In the fight against same-sex marriage, a number of Christian leaders are warning, “We will not obey. . . . We respectfully warn the Supreme Court not to cross that line,” reads a document titled Pledge in Solidarity to Defend Marriage. “We stand united together in defense of marriage. Make no mistake about our resolve.”
Do they have a biblical case for refusing to comply? If Christians are making a biblical case against same-sex marriage, they need a biblical case for Christian resistance.
“In 1660 John Bunyan disobeyed the law of England by preaching without a license. He was arrested at a church meeting and put in prison so damp that he said it was enough to ‘make the moss grow on one’s eyebrows.’ There he converted his prison into a pulpit and wrote the greatest of all Christian classics, Pilgrim’s Progress. He was told that he would be released if he promised not to further violate the law for which he was imprisoned, but he refused to do so. He was arrested two more times for the same act of disobedience.”1
Bunyan was in good company. Peter and John were arrested “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2). Even after their release, like Bunyan, they continued to preach the gospel, “for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (v. 20).
Some Christians conclude, based solely on their understanding of Romans 13 and Matthew 22:21 without any consideration of other passages, that Christians are obligated to obey those in authority no matter what the command or circumstances.
As Christians make an impact on society, they can expect harsh treatment from those who have “no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). At the preaching of the gospel, “Jason and some brethren” were dragged “before the city authorities” with the following charge made against them (Acts 17:6): “These men [Paul and Silas] who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (17:6-7; cf. 4:12).
The early Christians faced numerous challenges by angry citizens and powerful ecclesiastical and civil rulers.
Without explicit biblical guidelines, resistance can lead to revolution. The Bible does not support either anarchy or revolution as ways to advance God’s kingdom. The church has always been anti-revolutionary but pro-resistance.
“When Peter and the other apostles were arrested and imprisoned by the Sanhedrin for refusing to obey the order not to preach in the name of Jesus, their defense was, ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19). As F. F. Bruce has commented, the ‘authority of the Sanhedrin was great, but greater still was the authority of Him who commissioned them to make this good news known.’”2
There is no doubt that Christians are to submit “for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). Often times with a general command there are exceptions. “All Scripture is God breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work,” not just some of it (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Let’s look at some biblical examples.
The Hebrew Midwives
The Hebrew midwives were commanded by “the king of Egypt” to put to death all the male children being born to the Hebrew women (Ex. 1:15‑16). The Hebrew midwives disobeyed the edict of the king: “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live” (v. 17). The midwives had to make a choice. Did God’s law overrule the command of a king, even “the king of Egypt”? God shows His approval of their actions: “So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. And it came about because the midwives feared God, that He established households for them” (vv. 20‑21).
In 1982, a Juvenile Court judge, the Honorable Randall J. Hekman, “in direct opposition to the law of the land, which said women cannot be denied an abortion,” refused to grant permission for a pregnant thirteen-year-old to obtain an abortion. Was he wrong? His decision parallels that of the midwives who refused to follow the directive of the king of Egypt. In a letter to the editor of a Grand Rapids, Michigan, newspaper, Judge Hekman explained why he refused to grant the abortion to the thirteen-year-old:
“What if the law requires a judge to order the execution of a person known to be totally innocent? What if a judge is required by law to order Jewish people to concentration camps or gas chambers because the law says that Jews are non-persons?. . .
“[Prior to the 1973 Roe v Wade pro-abortion decision] a judge in Michigan would be guilty of a felony crime if he encouraged, much less ordered that a pregnant girl obtain an abortion. Then, in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that all state laws making abortion a crime were unconstitutional. In one day, that which had been a reprehensible crime became a sacred right protected by the Constitution itself.”3
As expected, “Hekman was severely criticized in the press and by judicial colleagues.” At the time of this writing, the child was “in grade school and [was] presumably more supportive of the judge’s decision!”4
Jochebed, Moses’ mother, also disobeyed the edict of the king by hiding her child and later creating a way of escape for him so he would not be murdered by the king’s army: “But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it, and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile” (Exodus 2:3). Jochebed even deceived Pharaoh’s daughter into believing that she, Jochebed, was not related to the child (vv. 7‑9).
Saying No to a King
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed‑nego refused to follow the command of the king to worship the golden statue: “These men, O king, have disregarded you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up” (Dan. 3:12). When the three were thrown into the furnace, the angel of the Lord came to their aid (v. 25). This shows that there are consequences in opposing an edict of a ruler. Some have suffered martyrdom because of their refusal to obey. “In the year A.D. 165 Justin Martyr and his companions refused to yield to the command of the emperor and sacrifice to the pagan gods. ‘Do what you will. For we are Christians and offer no sacrifice to idols.’ Justin and his companions were beheaded for their faithfulness to the Savior.”5
King Darius signed a document that prohibited anyone from making “a petition to any god or man besides” himself (Dan. 6:7). Anyone refusing to obey the order “shall be cast into the lion’s den” (v. 7). Daniel refused to heed the edict’s restrictions. The Bible states that Daniel went out of his way to disobey the order: “Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously” (v. 10).
The New Testament
The New Testament has similar accounts of resistance to tyranny. When Peter and John were ordered by the rulers and elders of the people to stop preaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18), the two apostles refused to follow their injunction: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (vv. 19‑20). Peter and John could not stop speaking what they had seen and heard because they had been commanded by Jesus to preach in His name (cf. Matthew 28:18‑20; Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 9:16).
On another occasion, some of the apostles were arrested for preaching and healing in the name of Jesus. Again, they were put in a “public jail” (Acts 5:18). During the night “an angel of the Lord . . . opened the gates of the prison” and commanded them to disobey the rulers of Israel: “Go your way, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of life” (v. 20). When the apostles again were confronted with the command not to preach and teach, their response was quick and sure: “We must obey God rather than men” (v. 29).
The apostles’ obedience to God conflicted with the desires of the State. This resulted in the first apostolic death by the hands of a civil authority: “Now about that time Herod the king [Agrippa I] laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death” (Acts 12:1‑2). Peter was later arrested for similar “crimes” against the State (v. 3). Obeying God rather than men is legitimate. God certainly set the example when He sent one of His angels to release Peter from prison (vv. 6‑8).
There are times, therefore, when it is permissible to resist unlawful acts by government. If our government forces compliance on same-sex marriage for churches, schools, and businesses, there is biblical precedent to resist.
- Randy C. Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?: Breaking the Law to Save the Unborn (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 106. [↩]
- John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985), 211. [↩]
- Judge Randall Hekman, “Letter to the Editor,” Grand Rapids Press (November 19, 1982). Quoted in Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?, 79-80. [↩]
- Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?, 79. [↩]
- Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 211-12. [↩]