Are “rescues” acts of rebellion?

Some Christian critics of ‘rescues’ – non-violent direct action, or sit-ins, at abortion clinics – reject such actions on the basis that to engage in such acts is, in their view, to rebel against God-ordained government.

Passages from the Bible such as Romans 13:1-7 are often cited in support of such a view. Verses 1 and 2 read: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

In relation to abortion in particular then, if a government permits abortions to be done, anyone who directly intervenes to try and stop abortions taking place is guilty of rebelling against the government, and thus is in turn guilty of disobeying God. Christians therefore should not participate in actions that directly attempt to prevent abortions taking place. As abhorrent as some things may be, Christians have no alternative but to obey the law of the land: so the argument goes.

It is not hard to show though that no Christians actually hold the position that obedience to the government is absolutely always required. Many Christians, possibly virtually all Christians, hold that the actions of people such as Corrie ten Boom and her family were quite right when they, quite illegally, hid Jews during WWII.

Some though may not regard that as a valid exception, but what then of the following? What if a government should require that Christians hand in for destruction all Bibles and Christian literature? What if it were made illegal for Christians to speak about their faith with anyone, including their own children? What if a law was passed that stated that all who identified themselves as Christians were required to publicly deny their faith in God?

These are not merely hypothetical scenarios either, with Christians down the centuries, and even today, being compelled to directly address them. With each of these questions Christians have, in good conscience, disobeyed the ruling authorities. And who would say they were wrong to have done so?

Disobedience of the governing authorities is clearly something that must not be taken lightly, but neither is it something that can be declared to be invariably wrong. Indeed, in a number of places the Bible favourably records instances where people disobeyed the authorities of the day: for example, the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15-21), Moses’ parents (Exodus 2:1-10), Esther (Esther 4), Daniel (Daniel 6), the wise men (Matthew 2:7-12), and Peter and the apostles who famously stated, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:28-29)

So, it is evident that after asking the question, “Can it ever be right to disobey the government?”, we must then ask, “When is it right, perhaps necessary, to disobey the government?”

It is notable that of the ten or more instances of righteous civil disobedience that are recorded in the Bible most of them relate to situations where people disobeyed the ruling authorities in order to save the lives of innocent people. For those who hold the position that the preborn child is as truly human, and hence as worthy of respect, as the born child, do not the interventions at the abortion clinics come into that same category?

Critics claim that those engaging in the actions are trying to force Christian standards of morality onto a largely non-Christian society. In other words it is an attempt to create a Christian theocracy. Despite appearances to the contrary, that is not so however.

We recognise that most people in our society do not sincerely hold Christian convictions. Further, we do not believe it is right to try and forcibly compel anyone to abide by Christian moral standards.

Christians, we believe though, are actually living in two worlds simultaneously: this world with its human governments, and also, in some real sense, God’s kingdom (Luke 18:20-21). Presently our society, our government, insists that it is permissible for children to be killed by abortion, and that no one is to be allowed to try and stop that from happening. This however is not the final word for the Christian – the state is not be idolatrised, to be given our absolute obeisance.

Those who are God’s people, members of God’s kingdom, are also called to help those in need, to rescue those being led away to death. (Proverbs 24:11) The actions at the abortion clinics, following the Biblical precedents noted above, are a positive obedience to God rather than simply a negative disobedience of the government. The actions are motivated by the need to save innocent lives, not by a desire to prevent people having abortions.

Of course, to do right, in a society which has decided that such right action is not allowed, means that we inevitably, and regrettably, come into conflict with the authorities. Even though it is actually to everyone’s good that no innocent lives be taken, those who would engage in the efforts to save lives must recognize that when a government’s will is challenged, penalties will inevitably be applied. While acting in accord with our convictions as members of God’s kingdom, it must be recognized that we still remain part of this world with its laws and penalties for breaching those laws. Therefore we must be prepared to bear the burden of those penalties as part of the price for defending the defenceless.

The fact that the authorities punish those who so intervene does not in itself mean that the activists are actually rebels or revolutionaries. That may seem to be the case for those whose perspective is only of this world, but Christians must not lose sight of the kingdom perspective.

Exceptions to the general principle of needing to abide by the law of the land may not be many, but they do exist. We believe that acting to protect innocent human lives is one of those exceptions.