How Should Christians Respond to Tyranny?

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“Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” nearly became the motto of the United States. The phrase likely originated with Benjamin Franklin, and it was employed by Thomas Jefferson in his own personal seal.[1] Indeed, our founding fathers were convinced that Christians have an obligation to defend freedom and to resist tyranny. However, Romans 13 informs us that all authorities are appointed by God. Were our founding fathers misguided? How should Christians respond to tyranny? With open calls on national television for civil disobedience against tyrannical governors, this question is becoming increasingly relevant.[2][3]

Historic questions about federalism, constitutional freedoms, civic responsibility, and the limitations of a representative government dominate the daily news cycle. For years journalists and news anchors have warned us that President Trump is an authoritarian tyrant at heart who is merely awaiting an opportune crisis to seize total control over Americans.[4][5][6][7] While this accusation has yet to manifest itself in reality, the recent coronavirus pandemic has exposed a bevy of other authoritarian officials in government who have viewed this pandemic as such an opportune moment.[8][9] Over the past few months, little tyrants have emerged throughout the country.

Governors across the nation have assumed the right to determine who is and who is not an essential worker. Incredibly, when pressed by protesters to reopen his state’s economy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told his citizens, “If you want to go to work, go take the job as an essential worker.”[10] Such hubris is especially noteworthy when one considers that Cuomo ruled clothing stores, barbershops, and elective surgeries to be non-essential services but liquor stores and abortion clinics merited essential services status.[11]][12][13][14]

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe took the concept of essential business one step further and ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses close indefinitely.[15] Interestingly, a cabinet company once owned by his family was permitted to remain open until the decision was questioned by Spotlight PA.[16]

Even churches have been deemed non-essential services across the country. Greenville, Mississippi banned drive-in church services.[17] Mendocino County, California banned churches from singing while recording online worship services, unless the individuals sang from home.[18][19] Pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship Kevin Wilson faced up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine in Virginia for convening with 16 members of his congregation on Palm Sunday in a 225-seat worship space.[20] And Chicago police are breaking-up church services, issuing fines to churches holding service, and banning parking near church buildings.[21][22]

When Virginia Governor Ralph Northam relaxed his states’ stay-at-home orders, he deemed it legal to visit a hair stylist or barber, to dine indoors, and to exercise or fish on beaches, but he also deemed it illegal to simply sit and relax on the beaches.[23] Similarly, California Governor Gavin Newsom has utilized Coast Guard speed boats, jet skis, and helicopters to enforce his decision to shut down beaches and to force surfers and paddle-boarders out of the ocean.[24][25]

More serious is Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo’s edict requiring nursing homes to receive patients who tested positive for COVID-19.[26] This is particularly troubling since over half of New York’s COVID-19-related deaths—and 42% nationwide—have come from nursing facilities.[27][28]

Indeed, some government responses to COVID-19 are creating new risks to innocent lives and are threatening the ability to maintain social order. Tucker Carlson reports:

Until early April, for example, Timothy Alvarado was in jail on burglary charges. As the coronavirus came, and then the fears of it ramped up, he was released back into the population and swiftly returned to a life of crime. We know that conclusively because we have the records. So, on May 2nd, Alvarado stole a minivan and led police on a high-speed chase. Officers caught him, but then instead of jailing him, they issued a citation, and they released him. Two days later, Alvarado stole another car, was caught again, and once again was simply issued a citation and then released. Six days later, he was caught with another stolen car and in possession of methamphetamine. He was given a citation and released. Alvarado promptly stole the exact same car a few days later. Same outcome again: Citation, released. Finally, on Saturday what you knew was going to happen, happened. Alvarado was arrested after stabbing a man nearly to death. That’s the allegation.[29]

At the same time, Alvarado was embarking on his state-sanctioned crime spree, Californian gym owner Louie Uridel was arrested for trying to open his gym to patrons.[30] He didn’t steal a car. He didn’t stab anybody. He didn’t have crystal meth in his pocket. He tried to work. So that’s the priority of the authoritarians now in charge: Criminals go free; you step out of line, and you’re punished. Their priorities have never been clearer.

On April 12th, New Jersey resident Konstanti Apessos was criminally charged for the crime of reading a book in a lifeguard stand on a beach with no one else on it.[31] Meanwhile, state authorities were ordering the release of criminals convicted of crimes like failing to register as a sex-offender, child endangerment, assaulting policer officers. Almost immediately, one of those released prisoners—maybe more, we know one—re-offended, but he won’t be the last.

In New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio warned citizens that police will pull them out of the water if they dare to go swimming. Meanwhile, in the month of April alone, about 1,500 inmates released as an emergency measure, within weeks at least 50 had already been re-arrested. Keep in mind the vast majority of the thousands of criminals released over the past two months were at virtually no risk from the coronavirus. So were most of the citizens who have been locked down for the past two months, but they are absolutely at risk—the law abiding—from the criminals being unleashed upon them.

As of yesterday, in Denver Colorado, if you’re under 30, you are precisely as likely to be murdered by a freed prisoner as you are to die of the coronavirus. We’re not exaggerating. Only one person, as of yesterday, under 30 had died of the coronavirus in Denver. And last week, police arrested Cornelius Haney for the murder of a 21-year-old woman. Haney was only 40 years old and convicted of robbery, but he was released to protect him from coronavirus. If only authorities cared anywhere near as much about protecting you and me.[32]


Some of these government responses to COVID-19 merely infringe upon our personal freedoms while others threaten social order, religious liberty, freedom of speech, and even innocent lives. Considering what is at stake, are God’s people expected to turn a blind eye to the rise of such a tyranny? Is this what the Apostle Paul intended when he wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1–2)? If this is how we are to understand Romans 13, then what are we to make of the many instances of civil disobedience favorably presented throughout the Bible?

Fearing God, the Hebrew midwives refused to obey Pharaoh’s order to kill all male infants (Exo. 1:15–17). Moses’ mother hid him from the Egyptian authorities (Exo. 2:1–2). Rahab sheltered enemy spies and helped them escape the city (Josh 2:1–16). Esther approached King Ahasuerus unsummoned to plead for her people (Est. 4:8–16). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego defied King Nebuchadnezzar’s decree that all worship a golden image of himself whenever music was played (Dan. 3:13–18). Daniel refused to obey the king’s edict that he redirect his prayers to King Darius and continued to pray to God (Dan. 6:10–13). Obadiah defied Queen Jezebel and protected 100 prophets of the Lord (1 Kings 18:3–4, 13). The Apostles Peter and John refused to obey the rulers of the people and the elders’ command that they stop preaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:15–21). Paul and Silas advocated customs in Philippi that were not lawful for Romans to accept or practice (Acts 16:19–23). We even read about future acts of civil disobedience when God’s people will refuse to worship the image of Antichrist (Rev. 13:15).

Indeed, Revelation 14:9–11 requires civil disobedience. Anyone who obeys the governing authority at that time will suffer the wrath of God, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Likewise, Revelation 18:4 appears to be a heavenly call for God’s people to separate themselves from the ruling world system of the time, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues.”

The specifics of what God’s people are being called to do in this time of COVID-19 must be reserved for another discussion. Nevertheless, this much can be determined. God does not require His people to unquestioningly submit to their governing authorities. When a government threatens innocent life, the worship of God, or God’s moral statutes, it liberates God’s people from their responsibility to submit. However, this may not come without consequence. Romans 13 warns that governments have the authority to punish those who do wrong (Rom. 13:4). Likewise, Jesus reminds us that governments can kill us. However, He also reminds us that we should fear God who can destroy our souls more than we should fear a government who can only destroy our bodies (Luke 12:4–5).

Keep in mind that any form of civil disobedience should draw people to God. Biblical examples of civil disobedience consistently highlight God’s moral standard. Civil disobedience should draw a line in the sand, demanding people choose to side with God or to side against Him. Civil disobedience merely for the sake of protecting personal freedoms and political philosophy is not a sufficient reason for God’s people to rebel against their governing authorities.

There is much to be considered when contemplating where to draw the line between submitting to a governing authority and subverting God’s moral commands. The matter is complicated and far from being clear cut. Moreover, some of God’s people are bound to disagree. Nevertheless, we find ourselves living in a time when the question must be asked. When state governments broadcast a willingness to expand authoritarian measures,[33][34] and when calls to civil disobedience are aired on national television,[35][36] we owe it to ourselves to know what we believe and why.

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Timothy Zebell

As a former missionary to Asia for twelve years and the author of several books, Timothy is passionate about helping people understand the relevancy of God's Word in today's world. His goals are to help Christians discern truth from error, empower Christians to speak into cultural matters with relevancy, and to help Christians capitalize on the opportunities that these matters provide for sharing the truth about God and His gospel message.
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