A recent GraceTalk session dealt with obeying the civil government. The pastors affirmed that per Romans 13 and other passages we have a responsibility as a Christian to obey the civil government unless it requires something God forbids or forbids something God requires. The example discussed was obedience to traffic laws and the conclusion was that to disobey them in sinful. You can listen to the entire discussion here.
During the Q&A time, someone asked if the actions of those who disobeyed the law during the civil rights movement were sinful, for example Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. As the pastors on the panel pointed out, not all instances of refusal to follow the law are as clear cut as whether or not we obey the speed limit. I believe we can answer this question by looking at two principles from scripture:
The Principle of Interposition
This says it is acceptable to interpose ourselves between an unjust law and others to protect them from harm or mistreatment. The best example of this is in the Book of Esther. Esther’s people, the Jews, are about to be legally attacked and killed due to an edict of the king. Even though it is illegal for Esther to go before the king without being summoned, she does so anyway on behalf of the people about to be slaughtered. In Esther 4:16 we read:
Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish
One of the keys to this kind of situation is we must be willing to face the consequences of our disobedience should it come to that, as was Esther and as were many involved in the civil rights movement who faced prison and abuse for their disobedience.
There is also the example of Christ. Though He tells the people in Matthew 23:2-3 to obey the scribes and Pharisees we also see him in Matthew 12:9-14 engage in a kind of civil disobedience against them:
“He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.”
In other words, human lives, health and safety are more important than the letter of the law (of man). The trigger for this kind of civil disobedience should not be indignation over personal wrongs but over harm or potential harm done to others. It’s the difference in running a stupidly placed stop sign because I’m in a hurry and don’t want to be inconvenienced and running it because I’m on the way to the hospital with a seriously injured person.
The Principle of Obeying God Rather than Men
But there’s an even stronger case to be made for disobeying laws such as the one’s opposed by civil rights activists in the 1960s – that such laws require us to disobey God. We have clear teaching in scripture that when government requires something of us God forbids, we must obey Him over government. This is most clearly seen in Acts 5:27-29 when the Apostles are commanded to stop preaching in Jesus’ name.
Jim Crow laws were passed by state and local governments across the south beginning in the late nineteenth century. They regulated what businesses and other places of public accommodation could and could not do with regard to black patrons. It is important to realize that Jim Crow was not businesses refusing to serve black customers but government telling businesses they could not do so. As late as 1885, prior to Jim Crow, black people could ride in the first-class carriage on trains in South Carolina as attested by journalist T. McCants Stewart. That’s not to say racism was absent in that era, just that government coerced segregation was not yet in force.
Given what the Bible says regarding how we are to treat one another, that we are not to be respecters of persons (Acts 10:34), that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39) and that we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), when government compels us to treat others differently because of a superficial human characteristic like skin color, I believe we are compelled by scripture to refuse to do so.
So, based on these two principles, I do not consider the civil disobedience of Rosa Parks and other non-violent civil rights protesters to be a sinful disobedience of government.