The Hong Kong pro-democracy protests that have been in the news since September 26 seem to be losing steam. They do not have the widespread support that they had initially, and most of the protestors’ barricades have been torn down. It is possible that there could be some sort of violent confrontation with the police in the coming days, with many arrests. These “occupy” protests are illegal, but the protesters say they had exhausted all other avenues for change, and so were forced to resort to civil disobedience.
As someone who has been to Hong Kong and who has a family member living in Hong Kong, I have a special interest in these protests. Coverage of the protests in the West has generally been supportive of the protesters, who want unfettered democracy in Hong Kong, while coverage of the protests by official media outlets in China has either been nonexistent or strongly opposed. But since all of these news sources are secular, none of them evaluates the protests by the Bible.
The New Testament shows a striking disinterest in political issues. It teaches that Christians have a responsibility to submit to and obey their government and the laws of their land (Rom 13:6-7). A Christian who opposes government opposes God, and will pay for it (Rom 13:1-2). Whether government officials are good or bad, they need our prayers to help them do their jobs (1 Tim 2:2). Christians are commanded to honor the governing authorities (1 Pet 2:13-17)—including, in the context of 1 Peter 2:17, Emperor Nero. The apostles were neither political agitators, nor social reformers; they were heralds of the gospel of salvation, and their mission was to save individual souls, not the government or society. While the New Testament does not prohibit Christians from being involved in government or politics, Romans 13:1, Titus 3:1, and 1 Peter 2:13 clearly imply that political activism must be done in accordance with the laws of one’s country; civil disobedience is sinful as a form of political activism.
I do not question the sincerity or good intentions of the Hong Kong protestors. But the only biblical justification for Christians to disobey the law is when the law prohibits something that the Bible commands or commands something that the Bible prohibits. The government of the Roman Empire under Nero was incredibly wicked, openly immoral, cruel, and anti-Christian, yet the apostles never lifted their voice in protest. Instead, they commanded meek submission and honor to the governing authorities.
On the other side of the coin, unrighteous rulers will have to give an account to God for their actions. But it is the exclusive prerogative of God (and, in some cases, of rulers who stand in God’s place) to set up and remove kings (Dan 2:21; 4:17). The frustration of people with their governments is often understandable, but rebellion is not a Christian solution to the problem. It is well known that the Chinese government officially espouses the false religion of Communism, and also that the government has a lengthy track record of persecuting the Christian church. But the Roman government to which the apostles commanded submission possessed similar faults, and one would be hard-pressed to identify any “Christian” government in the world today.
I do, like the Hong Kong protesters, have political views and a desire to make government better. But what happens in the political arena is a secondary issue for the Christian. Our job is to be faithful to God’s instructions for us in the Bible, and these instructions are concerned with spiritual, not political, reform. While many reasons have been put forth to justify civil disobedience in certain contexts, these justifications do not come from the New Testament.