Charles Ryrie, author of the notes in the Ryrie Study Bible, argues that “Scripture teaches complete civil obedience on the part of Christians and does not indicate any exceptions to this principle.”1 Is he right? Many Christians believe he is.
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). This is the same Peter who said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
As we will see, there are exceptions under certain conditions. There are times when resisting the government is the right and moral thing to do. Let’s begin with the Old Testament.
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” (1:17). 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” (1:20‑21).
In 1560, the Geneva Bible was published. Between 1560 and 1644, at least 144 editions appeared. The Geneva Bible was also called the “Puritan Bible” because it was popular with Christians who opposed certain actions of the English monarchy. It was the Bible brought to America on the Mayflower.
In addition to being a fresh English translation, the Geneva Bible included notes on certain passages. King James I, whose name is associated with another translation of the Bible, the King James Version (1611), disliked the Geneva Bible because of the specific nature of some of those notes. “The later vilification of marginal notes,” David Daniell writes in his history of the English Bible, “especially by the politicians controlling King James in the early 1600s, was from fear of the working of this sovereign God in places outside the fence of what was narrowly understood as the only apostolic Christianity.”2
They expressly disliked the way it condemned rulers who acted contrary to God’s Word. For example, a marginal note for Exodus 1:19 stated that the Hebrew midwives were correct to disobey the Egyptian king’s order to kill the Hebrew babies. King James reasoned that if it was legitimate to oppose a ruler on one decree, then it was legitimate to oppose him on others. This is why King James professed, “I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is worst.”
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?. . .
“Ten short years ago [in 1972], 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
“Hekman was severely criticized in the press and by judicial colleagues. The child is now in grade school and is 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” (Ex. 2:3). Jochebed even deceived Pharaoh’s daughter into believing that she, Jochebed, was in no way related to the child (2:7‑9). Surely Jochebed was right in her defiance.
Rahab’s Lying and Spying
Rahab hid the spies of Israel and lied about their whereabouts. When a route for escape became available, she led them out another way from that of the pursuing soldiers. The king issued a command to Rahab: “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land” (Josh. 2:3). She disobeyed a direct command of the “king of Jericho.” Some want to maintain that Rahab was right in “welcoming the spies in peace” (Heb. 11:31), but she was wrong in lying about the whereabouts of the spies. The following is a representative example:
“We see, therefore, that neither Scripture itself nor the theological inferences derived from Scripture provide us with any warrant for the vindication of Rahab’s untruth and this instance, consequently, does not support the position that under certain circumstances we may justifiably utter an untruth.”5
“Welcoming them in peace” means that they would not fall in the hands of the king of Jericho which would have meant certain death. Rahab had changed her allegiance from Jericho to Israel. Conditions of war were operating. If she had told the truth to the men seeking the two spies, then she would have been an accomplice in their deaths (cf. Psalm 50:18).
There is another point that is often missed in this story about Rahab’s lie. “Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim” (Josh. 2:1). The text continues by telling us that “they went and came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab, and lodged there.” Did they announce that they were Israelite spies? Joshua says the operation was to be done “secretly,” that is, without revealing the truth of their mission. Are not “spies” in the business of lying?
Why was Joshua right in sending men to spy out the land, while Rahab was wrong in lying about the route the spies took? Why were the spies right in hiding and Rahab wrong in not revealing where they were hiding? Is not that an act of deception? Why didn’t they rebuke Rahab for lying? Why didn’t the spies leave by the same route they entered the city? Instead, they were accomplices in Rahab’s lie by allowing her to “let them down by a rope through the window” (2:15).
Rahab is praised by two New Testament writers for her actions: “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace” (Heb. 11:31). Rahab is listed with Abraham as one whose faith was reflected in her works: “And in the same way [as Abraham] was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25). By sending the spies out by another way, she subverted the king’s desire to capture the spies.
God commended Rahab for deception. Again, the circumstances were atypical. “The critics of Rahab’s lie apparently think her case is analogous to David’s adultery with Bathsheba, a union which ultimately produced Solomon. We are not, of course, bound to praise David’s action simply because Solomon’s rule produced many desirable results (such as the construction of God’s temple). We are specifically told that David’s adultery was abhorrent in the eyes of God; we are not so informed about Rahab’s actions.”6
When you go out at night, do you keep a light on in the house? Some people purchase a device that turns lights on and off at random intervals to give the appearance that people are at home. This is done to mislead burglars. Isn’t this deception? Are you not lying? Most every home has an answering machine. A message is left on the machine which says: “No one can come to the phone right now, but if you leave a message, someone will get back to you as soon as possible.” You haven’t said that you are not at home, but you are giving the impression that someone may be in the house when, in fact, no one is at home. Again, deception.
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 (2:25). This shows that there may be negative 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.”7
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” (6:7). 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” (6:10).
- Quoted in Lynn Buzzard and Paula Campbell, Holy Disobedience: When Christians Must Resist the State (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1984), 157. [↩]
- David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 309. [↩]
- Judge Randall Hekman, “Letter to the Editor,” Grand Rapids Press (November 19, 1982). Quoted in Randy C. Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?: Breaking the Law to Save the Unborn (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 79-80. [↩]
- Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?, 79. [↩]
- John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (London, England: The Tyndale Press, 1957), 139. [↩]
- Gary North, “In Defense of Biblical Bribery,” in Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 841. [↩]
- John Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 211-212. [↩]