A Time to Disobey
November 28, 1999
Is it ever right for a Christian to disobey the law? Or are we always obligated to obey the law under all circumstances? What do you say? What does the Bible say?
More and more we are faced with this question—not as an abstract idea but as a live possibility. My own personal background leads me to say no to the first question. I was taught that there are no circumstances where a Christian might be justified in breaking the law. Most of us know that according to Romans 13 the Christian is to be in submission to the civil government. Our evangelical heritage leads us to reject any form of civil disobedience.
Times have changed, however. Over the years I have changed my “no” to a qualified “yes” regarding disobeying a civil law. There are some clear biblical examples that lead me to say that sometimes the Christian may actually be obligated to break a law in order to obey God.
A number of disturbing trends in American society contribute to that conclusion as well. On one hand we have the increasing devaluation of human life, seen most clearly in the death of over a million unborn babies each year through legal abortion. Then there is the rising tide of multicultural political correctness, fueled by postmodern relativism. What those big words means is this. We have arrived at a point in history where truth as an objective reality no longer exists. Truth has become a personal construct, a way of looking at reality that is intensely personal. Taken to the extreme, this means that nothing is ultimately “right” because nothing is ultimately “wrong.” The key word is “ultimately,” because if a thing is “ultimately” true or false it must be based in something other than human opinion or the shifting sands of personal preference.
A Letter to the Southern Baptists
In addition to that, I would add that we live in a day of rising hostility to evangelical Christianity. I could bring forth many examples, but the front page of today’s Chicago Tribune offers a good example. Several months ago the Southern Baptists announced that in 2000 they plan to send 100,000 short-term missionaries to Chicago as part of a massive evangelistic effort aimed at sharing Christ, winning the lost, building bridges for the gospel, and planting new churches. The idea is hardly new but the scale is unprecedented in American history.
Not surprisingly, the mainline churches (and many Jewish leaders) are adamantly opposed to this effort. Yesterday a coalition of religious leaders issued a public letter asking the Southern Baptists to reconsider their plans. Which being interpreted means, Stay home! The Chicago Tribune carried the story on page one under the headline “Clergy ask Baptists to rethink area blitz.” Here are a few relevant sentences from this lengthy article:
As resentment grows over Southern Baptist efforts to target Jews, Hindus and Muslims for conversion, Chicago’s religious leaders have asked the nation’s largest Protestant denomination to back off plans for bringing 100,000 missionaries to the city next summer.
The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and 39 other major Christian and Jewish institutions, sent a letter Saturday warning that the high-profile evangelical blitz proposed by the Southern Baptists in June could poison interfaith relations and indirectly contribute to violence.
“While we are confident that your volunteers would come with entirely peaceful intentions, a campaign of the nature and scope you envision could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes,” reads the letter addressed to Paige Patterson, president of the 15-million-member, Nashville-based denomination.
The letter recognizes the Baptists’ religious motivation and 1st Amendment rights. But it cites last July’s shooting of six Jews in West Rogers Park and the vandalism of a mosque in Villa Park in May as evidence of the vulnerability of people targeted because of their faith.
The letter ends by asking the Baptists to “enter into discussion with us and reconsider your plans.”
A few paragraphs later the Chicago controversy is put in a national context:
The timing of the response throws Chicago into the center of a debate already raging in other parts of the nation.
In New York, a Jewish coalition has protested a Southern Baptist campaign to pray for the conversion of Jews during the Jewish High Holidays in September.
A similar campaign Nov. 7 targeting Hindus on their holiday, Diwali, triggered protests not only across India but also outside a Southern Baptist church in Boston.
Then there is a most revealing quote from a Methodist bishop:
“I’m always fearful when we in the Christian community move beyond the rightful claim that Jesus is decisive for us, to the presupposition that non-Christians … are outside God’s plan of salvation,” said Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of the United Methodist Church’s Northern Illinois Conference. “That smacks of a kind of non-Jesus-like arrogance.”
If anyone wonders why the United Methodist Church is in trouble, it’s because they have chosen leaders like Bishop Sprague.
Later in the article there is some discussion about the Southern Baptists spending time doing various service projects, such as giving food to the hungry, helping build homes in poor areas of the city, and so on. The article then offers this observation: “Council members said that if the Southern Baptist campaign was limited to public service, they would welcome it gladly.”
Well, of course. The message is clear, isn’t it? Stay on the reservation and don’t bother the rest of us. It’s fine with the liberals, the Catholics, and various Jewish leaders if we evangelicals play tiddly-winks in our sanctuaries, but there will be trouble if we take to the streets to declare to the people of Chicago that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. And implicit in this article is a not-so-veiled threat. If the Southern Baptists dare to do aggressive evangelism, they are likely to be accused of fomenting violence and helping incite hate crimes. Look at the inflammatory words used in the article: blitz … target … violence … hate crimes … arrogance.
(By the way, if you’d like to read the article online, you can find it at: http://www.chicago.tribune.com/news/metro/chicago/article/0,2669,ART-38638,FF.html.)
This is what I mean by growing hostility to evangelical Christianity. The intelligentsia has two responses to us. Either they ignore us (their preferred solution) or they slander us if we stick our noses into the public arena. Just for the record, let me say that I’m delighted the Southern Baptists are coming to Chicago next year. I wish them well. I only wish they were sending a million missionaries. That would really shake up the city, wouldn’t it?
Two Basic Principles
That helps set the scene for the question I raised earlier. In an increasingly pagan society, is it ever right for Christians to feel compelled to disobey the law? For a long time most of us have had a “live and let live” philosophy. As long as we weren’t bothered, we wouldn’t complain. That is one reason we had little sympathy in the ’60s for those who marched to end segregation. Now the shoe is on the other foot. We are beginning to feel the pressure and we wonder what to do about it.
As we approach this subject, let me suggest two basic principles that should guide our thinking. First, Christians are obligated to be law-abiding citizens. That’s the heart of what we have always been taught and it is entirely correct. Romans 13 teaches this as clearly as anything can. God has instituted human government as a way of maintaining order in society. We are to obey the laws even when we don’t like them. As a sidelight, I should add that Romans 13 does not forbid lawful means of protest, complaint and due process. We ought to use every legitimate means at our disposal to change unjust laws. The key is our attitude, which must be one of submission and respect, not one of angry rebellion.
Second, believers living in a non-Christian world will often experience conflict between the laws of man and the laws of God. Martin Luther talked about the two kingdoms—the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. We are citizens of the kingdom of God living as resident aliens in the kingdom of this world. One is spiritual, the other earthly. Much of the time there will be no conflict between those two kingdoms. But sometimes there will be friction and occasionally there will be open conflict. In our day there is an ever growing “gap” between those two kingdoms in areas such as law, public morality, ethics, religion, medicine, education, and the media. How should we as Christians respond?
An Old Testament Case Study
Daniel 3 is a perfect example of just such a conflict between the two kingdoms. In fact, I think it is placed in the Bible for that purpose—as a kind of case study of the dilemmas believers will face in a largely non-believing world and the choices we may have to make.
The story itself is so familiar that we can summarize it in a few words. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, made a huge golden statue (possibly an image of himself), called all his leaders together, and ordered everyone to bow down and worship the statue. When the band started playing, everyone bowed down except the three Hebrew teenagers—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When the king heard about their disobedience, he called them in and gave them another chance to bow. When they refused a second time, he had them tossed into a fiery furnace. The Lord miraculously delivered them so they weren’t hurt by the flames. The king called them out of the furnace, congratulated them on their faith, and promoted them.
It’s a remarkable story. Before we go further, note two key observations: First, refusing to bow down was a clear violation of the king’s command. It was deliberate and premeditated disobedience. Second, the basic issue involved was worship. Daniel 3 mentions “worship” 11 times. To bow down was an act of worship. So even though it meant breaking the law, the three young men decided they would rather die than violate their own conscience.
With all of that as background, let’s turn to the text itself. I am using a simple outline I borrowed from Jerry Vines. When I saw it, I realized I could not improve upon it. It goes like this: They would not Bow, They would not Bend, They would not Burn.
I. They Would Not Bow
The image Nebuchadnezzar built was 90 feet tall and nine feet wide, making it enormously tall and absurdly thin. It would have seemed like an enormous rocket jutting into the sky on the plains of Dura, a few miles south of Babylon. No doubt the statue of gold is related to the fact that Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold in the dream of Daniel 2. Perhaps he thought he could unify his empire and forestall its eventual defeat by uniting his leaders in one great religious ceremony.
All the leaders of the empire were required to be present that day. Certainly that number was in the thousands. Some commentators place it at over 100,000. The command was clear: When the band plays, everyone bows down and worships the statue.
At the appointed moment the band played and the vast crowd fell to the ground. But three young men were left standing—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Evidently they didn’t say or do anything. They just stood there silently while everyone was prostrate on the ground.
Before going on, let’s consider some reasons they might have given for following the crowd that day: “When in Babylon, do as the Babylonians do. We can just pretend to bow down but in our hearts, we’re really standing up. The king has been so good to us, it would be ungrateful not to bow. We’re being forced against our will to bow, God will forgive us. No one back in Jerusalem will ever know whether we bow or not. Everyone is bowing down.” And they could have used my personal favorite: “If we don’t, we’ll be killed.” But as I’ve said before, when you want to compromise, you can always find an excuse. But since they intended to obey God, they didn’t need any excuses.
What They Didn’t Do
And I find it very instructive to consider what they didn’t do. They don’t seem to have made any speeches or attempted to call attention to themselves. There was no attempt to stop others from bowing down. No riots, no demonstrations, no press conferences, no abusive language, no violence, no resisting arrest, no running away, no lying about their actions, no request for amnesty, and no attempt to overthrow the king.
When they disobeyed, they did it openly, quietly, submissively.
Some astrologers (motivated by jealousy and perhaps by racial prejudice) reported them to the king. They were accused of three crimes:
Having no respect for the king (not true)
Refusal to serve the gods of Babylon (true)
Refusal to worship the golden image (true)
This upset the king who called them in, offered them a second chance, warned them about the fiery furnace and ended with this ominous comment: “Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” (verse 15). The king saw clearly the spiritual issues involved. He knew that to bow meant to submit to the gods of Babylon. This was a true “Battle of the Gods.”
In the end the three young men refused to bow because years earlier they had learned the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment says there can be “no other gods” before the God of Israel. The Second Commandment prohibits all forms of image-making and worship of idols. Simply put, these young men knew their Bible and that’s why they wouldn’t bow.
II. They Would Not Bend
These three verses contain the only recorded words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Speaking with one voice, they make a remarkable declaration of faith.
First, they admitted their guilt. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter” (Daniel 3:16). Second, they affirmed their faith in God. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king” (Daniel 3:17). Third, they accepted God’s will in advance. “But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:18).
One problem we have with this story is that we know how it ends. Subconsciously we tend to read everything in light of the miraculous deliverance. But that misses an important point. The three young men had no idea that God was about to deliver them. They hadn’t received any advance warning, no special revelation, no angels whispering, “Don’t worry. God is going to deliver you.” Nothing like that happened. As they stood before the king, they knew they might die.
Let me make the point plainly. They didn’t know what was about to happen, and they didn’t care. The only power the king had over them was the power of death, and since they weren’t afraid to die, he had no power at all. He couldn’t intimidate them because they were ready to die if need be. What can you do with men like that?
Observe the excellence of their faith. They recognized that obeying God might not be pleasant to them. And even so, they didn’t make their own obedience contingent on God doing what they wanted.
They knew God could save them.
They didn’t know if he would save them.
They determined to obey either way.
So many Christians want to make deals with God. “Lord, I’ll stand up for you as long as (pick one) A) I don’t lose my job, B) my friends don’t make fun of me, C) I still get that promotion, D) I don’t get in trouble with my boss, E) I can still have a successful career.” But God doesn’t make deals with anyone. He calls us to be faithful and we are called to leave the results with him. He doesn’t promise us an easy road if we decide to be faithful to him.
And that’s why these three young men said, “But if not.” They knew God could save them but they knew he might have higher purposes in mind that would require their death. Therefore, they didn’t try to back God into a corner by demanding that the Almighty work a miracle on their behalf. They accepted God’s will in advance without knowing how things would work out.
This week I ran across a fine statement regarding this kind of faith. “When the servant of God can do nothing else, he can at least die like a Christian.” Because they were ready to die like true believers, we still talk about the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego 2500 years later.
III. They Would Not Burn
The remainder of the chapter tells what happened to them because of their courage in defying the king’s command.
A. Punished 19-23
The end of the story is familiar to most of us. The king ordered the fire made seven times hotter and then ordered his strongest men to take the three young men and toss them into the furnace. So hot were the flames that the strong men were more or less cremated on the spot.
It’s important to remember that as they were cast into the furnace, they weren’t expecting deliverance. As far as they knew, they were about to perish in the flames.
And that raises a question. Why did God let things go this far? I can think of at least two good answers. First, he wanted to make a lasting impression on the Babylonians. I’m sure no one who was there ever forgot what happened next. Second, he wanted to demonstrate his great power to his own people so they would know that even though they were in captivity, he could be trusted to take care of them. Geography makes no difference to God. He can deliver in Babylon just as easily as in Jerusalem.
Here is the ultimate paradox. The three Hebrews were safer in the furnace than when they were standing in front of the king. If they had not been thrown in the fire, they would surely have been killed some other way. But since the furnace was God’s will for them, they were safer in the flames than anywhere else.
B. Preserved 24-27
This part of the story shows us God’s amazing care for his servants. When Nebuchadnezzar looked into the flames, he expected to see the young men roasting to death. Instead, he saw them walking around, unharmed and unbound, and a fourth man walking with them. He calls him “a son of the gods,” which is an amazing insight for a pagan king.
Who was the fourth man? I believe it was the Lord Jesus Christ himself. This is an Old Testament appearance of the Son of God coming down from heaven in bodily form. He stepped across the battlements of heaven, walked down the starry staircase, walked into the blazing furnace and said to the flames, “Cool it!” And they did. That made it very comfortable for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
I am struck by the fact that the Lord Jesus appears at only one place in this chapter. Where is Jesus in Daniel 3? He is in the furnace waiting for the young men. You can do the math yourself. Outside there were three, inside there were four, and outside there were three again. Jesus never manifests himself except inside the furnace, at the very moment when he was needed the most.
What a lesson this is for all of us. So often we go through life for days and weeks without any consciousness of the Lord’s presence with us. But when trouble comes, when the flames lick at our feet, when life tumbles in around us, then we discover that Jesus has been by our side the entire time. It is in the fires of life that we experience the presence of Christ most powerfully. He is always there, but he makes himself known in the fiery furnace.
C. Promoted 28-30
The final three verses bring this story to a very happy conclusion. First, the king gives his own summary of the day’s events. “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God” (Daniel 3:28). It’s clear that this pagan king “gets it.” He knows what they did and why they did it.
Second, the king promotes their God. “Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way” (Daniel 3:29). Obviously, the king has no sense of humor at all. He’s sort of manic about this. First he’s going to kill them, now he’s going to kill anyone who insults their God.
Third, the king promotes them personally. “Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon” (Daniel 3:30). All’s well that ends well. Instead of frying in the furnace, they are now helping run the king’s empire. That’s a good reward for three young men who refused to bow down.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Now that we’ve looked at the story, let’s return to the original question and draw some conclusions about the Christian and civil disobedience.
In general, Christians ought to be law-abiding citizens.
Nothing in Daniel 3 challenges this insight. Even though the three young men disobeyed, they did it in a way that was respectful of the king’s authority. Christians ought to be good citizens, not lawbreaking rebels. We should pray for our leaders that we might live quiet and peaceable lives (1 Timothy 2:1-3). This promotes domestic tranquility and helps us do the work of evangelism.
We are right to disobey when the law of man brings us into a clear and unavoidable conflict with the law of God.
The key phrase is “clear and unavoidable.” There aren’t many situations clearer or more unavoidable than a command to bow down and worship a golden image. It would be a wrong use of this passage if we suddenly decided to start breaking laws we don’t like or find inconvenient. What happened to the three young men may never happen to you and me. But then again, it might happen tomorrow. We must pray for wisdom, discernment, a gracious spirit, and the courage to do right if we are put in a similar situation.
And that brings me back to the Chicago Tribune article I mentioned earlier. What if next year a law is passed that says we can’t share our faith on the job or with a classmate during lunch? What if all public evangelism becomes illegal? What if proclaiming Christ becomes a “hate crime”? What will we do then? Perhaps the distance between Daniel 3 and where we live is not as great as we thought.
Acts 4-5 records the story of Peter and the apostles being arrested for preaching in Jerusalem. At one point the authorities ordered them to stop preaching about Jesus. The apostles went ahead and preached Jesus anyway and were arrested. When asked to give an explanation, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). They were then beaten and released. Acts 5:40-42 tells us how what happened next:
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
No one knows what will happen in Chicago when the Southern Baptists send in their 100,000 missionaries. I am sure the mainstream religious leaders won’t stand back and be silent. They hate the preaching of the gospel because it condemns their spiritual compromise and exposes their spiritual blindness.
When those conflicts come, we must hold our ground without losing our temper.
This is an all-important point. If we curse, if we swear, if we threaten people, if we resort to violence in any form, we have already lost the battle. God bless those Christians who can stand for Jesus without losing their cool. They are blessed and will be blessed.
Although God promises to take care of us, that doesn’t guarantee that standing up for what is right will work out the way we prefer.
This is an obvious lesson from Daniel 3. The young men didn’t know what was about to happen…and it didn’t matter. May the same be true of us.
Our job is to be faithful and let God take care of the results.
This is the biggest lesson of all. Be faithful. Stand tall. Obey God. Live for him. Do what you know is right. And let God take care of what happens next.
Sometimes God protects us from the fire; sometimes he protects through the fire.
Either way we’re going to be okay. No one likes to be thrown into a furnace, not even if you know you’ll be preserved from the flames. But we can endure whatever comes if we know that the Lord Jesus Christ will be standing by our side.
What outcome should we expect when we stand up for what is right?
We should expect to suffer for our convictions.
We should understand that God may intervene to deliver us but he is not obligated to do so.
We should trust God to use our higher obedience to enhance his reputation in the world.
When it comes time to disobey, let us do our duty with humble courage and then leave the results to God.
It is no great thing to disobey. The great thing is faithfulness to God. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t set out to break the king’s law. They were only doing what had to be done. I repeat: It is no great thing to disobey. The only thing that matters is being faithful to God. If faithfulness requires that you disobey, then do what you must do, but don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.
Let it be said of all of us that we only did what had to be done. That we did not go looking for trouble, but when forced to make a choice, we chose to obey God rather than man.
I close with one final thought. When we stand up for Jesus, Jesus stands up with us. Not just that he stands up for us (that’s true), but that he stands up with us, by our side. There is a blessing reserved for the bold that cowards never know. Jesus stands with those who stand up for him. And that’s all we need to know. The rest is up to God. Amen.