Evangelical Political Blunders
In some parts of the world, the dominant political theory from the late 16th century to roughly the late 18th century was a doctrine known as the Divine Right of Kings. This doctrine states that a monarch is not answerable to any earthly authority. The reasoning behind this is that the king is established by God Himself, and is thus answerable only to God for His actions. He may rule over everyone else with an iron rod, and be as benevolent or as harsh as he was determined to be. Neither parliament or the clergy had any legitimacy to doubt the actions of earthly king, let alone resist them. This doctrine fueled the absolutism of King James I of England, one of the greatest supporters of the Divine Right theory, and also heavily influenced the absolute rule of Louis XIV of France, who called himself the “Sun King”.
The Divine Right Theory in its original form was almost nearly expunged during the Glorious Revolution in England, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. What drove these revolutions were theories about political legitimacy that were synthesized by political theorists like John Locke and his predecessors. These ideas later became critical to the founding of the United States itself. However, even in light of the anti-absolutist founding of the United States, a variation of the Divine Right Theory is finding resurgence among both American Evangelicals and American secularists. While monarchies have largely been replaced by republics, the idea of a government wielding absolute power is gaining more and more legitimacy. Unlike the Divine Right theory, which places the legitimacy of the king’s authority in the Divine decree, Secular theories of absolutism place their legitimacy in the authority of the collective populace. This “Collectivist Right Theory” or “Secular Theory of Legitimacy” (whatever you want to call it) means that governments are free to act in any way that they please, even as far as taking away the individual rights of citizens in order to accomplish the prerogatives that they believe are best for the collective whole. The underlying premise of this theory is that God does not exist, and therefore imposes no transcendent authority upon the civil government itself. In the Secular Theory, the ultimate authority is whoever gains power either by force, by corruption, or by vote, having no one to answer to except the one who possesses a bigger gun, better connections, or more votes. The Secular Theory of political legitimacy was the foundation for the actions of Stalin, Mau, Hitler, and other despots; one authority, for the good of the whole. Absolutists always severely oppress their nations, and it should alarm us that this form of political absolutism is also taking root in the United States today.
Western Evangelicals have legitimized this rise of political absolutism via a number of theological blunders. Many of them cite passages in scripture that speak of government being “established by God for your good” as proof texts that defend the absolutist actions of our secular leaders today, reminding their fellow Christians that they ought to “honor authority” even if the demands of that authority are patently absurd or downright oppressive. Where the Secular Theory legitimizes political absolutism by appealing to the good of the collective whole, many Evangelicals argue for the same notion of absolutism simply by appealing to a regurgitated version of the Divine Right Theory. God establishes the government, and because of that, Christian duty necessarily entails total submission to government in all things except for when it comes to believing in Jesus Christ. Civil disobedience is greatly discouraged, and outright resistance either with words or with arms is absolutely forbidden.
When this view is combined with certain eschatological perspectives from Dispensationalism, the result is the total abdication of Christian political engagement. Dispensationalism is a new perspective on the Biblical narrative and the end times which originated with a man named J.N. Darby in the late 1800s. Among many other things, Darby was the father of the eschatological position known as futurism, an interpretive framework which largely places eschatological events in the far future from Jesus, and possibly in the near future from us. This is to be contrasted historicism, the view that many of these events will be fulfilled gradually throughout history, and preterism, the view that many of these events would occur in Jesus’ future, but have already occurred in our past. Futurism is a natural consequence of Darby’s white-knuckle approach to literalism as his interpretive framework. For example, when Jesus says that the “stars will fall and the moon will not give its light”, the literalist interpretation of the Dispensationalist forces them to conclude that this is a future event, but the Preterist interpretation that this is apocalyptic language describing the destruction of Jerusalem allows them to place this event in Jesus’ future, but our past. Dispensationalism is forced to shucks many descriptions of similar events off to a bleak future filled with religious and political corruption, violence, global tribulation, widespread persecution, and a dwindling Church who must be raptured off of the earth in order to escape the judgement of God. Western Evangelicalism has imported this perspective (along with other things) from Dispensationalism, and the result is an eschatological pessimism which asserts that things are getting “worse and worse” and will continue to do so. This pessimistic view, combined with a resurgence of the theory of the Divine Right of Government, is a complete negation of anything that remotely resembles Christian resistance to civil authority. The latter condemns resistance as disobedience, and the former condemns it as frivolous.
On top of these two blunders is a third blunder which is the worst of all. Christ is presently reigning as the King of all the Universe, but the implications that His reign has for the affairs of Earth is disputed among most American Evangelicals. Many do not hesitate to confess that “Christ is King” or “Jesus is Lord”, but they are unclear as to what kind of kingdom He reigns over and what the extent of His authority is. Most Christians functionally embrace a form of amillenialism, a view which says that Christ’s kingdom is real and present, but is only a “spiritual” kingdom or a “symbolic” kingdom. In this view, Christ’s kingdom is not a kingdom which goes forth and conquers the world, or has any direct sway over the affairs of Earth. This is not the Biblical view of the kingdom of God. God assured David that one of His descendants would sit upon His throne forever, and Daniel gave us an image of the Son of Man ascending on the clouds to receive an eternal kingdom which would never pass away, a kingdom which would establish itself on the Earth like a great mountain and fill the whole world. Jesus Himself spoke of His kingdom in similar ways, likening it to a small amount of leaven which leavens a large batch of flour, or a mustard seed which would grow to a tree so strong and large that the nations of the world would roost in its branches. Christ is King here, over this world, having purchased the title deed to the Universe by His death on the cross. The supremacy and authority of Christ over all things means that His Law, God’s Law, is the law of the whole Earth. Hence every human being, whether they are citizens of Christ’s kingdom or not, is under obligation to obey Christ in all things, including civil law and systems of government. The American Evangelical church denies this fact, claiming that the rule and authority of the Law of God is limited in its scope: yes, every human being is culpable for their failure to obey the Law, but by no means should the Law of God in any way direct the civil law of a secular nation like the United States. On top of this, Americans are profoundly pluralistic, believing that all people are basically good and that all religious perspectives are equally valid and complimentary worldviews. They will cite the principle of the “separation of church and state” and the maxim that “you cannot legislate morality” as an excuse for why the Law of God ought not to be the law of the land. By denying the real and present kingship of Christ over every nation of the world, including the United States, Evangelicals have made little effort to be Christ’s ambassadors to their own nation. Ultimately, we have failed to disciple our own people, our civil laws, and our systems of government so that they exist in accord with the Law of God. Under this view, there is no need or purpose to correct or resist civil authority when they disobey the Law of God; it simply does not apply to them in the first place.
Reformed Christianity supposes a different theory of governmental authority than the one that many Christians hold to today. Unlike the Divine Right theory, the Reformed perspective is that civil government can become corrupted just like any other human institution. It was Augustine, in his meditations on original sin, who first advocated for a form of limited government as a check on the human proclivity to disobey God by ruling unjustly. The natural question is then when and how must a ruler who has overreached the bounds of his authority must be dealt with. The answer is found in a Protestant principle of resistance known as the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate.
A version of the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate began originally during the Reformation Era with Martin Luther. Oddly enough, it wasn’t Luther who first explained the doctrine. Dr. Glenn Sunshine’s book Slaying Leviathan explains that in the 1520s to 1530s, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was seeking to combat the spread of Protestantism via religious reform, and many protestants understood that “it was only a matter of time before he acted against them”. According to Sunshine, The protestant territories decided to create an alliance by which they could present a unified front against Charles V, considering an attack against any one of them an attack on all of them. Luther was initially opposed to this, and refused to support any initiative of resistance against the Emperor, citing Romans 13 to support his decision. The response of the protestants was, as Sunshine puts it, to “send in the lawyers” against Luther:
The lawyers told Luther that what he said about Romans 13 was true in most circumstances and for most people, but it did not apply to the princes of the empire. First, the princes were themselves governing authorities. They were part of the powers that we were told to obey. Paul did not write Romans with princes in mind, but common people who had no part in government and who were to obey those put in authority over them by God. Luther’s response was that God had placed the emperor over the princes, so it was their duty to obey him. Not so fast, said the lawyers. The emperor was elected by seven electors who represented the princes of the empire. Since they elect the emperor, they have not only the right but the duty to oversee him in accordance with the constitution of the empire. Should the emperor violate his law or break his word, it was not just their right to resist him; it was their legal responsibility. (Slaying Leviathan, 102)
Luther conceded the point for the case of the Holy Roman Empire. His stance and the stance of the lawyers was generalized by other Reformers to apply other states beyond the Holy Roman Empire which did not share its constitution. This doctrine draws a distinction between different types of resistance efforts. Resistance that is disorderly, orchestrated among the people themselves without the consent and guidance of a lesser magistrate is not in accordance with the rule of scripture. Mercenaries and anarchists are condemned under this doctrine as evildoing troublemakers, but those who organize a resistance effort under the consent and guidance of a lesser magistrate are vindicated by scripture. Being so convinced of the lawyers’ arguments, Luther developed the analogy of the beerwolf (a.k.a. werewolf) to describe a tyrant whose actions were so grievous and cruel that he not only broke the law, but undermined its moral foundation as well. The beerwolf was a monster of German folklore, and was the term Luther used to describe the devilish nature of both Charles V and the Pope at the time. This analogy eventually became the namesake of Beerwolf Clause of the Lutheran Magdeburg Confession of 1550:
The fourth and highest level of injury by superiors is more than tyrannical. It is when tyrants begin to be so mad that they persecute with guile and arms, not so much the just persons of inferior magistrates and their subjects, as their right itself, especially the right of anyone of the highest and most necessary rank; and that they persecute God, the author of right in persons, not by any sudden and momentary fury, but with a deliberate and persistent attempt to destroy good works for all posterity. If anyone advances in madness this way, even the highest Monarch who does so unwittingly, he is not merely a bear-wolf, but is a very Devil himself, who is able to do nothing more wicked and great, except what he does with more knowledge, and this is the very essence, the formal cause, of his holding office in the kingdom of the Devil. And as the Devil, by this government of his, desires the extinction of the whole chain of knowledge of laws and divine promises, so in the whole human race he selects for himself suitable tools, of whom some serve the Devil in removing and corrupting some parts of this knowledge; others, other parts. And he especially attempts to extinguish forthwith the chief and preeminent part of this knowledge, namely, the part that concerns the true worship of God and the salvation of the human race; and likewise to extinguish the true worshippers themselves, that is, the true Church of God. To this end he especially incites the chief magistrates, ecclesiastical and civil. As he did in the time of the prophets, Christ, and the apostles, so also in our day. (Magdeburg Confession, Concerning Resistance)
Therefore, if now the leader or Caesar proceeds to such a height of insanity only in that order of natural knowledge which governs the society of civil life and uprightness, that he abolishes the law concerning marriages and all chastity, and himself sets up a contrary law of roving unclean lusts, to the effect that the wives and daughters of all men are to be prostituted; and if he himself defends and prosecutes this law with force and arms, so that certain death is laid down as the penalty for those who resist or fail to conform – in such a case, doubtless, no clear-thinking person would have any hesitation about the divine right and commandment that such a leader or monarch ought to be curbed by everyone in his most wicked attempt, even by the lowest of the lowest magistrates with whatever power they have. (Magdeburg Confession, Concerning Resistance)
The authors of the confession use the analogy of physical prostitution to drive the point home for the spiritual prostitution of a forcible conversion of protestants to the Catholic faith.
Luther’s beerwolf concept and lesser magistrate doctrine were expanded upon by many other Reformers, including John Calvin himself. Calvin’s work found notable popularity among a group of French Christians called the Huguenots, a religious minority who had been engaged off and on in a series of wars of religion with the Catholic French monarchy. Many Huguenots were slaughtered in an event called the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, a peacetime raid of the Catholic monarchy against every man and woman in Paris who would not denounce their protestant convictions and turn to the Catholic faith. This attack enraged many of the surviving Huguenots, and incited another series of wars of religion with the Catholics. Eventually a peacetime treaty was reached that allowed for freedom of worship in France, but this only lasted until the oppression increased against the Huguenots again under the reign of Louis XIV, an oppression which included the cruel occupation of Huguenot households by dragonnades, ill-tempered horse-mounted soldiers who were commissioned by the king to billet Huguenot living quarters, physically abuse their hosts, steal their possessions, damage property, and commit other acts of violence in order to “encourage” them to convert to the Catholic faith. Many did, but some didn’t. As Huguenot numbers dwindled over the decades, many of them sought to codify the circumstances under which it was appropriate, or even morally required, to resist a tyrant. A book called Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos was published under the pseudonym Stephen Junius Brutus to answer these questions, a book which I have written about here in more detail.
The argument that Vindiciae makes is rooted in Calvinistic theology. More specifically, it is relies on the notion of covenants, the fundamental structure of the Calvinistic explanation of God’s work both in judgement and in salvation. In like manner as much of the rest of Calvin’s thought, the Vindiciae argues that the nature of kingship and citizenship are also inherently covenantal. The author of the Vindiciae describes a twofold covenant that is ratified at the coronation of a king. The first covenant is made implicitly between the God, the king, and the subjects of the kingdom, and its terms are that God will bless them all if and only if they live in accord with the Law of God. This covenant is rooted in creation: God created the world to work a certain way, and therefore we ought to live in accordance with it and with each other. It is even more evident in the meaning of the ascension of Jesus, who is seated at the right hand of God far above every other rule and authority, reigning over the entire order of the cosmos. This means that His decree is the law of the land for everyone, princes and paupers, kings and peasants, federal governments and citizens alike. Unlike the Divine Right of Government, which supposes that government cannot break the law or exercise oppression by definition, the first covenant levels a nation; when it comes to obedience to God, no man is above another. God’s Law is the essence of liberty: living in accord with God, man, and all creation is how human beings are meant to thrive. The Law of God as revealed by the Lord Jesus Christ sets the parameters for what liberty is. Love the Lord with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do as you please with this in mind, but when you have crossed the line of murder, or covetousness, or adultery, etc. (and by extension hatred, envy, lust, and all the rest) you are no longer living at liberty yourself, nor are you promoting the liberty of others.
The second covenant is made between the king and his subjects, and its terms are that the king will rule justly and that the people will be obedient subjects. This covenant is a consequence of the first one; the people serve the king not for the king’s sake, but for the Lord’s sake, and similarly, the king governs justly not because the people are his, but because they are the Lord’s. Each party has a right (and in some cases, a responsibility) to act upon a violation of the second covenant based on the terms of the first covenant. The king is right to punish an evildoing citizen, since the king is foremost a servant of God, appointed by God as a deacon to wield the sword against those who commit heinous and evil acts which violate God’s Law and pose a legitimate danger to God’s people (Romans 13). By the same token, a ruthless tyrant who devours his own nation like a beerwolf by seeking to oppress and eliminate God’s people for his (or her) own gain is guilty of a worse crime than the evildoing citizen, having abused their God-given authority which was meant for good and using it for evil. The people have a right, and even a responsibility, to resist such a tyrant as long as it is done in an orderly manner. The people are foremost the people of God before they are the people of the king, and a tyrant seeking to destroy God’s people has made himself an enemy of God who is worthy of destruction. On this point the Huguenots draw from the example of the ancient kingdom of Israel,
It is then lawful for the people of Israel to resist the king, who would overthrow the law of God and abolish His church. And not only that, but also they ought to know that if they neglect to perform this duty, they make themselves guilty of the same crime, and shall bear the punishment along with their king. (Vindiciae 37)
The author also gives a practical guide of the appropriate measures that can be taken in an effort of resistance.
If their assaults are verbal, their defense must be likewise verbal; if the sword is drawn against them, they may also take arms, and fight either with tongue or hand, as circumstances warrant. Even if they be assailed by surprise attacks, they may make use both of ambushes and counterattacks, since there is no rule in lawful war that directs them to use one over the other, whether it be by openly attacking their enemy, or by waylayings; provided always that they carefully distinguish between advantageous stratagems, and perfidious treason, which is always unlawful… (Vindiciae 37)
Locke and Freedom
Many men after the Huguenots have drawn from and built upon their inferences from the holy scriptures. John Locke was influenced heavily by the Vindiciae, as well as by Lex Rex, another work of resistance theory written by a Scottish Covenanter named Samuel Rutherford. Locke secularized these ideas and developed the basis for modern “social contract” theory, transforming the idea of covenants between God and man to contracts made between men alone. Locke’s social contract theory was the basis for what would become the founding documents of this nation. The United States Constitution effectively has the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate built-in by describing a government composed of democratically elected representatives of the people. Those representatives participate in a system of checks and balances to ensure that power does not aggregate with one man or one group of men (at least, theoretically), in order to preserve the liberty of the people. It is a truly remarkable system.
However, Locke’s secularization of the Reformed limited government theory was also the undoing of the concept of Liberty itself. Many Americans today do not conceive of the idea of “liberty” in their minds as “the freedom to do good”, but rather conceive of it as “the freedom to do whatever you desire to do”, which entails evil. The word “freedom” is often preferred by American citizens over the word “liberty” is telling; you are “free” to smoke dope, curse God, and peruse pornographic websites, but you are not “at liberty” to do so. Ironically, it is this lust for “freedom” that has been some of the cause for the greatest encroachment on liberty. Anyone can live according to their desires, but to live at liberty requires the moral restraint to devote oneself to doing the right thing. A moral people can govern themselves and hence can naturally live in a state of liberty, but an immoral people desires to be free so that they can spend their energy and time on their pleasures; such a people cannot possibly govern themselves, because their passions govern them. People who desire “freedom” for the sake of their appetites must eventually have their unconstrained wills forcefully subjected to a greater will, such as an oppressive tyranny or an authoritarian socialist regime. Ironically, this kind of absolutist rule is often exactly the desire of those who pursue “freedom” without the moral capacity to bear the responsibility that comes along with it. The same people who are fighting for the “freedom” to be transgender, or to have relations with the same sex, or to murder babies in the womb, or the right to smoke weed, etc. are also the same people who advocate for widespread adoption of Marxist critical theory, socialist reforms, increased firearm legislation, hate speech laws, and so on. Locke, by virtue of his secular approach, has no answer to the problem of an immoral people. A secular world has no up and no down, no objective standard of “right” and “wrong” by which to judge the parameters within which one may live at liberty. Only the church, heralding the words of holy scripture, can do that.
The Testimony of Holy Scripture
Many Christians in the United States today consider the testimony of scripture to plainly support the theory of the Divine Right of Government. We are to “honor authority”, and therefore the government should not ever be resisted actively under any circumstances. Many believe that the American Revolution itself was ultimately a grand act of disobedience by the Puritans and others who joined in resisting the British monarchy. In order to combat the growing influence of secular society and government, we must recover a Biblical view of liberty and resistance.
In the first place, it must be recognized that Christ draws a distinction between what belongs to God and what belongs to the government. To be more clear, all things belong to God, and some of those things belong to the government.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and do not care what anyone thinks; for You are not partial to anyone. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it permissible to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then pay to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” And hearing this, they were amazed; and they left Him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)
A poll tax is a tax of a fixed that is applied to every adult, regardless of income or property ownership. It is the simplest form of taxation possible, and it is an unjust method of taxation. Unlike the Hebrew system of tithes, which were based on a fixed percentage of earnings regardless of income, a poll tax disproportionately burdens the poor. Jesus admonishes his interlocutors to pay this tax to Caesar, in account of the fact that it bears his image and inscription, but He does not do so without qualification. Many people want to use this verse to argue for an absolutist system of government, as if to say that whatever the government claims for itself it has a right to possess. Ironically, Jesus is saying something completely opposite to that in this passage; the government does not have a right to things that do not bear its image and inscription. Caesar’s image is on the denarius, but God’s image is inscribed upon every human being; you, your spouse, your parents, your children, and everyone else all belong to God, and what is God’s should never be paid to the government. You do not belong to the government. You are not their slave or their indentured servant. If you are Christ’s, then you are His alone, and He says that you are free. In your affairs of taxation it is your duty to render to the government what is theirs, but in every other affair it is your responsibility to render yourself, your spouse, and your children to God alone. Our increasingly tyrannical government wants to reach its tentacles into every corner of our lives, from our business affairs, to our family life, to our education, to our speech, to even our worship itself. It wants the things that should only belong to God, but obedience to God dictates that we cannot give those things up. The tentacles of Leviathan must be cut off.
In Genesis, before there ever was a human government, there were other structures that God had placed in the world. Long before the reign of Nimrod, humanity was participating in a variety of pre-political activities, including worship, marriage, family, work, education, and so on, none of which require the existence or authority of a civil government to function. Government is not necessary for worship, not are they necessary to sponsor a marriage or run a family. Government does not need to regulate work, and even education does not require the existence of a government school system. God’s design for civil government has nothing do to with these things at all. His intended purpose for civil authorities is simple: punish those who do evil, and praise those who do good. This is the plain testimony of scripture.
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God, that by doing right you silence the ignorance of foolish people. Act as free people, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bond-servants of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13-17)
This passage is misunderstood to mean that Christians ought to submit to government in every circumstance, regardless of how oppressive or tyrannical its authority is. This interpretation ignores the clear purpose of government as stated in the passage. A beerwolf who seeks to destroy the church of God is an evil government, and a tyrannical regime which seeks to destroy the life and property of its citizens for its own gain is not oriented towards “the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right”. We must ask the question “by what standard?” whenever we encounter terms like “evildoer” and “one who does right”. The clear and natural interpretations of these phrases is that “evil” and “good” refer to God’s Law, and therefore a just ruler is one who punishes and rewards according to God’s Law. A king who destroys murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and others who violate the Law of God, and who simultaneously rewards those who show great courage, honor, restraint, selflessness, and other virtues, is a good king who is worthy of our free submission. Those who acts against such a king are foolish, and Christian submission to such a king will plainly demonstrate their foolishness by silencing their ignorance of God’s Law. By contrast, a king who rewards evildoing and punishes righteous behavior is far worse than the evildoers he was appointed to punish. A ruler who defends and promotes sexual deviance, the murder of babies in the womb, theft of assets couched as government wealth redistribution programs, who forbids gathering to worship the Triune God under certain circumstances, and so on, is well-deserving of the title of “unfit ruler”. This is to say nothing of a regime which kills the church of God or loads violent oppression upon its own people. An unfit ruler has abdicated his God-given responsibility, and is therefore undeserving of the submission of his citizens. If the citizens are the people of God (as they are under covenant to be), then they cannot tolerate the actions of a ruler who opposes the decree of God. To willingly submit to the rule of a tyrant is to willingly disobey the God who appointed him to power. As the great Covenanter John Knox said, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”
The folly of the Divine Right theory of government is that it reinterprets the terms “good” and “evil” according to the actions of the government itself. This theory posits that since government is appointed by God, it can do no wrong even if it violates the Law of God. This is a profoundly crooked and wicked perspective which makes the government out to be a god unto itself, usurping the authority of the One God from Whom it came and to Whom it owes every action. Evangelicals are dangerously wrong to suppose that government is owed submission in every circumstance. In no other authority structure do we apply the same criteria that we apply to civil government. For example, we do not say that an elder in the church who was caught in adultery is still fit for office on the merit of the fact that God appointed him to be an elder. If Evangelicals do not tolerate the moral failures their our own elders, why are they so lenient towards the obvious moral failures of their civil government when it fails to rule as God prescribes? Christ’s reign as King of the Universe is the only ultimate authority. Everyone else must answer to Him, and those who do have a responsibility to correct and resist those who do not. Paul’s words in Romans 13 echo the words of Peter when he says,
Every person is to be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a servant of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Pay to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1-7)
Within this passage is the key to resistance efforts that honor the Lord. “There is no authority except from God”, since every authority is established by God, and therefore “every person is to be subject to governing authorities”. This passage dissuades and condemns resistance efforts which are led by the people without the authority of a governing leader. Thronging together as a mob or working as a vigilante to resist an evil government are both Biblically invalid resistance efforts. Scripture has no place for anarchy; Christians must trust that God will appoint civil magistrates who will lead an effort of resistance when He sees fit to do so. They may be pre-established magistrates who sit in the House of Representatives, the sheriff’s office, the king’s court, or somewhere else, or they may be de facto magistrates appointed by God at the time they are needed. In either case, submission to governing authorities is a necessary component of resistance efforts which are obedient to God. This interpretation is natural and historical, lining up with the conclusions of Luther, Calvin, the Huguenots, the Covenanters, the Puritans, and many others who are grounded in the historic Reformed faith.
Lest we are attempted to deduce the Divine Right theory from Romans 13, Paul makes sure that we understand this passage to be prescriptive of government-citizen relations. If we take “good” and “evil” to mean what they mean in the context of the Law of God, it is inescapable that when Paul says, “for rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil,” he is speaking prescriptively. A ruler who punishes good behavior and rewards evil behavior (like our government today) is an illegitimate ruler who has abdicated their responsibility to rule justly. We are to do good under a just government because “it is a servant of God to you for good”, but a government which does not work for the good of its people is unworthy to rule. Evildoers are to fear punishment for their crimes, because civil government “does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a servant of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil”, but they have nothing to fear under a government who condones and rewards their evildoing. A just government deserves a wage for its good work of keeping order in society, and so we are to “also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing”, but a government that requires of its citizens one third of their earned income to generate propaganda, support unelected and anti-constitutional bureaucracies, and subsidize the abortions of 1 in 5 unborn children is wicked, inefficient, and worthy of no honor at all.
Therefore, the church ought to be Biblical in these matters, recognizing first and foremost the authoritative reign of Christ over every area of life, secondly recognizing that civil government has no authority over pre-political affairs like worship, marriage, family life, education, and so on, and thirdly recognizing that God’s purpose is for civil government to be an avenger of evil according to God’s Law. Rather than submit to a wicked government which has abandoned its role and abdicated its responsibility to rule justly, the church must be diligent to lead an effort of resistance against civil authorities, praying for their repentance, answering their lies with truth, and if it ever comes to a beerwolf situation, answering steel with steel and lead with lead under the authority of a lesser magistrate, at every moment being an example of righteousness so that we may be a testimony to them about the King we both serve. We must seek to do things orderly, strategically, and boldly, heralding a message of judgement against all those who disobey Christ, both in government and in the rest of the world.
Finally, we must above all endeavor to do these things knowing that sinners, tyrants, nations, powers, and enemies of every other kind are only broken under the rod of the Gospel.Share this post:
Chris Carter is the Editor in Chief of The New England Reformer. Chris earned a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Clarkson University, but his post-univserity studies have taken him through various topics in theology and church history. He currently lives in Rochester, New York, but he also occaisionally preaches at a small baptist church in his hometown in Vermont.