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Bryan Matthew Dockens

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech... or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances". Of some concern is whether this civil liberty is one that may be exercised by Christians, that is: whether the Scripture upholds an individual's right to criticize the government.

The apostle Peter commanded, "Honor the king" (1st Peter 2:17), echoing the Old Testament order that "You shall not... curse a ruler of your people" (Exodus 22:28). In the context of those "suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" Jude mentioned those who "reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries" (Jude 7-8). Beyond question, it is highly inappropriate to dishonor, curse, reject, or speak evil of kings, rulers, authorities, and dignitaries. The foregoing restrictions notwithstanding, Jesus did not hesitate to identify King Herod as "that fox" (Luke 13:32), which could hardly be confused for a compliment. Evidently, it is possible to criticize a ruler without cursing or dishonoring him.

While persecution is to be expected (2nd Timothy 3:12; 1st Peter 4:12-16), and even rejoiced in (Matthew 5:10-12), objecting to such, on the basis that it violates civil rights, is appropriate. On more than one occasion, the apostle Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen to spare himself from harm by agents of the government or to shame those in government who had already done him harm.

After offending the public in Philippi by performing a miracle of exorcism (Acts 16:16-18), Paul and Silas were "seized" and "dragged" to the "authorities" (19). Subsequently, the "magistrates... commanded them to be beaten with rods" (22), and then they were thrown into prison (23), where they were held in stocks (24). On the following day, the magistrates ordered them released from prison, to which Paul replied, "They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out" (37). This news brought fear to the magistrates (38), who then "pleaded with them" to leave (39).

After offending the public in Jerusalem by preaching that the gospel was open to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21-23), the commander of the Roman garrison, having already commanded Paul to be "bound with two chains" (Acts 21:33), "ordered him to be brought into the barracks, and said that he should be examined under scourging" (Acts 22:24). Yet, Paul inquired of the "centurion who stood by, 'Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?' When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, 'Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman'" (Acts 22:25-26).

The same man who, no less than twice, demanded that his rights be respected by the authorities, wrote, "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves" (Romans 13:1-2). Clearly, government is to be respected and civil disobedience is not protected by God. Yet, the apostle supported the above statement with this explanation: "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil" (Romans 13:3). When rulers do, in fact, terrorize "good works", the rulers are the ones violating their divine purpose. While resistance is neither authorized nor exemplified by the apostle, it is correct to bring attention to injustice.

"To punish the righteous is not good" (Proverbs 17:26). "It is not good to... overthrow the righteous in judgment" (Proverbs 18:5).

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