Is It Unbiblical to Protest Unrighteous Governments Like What’s Taking Place in Iran?

The people in Iran are holding public protests against the Iranian government. Are they doing the right thing? Is it wrong to protest corrupt politicians and policies? Our Constitution in the First Amendment codifies the freedom to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” by freedom of religion, assembly, speech, and the press. These are “inalienable rights.” They are not granted to us by governments

There are many Christian who believe that the political status quo is the biblical position. You couldn’t make that case to the prophets in Israel. John MacArthur made some comments about the ongoing civil unrest in the Middle East. “I just think the upshot of all of this is more instability, more chaos,” the longtime Southern California pastor told The Christian Post in an interview. “I don’t think the future looks good.” He may be right, but he doesn’t really know. He uses Iran as an example of what happened when the government of the Shah was replaced with that of the Ayatollahs. “You’d like to think that nothing but freedom would come out of this. That’s not what happened in Iran.”

There remains an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in Iran.

Who would have thought that the Berlin Wall would come down, or the Soviet Union would collapse, or atheistic Romania and other Eastern Bloc countries would break free from the Soviet orbit? The question is, What will fill the vacuum? If Christians aren’t ready to lead in this area, then we’re going to have years of unrest. Until Christians engage the culture in a comprehensive way with the “whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27) all we’re going to see in the next few decades are hand wringing and claims that the end of the world is upon us. We need a new generation of the “sons of Isaachar,” “men who understood the times with knowledge of what Israel should do” (1 Chron. 12:32).

I don’t have much of an argument with MacArthur’s comments about the potential for further disruption, instability, and chaos. I’ve been just as distrustful and skeptical of democratic uprisings as he has, and I’ve said as much in my article “The Scourge of Unbridled Democracy.” The French and Russian Revolutions are examples of popular uprisings going bad. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be after expressions of popular unrest, although I suspect, given MacArthur’s prophetic views, that he sees these displays of dissent as setting the stage for a series of end-time events culminating in the “rapture” of the church, the rise of antichrist, and an attack on Israel. There can’t be any real hope for national stability in the Middle East because the prophetic tea leaves have been read (and in my view, “been found wanting”).

Here is where I have a disagreement with MacArthur. The article reports the following about his views:

“But from a biblical perspective, MacArthur maintained that the protesters are in violation of the biblical command to ‘submit to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God.’”

I don’t see how protesting the actions of a civil government is a violation of the biblical command to submit to civil authority. When a civil ruler operates outside his jurisdictional limitations, it is not wrong for the people to call him to account. A civil ruler only operates legitimately in those things over which he has jurisdictional authority. He can’t claim that because he’s a king that whatever he does is the result of his office. An elected official that lies, cheats, steals, and murders is not doing God’s will in his civil capacity. He can and should be called to account. Samuel Rutherford’s comments in Lex, Rex, or, The Law and the Prince are helpful on this point:

It is true, so long as kings remain kings, subjection is due to them because [they are] kings; but that is not the question. The question is, if subjection be due to them, when they use their power unlawfully and tyrannically. The question is, if subjection be due them when they use their power unlawfully and tyrannically. Whatever David did, though he was a king, he did it not as a king; he deflowered not Bathsheba as king, and Bathsheba might with bodily resistance and violence lawfully have resisted king David, though kingly power remained in him, while he should thus attempt to commit adultery; else David might have said to Bathsheba, “Because I am the Lord’s anointed, it is rebellion in thee, a subject, to oppose any bodily violence to my act of forcing of thee; it is unlawful to thee to cry for help, for if any shall offer violently to rescue thee from me, he resisteth the ordinance of God.1

What if Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband had learned of his wife’s infidelity and the sinful and criminal action of King David? Was he obligated to remain silent and be subject to the king’s actions based on MacArthur’s reading of Romans 13:1–2?:

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. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.

Was Nathan wrong to confront King David and call him to account because of his sins and crimes?

Was it wrong for Naboth not to accept the generous offer of King Ahab either to buy or trade for his vineyard? It seems to me that Jezebel’s counsel to her husband was very close to what John MacArthur would capitulate if he had been Naboth based on a narrow reading of Romans 13: “Then his wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Now, exercise your royal power over Israel….’” (1 Kings 21:7). She was saying, “Hey, man, you’re the king. God gave you this authority. Take the land if you want it. You can do this because (1) every person “must be in subjection to the governing authorities” and (2) “whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” Naboth resisted, so I guess, he received a just punishment.

It’s obvious that Ahab and even Jezebel feared the people because they had Naboth charged, convicted, and punished based on false testimony on a trumped-up charge of sedition and blasphemy (Lev. 24:15–16). They did this privately using their own operatives. Would the people have been wrong to protest the action of Ahab and Jezebel if they had gotten wind of their plot? Protesting the actions of a civil leader is not a violation of Romans 13.

  1. Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or, The Law and the Prince (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, [1644] 1980), 149. Often Lex, Rex is translated as “The Law is King.” The correct translation is The Law and the Prince. []
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