My article “Is It Unbiblical to Protest Against Unrighteous Governments?,” a response to John MacArthur’s comments on whether it’s right to protest against unjust, unconstitutional, and unbiblical actions by civil magistrates received a lot of attention and a number of comments. One person argued that we should follow Jesus’ example and glory in our suffering. Then why didn’t Peter stay in his prison cell (Acts 5:17–32) or Paul not escape from a plot to kill him if the Christian’s lot in life is to suffer (9:19b–25)? I wrote to him that with such a view he should feel regret to live in the United States that gives him the freedom to practice his religion. Why doesn’t he move to a nation where he can suffer for his faith since he believes this is true Christianity? When the apostle Paul was about to be beaten by a Roman soldier, he appealed to his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:25–29). Later in Acts, he appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:1–12).
The emailer claimed that we should not seek “what the nations seek” (1 Sam. 8:5, 20). I agree. The first Christians were commanded by Jesus to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19). What the nations do is not the standard, and as a result they need to be transformed. The nations exist at God’s good pleasure (Ps. 2) and are required to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus. Israel was taken captive by the nations because the people of Israel did not stand against the ungodly practices of their rulers. Israel was to be the model of righteousness for the nations (Deut. 4:1–10). For some reason, the above emailer sees less of a role for Christians in the New Testament. A better covenant (Heb. 8) becomes a lesser covenant.
Here’s the clincher: Most modern-day Christian leaders have little to offer the nations except a descent into the eschatological void. This is why they fear popular uprisings against despotic rulers. They don’t know what to tell the victors once the regime has fallen. They fear the rise of Islamic law, as they should, because they don’t have an answer to it. Try going into a Muslim nation with the most often misinterpreted and misapplied verse “we’re not under law but under grace” or the two-kingdom approach that “God’s law is not the answer, natural law is.” What’s the answer to the positive eschatology of Islam? The “rapture”? Muslim evangelists are trying to change the world while Christian end-time prophecy writers are looking to escape it. So what are we to do before a so-called rapture? The church has little or nothing to say on the subject.
Another One emailer made the following good points.
The examples used in the article all point to individual sinful action on the parts of various kings, not to laws passed that apply to all the king’s subjects. Clearly, Scripture prohibits Christians from submitting to the civil magistrate’s commands when those commands either order us to do something that God specifically forbids (like murdering unborn babies, for example), or forbids us from doing something that God commands (perhaps forbidding us from worshipping Him, for example). Civil disobedience would certainly be warranted in these cases. I can’t think of any examples in Scripture where a people received God’s approval for civil disobedience. On the other hand, I also see no place that suggests that Christians may not become involved in the political process, leading to change. If I am missing something, please do let me know.
My article did not deal with civil disobedience. The question I asked was whether the Bible forbids protesting against unjust civil leaders given what Paul writes in Romans 13:1–4 and Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:13–17. There’s no reason to call for civil disobedience when there are viable options open to the electorate, especially in the United States. The First Amendment to the Constitution states that one of our freedoms is “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” but within the context of a Republican form of government1 supported by moral self-government.2
Muntazer Al-Zaydi of Iraq made an interesting observation of these popular mid-eastern uprisings. “Young people watch satellite TV and ask why Americans can elect new leaders every four years but they cannot.”3 How did America gain this privileged freedom? Americans, led by the lesser magistrate principle inherent in biblical principles and articulated by reformers like John Calvin, protested against civil tyranny. The difference such thinking made among the American colonies was the moral worldview that prevailed, a worldview built on the principles of Christianity. There was no comparable French Revolution. John Adams believed morality could not exist without religion. In a speech to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts to the military October 11, 1798, he made the following comments:
While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. . . . [W]e we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.4
Robert Charles Winthrop (1809–1894), an American philanthropist, congressman from Massachusetts, and one-time Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, stated “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or by the bayonet.”
These were not new ideas. They have a long history going back to Magna Charta. The Declaration of Independence was based on them:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned [the king] for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
The right to petition the government is different from voting, which is in itself a form of governmental dissent and protest. Petitioning can take place any time and does not have to wait for an election. Recalling government officials is also a right. In 2003, Governor Gray Davis was recalled, the first time since 1921 that a governor had been recalled. In 1983, voters recalled Michigan state senators Phil Mastin and David Serotkin because of their support for a state income tax hike. Because the Constitution does not prohibit the recall of elected officials at the Federal level, there is nothing to stop voters from holding a recall election. The Tenth Amendment is clear: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Our unique system of government, because it is so decentralized with 50 separate operating governments and checks and balance system at the Federal Level, is nearly impervious to wholesale breakdown and revolution. We’ve had presidents assassinated, a congressman killed by a foreign power (the downing of Korean airliner KAL 007 by the Soviets in 1983 with sitting Congressman Larry McDonald on board5), and enemy attacks, and yet the nation remained intact. As we saw in the 2010 election, there was a dramatic shift in political power and the national level with no attendant violence. People voted to make a change. The transition was civil and without incident.
- “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government. . . .” (Art. IV, sec. 4, clause 1 of the United States Constitution). A republican form of government is distinguished from a pure democracy. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” A republic balances popular participation with representative participation, decentralized political power, and checks and balances. [↩]
- James Madison wrote in Federalist 55: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government (that of a Republic) presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.” [↩]
- “Rage, Rap and Revolution,” TIME (February 28, 2011), 36. [↩]
- John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1854), 9:229. [↩]
- “Lee Greenwood has stated that he wrote the song ‘God Bless the USA’ in response to his feelings about the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. ‘The song just about wrote itself,’ Greenwood said in the book God Bless the USA (by Greenwood and Gwen McLin). ‘The words seemed to flow naturally from the music, and came out with total honesty. They were an expression of my feelings of pride. To me, America seemed just like a rookery, a place where we have a chance to grow, unmolested and free.’” [↩]