Why Christians Should Break the Law
“…We must obey God rather than men.” – St. Peter, Acts 5:29
Christians must sometimes break the law. That is a reality. Sometimes, we are left with no choice.
Say, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” Eat your vegetables. Don’t litter. Brush your teeth. Pay your taxes. Go to church on Sunday. Open doors for ladies. Obey the law. These are all things we were taught as children, and these are all things we teach our children. These are good things. Unfortunately, we have to grow up and realize that “doing right” is not always as easy as it seems. An overly-simplistic understanding of Christian submission is harmful to our spiritual and societal wellbeing, and yet most Christians (so it would seem) understand very little about the topic beyond the childhood admonition of “obey the law.”
That question is the first that has to be asked if we are to mature in our understanding of submission. Which laws? Whose laws?
Let every person be subject 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 ESV)
The locus classicus text on Christian Submission, Romans 13 does not imply wholesale submission to anyone who would ask for it. We are to be subject to the governing authorities. These governing authorities certainly exist, and we are to submit to them. These governing authorities have been put into place by God, and they have been instituted by God. Whoever resists those authorities rebel against what God has appointed and will be judged appropriately.
Very explicitly, this Text demonstrates that there is a governmental authority in our life that has been appointed by God. We are to obey it. Why? Because it has been appointed by God. And lest we think this refers to only Christian government, I will remind you that this was written to Christians under the pagan, Roman regime. It was to the pagan, Roman regime that Jesus instructed the subjects to pay taxes (Matthew 22:15-22). We are to submit not only to the ultimate authority, the “Emperor as Supreme,” but to governors that he’s sent out to help shoulder that responsibility and to all “human ordinances” that are decreed by that supreme emperor (1 Peter 2:13-14).
From the three texts on submission to government authority (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and Matthew 25), we see the following:
- There is a governing authority over us.
- We are to submit to that governing authority, which has been instituted by God.
- We are to submit to that governing authority, regardless of whether it is Christian or pagan.
When we look at a systematic theology of Christian Submission, we see a big, fat asterisk in all of this – *so long as by following the governing authority’s laws, we do not disobey God’s Law. We see this exception by Peter and John in Acts 4 and Peter in Acts 5. We see this exception by the Egyptian midwives in Exodus 1. We see this by Daniel in Daniel 6.
How is it we are told to obey our governing authorities, while we see the heroes of our faith explicitly not obey their governing authorities (and be commended for it)? How is it that the forerunner of Christ proclaimed to Herod that it was “unlawful” for him to have his brother’s wife (John 14:4) – and be summarily executed for it – when Herod was the law? Herod was the Emperor as Supreme. Herod was governmental authority in human form.
The answer is actually a question – which law or which authority are we to obey?
- If a drunk stumbled into the streets of Rome and declared himself emperor, would Christians have to submit to the usurper?
- If a monarch was overthrown and the rightful line of descendancy replaced in a coup, would his subjects have to submit to another?
- If there’s a military coup de’etat of a democratically elected Prime Minister, would the citizens have to submit to the tyrant?
- Do you have to submit to a policeman who demands to search your vehicle without a warrant?
- Do you have to pull over if state trooper, out of his jurisdiction in another state, flashes his lights?
- Do you have to submit to questioning at a Border Patrol checkpoint, when they’re outside their 100 mile boundary?
These may be tough calls, but hopefully not. Nonetheless, the questions reveal the complexity of the command for Christian Submission. Who is the rightful ruling authority, the actual emperor or the drunk who claims he’s the emperor? Is all it takes to make someone the rightful governing authority that they successfully assassinated the last governing authority and assumed his office? If we don’t have to submit to a police officer’s demand for a search (and shouldn’t) without a warrant, then wouldn’t we then have to admit that the rightful ruling authority in our land is law and not the executors of that law? Wouldn’t it mean that executors of law (law enforcement) have no authority except what’s been granted them by law? But the next set of questions will hopefully not be as hard to answer as the former.
- Are American citizens to submit to Chinese governmental authority, when we’re not in China?
- As a Montana driver, do I have to abide by the Idaho speed limit while on Montana highways?
- Does a child have to obey other children’s parents, or their own?
- Is America obligated to obey the vast sum of “International Law” passed by global governing bodies like the United Nations?
China’s government is a governing authority. Idaho state government is a governing authority. Parents are a governing authority. The United Nations is a governing authority. Do the “big 3” New Testament passages on Christian Submission indicate that we must obey laws passed by other nations or jurisdictions or any random authority? Of course, they do not. These passages presume obedience to the rightful governmental authority. Jesus demanded tribute to Rome when speaking to Romans. It’s highly doubtful he would have told Far Easterners to pay tribute to Caesar.
Again, the question is not if we are to obey the law, but which laws.
The United States federal government has taken its first widely-publicized political prisoner. Dutifully elected county clerk, Kim Davis, was found in contempt of court by District Court Judge David Bunning for not obeying an order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The judge put Davis in jail not for breaking the law, but for following the law, which is what makes this situation particularly tragic. A few facts for your consideration.
- Kim Davis took an oath to uphold the laws of the state of Kentucky. This is that oath:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky so long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of _______ according to law; and I do further solemnly swear (or affirm) that since the adoption of the present Constitution, I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.“
Kim Davis did not take an oath to the federal judiciary. She took an oath to the Constitution of the United States and Constitution of Kentucky.
2. The current federal law on the topic of marriage is the Defense of Marriage Act. This was lawfully passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by the President of the United States. The Preamble of the Constitution (which Davis took an oath to uphold) says that “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” The Supreme Court cannot annul law or repeal it. That can only be done by an act of Congress. Congress has not repealed that law.
3. The current Kentucky law on the topic of marriage is Kentucky Constitution Amendment 1, passed by the citizenry into law with 75% of the popular vote and bans same-sex marriage within the state. That is the current Kentucky law, amended into the Constitution – the very state Constitution that Kim Davis took an oath to uphold.
4. Kim Davis did not take an oath to uphold rulings of the judiciary. She took an oath to uphold rulings of legislative branch known as laws. For Davis to issue a marriage license contradicting Kentucky state law, she would be breaking the law.
5. We are a nation governed by laws, and not governed by judicial precedent. The Supreme Court decision, Obergfell v Hodges, did not create law or annul law. It spoke to a specific incident in a specific case (and did so wrongly). It set a judicial precedent, but judicial precedent is not law. Laws are passed by Congress. To treat judicial precedent as law is a complete undoing of our governmental structure and balance of powers set forth in the Constitution.
Kim Davis had a choice – she could obey the rightful governing authority (her state constitution, along with state and federal law) – or an activist judiciary. Both are authorities of one kind or another. To obey one is to disobey the other. In this case, the Christian was left no choice but to disobey a governmental authority. Kim Davis chose to obey the rightful authority, and was made a political prisoner for it. Sadly, the judge is reportedly keeping Davis in jail until she changes her mind on the issue and (again, reportedly) because he is afraid she will continue to seek legal avenues to correct his false ruling and delay further the issue of marriage licenses to people unqualified for marriage. In other words, he is keeping Davis in jail so as to not have to deal with her political activism and legal recourse (and by the way, the marriage licenses given in her absence aren’t legally valid). This is, in every sense of the term, the political imprisonment of a legally elected official.
There are competing governmental authorities in all of our lives. Sometimes our employer competes for authority in our lives with our church. A husband may sometimes compete for authority with his wife’s parents. There are whole geo-political units, like Kashmir and Tibet, where entirely different nation states claim supreme authority over the people therein. Law enforcement competes with authority over their given jurisdictions, and often can’t decide among themselves who’s in charge. As thinking people, it is our Christian duty to submit to the authority that God has put in charge and who is the rightful ruling authority. For Kim Davis, that rightful ruling authority is not an activist judiciary.
But, what if Amendment 1 of the Kentucky Constitution and the Defense of Marriage Act were not the law of the land? Would Kim Davis then be obligated to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” Marriage was made by God and is a religious institution. Man has no jurisdiction over the definition of marriage, and if man decided to define marriage differently, this would become the jurisdiction of the most supreme of all emperors – the One, True God.
Christians, sometimes we have to break a lower law, to obey a higher one.