Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Virtue of Pious Disobedience

I think most Christians would agree that, for believers, starting an insurrection would be morally wrong.

After all, the New Testament teaches that we are to obey the governing authorities. Our job in the present age is to live quietly and mind our own affairs as part of our testimony to our Saviour, something some of us do better than others.

But this is not a universal rule.

The Limits of Human Authority

Authority is the servant of God, given to us for our good. But other than the authority of God himself, all government has its limitations, both geographically and morally. I may be a full-fledged Canadian citizen, but I would be unwise to assume Canadian rules of conduct apply when I’m vacationing in Turkey; I may find myself behind bars. On a smaller scale, my neighbours have God-given authority over their children, but not over mine. Or on the world stage, while we agree that generally a government has authority to direct its citizens, we absolutely cease to recognize that very same authority as moral cover in the case of war crimes: we prosecute individual Nazis for the things they did regardless of the orders they may have been under at the time.

The recognition that authority is not absolute gives us cause to consider something Doug Wilson calls “pious disobedience”, which we might define as choosing to obeying the Higher Authority whenever two sets of instructions come into conflict, regardless of the cost of such obedience.

Real-World Disobedience

Wilson uses the word disobedience, but if that bothers you, think of it as being obedient to the Higher Authority rather than disobedient to the lower one.

How does this look in practice? We can only know by examining the real-world examples found within the pages of holy writ. What sort of conduct is commended and what sort of conduct is condemned? In some instances, the conduct of the faithful is described without much editorial comment. Still, we may reasonably ask ourselves where that conduct ultimately led: was it for good or ill?

Where illustrating this principle is concerned, Douglas Wilson absolutely kills it:
“The ultimate cause of religious liberty is the will of God. But the proximate, intermediate cause of religious liberty in history has been the firm and cheerful disobedience of Christians. The idolatrous state requires certain things, and Christians, because they know what the will of God is as outlined above, say no.

They do not bow before the statue of Nebuchadnezzar. They do not kill the Hebrew children as Pharaoh required. They hide their crops from the Midianites. They ignore the arrest warrant issued by Saul the tyrant. They refuse to bow to Haman. They pray facing Jerusalem with their windows open. King Aretas sets up a roadblock and they run that roadblock. They preach in the name of JesusThey just say no.
This. Precisely. Also, with quite a few more examples than I had.

Out of Egypt

We might add to this list the name of Joseph. In the ordinary course of business, Mary’s husband was entirely compliant with the governing authorities, even to the point of carting his very pregnant wife to Bethlehem to obey Caesar’s registration edict, something that in those days did not involve an air conditioned limo ride. However, he felt no obligation to sit still while King Herod attempted to seek out and kill his son.

“Yeah, well,” you may say, “that’s a bit different. He had instructions from an angel.” True. He did. But I think that was more about specifying the precise place to which Joseph and his family should flee in order to fulfill prophecy rather than prompting him to do something he would not otherwise have done.

Full-Blown on the Doorstep

Picture your children being taken away to be killed, reprogrammed or executed before your eyes. Now assume you had prior knowledge of what would happen, and try justifying the parental failure to act in a defense of a child as the “will of God”. I just can’t make that syllogism work.

Surely that’s an outrageous scenario. Perhaps it is. Still, the matter must be worth working through in our own minds, hearts and consciences before the issue arrives full-blown on our doorsteps.

In the present political climate, Wilson’s entire article is well worth reading and mulling over.

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