When the State is Evil: Biblical Civil (Dis)Obedience in South Africa

33 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2011 Last revised: 23 Nov 2011

See all articles by Joel A. Nichols

Joel A. Nichols

University of St. Thomas School of Law (MN)

James William McCarty

Emory University

Date Written: November 22, 2011


How should Christians respond to an oppressive government regime? This question has vexed believers for centuries, including in the best known recent example of an "evil state": Nazi Germany. This Article explores the Christian response to the demands of the apartheid state in South Africa in the late 20th century.

This Article particularly focuses upon the way that Biblical text is used – both by the state and against the state. Specifically, governments and ruling Christians in power frequently appeal to Romans 13:1-7 and its command that Christians should submit to the governing authorities, for those authorities have been put in place by God. But disenfranchised, out-of power Christians often look instead to a theme of Biblical resistance to ungodly authority, following the example of Peter in Acts 5:27-30 where the Apostles insist that they must "obey God rather than men." These differing thematic responses to Scripture - submission vs. resistance, authority vs. liberation, order vs. renewal - have come into tension and conflict throughout church history.

The Article first explores the New Testament texts that speak to the relationship of Christians to the civil government. It then provides a modern case study of the competing Biblical themes of submission versus resistance: In apartheid South Africa the ruling state explicitly called upon Romans 13 and those resisting the state overtly invoked Acts 5. (The Article assesses the use of scripture by the Kairos theologians, Beyers Naude, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.) Finally, the Article offers some concluding reflections on what modern Christians can learn from the Biblical texts and the South African experience.

Keywords: law and religion, apartheid, South Africa, Christian legal thought

Suggested Citation

Nichols, Joel A. and McCarty, James William, When the State is Evil: Biblical Civil (Dis)Obedience in South Africa (November 22, 2011). St. John's Law Review. Vol. 85, pp. 593-625, 2011, U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 11-02, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1740721

Joel A. Nichols (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law (MN) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States
651-962-4827 (Phone)

James William McCarty

Emory University ( email )

201 Dowman Drive
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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