I have wondered whether it is ever right for Christians to engage in civil disobedience, and if so, under what circumstances. This morning I’ve seen a clear example of such disobedience in the ministry of the apostle Paul.
The apostle relates this event in the context of the suffering and weakness that characterized his own God-ordained ministry. In previous verses he summarizes the dangers, indignities, and trouble he endured to spread the gospel. He doesn’t boast of his ability, or even of the miracles that God has done through him. He doesn’t mention people he healed or raised from the dead. He doesn’t mention casting out devils. He doesn’t mention cursing Elymas the sorcerer with blindness. Instead, he paints a picture of himself as a fugitive, hated by the world, going without necessary food and clothing.
After giving an impressively pathetic summary, he seems to wrap it up by saying that if he has to boast, he will boast of his own weakness, and declaring that God “knoweth that I lie not.” Then as if it has just occurred to him, almost as an afterthought, he writes this:
In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands.
2 Corinthians 11:32-33
This is a very clear example of ignoring and avoiding the expressed will of the lawful civil authority. I assume that this is the same incident recorded in Acts 9:22-25, although Acts doesn’t mention the governor or the city garrison. But reading Acts 9 it isn’t clear, to me at least, that this is an example of civil disobedience. There it says that the Jews wanted to kill Paul (then called Saul), and were lying in wait for him. Did the Jews have lawful authority in Damascus? As a matter of fact, Saul did, when he went to Damascus to persecute the church, so it’s possible. (See Acts 9:1-2, 14) But in 2 Corinthians, we are told that the governor himself was seeking to arrest the apostle.
The governor put out a dragnet, if you will. There were roadblocks and police (soldiers) on every road leaving the city. The Christians conceived of, and executed a plan to smuggle the apostle out of the city. I’m not a lawyer, but it sounds to me like the disciples could have faced charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for their part in this incident.
So there it is, a clear example of Christian civil disobedience being endorsed by scripture. And didn’t the Lord Jesus do the same thing? He avoided capture by the lawful civil authorities on at least 3 occasions in quick succession. These are recorded in John 7:30, 32, and 44. The chapter begins by explaining that Jesus was staying out of Judea because the Jews, who had the legal authority to arrest and punish people, were seeking to kill him. Jesus wasn’t the only one who knew they wanted to kill him, either, see John 7:25. So Jesus had to go to the feast of tabernacles in secret. I’m not sure it would be accurate to say he went in disguise, but some steps were taken to conceal his arrival.
One can not help but be struck by the boldness of our Lord, who remained hidden only for a time, and then began to teach publicly and defiantly, although his life was clearly in danger. Unlike Paul in the basket, the picture we see of Jesus in John 7 is not one of weakness. Whereas Paul snuck out of the city where he was in danger, Jesus snuck in! It reminds me of Robin Hood sneaking into Nottingham. Jesus concealed his attendance of the feast for a time, but then openly rebuked the local authorities.
The authorities sought to arrest Jesus three times in this chapter. The first time, we’re given no explanation how he avoided it other than that, in the plan of God, it wasn’t yet time. The second time they try to take him, Jesus speaks a parable or a riddle, and they seem to give up. On the last day of the feast, Jesus speaks publicly again, and some wanted to arrest him, but they were divided on this. Finally, the officers return to the rulers who had sent them to arrest Jesus. The officers’ explanation for their failure: “never man spake like this man.” They chickened out! And rightfully so.
Another example of civil disobedience is found in Acts 5:17 and following. A terrific explanation for the disobedience is this:
Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.
When the commandments of God and the commandments of men contradict, the choice we should make is clear.