It is blasphemy to call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers…. When magistrates rob and ruin the people, instead of being guardians of its peace and welfare, they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God, and no more deserve that glorious character than common pirates and highwaymen.
— Jonathan Mayhew (1720 – 1766), Congregational minister at West Church in Boston
Should Christians always obey the government? If a government is ungodly should Christians resist the government? Romans 13 is often used as a proof text to say that we must obey civil rulers in all circumstances. Here is an underlying confusion between the person holding the office and the authority of that office which is established and maintained by God.
In John Knox’s day, the church had to deal with a wicked ruler, Mary Queen of Scots, who claimed authority merely because she held the office of regent. Knox argued that rulers who are disobedient to God have no part in civil office. Romans 13; 1 Timothy 2:1-2 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 refer specifically to just rulers and not to Lawless covenant breaking rulers. When David broke the commandments of God, it was the duty of the prophet Nathan to resist him, because God himself resisted David. In fact, when God himself opposes such rulers, it is the Church’s duty to pray imprecations and to resist their wickedness in obedience to the Law of God. If a tyrant is guilty for his crimes before God, then it is our duty to oppose him. If he repents, then our opposition to his sin will be used of God to bring him to repentance (as was the case with David). But if he does not repent, then our complicity with his sin will make us equally guilty.
Here I will answer some objections to this covenantal understanding of disobedience to tyrants. The following are actual objections culled from letters and articles I have received over the past few years from Christian leaders.
Objection #1: “The Lord wants to use the church even more than He wants to use the government.”
Here is a basic misunderstanding of the rule of God betrayed by the use of the phrase “the government.” Government does not refer to the civil sphere only. God has ordained all government; it falls into several biblical spheres: individual, family, church and civil government. Each one has a divine role to play in governing society. It is not a matter of God wanting to use the church “even more.” It’s rather a matter of each sphere fulfilling its proper role. The church cannot do what God has ordained for the civil magistrate (such as enforce the death penalty); nor can the state do what God ordained for the church (enforce church discipline and preserve correct doctrine); nor can the state play the role of the family (raise and educate our children). Our society is presently in a weird feeble state because we have not correctly understood these distinctions.
Objection #2: “We have a mandate from God to pray for and support our government, regardless of what we think about the current administration.”
We must always pray for our civil rulers, yes, but we should only support them if they uphold the covenant of God by ruling righteously. Over 400 years ago, the Scottish Covenanters refuted the idea of the “Divine Right of Kings” arguing that the king himself is in covenant with God. The people, as the king’s subjects, were also a part of the covenant.
Yes, God ordained earthly rulers, but only those who were just and obedient to God’s covenant with civil rulers (Romans 13:3-5). These rulers: (1) are not a terror to good works; (2) are ministers of good not evil; (3) bear not the sword in vain [unjustly]; (4) are servants of God (5) avengers of evil. If a civil ruler breaks covenant with God, the people are obliged to throw off the shackles of tyranny. Otherwise the people are guilty of submitting to the unjust commandments of wicked rulers.
Objection #3: “We must not continue to worship at the feet of political movements, trying to get the government to do the church’s job.”
What is really being said here is that it is not the civil rulers’ job to enforce the Law of God on issues such as abortion nor to bring biblical punishment to law breakers. Of course, this is absurd!
The church has its part to play and the state has its part. Both are responsible to uphold the rule of God’s Law in its own sphere. A model of government in which the church ruled supreme or the state ruled supreme would result in tyranny (and it often has). It is simply not God’s biblically ordained plan.
Objection #4: “If the energy now being put into political activism were redirected into prayer and the preaching of the gospel, far more would be accomplished for righteousness and truth than will ever be established through legislation.”
“Abortion is not a gospel issue.”
“If we would just preach the gospel; just pray more; etc. …”
Yet each of these sayings is antinomian. It seems that some Christians will always object to the idea of enforcing the Law of God.
Objection #5: “Morality instituted by compulsion can only be maintained by increasing control and fear.”
On the contrary, it is our God-given duty to maintain morality under “compulsion.” This is one of the reasons why the moral Law of God was given: it restrains the passions of a sinner in society.
John Calvin commented on this use of the Law:
Then, since the law declares God will be the avenger, sets punishment for transgressors, and threatens death and judgment, it serves at least by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who, unless compelled, are untouched by any concern for what is just and right. But they are restrained, not because their inner mind is stirred or affected, but because, being bridled, so to speak, they keep their hands from outward activity, and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged. Consequently, they are neither better nor more righteous before God. Even though hindered by fright or shame, they dare neither execute what they have conceived in their minds or rage according to their lust. Still, they do not have hearts disposed to fear and obey God. Indeed, the more they restrain themselves, the more they are inflamed, burn and boil within, and are ready to do anything or burst forth anywhere — but for the fact that this dread of the law hinders them. Not only that — but so wickedly do they also hate the law itself, and curse God the Lawgiver, that if they could they would most certainly abolish him, for they cannot bear him either when he commands them to do right, or when he takes vengeance on the despisers of his majesty. But constrained and forced righteousness is necessary for the public community of men, for whose tranquillity the Lord so provided in guarding against complete and violent confusion. This would happen if all things were permitted to all men (Calvin, Institutes).
There are only two possible types of societies: a society under total sanctification with no compulsion; or a society that is only partially sanctified yet under compulsion to obey the Law. One of our founders put it this way, “If all men were angels, there would be no need for government.” Within history, there will never be a thoroughly “Christian” nation, in that not all members of the society will be entirely sanctified. In most societies, there will always be some sinners living in open rebellion to God. To advocate “no compulsion” is another way to say that sinners are free to do whatever they please in this life.
Since some will never be saved (and Christians will remain imperfect) the only restraint for their sin is “compulsion” under the moral Law of God. If a man is a thief, he should be punished for his thievery. What is called “oppression and bondage” is actually the moral Law of God acting as a standard for societal righteousness.
Some believe that God’s Law can have no jurisdiction over unconverted people. According to this reasoning, any attempt made to prevent the unconverted from their acts of sin is a futile, fleshly attempt to do only what the Holy Spirit can do through salvation. In reality, unconverted people are under the Law and therefore under the jurisdiction of God. Sinners are under the curse of the Law, because they haven’t obeyed the Law (Galatians 3:10). Of course, our primary objective is the salvation of the sinner. But to deny societal morality because it is instituted by “compulsion” is to advocate lawlessness and anarchy.
Objection #6: “When revival comes, we will not have to worry about changing laws — the people will be changed.”
Revival does not negate the role of the moral law of God in governing society. True revival is always characterized by: (1) Recovery of the Law-Word of God in the church and society; (2) Tremendous judgment of sin in the church and society; (3) Societal transformation. A.W. Tozer wrote: “Revival changes the moral climate of a community.”
These characteristics have been borne out by historical fact and are recorded in the writings of America’s past revivalists such as Charles Finney, John Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. These men have also taught us that politics or “civil government” is an institution to be reformed according to God’s Word.
“Revival” does not imply utopian perfection. When we have “revival” there will still be a need for civil government. As time goes on, its role will lessen and it will function within its God-given authority. In a biblically ordered society, for instance, acts of abortion might still occur, but the offenders would be punished by the civil authorities. Biblical Law enforced by the civil magistrate acts as a deterrent to crime.
Objection #7: There is also the prevailing view that “politics is dirty and cannot be expected to be as holy and sacred as the church.”
The Bible plainly teaches that both of these institutions are given by God and are equally holy, both are set apart for His purposes. The church has spiritual authority to address matters of morality, but civil government was given by God to punish wrongdoing (Romans 13).
Objection #8: “The Pharisees were on the right side of moral issues, but Christ opposed them for having a spirit of intolerance.”
The fact is, Jesus Christ opposed the Pharisees because they were lawless, covenant-breakers who held to the traditions of men rather than the Law of God.
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not.” (Matthew 23:2,3).
Christ commanded his disciples to obey the Law, but He condemned the Pharisees for not observing the Law. Elsewhere He accused them of theft and idolatry.
Objection #9: “I’m not under the law. I’d rather err on the side of liberty than on the side of legalism.”
These statements belie a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between Law and Grace. There is some confusion among Christians today when discussing the Law of God and the Grace of God. When many Christians speak of grace or “Christian liberty,” they are often advocating a license to sin or an “antinomian” view that is clearly condemned in Scripture. Likewise, when many evangelicals speak of “the law” what they are referring to is not the moral Law of God, but a system of legalism or traditions devised by men. Many people view Law and Grace as being opposites. But both are true and necessary as standards of true conversion.
The grace of God means infinitely more than forgiveness of sin and umerited favor; it also entails the victorious Christian life and final perserverance to the resurrection. Grace is not merely a “covering for individual acts of sin” (justification) but it is “power over all sin” (sanctification).
Yet the moral Law of God remains the measure of sanctification for the believer. Furthermore, the Law of God, when codified as a basis for civil law, restrains the passion of the sinner (i.e., capital punishment is a deterrent to murder). It also acts as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. Knowledge of the moral Law of God brings individuals knowledge of sin. How can we be saved unless we first know that we are sinners? Christ works through the moral Law as a means of grace to bring sinners to salvation. This is why we need to preach the Law of God to sinners in addition to salvation by grace through faith.
Thus there is no contradication between being “bound to obey the moral Law” and “being under grace.” The Law and Grace are not diametrically opposed, but are completely complementary doctrines.
Objection #10: “There are no political solutions. Jesus Christ is not a Republican nor a Democrat. He did not come to take sides in man’s political struggles. He came to take over.”
Yes, He came to have dominion. But His rule does not tolerate antinomianism!
The role of the Christian is to continue to resist evil tyrants until they leave office. It is sad that we have to have this discussion in America, a country founded on the ideals of Puritan theology. In the 1700s, at the time of the American Revolution, the average American citizen understood Puritan social theory and had a foundation in all these ideas. Samuel Adams said, referring to the overthrow of George III’s tyranny in America:
He who sets up and pulls down, confines or extends empires at his pleasure, generally, if not always, carries on his work with instruments apparently unfit for the great purpose, but which in his hands are always effectual … God does the work, but not without instruments, and they who are employed are denominated as his servants; no king, nor kingdom was ever destroyed by a miracle which effectually excluded the agency of second causes … We may affect humility in refusing to be made the instruments of Divine vengeance, but the good servant will execute the will of his master. Samuel will slay Agag; Moses, Aaron, and Hur will pray in the mountain, and Joshua will defeat the Canaanites.
And so the Church must defeat tyranny. If a civil ruler does not have God’s spirit in him, his lawless works will show him to be anti-Christ. If he rules in a tyrannical manner, we are duty bound to resist him as humble instruments in the hands of God. And if he does not repent of murder and idolatry, we are bound to destroy his regime.