When is civil disobedience allowed for a Christian?

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Question: “When is civil disobedience allowed for a Christian?”

Answer: The emperor of Rome from AD 54 to 68 was Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, also known simply as Nero. The emperor was not known for being a godly person and engaged in a variety of illicit acts, homosexual marriage being among them. In AD 64 the great Roman fire occurred, with Nero himself being suspected of arson. In his writings, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus recorded, “To get rid of the report [that he had started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace” (Annals, XV).

It was during the reign of Nero that the apostle Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans. While one might expect him to encourage the Christians in Rome to rise up against their oppressive ruler, in the chapter 13, we find this instead:

“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:1–7).

Even under the reign of a ruthless and godless emperor, Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells his readers to be in subjection to the government. Moreover, he states that no authority exists other than that established by God, and that rulers are serving God in their political office.

Peter writes nearly the same thing in one of this two New Testament letters: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:13–17).

Both Paul’s and Peter’s teachings have led to quite a few questions from Christians where civil disobedience is concerned. Do Paul and Peter mean that Christians are always to submit to whatever the government commands, no matter what is asked of them?

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When is civil disobedience allowed for a Christian?