This a good question – and as usual – there are always two sides when we talk about resisting authority. As a church leader and as a dad, I realize I need to be careful in what I say. I can imagine a church member or my kids will read this one day and try to use it against me.
Several scriptures say no. We ought to submit to human authority structures because they are God’s idea to establish protection and direction for our life (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-3; Titus 3:1; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:13-14).
Paul encouraged slaves – real slaves – to submit to their masters. Runaways were to return with restitution in hand (Philemon 12-16). Unconditional obedience and submission even to cruel masters who invoked unjust treatment was the ideal that produced eternal rewards (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:6-10; 1 Peter 2:18-25).
On the other hand, we also see many examples of people in the Bible who resisted authority. In the New Testament, following Jesus is resistance against Jewish national and religious leadership’s authority. In Acts 5:29, we see Peter summarize this resistance in a familiar passage – “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Hebrews 11 celebrates a hall of fame of great women and men in history who resisted governing authority. People like Amram & Jochebed, Rahab, Esther, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. People like Moses, who led a resistance of two million slaves out of Egypt.
In our world today, we also celebrate both sides. We celebrate law and order. Yet we also admire the violent resistance of the British on July 4th, and the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, who led peaceful civil disobedience. In the church, our Protestant traditions are founded on the resistance of the authority of religious leadership in the reformation.
So when is it ok to resist authority? What does resistance look like? How are we permitted to resist power? I will give you my view from scripture as I understand it.
So when is it ok to resist authority?
We find there are clear situations and less clear situations. Firs the clear ones. Any time an authority compels us to contravene scripture that is properly interpreted we are obligated to obey God first. If you are compelled not to be a follower of Jesus, not to pray, not to read your bible, not to love, not to make disciples, etc.
That might seem easy but the challenge, of course, are the imperatives that are less clear, offer a variety of caveats, and may be different from one individual to another. In many of these cases, the Bible teaches that our choice is left up to our individual conscious. Romans 14:22-23 clearly reminds us that each of us is accountable to God for the decisions that we make. In fact, we might actually have a different opinion about what is right in certain situations than another believer. Scripture gives room for this.
While this is challenging for one to accept, that is a clear scriptural directive. In the same chapter, Paul warns believers not to be divided and judgemental if another person holds a different view than you.
So, when is it right to resist? When your conscious compels you to based on good interpretation of scripture.
What does resistance look like?
Voting is a democracy’s peaceful method of resistance. Use the legislative channels to get officials elected who can bring about change. Use the judicial system to challenge injustice. Use education to bring public awareness and influence public opinion.
When one has worked in any system and change has not happened for an extended period, it is easy to get impatient. How can we, as believers, respond? These are our options.
- Indirect disobedience
- Direct disobedience
- Lead others in disobedience – non-violent
- Lead others in disobedience – violent
- Indirectly oppress the oppressor
- Actively oppress the oppressor non-violent
- Actively oppress or punish the oppressor with violence
In my view, the options 1-3 are always permitted. We see this in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Option 4 has divided passivists and adherents of St. Thomas Aquinas, who set out conditions of just war or violent resistance. A discussion of these options go beyond the scope of this blog. In my opinion, options 5-7 is never ok. We should never seek to oppress our oppressors if our resistance leads to the replacement of authority that is there.
How are we permitted to resist authority?
With vision. Successful resistance requires a clear picture of a better world based on the character and nature of God. You must be clear and articulate about what the new reality is supposed to look like. Without vision, resistance creates a vacuum for other ideas to take root.
We see this in socialist revolutions in history. People resisted a form of tyranny but unknowingly embraced a new system that created a new type of oppression. George Orwell, in the book Animal Farm, illustrates this beautifully. He articulates how everyone becomes equal in a socialist system, but some become “more equal than others,” and re-oppression occurs.
Does the Bible permit the resistance of authority? Yes, when our spiritual obligation and allegiance to God outweigh what the authority compels. However, one must think hard and long about any inclination to resist. One must be convinced in ones’ conscious one’s actions honour God and be clear of the better world that the resistance might create. In all other cases, one is called to obey.