law of the land

Many people quote “law of the land” as if it was in the Bible…

I have yet to find it…

It seems to come from the Latin lex terrae (or legem terrae in the accusative case). It refers to all of the laws in force within a country or region, including both statute law and common law.

The usage that appears to be the foundation of our modern understanding in English speaking countries likely comes from the “law of the land clause” in the 1297 Magna Carta:

No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.[1]

Some “Christians” will cite the “law of the land” as if it was a Biblical concept that establishes the “divine right of kings”, that every form of Government and every leader is hand picked by God, that everything they do, they do as God’s servant, and that everything Government does, it does as the Hand of God and we should comply and go along with it no matter what.  They then pull Romans 13 out of context to support their presupposition and promote an erroneous belief that civil government must be submitted to regardless of how evil or immoral its laws might be making them de facto slaves and worshippers of the state.

Blind support of government is a hazardous thing.

Note that the atrocities carried out by Nazi Germany were all perfectly and even meticulously “legal” and supported by laws put into effect by democratically elected representatives.

The laws were of course immoral, but the government sponsored church of the time said that since God instituted government, then we should follow whatever the “law of the land” was without question.

This left even “christians” without the moral grounding to say “no” to things that were clearly against God’s law because they were “legal” according to man’s law.

As did Germany’s pastors and Christians in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, America’s pastors and Christians suffer from a  fallacy leads them to believe that by serving the state, they are serving God. In their minds, one cannot be “right with God” if they are not totally submissive to the state.

Here are several scriptural examples of nations and kingdoms that are out of God’s will.  If the nation was sovereignly controlled by God, then why would the nation be acting outside of God’s will?  Scripture demonstrates that the level of corruption in government and its leaders actually reflects the level of corruption in the nation.

“The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it,”if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.”And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it,”if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.” Jeremiah 18:7-10

[[TODO: add more examples here]]

Scripture reveals the role and place of government in God’s plan.  Due to sin in the world and the hardness of people’s hearts God has established the concept of governments in order to protect life, liberty, and property of earth dwellers.  While authority of governments ultimately comes from God, and certainly God steers even the most corrupt and evil governments to accomplish His plan, the balance of scripture shows that governments can create and enforce laws that are contrary to God’s Law and that not everything a government or leader does is an expression of God’s will.

While the phrase “law of the land” does not appear in the Bible, there are scriptural examples supporting the concept of “civil disobedience” in instances of believers -vs- the laws of men in cases where the laws of men are contrary to the Law of God.

In Exodus 1, the Egyptian Pharaoh gave the clear command to two Hebrew midwives that they were to kill all male Jewish babies. The midwives disobeyed Pharaoh and “feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17). The Bible goes on to say the midwives lied to Pharaoh about why they were letting the children live; yet even though they lied and disobeyed their government, “God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them” (Exodus 1:20–21).  I would suggest that God’s favor to the midwives was not necessarily due to their lying but in spite of it and more for their fearing God and preserving the lives of the children.

In Joshua 2, Rahab directly disobeyed a command from the king of Jericho to produce the Israelite spies who had entered the city to gain intelligence for battle. Instead, she let them down via a rope so they could escape. Even though Rahab had received a clear order from the top government official, she resisted the command and was redeemed from the city’s destruction when Joshua and the Israeli army destroyed it.

Another example of civil disobedience in keeping with biblical submission is found in 1 Kings 18. That chapter briefly introduces a man named Obadiah who “feared the Lord greatly.” When the queen Jezebel was killing God’s prophets, Obadiah took a hundred of them and hid them from her so they could live. Such an act was in clear defiance of the ruling authority’s wishes.

In 2 Kings, the only apparently approved revolt against a reigning government official is recorded. Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, began to destroy the royal offspring of the house of Judah. However, Joash the son of Ahaziah was taken by the king’s daughter and hidden from Athaliah so that the bloodline would be preserved. Six years later, Jehoiada gathered men around him, declared Joash to be king, and put Athaliah to death.

Daniel records a number of civil disobedience examples. The first is found in chapter 3 where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to the golden idol in disobedience to King Nebuchadnezzar’s command. The second is in chapter 6 where Daniel defies King Darius’ decree to not pray to anyone other than the king. In both cases, God rescued His people from the death penalty that was imposed, signaling His approval of their actions.

In the New Testament, the book of Acts records the civil disobedience of Peter and John towards the authorities that were in power at the time. After Peter healed a man born lame, Peter and John were arrested for preaching about Jesus and put in jail. The religious authorities were determined to stop them from teaching about Jesus; however, Peter said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). Later, the rulers confronted the apostles again and reminded them of their command to not teach about Jesus, but Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

One last example of civil disobedience is found in the book of Revelation where the Antichrist commands all those who are alive during the end times to worship an image of himself. But the apostle John, who wrote Revelation, states that those who become Christians at the time will disobey the Antichrist and his government and refuse to worship the image (Revelation 13:15) just as Daniel’s companions violated Nebuchadnezzar’s decree to worship his idol.

Some summary points can be drawn from scripture as follows:

• Christians should resist a government that commands or compels evil and should work nonviolently within the laws to change a government that permits evil by prayer, by sharing the Gospel, by spreading truth, by appealing to lawmakers, by campaigning, by voting, by training up the next generation to think Biblically and critically, etc…

• Civil disobedience is permitted when the man’s laws or commands are in conflict with God’s laws and commands

• Civil disobedience is permitted to protect the lives of the innocent and God fearing

• If a Christian disobeys an evil government, unless he can flee from the government, he should be prepared to accept that government’s punishment for his actions.

• Christians are commanded to pray for their leaders and for God to intervene and have government fulfill its role of protecting life, liberty, and property so that we can carry out our commission to share the Gospel of salvation: “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.  For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1–4).

To sum up in one statement:

We must obey God rather than men – Acts 5:29

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