The rising tide of civil disobedience highlights different approaches Christians are taking

Should a Christian ever deliberately disobey the law in America? Randall J. Heckman and Everett G. Sileven have recently answered, “Yes,” and are paying a price for it.

They do not object to distinguishing between private and official spheres of authority. They agree that Paul authorized both. Individually we are to love our enemies and not act vengefully toward them (Rom. 12:19–20), yet the state has a God-given right to “bear the sword,” and to use force to restrain evil (Rom. 13:4). Both men accept the difference between personal ethics (refusing to take the law privately into our own hands) and the ethics of politics (the duty of society to restrict evildoers and to punish their evildoing). Some things that might be wrong for us if we acted personally, might be right for a policeman who officially represented his government and acted legally.

But though Heckman and Sileven accept this distinction, they have still run afoul of the law. The two cases, however, do not have equal merit.

The Case Of Judge Randall J. Heckman

Heckman is a highly regarded probate judge in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As befits his office, he has a solid reputation as a man of law and order. He is also a committed evangelical who not only loves his country, but also seeks to obey Christ and live by Scripture. Last November a 13-year-old girl five months pregnant came before his court, demanding her legal right to abort because she did not want her child. Judge Heckman refused her petition.

Ten years ago he would have been found guilty of a crime if he had so much as given her encouragement. But in 1973 the United States Supreme Court ruled that all state laws making abortion a crime were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court transformed what was formerly a crime into a sacred right protected by the Constitution. And it also thrust upon trial judges the responsibility of protecting this right, requiring them when necessary to order the death of the unborn child.

As a result Judge Heckman himself must now appear before the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission because of a complaint filed by NOW (the National Organization for Women). The commission has the authority to relieve him of his duties as judge, and he awaits its decision.

He defends his disobedience to the law: “The idea of judges putting themselves above the law should be repugnant to all citizens.… [But what if] a judge is required by law to order Jewish people to concentration camps or gas chambers because the law says that Jews are nonpersons? What if a judge, sitting on a case involving a runaway slave, disagrees with the Supreme Court’s 1856 decision in which black slaves were ruled to be nothing more than chattels?

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“Can the judges in these cases escape moral culpability either by obeying the law and saying they were ‘just following orders,’ or by disqualifying themselves so that other judges without their scruples can issue the unjust decrees?” Judge Heckman believes that, if a judge deliberately gives the case to another judge, he remains “a knowing and willing part of the ultimate injustice.”

It is Heckman’s conviction that such cases demand disobedience to the law in order that we may be obedient to Christ and the Scripture. Judge Heckman asks us to draw a parallel between a judge asked to order the killing of an unborn child, and one who is asked to order the execution of an innocent man. “When faced with this issue, a judge should courageously do what is ultimately right,” he says, by resisting the action requested. “When a judge is faced with the option of doing that which is ultimately just versus that which is merely legal, he ought to choose the just—and be willing to suffer, if need be, the consequences of doing so.”

Divinely Approved Civil Disobedience

The Bible gives many examples of those who chose to obey God at the cost of breaking the law. Moses’ parents are cited in the biblical Hall of Fame for their disobedience to the Egyptian government when they hid their baby (compare Heb. 11:13 with Ex. 1:15 ff.). The apostles, commanded not to preach the gospel, deliberately chose to disobey the law at great risk to their lives. Their defense was simply, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Daniel and his friends refused to bow before the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, and God miraculously delivered them from the furnace (Dan. 3). Later Daniel violated the law by choosing to pray to God, and God saved him from the royal lions (Dan. 6).

The Case Of Pastor Sileven

But not all cases are so clear-cut. Everett G. Sileven, pastor of the Faith Baptist Church in Louisville, Nebraska, spent months in jail because, for conscience’ sake, he refused to secure a license for his church’s elementary school from the authorities of the state of Nebraska. He proved the depth of his conviction by going to jail for what he believed was right. He chose to obey God rather than men. We admire him for his sincere endeavor to live by biblical principles, and we are grateful for a Christian pastor with the courage of his convictions.

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Yet we seriously question the wisdom of his decision. He argues that the church stands under the lordship of Christ only and not at all under the government. Therefore, he believes, government has no right to demand licensure of a church school or the teachers it employs; when it attempts to do so it infringes on the rights of the church and on the lordship of Christ.

God Has Given Rights To Governments, Too

Pastor Sileven, of course, is correct in saying that the church is under the authority of Jesus Christ and owes its complete obedience to him. But the government also has rights. God himself holds it responsible for protecting its citizens and providing for their welfare in appropriate ways. Therefore, in any church, but particularly in a church that operates an elementary school, we have a case of overlapping jurisdiction. It is the duty of government to protect the church from theft or from fire (so we have police patrols), or other dangers caused by badly designed structures (so we have building codes). Governments often license ministers to perform marriages so that records may be properly preserved. In the case of a school, government is properly concerned that all children should receive at least a minimum of general education. No parent has the right to keep his child in absolute ignorance. It is imperative, therefore, that we recognize government’s divinely ordained duty in such areas. Dangers can arise from the abuse of these duties, but this does not negate their validity as ordained by God and deserving of our support.

When To Stand Against Government

Where, then, should the church draw the line against governmental control? The answer emerges as we study out the legitimate sphere in which church and state each operates. Christ alone is head of the church. Its sphere concerns worship, instruction in the Scripture, evangelism and church growth, discipline, and ministry to its membership. If the state dictates what doctrine must be taught or not taught, or prescribes a way of life contrary to Scripture, or refuses to allow either free communication of the gospel or the nurturing of Christian life within the church, then the government has clearly invaded the territory that belongs exclusively to Jesus Christ the Lord of the church. But government has its responsibility, too. It must preserve law and order, and safety, and a minimum of education for its citizenry.

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Sometimes we find the line between these two areas difficult to trace. A government cannot forbid worship, but it has the right to forbid people to meet in an unsafe building. A hostile government, of course, could readily interfere with a Christian group’s right to worship by, for instance, trumping up false charges of building code violations. Still, the church must recognize government’s proper sphere. By unnecessary and unwise confrontation we bring the cause of the gospel into disrepute with thoughtful people.

In addition, we harm all people by unnecessarily undercutting respect for both government and law and order. Especially in an undisciplined age such as ours, Christians should do all they can to strengthen law and public obedience to it, for these are the foundations of justice. Therefore, when we flout government unnecessarily, and for the wrong reasons, we do severe damage both to the church of Christ and to the community we live in.

No doubt, too, Christians in a democratic society should urge their government not to tempt people of conviction. In a pluralistic society, we should insist that laws permit as much freedom as possible—freedom for churches, and freedom for all people of good will. And always we should look upon disobedience as a last recourse, being careful to render to Caesar what is properly his.

Also, we should be slow to confront, taking care in our study of the Scripture and wisely applying it. But above all we must stand courageously for God’s truth, and we must obey whatever he commands, at whatever cost.


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