During a visit to the United States a few years ago, a pastor from Nepal told of being thrown into a Nepalese prison for spreading the Gospel. This pastor gave an excellent summary of Christian patriotism.
"Of course I must obey my Lord and spread His Word," he said. "But even though we are persecuted, we who are Christians in Nepal pride ourselves on being the best citizens our king has. We love our country—but we love our God more."
Here in the U.S., Christians are sometimes confused about where to draw the line between the demands of the state and the demands of God. Is civil disobedience ever justified? And if so, how do we know?
As I write in my new book, God & Government, Scripture makes clear that civil disobedience is justified when government attempts to usurp the role of the Church or our allegiance due only to God. Then the Christian has not just the right but the duty to resist.
The Bible gives a dramatic example of this in the account of three young Jewish exiles who were drafted into the Babylonian civil service.
All citizens of Babylon were required to worship the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, the king. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the young Hebrews, refused. To worship an earthly king would be the ultimate offense against their holy God. So, the three young men were thrown into a blazing furnace—but God miraculously delivered them.
We also have the example of Peter and John, who, when they were ordered to stop preaching about Jesus, refused. "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God," they said.
Their first allegiance was to Christ's command to preach the gospel. They could not permit the authority of the government-backed Sanhedrin to usurp the authority of God Himself.
Civil disobedience may also be justified when the state ignores its divinely mandated responsibilities to preserve life and maintain order and justice. The resistance of the German church to Hitler was a clear modern example of this necessity. In the fifties and sixties, this necessary resistance was modeled in our own country by those active in the civil rights movement. It was later modeled by those who took part in Operation Rescue sit-ins at abortion clinics.
Christians need to have a thorough understanding of biblical teachings about civil disobedience. Today, perhaps more than any other time in American history, Christians face attacks on their freedom of conscience. For instance, colleges go to great lengths to silence Christians who speak out against the aggressive, gay agenda. Some states order pharmacists to fill prescriptions for morning after pills—even if the pharmacist has moral objections. Christian adoption agencies are told to allow same-sex couples to adopt—or else.
Christians are to be the best of citizens; Out of our love for God, we live in subjection to governing authorities and we pray for them and respect them. We also love our neighbors and promote justice. But good citizenship requires both discernment and courage—discernment to know when duty calls one to obey or disobey, and courage, as in the case of the latter, to take a stand. But this is never done lightly. Only when, in consultation with other Christians and leaders, we feel obligated to do so.
As that Nepali pastor put it, we love our country. But we love our God more.
From BreakPoint®, June 5, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries