IS CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE EVER JUSTIFIED?
By Bruce Daugherty
(originally presented at the Florida School of Preahcing Lectures, January 2013).
A study of morality or ethics is a study of goodness and right actions and the questions that arise regarding moral choices and their consequences (Deigh, 244). For the Christian, the Bible is the standard to define truth and error; right and wrong; good and evil. It is the Christian’s authoritative, ethical guide.
This study will briefly examine God’s rule in the world, Biblical examples and examples from Church and Restoration history of those who exercised civil disobedience. These examples will be studied for helping the student to understand that there are times when civil disobedience on the part of God’s people in the past has been justified. But the study also seeks to glean principles that can help God’s people in the present when civil law and God’s law are in conflict.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, civil disobedience means “a deliberate violation of the law, committed to draw attention to or rectify perceived injustices in the law or policies of a state.” (Soper, 124). The issue of civil disobedience, which entails a deliberate violation of civil law, poses important questions to God’s people. How is this disobedience justified? Should such actions be done publicly? Should they be done non-violently? For Christians who so chose to act, will they willingly accept the consequences of their actions?
God the Sovereign
God is the Sovereign or Ruler of the universe. There has never been a time when God has not been reigning. In His Divine will He has allowed men the freedom to obey or disobey Him. But the Day is coming when “Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess” His Lordship (Isa. 45:23; Phil. 2:10 NKJV). Christians are those who already acknowledge His Sovereignty in this life.
God in His rule has appointed earthly authorities for accomplishing His purposes and maintaining civil order (Dan. 4:17; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Tim. 2:1-3). These authorities can be good or evil; their systems of rule can be a dictatorship or a democracy. “Here is a great Bible principle that needs to be recognized: the Lord can take wicked men, who are in absolute rebellion to Him, and use them as instruments of vengeance to punish other evil people, or to maintain order in society.”(Jackson, 199). Though one might be surprised, like Habakkuk, that God could use a wicked people to punish sinners and evil doers, this has been God’s way of doing things in history (Hab. 1:1-4, 13). God told Isaiah that the Assyrians were “the rod of My anger” (Isa. 10:5-7). Though the Assyrians had no clue that they were only instruments of justice in God’s hands, they were doing God’s will and purpose. “I am God and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man who executes My counsel from a far country.” (Isa. 46:9-11). God called the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Medes and Persians as his birds of prey from the east to execute his judgment on evil doers.
Since earthly authorities are ordained or appointed by God, God expects His people to be obedient to earthly authorities. During His earthly ministry, Jesus recognized the legitimacy of their ruling in the affairs of this world, as He declared, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21). When Jesus was on trial for His life, He said that Pilate’s authority had been given “from above.” (Jn. 19:11). The Apostle Paul counseled Christians living in the shadow of the emperor at Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities.” (Rom. 13:1). They were to do this because “the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” For this reason Christians were to pay taxes levied by civil authorities. “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.” (Rom. 13:7). Paul also commanded Timothy to “pray . . . for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). The Apostle Peter commanded Christians “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.”(1 Pet. 2:13-14).
But Christians are also part of the kingdom of God on earth, the Church (Matt. 16:18-19; Col. 1:13). Christians have a heavenly citizenship and should consider themselves as pilgrims on this earth (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:13-16; 1 Pet. 2:11). Because Christians are citizens of the kingdom of heaven and earthly kingdoms, there will always be tension between the two. Paul’s reminder to the Philippians that they had a heavenly “citizenship’ was a term laden with political conflict. Paul was a citizen of the Roman empire, but he had a higher loyalty.
Even the title Savior had political overtones in the first century: the emperor Augustus was described as “a savior who put an end to war and established all good things,” while the emperor Claudius was reverenced as “savior of the world” and hailed as “a god who is savior and benefactor.” (Carson, 166).
Because of this “dual citizenship” so to speak, the Christian will necessarily be at odds with earthly powers which act with impunity, who pass laws and ordinances which are in conflict with the will of God. In this case, civil disobedience would be justified, yea necessary!
Biblical Examples of Civil Disobedience
One of the first instances of civil disobedience on the part of God’s people occurred in antiquity. When an Israelite population explosion was regarded as a threat to Egyptian security (Ex. 1:8-10), this prompted Pharaoh to order the midwives to kill the newborn Hebrew males. But the midwives disobeyed the murderous decree. “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.” (Ex. 1:17). They recognized an authority higher than Pharoah.
Another example of civil disobedience is found in the story of Rahab the harlot. Rahab hid the two spies sent by Joshua to Jericho. Her prompt action, though disloyal to her own city, was motivated by her fear of God. She said, “I know the Lord has given you the land, . . . for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.” (Josh. 2:9-11). Because of her faith, her actions were rewarded as she and her household were saved from the destruction of Jericho (Josh. 6:22-23; Heb. 11:31).
During the Babylonian exile, Daniel and his companions, Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah, were confronted with customs and laws which were contrary to the law given to Moses. Their determination to honor God and be faithful to Him was rewarded as God saved them from death. The courageous words of Daniel’s companions as they refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar are inspiring to God’s people of every age. “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18).
In the New Testament, the preaching of the name of Jesus brought the Apostles into conflict, first with Jewish authorities, then with the Romans. Peter put the issue squarely before the Jewish high court as he said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). Their boldness was not deterred by the threats of the Jewish authorities. The Apostles continued to preach Jesus. As the threats turned into persecution, Peter and the 12 spoke the words that forever are the explanation of Christian civil disobedience: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).
The threats of the Jewish authorities were not idle ones. Stephen was martyred for preaching Christ (Acts 6:14; 7:59-60). His murder instigated a great persecution against the Church (Acts 8:1, 3). Later, James the brother of John would be the first of the Apostles to suffer martyrdom for the cause of Christ (Acts 12:1-2). Though many Jews would be converted to Christ, Jewish authorities continued their fight against Christianity. Paul was arrested in a riot that began in the temple courtyards (Acts 21:27-31). His subsequent trials, assassination plot, and appeal to Caesar all developed out of this Jewish persecution. Later, one of the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, James, would be murdered by Jewish authorities (Josephus, Book 19: 9:598).
As Christianity expanded from its Judean cradle, Roman authorities would follow suit with sporadic persecution of Christians. Among the reasons for this persecution would be Christian refusal to accept Christ as one among the many in the Roman pantheon of deities. The exclusive claim of Christ (Jn. 14:6), would not allow rivals. Because of this “intolerance,” Christians would face persecution from Roman authorities interested in the conformity of all its subjects.
Peter wrote words of encouragement to scattered Christians who would feel the brunt of the Roman Empire’s opposition. “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.” (1 Pet. 4:12-16).
The book of Revelation was given to the Apostle John while in exile on the island of Patmos “for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:2, 9). The thrust and tenor of the book was to encourage Christians to be faithful rather than conforming under the pressure of idolatry and Emperor worship. For Christians to remain “faithful until death” (Rev. 2:10), they needed to exercise civil disobedience when confronted by Imperial authorities demanding allegiance to Caesar.
The New Testament record demonstrates that Christians understood that God had ordained secular government. They submitted to the authority of earthly rulers; they paid their taxes and prayed for the well-being of those in authority. But they also knew that the lordship of Christ demanded their highest allegiance. And they were willing to suffer for that faithfulness.
Examples from Church history
The exclusive claims of Christianity aroused Roman opposition. The initial Roman persecution of Christians was sporadic, local and unorganized. As Christianity emerged as a religion separate from Judaism and won more converts among the Gentile population, it was placed directly in the path of the Roman desire for religious conformity on the part of all its subjects. Persecution would become more widespread and intense as tension between Christianity and the Empire increased.
A letter from the 2nd century allows one to view Christianity through the eyes of the Romans. The Roman governor of Bithynia and Pontus, Pliny, wrote to Emperor Trajan in 110 AD asking for his help in deciding what to do about the Christian “problem” in his territory.
For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for punishment; for whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished. There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens. I have entered them on the list of persons to be sent to Rome for trial. (Pliny, 293-94).
That which Christians would view as faithfulness (Rev. 2:10) was viewed as “stubbornness” and “obstinacy” and fanaticism by the Romans.
Christian obedience to the New Testament principles of “pray, pay, and obey” continued in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, despite persecutions. Note the following testimony:
For all our emperors, we offer prayer without ceasing. We pray for prolonged life, for security to the empire, for protection to the imperial house, for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest – whatever an emperor would wish, as man or Caesar. (Tertullian, 3:42, as cited in Bercot, 152).
Why dwell any longer on the reverence and sacred respect of Christians to the emperor? We cannot help but look upon him as someone called by our Lord to his office. Therefore, on valid grounds, I can say that Caesar is more ours than yours, for our God has appointed him.” (Tertullian 3:43, as cited in Bercot, 152-3).
Consider every command of the emperor that does not offend God as though it has proceeded from God Himself. And obey it in love as well as fear, with all cheerfulness. (Theonas of Alexandria, 6:159, as cited in Bercot, 154).
But when forced to choose between Caesar or Christ, supreme allegiance was given to Christ.
When men command us to act in opposition to the law of God, and in opposition to justice, we should not be deterred by any threats or punishments that come upon us. For we prefer the commandments of God to the commandments of men. (Lactantius, 7:182, as cited in Bercot, 154).
Because of this loyalty, many Christians became martyrs under the Roman emperors. One of the earliest examples is that of Polycarp, a presbyter of the church in Smyrna in Asia Minor. The record of his martyrdom indicated Christian willingness to suffer rather than renounce their Lord. His martyrdom, in effect, was civil disobedience. When Polycarp was arrested, the chief of the arresting party tried to persuade him to save himself. “Why, what harm is there in saying ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and burning the incense, and so on, and saving yourself?” But Polycarp responded, “For eighty- six years I have been His slave and He has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my king who has saved me?” (Goodspeed, 250-51).
Another example of loyalty under threat of death was Justin, who became known as Justin Martyr. At his trial, Justin defended his faith in the face of idolatry.
When brought before the tribunal, the prefect Rusticus said to Justin, “First of all, trust in the gods and obey the emperors.” Justin replied, “There is no cause for blame or condemnation in trusting the commands of our Savior Jesus Christ.” (Ferguson, 199).
Justin’s reply and his death, were in keeping with what he had already defended in his Dialogue with Trypho. “Although beheaded, crucified, thrown to wild beasts, tortured with chains, fire and everything else, it is plain that we do not abandon our confession.” (Ferguson, 199).
As Ferguson points out, martyrdom has many facets for study, among which is the relationship between church and state. Typically, trials and executions of early Christians were public. This offered an evangelistic/apologetic opportunity, especially to the governing authorities.
The martyrs’ contest was usually stated in religious terms as a struggle with idolatry. In addition, since the power of the state enforced the demand to sacrifice, the contest was sometimes stated in political terms of the competing loyalties to God and the government. (Ferguson, 209).
Martyrdom testified to the ruling Romans that neither the Emperor nor the State were the supreme powers in the world. By giving their lives, their civil disobedience demonstrated that there was a “Lord of Lords” to whom Christians gave their allegiance.
It is important to remember that this civil disobedience was expressed in terms of nonviolence or nonresistance to the State. While acknowledging their innocence of any crime, and the injustice taking place, Christians left vengeance to God (Rom. 12:19). Christians realized that their faithfulness under fire without retaliation spoke powerfully to the watching pagan world. Roman historian Tacitus recorded the pity aroused at the public deaths of Christians during Nero’s reign. “Hence, even for criminals who deserve extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being punished. (Tacitus, 15:44). As Tertullian would observe, “The blood of Christians is seed.” (Ferguson, 200).
This was consistent with the approach that early Christians took toward other injustices of the Empire, like slavery. “Christianity had never preached an outright social revolution. There was no ‘liberation theology,’ no sanction for a direct assault on the forms of social dependence and slavery.” (Fox, 21). The gospel of Christ wielded its power as leaven, permeating Roman society and institutions with love. In time, this power made human emancipation and human brotherhood as universal as the faith once delivered.
When Constantine legalized the Christian religion, persecution for being a Christian ceased. But the uniting of Church and state was a two-edged sword. In time, the arrangement led to a ceasing of tension between the world and the Church. When this tension ceased, difficulties of another sort began. Thus, in the Medieval period of history to disobey the State was believed to disobey God. Dissident voices to the status quo like the Waldensians were hunted down and violently oppressed.(Gonzalez, 1:307).
At the dawn of the Reformation era, there were other significant examples of civil disobedience. William Tyndale has been called the “father of the English bible.” But he is also known as “God’s outlaw.” His translation and publication of the Bible into the common language was contrary to the laws of his day. He had to flee England to publish his work. His translations had to be smuggled back into England. Government and church officials publicly condemned Tyndale and his translation efforts. Many copies of his Bible were burned in public ceremonies. Money was raised for the purpose of buying copies and preventing Tyndale’s Bible getting into the hands of the public. Though it seemed as if the English king, Henry VIII, might be more favorably disposed toward Tyndale, there were still powerful elements in the English church and government that sought his downfall. Tyndale was betrayed by a friend and executed on October 6, 1536. He was hung, burned at the stake, and his ashes scattered in the river Thames. His reported last words were, “Lord, open the eyes of the king of England.”
The Anabaptists were severely persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike for their belief in religious liberty. Yet their “civil disobedience” was without violence and retaliation toward their persecutors, and even practiced love for their enemies. One example occurred in 1569. Dirk Willems was fleeing for his life across a frozen canal in Holland. As one of the sheriff’s men followed him across the ice, the ice broke and the man fell in. Willems turned back to save his pursuer instead of making good his escape. Willems was captured and even though the man whom he had rescued offered testimony on his behalf, Willems was sentenced to death and burned at the stake. (Van Braught, 741-42).
While in disagreement with his theology, one can appreciate the civil disobedience of Sir Thomas More, the “man for all seasons.” More was imprisoned for his refusal to acknowledge several laws passed by English Parliament, the most notable of which was the Act of Supremacy, by which Henry VIII had himself declared, “Head of the Church of England.” Though More was a personal friend to Henry and had served as Lord Chancellor, he refused to swear loyalty to the king as head of the church. While imprisoned in the Tower of London, More’s daughter Margaret visited him, pleading for him to go along with the law which so many other notable citizens had accepted. More replied, “I never intend to pin my conscience to another man’s back.” (Gonzalez, 2:73). More tried to explain his idea of integrity of conscience to his daughter. He scooped up some water, holding it in the cup of his hand. He stated that one’s conscience was like the water, which could only be held as long as the fingers were tightly held together. Once the hand was opened the water was forever spilled. More reasoned that one’s conscience was held together by an individual’s integrity. But if integrity was given up, it could never be regained. More’s last reputed words, uttered on the scaffold before being beheaded, were that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” (Jokinen).
Examples from Restoration history
Since the American Restoration Movement took place in a country where the frontier allowed the possibility of freedom of religion and speech, civil disobedience has not been met with as much oppression as occurred in the Roman, Medieval and Reformation periods. But as civil disobedience found a role in issues such as slavery, Christians serving in government and the military, in the labor movement and in the civil rights movement, the price paid by individuals for such refusal to conform was usually found in ostracism, disfellowship, and lack of monetary support.
The American Civil War brought the tension between civil government and God’s reign into sharp relief. The issue of slavery had been a potential powder keg in the Restoration movement from its beginning. Both Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, though personally opposed to slavery, had sought to prevent it from becoming a divisive wedge in the congregations adhering to Restoration ideals. From the earliest days at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, Barton Stone had included slaves in the assembly. He endeavored to teach them the gospel and to give them an education. But educating slaves put Stone on a collision course with the laws of Kentucky. Rather than challenge those laws and divide churches, Stone moved to Illinois in 1834 where he could freely educate all individuals, black or white.
But there were radical voices in the Restoration Movement on both sides of the slavery issue. James O. Shannon, preacher and president of the University of Missouri, was an outspoken apologist for slavery. Shannon said, “I hurl proud defiance in the viper teeth of abolitionism and the motley crew of his abettors and sympathizers.” (West, Trials, 302). It is obvious from such a view, that Shannon’s political allegiances had clouded his judgment and his loyalties to the cause of Christ. T. M. Allen, a fellow preacher, said that Shannon was “chin deep in politics.” (West, Trials, 304). On the other hand, Ovid Butler, preacher, lawyer and editor of a periodical from Indianapolis, had little use for Campbell’s moderate position on slavery. Butler, drinking deeply from the abolitionist wellspring, became an outspoken advocate for armed war against the slave owners of the South. (West, Trials, 320-21). Other Christians exercised their civil disobedience as they aided the “underground railroad” to help escaping slaves avoid the fugitive slave law to find freedom in Canada.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” as Abraham Lincoln in 1858 echoed Christ (Matt. 12:25). And so the slavery issue, with its political and moral implications, was decided on the battle field. Again, the majority of the early leaders of the Restoration Movement were pacifists regarding war. Campbell’s Address on War, given at Wheeling, West Virginia in 1848, explained how he viewed that disciples of the Prince of Peace could never take up arms in war.
How then could a Christian soldier, whose ‘shield’ was faith, whose ‘helmet’ was the hope of salvation, whose ‘breastplate’ was righteousness, whose ‘girdle’ was truth, whose ‘feet were shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace,’ and whose ‘sword’ was fabricated by the Holy Spirit, ever wield the sword of a Hannibal, a Tammerlane, a Napoleon, or even a Victoria? (Campbell, 374).
Despite the sentiments of Campbell and Stone on war, there were Christians who chose to take up arms to defend their country or their rights during the war. But there were also Christians who viewed their allegiance to God higher than any allegiance to country. As followers of the Prince of Peace they did not believe God permitted them to take up arms for the removal or defense of slavery nor the dissolution or preservation of the Union. They chose to remain neutral in the conflict. But this non-partisan, non-violent stance came at a price.
David Lipscomb was one of those Christians who bore the burden of neutrality. The region of Middle Tennessee was made a continual battleground throughout the war by both Union and Confederate armies. The devastation of farms to provision those armies added to the suffering brought on by loss on the battlefield. For families who chose to remain neutral, everything was confiscated. Lipscomb and other pacifists in Middle Tennessee drew up a petition seeking recognition of their neutrality. It was presented first to the Confederate government in 1862, then to the military government established by the Union when the region fell under their control in 1863. The petition stated:
We, therefore, respectively ask a release from the performance of these requirements, and others of a similar character, assuring you again, that we recognize it as a solemn duty we owe to God to submit to the government under which we live, in all its requirements, save when that government requires of us something contrary to the letter and spirit of the Christian religion, as revealed in the Bible. (Hooper, 73).
The petition went on to say:
. . . when there is a conflict between the requirements of civil government and the law of God, the duty of the Christian is, upon peril of his eternal wellbeing, to obey God first, let the consequences be to him what they may. (West, Decline, 4).
Despite the war, Lipscomb continued to preach as often as he could. “Much of his preaching was directed at the Christian’s involvement in war.” (Hooper, 69). Lipscomb’s position angered many of his fellow Southerners. “A man standing in a church doorway listening to him preach his views, roared out angrily that if twelve men would help him, he would hang David Lipscomb to the highest tree.”(West, 76). Thankfully for Lipscomb, twelve did not respond.
On another occasion, a staff officer from General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command was sent to hear Lipscomb on account of rumors that he was preaching a doctrine disloyal to the South. The officer listened carefully to Lipscomb’s preaching. After the sermon was over, he told Lipscomb: “I have not yet reached a conclusion as to whether or not the doctrine of the sermon is loyal to the Southern Confederacy, but I am profoundly convinced that it is loyal to the Christian religion.” (West, Life, 81).
After the war, Lipscomb would publish his views on a Christian’s relation to government in a little book entitled, Civil Government. Originally, published in 1889, it embodied Lipscomb’s thinking on the subject for more than thirty years, but he never made his views on government a test of fellowship. Lipscomb viewed human governments as organized rebellion to God’s governing through His kingdom. (Lipscomb, 8-9). Christians were to exercise “passive submission” to human governments: pay taxes and obey laws which are not in conflict with the law of God. But because these governments are institutions which reject God’s will, a Christian was not to be an active participant in them: not to vote, to hold office or political appointment, and most definitely, never to take up arms in support or in rebellion to government. Northern brethren dismissed Lipscomb’s book as “sour grapes” following the Southern defeat in the Civil War. But these brethren failed to see the suffering Lipscomb underwent for holding this view during the War. It also failed to see a man dedicated to God’s cause who thought seriously on the application of God’s Word to society. Rather than flowing along with the current, Lipscomb chose to swim against the tide of popular opinion.
Lipscomb’s view of non-participation in government and pacifism worked well for the “mental isolation” that permeated the post-Civil War South. But as America moved from a rural agrarian economy, to an urban industrialized one with increased government regulation, some Christians viewed government and politics in a different light. This different view, sought to carry forward the importance of God’s kingdom, but without Lipscomb’s extremes regarding political involvement. (West, Decline, 5).
Confronted with two World Wars in the 20th century, the question of taking up arms in defense of country once again called for personal introspection and decision. Some Christians had to endure intimidation, coercion, and even imprisonment if they chose to follow in David Lipscomb’s path.
When the United States entered into World War I, it was unprepared to deal with conscientious objectors (CO’s). Unlike fellowships whose creed spells out their pacifism, individuals in churches of Christ were at a decided disadvantage when confronting the government bureaucracy. The power of the government was brought to bear on those who advocated a pacifist position. Colleges, papers and individuals all felt the coercion in varying degrees. Cordell College in Cordell, Oklahoma, whose faculty, board, and many students held pacifist positions, was forced to close by the local “defense council.” (West, Decline, 11). Even though General E. H. Crowder had assured J.W. Shepherd and other concerned Christians about the non-combatant status being given to COs, the truth was that each individual was at the mercy of the local draft board. (Shepherd, 9). Two students at Cordell were sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary for refusal to serve in the military. They were joined by 14 other brethren from around the country. (Casey, 46). There they were forced into hard labor, often brow beaten, blind folded, threatened with execution and placed before a firing squad where only a last second reprieve saved them. (West, Decline, 11).
Brotherhood papers were threatened by the government to cease pushing pacifist positions or be forced to stop publication. The Gospel Advocate, the Christian Leader, and other papers all felt the intimidating threats. Editors’ homes were searched for anti-war articles. (Rowe, 5). Thad Hutson, preacher in the upper Ohio Valley and frequent contributor to the Christian Leader spoke of the pressures pacifists faced.
It is not safe now to talk peace, nor speak of the war as though our country should back out of it. Or to reflect on the purpose to carry the issue to a definite finish and to a safe peace. Whatever may be the feeling along this line, if you are not with your country let your words be few and speak to yourself. Our Government regards it as treason to speak or write against our country’s interest in the world war. (Hutson, 9).
By the time World War II opened, the government was better prepared to deal with COs from churches of Christ. COs were allowed to enter the army as non-combatants where many distinguished themselves as medical aids.(McCord, 44-46). Others served with notice as chaplains. (West, Search, 328-37). Still others were allowed to serve in civilian camps, performing works of “national importance” such as reforestation, forest fire fighting, soil erosion control and reclamation. However, Congress provided no funds for their support. The men were to be supported by the churches. While several young men served in these camps, churches were slow to support them. Their man hours given to their country, as they objected to military service, made them virtual slaves as they received next to nothing for their labor. (West, Search, 348-50).
After World War II the pacifist position almost disappeared among churches of Christ. But there were still a few occasions in which individual Christians who stood for their principles had to endure prison bars and social ostracism from brethren who did not share their views. In 1954, William K. Moser was sentenced to a three year prison term, of which he served 13 months before his parole. Despite having received pacifist status at the start of the Korean War, which should have qualified him for alternative service, ignorance on the 22 year old Moser’s part and of the local draft board led to his imprisonment. Moser described the irony as he was in close quarters for several months with three men serving time for murder while he was there for refusing to kill someone. (Moser, 26).
The labor movement of the first half of the 20th century also witnessed Christians engaged in civil disobedience. This usually occurred in the form of strikes, some of which became violent. But there were Christians who fought the injustices of big business backed by government without forgetting their loyalty to the Prince of Peace. Union organization and strikes were the only tactics available to coal miners whose working and living conditions were not much better than slavery. Miners had little or no access to the press to gain sympathy for their cause. Fred Rowe opened the pages of the Christian Leader to the miners. Rowe explained, “There are a few of us who have felt that our daily papers have not given a clear statement of the miner’s side of this situation.” (Rowe, Miners, 9). Rowe hoped that by so doing, it could aid in understanding the situation and “give the miner a better standing in the minds of the average citizen.” Later, during the Depression, Frank Butts, an elder in the church in Trimble, Ohio, called for brethren to give aid and support to striking coal miners working against injustice. After laying out the actual conditions facing the miners, Butts said, “Brethren, remember it is not a “Miner’s” call, but it is your brethren, “inasmuch as you do it unto one of these my disciples you do it unto Me” says Christ.” (Butts, 8).
In the first half of the 20th century there were only a few in the Restoration movement who were willing to ‘cross the bridge’ of racial division. David Lipscomb tried to awaken the consciousness of his readers as he addressed prejudicial attitudes. Lipscomb stated, “. . . the whole idea of churches along race lines is contrary to the spirit and the precepts of the New Testament, and to refuse fellowship to a child of God because of its race or family is to refuse it to Jesus himself.” (Lipscomb, Negro, 10 ). Another voice from this period was S. R. Cassius, an African American evangelist, born in slavery. Cassius wrote: “I contend that there would be no race problem to solve if the so-called Christian people of America would take the word of God as the man of their counsel and its teachings as their rule of faith and practice.”(Cassius, 83). West Virginia native A. A. Bunner also echoed the message of Lipscomb and Cassius. Bunner wrote in 1922: “Hence I conclude that God has no black and white Savior. He has but the one and only Savior for all the race of men, and he saves all on the same conditions. He has no black and white churches, he has but the one blood-bought Church, and it includes all nations in its folds.”(Bunner, 7). S. R. Cassius and A. A. Bunner refused to accept the status quo of segregation and challenged others to refuse to conform to culture. But these were voices ahead of their time.
It was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s that the earlier voices found receptive listeners. The period witnessed large scale civil disobedience as many Americans challenged segregation. Boycotts, marches and rallies protested injustices in the written and unwritten codes of the time. The social upheaval posed difficulty for people committed to obedience to civil law yet also protesting the unjust application of that law. Among the Christians who supported these efforts was Fred Gray. Gray, a former boy preacher under Marshall Keeble, was also a lawyer. Gray served as attorney to Rosa Parks in her 1955 challenge to segregation in Montgomery, AL. He also served as the first civil rights attorney for Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ross, Jr., 14).
Principles to Apply
While this study has looked at examples from the past, the importance of the past lies in how it relates to the present and future. What are the principles God’s people can utilize from the Scriptural examples and historical examples which can be applied to a current culture that views itself as authoritative and is guided by atheistic, humanistic values? As Carson points out, “debates about church and state are subsets of more comprehensive debates about Christ and culture.” (145). As the current culture moves further and further away from Christian values, there will inevitably be conflict with civil authorities. Social issues such as abortion, legalization of sins like gambling, prostitution, and drugs, and homosexual marriage are not just political questions, but moral ones. Have Christians shied away from speaking out on these issues or practicing civil disobedience simply because it is easier to conform to current culture rather than challenging it? God’s people must never take the easy way out!
The first principle that must be applied is to be committed to be obedient to God’s ordained authorities. The current culture is one of a “rejection of authority in favor of autonomy.”(Cottrell, 9). Authority is questioned in the home, in the school, and in the public arena all in favor of being answerable only to oneself. Autonomy (from the Greek words autos – self and nomos – law) is typically expressed in the word freedom, a word long cherished in the “land of the free and home of the brave.”
But the nature of freedom must be understood. There is a vast difference between freedom that is for and freedom from.
The democratic tradition in the West has fostered a great deal of freedom from Scripture, God, tradition, and assorted moral constraints; it encourages freedom toward doing your own thing, hedonism, self-centeredness, and consumerism. By contrast, the Bible encourages freedom from self-centeredness, idolatry, greed, and all sin and freedom toward living our lives as those who bear Christ’s image and who have been transformed by His grace, such that our greatest joy becomes doing His will. (Carson, 138, italics in original).
Due to the differing views of freedom, it must be realized that the Christian’s freedom will be viewed as bondage by atheistic humanists. And humanist freedom must be seen as enslaving sin by Christians. If a “freedom” displaces the sovereignty of God and His ordained rulers, Christians must remember they are God’s slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:18).
This understanding leads to the second principle. When clash between the state and God’s will is inevitable, Christians must give God their ultimate loyalty as citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Heb. 13:14). In the words of the Apostles, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29). In the words of David Lipscomb, “Obey God first, and let come what may the consequences.”
A third principle is also important: keep the tension! Too many Christians have forgotten to keep the tension between the current culture and the will of God. There will always be tension between those who love the world and those who love God. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father, but of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 Jn. 2:15-17). As Church history witnesses, when tension between the Church and the world diminishes, bad things happen.
If these principles are followed, then civil disobedience will be inevitable. The clash over values in our society is just the skirmishing of a greater war between Christianity and humanism. From the examples seen in the Bible and Church history, three commitments must accompany this civil disobedience.
First, is a commitment to God’s standard of justice and equity. The law of Moses contained provisions for God’s people to remember the orphan, widow, and foreigner. (Deut. 24:17-22). The reason for this is God’s nature. He defends the weak and helpless.(Ps. 68:5). God’s children must hear the cry of the poor. (Pro. 21:13; Amos 5:24; Matt. 25:31-46; Jas. 5:1-6). The gospel message includes the “weightier matters” of justice and mercy. (Matt. 23:23). God’s standard of righteousness and justice signify that His people must be advocates of justice and equity. The Apostle Paul said that we are to “support the weak” because Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35). “. . . it is the church’s prophetic task to be the conscience of society, to condemn sin and proclaim holiness. A major aspect of this task is to remind civil authorities of their responsibility to seek justice.” (Cottrell, 45, italics in original).
Second, is a commitment to non-violence to express civil disobedience. The popularity of vigilante films, whether depicting the nameless cowboy riding into town with his Colt .44 or a superhero swinging in on a web, gives ample testimony to what many Americans feel is the solution to our unjust and corrupt society. However much sympathy we may feel for the vigilante brand of justice, it is not an option that God allows. “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19). If civil disobedience is chosen, it must be a disobedience which does not sin or harm others. To agitate and cause riots or mob violence is just as wrong as the vigilante. “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (Jas. 3:18).
Third, individuals need to be prepared to pay the price which civil disobedience will bring. Sometimes lip service is given to the fact that there may be negative consequences to certain actions, but until actually experiencing them, the choice of civil disobedience may be made without necessary forethought. If fined, arrested and jailed or imprisoned for disobedience, one must not lament, moan, and wallow in self-pity. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . . Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:10, 12).
Finally, in a last word of admonition, care needs to be exercised about judging others who hold differing opinions regarding civil disobedience and when and how it should be exercised. Until confronted by a situation, one may think how he or she knows how he or she will act. The disciples all said they would stand with Christ and die with Him at the last supper, but when the mob came, they all fled. May God help each Christian to be “fully convinced in his own mind.” (Rom. 14:5). May each Christian remember that the Sovereign Lord to whom he shall give account is God. (Rom. 14:12).
As this study has demonstrated, there have been times in the past when civil disobedience has been necessary on the part of God’s people. May the examples found in God’s Word and the examples recorded in history give courage and wisdom to God’s people when confronted by civil authorities acting on behalf of a state usurping the role of God. Jesus still says, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. . . . Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
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