Reflections

Speaking Up Against an Unjust Government, Civil Disobedience, and Pursuing Church Unity in Politics

A friend has asked me to respond to a discussion over at larapatricia.wordpress.com regarding speaking up against the government. I’m re-posting my answer to that discussion here at my space for easy reference.

Is it biblical to speak up against the government? The simple answer: absolutely! Moses was commanded by God to speak against Pharaoh (Exodus 7-12), and the OT prophets spoke against kings (cf. 2 Sam 12; 1 Kings 13; 2 Chron 18).

Here is the complex answer. Since the Bible is a coherent whole and not self-contradictory, an approach to this topic should consider what Scripture says comprehensively. Attempting to do that, I offer three claims:

1. Speaking up against the government is not the same as (though related to) civil disobedience.

Scripture commands submission to government (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-17; 1 Tim 2:1-4). Thus, speaking against the injustice of a government should take place within the context of submission and honor—not an easy thing to do! We need wisdom. This is similar to confronting a parent (Luke 2:49, 51) or an elder (1 Tim 5:1, 19-20) for a wrong they did, while your motive and manner assure them that you respect and honor them.

2. There is one situation where civil disobedience is appropriate.

When the government passes a law or ordinance that requires Christians to disobey clear biblical commands, they must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Daniel and his friends disobeyed the king’s command but did so carefully by bargaining with the chief of eunuchs (Dan 1:12-13). On one occasion, they disobeyed the king, but submitted to the punishment of their disobedience, while trusting God for the result (3:16-18). These are good examples of applying wisdom without compromise while living under a cruel and inhumane pagan ruler.

3. Speaking up against the government’s injustices should be done according to each individual’s conscience.

Let us be clear, there is no exact biblical command that a Christian must speak up against the government; but there are principles that may lead a Christian to speak up on certain situations. Yet situations are not the same for everyone. So Christians debate or disagree on this issue to the extent that each opposing view has its own “go to” Bible verses and examples. Paul calls this “doubtful disputations” (Rom 14:1, KJV) or “disputable matters” (NIV). The principles are laid out in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. It is a sin to go against your conscience (Rom 14:23; 1 Cor 8:7); but not all consciences are calibrated similarly and equally (Rom 14:5-13). Thus, disagreements exist among people who all love Jesus and his gospel.

On this point, I cannot improve on the journal article written by Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli, “Politics, Conscience, and the Church: Why Christians Passionately Disagree with One Another over Politics, Why They Must Agree to Disagree over Jagged-Line Political Issues, and How.” Themelios, 45:1 (2020): 13-31 (http://andynaselli.com/wp-content/uploads/2020_politics.pdf, accessed 4/26/2020). A non-technical and shorter version of the article is published as a mini-book and can be purchased in Amazon (100 pesos in Kindle).

Let me present two examples:

Example from Christians in restricted access nations

For example, should we “require” Christians who live in Islamic or communist countries to speak up against the government? It is not sin for them to speak up, but is it wise?

Throughout modern church history, Christians have always been in the forefront of political movements against slavery and abortion. In a free country (like the US and the Philippines), freedom of speech grants believers a legal right to speak up against the government through varied platforms. The situation is different, however, for believers living in a more restricted country. Many Christians around the world are under pagan rulers today. They practice civil disobedience by meeting in “illegal” house churches and reading “banned literature,” including the Bible and other Christian publications. Some smuggle Bibles into countries.

One can argue that Christians should take arms and revolt against the oppressive government and free themselves from tyranny, oppression, and injustice. It has been done before. But another view is to remain silent in the shadows, trusting God’s control while continuing to be a careful, but bold, witness for the Gospel.

Example from Jesus himself with Peter’s inspired commentary

Here is a biblical example: Jesus at times rebukes rulers, like Herod, for their wrongdoing (Luke 13:32). But he remained silent against the greatest injustice in the world—the crucifixion of the sinless and perfect Son of God. In meekness, he submitted to the cruel, unjust, biased trial and did not speak up. But somehow God allowed this evil for our good (cf. Acts 2:23). Jesus came not to rescue his people from the injustices of the Romans; rather, he came to rescue us from the injustices of our own hearts—by he himself being unjustly murdered.

Coming on the heels of fearing and honoring emperor Nero, Peter writes about suffering injustices from others,

“19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

1 Peter 2:19-25, emphasis mine

Conclusion

Here is the point: there is a time to speak up, and there is a time to be silent. Jesus did both. Peter clearly commands us to follow Jesus’ example. Let each man decide according to his conscience, situation, and opportunity. I know that many will disagree with all that I have said, but if you are a follower of Jesus, we are all on the same team. In the end, we can agree to disagree and love one another as brothers and sisters.

Leeman and Naselli exhorts,

Politics has a reputation for being divisive, dirty, disagreeable. Yet Christians (of all people!) should be able to both hold firm opinions about politics and discuss politics with one another generously—in a way that is kind, considerate, friendly, pleasant, humble, and respectful. Basically, in a way that prioritizes loving others.”

“Politics, Conscience, and the Church,” in Themelios 45:1 (2020): 14.

It will be a great tragedy if we boldly condemn oppressors, tyrants, and dictators for their injustices, yet we oppress our brothers and sisters with our words, or we dictate evil motives to their actions and their choices only because they are different than ours. That is a tragedy, when we become what we oppose.

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