Question: What does the Bible say about Edward Snowden? (I have my own beliefs about the government operations that he exposed, which I’ll keep to myself.) If we agree for the sake of argument that our government overreached into our privacy, would it have been acceptable for Snowden to break the law for a "greater good?" Or would it have been more biblically correct for him to submit to the government's laws in spite of his disagreement with them?
Answer: Greetings friend. I will be happy to respond to your query today. Of course, the Bible says nothing about Edward Snowden per se, but it does address Snowden-like issues in a few spots, so we are not without data altogether. But before we explore some of the particulars, let us establish that, in the main, the Bible supports government—even a flawed one.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:1–7, ESV).
Let me also invoke King David. He had every right as the anointed King of Israel to kill his predecessor, the increasingly godless King Saul. But out of respect for the office of King (because Saul was also “the Lord’s anointed”), David spared Saul’s life.
“So David and Abishai went to the army by night. And there lay Saul sleeping within the encampment…Then Abishai said to David, “God has given your enemy into your hand this day. Now please let me pin him to the earth with one stroke of the spear, and I will not strike him twice.” But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can put out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?” And David said, “As the Lord lives, the Lord will strike him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish. The Lord forbid that I should put out my hand against the Lord’s anointed…”” (1 Samuel 26:7–11, ESV)
Jesus Christ led by his example and by his teaching. Remember, Jesus was God incarnate, yet even he submitted to governmental pressures—and ultimately to a governmental execution! Additionally, he taught his followers to obey those who are in authority—even those who were hypocrites! He taught that because these hypocrites sat on Moses’ seat, they were “worthy” of obedience. As such, obedience has more to do with the office itself than with the officeholder in particular, even despite the evil actions of the officers.
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8, ESV)
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”
(Matthew 23:1–3, ESV)
As you can see, it is indeed the council of Scripture that we should obey government, even when the results will be immediately hurtful. But there are exceptions. Let us look at Peter and John as they knock heads with the religious establishment.
In the days of the apostles, the Jews dealt with many levels of government. Rome was always there, of course—as a glowering iron power—but the apostles frequently dealt with lower authorities such as “the council,” which had more of an immediate jurisdiction over their lives. Peter had recently healed a lame beggar at the temple gate, and his fame was spreading so that thousands came under his teaching influence and many believed (Acts 4:4). This was no small threat to the religious establishment! So the council put Peter and John in jail and examined them on the following day. Peter gave a clear testimony that it was through the power of Jesus Christ that this man was healed, but the council’s condition for their freedom was very plain. The apostles should no longer speak in Jesus name. Here is their response.
“But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”” (Acts 4:19–20, ESV).
The key to this verse (and, I believe, to this entire topic) lies in the word rather, but also with the elements that are on either side of it. First, we must understand that the word rather is the logical equivalent of or, that is, by choosing one we cannot also choose the other. Second, we must determine if God is legitimately one of the choices, because many people interpret our government’s excesses as directly opposed to God. But this is interpretive and not necessarily biblical. Third, before a biblical moralist embarks on any civil disobedience, he must assess whether or not his issue is really as polarizing as was Peter and John’s, because these are rare. Peter and John’s livelihoods, and even their lives, were in jeopardy. It is my opinion that if a protestor (in Snowden’s case, a whistle blower) is not willing to go through such a life-changing moment, he is not worthy of civil disobedience. There is no doubt that Snowden’s life changed, but was he acting against God? In my opinion, yes. Snowden was not at either/or loggerheads with God-versus-country. He was at conscience-versus-country. This is noble but not equivalent.
There are many differences between Peter and John’s rebellion and Snowden’s. First, the apostles were believers. As such, they fall under biblical jurisprudence more than nonbelievers do, and I have no evidence that Snowden is a believer. This might be a non-issue in the news cycle, but it is critical for this discussion. Although all people come under the pressure of an objective morality (realizing, or of course, that Materialists might deny this empirical), nonbelievers respond more immediately to their personal morality, which is by definition, subjective. The problem with this is that a person like Snowden will aver that he has acted according to the public good, and that his actions, although technically illegal, proffer more good than bad and should be pardoned. Yet another nonbeliever might see his actions as harming national security, and, although he can see that there are indeed issues concerning government intrusion into the lives of its citizens, he believes that Snowden acted to the nation’s detriment, and should be punished accordingly. The public is quite split on this issue. We seem to want a high level of national security…but without giving up our pre-9/11 levels of privacy. The issue is politically complex, and biblical Christians may wind up on either side of the Snowden issue while remaining congruent in their faith.
To sum up my opinion of this issue’s biblical perspective, although participating in the public discussion is a perfect place for Christian testimony, rebellion must answer to the question, “Is the government doing anything that clearly opposes God or his word?” In Snowden’s case I say no. Except for his personal salvation, he and his recent actions are biblical non-issues…but they are issues still worth discussing. Thank you for that.