(By Brad Hughes, Centennial Institute Fellow) Biblical justice is simply the reflection of God’s righteousness. God’s righteousness means that He always acts congruent with what is right and He is the ultimate measurement of what is right. Justice is mentioned 115 times in the Old Testament. Tsedek in the Old Testament Hebrew and dikaios in the New Testament Greek are the words used to communicate that justice is based upon God’s righteousness. However, in today’s culture, people have changed the object of righteousness from God to themselves in an effort to advance their own interests or those of the group they represent in an effort to effectuate social justice.
Luigi Taparelli, a Jesuit priest, was the first to coin the term social justice (around 1850) shortly after the publication of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. Marx, like many in the social justice movement, was deeply opposed to capitalism and stated his object in life was to “dethrone God and destroy capitalism.” Social justice is rooted in the identity politics of groups while using the state in an interminable effort to exact the group’s objectives. Social justice is typically an instrument of the state and is a distortion of what the Bible teaches.
Deuteronomy 32:4 tells us that all His ways are just. Genesis 18:25 tells us that the Judge of the Earth always does right. Psalm 19:8 tells us that the precepts of the Lord are right. Romans 9:20 asks who are we to judge God? Isaiah 32:1 and Jeremiah 23:5 affirm that righteousness is true judgment. Deuteronomy 6:25 instructs us to obey God. Isaiah 40:14 tells us that justice is rooted in God’s character. New Testament affirmations of God’s justice are expressed in Romans 3:5-6, Romans 9:14, Revelation 16: 5-7, Revelation 19:11, and 1 Peter 1:17. Just law reflects God’s standards and not human reasoning in Habakkuk 1:7. Judges 21:25 warns us not to do what is right in our own eyes when it conflicts with what God says.
Many people have trouble with biblical justice because they have trouble reading and understanding the Bible itself, resulting in moral confusion and subjective interpretation. Eisegesis (reading into the Bible what you want it to say) is different than exegesis (reading from the Bible what God is actually saying.) Biblical justice is based upon the deontological (objective or absolute) authority of God while social justice is based upon the utilitarian (subjective or relative) authority of man.
The pursuit of social justice has contributed to the three biggest lies that Americans tell themselves: there is no God, there is no hell, and I am a good person. Many of these same people assert that they deserve justice when, in fact, they really want grace (to expedite God’s timing.) God’s justice is for victims and perpetrators and comes in the form of retributive, or punishment/restorative justice. Distributive, or social, justice is a man-made ethical system popularized by Marx where man makes up his own interpretation of justice independent from God’s character. God also uses rehabilitative justice to correct/ discipline individual behavior. Finally, God administers eternal justice through the doctrines of heaven and hell where there are degrees of rewards and punishments, respectively.
Biblical justice has much to offer about the issue regarding national conduct in relation to God’s character. Biblical justice for nations is cited in Habakkuk 1:13, Malachi 2:17, Psalm 82: 1-8, Isaiah 61:8, Psalm 33:5, Psalm 37:28, and Psalm 99:4. It is important to understand that the laws of a nation may oppose biblical precepts and the responsibility is incumbent upon the Christian to pursue civil disobedience in an effort to mediate wrong behavior. Deuteronomy 28 teaches that God blesses those nations that obey His rules and statutes while cursing those nations that are in rebellion against His rules and statutes. Psalm 2 and Psalm 9 provide a sober warning to those nations (and their rulers) that are in rebellion against God.
It is important to understand that biblical justice originates from God’s righteousness. It is also important to distinguish between what the Bible teaches and what a nation practices. The question arises as to when mediation efforts are required to close the gap between a nation gone awry and orthopraxy. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote over 30 years ago of “defining deviancy down” as a means of expressing the disastrous consequences of tolerating moral failure as acceptable.
Sadly, some biblical teachers assert that Romans 13:1 commands the Christian to obey the government leaders in all circumstances and that rebellion against authority is wrong. Andy Stanley, pastor of a megachurch in Atlanta, has advised Christian bakers, photographers, florists, et.al, to overlook their moral conscience and succumb to both the demands of same sex couples (who want these professionals to participate in their wedding arrangement) and the rule of law now codified by the President and the US Supreme Court. Andy Stanley has been joined by countless other pastors who plead for obedience to the rule of law. This teaching is unsound as the Christian should resist evil leadership all the way up to and including rebellion. There is a biblical role for civil disobedience. It is right to break the law when there is a direct and specific conflict between God’s law and man’s law.
There are many Biblical passages that contradict the popular teaching that Romans 13:1 should invoke compliance to the government by the Christian irrespective of the government’s moral behavior. Six major examples that illustrate civil disobedience on the part of God’s people include: Exodus 1:15-18 where the Hebrew midwives disobeyed the law to murder infant Hebrew boys as they were commanded, Daniel 6: 7-9 where King Darius issues a decree to pray only to him whereupon Daniel disobeys the law, Mark 6:18 where John the Baptist criticized Herod for having his brother’s wife which ultimately led to his own beheading, Acts 4-5 where Peter and John are commanded not to preach about Jesus but defiantly did so anyway, Daniel 3: 8-12 where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego disobeyed King Nebuchadnezzar’s law and would not worship him, and Revelation 13:13 where we are told to resist the mark of the beast.
Each of these examples has three elements in common. First, there was a direct and specific conflict between God’s law and man’s law. Second, in choosing to obey God’s higher law, the law-breakers must accept the consequences of their disobedience. Third, God honored their disobedience. Finally, Romans 13:3 says “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.” This passage clearly exonerates rebellion against evil rulers, e.g. the Confessing Church rebellion against Hitler was right because Hitler did commit terror and did so against those who were doing what was biblically correct (Proverbs 24: 10-12.) The Bible also confirms civil disobedience in 1 Kings 18:4 where Obadiah hides 100 prophets from Jezebel who, at the time, was murdering God’s prophets.
The Romans 13:1 passage is clearly not teaching that Christians should be blindly obedient to corrupt rulers. The Bible does not teach that the Germans should have been submissive to Hitler in his evil rule. We are instructed to disobey all tyrants whether it is Hitler, or Stalin, or any other tyrant that opposes biblical teaching. The Bible never teaches to obey evil or to obey Satan. We must obey God and resist Satan. Romans 13:1 teaches that we should obey our leaders only up to the point where their leadership does not violate God’s law. It is a false teaching that Christians should never engage in civil disobedience. 2 Peter 2:1-13 confirms that false teachers will be punished. Much of the Old Testament has the prophets condemning evil government. God ordains governments but not their evil. Christians can obey governments that permit evil but not those that command evil. The Christian should disobey the government when the government commands evil, restricts religious freedom, and attacks political and economic freedom.
Jesus of Nazareth endorsed civil disobedience. Mark 11: 15-19, Matthew 21: 12-17, Luke 19: 45-48, and John 2:13-16 all confirm that Jesus was righteously disobedient when confronting the moneychangers in the temple whereupon the chief priests and teachers of the law began conspiring to kill him.
The Apostle Paul endorsed civil disobedience. The word “governing” as written by Paul in the Romans 13:1 passage is the Greek word huperecho, which translates to “morally better or excellent.” The word is NOT referring to the unrighteous leader. Paul is writing that the ruler is morally excellent or better. One must ask the question, why was Paul so frequently imprisoned and persecuted? It was because he was in rebellion against the religious and civil authorities that opposed his teaching. Advocates of passive obedience to authorities completely misunderstand Romans 13 as Paul himself was a repeated role model for disobedience.
Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, endorsed civil disobedience.Bonhoeffer tried to assassinate Hitler after realizing that no one was going to stop Hitler. Hitler used Romans 13:1 to force church compliance with his evil plan. Hitler removed the cross from churches and placed a swastika in its place. The Barmen Declaration (which gave rise to the schismatic “Confessing Church”) said the church would not be an organ of the state. Only 700 of 18,000 German Protestant pastors refused to comply with Hitler’s takeover of the church, for which many were arrested. No theologian of any repute would counsel the Christian to cooperate with evil based on Romans 13:1.
Dr. Martin Luther, founder of the Reformation, endorsed civil disobedience. “We are to be subject to governmental power and do what it bids, as long as it does not bind our conscience but legislates only concerning outward matters… But if it invades the spiritual domain and constrains the conscience, over which God only must preside and rule, we should not obey it at all but rather lose our necks.”
Abraham Kuyper, a leading theologian of the 20th century (who became prime minister of the Netherlands in the early 1900’s) endorsed civil disobedience. “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin.” James 4:17 says “To him that knows to do good and does not do it, it is sin.” Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Bonhoeffer said “Silence in the face of evil, is itself evil.” George Washington also understood that human government is a “dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Those that teach blind obedience to corrupt leaders either clearly misunderstand Romans 13:1 or are attempting to suppress Christian righteous action.
Dr. Francis Schaeffer, another of the great 20th century theologians, endorsed civil disobedience. Schaeffer said that when the ruler is “contrary to the Word of God, those who hold that office abrogate their authority and are not to be obeyed. And that includes the state. The state is a delegated authority to punish evil and protect the good. When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny.”
Some Christian teachers assert that we should not rebel against authority. How could they therefore justify the American Revolution? The colonies were in rebellion against the British crown. The First Great Awakening of the 18th century was instrumental in preparing the hearts of the colonists to rebel against financial, political, and religious oppression. Proper interpretation of scripture requires that each verse must be understood in the context of all scripture. A text taken out of context is a pretext. If one passage does not harmonize with all of scripture, it is being interpreted wrongly.
James Willson wrote “The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government” in the 19th century where he examined the Christian’s role regarding government from a biblical perspective and concluded that the Christian must stand against unrighteous rule. Proverbs 29:2 states that when the wicked rule, the people groan. Powers are given by God to His agents to enforce His will and His laws, not those of Satan.
Governing authority is delegated to man to do His will. However, God has allowed Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Pilate to rule. God allows what “is” despite it not being what it ought to be. He permits evil but tells us to hate evil. God allows Satan to do certain things but commands us to resist Satan. Hosea 8:4 says “They set up kings without my consent, they choose princes without my approval.” God may allow evil rulers as a punishment for rebellion.
God may allow certain things through His permissive will but not approve of them as He is sovereign and His ways are beyond tracing out. Romans 13:3-4 says the ruler is God’s servant. It is inconceivable to assert that Satan is God’s servant, therefore the passage is referring to righteous leadership. God has ordained the role of civil government, but not for evil powers. Similarly, God has ordained the family, but not for same sex marriage. God has ordained the church, but not for heretical teaching. The Christian should resist Satan as God teaches and therefore NOT obey evil commands.
Benjamin Franklin proposed that “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” should be part of the U.S. Seal. Franklin was not a doctrinal Christian but he accepted certain biblical truths. Jefferson liked the motto so much he used it on his own personal seal.There were 42 Kings between Israel and Judah. 28 of them were evil yet God allowed evil rulers as a punishment of biblical justice on the nation. There are 13 times in the book of Judges where God brings punishment to a nation in a repeated cycle of the people’s rebellion followed by God’s punishment of them through retributive judgment followed by their repentance and concluded by God’s restoration.
It is clear the Bible teaches that not all authority should be obeyed. It is clear that history shows us (through the American Revolution and Nazi Germany, among other examples, that not all authority should be obeyed. It is clear that great Christian teachers (Dr. Martin Luther, Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dr. Francis Schaeffer, Dr. Abraham Kuyper, and others) asserted that not all authority should be obeyed. We are called to be salt and light in the world. It is only a superficial analysis that believes all authority should be obeyed. Only leadership that aligns with God’s law deserves obedience. It is clear that any Christian that promotes blind obedience to government authorities clearly does not understand the meaning of Romans 13:1.
Sometimes it may be better to run than reform. Israel fled Egypt oppression. Joseph and Mary fled from Herod’s oppression. Many Jews fled Germany with the ascension of Hitler. What should we do? The Christian must be discerning when examining why the nation is in the throes of travail. Is it God’s judgment on the nation or the consequences of bad decisions? It is possible that God seeks repentance from the nation and its rulers. However, it might be that the evil ruler is an instrument of God’s punishment as we see over and over again in the Old Testament. The Christian should consider his own civic responsibility in voting or getting involved to change what they can. The Christian also has a responsibility to teach and disciple their families, friends, church members, and the broader community regarding deontological ethics. It is important to pray for God’s help and direction. Choosing civil disobedience or flight requires discernment as to which option is best. Civil disobedience in an unrighteous nation should be the first choice of action unless it is delayed so long that flight becomes the only option because the opportunity for reform has long closed. The time for such decisions may not be as far off as we like to think.