Especially since COVID, “God over government” has become a popular conservative mantra. But I fear we have missed half the equation.

Conservatives have dialed in on the civil disobedience component of putting God over government. We’re Americans, after all. Of course we’re going to find an excuse to be defiant. Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God, right?

Biblically, there is indeed a time and place for what we have, in our parlance, called civil disobedience. When Peter was instructed by authority to stop preaching the gospel, he famously replied, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” On another occasion, when presented with a similar enjoinment “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” he flatly refused: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

Strikingly, this was the same man who later wrote: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well [emphasis added].” These are astonishing words coming from the apostle who more than once, in obedience to God, did not submit himself to an ordinance of man!

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We cannot disregard one verse and cling to the other. There is, in fact, no discrepancy between Peter’s commanding submission to government on one occasion and refusing to submit on another.

The key to biblical defiance is that it must be done in obedience to God (“We ought to obey God…”). It must be done for His sake.

Civil disobedience is not rebellion for the sake of rebellion. Civil disobedience is a byproduct of greater obedience—obedience to a higher power. It is a last resort reserved exclusively for when government compels us to disobey the God who invented government.

And may we, like Peter, always prefer to obey Him rather than man.

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We must admit, however, that the “carnal mind”—which is “enmity with God”—is often deeply sympathetic to civil disobedience. Henry David Thoreau, the author of the monumental “Civil Disobedience,” was a borderline anarchist, a position obviously not in accordance with God’s Word. The point is, our “Bible-justified” rebellion can easily get off track. Worse, we may simply exploit the Bible as a pretense for man-centric subversion.

Many of us would be more than happy to ignore “We ought to obey God” as the grounds for our disobedience. We are, perhaps, too eager to pass over that critical piece.

We must examine ourselves and ensure that our disobedience to government is truly rooted in steadfast obedience to God. Are we rebels for His sake? Or are we just rebels? Do we throw in “God over government” as an afterthought? Have we appropriated Scripture for our own human purposes? 

Before we can disobey biblically we must obey biblically.

Indeed, if we truly believed in God over government we would see Him as preferable to government and government-based solutions. We would not supersede religion with politics. We would obey Him not just when in a direct confrontation with human authority but at all times. In one sense, God’s people should, in fact, be the most submissive people; we have submitted our lives to His lordship.

We cannot leave God out of the equation. Only He can teach us when to turn the other cheek and when to fight back. When to submit and when to subvert.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.