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On Civil Disobedience

In the Nick of Time

The year was 1986. Even though Ronald Reagan was in his second term, abortion-on-demand remained big business in every state. That was when Randall Terry decided to initiate a more vigorous kind of anti-abortion activism. He chained himself to a sink in an abortion clinic, effectively preventing access to abortions until he was arrested and removed by police. He went on to found Operation Rescue, famously violating trespass laws by blocking the entrance to abortion clinics. Eventually Terry would be arrested more than forty times.

When Terry broke laws against trespass, he was following a tradition of American civil disobedience. For example, Henry David Thoreau protested slavery by refusing to pay his taxes. He spent only one night in jail before someone paid the tax for him, but Thoreau insisted that he would have been willing to submit to any length of incarceration—as a matter of principle.

More than a century later, nonviolent marches and sit-ins became key tools in the civil rights movement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., later expanded the role of these protests beyond civil rights to economic policy. At the time of his death he was helping to plan the “Poor People’s Campaign,” encouraging the poor to come to the nation’s capital in mule carts, old trucks, or whatever transportation they could find, then to sit down in the middle of the street if necessary. His goal was to “dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it,” in contrast to rioters who resorted to violent civil disobedience. After King’s assassination, the campaign was carried out under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy.

What should Christians think about civil disobedience? They can hardly denounce it tout court. The Bible is replete with examples of believers who, as a matter of principle, rejected the mandates of civil rulers. Moses’ parents hid him in the face of Pharaoh’s decree. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow the knee to Nebuchadnezzar’s image. The children of Israel continued rebuilding the temple in spite of the emperor’s cease-and-desist order. Peter and the apostles refused to halt their preaching at the behest of the Sanhedrin. Paul rejected the Philippian town council’s order to leave town quietly, insisting that the city officials recognize the maltreatment they had given him and Silas.

Everyone agrees that a human law or command must be disobeyed when it clearly requires disobedience to God’s law. A human law that forces people to do something that God prohibits, or a law that forbids them from doing what God requires, is a law that has no moral force. Violating such a law may lead to severe consequences from the civil authorities, but the violation will be blessed by God.

Furthermore, Scripture implies that governors are bound by laws. That is why the children of Israel kept rebuilding the temple when they were ordered to stop: they had a decree from an earlier Persian emperor (a “law of the Medes and Persians”) that required them to do the building. To stop would have been illegal as well as immoral, and the decree requiring them to stop was eventually overturned. Lower laws that contradict higher laws may be morally disobeyed.

Many Christians have argued that laws are not binding where civil rulers exceed their rightful authority. Discovering the boundaries of rightful authority has often been controversial, but most Christians would recognize that there is such a thing as governmental overreach and that “Irish democracy” (treating the law as if it did not exist) is at least sometimes a moral response. It was in this vein that Augustine declared an unjust law to be no law at all.

Back to Randall Terry, Henry David Thoreau, and the Poor People’s Campaign. The thing that is different about these situations is that they did not involve breaking an unjust law. They involved breaking just laws to protest laws that were perceived as unjust. That is all the difference in the world. Scripture nowhere hints that just laws can be violated with moral impunity. Quite the opposite—these are the laws that Peter has in mind when he writes that people are to submit themselves to every human institution (1 Pet. 2:13-17).

Furthermore, whether the protest is non-violent is not the issue. The difference between violent lawbreaking and nonviolent lawbreaking is one of degree, not one of kind. Rioters loot a shop and make away with the merchant’s goods, while protestors block the street and deprive the merchant of business. In either case, the merchant is deprived of livelihood. The difference is tactical, not moral.

This point has been grasped by some contemporary “non-violent” protestors. For example, Soulforce, a gay advocacy group, recently published the following reflection upon the Black Lives Matter movement:

Nonviolence, for us, is a set of organizing principles that have been successful for Soulforce in the past, and a strategy that we hope will get as many of our people out alive as possible while demanding the change we seek. We recognize and affirm that practicing nonviolence can be an expression of one’s personal morality. And at the same time, it is NOT our place to condemn others who choose different strategies of resistance than we do.

In other words, for groups like Soulforce, non-violence is not morally superior to violence in any universal and binding way. Since non-violent disobedience to a just law is moral, violence may also be moral for some. On this point, Soulforce is quite correct. When it comes to breaking just laws, the distinction between violence and non-violence is a matter of convenience, not principle.

Randall Terry forced conservative evangelicals to think through this problem during the 1980s and early 1990s. At least some of us drew the conclusion then that it is not right to do wrong to do right. If a law is genuinely unjust, we may rightly choose to break that law, but God grants no permission to break a just law to protest an unjust one. We concluded that the right thing for the authorities to do was to arrest Terry and to charge him with breaking the law. This is the proper response of civil authority to all civil disobedience that involves breaking just laws.

We will likely face the same problem more urgently in the future. The attitude of American civilization toward Christianity is shifting. Judicial decisions, executive policies, and legislative enactments are increasingly marginalizing Christian perspective and practice. At some point, people of conscience will undoubtedly have to defy some laws. The tradition of civil disobedience tells us to break just laws to gain attention, raise consciousness, and protest injustice. This is a tradition that we should reject. We need to be sure that acts of civil disobedience are directed explicitly and exclusively to unjust laws. Otherwise, we deserve to be treated as ordinary miscreants.


This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.


Holy Father! Whom We Praise
Thomas Binney (1798–1874)

Holy Father! whom we praise
With imperfect accents here;
Ancient of eternal days!
Lord of heaven and earth and air;
Stooping from amid the blaze
Of the flaming seraphim,
Hear and help us while we raise
This our Sabbath evening hymn.

We have trod Thy temple Lord;
We have joined the public praise;
We have heard Thy holy Word;
We have sought Thy heavenly grace:
All Thy goodness we record,
All our powers to Thee we bring;
Let Thy faithfulness afford
Now the shadow of Thy wing.

We have seen Thy dying love,
Jesus! once for sinners slain;
We would follow Thee above!
We like Thee would rise and reign.
Let revolving Sabbaths prove
Seasons of delight in Thee;
Let Thy presence, Holy Dove,
Fit us for eternity.

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.