A Higher Law

The journal First Things recently ran an article with a startling title: It was called "When the Court Should Not Be Obeyed." The author, Russell Hittinger, argued that the Supreme Court's rulings on abortion have cancelled the Court's legitimacy. After all, the first task of any government is to protect the lives of innocent people. But in abortion, the government allows private citizens to exercise lethal force for private purposes. In short, Hittinger argues, our government has abrogated its first task—and thereby given up its claim to our obedience. Is this truly a time when the Court ought not to be obeyed? The abortion issue brings into sharp relief for Christians today the issue of civil disobedience. In biblical teaching, God has ordained certain authority structures—the family, the church, and the state—which we are commanded to honor and obey. But none of these structures has ultimate authority over our lives. Only God does. That means that if any earthly power oversteps its proper jurisdiction, then Christians have not only the right but also the duty to resist. We gladly give to Caesar what is Caesar's, but we reserve for God what is His alone. The duty to disobey should never be taken lightly, however. Christians are justified in disobeying the civil law only when it contravenes a higher law. Civil disobedience should never stem from defiance of government but only from submission to God. The classic New Testament exemplar is in Acts 4, when Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching about Jesus. They replied: Punish us if you must, but we will never stop preaching the Gospel. In the first century, countless Christians were thrown to the lions when they broke the law of the land out of allegiance to God's higher law. How does this principle apply to modern Christians and abortion? Our civil laws do permit abortion; they even prohibit protesters from standing within a certain radius of abortion clinics. Are we justified in breaking these laws? Think of a parallel: Suppose you are driving by a field surrounded by a fence, with signs posted saying "No Trespassing." But in the field, you see a child drowning in a pond. Are you justified in leaping over the fence to rescue the child? Of course you are. Protesting in front of an abortion clinic is the moral equivalent of saving the drowning child. It is a symbol of our resistance to the taking of innocent human life. But civil disobedience must never become an excuse for violence. We cannot uphold God's law in one area by breaking it in another. That undermines our own integrity as we oppose injustice in our land. Augustine once said, "An unjust law is no law at all." Today we might add that a nation that operates by unjust laws is really no nation at all, and will certainly pass away. But we stand firm on what we know will never pass away: the law of God. Our ultimate allegiance is to the King who rules over all the temporal kingdoms of this world.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary