Bible Lessons for Times of Civil Unrest

Ferguson Riots

Then all the city was provoked, and the people rushed together, and taking hold of Paul they dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. At once he took along some soldiers and centurions and ran down to them; and when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the commander came up and took hold of him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; and he began asking who he was and what he had done. But among the crowd some were shouting one thing and some another, and when he could not find out the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. When he got to the stairs, he was carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob; for the multitude of the people kept following them, shouting, ‘Away with him!’” (Acts 21:30-36).

In the passage above, Luke recorded an episode of civil unrest in the city of Jerusalem. When we see news stories about protesting, rioting, and looting in major cities, we need to remember that this is nothing new (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9). The unrest in Jerusalem was marked by violence, confusion, an increased military presence, and protests. In a similar situation in Philippi, there was also injustice on display as the authorities had Paul and Silas wrongly beaten and imprisoned (Acts 16:22-24, 37). We see the same things today during times of civil unrest.

These news stories of protesting, rioting, and looting in response to an act of injustice (real or perceived) by law enforcement happen much too frequently in our society. During such times of civil unrest, while specific details may vary in each situation, there are certain Biblical principles that we need to remember. Let us be reminded of some of these principles now.

Civil Authority

God expects us to submit to civil authorities: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1). Of course, our obligation to obey civil authorities does have limits. If obeying them requires us to disobey God, then as Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). But as long as we can submit to civil authorities without compromising our service to God, we must do so.

Why are we to submit to civil authorities? Paul explained that they were ministers of God: “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:3-4). God’s intention is that civil government punish those who do evil and protect those who do good.

However, this does not mean that the authorities are always right. Some act as ministers of Satan rather than ministers of God. Jesus warned the Christians in Smyrna, “Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison” (Revelation 2:10). He was not saying that Satan would come in physical form and drag Christians off to prison. Instead, He was warning about persecution from civil authorities (the ones who had the authority to put people in prison). Clearly, by persecuting the innocent, these authorities were proving that they were serving Satan rather than God.

Civil authorities acting as God intended will not punish, persecute, or oppress innocent people (Romans 13:3). Our prayer “for kings and all who are in authority” is “that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2). Yet Paul, while he was in Philippi, was wrongly punished by the authorities. He and Silas, by the order of the chief magistrates, were “beaten with rods” and thrown “into the inner prison” (Acts 16:22-24).

This happened to Paul – the inspired author of Romans 13. It is interesting to see how he responded to the injustice he faced in Philippi. When the chief magistrates ordered for Paul and Silas to be released, Paul said, “They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed! But let them come themselves and bring us out” (Acts 16:37). Did Paul violate the instruction to submit to civil authorities by attempting to hold them publicly accountable for their abuse of power? No! Submission to civil leaders does not require us to accept abuse, but it does require us to voice our protests in the proper way. Peter wrote, “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16).

Racism

Racism is often a factor in times of civil unrest. It may be real, perceived, or contrived, but it is still a factor. We need to remember that all have been made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). In teaching the Athenians about God, Paul said, “And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). All men, regardless of race, have a common Maker and a common ancestry.

Therefore, because of these things that we have in common, we must also understand that all men are inherently equal. Peter (a Jew), in speaking to the household of Cornelius (a Gentile), said, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34-35). We must have the same attitude of God – willing to treat all people without partiality. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In the eyes of God, there is “no distinction between Greek and Jew” or any other race (Colossians 3:10-11). This is why Jesus commissioned His apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

Given the history of this country, it is understandable if racism is suspected in certain events. Sometimes it is a factor; other times it is not. However, we must be careful not to rush to judgment, especially without all of the facts. The wise man said, “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). It is easy to come to the wrong conclusion when we only consider one side of the story. Even in the case of one who is part of a group that is often oppressed, we must be careful not to show bias in favor of those who have been historically oppressed and judge wrongly. “You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute” (Exodus 23:2-3). Historically, certain minority groups and communities have been oppressed. But that does not mean that we ought to “pervert justice” by being “partial” to a member of a particular community in a particular case.

What if there was actual racial injustice? In this case, we should remember Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “The Lord’s bond-servant must…[be] patient when wronged” (2 Timothy 2:24). This does not mean we ignore the injustice. Just as Paul was unjustly treated in Philippi and made his complaint against the authorities known (Acts 16:37), there is a way for us to do this today. But protesting injustice does not mean we participate in riots. When Paul made his defense before Felix, he said, “Neither in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor in the city itself did they find me…causing a riot” (Acts 24:12). We are to “[turn] the world upside down” through preaching the gospel (Acts 17:6-7), not by rioting.

Personal Property

A common occurrence during times of civil unrest is looting. Stealing is always wrong. Paul wrote, “He who steals must steal no longer, but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need” (Ephesians 4:28).

We are to respect the personal property of others. Why? The Scriptures teach that the material possessions that others have are blessings they have received from God. The wise man said, “As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19). When one’s possessions are taken from him so that others enjoy them, the wise man said, “This is vanity and a severe affliction” (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2).

Some turn to looting during times of civil unrest because they are opportunists. They take advantage of a police force that is occupied and overwhelmed and steal from local businesses. However, stealing/looting is wrong, even when there is no punishment. In writing about our need to submit to civil authorities, Paul said, “Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake” (Romans 13:5). Later in the same chapter, Paul said, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). If one does not steal, only because he is afraid of getting arrested, his heart is not right. We must do “no wrong to a neighbor,” even if law enforcement is ineffective or non-existent.

Some engage in looting because they have a wrong concept of property. They believe that all property ultimately belongs to the State; therefore, looting is a way to retaliate against the authorities for some injustice. But again, the individuals who own property have it because of God’s blessings (Ecclesiastes 5:19). Furthermore, doing harm to a fellow citizen does not mean the authorities will show concern for one’s cause. The Jews in Corinth came to Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, about their complaint against Paul (Acts 18:12-13). But when Gallio refused to listen and “drove them away from the judgment seat,” the Jews “took hold of Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and began beating him in front of the judgment seat. But Gallio was not concerned about any of these things” (Acts 18:14-17). Gallio was not interested in the alleged crime of Paul and the violence against Sosthenes did not change his mind. In the same way, harming citizens today (through looting and violence in times of civil unrest), does not mean civil leaders will show the concern to deal with alleged instances of injustice.

Conclusion

Each of the points above has shown us something to remember about God:

  • Civil authority – Remember that God is greater than human rulers. “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1; cf. Ephesians 1:20-21; Matthew 28:18).
  • Racism – Remember that God made all men equal (Genesis 1:27; Acts 17:26) and welcomes everyone to Him (Acts 10:34-35; Colossians 3:10-11).
  • Personal property – Remember that one’s possessions are blessings from God (Ecclesiastes 5:19).

During times of civil unrest – and at all times – we must look to God. Remember what John wrote:

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

The earth and its troubles are only temporary. Therefore, no matter what happens in the world around us, we must focus first on doing the will of God.


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Comments

  1. Bobby McPherson says

    Andy, this is a very interesting and informative writing. It is so timely when we consider the attitudes that have been expressed daily by so many during the current riots not only the ones that are doing these wrongs but also by the news media and so many that are involved in peace keeping or commentary. Keep up the good work. Bobby

  2. Ed Brand says

    Your article on civil disobedience and rioting reinforces the value of Scripture. It it timeless and eternal and instructive for all who desire God’s thoughts. It is as true today and it was when holy men of old wrote down the words of God. Thank you.

  3. Tim Haile says

    Very good article. The riots reminded me of an article that I wrote some time ago on “Animalism.”
    http://www.biblebanner.com/articles/general/Animalism.pdf

  4. Great thoughts. Thanks

  5. Larry DeVore says

    Good article and most timely. Thanks, Andy.