White: Civil Disobedience and Subordination

The Christian’s duty to the state has been a significant issue since the time of Jesus. Are we to obey every law and statute? Are there circumstances when a higher standard means Christians can and should act in ways contrary to a nation’s laws?

John Howard Yoder, the noted Mennonite theologian, analyzed Romans 13 in his most famous work, The Politics of Jesus (Ch. 10, “Let Every Soul Be Subject”). Yoder points out the difference between obedience and subordination.

It is not by accident that the imperative of 13:1 is not literally one of obedience. The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination. This verb is based upon the same root as the ordering of the powers of God. Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what government demands, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying. (pp. 208-209)

Martin Luther King Jr, the great leader of the US civil rights movement, spoke to this same theme. King emphasized the difference between a just and an unjust law.

Therefore the individuals who stand up on the basis of civil disobedience realize that they are following something that says that there are just laws and there are unjust laws. Now, they are not anarchists. They believe that there are laws which must be followed; they do not seek to defy the law, they do not seek to evade the law…. And I submit that the individual who disobeys the law, whose conscience tells him it is unjust and who is willing to accept the penalty by staying in jail until that law is altered, is expressing at the moment the very highest respect for law. (“Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience” in A Testament of Hope, p. 49)

Both King and Yoder spoke of doing what was just, and then accepting the consequences for those actions which are counter to the state’s present laws. Similarly, at least twice in relation to slavery and the U.S. Civil War, Ellen White spoke in consistent ways. Clearly, Acts 5:29 was important to White, as Peter and the apostles declared: “We must obey God rather than men.”

First, Ellen White taught that Adventists should disregard the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required citizens to return slaves who had fled their “homes” and were heading north to freedom. “When the laws of men conflict with the word and law of God, we are to obey the latter, whatever the consequences may be. The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating the law. The slave is not the property of any man” (Testimonies, Vol. 1, pp. 201-202; 1859-1860).

People like John Preston Kellogg and John Byington are good examples of those who were in harmony with this as they participated in the underground railroad (Wiki, NatGeo, PBS). They risked life and personal freedom to work for peace and justice. Byington is an interesting figure in this context because he became the first president of the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference in 1863, that is, the leader of the denomination. Byington “left the Methodist Episcopal Church because it did not take a stand against slavery” and joined the “antislavery Wesleyan Methodist Connection” before joining the Adventist movement in 1852 (Branson, Wikipedia). “At his farm in Buck’s Bridge, New York, he maintained a station of the Underground Railroad, illegally transporting fugitive slaves from the South to Canada” (Wikipedia). The first president of the SDA Church participated in the illegal underground railroad. Pause for effect. Would we elect such a social radical today?

Second, when the U.S. was on the verge of drafting young men for the Civil War, some Adventist youth began bragging about how they would defy orders to kill. Ellen White agreed that Seventh-day Adventists should not fight,* and two church members who enlisted with the North were disfellowshiped; however, White instructed such brash and outspoken individuals to have a more humble and contemplative spirit.

I saw that those who have been forward to talk so decidedly about refusing to obey a draft, do not understand what they are talking about. Should they really be drafted, and, refusing to obey, be threatened with imprisonment, torture, or death, they would shrink, and then find that they had not prepared themselves for the emergency…. Those who would be best prepared to sacrifice even life, if required, rather than place themselves in a position where they could not obey God, would have the least to say. They would make no boast. They would feel deeply and meditate much, and their earnest prayers would go up to heaven for wisdom to act and grace to endure. Those who feel that in the fear of God they cannot conscientiously engage in this war will be very quiet, and when interrogated will simply state what they are obliged to say in order to answer the inquirer, and then let it be understood that they have no sympathy with the Rebellion. (Testimonies, Vol. 1, p. 357; 1863)

White did not instruct them to obey the state if drafted, but rather to pray diligently and take a less self-confident stance. Possibly she saw in them the same attitude as Peter who claimed he would never desert Jesus, but who then denied him in the moment of crisis (Luke 22:31-34).

In these three leaders–John Howard Yoder, Martin Luther King Jr, and Ellen White–I see the same ethic: obey just laws, obey God rather than humans when they are in conflict, accept the penalties for this radical subordination. If this ethic is not present in the Adventist church today (in me today), it is because we (I) have lost the spirit of our founding visionaries.

*For more about U.S. Adventists and the military, see this paper (PDF) I wrote while studying at a Mennonite seminary or these links.

Reflection Questions

  1. What instances of civil disobedience do you find in the Bible besides Peter in Acts 5?
  2. If you had been alive in the era of the Fugitive Slave Act, what do you think you would have done? Same for Nazi Germany? If you were an adult during the era of Jim Crow segregation in the U.S., what did you do? How did you react?
  3. What issue today might be comparable to the situations that King, Yoder & White spoke to? Are there any laws (or even social expectations) that are contrary to God’s call for Christians, unjust laws that Adventists should not obey?
  4. What process should Christians go through before deciding to break a law?
  5. How do you view people you see in the news being arrested for taking a public stand for their beliefs? If it is negative, are you willing to have others view you in the same way? What would make it worth it for you?
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