“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” (4:20).
During the Nazi reign of terror, Jews were hidden from German officials who were carrying out orders from their superiors to round up “non-Aryans,” specifically Jews. Hiding these “enemies of the State” was a crime against “legal” Nazi orders. What would you have done? What would your pastor have done?
It is 1942. The Nazis who control your nation militarily have just announced a new policy requiring all Jews to come to the local city hall and register. The most prominent church leader in your denomination has recommended obedience to all “lawful” directives of the German authorities. He has not recommended disobeying this new directive, and you have no reason to believe that he will. Your denomination will not speak directly to this issue, and you think the civil authorities will threaten to shut down churches or in other ways pressure the church’s leadership to remain silent or even recommend compliance with the order. Then a Jew you know comes to you and asks for asylum. He wants you to hide him in your attic or barn. You know that this would be illegal. Will you hide him or turn him over to the Nazis?2
Was it wrong to disobey these laws? In terms of Nazi law, yes. But what about in terms of the Bible? How would your pastor respond if the type of law was passed today? Of course, there were consequences for defying Nazi law. People who hid Jews from the Nazis risked their own lives.3 Those who spoke out publicly about the Nazi regime were sent to concentration camps.4
Resistance movements like those practiced by Christians during World War II have been accepted as morally justified by nearly all ethical thinkers. The Diary of Anne Frank and Thomas Kineally’s Schindler’s Ark (later made into the film Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg) show the highest praise for those who defied what was a “legal” government policy. In Give Me the Children: How a Christian Woman Saved a Jewish Family During the Holocaust, Pola Arbiser describes how her nanny defied the law and hid her and her sister from Nazi officers. The Jewish community of survivors have characterized these resistors as “righteous gentiles”5 or simply “Christian rescuers.”6 As we will see, in biblical terms, these actions were considered to be moral even though they violated Nazi Reich law.
Examples of resistance and persecution hardly seem applicable to our day. We are not under Nazi, English, Roman, or Communist oppression. While no civil official is demanding that ministers obtain a license to preach the gospel, restrictions are being placed on what ministers and Christians in general can say on moral issues derived from the Bible. For numerous examples, see David Limbaugh’s Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christians (2003).
Will our government plant “spies” in churches to catch ministers who preach from those parts of the Bible where the practice of homosexuality is condemned? It’s happened before.7 What will be the response of churches in America if the increasingly secular and anti-Christian courts rule that “discriminating” against “legally married” homosexual couples is a criminal act?8
The civil rights movement in the United States had its turning point when Martin Luther King, Jr., defied a court order because laws discriminating against blacks were considered to be immoral and unconstitutional. In his account of the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, King “speaks of a court injunction obtained by the city administration on April 10, 1963, directing that demonstrations be halted until the right to such activities might be argued in court. Dr. King continues: ‘Two days later, we did an audacious thing, something we had never done in any other crusade. We disobeyed a court order.’”9
King defined justice and righteousness in terms of the Bible. The Bible gave King moral certainty that he was right to defy what he considered to be a series of unjust laws. King’s use of Amos 5:24 was directed at the civil authorities who were discriminating in the way they dispensed justice.
If we take the position advocated by some that civil government is the final arbiter of what’s legal, moral, justice, and right, with no higher law binding the magistrate, there can be no higher court of appeal other than the one in power. The most oppressive tyranny must stand as the people turn a blind eye to injustice and retreat behind a doctrine of impotent quietude. As soon as this happens, the State, by default, has established itself as the new god to be honored, worshiped, and obeyed without debate or objection. R. J. Rushdoony describes the inescapable logic of denying a higher law ethic:
The universe of evolution and humanism is a closed universe. There is no law, no appeal, no higher order, beyond and above the universe. Instead of an open window upwards, there is a closed cosmos. There is no ultimate law and decree beyond man and the universe. In practice, this means that the positive law of the state is absolute law. The state is the most powerful and most highly organized expression of humanistic man, and the state is the form and expression of humanistic law. Because there is no higher law of God as judge over the universe, over every human order, the law of the state is a closed system of law. There is no appeal beyond it. Man has no “right,” no realm of justice, no source of law beyond the state, to which he can appeal against the state.10
The philosophy of Georg F. W. Hegel (1770–1831), followed by Marxists, Fascists, and Nazis, expresses the argument with chilling consistency: “The Universal is to be found in the State. . . . The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth. . . . We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth. . . . [T]he State is the march of God through the world.” After compiling these statements from Hegel’s works, Karl Popper comments that Hegel’s views mandate the “absolute moral authority of the state, which overrules all personal morality, all conscience.”11 Once this happens, there is no place to appeal for a redress of grievances.
In 1907, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evan Hughes said, “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is.”12 Since the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land,” it follows that the law is what the judges say it is. In Tropp v. Dulles (1958), Judge Earl Warren stated that the Constitution must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Who decides when a standard has evolved into a new standard?: Five members of the Supreme Court. What can the people do given these changes in the foundation of America’s judicial system? It depends on who you ask.
- Randy C. Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?: Breaking the Law to Save the Unborn (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 106. [↩]
- Gary North, “Editor’s Introduction,” Christianity and Civilization: Tactics of Christian Resistance (Tyler, TX: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983), xii. [↩]
- Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). [↩]
- Basil Miller, Martin Niemöller: Hero of the Concentration Camp (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1942), 112. [↩]
- As reported in Catherine E. Shoichet, “Christian nanny hid Jewish family from Nazis,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (August 27, 2003), E1 and E6. See Pola Arbiser, Give Me the Children: How A Christian Woman Saved a Jewish Family During the Holocaust (Altona, Manitoba, Canada: Friesens, 2003). [↩]
- David P. Gushee, “Christians as Rescuers During the Holocaust,” Must Christianity Be Violent?: Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology, eds. Kenneth R. Chase and Alan Jacobs (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003), 71. [↩]
- “Now, the charge against [Martin] Niemoeller was based entirely on his sermons, which the Gestapo agents had taken down stenographically. . . . [W]ritten laws, no matter how explicitly they were worded, were subjected to the interpretation of judges. The totalitarian principle which governs Nazi Germany, as I have indicated before, includes religion as a function of State. Therefore, by recognizing Christ only as his Leader, Pastor Niemoeller was denying the right to divine leadership to Hitler. His offense was all the more serious because he had exhorted his followers to do likewise” (Leo Stein, I Was in Hell with Niemoeller [New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1942], 175). [↩]
- For what may be in store for American churches, see Chuck McIlhenny and Donna McIlhenny, When the Wicked Seize a City: A Grim Look at the Future and a Warning to the Church (Lafayette, LA: Huntington House, 1993). [↩]
- Daniel B. Stevick, Civil Disobedience and the Christian (New York: Seabury Press, 1969), 1. [↩]
- Rousas J. Rushdoony, “Humanistic Law,” Introduction to E. L. Hebden Taylor, The New Legality (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1967), vi-vii. A revised version can be found in Gary North, Marx’s Religion of Revolution: The Doctrine of Creative Destruction (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1968), 118-119. [↩]
- Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath, 2 vols. 5th rev. ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,  1971), 2:31. [↩]
- David J. Danelski and Joseph S. Tulchin, eds., The Autobiographical Notes of Charles Evans Hughes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 143. Quoted in John W. Whitehead, The Second American Revolution (Elgin, IL: David C. Cook, 1982), 20. [↩]