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Law, Order, and Civil Disobedience

By S. G. Smith

We often hear two extremes coming from many regarding universal human government. Some curse government as the epitome of evil, while others regard the edicts of our political leaders as final on all socio-political issues. Is the government inherently evil? Should we obey every ordinance of man without reservation? What does Biblical history reveal about the origin and purpose of universal human government?

In Genesis 6, involving an apparent intrusion of celestial principalities and powers, God became so displeased with mankind that He destroyed the world with a global flood. Fortunately for us, Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.    After the Flood, God established what is generally referred to as the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9). This contract with humanity restates many elements contained in the Adamic covenant from Genesis 1 with some interesting differences. In particular, capital punishment is mandated to suppress any arbitrary slaughter of mankind. Biblical scholarship recognizes this as the seminal principle for universal human government. Like the use of animals for clothing and then food, God authorizes certain forms of killing. The Bible makes it clear that murder is an unauthorized, autonomous act of killing on the part of man. Therefore, in the case of murder, justice is served through capital punishment. It should also be emphasized that this ordinance was for perpetual generations.

The New Testament scriptures affirm the continuity of this divinely mandated social contract. The apostle Paul states in Romans 13 that ministers of state are, in fact, ministers of God and that they do not bear the sword in vain. Peter’s exhortation (I Pet.2) to honor the king is also consistent with Paul’s general admonition in this matter. It is clear that Christians should appropriately honor government as a divine institution. However, both apostles are presupposing that ministers of state intend to serve what is good and punish evil according to God. This is to be true for every divine institution established by God for His purposes. Authorities that act outside these purposes are acting in opposition to God. 

Law and Order

Throughout history, God may have accommodated different forms of human government in carrying out this original mandate. The Bible does not specifically affirm or condemn various Gentile political systems as long as the basic purpose for general morality and social harmony are followed. Although it may be argued that God advanced a superior form of government for Israel to be copied by other nations, the scriptures are relatively void in affirming this conclusion. Consistent with God’s character, ministers of state should primarily suppress murder, as well as other forms of debilitating evil. It seems that our consideration of government or church/state issues should ultimately focus more on what is divinely right or wrong than on any political form. Even in human government, form should follow function.

From the beginning, capital punishment was established to deal with murder justly. However, the natural rise in social complexity drove civilizations to expand the scope of political interaction and establish more extensive legal codes. In general, law should beget order, and order here essentially means non-violent social harmony. Unfortunately, due to the reality of sin, the implementation of law often becomes perverted. Law has been used to establish preference, privilege, and in various additional ways inconsistent with justice. In fact, law can be manipulated to generate disorder, which serves to destroy men and societies.

As Christians, at what point do we recognize that governments have become opposed to our Creator’s divine ordinances? How do we respond when we are faced with governments, or civilizations, which progressively make good evil and evil good?

Social Interaction and Civil Disobedience

Although the church may be guilty of mishandling her role of influence in society at times, it is an illusion to consider the church as apolitical. The apostolic exhortations already cited briefly outline the general political responsibility of Christians. Furthermore, if good and evil mean anything to us, then what is the church’s role in confronting and exposing social or political evil? How is it that we are to “strengthen the things that remain” culturally?

Prayer and social action have always been the ongoing Christian mode of operation in this life. Social action spans from acts of charity to civil disobedience. Although the government was ordained by God, statism is idolatry. The Bible presents episodes of so-called “civil disobedience” to remind us that the government is not an autonomous, absolute power. The history of martyrdom also reminds us that we should obey God rather than man, even though it may cost our lives.

When we consider the necessity of confronting evil in the world, Christians are taken to task when a culture becomes more sophisticated in its exercise of evil. We may refrain from sin and avoid every appearance of evil. However, when political authorities solicit our participation or support for evil ends, then Christians are confronted with a dilemma. We are to obey authorities, but we are not to do evil. What will we do when we cannot honor both principles? Furthermore, should passive resistance ever end in armed conflict?

Human government was ordained to suppress murder. Yet, what happens when this institution becomes the murderer? What does this mean for saints who would support or participate in a society driven by such a form of government? The Bible, as well as history, holds the answer. Have believers always complied with their earthly kings? Some interesting examples of civil disobedience occur in scripture.

In Exodus 1, the midwives refuse to kill the babies at Pharoah’s command. God blesses the midwives.

In I Samuel 14, the soldiers refuse to put Jonathan to death even though King Saul ordered it. Later in I Samuel 22, the Israeli soldiers refuse to kill God’s priests even though the King demands it.

In I Kings 21, Naboth declines to render his family’s vineyard to King Ahab, even though the King wanted it.

In Peter and John, in Acts 4, honor God over men regarding the teaching of Jesus.

Other examples could be gleaned from the scriptures in which servants simply elected to avoid or ignore the king’s commands.

Early Christians apparently rejoiced when their property was confiscated or when they were privileged to give their life for Christ. However, in our concern for others’ lives and property, are we loving our neighbors when we quietly assent to the progressive wickedness of an egregious political system? What pre-Mosaic principle sent Abraham to wage war with the kings of the east? On what basis did Jesus elect to aggressively challenge the policies of divinely appointed authorities and their moneychangers in the temple? Theologians and Bible scholars, more committed to non-violence than truth, have failed to produce cogent arguments for an exclusive pacifism for those desiring to follow Abraham’s faith and be Christ-like in character.

So, what was really going on in Seattle and Portland this summer? Who was really responsible for the US Capital riot in January? Are we getting the truth from the media in these matters, or merely a scripted narrative sending us down the road to a Babylonian New World Order?


In 1644, Rev. Samuel Rutherford published his premier work, Lex Rex, which provided a Biblical foundation for constitutional republics in Europe, and America which followed. We would do well to review this work again. On the other hand, if we wish to ignore or dismiss the importance of civil responsibility, we will again prove that blind obedience will usher in statist idolatry.

Submitted by S. G. Smith, Lubbock, TX

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