June 2, 2009

When Is It Right To Rebel?

I participate in a men's discussion group on Sunday evenings and the following question was raised. When is it "right" for a Christian to rebel against authority?

Our entire cultural identity finds its roots in a rebellion against authority. The American revolution is a well documented and much discussed moment in history. That it was influenced and, largely, directed by men who saw the world through a Judeo-Christian lens is often commented upon. The founder's own words clearly acknowledge God's activity in their lives and in the workings of the world in which they lived. Refresh your memory with these words from The Declaration of Independence.

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Furthermore, considering that 40 of the 56 signatories of the Declaration were members of Christian churches, among them Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Anglican, Quaker, and Roman Catholic, there can be little argument that these men were committed, admittedly to varying degrees, to the ideals presented in Scripture.

With that in mind we perused Paul's instruction in Romans 13 and Peter's exhortation in 1 Peter 2. I print these passages here for your consideration.

"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor."
1 Peter 2:13-17
"Let evey person be subect to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment. "
Romans 13:1-2
That last line from Romans 13:2 caused quite a bit of consternation for us. It would seem from that instruction that we as a nation were set upon a path to "incur judgment" from the very foundations of the revolution because we, as a nation were clearly "resisting the authorities." Just how did the Christian men of 1776 reconcile this issue?

Our discussion wandered to Martin Luther and his nailing of the 95 theses to the Wittenburg door. He too was resisting the authorities. We found that we stand in a long line of "rebels," John Knox, William Tyndale, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to name just a few. Were they out of line scripturally? If not, what standard should be used to determine when rebellion against authority is merited?

We came to no clear cut answers and deferred the discussion to our next meeting. We would love to have the input of people like you. What do you think? When is it right to rebel?


Paul said...

It is funny that I just replied on another blog from Mobius Faith (check my blogroll) about institutions and power.
If you look at History, for example in pre-war Germany, many Christians were too willing to obey authority. One of the counter cultural and truly revolutionary ideas in Christianity is that we need to obey God more than men. So if there is no way for us to obey human authority (if and when these authorities go completely against God's good commands and Scripture) we need to listen to God.
It's a difficult question and - as always - we need to strike the balance between being as obedient, tolerant and, humble as possible and being as radical as possible (sounds funny) as dedicated followers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Cori said...

Interesting post, John. I was wondering whether the prophets would be seen as rebelling. Many prophets said (and modeled out) some very strong criticism against the leaders of their days. Especially when it was a case of injustice.

But as Paul points out, it seems to be a tension between being submissive and radical. In many cases I think Christians are very quick to be critical of the government without just cause (merely moaning and complaining) and in other cases I think Christians are too lax in standing up against the government (in the case of fighting for the poor, for example).

There is also a lot to say for passive resistance. Perhaps Jesus actions before Pilate and on the cross were the ultimate stand against authority...

I wonder if the versus you quote refer to this kind of passive resistance, the kind Ghandi and Martin Luther also embodied.