3 Times You Should Disobey Authority

God-Given Authority

What are the limits to our moral obligation to submit when someone possesses an ostensibly legitimate authority over us, like a parent over a child? Certainly there are limits. Remember, no human authority is absolute. Authority is always relative to the assignment given by the Authority Giver.

When Paul says, “there is no authority except from God,” and “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Rom. 13:1, 2), he doesn’t mean that human authority is unlimited, and that every action of every authority is morally legitimate, and that every act of resistance is morally illegitimate. Rather, he’s describing the government’s job description and presenting several basic principles: human authority comes from God; we cannot randomly assert authority over one another; we should generally submit. But this does not mean that everything a human authority says or does, without exception, must be obeyed. All God-given authority has limits, and the fact that authority has limits means that our call to submit to authority has limits, too. The limits of authority and submission are correlates. Sometimes, therefore, we can legitimately say “no” to an authority figure, as other passages of Scripture teach.


Jonathan Leeman

Through Scripture and engaging stories, Jonathan Leeman shows that godly authority is essential to human flourishing and presents 5 attributes of biblical authority.

Here are three limits on our call to submit to God-given authority figures.

Limit 1: When an Authority Requires Sin

The easiest limit to discern: we don’t need to submit when an authority figure requires us to sin.

God commended the Hebrew midwives for not obeying Pharaoh’s command to kill the baby boys (Ex. 1:15–22). He rescued Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image (Daniel 3). And when the Sanhedrin commanded the apostles Peter and John to stop preaching Christ, they asked, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?” (Acts 4:19 NIV). The answer to their rhetorical question is, God.

That we should disobey when commanded to sin is a fairly noncontroversial point among Christians. It features prominently in conversations about civil disobedience against the government.

Limit 2: When an Authority Drives outside Its God-Assigned Lanes

A second reason might be a little more contentious. Yet I’d argue that we don’t need to submit when an authority figure requires us to do something God has not authorized that particular authority figure to require. Call this driving outside the lanes, or stepping outside one’s jurisdiction.

Churches should not wield the sword. Governments should not decide who gets baptized. Politicians generally should not tell pastors which doctrines to hold. Parents generally should not forbid children from seeking morally legitimate and necessary medical treatment. And schools generally should not undermine a parent’s authority concerning what to teach their children. “Generally” is an important word in each of these sentences, because one can nearly always envision certain exceptions.

I don’t have an easy proof-text to employ for biblically proving this second category of justifications for disobedience. But I think the suggestion shows up in a number of biblical texts. For instance, no punishment comes to Jonathan for eating honey when his foolish father Saul promised divine judgment upon anyone who did (1 Sam. 14:44–45). Or think of Esther going before the king to plead for her people, which was against the law (Est. 4:11). This enabled her to save her people. Maybe we could even consider Jesus telling the disciples they were free to eat heads of grain from the field even though the Pharisees declared it unlawful to do so on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–28). In each case, someone broke a human law. The law wasn’t commanding those under it to sin. It’s not sin to eat a head of grain when walking through a field, for instance. Yet the Pharisees did not have God-given authority to forbid what they forbade, therefore the disciples were free to disobey them.

The story of Rehoboam might also exemplify limit 2 (1 Kings 12). From one angle, the people are properly subjects of their king and must submit to him. But Rehoboam clearly rejects his kingly responsibility to care for and unify the nation, and instead insists on the people being his slaves. Israel abandons him, and God never condemns Israel for doing so.1

Whether or not these biblical case studies fit perfectly, I admit the argument here is more theological than strictly exegetical. It’s built on inferences. And the theological argument is that God gives no human beings unlimited authority to command whatever they want. Parents cannot demand whatever they want of their children. Nor can pastors, princes, or policemen, in their respective areas. God gives people only narrowly defined authority for specific purposes. Any commands given outside God’s authorization is, strictly speaking, unauthorized. To say I can require you to do something when God hasn’t authorized me to do so is to make my authority absolute, because now I’m “authorizing” myself.

This basic justification for disobedience appears to show up in the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith. Article XVII reads, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it” (Baptist Faith and Message, 2000). That is, our consciences are free from a moral burden with commandments which are contrary to God’s word (limitation 1, above). And they are free from commandments which are not contained in his word, presumably including those commandments which fall outside an authority’s jurisdiction (limitation 2).

It’s not always easy to discern whether something falls inside or outside an authority’s jurisdiction. Does the government have the right to require certain kinds of clothing of its citizens? If that citizen is a soldier, yes. But does the Taliban have the right to require women to wear burkas? One Christian friend of mine says yes. I say no. If I were a missionary in Afghanistan, and my daughter asked me if she could shed the burka for a secret Christian wedding ceremony, and I was confident she would not be caught, I would say, “Of course.” Whatever you might think of the burka example, I don’t think it’s difficult to see that there is a line or an edge somewhere, where everyone’s ground of authority drops off into the ocean.

Authority is always relative to the assignment given by the Authority Giver.

Limit 3: When Protecting Oneself from Wrongful Harm

Related to this second reason to disobey is a third one: we’re not required to submit to an authority who is acting to wrongly harm us.

Admittedly, the word “harm” needs clarifying. And why would I say “wrongly harm” and not just “harm”? Because there’s a sense in which any act of discipline causes “harm” in some vague sense of the word. When I ground my teenager, I “harm” her plans for the weekend. Yet somewhere a line exists between a legitimate act of discipline and an illegitimate one. It’s possible for my discipline to “exasperate” or even abuse my daughter (see Eph. 6:4 NIV), and that is sin. We don’t need to debate where exactly the line is between legitimate discipline and illegitimate discipline for every authority figure. That would take volumes of case law. The point is, we all know that a line exists. And what I’m saying here is, a person is not morally bound to submit to an act of discipline that crosses the line—that’s sinfully excessive or unduly severe. If a father swings his fist at the ornery child, the child should duck, run, and find help, even if he wrongly spoke back against his father. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Admittedly, a Christian might decide to submit to sinful harm—say, a decision to endure persecution for the sake of witness. But they are also free not to do so, if there’s a way of escape. To put it another way, I think human beings possess the right of self-defense even from someone placed by God over them.

A biblical text I can imagine someone asking about, which might seem to undermine my point, is 1 Peter 2:18–19: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” Is Peter saying we should submit to harm? Not if we can get out of it. Instead, Peter is envisioning a situation in which slaves are “stuck”—Bible scholar Thomas Schreiner’s word to me over the phone—and have no choice about whether to endure unjust treatment. Or as Schreiner put it in his commentary: “Believers could not opt out of obeying masters who were wicked and disreputable.” “Ordinarily,” says Schreiner, slaves who are stuck should “do what their masters dictate.” Meaning, the master might sin against you regularly, but you should still work to do a good job for him. That’s what Peter means by “Be subject.” That said, Peter is not saying “masters wield absolute authority over slaves” or that “Christian slaves should participate in evil or follow a corrupt master in an evil course of action.” Rather, Peter is counseling people in these kinds of “stuck” situations, which would have been quite common in the ancient world, and encouraging them to look to Christ’s example of “entrusting himself to him who judges justly,” even as the world around them judged them unjustly (v. 23).2

Even as Peter counsels people who are stuck, Paul tells slaves to get their freedom if they can (1 Cor. 7:21). If a person can avoid harm, he or she certainly should. People need not submit to the abuse and harm if they can remove themselves from it. Moses likewise commanded the Israelites to not return a slave to his master when he has escaped (Deut. 23:15–16). David fled from Saul again and again. Jesus asked an officer, “Why do you strike me?” (John 18:23). And Paul contested his public beating and asked for an apology (Acts 16:37, 39). In each one of these scenarios, someone—including Jesus—was either challenging or abandoning an otherwise “legitimate” authority because of physical violence.

As I mentioned above, there are times when Christians will choose to stay and endure harm or persecution for the sake of their gospel witness. Cyprian fled for safety during the Decian persecution in 250. Yet he decided to stay during the Valerian persecution in 256, and it cost him his life. I believe both were potentially legitimate moral decisions, meaning he was free to do either. People have also willingly submitted themselves to harm to great effect for other causes, as with the civil rights protesters submitting to police clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday” in March 1965. Yet all this is quite different from saying that people under various kinds of formally legitimate authorities must submit themselves to harm from those authorities. I don’t believe the Bible teaches that.

To say there are limits to how far we should submit to God-given authorities over us is to say there is no “final” authority on earth. God is always and only our final authority.


  1. Thanks to Samuel James for this example.
  2. Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 and 2 Peter and Jude, Christian Standard Commentary (Nashville: Holman, 2020), 151.

This article is adapted from Authority: How Godly Rule Protects the Vulnerable, Strengthens Communities, and Promotes Human Flourishing by Jonathan Leeman.

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