When is it right for a Christian to disobey the government? Dr. Ligon Duncan discusses what Christians should consider when wrestling with how to be faithful to God while living as citizens of earthly nations.
Over the years, I’ve been asked by Christians on a number of occasions: when is it right for a Christian to disobey the government? In these recent days, that has often been associated with state and local regulations related to COVID-19 and ecclesiastical assemblies. Does the government have the right to tell Christians that they can only have a certain number of people in a meeting? Or they must wear masks in a meeting? Or they can’t do certain activities in a meeting like singing?
An Ancient Question
We must obey God rather than Caesar.But let me pull back and look at that question at a much larger level. The question of whether the believer can disobey the government is a very ancient question. You can go all the way back to the Old Testament. For instance, in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they’re called upon to worship this golden idol and they have to decide: are we going to be faithful to God or are we going to be faithful to the government? And they decide they must be faithful to God, even at the peril of their own lives. They will not worship an idol even if it costs their lives. And of course, that’s ultimately the believer’s standard at all times. We must obey God rather than Caesar. We must worship God, and when the government attempts to claim the prerogatives and rights that belong only to God, the believer has to be faithful to God.
By the way, this is not a theoretical question for many, many believers around the world. Brothers and sisters in Christ that live in countries where they are persecuted minorities face this question every single day. And even if they’re not persecuted minorities, believers around the world are very openly discriminated against minorities. They have to deal with these kinds of things day to day. So one thing American Christians could do is learn from their brothers and sisters in Christ from other countries around the world who deal with these kinds of practical issues day to day.
COVID-19, Government, and Conscience
Now, if we come back to the issue of COVID-19 and regulations, here’s one thing that’s on believers minds: is there a subtle, hidden discrimination that is going on when churches are told that they can’t have so many people in an assembly or they must wear masks or they can’t sing, and yet casinos are open and bars are open and restaurants are open and concert events are open? It seems like something discriminatory is going on. And I would say to government officials, if you can’t explain the basis of that discrimination, and if you can’t explain in a compelling, persuasive way the reason for the difference, you should expect people that gather to worship God to be suspicious of your motives.
Now, that means that in this case, Christians are going to have judgment calls to make. And it may be that some Christians believe that they must disobey certain regulations that are being imposed by state or local leaders. I think in that context, it is really, really important for believers to remember the freedom of the conscience of other believers. We cannot decide for every believer what every believer must do when there are judgments of prudence to be made. So it may be that different believers in different circumstances will make different judgments about what they ought to do. They all have to do it under the general rules of the Word of God with a conscience that is clear and desiring to honor God in everything that they do. But they cannot make judgments of prudence for every other Christian or church or denomination.
We want to maintain the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace, even as we face government pressure in certain situations.And in this context, we need to realize forbearance is very important when these kinds of judgments are being made. Patience, the judgment of charity, all of these kinds of things are important for Christian unity. Because when the church starts getting squeezed by pressure from the outside, one of the things that can happen is fragmentation. We want to maintain the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace, even as we face government pressure in certain situations.
So the general rule is, of course, the Christian may never give to Caesar what only belongs to God. But in judgments of prudence, you’re going to have to use the light of nature, the general rules of the Word, common sense, and forbearance against other Christians who may make different judgments.