CULTURE WATCH: Civil Disobedience (Part 3)

drawing  by Don Cannavaro

By Wendell Cantrell

(This is the third of four articles examining the Christian response to civil disobedience. Parts one and two can be read in the stories archive.)

A burning question for us is this—Has God set up an authority in the state that is autonomous from Himself? This leads quickly to a second question—Are we to obey the state no matter what?  As this series progresses, I hope you are beginning to question the wisdom of an affirmative answer to that question. In this issue, we will look at what is to be done when the state violates its legitimate function. Basically, the early Christians died because they wouldn’t obey the state in civil matters.1 When we read of these early believers being thrown to the lions, we most commonly think it was for religious reasons. In the eyes of Roman authorities, they were civil rebels. The Romans actually didn’t care what you believed, as long as you were also willing to worship Caesar as a sign of your loyalty to the state. Our forefathers believed, as should we, that there is a point where duty demands that we disobey the state. We will explore some early church history delving into the courageous actions of William Tyndale, John Bunyan, and John Knox during the 1500-1600s. We will close by looking at a classic work by Samuel Rutherford called Lex Rex (the Law is King).

During the Reformation age, there were Christian leaders who took the same stance as the early church in disobeying the state when its laws ran contrary to scriptural principles. In England, William Tyndale, the noted English Bible translator, disobeyed the King’s direct order to stop translating Scripture into the language of the people. Tyndale often worked in the middle of the night, in vacant buildings, away from the watchful eye of the King’s men, ready to flee when the authorities got close. He was willing to die, but like the apostle Paul, wanted to keep living while there was work to be done. After many years in exile, he was finally betrayed and executed.

John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, refused to obey the King’s order to stop preaching the gospel outside the established Church of England. He was arrested three times for preaching without a state license and for failing to attend the Church of England. He spent 12 years in an English jail, from which he wrote his most famous work, before becoming ill and dying at age 59. It seems that in every place where the Reformation was succeeding, there was some form of civil disobedience.

Another notable act of civil disobedience happened in Scotland. John Knox wrote an incendiary book called The Admonition to England. He argued that believers had the right and duty to disobey if the King’s rules were contrary to the Bible. He made the case that a king not complying with God’s laws is a tyrant and must be opposed. He is credited with saving Scotland from Romanism and Anglicanism. He also helped establish the Presbyterian Church as the dominant church in Scotland. Knox died quietly at home in 1572, but his legacy lived on. His book was an inspiration to the French Protestants called Huguenots. Their slogan was “No King but Jesus.” They went to battle with the Catholic King of France. This led to the slaughter of 50,000 of them by the Catholic army.

Another Scottish pastor, Samuel Rutherford, picked up Knox’s cause in the following generation. He also wrote a very influential book called Lex Rex in 1644. In this book, he boldly advocates for limited government and the restraint of monarchical power. His theory vindicates the rights of the people to stand against absolute monarchy. It remains one of the most comprehensive expressions of Calvinistic political theory. Rutherford was emphatic that scripture clearly demonstrated that there was no such thing as the “Divine Right of Kings” to do whatever they wanted. The law is king, not the other way around. If the king disobeys the law, his government is tyrannical, and the people have the right and duty to disobey. We must support civil authorities as such, until there are commands to do anything contrary to the Law of God. This theory was very influential among the American colonists, and was commonly used to justify the Declaration of Independence.

There was actually an intermediary between the colonists and Rutherford. According to Francis Schaeffer, John Locke secularized Rutherford’s arguments about the right to revolt against the tyrant. He made four basic points which will be familiar to you:

▪     Inalienable rights
▪     Government by consent
▪     Separation of powers
▪     The right to resist unlawful authority.

The appropriate type of resistance for the believer is the big question. The fallen world will always call for force. However, before using force of any kind, Schaeffer argues, there must be a seeking for legal action, peaceful protests, and non-violent resistance. It is possible that we may face a government action similar to England’s forbidding Bunyan’s preaching of the gospel. The most likely way we would see this manifested, in 21st century America, would be “hate speech laws” that forbid  biblical preaching against the sins of certain lifestyles.  Stay tuned next month as we look at issues we are facing currently in which each one of us must determine where to draw the line in the sand.


(1)  A Christian Manifesto by Francis Schaeffer

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