While the Scriptures call all people to submit to the authorities that have been established (Rom. 13), should we submit to every direction they give? Clearly the answer is no. To mistakenly argue that we must is to commit the sin which the German Church of the 1930-40’s committed. There are some governmental mandates which go in direct opposition to the teaching of Scripture, and when they do, the Church must stand in opposition.
So how should one approach the question of civil disobedience? It is essential in times like this to remember a number of things as one evaluates and contemplates refusing to obey a legitimate governing authority. First, one must ask if the issue in question is a matter of weight or a tangentially insignificant issue. For instance, a rule against gun ownership, while violating the constitution, is not a weighty issue for the Christian. He or she can fulfill all the essential demands of God with or without a gun – singing praise, reading scripture, evangelizing others, being hospitable, etc. Weighty issues, however, are those which impinge upon the direct commands of God as they relate to worship or living out the Christian faith and making God known. This is why Christians in closed and hostile countries continue to evangelize and worship together, even though the government forbids. Weighty issues demand a recognition of the hierarchy of authorities – God first, then ecclesial-civil-familial as equals but each given their own sphere of responsibility.
Once one believes that an issue is weighty the second step in determining if disobedience is warranted is to study the word of God. Are there direct commands to do or not do the activity in question? Is their significant testimony in the word of God supporting opposition? Does the Scripture record people doing the action or abstaining from it throughout? For instance, worship opens the word, closes the canon and is present as a major component of nearly every page of Scripture. Therefore, worship must continue no matter what the governing authorities declare. In addition, it is useful to ask if the activity can be fulfilled in new or creative ways that would allow obedience. This requires one to be able to step outside of the cultural bonds which so many of us are chained in and to realize that Worship on Sunday at 9 am in your best clothes contains a lot of extra man made custom layered on top of the command to worship the Lord and sing praise to him. Recognizing the cultural add-ons can and must be considered before disobedience is practiced.
Third, it is always useful to compare a tentative position with the creeds and confessions of the tradition to which one belongs. As Reformed believers, we would do well to consult the Three forms of Unity, the Westminster standards, the Helvetic confessions and other such works. The wisdom of the tradition is helpful in seeing how others may have worked through relevant and related topics. For example, the 21st chapter of the Westminster Confession discusses the components of worship.
Fourth, one ought to look at Christian history. Has the church across time and space practiced disobedience on this issue or ones closely related? If so, the weight of Christian history supports disobedience as well.
Finally, pray and consult with other knowledgeable believers before making a final decision. Realize that not all may share your conviction. But you are responsible for your conscience before the Lord. Remember, however, that the path of disobedience is often a lonely path and it frequently invites the wrath of the authorities. Part of honoring the authorities when we disobey them is being willing to suffer their punishments willingly. Think of Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego willingly going to the furnace for their refusal to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Dan. 3).
May God guide and direct each of us, as the present reality seems to increasingly be leading the church towards times where this process will be needed more and more.