet there is no room among servants of the Lord Jesus Christ for spirits of disobedience, insurrection, and rebellion. Civil disobedience is only justifiable when Christians would prove disobedient to the commands of the Lord Jesus if they obeyed a given decree of the state (Acts 5:29). Civil disobedience should never be the goal; whenever possible Christians should seek ways of obeying both God and “Caesar”, for both have been commanded (Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17).
Christians have also been commanded to respect the civil authorities, and Peter speaks of the duly empowered people and not institutions (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). In times past it has been fashionable to interpret Romans 13:3-4 so as to justify Christians rising in rebellion against what is perceived to be an unjust government, yet such an interpretation runs contrary to the commands and examples of the Lord and His Apostles. New Testament Christians suffered under the undeniably unjust and cruel regimes of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian; in Revelation John spoke of the Roman authority as having been empowered by Satan to persecute the people of God (Revelation 13:1-18); yet we have no commands, examples, or inferences from the New Testament to suggest that early Christians took up the pen or arms so as to try to overthrow the Roman authority and replace it with another. Christians do well to remember Romans 13:1-2: all authorities that exist have been ordained of God, and when God believes that a given authority is to be overthrown or toppled, He will see to it that it comes to pass. Nowhere in the New Testament has it been given to Christians to judge the earthly authority; instead they are to obey and respect no matter how the authority is disposed toward them (1 Peter 2:17).
Peter exhorts us to use our freedom not as a cloak for unrighteousness but as slaves of God in Christ (1 Peter 2:16). Let us take this exhortation to heart and prove willing to obey and respect earthly authorities, and practice civil disobedience only when necessary to obey God!
Ethan R. Longhenry