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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

The Limits of Obedience

By Larry Beane

A controversial American economist and political philosopher, Walter E. Williams, lays out a case for disobeying the law - specifically federal laws related to health care mandates.  He asks a provocative question "Should we obey all laws?"  This is really a moral and ethical question that cuts to the very essence of government and its power.

At first glance, his answer to this question seems to run contrary to the scriptural Christian understanding of law and order.

In Romans 13:1-7, St. Paul lays out the Christian's duty to be obedient to the government.  He is told to "Submit (υπερεχουσαις) to the governing authorities (εξουσιαις)."  He is told that whoever resists (αντιτασσομενος) the authorities is opposing God and setting himself up for judgment.

St Peter says something very similar (1 Peter 2:13-17): "Be subject (υποταγητε) for the Lord's sake to every human institution (ἀνθρωπίνῃ κτίσει), whether it be to the emperor (βασιλει) as supreme, or to governors (υπερεχοντι) sent by him....  Honor (φοβεισθε) the emperor (βασιλεα).

Obviously, we live in a republic, not a kingdom.  We in the United States have a federal-state-local system of government in which political power is shared and comes from the bottom up.  Even at the federal level, authority resides in competing branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.  And unlike ancient tyrannies, the federal and state governments are held accountable by limited authorizations of power by written constitutions.

How do we apply the scriptures in the context of our various "emperors" and "governors" today?

Also complicating matters is the fact that Scripture abounds with examples of sanctified disobedience.  In other words, Peter's and Paul's exhortations to obedience are not absolute.  There seem to be limits of obedience.

In the Torah, Moses led the children of Israel in rank disobedience against the Pharaoh.  In their pre-monarchical history, the Israelites rebelled against their overlords on many occasions (even though it was God Himself who placed them under such authorities as a consequence and punishment for their disobedience).  Ehud committed regicide against King Eglon of the Moabites (Judges 3:21).  Jael assassinated the military commander Sisera (Judges 4:21) who served Jabin the king of Canaan.  There are many instances of Israelite resistance against their Philistine governments.  The history of Israelite rebellion and disobedience continues well into the intertestamental period against the Greek government.

A famous act of Old Testament civil disobedience of a peaceful and passive sort (against Babylonian law and hegemony) came in the form of illegal prayer (Daniel 6:4).

In the New Testament, Sts. Peter and John disobeyed the governing Jewish council by illegally preaching in the name of Jesus.  They replied: "We must obey (πειθαρχειν) God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

The early church is replete with disobedient Christians being executed by the imperial government (interestingly, including both Peter and Paul) for non-compliance with government decrees.

Lutheranism itself is founded on resistance against papal authority.  The confessors of Augsburg blatantly refused to honor the emperor when he commanded them to worship according to Roman rubrics.  They further defied his authority by refusing to reunite under the papacy, and instead formed the militant Smalcaldic League.  Much blood was shed as a result of Lutheran disobedience to the state in the days of the interims.

The United States was born of an act of disobedience against the British crown and parliament as the thirteen colonies seceded from the empire.  The United States suffered horrific bloodshed in the nineteenth century owing to a secession crisis of its own.  Some theologians consider the Confederate South's disobedience to be sinful, while others include the secessionist birth of the United States to be equally sinful and contrary to Romans 13.

In the mid-twentieth century, Americans resorted to civil disobedience to overturn unjust segregation laws.

And so what do we do with Walter Williams' modern call for popular and civil disobedience?  With state resistance against federal mandates?  With nullification?

I think Williams makes a very strong case for the moral right to disobey the government when the government itself (be it federal, state, or local) is acting immorally and/or unlawfully.  His own cited historical examples carry great weight.  Moreover, there were German Lutherans who acted passively, or even actively, against the legitimate and lawful National Socialist government in the mid twentieth century.  Likewise, consider the Russian Christians who defied Communist decrees under the Soviet Union, as well as the heroic disobedience among Christian refuseniks in Communist China and in Islamic countries.

But what about our situation closer to home?  What about when it isn't a cut-and-dried case of state vs. church?  What about when a branch of government steps beyond its boundaries as authorized by the constitution that governs it?  What do we do when the "emperor" himself is breaking the law?  What do we do in our own synod when popular conventions or bureaucratic political structures violate the Scriptures and/or the Lutheran confessions?  What are the limits of obedience?  And if disobedience is called for, what should that look like?  I like the fact that Williams does not call for violence.  I like the fact that Williams appeals to using one branch of government to resist another.  This seems to be in accordance with both the founders intent and the philosophical foundations for republican government with checks and balances.  Nobody wins when reformation becomes revolution.

So, what are the limits of obedience?  I believe this is a question we are going to continue to wrestle with in both church and state.