Our American government is increasingly hostile to Christianity. Just look at the news.
- No room for religious opposition. The Equality Act is again before Congress. In 2020, the same bill was called the “Criminalizing Christianity Act.” Once enacted, you’ll be denied the right to oppose abortions on religious grounds. You’ll also have to accept the transgender lie that men are women if they say they are.
- No room for contrary speech. If you write something that the “woke” crowd doesn’t agree with, it’s called lies, hate, or “disinformation.” What you say doesn’t deserve free speech protection. Your books will get banned, and your web sites will go dark. Cable channels had better toe the “progressive” line or they will get unplugged.
- Christian culture must be smashed. Government employees and teachers are learning to apply Critical Race Theory in their daily work. Critical Race Theory claims that the dominant culture in a nation is by-definition racist. This means that America’s largely Christian culture can’t be redeemed and must be replaced – but with what?
In the face of this emerging hostility, Christians have the instruction of Romans 13, where Paul tells us “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.” Does this mean that Christians must go along with whatever our government tells us to do? We’re not the first believers to ask this question. Consider Germany in 1550.
- Martin Luther’s personal protector, Fredrick the Wise, has been defeated in battle by the Emperor Charles V.
- There is no longer any effective military opposition to the Emperor.
- Charles V now demands that Lutherans in Magdeburg give up believing in “salvation by grace.” If they don’t then they’ll be imprisoned or killed.
Did these Magdeburg Christians have only these choices? Or is there more to the doctrine of subjection than the words of Romans 13:1-2? This article explores:
- The God-given purpose of government, and its intended limits.
- What the Bible says about subjection, both to God and to government.
- How Christians, responding to crises, developed theories of “government under God” that are the foundation of our American republic.
- How we can use this collected experience to guide our actions in today’s crises.
These concepts summarize this very long article:
- Having government is a good idea. There is no place for anarchy.
- Government is to provide a just and peaceful social place. It must discourage evil doers.
- Government has limits to its authority. It must render justice as God defines it.
- A government that does, or encourages, evil has acted beyond its commission.
- We need not submit to evil commands. This outcome is from Romans 13:1-6.
- Individuals can resist tyranny through petitions, flight, and civil disobedience.
- States and counties should defend you from federal overreach.
- States, and maybe counties, can act to nullify federal law.
- States and counties are authorized to use militia for armed resistance.
This is a long article so it can be both compelling and comprehensive. Misunderstanding Romans 13 has led us to passively accept social overthrow. But after examining the Bible, and perusing what our spiritual forefathers have written, we see that there are numerous acceptable ways to defend our faith and our Christian-based society. We must submit to government, but also must resist its evil acts.
God instituted the concept of human government
God instituted three social structures for mankind’s benefit:
- Family, the ministry of education.
- Government, the ministry of justice.
- Church, the ministry of grace.
Of the ministry of government, the evangelist Michael Oh has summarized its goal.
God instituted government to establish ordered and peaceful social space where not only is judgment carried out, but good is recognized and encouraged.
Let’s separate this discussion of government into two parts. There is the idea, or institution, of government. This concerns what a government ought to accomplish. Then there is the implementation, or the style of government and the actual people elected to its seats of power.
The institution of government is needed because we’re all sinners. We aren’t all able to treat each other with love and compassion, so we need to recognize and accept a common source of authority, a dispenser of justice. Consider the alternative, where we each get to say “he’s not my President,” obeying leaders only when we agree with their policies and decisions. That pretty much defines anarchy, which soon devolves into strongman rule.
The Bible tells us that human government has these basic attributes:
- God reserves to the government the right to punish murder (Leviticus 24:17, Deuteronomy 21:1-9).
- God demands that rulers and judges be impartial, not favoring the rich or the poor (Exodus 23:1-3; Leviticus 19:15; Ps 82:1-4).
- Government must defend the people against brigands and foreign invaders. Sometimes the king had a standing army (I Samuel 8:10-22), but ancient Israel and Judea relied on mustering its people with whatever weapons they already had (Judges 6:34-35; I Samuel 11:1-11).
The need for just government is so great that a new king of Israel was to make his own copy of the law of Moses. This personal copy would guide his rule, so that he fully understood the difference between right and wrong, and could rule with justice (Deuteronomy 17:18-20; II Kings 22:8-13).
Limits on human government
You shall not move your neighbor’s boundary mark, which the ancestors have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the LORD your God gives you to possess. (Deuteronomy 19:14)
God instituted three ministries, each with its own role. That means they stick to their own knitting, not expanding to do the tasks of the other ministries. For example, if government, the ministry of justice, expands into parenting duties then it warps society. It moves a boundary marker, changing the expectations of how society should operate. It enlarges its own field and steals unwarranted power for itself. Such overreach has happened before, combining government and religion:
- The Roman emperors demanded worship. Loyalty to the empire included affirming the emperor’s deity by offering a pinch of incense to Caesar. Christians refusing to do this, because there is only one God, were considered atheists and guilty of treason.
- The Pope, leader of the Catholic Church, and for centuries considered the head over all Christendom, also directly governed large parts of Italy. He ruled these Papal States from the 800s through the 1870s.
Admittedly, “three ministries” is a derived concept, a simplification of many Bible verses. But you can see how government overreach either directly violates Scripture, or prevents others from doing their biblically blessed tasks. These violations affirm that there are indeed Bible-based boundaries to government. Let’s look at examples.
Public schools arranging secret student abortions. A student gets pregnant but is afraid of what her parents would think. Instead of attempting reconciliation with her parents, the counselor arranges for an abortion and tries to hide the act from the parents. How is this overreach?
- The student is taught that it’s OK to kill (Deuteronomy 5:17) The government is to avenge murder, not commit it.
- The student is taught to not honor her father or mother (Deuteronomy 5:16). Rather than reinforce the parents in their ministry, the government school is providing contradictory advice, competing with the parents for the child’s affection.
- The government school is claiming rights of parenthood, and denying these rights to the actual parents. It effectively is stealing the child – a form of kidnapping.
Public schools teaching that wrong is right. There are many social issues for which state schools have taken opinionated stands. Rather than reinforcing the parents, and adopting the community’s standards, they’re championing social change. The schools actually revel in this attitude, claiming that the students need these differing opinions. So the students are force-fed homosexuality, encouraged or forced to support transgender behavior, and learn that “white people” are the source of all racism in America. How is this overreach?
- Usurping the parents’ right to train their children (Proverbs 22:6). The state school doesn’t reinforce the parents, but competes with them to train the students.
- Teaching that wrong is right (Isaiah 5:20). They’re complicit in forcing fractures in American society by championing new and divisive concepts as morally right.
- Teaching children to tolerate evil, to even celebrate it, deadens them to wanting to do what is right (Proverbs 30:20; Matthew 18:5-6). After all, God instituted government for our good as He defined it (Romans 13:3), and not to teach doing evil.
State takes over raising children. Some claim that the government has a vested interest in raising children. They even say that the parents oppress the children by imparting their values to them.  In the early years of the Soviet Union, its officials implemented Marxist ideas of abolishing families, removing children to what amounts to orphanages. The parents could visit the children if they so wished, but not instruct them. How is this overreach?
- Removal of children from their parents is kidnapping under color of law (Exodus 21:16).
- Parents are responsible for how children turn out (Deuteronomy 4:9-10; Proverbs 22:6; Hebrews 12:7, etc.).
Government will treat us with equity, not equality. Government will abandon equality, which is equal treatment under the law. Replacing it is equity, a planned unequal treatment to address perceived wrongs. After a half century of civil rights progress striving for race-blind laws, America would now legalize and promote discrimination by race and religion. How is this overreach?
- Judges and officials are to rule with justice, favoring neither the rich or the poor (Exodus 23:1-3; Leviticus 19:15). They’re promoting injustice, the opposite of their commission.
- Judges and officials are servants to do God’s will, not to fight against God (Romans 13:1,4,6).
Socialism. Whether the topic is climate change or economic inequality, the answer always seems to be socialism. Its underlying Marxism comes out when discussing the New Green Deal and universal basic income. Yet socialism isn’t merely economics. It is an all-encompassing worldview, a religion. How is this overreach?
- Socialism forces people to give or sell their property to the government. The forced part of this makes it theft (Deuteronomy 5:19). Even when disguised as a wealth tax, the goal is still expropriation and thus sin.
- When the government owns everything, the people must look to the government for their daily bread and the clothes on their back. That is not serving the people, but enslaving them (Nehemiah 5:8).
- Socialism sees Christians as dangers to the state, and persecutes both their beliefs and practices. But government is a ministry commissioned by God for good, not meant to snuff out worship and obedience to God (Romans 13:4).
- Socialism rejects religious morals, inventing its own. It repeats Adam’s original sin, asserting its own standards of right and wrong (Genesis 3:5).
- A socialist government denies any God-given limits because it claims that there is no God.
In his article on government in the Bible, Dr. Art Lindsley points out said “Time after time, governments in the Old Testament exceeded their bounds, clearly reflecting the need for government to be limited.” We ourselves can regain limited government in America, but first the voting public must be convinced that it wants it.
When evil men become rulers
We previously divided the concept of government into institution and implementation. We just discussed the institution of government, and its role of justice and protection. The implementation of government refers to:
- Its form, such as a kingdom or a body of elected representatives. Note that the Bible doesn’t say there is a right or wrong form of government.
- Those people appointed or elected to fill the seats of power.
Note that the ruler isn’t the government itself. Rather, he is a temporary occupant of that government seat. It’s quite possible to approve of a kingdom and yet declare “The king is a fink!”
Some rulers and leaders shape their duties to seek justice, as the Bible defines the term. Others, such as Rep. Jerry Nadler, don’t think government should care what God thinks. He recently said:
…what any religious tradition describes as God’s will is no concern of this Congress.
But whether these leaders have good intentions or not, the Bible says that God establishes, or affirms, all of them. Yes, even Jerry Nadler, as a sitting Congressman, is affirmed by God as one of our officials. In this God didn’t make any mistakes. Consider:
- Pharaoh ruled over the slave Hebrews, and did evil to them through oppressing them (Exodus 1:8-14) and killing their children (Exodus 1:15-22). Yet God told Moses to acknowledge Pharaoh’s rule over Egypt, and that God was using Pharaoh to demonstrate God’s deliverance and glory (Exodus 9:15-16).
- In the book of Judges there were cycles of Israel falling away from God, being oppressed by neighboring kingdoms, repenting, and being delivered from these kingdoms. In their oppressions, God allowed the Midianites and Philistines to have authority over Israel. The oppressions, and their durations, were certainly determined by God. Israel was under King Cushan-rishathaim for eight years (Judges 3:8), and under King Eglon for eighteen years (Judges 3:14). Perhaps if Israel repented faster, these oppressions would have been shorter?
- With the Babylonian army threatening Judah, the prophet Jeremiah told King Zedekiah that Nebuchadnezzar, with all of his faults and terror, was God’s chosen leader for the moment. By special dispensation, He was installing Nebuchadnezzar over Judah and the whole region (Jeremiah 27:1-2).
- In thanks for granting him a revelation, Daniel says “It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings.” (Daniel 2:21)
- In his conversation with Pontius Pilate, Jesus tells him “you would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
If God established invaders like Nebuchadnezzar, then He certainly honors our election of unrighteous officials, even those who steal elections. Evil leaders can come about even without supernatural intervention. Their rise might be a natural preference of a society which believes that “God’s will is no concern.”
God endorses rulers, but it doesn’t mean He approves of all their acts. Both good rulers (II Samuel 11; II Samuel 24) and evil can overstep the bounds of their offices. And all rulers, whether of Israel or not, Old Testament or New Testament, are themselves judged by God.
• Although God promised Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, He told Abraham to wait. Eventually the iniquity of the Canaanites would be enough for God to act and dispossess them (Genesis 15:16).
• God sent Jonah to preach Nineveh’s doom because of their evil ways (Jonah 1:1-2).
• Nebuchadnezzar was punished for his pride, and for being ruthless. After a spell of suffering the king was allowed to repent (Daniel 4:27-37).
• His descendant Belshazzar also was punished for his pride (Daniel 5:24-30). That famous disembodied hand declared God’s judgment and authority over the king and kingdom.
• John the Baptist tells tax collectors and soldiers to be honest, not shaking down the people (Luke 3:12-14).
• God slew King Herod for his pride (Acts 12:21-23). Herod thought that he was a self-made man, worthy of praise and adoration.
God will eventually judge America’s leaders. In the meantime, they’re our endorsed officials. They were confirmed into office by the standards of our times. John Calvin agrees with this assessment. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion he wrote this:
We need not labour to prove that an impious king is a mark of the Lord’s anger, since I presume no one will deny it, and that this is not less true of a king than of a robber who plunders your goods, an adulterer who defiles your bed, and an assassin who aims at your life, since all such calamities are classed by Scripture among the curses of God. But let us insist at greater length in proving what does not so easily fall in with the views of men, that even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honour, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord has by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgment, and that, accordingly, in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.
Competing subjections make for hard choices
There is no doubt that everyone, whether a believer or not, is subject to God’s rule and judgment (Psalm 110:1; John 12:47-49, Philippians 2:10-11). We also know that God endorses human government, to whom we must also be subject (Romans 13:1-7; I Peter 2:13-14). This means that we might get conflicting demands for obedience.
It is evident that human government is never a substitute, or an intermediary, for God’s own authority. If government really was “God on Earth” then a leader might issue a law that conflicts with the Bible, and we’d have to obey this law as though God had contradicted Himself. No, since all human government subject to His rule, and never authorized to act as God’s regent, it is always subordinate, or inferior, to God’s authority.
This superior/inferior relationship between authorities means that when forced to choose between God and government, we must choose to obey God, the higher authority, who can render eternal judgments (Matthew 10:28). The church in Jerusalem figured this out right away. Witness Peter and the apostles, who were banned from preaching and replied that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Romans 13:4 notes that the civil authority is a “minister of God to you for good.” This means a ruler’s commands for evil are out of bounds, not intended to do good, and not endorsed by God.
When there are conflicting demands for obedience, then at least one authority will be disappointed, perhaps sanctioning the disobedient people. It can be rather costly to disobey a government law. After all, “it does not bear the sword for nothing” (Romans 13:4), even when trying to advance evil laws or concepts. If a Christian believes a government command would mean disobedience to God, what shall we do?
- Obey the command because you don’t think you, or those who depend on you, can’t afford the disobedience.
- Obey God and suffer whatever the authorities choose to do to you and yours. From the ruler’s viewpoint, you’re a lawbreaker and possibly a revolutionary stirring up trouble.
Ungodly obedience or martyrdom – are these really our only legitimate options? Our fathers in the faith also had to deal with conflicting claims for obedience. They studied the Bible and found solutions that satisfied their pressing needs obey God, to be subject to human authorities, and yet defend themselves against government overreach. Their answers shaped European and American history. Let’s look at some situations:
- Biblical examples of authority, subjection, and rebellion
- 1550: The siege of Magdeburg
- 1637: Scotland rebels over religious hijacking
- 1776: King George III vs the rights of Englishmen
Biblical examples of authority, subjection, and rebellion
A study of subjection to authority benefits from looking at Bible stories. We seek instances of subjection, and of resistance, that can illustrate discussions of Romans 13.
Disobedience to government overreach. If your ruler commands of you something you know is evil, do you comply? To disobey could cost you your life.
Hebrew midwives lie to Pharaoh. Pharaoh told the Hebrew midwives to selectively kill newborn male babies (Exodus 1:15-21). This is government overreach because babies aren’t criminals or invading soldiers. These midwives lied to Pharaoh’s agents and saved the babies’ lives. Their faith in God is commended, and nobody ever complains that “they shouldn’t have lied to Pharaoh.”
Saul’s soldiers refuse to kill the Levite priests. After Saul discovered that the priest Ahimelech gave to David the sword of Goliath, Saul got offended and ordered that Ahimelech, and his father’s household, be slaughtered. But Saul’s guards refused to do strike God’s priests. Only the non-Israelite spy, Doeg the Edomite, would do this task (I Samuel 22:6-19). We don’t know what else happened to these faithful soldiers, who wouldn’t strike the Lord’s anointed.
Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. King Nebuchadnezzar set up an idol for all to worship, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to do so, solely worshipping God instead. They’d rather die instead, but God rescued them from their intended fiery death (Daniel 3:8-27). It’s government overreach because government is about justice and protection. And since God judges all the kings by His standards (Genesis 15:16), they aren’t to be preventing people from worshipping the one true God.
Nebuchadnezzar’s pet lions. King Nebuchadnezzar’s counselors had it in for Daniel, and devised a scheme to persecute Daniel for praying to God. Daniel knew of the scheme and deliberately kept praying to God. In the end, God saved Daniel from the den of lions (Daniel 6:6-27). As before, this is overreach because government is discouraging the worship of God.
We must preach about Jesus. The Jewish leaders of Jerusalem demanded that the Christians stop preaching about Jesus. Peter famously refused to accede to their demand, saying “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27-29). Ditto Paul (Acts 18:13).
These are familiar incidents. They also show that no matter how sweetly you explain your obedience to God, rulers still don’t like getting crossed. By disobeying them, you might suffer for doing the right thing (Matthew 5:10-12; Acts 5:40-42).
Rebellion to overreaching, or to unrighteous rule. When oppressed by conquerors, or by your own evil rulers, is there justifiable cause to push back?
Moses and Pharaoh. Moses told Pharaoh that the Hebrew people must travel to Sinai to worship God (Exodus 5:1-9). This request is actually a challenge to Pharaoh’s authority, and presages Pharaoh’s struggles against God. Each step of this challenge is ordered by God, and backed up by His actions. It’s a great story of faith, but because of the direct intervention by God it isn’t a normal pattern for confronting human government.
Israel’s judges vs. Canaanite conquerors. After settling into the Promised Land, Israel lapsed into cycles of apostasy, being conquered, revival, and then deliverance. The book of Judges tells of a dozen such cycles.
Some of Israel’s conquerors were actually raiders, such as the Midianites of Gideon’s time who would steal everything that wasn’t bolted down (Judges 6:1-6). Other conquerors ruled over Israel to a limited degree (Judges 3:8,14; I Samuel 13:19-22), but apparently for tribute and subduing Israel’s military threat.
Because Israel didn’t recognize the Canaanite kings as their rulers – Israel’s first king was still in the future – the issues of Romans 13 can’t be applied to the book of Judges. Ditto for when Saul raised an army of revolt (I Samuel 11:5-8; 13:2-4).
David and his war band. After David finally decided that Saul would surely kill him, he fled to the wilderness. There he collected people who were in distress, in debt, etc. He became captain over them (I Samuel 22:1-2). You don’t become captain unless there is an army to lead. David used this band to fight some of Israel’s enemies, but didn’t defend himself against King Saul (I Samuel 24:1-7; 26:6-11). Nonetheless, David’s band of soldiers was a military threat that Saul had to account for.
Rehoboam and Jeroboam. After the death of his father King Solomon, Rehoboam was ready to become king over all of Israel. Yet most of the tribal leaders went home, without accepting Rehoboam as king, because he planned on continuing the oppressive taxation and conscription policies of his father (I Kings 12:1-19). Rehoboam tried to raise an army to bring these tribes into line, and accept him as their king. However, a prophet warned him to stop this, because this rebellion was of God (I Kings 12:21-24).
Rehoboam didn’t have his kingship stripped from him, but rather only became king over two tribes. This doesn’t touch on the question of whether a king can be removed from office.
Uzziah and the priests. After a long period of personal and political success, King Uzziah became full of himself and decided to offer incense to God, bypassing the priests. The Chief Priest, with eighty other priests, opposed the king. Uzziah was furious, but to no avail, because the Lord instantly afflicted Uzziah with leprosy (II Chronicles 26:16-23). These priests, called “valiant men,” opposed the king’s overreach into religious duties.
In these examples we see:
- Revolts commanded by God (Moses, the judges, Saul) or condoned by Him (Rehoboam).
- David prepared for defensive war by collecting a band of soldiers, a personal army.
- Immediate opposition to King Uzziah’s overreach.
The examples of David’s war band, and of King Uzziah as priest, show that you can honor the ruler, per Romans 13, but still oppose actions of that ruler.
Preventing rebellion by killing your opposition. A recurring historical theme is that kingly succession can be messy. If the vacant throne has many people aiming for it then the losers tend to plot at ways to get a second chance at it. A favorite way of preventing these plots is to kill the competition. Even the Bible has accounts of this.
Solomon vs Adonijah. These two were sons of King David. Adonijah preemptively claimed the kingship (I Kings 1:5-10), leading Solomon’s camp to get King David involved (I Kings 1:11-40). King Solomon pardoned his brother Adonijah, who then sought another way to become king. Solomon stopped this constant scheming by executing Adonijah (I Kings 2:13-25).
Queen Athaliah. After her son King Ahaziah died in battle, she had everyone from the royal household killed so that she could rule. She failed to get the infant Joash, and his protectors soon got back at the queen (II Kings 11:1-16).
As a contrary example, David was promised the kingdom. But he refused to kill, or perhaps murder, King Saul through ambush (I Samuel 24:1-7; 26:6-11). Rather, he waited for God’s time, when Saul died in combat with the Philistines (I Samuel 31:1-6).
Killing your opposition is still done in modern times, such as with communist regimes. Progressives in America already would ban or “re-educate” political or social opponents. Can they stop at that? Or are we in for more political violence?
1550: The Siege of Magdeburg
In 1550 the city of Magdeburg is besieged, surrounded by forces of the Duke of Saxony, an ally of the Emperor Charles V.  The city must either withstand the besiegers, be destroyed, or accept the terms of the Augsburg Interim, which essentially banned Lutheranism. How did things come to this pass?
The writings of Martin Luther, some of which we’ll consider later, challenged the teaching and practices of the Catholic Church. Luther’s followers displaced the Catholic Church’s role both in spiritual life and in everyday society. Church leadership responded to this by seeking to suppress Lutheranism, hoping to return matters to their pre-Luther conditions. The people of German cities and states began choosing sides and suppressing their opponents. Local rulers were quick to pick up on this, either to restore civility or to gain advantage against other rulers.
Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (mostly Germany), king of Spain, and lord over Austria and the Netherlands, allied with the Pope to end this strife in the empire through armed might. In 1548 the Diet of Augsburg wrote the Augsburg Interim, terms that Lutherans must abide by – or else. Faced with this threat, most cities complied. But the city of Magdeburg defied the Interim, so Charles’ armies attacked it. To complete this tale, the siege ended when Duke Maurice of Saxony cut a deal with the city, where it did NOT have to abide by the Interim. And in a few years this round of religious civil strife was resolved by treaties, where each state would be Lutheran or Catholic according to a decision of each ruling prince.
If Romans 13 asserts that we should be in subjection to the authorities, then by what arguments did the elders and pastors of Magdeburg justify disobeying the Emperor’s decree? The Magdeburg Confession explains their reasoning. It builds on prior works by Luther, so we’ll review these works before discussing the Confession itself.
1523: Temporal Authority. Writing to Duke John of Saxony, Luther is probably responding to contemporary anarchist and Anabaptist teaching, which claimed that secular government itself is illegitimate. In this letter Luther affirms that human government is a blessing from God, and lays out its hierarchical nature. Luther claims that that resistance to authority, even by lesser magistrates, was not legitimate. You’ll soon see how Luther changed his mind.
1523: On Secular Authority. In 1522 Duke George of Saxony banned the possession of the German New Testament, which Luther translated from the Greek. Luther responded with On Secular Authority. In it he affirms that secular government has authority, but not to command matters of conscience. Luther advised that Christians weren’t obligated to give up their Bibles.
My good Lord, I owe you obedience with my life and goods. Command me what lies within the limits of your authority, and I will obey. But if you command me to believe, or to surrender my books, I will not obey. For then you [will have] become a tyrant and overreach[ed] yourself, commanding where you have neither right or power.
1530: Torgau Declaration. The Elector John of Saxony had asked for guidance. He was protecting Lutherans against the will of Emperor Charles V, who himself had authority over the prince. Yet Charles insisted that Lutheran church practices be abandoned. What justification was there for him to resist the Emperor’s demands? Legal scholars and religious leaders, including Luther, in 1530 delivered that justification, the Torgau Declaration.
This document confined itself to the constitutional construction of the Holy Roman Empire. The emperor was “elected” to his role by certain designated princes – hence the title “elector” – and his authority was constrained by a constitution. The scholars argued that matters of religion didn’t fall within the emperor’s jurisdiction. 
Luther was wary about condoning resistance to higher authority. But in this circumstance the need and right to resist was already built into the legal system, and was thus acceptable to him.
Render unto the Emperor, what is the Emperor’s. And it is the Emperor’s right, that he must be resisted in matters of notorious injustice. . . . All that the Emperor has established, that is, the law of the Emperor, is to be observed. But that law determines, that one must resist him in such a case.
1550: Magdeburg Confession. With armies approaching to attack Magdeburg, its pastors and leaders drew up a document explaining why they’re resisting, and pleading for support from princes and other towns. The Magdeburg Confession covers these concepts.
We’re not rebelling, but merely principled. The city isn’t rebelling against the Emperor or his princes. The commentary quotes the Confession:
“Just as the Church is an ordinance of God, in which God wants there to be an order of teachers and learners, so also politics and economy are truly ordinances of God, in which He likewise wants there to be an order of superiors and an order of inferiors who are ruled by laws and precepts that agree with reason and are not at variance with the Word.”
Unrighteous commands or laws need not be obeyed. From the Confession:
“. . . just as subjects necessarily owe obedience to their magistrates; and children and the rest of the family, to their parents and masters, on account of God; so on the other hand, when magistrates or parents themselves lead their charges away from true piety and uprightness, obedience is not owed to them from the Word of God. Also, when they professedly persecute piety and uprightness, they remove themselves from the honor of magistrate and parents before God and their own consciences, and instead of being an ordinance of God they become an ordinance of the devil, which can and ought to be resisted by His order for the sake of one’s calling.”
Romans 13 requires that the government proactively do good. Romans 13:3 says “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.” The Magdeburg pastors believed that this meant:
Authority is an ordinance of God to honor what is good and to punish what is evil (Romans 13[:3]). Accordingly, if authority presumes to persecute what is good and promote what is evil, then it is no longer an ordinance of God but an ordinance of the Devil, and whoever resists such evil is not resisting God’s ordinance but the ordinance of the Devil.
After all, Romans 13:4 continues with “…for it is a minister of God to you for good.” If the authorities are doing bad, forbidding worship of God or taking away Bibles, then they’re doing the opposite of good, and are out of their authority. The quote insists that resisting this command means not just passive activity, but proactive resistance.
The Lesser Magistrates are to protect us from tyranny. The Confession lists four levels of government tyranny. The fourth, and most radical of them, requires active opposition by the people, both by magistrates and, as you’ll see later, private individuals:
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 the 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. . . . and if he himself defends and prosecutes this law with force and arms, so that certain death is laid down as the penalty of 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 magistrates with whatever power they have.
These lower or lesser magistrates – for example, a state or county official when faced with an overreaching federal request – are to resist the imposed tyranny without any guilt, for the request isn’t legal. With each layer of government responsible for doing good, these wouldn’t be doing their work if they let stand unrighteous commands of their superiors. From the Confession:
Therefore, when the highest prince himself not only does not render to God the things that are God’s, but also snatches divine honor from others on the pretext of his power, and claims it for himself by the sword, then there nonetheless remains among men this very power ordained by God, to vindicate the honor of God.
Helping Magdeburg is part of your Christian duty. The authors note that giving aid, even taxes, to those who are suppressing their city is wrong.
It is obvious that no pious or Christian person can bring aid to our enemies either by military means, or by giving plans, money or other things by which our enemies are armed. . . . Therefore, whether you be a magistrate or a subject in any way involved in this war or in the carrying out of proscription, consider to what you are lending your counsel, money, work, body, and even your very life and soul; and to what allies. Is it not to the enemies of Christ and His word?
In summary, the Magdeburg Confession has these main points:
- We acknowledge that human government is needful. We agree that submitting to authority is important and right.
- However, we insist that you don’t have the authority in this particular instance, to force us to abandon our religion. This doesn’t violate the commands of Romans 13.
- We’ve exhausted all prior attempts to reason with you, and you still insist on your unconstitutional overreach. Your request actually attacks God-fearing religion.
- Our Christian duty, that of other Christian subjects, and the duties of government subordinates under you, is to resist your command. We will defend ourselves against your enforcement actions.
1637: Scotland rebels over religious hijacking
On a Sunday in 1637, worship service is about to begin in Edinburgh. The minister starts reading from a brand-new liturgy, promoted by King Charles.  But instead of worship a riot breaks out over opposition to the liturgy, which is seen as an attempt to re-assert ‘popery’ in Scotland. The king won’t give up his plans to dominate the Scottish church, and invades Scotland in the Bishops’ War. The king loses, and the fallout from this war shortly leads to the English Civil War. Was the king’s new liturgy that offensive? To the Scots, most certainly.
Scottish worship in the early 1600s was largely Protestant and Calvinist. This is the result of Protestant preaching, and battles to drive out French and royalist armies defending Catholicism. But King Charles’ promotion of “Laud’s Liturgy”  was seen as re-introducing Catholic rites and sacraments. It seems that the Anglican form of worship differed little from that of Catholicism.
A second issue was that the liturgy, and the 1636 Book of Canons, promoted “the divine right of kings.” It said that King Charles is answerable only to God, not subject to any review or check by any person on earth, and that God requires of the king’s subjects complete submission and obedience to the king. What is more, Charles is installed as the head of the Scottish Church, and its bishops are to be mere subordinates to the king. In 1638 King Charles declared as traitor anyone who opposed his changes to church doctrine.
This was quite a bit to swallow, as the Scots confess only Jesus as the king of the church. So immediately, from all over Scotland, people converged on Edinburgh to sign the National Covenant. Signing this put them in open rebellion to King Charles, and war preparations began on both sides.
Scottish Christians had to find satisfying answers these questions:
- Does King Charles have God-given absolute power over his subjects?
- May the people resist the king? And if so, what forms of resistance are biblically acceptable?
Samuel Rutherford rose to the task with his book Lex Rex, which means “the law is king.” In 44 chapters, or “questions,” he addressed these issues from many angles. The following sections summarize Rutherford’s “satisfying” responses.
There is no “divine right to rule.” You might be born a prince, but the crown isn’t your birthright. You must be elected, or affirmed, as king by the people. Rutherford said (question 10) “If David durst not take the right of government actually on him, then divine unction made him not king, but only designed him to be king: the people’s election must make the king.”
Being told “you’re chosen by God to become king” doesn’t make you king. As Rutherford says it, the king isn’t made by God by His direct action (“immediate”). The covenanting (“mediate”) action of the people is needed. See these Bible examples:
- Saul was anointed as king by Samuel (I Samuel 10:1), but didn’t become king until Israel acclaimed him (I Samuel 10:24-25; 11:15).
- David was anointed as the next king by Samuel (I Samuel 16:1, 12-13), but didn’t become king over Judah until after Saul died and Judah agreed he was king (II Samuel 2:4). The rest of Israel initially chose Saul’s son Ish-bosheth as their king (II Samuel 2:8-11). These other tribes only accepted David as king after Ish-bosheth was murdered (II Samuel 5:1-5).
- Unlike Saul or David, Rehoboam had no anointing from a prophet. Even though he was the crown prince, to become king he had to negotiate a covenant with the tribes of Israel. The negotiations failed, and Rehoboam became the king only of Judah (I Kings 12:1, 13-20).
Since the throne isn’t the king’s property, Charles must act within the bounds of the covenant made when he was crowned King of Scotland. Says Rutherford (question 14):
5. Both king and people shall find the revenging hand of God against them, if they fail in the breach of their oath; every one, king and people, by the oath stand obliged to God, the king for himself, and the people for themselves, but with this difference, the king oweth to God proper and due obedience as any of the subjects, and also to govern the people according to God’s true religion, (Deut. xvii.; 2 Chron. xxix.;) and in this the king’s obligation differeth from the people’s obligation; the people, as they would be saved, must serve God and the king, for the same cause. (1 Sam. xii.)
The king is expected to keep his covenant. Once past the installation ceremony, the king isn’t free to do has he pleases. He must work to perform the contract he made with the people. As Rutherford says (question 14):
Arg. 2.—Hence our second argument. He who is made a minister of God, not simply, but for the good of the subject, and so he take heed to God’s law as a king, and govern according to God’s will, he is in so far only made king by God as he fulfilleth the condition; and in so far as he is a minister for evil to the subject, and ruleth not according to that which the book of the law commandeth him as king, in so far he is not by God appointed king and ruler, and so must be made a king by God conditionally: but so hath God made kings and rulers, Rom. xiii. 4; 2 Chron. vi. 16; Psal. lxxxix. 30, 31; 2 Sam. vii. 12; 1 Chron. xxviii. 7–9. This argument is not brought to prove that Jeroboam or Saul leave off to be kings when they fail in some part of the condition; or as if they were not God’s vicegerents, to be obeyed in things lawful, after they have gone on in wicked courses; for the people consenting to make Saul king, they give him the crown, pro hac vice, at his entry absolutely. There is no condition required in him before they make him king, but only that he covenant with them to rule according to God’s law.
If, then, the people make a king, as a king, conditionally, for their safety, and not for their destruction, (for as a king he saveth, as a man he destroyeth, and not as a king and father,) and if God, by the people’s free election, make a king, God maketh him a king conditionally, and so by covenant; and, therefore, when God promiseth (2 Sam. vii. 12; 1 Chron. xxviii. 7–9) to David’s seed, and to Solomon, a throne, he promiseth not a throne to them immediately, as he raised up prophets and apostles without any mediate action and consent of the people, but he promiseth a throne to them by the mediate consent, election, and covenant of the people; which condition and covenant he expresseth in the very words of the people’s covenant with the king, “So they walk as kings in the law of the Lord, and take heed to God’s commandment and statutes to do them.”
In this passage Rutherford makes these points:
- The king has a commission, a covenant, to act for the good of the kingdom. He is a minister for good (Romans 13:3-4).
- In God’s eyes (Romans 13:1), the people must obey the king in all things lawful.
- Wicked commands aren’t lawful. In them the king is acting not within the office of the king, what he was crowned to do. Rather, in these the king is acting as a minister of evil. The people need not obey the king in unlawful things.
- The king retains the throne even if he issues wicked commands. He need not be perfect.
And earlier (question 9) Rutherford underscores that oppression, such as preventing Christian worship, is not in the authority of government.
I lay down this maxim of divinity: Tyranny being a work of Satan, is not from God, because sin, either habitual or actual, is not from God: the power that is, must be from God; the magistrate, as magistrate, is good in nature of office, and the intrinsic end of his office, (Rom. xiii. 4) for he is the minister of God for thy good; and, therefore, a power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power; and is no more from God, but from sinful nature and the old serpent, than a license to sin.
Self-defense against the king’s wickedness is allowed. From Rutherford (question 28):
Arg. 6.—If the estates of a kingdom give the power to a king, it is their own power in the fountain; and if they give it for their own good, they have power to judge when it is used against themselves, and for their evil, and so power to limit and resist the power that they gave.
And later (questions 28 and 29), Rutherford definitively addresses whether the lesser magistrates, and the people, can war against the king:
2. The powers (Rom. xiii. 1) that be, are ordained of God, as their author and efficient; but kings commanding unjust things, and killing the innocent, in these acts, are but men, and sinful men; and the power by which they do these acts, a sinful and an usurped power, and so far they are not powers ordained of God, according to his revealed will, which must rule us. Now the authority and official power, in abstracto, is ordained of God, as the text saith, and other Scriptures do evidence. And this politicians do clear, while they distinguish betwixt jus personæ, and jus coronæ, the power of the person, and the power of the crown and royal office. They must then be two different things.
3. He that resisteth the power, that is, the official power, and the king, as king, and commanding in the Lord, resisteth the ordinance of God, and God’s lawful constitution. But he who resisteth the man, who is the king, commanding that which is against God, and killing the innocent, resisteth no ordinance of God, but an ordinance of sin and Satan; for a man commanding unjustly, and ruling tyrannically, hath, in that, no power from God.
4. They that resist the power and royal office of the king in things just and right, shall receive to themselves damnation, but they that resist, that is, refuse, for conscience, to obey the man who is the king, and choose to obey God rather than man, as all the martyrs did, shall receive to themselves salvation. And the eighty valiant men, the priests, who used bodily violence against king Uzziah’s person, “and thrust him out of the house of the Lord,” from offering incense to the Lord, which belonged to the priest only, received not damnation to themselves, but salvation in doing God’s will, and in resisting the king’s wicked will.
5. The lawful ruler, as a ruler, and in respect of his office, is not to be resisted, because he is not a terror to good works, but to evil; and no man who doth good is to be afraid of the office or the power, but to expect praise and a reward of the same. But the man who is a king may command an idolatrous and superstitious worship—send an army of cut-throats against them, because they refuse that worship, and may reward papists, prelates, and other corrupt men, and may advance them to places of state and honour because they kneel to a tree altar,—pray to the east,—adore the letters and sound of the word Jesus—teach and write Arminianism, and may imprison, deprive, confine, cut the ears, and slit the noses, and burn the faces of those who speak and preach and write the truth of God; and may send armies of cut-throats, Irish rebels, and other papists and malignant atheists, to destroy and murder the judges of the land, and innocent defenders of the reformed religion, &c.,—the man, I say, in these acts is a terror to good works,—an encouragement to evil; and those that do good are to be afraid of the king, and to expect no praise, but punishment and vexation from him; therefore, this reason in the text will prove that the man who is the king, in so far as he doth those things that are against his office, may be resisted; and that in these we are not to be subject, but only we are to be subject to his power and royal authority, in abstracto, in so far as, according to his office, he is not a terror to good works, but to evil.
6. The lawful ruler is the minister of God, or the servant of God, for good to the commonwealth; and to resist the servant in that wherein he is a servant, and using the power that he hath from his master, is to resist the Lord his master. But the man who is the king, commanding unjust things, and killing the innocent, in these acts is not the minister of God for the good of the commonwealth;—he serveth himself, and papists, and prelates, for the destruction of religion, laws, and commonwealth: therefore the man may be resisted; by this text, when the office and power cannot be resisted.
Those who oppose the king, for the sake of righteousness, are right to do so. But they do have tricky tasks to accomplish.
- They claim to support and uphold the king.
- They also stand with force of arms to oppose the evil designs of the king. They’re vigorous, armed versions of Naaman’s counselors (II Kings 5:8-14), seeking to preserve the king from damaging his kingdom and bring him to his senses.
- By their very stand the king regards them as rebels, even traitors. The king will oppose them with all possible energy.
- On the issue, there might be very little room between the stances of passive non-compliance and armed resistance. Both stances arouse the ire of the king.
- If you choose armed resistance, you have to determine what the difference is between defending your rights and gaining military victory. What are your aims? How do you know if you’ve won?
As events played out, there were several border wars with the mobilized Scottish nation. Combined with activity in the English Parliament, this ignited the English Civil War. King Charles I was captured, and then executed by the English Parliament. Oliver Cromwell assumed the role of an English dictator, but later the monarchy resumed with King Charles II, son of the executed king. This just proves again that you can start a war, but you can’t predict its end.
In summary, Lex Rex has, among its other arguments, these points relevant to our study:
- The king has limits on what he can rightfully do. These limits come from God (Deuteronomy 17) and from the covenant between the king and his people.
- God requires the people to honor the king, and to obey him in all lawful things. But we must not obey the king in unlawful things.
- Lawful things are what the king does, or commands, within the bounds of the covenant, and which promote good acts and restrain wickedness (Romans 13:3-4).
- Unlawful things are what the king does, or commands, that work against “doing good.” The tyrant king can’t legitimately use his crown as authority to command evil.
- God allows us to defend ourselves against the king’s unrighteousness. We can even organize armies and wage war to restrain the king’s evil.
1776: King George III vs the rights of Englishmen
In July 1776 the Second Continental Congress published the Declaration of Independence. This document proclaimed that they were no longer British colonies, but would instead “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” This wasn’t the result of some hotheads declaring something radical and looking for a swell of popular support. Rather, the authors were delegates of colonial governments, acting in their authority.
The Declaration justifies itself through a list of grievances. These can be summarized as:
- Our right to local self-government is being denied.
- Our rights as Englishmen are being systematically violated.
- We have the right, and the responsibility, to protect our society. We’ll do this by breaking with the king.
The Declaration didn’t start anything, but acknowledged current events. Its issues had been smoldering for over a decade, while actual fighting had started the previous year. In fact, British armies were about to engage the Continentals for control of Brooklyn and the Port of New York. What the Declaration did do was to define an endgame, to know when to stop fighting. What were these complaints which inspired people to fight, and even die? And why would Christian colonists think that this resistance, this rebellion, was justified before God?
Local self-government. The American colonies were founded between the years 1606 (Virginia) through 1732 (Georgia). The colonies were to be largely self-governed. After all, governing them from England is impractical. With England being seven weeks away by ship – once you find one going your way – getting a simple question answered could take over three months.
One consequence of being far away from the mother country is that your people develop a different tack on government and personal rights. For example, in 1772 Samuel Adams said:
The right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift and voluntarily become a slave.
The absolute rights of Englishmen and all freemen, in or out of civil society, are principally personal security, personal liberty, and private property.
The supreme power cannot justly take from any man any part of his property, without his consent in person or by his representative. 
This agrees with the English Bill of Rights, but is different in that it even denies Parliament the right to unilaterally tax the colonists – they weren’t local, and didn’t consider the colonists’ interests in the least. The colonists had no representation in Parliament, and Adams contended that it could even be harmful to the colonies to even have such representatives:
…but if the breath of a British House of Commons can originate an act for taking away all our money, our lands will go next, or be subject to rack rents from haughty and relentless landlords, who will ride at ease, while we are trodden in the dirt.
The world-wide Seven Years War, which touched America as the French and Indian War, added vast new tracts of North America to Britain’s control, along with a tremendous war debt. To help pay down this debt Parliament now tried taxing the colonies (Stamp Act, etc.). But the Americans rejected these taxes, on grounds of “no taxation without representation,” and that because of their colonial charters Parliament had no right to tax them.
Over time, many taxing and punitive acts were passed. One result that the king and Parliament more or less shut down colonial self-government. The colonial assemblies still met, but the king refused to affirm their laws.
Englishmen with rights, or the king’s serfs? Over time the English developed the concept of “the rights of Englishmen.” It meant that the king, his judges, and other officials couldn’t treat the common man as ciphers. Rather, they had to be treated fairly in at least these ways:
- Right to a jury trial, no excessive bail, no cruel or unusual punishments.
- Right of habeas corpus, which means officials can’t spirit you off to jail forever. You must be given a hearing before a judge.
- The government won’t maintain a standing army in time of peace.
- Right to not quarter troops, supposedly of that standing army.
- Right to own and bear arms.
- Right to representative government (Parliament, assemblies).
- Freedom of speech in Parliament.
- Right to petition the king without punishment.
Many of the original charters expressly reassured the colonists that they retained their English rights.  The other charters merely assumed this. The colonists didn’t lose their rights of Englishmen simply because they emigrated to America. And when the king converted the corporate charters to royal charters, it didn’t mean that the colonists lost their rights.
Yet the king’s officials were ignoring the peoples’ rights as they pleased. Some of the complaints of the Declaration were:
- At many times, ignoring the right to a jury trial. You might say “but it wasn’t ignored all the time,” but it is a pattern of tyranny.
- Spiriting people overseas to stand trial. This amounts to denying habeas corpus, as the prisoner is incommunicado for the duration, and certainly separated from counsel, witnesses, and other legal aids for his defense.
- Keeping standing armies. With no external threats, a standing army implies that they mean to keep you in line.
- Forced to quarter troops. When you must feed and provide beds for unwanted troops at your own expense, in your own home, besides the imminent threat of the troops you are deprived of your property for your own purposes. They’re like police spies in your living room.
- Abolishing the right to representative government.
These actions lead to distrust of the king, of Parliament. If your rights are repeatedly ignored, are you truly Englishmen? Or have you been reduced to serfs, property of the king?
Self-defense through independence. By 1776 matters had devolved from petitioning the king, who ignored the colonists, to open war. But some colonists still thought that a compromise could still be worked out. Was that being realistic? What in their history with King George suggested that the colonists could work with him, or that he’d keep his word?
Rather than fighting endless rounds of defense against individual acts of tyranny, the colonists preferred to sidestep the tyrant. After all, if the king denied their rights as Englishmen, wasn’t that a sign he denied their English citizenship? Some argue that secession was the colonists’ legal right. So to defend the colonies’ security, liberty, and property, the Congress declared:
That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved…
Submission, resistance, and separation. it’s a long way from “always submit to the king” to seeking independence. Are the rights of Englishmen worth fighting for, dying for? Having developed their concepts of government far away from their English kin, the colonists came to think so.
Could a Christian endorse this war? And what about an attitude of submitting to government? Those Christians did endorse it, while submitting to their local governments. These acted as “lesser magistrates” in their dealing with the king and Parliament. As far as the reasons for war, both Luther and Rutherford justified defending yourself, your family, your property, and your rights. It was for rights, specifically the right of worship, that Magdeburg and the Scots fought.
Some Christians – up to 20% of the population – didn’t endorse the war, and remained loyal to the king. These loyalists had a variety of reactions, ranging from resisting their colonial government, joining loyalist militia, or fleeing to Canada. These people also acted appropriately when they thought their government – their colonial one – went too far.
A novel feature of the Declaration was independence. Luther and Rutherford never asserted the right to overthrow a king. But the governments of these thirteen colonies weren’t overthrowing King George, but rather seceding from his rule. Luther and Rutherford were silent on this matter, leaving it for the lesser magistrates to resolve.
- The colonists, separated from mother England by time as well as distance, had developed their own strain of English life and political thought.
- King George and Parliament weren’t willing to accept the colonials’ views.
- The colonists feared for the future, that letting the king have his way meant the loss of their property, and control over their lives. These were worth defending.
- The petitions, the fighting, and the Declaration were all handled at government levels. It was intercession by more-local government, protecting the people.
- As with the people of Magdeburg, the colonists defended themselves against the king’s unrighteousness. They supported their “lesser magistrates,” which organized armies and waged war to restrain the king’s evil.
The desire to resist tyranny
Our biblical study showed that, with God’s direct help, Moses and Gideon each delivered Israel from tyranny. Our historical studies gave other examples of resisting tyranny:
- For the sake of religious belief, the city of Magdeburg resisted a besieging army for a year, and prevailed. Their resistance ended once their rights were affirmed.
- For the sake of religious belief, the Scots defied their king, King Charles I, and prevailed, defeating the king’s army.
- For the sake of English rights, the combined thirteen American colonies defied King George III and prevailed, breaking away from English rule.
Their struggles seem foreign to us. After all, the American Civil war was over 150 years ago. Is fighting, and dying, for religious freedom, mere ideas, worth the pain, the cost, and the grief? For modern American Christians, the idea of suffering, even dying, for Christ has been theoretical. But now storm clouds are gathering, with prospects of a government, and society, hostile to us. As the revolutionary Leon Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
- Ask the people in Portland, Seattle, or Minneapolis if they invited Antifa to be “mostly peaceful” in their town. Yet Antifa found them.
- Ask the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop if he wanted to be attacked for his Christian views. But anti-Christian activists found him.
- Ask Scottish Christians if they wanted to be spied on in their own homes, then charged with saying the “wrong things.” Yet their government now claims authority to go Big Brother on them.
- Ask Christian parents if they wanted their children trained in Marxism, Critical Race Theory, and anti-science versions of biology. But that’s we all get through inattention.
And we’re promised more than this, a complete transformation of society. How is it that we’re prevented from living our faith? How is it that we’re having our children effectively stolen from us? How is it that we’re getting materially dispossessed? It’s simple: we go around complaining to each other about how awful things are getting, and not actually stopping the awfulness. And we’ll continue to see our rights, and our lives, stolen from us unless we act while we still can.
Self-defense (Exodus 22:2-3; Luke 11:21), the defense of your loved ones (Nehemiah 4:9,14; John 15:13; I Timothy 5:8), and defense of the helpless among you (Genesis 14:13-16; I Samuel 11:1-11; Psalm 82:3-4) is a God-given responsibility. But defense means acting before the evil is complete. Defense also means preventative activity against future evil. Wake up, for a forcible theft of our culture is underway. Now is the time to get up and act.
Suppose you’re arrested for handing out pamphlets opposing homosexuality. Or you’re told that, as a nurse, you must participate in murder, regardless of your religious beliefs. In either case, your religious rights have been infringed. It looks like you’ll need to defend yourself and your religious rights.
Government overreaches when it hinders the practice of religion, or when it dictates changes to culture. Rather than acting against evildoers it instead encourages them. According to what we learned about Romans 13, God doesn’t require us to comply with those commands. What sorts of responses can Christians make?
- Hide your faith and outwardly obey. To avoid trouble you obey the authorities, figuring that you’re still faithful to God in your heart. But Jesus criticizes this choice, saying “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). This is not a good option for Christians.
- Move away. Sometimes you can move to someplace more accepting of your faith. But this course is available only to the very few. Most people have obligations that keep them in their place, or lack the resources to move.
- Challenge the authorities. This is civil disobedience. The aim is to have the authorities recognize why you’re not obeying them, that perhaps they will see the error of their ways. Recognize that in this you might lose your possessions, your freedom, or even your life.
- Defy the authorities. If the authorities are have persisted in their evil, and have refused to listen to all sorts of pleas to do the right thing, then opposing them with force might be justified. Perhaps this opposition will shock the authorities back to negotiating, perhaps not. The use of force is discussed in the next sections.
Much has already been written about civil disobedience. But instead of repeating all that, consider these two observations.
- When you resist, what do you want to achieve? Once into the struggle you’ll likely have opportunities to strike deals. Perhaps you can win in the important parts of your issues, and leave room for the politicians to “save face” when they back off.
- Community response is needed, for the government is coming for you next. The first victim of the authorities is just a test of how far they can go. Religious harassment must be opposed early, lest it become accepted law. The Christian community must gather to support that first victim. This means pooling money, labor, and other resources to defend his rights, and all of our rights, against government intentions.
For successful examples of a community asserting its rights, look to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Here are some instructive incidents.
Montgomery bus boycott.  In 1955 the Montgomery bus system had rules for seating, segregating white people to the front of the bus and black people to the back. One day Mrs. Rosa Parks refused a command by the bus driver to get out of her seat in the “colored” section so a white person could sit in her place. She was arrested by police for disobeying the bus driver’s orders. The black community asked the bus company for changes, but it claimed that city laws prevented it from changing this seating arrangement.
To encourage change, the black community promoted a boycott of the bus system. They organized alternate transportation, and many people took to walking long distances to work. Up to 90% of black patrons stopped riding the buses. They also filed suit in federal court, claiming 14th Amendment violations of their rights. This boycott was maintained for about a whole year, until the Supreme Court ordered that this segregation must end. 
Nashville lunch counter sit-in.  The Nashville black community leaders sought to desegregate public accommodations. In February 1960 they decided to start with department store lunch counters. (Remember when retail stores also served food to shoppers?) Activists would buy things in the store, and then sit at the counter for food service. The counter staff ignored them, so they just stayed there, waiting to be served, for as long as possible. Eventually police hauled away these activists, but replacements soon arrived to resume the sit-in protest. The lunch counters lost business and the protest was making news.
Then someone threw a bomb at the house of the black community’s lawyer. This act got the community leaders an audience with the mayor. They shamed, and convinced, him into supporting desegregation. In May 1960 a plan was implemented that gradually integrated seating at the lunch counters. It all went peacefully after that.
The tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. Among his deeds, Dr. King organized non-violent protests and marches in Birmingham in 1962. Well, at least his marchers were non-violent. The local police drubbed the protesters and threw many of them, including Dr. King, into jail. While in jail Dr. King wrote a letter that described his goals and his tactics in his Birmingham activity. He described the point of the confrontations:
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
Dr. King realized that one goal of civil disobedience is to change the political climate on an issue. He sought maximum sympathy for his cause. His participants were to be as inoffensive as possible – no fighting or rock throwing, but quietly marching. But the audacity of marching at all was socially aggressive, daring the authorities to do something rash. The march, and official response, would promote a change in public opinion, pressuring officials to submit to the protesters’ demands. This tactic won’t work everywhere, such as against the Chinese. But it worked in Birmingham, and might still be useful today.
These civil rights incidents show that success was obtained through community cooperation, training, and sacrifice. They realized that this was the issue of their day, and now was the time for the fight. Government restriction of religious rights certainly affects individuals, but effective opposition requires community action.
The United States divides its governance into greater and lesser political units. The federal government is meant to handle issues of national concern, while the states handle their internal issues. Likewise, the states have counties, the counties have cities, etc.
The rulers and judges of these lesser jurisdictions are themselves genuine leaders, not mere mouthpieces of the greater jurisdictions. As such, they are responsible to God to be just rulers, not respecting people because of power or wealth. The 1530 Torgau Declaration claims that these lesser jurisdiction leaders must protect their people from injustice, from the tyranny of greater jurisdictions. This is the “lesser magistrate” doctrine.
Simply put, the lesser-magistrate doctrine declares that – when a magistrate, who is lower in authority than another higher authority, opposes and/or resists the unjust orders or laws of the higher authority, he is justified in doing so and his actions are morally right, proper, and legitimate.
For example, if Congress or the President makes an unjust or immoral edict, a state legislature or the governor could stand in defiance of their unjust edict and refuse to obey or implement it. They could in fact actively oppose it. Or for that matter, a city council or mayor could act in defiance or opposition of an unjust edict by a higher authority. 
Can a state or county use interposition to protect its citizens against what amounts to revolution through federal legislation? Perhaps so. There are these avenues of approach.
- Federal courts. File federal suits claiming that the government doesn’t have the right to do what it claims in the objectionable law, executive order, or bureaucratic regulation.
- Nullification. Through state action, assert that the federal government has overreached, and that its law or regulation has no authority in this state.
Using the federal courts to protect your citizens. Lawsuits can be used to object to actual or proposed federal actions, claiming violation of rights, or lack of authority to do the action. But lawsuits are an expensive and lengthy process. By the time you get satisfaction it might be years too late to benefit from the judgment.
The legal approach also assumes that the courts are sane and reasonable. Relying on the federal courts to protect you from federal law is much like asking a man to bite his own hand. For example, the Supreme Court said that the Commerce Clause, dealing with interstate commerce, can be used to prevent you from growing grain for your own personal use.
For most of our history, the Courts foiled congressional attempts to use the “Commerce Clause” to sabotage the clear meaning of the Constitution, particularly the Ninth and 10th Amendments. The courts began caving in to congressional tyranny during the 1930s. That tyranny was sealed in 1942, by a little known U.S. Supreme ruling in Wickard vs. Filburn.
Filburn was a small farmer in Ohio. The Department of Agriculture had set production quotas. Filburn harvested nearly 12 acres of wheat above his government allotment. He argued that the excess wheat was unrelated to commerce since he grew it for his own use. He was fined anyway. The court reasoned that had he not grown the extra wheat he would have had to purchase wheat — therefore, he was indirectly affecting interstate commerce.
In a similar vein the Supreme Court split hairs and insisted that the government can fine you for not buying “Obamacare” health insurance. There are also threats to add justices to the Court to ensure partisan rulings. Alas, we can’t rely on justice from the Supreme Court when it is deliberately filled to rubber stamp Congress.
State nullification of federal law. The idea of that a state can declare federal law null, and having no jurisdiction in that state, comes from the “supremacy clause” of the Constitution (Article VI, Clause 2).
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
If a law is made that is thought tyrannical, was it “made in Pursuance” of the Constitution? Who gets to decide? Through the Marbury v. Madison case,  it’s argued that only the Supreme Court can make this judgment. But some contend that the states themselves also have that authority. In short, nullification is civil disobedience for the state.
Can a state nullify a federal law? Some say yes, some no. It really hasn’t been tried. For example, the oft-cited 1828 Nullification Crisis was over tariffs.  But since tariffs are clearly a role of the federal government, this wasn’t an appropriate battle for nullification. The federal government now wants to force rules on us about transgender rights, restricting religious freedoms, etc. Various amendments in the Bill of Rights say that they have no authority to do these things. These are appropriate topics for testing state nullification.
Nullification requires preparation
Nullification means more than passing a law at the statehouse. If federal officials show up in your state to enforce an odious law, the governor will have to prevent them from doing their jobs. Otherwise, your nullification is just play acting. Your state sheriffs will block the federal marshals, and there’s a standoff.
What happens if your state’s nullification is seen instead as rebellion, even treason. Merely hinting at nullification causes people to quote the Insurrection Act, with threats to use troops against your state. If your state’s nullification is to be made good then you need a defending force. The idea is not military victory, but to make the political cost of attack too high for the federal government to bear. The state’s force buys time for political compromise.
Your state can’t rely on its National Guard. That is merely the U.S. Army on loan. It might even be called up to attack your state. Rather, your state needs an active, revived militia.
Militia is still a thing
The militia is a local army, made up of the locality’s able-bodied men. They come when called by the militia’s commander, and they fight with whatever weapons they already have. For example, in Israel’s time these were repurposed farming implements (Isaiah 2:3-4; Joel 3:10; Micah 4:3). Because they’re just people called at need, they really aren’t a match against trained professional soldiers. But if you need some sort of fighting force right now, the militia is what you have.
In the 1770s, the American colonies had both state and county militia. Some units even had cannon, perhaps taken from arsenals storing weapons of the French and Indian War. Capturing cannon was the purpose for the British trip to Lexington and Concord in April 1775. So much for limiting 2nd Amendment to flintlock muskets. Instead, perhaps every town’s militia ought to have machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank rockets.
The Constitution doesn’t create militia, but assumes that it already exists and could be useful for national defense. This goes hand-in-hand with the 2nd Amendment, for unarmed militia is useless. But the real reason for the 2nd Amendment is that militia is a safeguard against the federal government itself! The 2nd Amendment isn’t about shooting squirrels, but about blocking federal tyranny.
The Second Amendment does, however, reinforce the rule of law and anti‐tyranny structure of the US Constitution, by ensuring the government cannot disarm the people. In the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, all nine Justices agreed that the amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms for service in the militia. (The justices disagreed about whether the right includes other purposes, such as personal self‐defense or hunting.) Why did the founding generation believe that a well‐regulated militia was necessary? One reason, observed Justice Antonin Scalia: “when the able‐bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.”
Explaining the proposed Second Amendment, Madison’s ally Tench Coxe, a delegate to the Continental Congress for Pennsylvania, wrote: “As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow‐citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.” Madison thanked Coxe for the newspaper essay.
Democratic Vice President and Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the congressional leader of the civil rights movement, expressed a similar sentiment nearly two centuries later. For three decades after World War II, he was the embodiment of a liberal Democrat. In 1960, Humphrey wrote: “Certainly one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. This is not to say that firearms should not be very carefully used and that definite safety rules of precaution should not be taught and enforced. But the right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.”
The Founding Fathers figured that, in the event of federal tyranny, the states would call up their militia to oppose the federal army. James Madison wrote that the numbers of the militia would always outmatch the numbers of a standing army. But there are any number of famous, decisive, battles where small disciplined armies overcame huge less disciplined ones. Militia leaders know that they can’t match up against formations of professional troops. Even showing up at the same place with them isn’t advised. What militia can provide the state are:
- A force to provide an initial check to federal invaders. The federal leaders have to decide whether to negotiate – a win for the state – or to go big and fight, occupy, and arrest.
- A semi-organized resistance force, having many military veterans, that can disrupt the supply and equipment of the occupiers. This amounts to guerilla war, and should give the federal military leaders pause.
- An incident to rally around, perhaps a “Lexington Green” moment. The hope is that the nation will have had enough of federal bullying, and that matters will improve in a hurry.
But perhaps nothing goes right for the state. Its nullification gets squashed, its militia locked up, its towns locked down, and the federals prove that they can do whatever they please. Or perhaps everything goes right for the federals, except that their deeds trigger widespread disregard for federal authority (“To your tents, Israel! Now look after your own house, David!”). There arises civil conflict resembling that of the Spanish Civil War. As noted about the English Civil War, you are never sure of the eventual outcomes.
Some people join private or ad-hoc militia. Any number of people can get together and call themselves a militia group. But if they don’t have authorization from the state, county, sheriff, etc., then what happens to them if they actually shoot or detain someone? Militia needs the cover of government sponsorship.
An interesting use of private militia was in the Battle of Athens. In 1946, the political machine in Athens, Tennessee was fixing to steal the sheriff’s election. The locals, including many returning GIs, decided that this time the election would be honest. Hundreds of ex-soldiers gathered into an ad-hoc militia and besieged the city jail, where some of the ballot boxes had been taken. They soon took the jail and held the ballot boxes until they could be officially, and honestly, counted.
But whatever the future may bring, you can’t use militia if you don’t have it. Its organization has been forgotten in many states, but activists are working nationwide to re-establish both state and county militia.
Our study of the Bible and history has shown these things:
- Human government is a good thing to have.
- Romans 13 says that government is to encourage good acts and punish evil ones.
- If government officials command us to do evil acts, or prevent us from doing good things, then Christians aren’t bound by God to obey their evil commands.
- Resisting government evil can encompass both civil and armed disobedience.
We’re told that “systemic racism” and “white supremacy” mean that everything we know must be torn down. This is merely a hatred of Christianity, with American culture as its focus. Their wish for change means destroying what we have, but they’ve nothing to replace it with except socialist strongman rule.
Our American system of government is a good thing. Its federal and state layers, the Constitution, the limits on authority, can work well together and are worth preserving. We must defend ourselves, and our way of government, not by overturning things but by resisting their abuse.
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Williams, Walter, Commerce clause abuse, Townhall, November 5, 2003, https://townhall.com/columnists/walterewilliams/2003/11/05/commerce-clause-abuse-n968530 ↑
Constitutional challenges to the Affordable Care Act, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutional_challenges_to_the_Affordable_Care_Act ↑
Walker, Scott, Biden and Dems’ Supreme Court packing an undemocratic power grab, The Washington Times, April 22, 2021, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/apr/22/biden-and-democrats-supreme-court-packing-an-undem/ ↑
Nelson, Caleb and Roosevelt, Kermit, The Supremacy Clause, National Constitution Center, https://www.constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/article-vi/clauses/31 ↑
Marbury v. Madison, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marbury_v._Madison ↑
Martinell, TJ, The Myth of Marbury v Madison, Do Not Comply …Nullify, July 18, 2019, https://nullify.us/the-myth-of-marbury-v-madison/ ↑
State Nullification: What Is It?, Liberty Classroom, https://libertyclassroom.com/nullification/ ↑
Pulliam, Mark, Is Nullification an Option?, Law & Liberty, April 2, 2021, https://lawliberty.org/is-nullification-an-option/ ↑
The Nullification Crisis, Bill of Rights Institute, https://billofrightsinstitute.org/essays/the-nullification-crisis ↑
U.S. Constitution – Article 1 Section 8, U.S. Constitution, https://usconstitution.net/xconst_A1Sec8.html ↑
Insurrection Act of 1807, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurrection_Act_of_1807 ↑
This is a sample of references to county militia:
Schenawolf, Harry, History of Early Colonial Militias in America, Revolutionary War Journal, January 9, 2015, http://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/militias-in-colonial-america/ ↑
Gage, General Thomas, Orders to Lieut. Colonel Smith, 10th Regiment ’Foot (April 18 1775), Teaching American History, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/orders-from-general-thomas-gage-to-lieut-colonel-smith-10th-regiment-foot/ ↑
U.S. Constitution – Article 1 Section 8 ↑
Kopel, David, Why the Anti‐Tyranny Case for the 2nd Amendment Shouldn’t Be Dismissed So Quickly, Cato Institute, August 22, 2016, https://www.cato.org/commentary/why-anti-tyranny-case-2nd-amendment-shouldnt-be-dismissed-so-quickly ↑
Madison, James, The Federalist Papers: No. 46, The Avalon Project of Yale Law School, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed46.asp ↑
Burkhead, David, “The Government has Cruise Missiles”, The Writer In Black, April 1, 2021, https://thewriterinblack.com/2021/04/01/the-government-has-cruise-missiles/ ↑
Spanish Civil War, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Civil_War ↑
Jacobs, Sam, Battle of Athens: The Forgotten History of the Tennessee Rebellion Against Local Government, Ammo, https://ammo.com/articles/battle-of-athens-forgotten-history-tennessee-rebellion-against-local-government ↑
Martin, Lisa, Modern-Day Militias Rise in Virginia, The Crozet Gazette, October 2, 2020, https://www.crozetgazette.com/2020/10/02/modern-day-militias-rise-in-virginia/ ↑
Perry, Oliver, To Know Socialism is to Hate It ↑