Following a recent post where I argued that we must use reason to confront progressives as they try to destroy or subvert society and culture I have been asked if I believe in civil disobedience. As a Christian it would seem clear that civil disobedience is built in to the DNA of the church.
We are told in Scripture that we should obey the state. Peter and Paul are in agreement on the requirement to ‘honour’ and to ‘submit’ to the state. However, we should note that this is because the state is an institution with its authority delegated by God. The state is not autonomous, there are no black holes in creation where the rule of God does not run.
The state has been given a role by God, it is to protect the good and to restrain evil. The state is to function as an agent of justice, when it performs this role it has legitimate authority, when it fails to perform this role it loses legitimate authority, it has usurped its authority.
When Jesus said that we must render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s He was not proposing a system of equal and competing authorities. The state is always subordinate to God. This raises the problem of what the Christian is to do when the state rejects its legitimate function.
The Church has always accepted the legitimacy of civil disobedience when the conditions necessitate it. When the early Christians were thrown to the lions or covered in pitch and used as street lights they were not being punished for a religious but for a civil, political offence. They were practicing civil disobedience. By refusing to burn a pinch of snuff to the false gods of Rome they were making a political statement, there was One who was higher than Rome.
Although one of the most successful of revolutionaries John Knox was no great theologian, his only real contribution of note to theological debate was his justification of rebellion against ungodly rulers. Note that Knox did not say that Christians had a right to rebel, this had been generally accepted in the Reformed faith. Wherever the Reformed faith was established there was some form of civil disobedience.
The advance Knox made was to maintain that Christians have a duty to rebel. Luther and Calvin had argued that rebellion against ungodly civil authorities could only be under the leadership of godly civil authorities. Knox maintained that the common people themselves had the right and duty of disobedience and even rebellion if the state ruled contrary to the teaching of Scripture.
In Lex Rex Samuel Rutherford argued that the law is above the king because it is founded on the Law of God. If the king disobeyed God’s law then the king was to be disobeyed. Rutherford argued that the civil authorities are fiduciary figures, that is they hold authority in trust for the people. If they violate that trust the people have a legitimate recourse to resistance.
Rebellion by Christians is never to be an initial recourse, we are not middle class student wannabes. Rebellion is justified only when the state acts in such a way that the fundamental structure of society is being destroyed. Rutherford argued that it was at the point when the state was deliberately attempting to destroy the relationship of the people with God that the magistrate is to be relieved of power and authority.
A single instance or even a series of actions by the state authorities which go against God’s law is not enough to justify rebellion. It can, however, justify civil disobedience. Rutherford suggested escalating levels of resistance for the private individual: 1) by self defence by protest or legal action; 2) by flight where possible; then only 3) by use of force in self defence.
In the West we are still at the first level. Unfortunately the great majority of Christians are not even taking those first steps. Until they have been tried and failed in when confronting issues of fundamental importance there can be recourse to any further action.
Reasoned argument, legal action and legitimate protest have to be tried, and tried thoroughly, before we can legitimately escalate to civil disobedience such as a refusal to pay taxes for abortion on demand. But it would be to reject the history of the church if we were to refuse to countenance civil disobedience.