civil disobedience to the government

The Christian Responsibility of Civil Disobedience

12 March 2024

8.3 MINS

In the preface to the new edition of one of James Montgomery Boice’s final books, Two Cities, Two Loves: Christian Responsibility in a Crumbling Culture (P&R, 2024), his wife Linda writes that in the 1990s, “Jim became concerned with the ‘caving in’, as he called it, of evangelicals of Reformed and non-Reformed persuasions to the increasingly secular and nonbiblical worldview that — with the pervasive presence of television — was saturating our culture.”

Since then, things have, culturally speaking, only become worse. It’s worth remembering that Boice was writing before the ubiquitous presence of the internet and the epochal change in relating which it has brought. As many have acknowledged, we are culturally somewhere in between Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Arising out of his prescient concerns as the president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals in 1996, Boice called a meeting of one hundred and twenty Christian leaders in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to address the issue. The conference resulted in three significant outcomes:

First, a statement called The Cambridge Declaration (TCD) was produced. TCD was based upon the five solas of the Protestant Reformation, with the aim “to call the church, amidst our dying culture, to repent of its worldliness, to recover and confess the truth of God’s Word as did the Reformers, and to see that truth embodied in doctrine, worship and life.”

Second, the book Here We Stand!: A Call From Confessing Evangelicals For A Modern Reformation (P&R, 2004) was later published. This was edited by Jim Boice and Ben Sasse, although sadly, Boice went to be with the Lord in 2000 before it was released. The book contains a number of important contributions from evangelical leaders in north America: David F. Wells, Al Mohler, Gene Edward Veith, Michael Horton, Sinclair Ferguson, Robert Godfrey and Jim Boice.

Third, in 1996, Boice himself published Two Cities, Two Loves, although it sadly never enjoyed the influence it deserved at the time. Thankfully though, P&R have recently released a new edition, and the content of this particular volume by Boice is needed more than ever. Boice embodied that rare combination of being a godly, wise, faithful and courageous preacher of God’s Word. And his application of Scripture to the issues of the day remains a timeless model of responsible exegesis.

The Relationship Between Church and State

Now is not the time or place to do a proper review of the book (although this will be, God willing, forthcoming shortly). What I’d like to do now is stop and consider one aspect in particular that Boice addressed, and that is the relationship between what he labels as ‘God and Caesar’ (i.e. Matt. 22:21). Because I think Boice put his finger on something which is a temptation today which is more pertinent, as well as pernicious, than it was back then.

Boice outlines that when it comes to the relationship between Church and State, there are four logical options: a) God alone as an Authority b) Caesar Alone as an Authority c) The Authority of God and Caesar, but with Caesar in the Dominant Position and d) The Authority of God and Caesar, but with God in the Dominant Position.

Boice obviously argues that “the last option is the only valid one: God and Caesar, but with God in the dominant position. It was the position Jesus articulated when he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” This is important, because we must never forget our Christian obligation to first and foremostly ‘honour and submit to all governing authorities’ (1 Pet. 2:14-17; Rom. 13:1-7) since they have been established by God. And that means, as the apostle Paul states:

“Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” ~ Romans 13:2

But sadly, some Christians during COVID were unwilling to submit to anything the state ruled. They refused to wear a mask to church when the government said so, even if it affected their fellowship with other believers, of whom they judged as having a weaker conscience. But this was not so much a matter of conscience as it was personal convenience. [1]

With that said, though, governments can abuse their authority and require obedience which can only be given to God. And at times such as that we are called upon to God rather than men (i.e. Acts 5:29). Hence, what Boice rightly warns against regarding option “C” is particularly pertinent for the evangelical church today. Boice writes:

The third option is one many persons would prefer, but it is the position of cowards. If God’s authority is recognized at all, it must be supreme simply because God is supreme by definition. That is what it means to be God. So if anyone claims to obey the state before God or rather than God, while nevertheless still believing in God, it can only be because he is afraid of what Caesar might do to him.

Boice’s words of rebuke are especially apposite after the events surrounding to COVID. Because governments throughout the West, and especially in Australia, clearly overreached their authority by forcing churches to close, while sporting events, liquor shops, the services of sex workers and Black Lives Matter protest rallies were allowed to continue.

Growing Statism

What became clear during COVID-19, especially in Australia, was that there has been a growing political paternalism, formerly known as statism. This is where basically a large proportion of the population looks to the government for deliverance from whatever problem is facing them.

This has become evident in a number ways of different ways. One of the most shocking was the Labor Party of WA encouraging people to write to their Premier Mark McGowan on Father’s Day in appreciation of him being their “state dad”.

Francis Schaeffer rightly warned of the limits relating to government authority last century. Shaeffer wisely and courageously wrote:

God has ordained the state as a delegated authority; it is not autonomous. The state is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing the wrongdoer, and to protect the good in society. 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.

However, politically progressive Christians such as John Sandeman, editor of the now defunct Eternity, argue that people such as myself and Dr Stephen Chavura are guilty of re-igniting “Covid Wars” by urging churches to reflect on how they may have responded poorly to government overreach. But it’s ironically Sandeman who is stoking the fires of debate by not accurately reporting the facts. For instance, Sandeman states:

Pointing to a recent decision by the Queensland Supreme Court that a vaccine mandate for ambulance workers may not have been properly issued by the former director of the Department of Health, Powell questioned the legality of actions by churches in a post on the “Daily Declaration” site.

However, it isn’t technically correct for Sandeman to suggest that Queensland Health “may not have” acted illegally because the Supreme Court of Queensland has that it did. What’s more, for Sandeman to suggest that Dr Chavura or myself are guilty of creating conflict is actually a case of gaslighting.

Neither one of us has criticised people’s decision to be vaccinated. Indeed, I freely chose to be, even after the government said that I shouldn’t, with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Our concern was how those who didn’t want to be vaccinated were ostracised, maligned and stigmatised over their decision not to be vaccinated.

The Good of Religious Freedom

Before continuing, it’s important to stop at this point and consider the legitimate place of religious freedom. For example, at its 2023 meeting of the General Assembly of Australia (GAA), the Presbyterian Church of Australia made the following unanimous resolution:

The Presbyterian Church of Australia supports a general freedom of religion in which all people are free to express religious convictions and lack of such convictions both privately and publicly, individually and in association with others. This recognises the dignity of all people made in God’s image and that true worship of God and faith in him cannot be coerced by human authorities.

Christ is the head of the church, and the state has no right to intrude on the doctrine, discipline or worship of the church. The state does not have the authority to enforce or direct religious beliefs or practices.

The Assembly calls on governments at all levels to protect freedom of religion as broadly as possible, including the freedom of religious institutions to pursue their mission consistent with their convictions and the freedom of individuals to express religious convictions in public discussion and the workplace.

The Assembly calls on governments to include in legislation, where appropriate, protection of genuine conscientious objection.

The Assembly encourages the Church and Nation Committee and the Moderator- General to inform the Church of threats to freedom of religion and to advocate for freedom of religion in Australia and beyond.

The above resolution is pertinent when one considers that during COVID-19, churches were not only closed for an extended period of time, but when they were allowed to re-open, they were forbidden from worshipping God by singing, even while being masked. What’s more, there were inconsistent regulations depending on each state.

This was a clear intrusion on the worship of the church. And as the above resolution of the 2023 GAA unambiguously asserts: “Christ is the head of the church, and the state has no right to intrude on the doctrine, discipline or worship of the church. The state does not have the authority to enforce or direct religious beliefs or practices.”

Even more egregiously, many congregations simply resolved to exclude unvaccinated people from their meetings, with some church leaders even ruling that one had to be vaccinated to be able to serve in any form of public ministry. But how is this not a violation of the resolution on religious freedom as outlined by the GAA?

Should Churches Have Complied with Everything During COVID?

During COVID-19, many state government departments — and sadly, also churches — required people to be vaccinated or lose their jobs or places in the congregation. But in what The Courier Mail has labelled a “bombshell” announcement, the Supreme Court recently ruled that Queensland’s mandatory vaccination orders were unlawful. As The Guardian Australia reports:

The court found the police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, failed to give proper consideration to human rights relevant to the decision to issue the vaccine mandate.

The former Department of Health director-general Dr John Wakefield was unable to prove he issued the vaccine mandate under an implied term of the employment agreements for ambulance service workers.

As a result, both vaccine mandates were found by the court to be “unlawful” and to have no effect.

The court also found the directions limited the human rights of workers because they were required to undergo a medical procedure without full consent but it was reasonable in all the circumstances.

The legal ramifications of the decision could be massive and possibly open the floodgates to similar appeals in other states. But it is worth reflecting at this point — almost three years after the event — what churches in particular have to learn. In particular, did we give to Caesar what rightly belongs to God? As Boice wisely states:

At times we must disobey. Caesar is not God. Though we must give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, we must be careful to give God what is God’s. But we need to look carefully to God to know the difference.

What Can We Learn?

But moving forward, it is crucial that we learn from the mistakes which were made. As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we should seek to preserve both the religious freedom, as well as protect the liberty of conscience, of all in the Church.

No one should be discriminated against regarding one’s vaccination status. And nor, for that matter, should those who decided not to be vaccinated discriminate against those who have been. For as the apostle Paul writes:

“Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.” ~ Romans 14:16-18


[1] Note how in Daniel 1, Daniel and his colleagues submitted to the pagan instruction required to serve the King, even have their names changed in acknowledgment of the Babylonian gods. But they drew the line at eating from the king’s table. It’s a good example as to how it isn’t wise to argue that everything we disagree with is a conscience issue.

Photo: 2020, Vancouver, Canada/Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Ruth 12 March 2024 at 10:30 am - Reply

    This is a great article however I disagree with the statement that some refused to submit to wearing a mask in church. The reason why is because it was scientifically proven that masks don’t work and that it is on the contrary harmful to your health. In which case it is similar to making a decision to be jabbed with a substance that is potentially harmful.

  2. Louise 12 March 2024 at 11:08 pm - Reply

    The author’s comment about those who refused to wear a mask as the government was forcing people were some how not loving and not submitting to church authority was a sad reminder of how we were treated.

    It all started with the masks didn’t it?

    Dividing the ‘good’ people from the ‘bad ‘ people.

    Many of us are having a hard time forgetting how the church treated us and comments like make us remember how easily people become obedient monsters.

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