Reasons For Civil Disobedience

A very busy week ago, I was struggling with the Christian’s response to the illegal immigration issue. I must apologize up front: this post is long. There was no way that I could divide this post into three posts without breaking the thought-flow, so I didn’t. Instead, I split it up with headers so that you can follow it piece-meal, if you have to.

I previously raised some surprising issues of civil disobedience which were: (1) Paul’s refusal to obey the Philippian magistrates (Acts 16:37); (2) Paul escaping arrest at Damascus (Acts 9:23-25; 2 Cor 11: 32, 33). I didn’t mention another surprising case and that is (3) Esther (Esther 4:13-16; 5:1).

I’m A Roman Citizen (RE:1)
In Acts 16, a mature letter-writing Paul, is seen on his second missionary. His act of civil disobedience seems, at first blush, petty: the magistrates had him and Silas beaten and arrested; now Paul demands that the magistrates personally release them because they’re Roman citizens.

Luke doesn’t record Paul speaking up during his public beating or arrest. We see them singing hymns, praying and eventually telling the Jailer that they hadn’t escaped before preaching the Gospel. No mention of the Roman rights issue at the jailer’s house or at their return to prison. The first mention of Paul’s citizenship rights1 to the officials, according to Luke, is when they’re about to released (Rom 9:35-37).

Paul may have had several reasons to speak now. He might not have had a chance to speak when he was naked and beaten. He might have wanted to ensure that respect to the law was restored—at the very least in the public eye, but likely in the eyes of the magistrates. He might have wanted to show that they couldn’t about casting off the laws of the land by rejecting the law s that exists.

Those seem unlikely though. It wouldn’t explain why Paul didn’t shout it early on. It could be just as possible that Paul brings up the matter here because the injustice is more than casting off the law of the land; it is the callous disregard of any justice whatsoever. These guys did this, not in rejection of the higher authorities, but without any consideration of any authorities but their own angry impulses. This is more than the injustice to citizens, it is an injustice that was being propagated as a normal course of action without even bothering to find out if it was in their power to do such a thing: humanity run rabid.

I also think several other stories within this section are important in understanding the depth of what’s going on. You have two stories going on in Acts 16 which culminate with civilian activity under the law of the land.

Story arc one is sparked by the possessed fortune telling slave girl who was a source of income for her masters. Ignoring her spiritual condition, her masters saw her only as a source of income to support their lifestyle. Once her power is attacked, chaos ensues: the masters attack Paul and Silas, they bring them to the authorities, the magistrates immediately execute a decision without trial and throw the two preachers into jail.

Story arc two is sparked with the two preachers, working under the power of God, growing tired of the slave girl’s proclamations and removing the spirit of divination. They’re beaten and imprisoned and remain in prison until an earthquake hits. The jailer, expecting everyone to have escaped, is about to off himself when Paul and Silas prove that all the prisoners are still there. Instead of chaos ensuing, these guys proved orderly to the point of welcoming a new person to the Kingdom of God. So much so that they go clean up, have a meal, and then go back to the prison to await the morning.

The two stories stand next to each other offering a striking parallel; one reflecting how the ministers of The Only Powerful God handle themselves in society and with the Gospel; the other reflecting how those under the power of darkness handle themselves in society when their idols are attacked.

Luke essentially is saying “Do you see? Christianity has no reason to buck the laws of the land; we know who wins in the end so we don’t have to. When we buck it’s to show that you have rejected your own system for the sake of whatever power has taken control of you all.”

So this first case of civil disobedience reflects that Christians should be reflecting the power of God over and above the kingdom of men and actually underscoring the importance of those rules—even when the rule makers have cast off the rules for the sake of their own idols. It might require a form of civil disobedience (refusal to leave the prison without public acknowledgment of wrongdoing) but it is not anarchist in its activities; rather it is whatever social system at its best.

I’m Outa’ Here (RE:2)
We might be tempted to chalk up Paul’s basket escape to lack of knowledge.  Paul is a new believer2; the followers, the main motivators of the escape, don’t have well distributed teachings of Jesus. We might even try to write the passage off as descriptive, not prescriptive, with the main point being that Saul, the hunter of Christian fugitives, wound up running away as a Christian fugitive.

That contrast remaining true, there are some definite points of departure from an off-hand disqualification of the passage in regards to civil disobedience.

Saul, a trained rabbi (at the feet of famed Gamaliel), should have had a theology of civil responsibility already in place; Christianity wouldn’t have changed it, it would have refined it underneath the headship of the risen Lord. This is why Paul can come to belief and then, fairly quickly, preach the word. Heck, the followers themselves should have had a theology of civil responsibility on account of the Disciple’s hard learned schooling during Jesus’ time on earth3.

The Jews had gotten involved with the local authorities under governer Aretas IV, the vassal king, and they wanted to capture and kill Paul. The intent here was murder under the veneer of authority with no mention of legal charges being brought up. This was cowboy law and Paul and gang wouldn’t deal with it—they escaped.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Paul escapes from cowboy law.

Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favor, decides it best to have Paul stand trial in the Jewish province, under the chair of the Procurator, where there was a definite plan to kill the man. I’m not sure that Festus knew about the plot (since his problem with the whole appeal thing was that it was a matter of Jewish religion and a dead man that Paul professed to be alive—Acts 25:19-20), but Paul took the chance to remain within the Roman system and employed the Appeal to Caesar escaping the death penalty by Jewish hands.

Paul, speaking to Roman Jews, explains that his reason for appealing to Caesar had little to do with bringing an accusation against his kinsmen but everything about bearing witness about the Hope of Israel. This allows him to speak to these Roman Jews with a freedom he couldn’t before. Heck, Roman Officials didn’t think it was a matter worth appealing but Paul used it anyway and the law allowed it.

Going back to the earlier escape then, I don’t know that we can make any solid conclusions. Paul rescues his kinsmen from performing further awful violence (like they had done with Stephen) and does that by rescuing his own life twice: once by escaping the law and the other time by using the law. And yet, he blatantly uses the situation to propel the Gospel.

The King and I (RE:3)
Esther’s situation was dire. Not only was Mordecai asking her to appeal to the King—a fact that could result in death if the King didn’t initiate the meeting4—he was asking her to do this during a politically dubious time for Esther: she hasn’t been summoned to come to the king for thirty days (Esther 4:11). She knows what could happen to her if the King doesn’t approve, but after being given a message by Mordecai, she courageously capitulates and says she is off to break the law.

What’s interesting about the situation here is that law-breaking was not being justified as the lesser evil. If there was a moment when the Jews could have some justified civil disobedience, you would think it would be this time—and yet Mordecai, wearing sackcloth and weeping, stops short of the King’s gate because it was against the law to do that beyond that point (Esther 4:2). Indeed, the Jews would weep in every province, but there’s no strikes, no appeals; just a sad resigned expectation.

Mordecai makes a point of highlighting several truths: the Jews were on the verge of a great culling; Esther might not escape the wrath anyway; deliverance and relief would arise for the Jews, with or without Esther’s help; individuals don’t know God’s plans for them as individuals. He was confident in the promises of God (that he would protect his people as a group) but was open to the idea that the reason Queen Esther was in the position she was in was specifically so that she could do something about it. That might not be true but is it better to ignore the position God has placed one in and expect sure deliverance elsewhere or to take a stand and maybe become that vehicle for God’s plans?

Mordecai did not appeal to Esther on the grounds of the wrongs being committed, or her own moral duty to uphold what is right; rather on the grounds of personal conviction as being a vehicle for God’s goodness and mercy in whatever situation one is in. He pointed out her vocation and her conscience.

This argument is actually helpful to all the previous examples of civil disobedience. Paul could have remained in Damascus and suffered much (as the Lord had promised) or he could have ignored the plot to seize him, and allow himself to be lowered from the city walls in a basket. Paul could have gone to the Jewish court or he could have appealed to Caesar and allow the message to carry on in different channels5. Esther could have remained quiet and allowed deliverance to arise from another channel or she could try to stand up and be the means for God’s deliverance among her people.

This tells me that  the grounds for civil disobedience are not merely because of the greater moral good (since God is working all things to good, whether we like it or not) but because an individual might personally realize that they might be the vehicle for God’s working good in any given situation. In other words, the situation in which they have been called compels them to act.

Putting the Pieces Together
Admittedly that sounds odd. People might hear “I disobey government because God told me so” but that’s not what I’m saying at all. All the examples I listed above were situations where people acted in a certain way with the expectation of God working through the situation but personally wishing to say something that speaks into the situation.  The person is personally convicted to act, not as an anarchist who shirks the laws (note the first story above) but as a sober-minded individual who understands where God stands in relation to everything.

This is where time, space, situations, the God given conscience which has been properly realigned, and the Spirit of God are all working in concert for a purpose. I speak more about the principle of conscience elsewhere, but here it would be important to say that all of these things are seriously being used by God—even the evil situation (like the magistrates, or the Jews planning to murder, or Ahasuerus allowing a law to pass that results in senseless violence) for good. This does not negate personal involvement; rather it mandates it.

Even in the midst of a very bad social situation, like slavery, Paul could send back a slave (now a believer) to his master saying “treat him like a brother”; and elsewhere write that it is better, as a slave, to become free—but everyone is to work for God in the situation in which they were called and that sometimes will mean remaining a slave.

As for the immigrants, they should obey the laws of the land but for some of the individuals it might be that God has placed them in that specific situation to disobey the laws of the land for some purpose that is evident in their situation. For the law enforcers, God has placed them in a situation where they must enforce the laws of the land but if they find that enforcing the law is doing something which stands as a revolt against God, they may have to not enforce the law. And citizens, who have no real role in enforcing the law (like reporting people), may have to report people when they note that they are in a position to do something for God (if the idol of money is demanding illegal alien sacrifices, for example).

And yet in all these situations, there should be a real concern for both the law of the land and the respect of persons. Christians aren’t to be thrown into the rabid rage of those under the power of darkness, but with illumined minds they should seriously struggle with the situation and realize the various shades which permeate the entire thing. Shutting down illegal immigration or opening the doors wide might both be wrong.

In the end of this portion of my examination, I don’t have any solid conclusions though I am convinced about our personal involvement with the thing being integral. More so when God’s calling finds us as part of a democratic society where we’re (sort of) the rulers, magistrates and kings.

That point necessitates another post.


1 Citizens were equipped with certain rights: the right to appeal to Caesar (from any local court) and the right not to face torture, scourging, long imprisonment, or death without legal due process (which included the right to appeal to a higher court). You ignore those rights, you’re not merely messing with a citizen, and you’re messing with law and government.

2 That is, if we go with a date before his 3 year disappearance referred to inGal 3:17-18

3 John 18:36; Luke 22:36; John 16:2; Mk 12:17

5 Heroditus does make mention that a meeting could be initiated via letter and, later on in the book (Esther 6:4) we see that Mordecai is awaiting audience in the outer court, without a kingly summons. Esther is very specific about the regulations regarding the visit to the king. It could be that this is an interview in the inner court, or maybe some other young lady has gained the King’s favor—but either way, Esther knows to come barging into the inner court could result in death unless the King holds out the golden scepter.

5 Agabus the Prophet and Phillip’s Daughters seems to give Paul a real option: go to Jerusalem and you will be arrested or escape now and you will not be arrested. And yet, the whole point, for Paul, is to go off and (in this situation) be arrested (Acts 21)

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