Obedience to God and Civil Disobedience

1969 Church of the Brethren Statement

A Word Is Needed

Christians have always faced choices which test the relationships between faithfulness to God and responsibility to the state. Today such choices confront us:

  • How shall we relate to laws which enforce or support racial discrimination, laws which deny welfare aid to some groups of poor people, laws which conscript youth for military and civilian service, laws which require payment of taxes for war purposes, laws which forbid providing food and medical aid to so-called “enemy nations”?
  • When should we obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29) or refuse to render unto Caesar what we consider to be God’s (mark 12:17)? Recently the Church of the Brethren answered this question briefly saying, “When he (a Christian) is profoundly convinced that God forbids what the state demands, it is his responsibility to express his convictions. Such expression may include disobedience of the state” (Church, State and Christian Citizenship,” Annual Conference, 1967). A fuller discussion is now needed.

Obedience to God Comes First

Christian faithfulness means obedience to God. The state and its citizens, the church and its members, all are under God and ultimately accountable to him as Creator, Sustainer, Judge and Redeemer. The sovereignty of the state is limited by the sovereignty of God. While the state may demand reasonable loyalty from its citizens, it must not demand absolute obedience, which belongs to God. That state is caught in strong tendencies to act as if it were absolute. We live in a world atmosphere pervaded by nationalisms which snare Christians also into absolutizing their particular country. To the extent that it provides and protects freedom of conscience, and upholds, sustains and promotes just and moral laws, there is no need for citizens to disobey the state in order to obey God. Obedience to civil authority can be consonant then with Christian faithfulness.

The church submits itself to the disciplines of searching the scriptures in openness to the “mind of Christ,” to the counsel of the concerned brother, and to prayer. These disciplines may point up a conflict between the demands of the state and God’s intention. In any forced option between loyalty to God and loyalty to the state, the choice of any Christian is clear. Obedience to God is their first and highest responsibility, their supreme loyalty, their positive beginning point, their plumb line for decision-making. It is a case of positive obedience to God, though the state may negatively call it “civil disobedience.” From the Christina perspective it is the state which is in the condition of disobedience to God and his purposes for the world.

Jesus, in doing his Father’s will, found himself in conflict with the authorities of his day. He deliberately disobeyed Jewish law as he associated with Samaritans and Gentiles. He cleansed the temple of robing money changers whose presence was protected by law. Central among the accusations which resulted in his crucifixion was the charge of treason. At the same time he consistently avoided the use of violence as a means for bringing in the messianic kingdom.

Reactive and Initiatory Disobedience

Civil disobedience may be reactive or initiatory. The former occurs when the state demands action which the church or its members cannot do for reasons of conscience and higher loyalty to God. They respond by refusing to obey. Examples of such reactive civil disobedience are refusal to obey laws requiring racial discrimination, noncompliance when conscripted to national service, and non-payment of taxes for war purposes.

Initiatory civil disobedience ma occur when action is initiated to serve human need in a way that happens to transgress laws which themselves support and inflict unjust suffering. Examples of initiatory civil disobedience are the sending of food and medical aid to the suffering civilians in a country with whom our nation is at war, and providing welfare assistance to some groups of poor people when the law denies help for such groups.

The historic Brethren position has tended toward the reactive form of civil disobedience, refusing to submit to those demands of the state to which Brethren have conscientiously objected. Today the church and many of its members are engaging in direct actions that challenge and seek to correct legal injustice. Insofar as these actions, including initiatory civil disobedience, aim toward making government a more effective instrument of righteousness, they should be seen as forms of high patriotism and service to government.

The Record in History

Church history is replete with examples of those who found themselves in conflict with the authorities in the course of expressing their loyalty to God: Peter, Paul, and the early disciples who met together in violation of Roman law, who went to jail because of their ministry, who “turned the world upside down”; the Christians who refused to serve in the Roman army and to pay taxes to Caesar’s pagan temples; Martin Luther; the early Anabaptist churches; the founders of the Church of the Brethren; Christians in Hitler’s Germany; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There are many honorable examples in the history of the United States; Quakers who refused to pay taxes for war against the Indians; Henry David Thoreau; Ralph Waldo Emerson; abolitionists who broke the Fugitive slave Law; citizens and churches who send medical aid to North Vietnam in violation of the “trading with the enemy act”; men who return or destroy their draft cards in order to call into question laws they consider unjust. Immoral, or unconstitutional.

The Brethren Record

Notable actions can be cited from our Church of the Brethren tradition in America which at the time were considered acts of civil disobedience: refusal to go to the mustering grounds and to pay war taxes during the Revolutionary War; Christopher Sauer II; those who avoided participation in the Civil War; deliberate violations of the Fugitive Slave law; Elder John Kline; the special Annual Conference, January 9, 1918, at Goshen, Indiana, which advised against wearing the military uniform and performing combatant service. (This statement was declared treasonable by the state and withdrawn by the church.)

Some Policy Questions

Several questions of policy tend to arise when a group considers engaging in civil disobedience in its efforts to be faithful to God.

  • How large a majority vote should a group have before engaging in such acts?
  • What protection should be afforded the minority, which does not approve or desire to participate in civil disobedience?
  • What are the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of the majority and the minority themselves and toward each other?
  • Where in a large body like the church should responsibility be placed for decisions to engage in civil disobedience?
  • Upon whom does the law place responsibility for acts of civil disobedience by the church?
  • How can the church engage in prophetic witness to the state including civil disobedience when a significant number of its members will not support such a witness?
  • How can the church simultaneously provide for freedom of conscience, democratic decision-making, and prophetic public witness?

Order and Freedom in the Church

The implications of civil disobedience are seldom clear or easily defined for the church. On the one hand, the church possesses the characteristics of any large bureaucratic institution with a well-defined polity, a system of decision-making, and stated relationships between larger and subordinate groups. On the other hand, the church is a voluntary association of committed Christians who have freely joined together for nurture and witness to their discipleship. Since the church is both an institution and a community of believers, there Is an inherent tension between clear cut procedures and freedom of the spirit, between responsible representative government and the dictates of conscience in individuals and groups.

Any elected body such as a board of directors, the General Board, a district board, a church board, or a commission has responsibilities and roles in at least two directions. First it is responsible to those who elected it or its constituency. A part of this responsibility is to represent adequately its electorate and to reflect the electorate’s views. An elected body is expected to follow the expressed wishes of those who elected it and to sense their “mind and mood.” Second, it is expected to develop and maintain its own inner integrity. A part of this responsibility is to follow its own conscience, its own best insights. It is expected to lead its constituency, not merely to follow; to serve a prophetic role as well as a priestly one.

The formation of action or covenantal groups within the institutional church provides an additional way of maintaining creativity, openness, and prophetic witness in the church. The church should permit and encourage those who are prepared to take a united stand on basic social issues of our day. They should be offered a ministry of love, concern, fellowship, counsel, and any needed material care.

When a minority group takes a position different from majority opinion or commits an act of civil disobedience that has not received approval by the larger body, the group should indicate carefully that it is acting on its own and representing only itself.

Placement of Responsibility

Where is responsibility to be placed when individuals, action groups, or representative corporate church bodies commit acts of civil disobedience in their efforts to be faithful to God? The placement of responsibility for such acts is clearest when they are committed by individuals representing only themselves. Responsibility for such actions by small covenant groups is usually placed upon the members because each has voluntarily assented to participation, even though the group has acted corporately or unitedly.

Most representative or corporate church bodies become legally incorporated and elect a board of directors to represent and serve them as their “legal corporation.” The General Board is the legal corporation for the Church of the Brethren, the district board for the district, and the church board for the congregation. When a church body does not legally incorporate with a board of directors, the law generally holds its officers of leaders responsible for any illegal activity or civil disobedience.

The board of directors of any corporation caries responsibility for assessing the mind” of the organization’s full membership, and for planning, deciding, executing and bearing the consequences related to any act of civil disobedience which it commits on behalf of the organization. The law holds all members of a board of directors responsible for such a violation of law except those board members who explicitly asked to be recorded as voting against the action. The nondirector members of an incorporated body are not held legally responsible for any act of civil disobedience committed by the board of directors unless they have formally ratified or approved the board’s action. A court may assess fines against a corporation as a “legal individual” and/or against individual members of its board of directors. All members of the board of directors who vote for or participate in the action are subject to any imprisonment penalties stipulated in the law.

Criminal law is more concerned with the manner of an act than with its motive. It is more concerned with the manner of an act than with its motive. It is more concerned with a violator’s intent, deliberateness, and willfulness than with his motive, purpose, or goal. One who deliberately violates a law in the act of obeying God is judged more severely in the courts than one who violates the law accidentally, unintentionally, unknowingly. In order for a court to convict one of a violation of criminal law, it must prove that the law was violated both by intent and by an act.

Some Guidelines for Action

Christians are called to obey whatever the cost. Christian faithfulness may bring on or require civil disobedience. This is a serious and drastic step which should be thought through carefully, prayed about, and fully discussed. Its legal and other consequences should be understood, and the state’s authority to punish law violators recognized.

Christians should appreciate and support the worthy functions which government performs and willingly obey the state in matters on which they have no contrary moral convictions. Indeed, Christians should see the state as an instrument for serving God and help make and mold it into a more fitting instrument. Civil disobedience usually should be considered only after all legal means to correct injustice have failed.

Christians should be encouraged to put into writing those goals which may precipitate civil disobedience in order that their purposes are clear, can be examined, and can be communicated accurately to others. Such statements also may describe their previous efforts toward changing the law through the normal procedures of government, and their intention to continue such efforts.

The emphasis of the action should be upon faithfulness to God and the affirmation of clear moral issues rather than upon the negation of law and civil disobedience as an end in itself.

Dialogue with civil authorities regarding plans should normally precede and continue during acts of civil disobedience.

Christians should always adhere to nonviolence, avoiding harm and minimizing inconvenience to others. At the same time they should prepare for the consequences of any civil disobedience which may grow out of their obedience to God. Suffering may be the price of their active witness; but suffering for Christ is counted a blessing.

In corporate church bodies the decision to engage in civil disobedience should be based of a substantial majority vote, such as two-thirds. When a minority remains unconvinced, the majority should consider all the more carefully whether the contemplated civil disobedience is something it must in obedience proceed with even apart from the minority. Those within the corporate body who do not agree with the majority decision to engage in civil disobedience should not only have the right to vote “no” but to have their names recorder for the legal record if they request it, to have their minority viewpoint respected, and to receive the love, concern and fellowship of the majority. The officers, the board of directors, and the members in any corporate body voting to participate in civil disobedience should recognize the possible consequences of their action, thus “counting the cost.”

A Concluding Word

If we believe that god has one will for his people, a Christian fellowship should search diligently and prayerfully for that will. It should strive toward “one mind” and a common obedience even if that means a common civil disobedience. On many issues in relation to the law and the state a Christian fellowship will be able to come to in “one mind.” On some issues, however, conscientious Christians will differ in their understanding of what it means to obey God. Some will accept or support a particular law while others will disobey it or revolt against the state.

In such controversial situations members of the church should respect and appreciate the sincerity and commitment of those who differ in their understanding of the kind of action called for by obedience to God. Members should endeavor to “listen” and to “hear” one another in a continuing brotherly encounter as to what constitutes obedience. Whether they are in the majority or the minority on any question Christians should avoid being self-righteous, judgmental, or resentful toward any who do not take their position. In mature Christian fellowship members love and respect one another even when, in seeking to obey God some deliberately disobey a law while others support it.

Above all, Christian persons and groups are called to be obedient and faithful to Christ’s will and way. Even though such obedience brings them into conflict with a law and the state, their first and highest obedience is to God.

The position of Standing Committee was presented by Leon Neher

Action of the 1969 Annual Conference:

The statement Obedience to God and Civil Disobedience, with the changes proposed by the Standing Committee and the authors of the paper, was accepted “as a position paper for the Church of the Brethren.” The vote was: Yes-607; No-294, which met the required two-thirds majority.