Augustine on Obedience and Authority

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All humanity, prideful in nature, rebels against the thought that each person has duties and obligations to others and to God. Certainly other reasons for not following the Christian God exist, but today I will examine one in particular—the desire not to obey.

Are Christians Obliged to Obey Civil Authorities?

Even for those who profess belief in a god, and even the Christian one at that, this question of obedience—why obey? While the Christian tradition has developed many explanations and motivating claims to convince believers to obey, I find many such claims unpersuasive. I shall examine a few claims I find unsuccessful and then present one that I see as having merit.


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Before delving into the claims concerning obedience, however, I first want to set the stage by investigating the importance of beliefs that concern obedience. As aforementioned, adherence to a religion means, at the very least, accepting certain claims and beliefs. These religious beliefs are much more significant than any other beliefs one might hold—even basic scientific beliefs like gravity. Morality and religion do not only concern schemes of understanding the physical world, but also speak to the right, best, most fulfilling, most rewarding way to live our very real and tangible lives—and this is of utmost importance.

In this life, the consequences of holding beliefs in Christ and Christianity are both extremely low and extremely high. Low because Christianity says salvation comes by grace through faith in God, not by works as the basis of righteousness. The Christian God asks of His follower for not just more good works than bad, not just ten percent of their incomes and being nice to the poor, but He asks His followers to commit their entire lives to him as a living sacrifice Rom Christians are told to give up everything for Christ, who gave up everything for them. All wants, desires, interests and pursuits apart from Christ ought to be counted as garbage Phil Christians are called to be obedient in every part of their lives with everything they have.

Considering how high the standard is, there is little wonder that it is so hard to obey. The Christian life is not just about beliefs about the present, but also revolves around a hope for future glory in being united with Christ in eternal life.

The Augustinians

Certainly, any sort of afterlife would adjust the consequences of belief in and following Christ. Perhaps you may find this a convincing argument for belief and obedience. I do not. I thus begin an investigation as to the consequences and motivations of obeying God in this life. The first claim I will examine is that God has an inherent right to command obedience. A creator, inventor or producer may use and demand of his creation whatever he wishes, however he wishes. Broadly speaking society extends property rights of ownership from producers over objects and things.


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There are limits when the object is sentient, of course, but rights exist even for owners over their pets, and even in some sense parents over their children. Going just slightly further, one may claim that we obey God because obedience is worship.


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Obeying God relinquishes the role of decision maker to Him and thus demonstrates respect and honor, reflecting the notion that His interests and opinions are more important than our own. But this claim that obedience is a form of worship does not help us in our quest to find reasons to obey. It just moves us to question why we ought worship Him. The simplest reason God commands though still not an explanation of why he can command worship is to bring Him honor and glory.

If God commands worship for the face-value product of worship, praise and honor, then naturally one can conclude that God desires His own honor. Scripture confirms this throughout the Bible; God regularly pursues His own name. A second unhelpful explanation of obedience comes from the assumption that God either used or somehow created and then used a sort of standard external to His arbitrary will to set the rules that He commands us to follow.

Moral philosophy has attempted to find a standard of good and bad for thousands of years. Many have attempted to find the source of morality apart from God. Thus, from the Christian perspective, any account of why we should obey needs to explain why we cannot be good without God. Bernard No man commands safely unless he has learned well how to obey. If you are discouraged it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own powers.

Never bother about people's opinions. Be obedient to truth. For with humble obedience, you will never be disturbed. Many live in obedience more from necessity than from love. Such become discontented and dejected on the slightest pretext; they will never gain peace of mind unless they subject themselves wholeheartedly for the love of God. Go where you may, you will find no rest except in humble obedience to the rule of authority. Dreams of happiness expected from change and different places have deceived many.

Learn to humble yourself, you who are but earth and clay, and bow down under the foot of every man! Learn to break your own will, to submit to all subjection! Christians have moral and legal bases to disobey unjust laws. Most people will argue that disobeying the law is morally wrong; however, it is morally right to disobey human laws when they are not in accordance with the natural moral laws principle of justice.

Therefore, civil authorities who obliged Christians to obey unjust laws act negligently, unethically, and immorally. Even though civil authorities claim that Christians who refuse to obey them break the law, the end justifies the means. Amin Forgi argues:. It would seem that arguments insisting on the compulsory observance of laws political obligation at all times are used as a tactic rather than genuine respect to the legal order, because they are never backed with a corresponding requirement for laws to be just at all times. If an act contrary to conscience is clearly immoral and the government compels its observance, it would mean the state in question wants citizens to act immorally.

Christians recognize Divine law as their supreme authority. Thus, it is unreasonable for Christians to obey governments and laws that are in clear contradiction to the will of God. For Christians, obedience and submission is only proper when the laws are consistent with Sacred Scripture. Saint Paul states in the first seven verses of Romans 13 that Christians must pay taxes and that earthly rulers are servants of God. It is the moral obligation of Christians to disobey civil authorities when their actions become unjust and against the will of God.

For instance, unjust laws and evil governments such as the Nazis and other dictator regimes abused their power to kill millions of innocent people. Given that the actions of these governments violated Divine Law, Christians should not obey nor submit to them. Instead, Christians ought to remember that they must first obey God rather than men as Acts clearly states. Christians are often attacked for refusing to participate in actions against Christian moral values.

OTA 2013 Panel: Value and Meaning of the Obedience Research

However, nowhere in Scripture is written that Christians are to obey laws that contradict Divine law. Therefore, Christians ought to obey civil authorities only when governments stay within the bounds of their granted power. Furthermore, Christians know and belief that Divine law trumps human laws. Therefore, Scripture provides them a moral basis to disobey unjust laws.

These saints understood that human laws are not sacrosanct, but that Divine law is. Throughout history, we have been given clear examples of Christians who obeyed God rather than men. More importantly, Saint Paul states in Acts that there are certain things civil authorities should not trespass, and when they do, Christians must disobey them in obedience to God. Even though the Prophets and Apostles recognized the authority of their rulers, they knew that they ought to disobey them when they stood between them and the will of God.

Saints quotes on Obedience

Jesus also provides a clear example of how civil authorities are below Divine law. For instance, Jesus told Pilate that he had no authority over Him other than what Pilate was granted from Heaven. Although Christians maintain their moral responsibility to pay tribute to Caesar, they ought to distinguish what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Christians may submit to civil authorities when it comes to paying taxes, revenues, commercials dues, among other civil responsibilities.

However, Christians ought to disobey their civil authorities when they claim themselves the right to rule and when they have become corrupted by immoral actions that are contrary to Christian moral values. Nevertheless, Christians should only obey civil authorities as far as they are themselves submitted to Divine law. Therefore, Christians are not obliged to obey civil authorities who overcome good with evil acts.

Similarly, civil authorities who have lost connection with Divine law lose their right to expect obedience from Christians. Even though Christians have always recognized the Divine warrant given to civil authorities, they remember that Christ himself told civil authorities that they had no power over Him.

Natural Law clearly states that God promulgates moral basis to humanity through nature. However, Saint Augustine claims that we cannot expect to find justice from those who do not serve God. Saint Augustine echoes Saint Paul by stating that civil authorities have power to establish laws as long as they do not conflict with Divine law. In addressing this argument further, Saint Augustine also claims that unjust laws or laws against the moral values of society ought to be rejected by Christians.

Since the United States is increasingly failing to respect Divine law as its supreme authority, many immoral acts have become acceptable in modern culture. Furthermore, it seems that civil authorities are constantly changing the terminology so that these immoral acts can be carried out with impunity. For instance, civil authorities are increasingly promoting abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia as normal acts.

Yet, the voices that condemn such acts are increasingly been attacked, marginalized, and punished. Additionally, civil authorities fail to recognize that legislative laws are subject to a Higher Law to which the Declaration of Independence sought to show that a moral law exists. Although both Saint Paul and Saint Augustine claim that it is good for men to be under authority, obedience is not owed to an unjust law. Civil governments may invoke respect for the freedom of others using their authority; however, cooperation with unjust laws cannot be justified.

Thus, it is legitimate to resist civil authorities who have become corrupted through popular opinion. Even though Divine law encourages Christians to live submissive lives, Christians are obliged to resist the state when it does wrong. On Law, Morality and Politics, Saint Thomas Aquinas seeks to address the heart of the debate by presenting the following question: are Christians obliged to obey secular authorities? To give a fair account of the matter, Saint Thomas Aquinas argues for both sides of the question by presenting objections and replies to the same objections.

By reflecting on biblical passages such as Mt. The text is speaking about the divine law of the Old Testament. But human law, which subjects human beings to secular authorities, is a lesser law than the divine law of the Old Testament. Therefore, much more are human beings, by being constituted members of the body of Christ, freed from the law of subjection that binds them to secular rulers. Saint Thomas Aquinas also states that when secular rulers abuse their power through the exercise of unjust actions, Christians do not have to obey them nor the laws that have been enacted through an unjustly usurped power.

Yet, by reflecting on biblical passages such as Tim. Even though Saint Thomas Aquinas states that Christians are obliged to obey civil authorities, Saint Thomas Aquinas claims that Christians ought to disobey their laws in the absence of justice. Saint Thomas Aquinas not only claims that civil authorities are subject to a Superior law, but that governments ought to remember their moral responsibility to others. There is no question that the deeper political reality of the United States presents a clear threat to Christian moral values. The United States with its cultureless or lightly cultural values and moral relativism continue to build false notions of individuality and moral autonomy.

Lisa Wade makes helpful distinctions in The Politics of Acculturation regarding those who are cultureless or only lightly cultural.

Dr. Kenneth Howell

Quoting Anne Phillips regarding multiculturalism Wade states:. Yet, such cultural and political phenomenon neglect both the moral and spiritual truths of humanity. Further, such phenomenon welcomes the increase of political intolerance against traditional Christian moral values. Moreover, it pushes Christian moral values aside and into those corners where obedience to unjust laws is forced onto Christians. In effect, the conflict between Christians and civil authorities continue to increase, leading to the creation of a hostile and polarized environment.

However, it is important to recognize that this conflict is the result of a continuous insistence from civil authorities to deny Christians the ability to profess their faith freely and openly. Thus, if the laws violate the moral order, fundamental human rights, or the teachings of the Gospel, Christians may conscientiously object to them.

The new waves of attacks on Christian moral values is leading to a hostile, dangerous, and serious environment. Double in 3 Years. Alexia Palma, a young Catholic immigrant from Guatemala was inspired by her faith to serve others. When Miss Palma began her job at LCH, she asked her supervisor for a religious accommodation to show a video instead of teaching a class on contraception.

This method worked well for approximately 18 months until new management came in and asked her to put aside her religious beliefs. As a devoted Catholic, Miss Palma refused to teach on the use of contraceptive methods. From there, my life change completely in the sense that I never had a stable home. But there was always one place I called my stable home and that was the Church.

Throughout history, Christians and non-Christians have influenced public policy to address unjust issues such as the abolition of slavery, segregation laws, and universal literacy among other social injustices. Therefore, for Christians civil disobedience in defense of human rights is obedience to God. Given that every human being derives from the law of nature, deflecting from the law is no longer a perversion of the law. Thus, civil disobedience to unjust laws is not disobedience to the law, rather is a form of defense of respect for the law.

An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

Moreover, Christians and non-Christians have appealed to civil disobedience when faced with unjust laws. An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment. Here, Gandhi gives us a clear example that it is both our duty and right to disobey unjust laws.

Per Gandhi, the personal and conscious confrontation with an unjust law gives the citizen the right to civilly disobey them.

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