(Excerpted from Protestant Social Teaching published by the Davenant Institute. Used with permission.)

As the Reformation took hold throughout Europe, much ink and blood was spilt over the question of what is right to do when the government is wrong. As a movement that challenged Roman Catholic civil authorities and established Protestant ones, the Reformation prompted many occasions to consider the who, what, when, and why of disobeying, resisting, or replacing civil authorities. Armies were raised and polemics written in this cause. The impact was felt centuries later—even into the American Revolution.

But disobedience and resistance aren’t just historical curiosities for Protestants, something that concerns generations past. These ideas are arguably as relevant as ever. Recurring rhetoric about abuse of power, whether in the context of COVID-19 policies, taxation, gun control, or a host of other controversies, should force us to take a step back and think seriously about what Protestantism has to say about disobedience and resistance.

What is Protestant in Protestant Political Thought?

By the time of the Reformation, there was already a long tradition of Christian thinking about politics. Insofar as the Reformers considered themselves to be restoring and conserving Christendom or an existing Christian tradition, they did not presume to reinvent political theology. The intellectual context of Protestant arguments for disobedience, resistance, and revolution therefore owe quite a bit to the preceding Western Christian tradition: John of Salisbury (d. 1180), John Parvus (c. 1360—1411), Thomas Aquinas (1225—1274), and the Conciliarist movement, for example, all took up these questions prior to the Reformation.

Furthermore, all Christian higher education at the time of the Reformation was “humanist,” which means the Reformers had deep appreciation for the traditional methods and content of what is now called “Western civilization,” including its long tradition of philosophy, jurisprudence, and history. John Calvin’s (1509—1564) first scholarly work was on the Roman philosopher Seneca, for example. Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499—1562) wrote a book appreciating and critiquing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It should not surprise us, therefore, to see familiar ideas from history, explicitly or implicitly, in Protestant political thinking. Some Reformers also had formal legal training emphasizing canon or church law rooted in Roman jurisprudence. Protestants therefore freely borrowed from the traditions they inherited, often without attribution. Samuel Rutherford’s (1600—1661) Lex, Rex, for example, drew from over 700 authors both pagan and Christian.[1]

In deploying relevant ideas for politics, centuries of Reformers did not use a “sacred” versus “secular” dichotomy more familiar to us today. Nor did they feel hostility or suspicion toward natural law or humanist learning, as one finds in modern Protestants like Karl Barth (1886—1968) and Cornelius Van Til (1895—1987). Instead, they considered themselves part of a long intellectual tradition carrying forward many older ideas without hesitation. All Reformers did consider Scripture the most authoritative source they could use, even for politics, but the Reformers were not “fundamentalists” or “biblicists.” Likewise, they did not disqualify the use of non-biblical sources by any presumption of “total depravity,” a concept that some Calvinists misunderstand (and some non-Calvinists misunderstand with regard to Calvinists). Calvin himself argued that politics and other salutary pursuits of earthly life could be rightly informed by human reason and experience.[2]

This essay will take its cues from the Reformers and eschew tracing ideas or influence, who first said what, or who influenced whom. “Protestant” will mean only those ideas articulated by Protestants in a Protestant context: a Protestant author writing to a Protestant audience or in defense of Protestants.

Some of the ideas presented in this chapter were articulated from Scripture or included Scripture proofs, but not always. Some of our authors were theologians, and their ideas presented in a theological context—Calvin’s Institutes, for example—and this context enables us to also use the term “political theology.” We will be careful not to make too much of Scripture being used in argumentation—to consider its use necessarily “theology” however. At the time of the Reformation, and for centuries afterwards, Scripture was deployed by all educated persons. Using it to defend a conclusion gave added authority to any argument, and it was a source most reliably familiar to laypersons. Even Thomas Paine (1737—1809), an infamous deist sharply critical of orthodox confessional believers, deployed Scripture throughout Common Sense (1776), the most popular tract of the American Revolution. Sources in this chapter will not be confined to theologians, and we will give consideration even to authors like Hugo Grotius (1583—1645), for example. Though Grotius rejected certain points of confessional Protestantism, he used Scripture and presumed to be writing as a Protestant to a largely Protestant audience.

One last preliminary note is necessary. A lot of suppositions have grown up around Protestant political ideas because of the American Revolution. Given the overwhelmingly Protestant character of early America, including how patriots hearkened back to classical Protestant statements about resistance and revolution, presuming on the significance of Protestantism for American independence is reasonable. However, this chapter does not presume a “Whig history” wherein America, or any other revolution, is necessarily the progressive fruition or fulfillment of Protestant revolutionary ideas. There were faithful Protestants on both sides of the American Revolution, just as there were faithful Protestants on all sides of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (i.e., British Civil Wars). Protestants have disagreed about if and when it is right to resist authority.

Raising the Stakes of Civil Obedience

Many passages of Scripture seem to take a high view of government. David refuses to kill Saul in 1 Samuel 24. Paul tells us to obey the governing authorities in Romans 13, as does Peter in 1 Peter 2:13. Civil disobedience in many forms, including revolution, may therefore appear to take a low view of government. After all, if government and its accompanying goods (e.g., the rule of law or social order) are so important, why would anyone disrupt or threaten those benefits? Consider, for example, an ancient text such as Plato’s Crito. Socrates, convicted and sentenced to death, is offered an escape by his friends. In an imaginary dialogue with the laws of Athens, the laws tell Socrates that he has agreed to obey the laws and that they have provided him with many goods. Anyone who would subvert the laws not only betrays that arrangement but also, in subverting the benefits of political community, becomes an enemy of human flourishing. Even pagans understood the importance of civil authority, therefore, and shouldn’t Christians demonstrate more wisdom than pagans?

For a Christian, however, there are goods much higher than earthly goods, even the benefits of social or political stability. This higher view of flourishing is essential to Christian life, and it is reinforced in Protestant catechisms.[3] Such a sentiment is reflected in the popular hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” by Martin Luther, which concludes with this stanza:

Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His Kingdom is forever.

One might conclude from this verse that there is no mortal good, including allegiance to government or our country, that supersedes our obligations to God and the happiness he intends for his people. After all, Luther himself defied both ecclesiastical and civil authorities to do what is right.

Furthermore, when Luther defined the duties of a Christian, he argued that our duties to God under the “First Table” of the Ten Commandments oblige disobedience to anyone who demands anything contrary to our duties commanded by God. In articulating the duties of a Christian, Luther was explicit that we must disobey unjust commands from not only ecclesiastical authorities but even parents, arguing that “we sin also if we follow and obey, or even tolerate” those who would command us to disobey God.[4] Given this radical vision of life calling people to disobey any authority that acted contrary to God, presented at a tumultuous time of political upheaval, it is no coincidence that Protestantism is associated with revolution. Many notable scholars (e.g., Quentin Skinner, Michael Walzer, Francis Oakley, John Witte) have demonstrated how revolutionary ideas proliferated either during, or in the wake of, the Protestant Reformation.

However, in examining Luther’s Treatise on Good Works further, we find something that might surprise us. Citing Romans 13, Titus 3, and 1 Peter 2:1, Luther also urges submission to authority, especially civil authorities. Not only should we not deceive or be disloyal to civil authorities, Luther says we also shouldn’t even curse them or grumble against them in secret. Heinrich Bullinger (1504—1575) and other Reformed Protestants agreed with such strict proscriptions.[5] Not even the harm civil authorities can do to us should drive us to chafe against their rules if those rules aren’t unjust. A malicious ruler cannot, after all, harm the soul but only the body and property. If protecting our body and property motivates us to sin by disobeying authority when we ought not to, we harm our souls; and Luther argues that our greater concern should be for the soul. Such warnings should undermine any hasty interpretation of Luther’s hymn. So long as the civil magistrate does not presume ecclesiastical or spiritual power, Luther says, we should even be prepared to suffer wrong at his hands. Suffering wrong might even do us good, he argues, because such suffering can be good for our souls. It certainly is better, from a spiritual perspective, to suffer evil than to commit it.

Luther is so insistent on civil obedience that in his Larger Catechism he goes so far as to call the civil ruler a father over many people—equating the civil ruler with parents whom the Decalogue commands us to obey. Those who complain against a bad ruler, Luther says, are often selfish; and God uses bad rulers to punish such vice. When we resist them as God’s instrument, we suffer many unpleasant consequences.[6] So whereas pagan societies emphasized civil obedience out of a sense of reciprocity, usefulness, or reverence for tradition or ancestors, Protestant Christians raised the stakes. They emphasized that obedience was a Christian duty under the Ten Commandments.

But if we do not resist sinful rulers, then who will punish them? Luther says that God will punish them. This does not mean that we shouldn’t care about our rulers, however; they must still be held to the highest standards for their political and personal moral conduct. The New England Puritans, for example, set high expectations for civil rulers in regular “election” sermons preached to rulers and laypeople. If ministers are called to resemble Old Testament prophets and warn political leaders (and citizens) about God’s judgment if they do not conform to the highest biblical standards, that constitutes a very high view of government and not a low one at all.

Other Reformers besides Luther drew from the fifth commandment (“honor your father and mother”) to prescribe civil obedience. In doing so, they continued the example of medieval Catholic theologians Bonaventure (1221—1274) and Thomas Aquinas. William Tyndale (1494—1536), for example, takes up the question of civil obedience by first asking about the duties of children to their elders, then the duties of wives and servants. He devotes considerable attention to the blessing and benefit enabled by civil rulers, yoking them together with “mother, master, husband” and comparing the duties of a father to the duties of a magistrate.[7] He even goes so far as to write, “Though he be the greatest tyrant in the world, yet is he unto thee a great benefit of God and a thing wherefore thou oughtest to thank God highly.”[8] Likewise, Calvin’s exposition of the fifth commandment was applied to rulers as readily as parents.[9]

When to Resist? Historical Circumstances and Contemporary Applications

This call to obedience is an essential starting point, but to go further we need to revisit the context of the Reformation. Understanding the context in which Protestants formulated their political ideas is essential, though this shouldn’t “historicize” them, however. We don’t want to make the ideas of the earliest Protestants seem antiquated or anachronistic because their context is several centuries old. Rather, the historical context of the sixteenth century helps us understand how Protestant Social Teaching departed from Roman Catholic precedent, what new challenges it created, and how we might think about them today. Also, by investigating historical circumstances, in the context of ideas about civil obedience, we can better understand and apply ideas about civil disobedience.

First, Protestants rejected altogether the spiritual authority of the pope and Roman Catholic hierarchy. Because Protestants valued authority, and understood it to be established by God, this rejection of a centralized ecclesiastical authority necessitated greater emphasis on civil authority—especially given that coherent denominational structures were slow in developing and the concept of an independent congregation-governed church would not be accepted by any Protestants until the seventeenth century. In other words, the idea of churches independent of civil authority was not popular with anyone. Everyone expected civil authorities to take an interest in the Church, and Protestants expected them to take an interest in church reform. This became what is called “Magisterial Protestantism.”

Protestant countries all had some form of what we would (anachronistically) now call “state churches.” It took a long time even for Protestants in colonial America to approve independent self-governing churches not supported or protected by civil authorities. Early Protestants therefore had to figure out how to make formerly Roman Catholic ecclesiastical structures Protestant while cooperating with civil authorities for legal and financial support. To undermine civil authorities, or even appear to, would be to leave churches without support and protection. Furthermore, religious quarrels, even if not directed at the magistrate, caused civil disturbances that concerned civil authorities.

Just because most Protestant countries no longer have state churches, however, we shouldn’t treat civil authority any more lightly than the Reformers did. Civil authority’s divine institution is clearly stated in Scripture, and the Reformers’ association of civil obedience with the fifth commandment is important. Though churches no longer rely on the civil government for direct financial support, lawmakers and enforcers are no less essential for enabling Christians to practice their faith peaceably. What’s more, it is also as true now as it was then that antagonistic religious opinions, where spiritual matters are not at stake, can prompt antagonism from our neighbors. In democratic forms of government, now accentuated by democratic vehicles for self-expression and debate such as social media, offending one’s neighbor is arguably equivalent to offending those in charge and will most certainly result in civil strife.

We must offend where God’s Word obliges us to offend, especially given Jesus’s words in Luke 12:51. But we should not offend our neighbor unnecessarily, nor should we take a low view of political community and concord. Protestants have typically had a high view of civic life. It is not merely a necessary evil. We should therefore examine ourselves closely with prayer and study before disobeying or railing against civil authorities, including our neighbors, or causing civil strife.

English Bishop John Ponet (1514—1556) said as much in 1556 when considering whether or not to act against a tyrant: “It is the matter that will accuse thee, and defend thee: acquit thee, and condemn thee: when you shall come before the throne of the highest and everlasting power, where no temporal power will appear for thee, to make answer or to defend thee: but you yourself must answer for yourself, and for whatever you have done.”[10] We must remember that if we are going to challenge God’s appointed authority, it should be on grounds that God himself would approve.

Another important point of context for the Reformers is that they were quick to distance themselves from radical groups (e.g., Anabaptists in the sixteenth century, and Quakers in the seventeenth century) who sometimes engaged in disruptive and violent civil conduct. Anabaptists, for example, thought that as a community of believers they were separate from the secular world, and therefore could not and should not be subjected to its rules and obligations.[11] Though neither of those groups is politically disruptive today, the lesson for Protestants remains: association with radical groups, in the service of questionable protests against authority, can undermine a righteous cause and tempt sinful conduct.

There was an additional motivation for supporting civil authorities during the Reformation: Rome excommunicated some Protestant leaders and thereby declared them open season for Roman Catholic revolutionaries. In 1570, the papacy excommunicated Elizabeth I, for example, in the hope of restoring a Catholic monarch. Protestants did not want to imitate the papacy and presume to assert authority over civil rulers. To avoid any similar contest between ecclesiastical and civil authority, they articulated a coherent “Two Kingdoms” doctrine.[12]

All of that said, it wouldn’t be correct to call Two Kingdoms doctrine “separation of Church and state,” especially a modern American judicial interpretation of that phrase.[13] Though Protestants disagreed on the particulars, they were generally in agreement that spiritual affairs should be more independent of politics than they were under Roman Catholic authorities. Conversely, spiritual leaders were often restrained from asserting secular authority. In Puritan New England, for example, clergy did not hold civil office as they did in Anglican Britain. Most Protestants were wary of having civil authority appear subordinate to the Church, or vice versa.

Despite all of these caveats, Protestants social teaching is emphatic that our duty to God is higher than our duty to any other authority. That is, after all, why Luther or Zwingli were willing to disobey Rome: it commanded duties contrary to Scripture, just like (in Luther’s example) bad parents commanding children to do ungodly things. If civil authorities did likewise, they tempted righteous disobedience as well. Luther said that any ruler presuming to govern matters of faith becomes a tyrant. He called those authorities who confiscated New Testaments from the people, for example, “tyrants.”[14] He added that “where secular authority takes it upon itself to legislate for the soul, it trespasses on… God’s government, and merely seduces and ruins souls.”[15] Even the Protestant church that gave the most religious authority to civil magistrates, the Church of England, denied to its civil rulers “the ministering either of God’s word or of sacraments” in its Thirty-Nine Articles.[16]

Protestants have all agreed that the Church alone has authority over the soul. And though it is true that boisterous heretics or heterodox persons were pursued by civil authorities in the first two centuries of Protestantism, the state was never presumed to be working under the authority of the Church (as if the Church were sovereign over it) nor was the state presumed to have authority over souls. Civil action against heresy was usually understood to be only for preserving civil peace or concord while protecting (rather than administering, directing, or evangelizing for) the Church. Though the question of the conscience for the Reformers, especially in a political context, can be complicated and confusing—even appearing to be contradictory—the conscience was still assumed to be dissuaded rather than forced.

Rebelling as a Christian

If there are therefore biblical grounds for resisting authority, as Reformers like Luther claimed, how does one keep such a potentially dangerous idea from being deployed recklessly? Protestant political thinkers offered some solutions to blunt such a danger. One way is to prioritize legal justifications in addressing the “why?” of disobedience or resistance. Closely related to this is the “who?” Protestants have preferred to take the responsibility for resistance out of the hands of individuals, if possible, and assign it to other civil authorities. This inhibits every person’s judgment of his own conscience from becoming a potential catalyst for political upheaval.

Ideally, a political leader opposes another on behalf of the people or God. As we will see later in the chapter, this does not mean that civil authority is merely a servant of the people. Rather, God is the chief authority over civil rulers, though he may covenant with both the people and the ruler. Nor is the magistrate necessarily preserving the “rights” of the people. Though the Reformers did express concern for the rights of citizens, Protestant social thought does not often fit neatly with liberalism and its concern for “rights.” A Protestant understanding of rights would be more traditional, rooted in the rule of law. Natural rights and liberties, though important, would likely be subordinated by Protestantism to civil rights and liberties: those afforded by particular polities and their laws, not abstractions now popular in modern American or European political reasoning, for example. Using the vernacular of the first few centuries of Protestantism, it would be better to talk about the “common weal” or common good of the people, or the rule of law, and the rights and duties associated with them than it would be to talk about individual rights in any abstract sense.

Since a magistrate defending the people would probably be opposing another magistrate with greater authority, power, or sovereignty, such resistance came to be called the “doctrine of the lesser magistrate.” These lesser magistrates would also serve as mediating authorities. Today in America, for example, a governor or state legislature might oppose federal authorities, or a sheriff might refuse to enforce a state law.

Another way to approach this idea of magistrates acting on behalf of the people is to consider the doctrine of vocation or “calling,” a theological and social idea exposited by both Luther and William Perkins. Not everyone is called to lead an action against bad rulers, especially if one is not already in a position of authority. Only rulers, those God has installed with civil authority per Romans 13, can safely be said to have a charge to punish wickedness; tyranny is, after all, no different from other forms of wickedness.[17] When Calvin refers to the possibility of God sending “avengers” of the oppressed, he says that while those avengers could be foreign princes, they should also be domestic magistrates whom Calvin says have a duty to check kings taking license with their power.[18] Those who do not exercise their authority to guard the liberty of the people, Calvin argued, are traitors.[19]

However, both magistrates and the people are also reminded that all civil action—especially rebellion—has to be approached using prudence. If one replaces a bad ruler only to then find himself under the authority of a worse one, or in a state of anarchy, or subject to the terrors of civil war, one has made matters worse. Tyndale argues that a passive and effeminate ruler who doesn’t punish evil at all is worse than a tyrant who imperfectly punishes evil.[20] Luther likewise cautioned against substituting a war for a tyrant, especially when there is no guarantee of a better replacement.[21] Prudence in such cases is not just a question of self-interest or expediency, however. There is a moral dilemma at work: if in the quest for relief or even righteous justice, the circumstance of others is made worse, we tempt sin through that harm.[22]

Another way of slowing down hasty disobedience was to emphasize the Lord’s secret purposes in visiting his people with suffering. While one should resist anyone who forces us to sin, tyranny may be an occasion to discern sin among those oppressed (rather than just among the leaders). Calvin, for example, argued that tyranny is chastisement.[23] For example, God may be chastening his people for vices like pride or spiritual declension. If so, then relief should come first through repentance rather than rebellion. Calvin went so far as to argue that even if people are tormented, robbed, persecuted, or neglected, they should try to remain obedient and instead look to God for deliverance.[24] In other words, the same justified concern for one’s soul that would prompt rebellion should just as readily prompt reflection on God’s Word and confession of sin. God may even bless the sufferer, Luther argued.[25]

To borrow the words of a famous American revolutionary, then, do we have a right or do we have a duty to disobey or resist a ruler? May we resist, or must we resist? Are we to (again, recalling Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence) “suffer while evils are sufferable?” For the individual believer, at least, there is no question about spiritual tyranny: we must disobey it. But whether the believer may or must do more than disobey a spiritual tyrant remains in doubt. Some Reformers such as John Knox, Christopher Goodman, and John Ponet were read by scholar Quentin Skinner to say that resistance is a duty.[26] If one reads Ponet carefully, however, one doesn’t find this to be the case at all. Ponet does emphatically condemn those who refuse to disobey spiritual tyranny because it will result in the loss of one’s soul in disobeying God. But he explicitly says, “There is no express positive law for punishment of a tyrant among Christian men.”[27] In other words, while there is a duty to disobey a spiritual tyrant, there is only a lawful right to rebel against him. That right may or may not be exercised, as prudence dictates, even to the point of tyrannicide.

Rebelling as a Citizen

So much for spiritual tyranny, at least, but what about other kinds of tyranny? Tyrants willing to usurp unjust authority over the soul are likely willing to abuse power over body and property as well. Per Two Kingdoms theology, the Christian isn’t just a spirit but remains a citizen endowed by God’s providence with life and goods. Under Two Kingdoms theology, and its high view of political society, Protestants have a view of tyranny not confined merely to the soul.

First, concerning the doctrine of the lesser magistrate, a lesser magistrate should ask if a higher authority neglected a constitutional duty to the common good generally. Such legal ground would not be confined to spiritual abuses but could concern life or property generally. Calvin, for example, explicitly cited Greek, Roman, or medieval precedent.[28] Calvin’s citation was not just bolstering a point with historical or legal erudition. Greek or Roman authors would not have shared Christian concerns about one’s soul or conscience before God. Their concerns included harm to life, property, or the rule of law. Hence, Calvin’s citation of them in support of interposition implicitly recognizes those broader common categories of tyranny and abuse of power that any reasonable society could recognize.[29]

Second, moving from the rights and duties of magistrates, citizens have a right to self-defense under the law. While one cannot oppose a legitimate magistrate, one can oppose a magistrate who through abuse of power abdicates his legal and moral authority de facto, if not de jure. Such an abdicating ruler then becomes an equal or peer of the citizen, no different than an outlaw: literally someone who acts outside the law. Here we can look to Hugo Grotius, a Protestant founder of international law. Fighting a tyrant is not rebellion because a tyrant loses legitimate authority when he becomes an enemy of his own nation. Such hostile action is no different than if he abdicated or handed over power to someone holding no legal right or claim.[30] Protestant legal theorist Samuel Pufendorf (1632—1694) made a similar argument but confined it to a ruler’s inaction to protect the people against domestic or foreign enemies. Such neglectful rulers, Pufendorf argued, “plainly abdicated the government.”[31] Another Protestant founder of international law, Emer de Vattel (1714—1767), made a similar case in arguing that political sovereignty is for the sake of the people’s good and not their ruin. Sovereigns who act against the public good become public enemies.[32]

Nevertheless, violent resistance remains a judgment call. For example, we know that Scottish reformer John Knox (1514—1572) approached both John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger—arguably the most important Reformers on the continent at that time—for approval of armed resistance by Protestant nobles against Catholic rulers. Given the status of the nobles as “lesser magistrates” and the abuse of spiritual power by Catholic rulers who had persecuted and martyred Protestants, one might have expected enthusiastic approval. However, both Bullinger and Calvin gave tepid and cautious replies to Knox.[33] Was it because they didn’t think Knox met an appropriate threshold for spiritual or legal tyranny that justified resistance (rather than merely disobedience)? Did they think that Knox lacked constitutional grounds? Or was this simply a judgment of prudence based on circumstances? They didn’t say.

An additional consideration that parallels this idea of constitutional violation or abdication can be found in the Reformed Protestant idea of politics built on covenants. The Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos (1579) was the first extensive expression of this idea, though it is implied in other Reformed political theology as well.[34]

Covenantal politics can be interpreted as providing both a mechanism and a sanction. As a mechanism, covenants suggest that polities gain their legitimacy from a solemn and enforceable agreement made between parties. As a sanction, the covenant enforces penalties on those who violate such agreements.[35] In politics with a covenantal framework, there is a double covenant. The first is between the ruler and the people, holding rulers accountable to the citizens (or their representatives such as the lesser magistrates) and vice versa. The second covenant exists between God, the ruler, and the people. This obliges both ruler and citizen to maintain moral standards within the polity, most of all not to transgress God’s law. A polity that violates God’s law, whether the law is violated by the people or the ruler, tempts moral sanction from God. This can therefore be a criteria for action by the people or their representatives to avoid such moral sanction. It can also add a legal dimension. The tyrant becomes a “covenant breaker” for breaking his agreement with the people, and thus their right to disobey or resist him becomes enforceable.

Romans 13

But what about Romans 13:1–7? Isn’t talk of disobedience and resistance made moot by Paul’s command to obey the governing authorities? Protestant advocates of disobedience and revolution have always anticipated the objection. Ponet, for example, characterized his opponents to say, “Such a one (they say) must be obeyed in all things, not may speak against his proceedings, for he that resists the power, resists the ordinance of God, and he that resists, purchases for himself damnation.” Ponet then replies sharply, “Thus they go about to blind men’s eyes to confirm and increase their devilish kingdom.”[36] In other words, interpreting this passage as a command to unconditional obedience is a smokescreen used by tyrants.

If, as Protestant Social Teaching argues consistently, disobedience to spiritual tyranny is obliged by God, then this must mean that Paul’s command that we obey is necessarily conditional. Calvin concluded as much, arguing that our obligation to political rulers is but a species of the genus, the genus being our obligation to God. Our obligation to rulers is likewise just a subset of our obligation to God. The command of God binds the conscience unconditionally and defines the scope of all subordinate obedience.[37] Samuel Rutherford likewise argued that civil subjection was conditional: “It is evident from Rom xiii. that all subjection and obedience to higher powers commanded there, is subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto, or, which is all one, to the person using the power lawfully, and that no subjection is due by that text, or any word of God, to the abused and tyrannical power of the king.”[38] If tyranny is the work of the devil, and lawless, as Rutherford and other Protestants argue, then it cannot command unconditional obedience. Resisting tyranny is therefore resisting Satan while being obedient to God.

All of that said, however, tyranny of any kind should drive Christians first to self-examination, prayer, and repentance. God’s ultimate purposes remain part of his inscrutable wisdom (Isa. 55, Rom. 11), and we are still endowed by reason and blessed with the Word of God to discern God’s reason and Scripture, must carefully be brought to bear on and enlighten any decision to disobey or resist political authority.

Footnotes

  1. John Coffey, Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 70.
  2. John Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.13. All citations refer to the 1559 edition.
  3. For example, the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us that we belong, “body and soul, in life and in death,” to Jesus Christ. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that our chief “end” (or purpose) is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
  4. Martin Luther, A Treatise on Good Works (1520),https://www.gutenberg.org/files/418/418-h/418-h.htm.
  5. Heinrich Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger, ed. Thomas Harding for the Parker Society, 1849–52, 2 vols., reprint, with new introductions by George Ella and Joel R. Beeke, Parker Society Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004), II.v, 280; II.vi, 311.
  6. Martin Luther, Larger Catechism (1529), https://bookofconcord.org/large-catechism/part-i/commandment-iv/.
  7. William Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man, ed. David Daniell (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 37.
  8. Tyndale, Obedience of a Christian Man, 41.
  9. Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.35. Calvin makes similar applications in his Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses (1563).
  10. John Ponet, A Short Treatise on Political Power, and of the true obedience which subjects our to kings and other civil governors, with an Exhortation to all true and natural English men (1556), Chapter 4, https://constitution.org/1-Constitution/cmt/ponet/polpower.htm#
    chap4.
  11. See the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession, for example.
  12. For an excellent introduction to the much misunderstood doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms” see W. Bradford Littlejohn, The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed (Landrum, SC: 2017).
  13. For the complications concerning this, see, for example, Daniel Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002).
  14. Martin Luther, On Secular Authority: How Far Does the Obedience Owed to It Extend? in Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority, ed. Harro Hopfl (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 29.
  15. Luther, On Secular Authority, 23.
  16. Articles of Religion (39 Articles), Article 37, http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/
    bcp1662/articles/articles.html.
  17. Luther, “Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia,” in Luther: Selected Political Writings, ed. J. M. Porter (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1974), 72. See also, “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.”
  18. Calvin, Institutes, 4.20, 30, 31.
  19. Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.8.
  20. Tyndale, Obedience, 41–42. Effeminate here would mean a ruler lacking in courage or resolve, especially when it comes to punishing lawbreakers.
  21. Luther, “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved,” in Luther: Selected Political Writings, 109.
  22. This emphasis on prudence demonstrates the long influence of the classical world, carried forward in the Catholic precedent of Aquinas. R. W. Dyson, ed., Aquinas: Political Writings (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 250.
  23. For example, see Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.29.
  24. Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.29.
  25. Luther, On Secular Authority, 29.
  26. Skinner reads them to argue that those who fail to resist tyrants would be damned. Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 2, The Age of Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 234–37.
  27. Ponet, Short Treatise, Ch. 6.
  28. Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.8.
  29. Recall the depth of learning concerning legal authority and jurisdiction. One finds the most elaborate and impressive constitutional scheme articulated by a Protestant author in Johann Althusius’s Politica, demonstrating the level of political sophistication that existed among Protestant intellectuals and statesmen (Althusius was both).
  30. Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace (1625), 1.4.4.9–11.
  31. Samuel Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations (1672), 7.8.4.
  32. Threats against the public good include violations of natural law, unjust threats against life, or anything essential for life. Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations (1758), 1.4.51, 54. Citing the arguments of these three prominent legal theorists is important not because they used theological/biblical arguments but because their positions succinctly reflect (and distill to great effect) a longstanding legal tradition favored by Protestant political theologians and statesmen.
  33. Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 86. Calvin likewise discouraged acts of rebellion by others in almost every other case—including some by Huguenots threatened with persecution. His only exception appears to be a rebellion with clear constitutional authority. See John Calvin, Homilies on the First Book of Samuel, in Opera Omnia, ed. G. Baum et al., 29:552; “To the Admiral De Coligny,” April 16, 1561, DLXXXVIIL, 175–76.
  34. Another excellent example is Johannes Althusius’s Politica (1614), which does does not confine a covenantal structure to Christian polities and elaborates on the idea of “federal” government—federal being a word derived from the Latin word for “covenant.”
  35. It is important not to confuse the idea of covenanting with social contract theory— as one finds in John Locke, for example. None of the early Reformers could be called social contractarians because none believed that government was formed, or authority granted, simply by agreement of the people. Nor could the people dissolve the government except under exceptional circumstances.
  36. Ponet, Short Treatise, Ch. 4.
  37. Calvin, Institutes, 3.19.15; 4.10.3, 5.
  38. Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1982 [1644]), 144.
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Posted by Glenn Moots

Glenn A. Moots is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Northwood University and also serves as a Research Fellow at the McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship there. He is the author of "Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology" (University of Missouri Press, 2010, 2022 paperback), and he coedited, with Phillip Hamilton, "Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American Revolution" (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

3 Comments

  1. […] Open the full article on the mereorthodoxy.com site […]

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  2. What is sadly odd about the article is its resolve to take the traditionalist approach. Here we should note that the traditionalism is the other side of the coin from narcissism. Both isms elevate certain time period(s) above all others to the extent that both say that they have everything to teach the other time periods and nothing to learn from them.

    I understand that the book is Protestant Social Teaching, but wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr. a protestant? Why not include him in this particular excerpt? Hopefully the book does include him on several points. But not to include him is similar to not consulting the Russell-Einstein Manifesto along with Just War Theory when talking about war today. For those who are unaware of that manifesto, realize that Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein told us that, because of nuclear weapons, we must choose between existence and war. That we can’t choose both. To exclude Martin Luther King Jr. and other more modern Protestants in the discussion Christians, the Church, and the state indicates, if not implies, that special revelation was not the only Christian source to have ceased today, so too has Protestantism’s insights.

    We should note something else here, the contexts from which traditional Protestant theologians and even those leading the American Revolution are so much different than today’s context that we will have great difficulty in significantly carrying over any ideas taught in the past to today. Authoritarianism and Christendom reigned in the days of past Protestant leaders. And we should note how all of the rights that the American Revolution was suppose to defend were only for the rights of white men. That for all of the self-proclaimed justifications for rebellion against England, American slaves had far more justification to resist and rebel against their appointed rulers and yet nothing is said.

    Likewise, today’s multicultural makeup of society is far greater than any diversity seen in the time of the American Revolution or the time of the Reformation. Here we need to ask what are the state’s responsibilities to the different cultural groups and to the maintenance of a multicultural setting.

    An option or call to duty that was not considered when discussing the Christian’s relationship with the state and its authorities that was not covered in the above excerpt was the role of the Christian and the Church to call, not force, the state to repent. Suffering in silence was an option listed for Christians and the Church. So too was disobedience and even rebellion. But what is absent in the above excerpt is the the practice of Christians and the Church to call on those in authority to repent. Should the Church preach repentance to the state and, if so, how should the Church go about doing that?

    Again, consulting what Martin Luther King Jr. and CLC did might speak more to us today than what Jefferson, the Reformers, or anyone else from the distant past have to say. It’s not that we shouldn’t study what those whom the book mentioned have to say to us, it is that we shouldn’t fall to the siren calls of traditionalism regard the Christian and the Church’s relationships with the state.

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  3. […] Resistance and rebellion… […]

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