The Bible says that we are to obey those who are in authority over us. Does this hold true in every situation?
This is a very good question. You are right in saying the Bible teaches that we are to obey those who are in authority over us. Children are to obey their parents. Wives are to be submissive to their husbands, church members to the officers of the church, employees to their employers, and citizens to civil magistrates.
It should be pointed out, however, that the only one who has an absolute claim to anyone’s obedience is God. It is never permissible, under any circumstances, ever to disobey God. Under certain circumstances, however, it is permissible to disobey human authorities. In fact, I would go even further. In some circumstances one has not only the right, but the duty to disobey authority.
Now, let me be very clear about this. The general posture of the Christian ought to be one of joyful submission to authority. This ought to be one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Christian. We live in a very unlawful, revolutionary age, in which authority is despised. The disrespect that is shown, especially by young people, to parents and teachers and officers of the law and others in authority, is appalling. As Christians we should distinguish ourselves by giving all due honor to those who are in authority over us, and obey them without grumbling and complaining.
But having said this, I must also add that whenever someone in authority over us either commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, we must disobey that authority.
For instance, a child is commanded by God to obey his parents. But suppose a parent is at the park with his child and sees a brand new bicycle left unattended and tells his child to take it, to steal it. Should the child do it? The child is commanded by God to obey his parents. Should the child obey in this instance? No, because what the parent is commanding is something that God forbids.
Suppose a man tells his pregnant wife to go get an abortion. Should she obey? Paul says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:22-23). But is this an absolute requirement, admitting of no qualification? No. She is to submit to her husband in all lawful things. But abortion is unlawful. Her husband is commanding something God forbids.
Or suppose a man tells his wife not to go to church. Should she obey him? No, because he’s forbidding something God commands.
Suppose an employer tells an employee to do something unethical. Say he tells the firm’s accountant to cook the books, to juggle the numbers a bit, in order to make it appear the company is doing better than it really is so as to encourage investors to buy stock. The accountant should refuse, even if it should cost him his job.
Suppose a church leader should use his authority in the church to pressure a pretty young woman to have an illicit relationship with him. I recently heard of church leader who was exposed for doing just this. He told a woman he was counseling that by sleeping with him he could help her heal emotionally from past sexual abuse. For a time she resisted, thinking (quite properly) that it would be wrong for her to do so. But she also kept thinking, “Well, he is in authority over me as a minister.” Finally, she relented. But a minister of the gospel cannot require what God forbids, or forbid what God requires.
Suppose that it should suddenly be declared illegal to give public testimony to Jesus Christ? What if legislation should be passed by Congress and signed into by the president outlawing all public expressions of the faith? Must we obey the law because the Bible says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”?
Or let’s say you lived in Nazi occupied Europe in 1944 and the order came for all the residents of your city to report the whereabouts of the Jews living there. You know what the order is all about. You know the Jews are going to be hauled off to a death camp. You also know where several Jewish families are hiding. Should you obey the order? Of course not! There are limits to the obedience we are to render to human authorities. Those limits are prescribed by God in his word. Whenever an authority commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, we are justified in disobeying the authority in question.
We have many, many examples of this from Scripture: Shipphrah and Puah, the two Hebrew midwives (Ex. 1:15-22); Rahab, who hid the two Hebrew spies as they were scoping out Jericho (Josh. 2); Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who defied the unlawful orders of kings (Dan. 3; 6); and the apostles, who when they were told to stop preaching Christ, said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And this must always be our position also. Only God has an absolute claim to our obedience.