The Right to Resist Evil Leaders—The Christian History
Do Americans have a right to oppose unjust authority? Given our history, this right goes without saying. You see, our country was founded by men resisting the unjust rule of Great Britain. More precisely, in one of history’s most famous recitations of the Right of Resistance, the American Declaration of Independence itself says,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
And yet, to many American Christians, part of the de facto religious majority—a straightforward reading of the Bible might suggest there can be no opposition to the established authority. In other words, true Believers are simply commanded to suffer wrongdoing in silence, and any evil will be judged later by God. Yet, were this true, even if a Hitler arose in America, there could be no Christian resistance. Further, had this been true during the American Revolution, the Founders would have been the evil-doers, while mad King George III would have been the more correct. Does the American church really embrace this position?
It is the simple and straightforward opinion of many sincere Christians that God commands passive obedience to all authority. This would be based upon such passages as Romans 13:1-7:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
But, if so—Americans could never stand against the evil misuse of authority in the States. But how can this possibly be accurate in a world where evil flourishes when not confronted? So, obviously this notion of good Christians simply taking abuse in resigned silence, no matter how bad the ruler, must be wrong.
But how did our intrepid forebears, being sincere and highly educated Christians, mount and justify revolutionary activities? By taking a deeper and more exhaustive examination of Scripture, as well as using history and common sense as their guides. In doing so, they created the biblical doctrine of Resistance Theory.
The foundations of Resistance Theory were laid during the Reformation (1517-1648). Of course, since time immemorial there have been sentiments to push-back against tyrants. For example, Julius Caesar was killed by members of the Roman senate for creating a tyranny, as immortalized in Shakespeare’s famous play. Such anger towards tyrants is caused because of the incredible destruction such regimes create, and their war against liberty. For example, while Julius’ adopted son, the Emperor Caesar Augustus oversaw one of history’s most peaceful reigns, later emperors were often ineffective, depraved, perverted and even mentally deranged.
The American Founders employed Calvinist Resistance Theory, although this was not ultimately derived from John Calvin, but Martin Luther, according to Quentin Skinner inThe Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 2: The Age of Reformation. Originally, after the Reformation split, the Lutherans were content to simply work with the amenable Catholic German authorities. But around 1530, when these same Catholics suddenly decided to compel the Lutherans to rejoin the Church, Luther and the other leaders were in a quandary. So, they began to debate amongst themselves about their options.
Two theories emerged from these Lutheran discussions on how to resist evil rule. The first was a “private-law” argument based on the theory that everyone has a right to defend themselves against the menacing actions of other private citizens. Ingeniously, they claimed the bad ruler lowered himself to the level of a private citizen by doing evil acts. In doing this, they echoed the Conciliar Theory of the Catholics during the crisis of the Great Schism.
The second theory was a constitutional argument. Here, they argued that the seeming prohibition against resisting God-appointed authorities was countered by the fact that God does not call leaders to do bad acts. If “leaders” regularly do bad things, harming the state and the populace, this simply reveals that these are not men God has called to lead. Further, the term “authority” itself is not singular, but is composed of all the established magistrates. And therefore, to resist one does not mean to reject all authority, for a lesser magistrate can resist an evil, higher leader.
Magdburg is a small, ancient German city, over 1,200 years old, originally founded by Charlemagne. The Magdeburg Confession was a response to royal tyranny, and is considered the foundational document related to the Right of Resistance. It’s story emerged in the aftermath of Luther’s decision to leave the Catholic Church and start the Lutheran Church.
The Reformer’s theories on resistance were soon tested when German king Charles V demanded all Lutheran cities, including the Saxon town of Magdeburg, return to the Holy Roman Church in 1546, in the document called the Augsburg Interim. Magdeburg was a small town with a history of independent thinking and resiting tyranny. The Magdeburg Confession is similar to Luther’s Warning to His Dear German People, based upon his two-kingdom argument, which similarly prepared the Protestants of a coming religious war. The ministers published their Confession and Defense of the Pastors and Other Ministers of the Church of Magdeburg in April, 1550.
According to David M. Whitford in Tyranny and Resistance: The Magdeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition, the Magdeburg siege was a political and religious blunder for Charles V, as it caused the Protestant movement to gain sympathy and supporters. Further, it was a failure as a means of staunching anti-Catholic sentiments or political movements.
The Magdeburg Confession begins with these words:
If the high authority does not refrain from persecuting with force and injustice not only the persons of their subjects, but even more their rights under Divine and Natural Law, and if the high authority does not desist from suspending or eradicating true doctrine and true worship of God, then the lesser magistracy is required by God’s divine injunction to attempt, together with their subjects, to stand up, as far as possible, to such superiors.
The work of the Confession was authored by a number of resistant ministers. Writes Whitford,
...the pastors underlined a fundamental doctrine that supported their work: They referred, though not by name, to Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. Their readers were to resist the current persecution, “each one in accordance with his calling and his ability.” The implication, to be repeated again and again in the body of the work, is that persons ought to work in their areas of competence and calling; lesser magistrates must resist, and pastors must admonish and preach.
The Confession is a complex document, which deals with the two-kingdoms of religious and secular authority. Matthew J. Trewhella, in The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates: A Proper Resistance to Tyranny and a Repudiation of Unlimited Obedience to Civil Government, explains the Magdeburg doctrine:
In their arguments, the pastors declare the idea of unlimited obedience to the State as ” an invention of the devil. ” They rightly assert that all authority is delegated from God. Therefore, if the one in authority makes commands contrary to the law or Word of God, those subject to his authority have both a right not to obey, and a duty to actively resist…no one in authority holds his authority autonomously. Rather it is delegated to them from God. If the authority therefore makes law which contravenes the law of God, those subject to their authority can refuse obedience because, as the pastors write, “divine laws necessarily trump human ones.”
The teaching here was that it was no rejection of the biblical doctrine of obeying authority, if lesser authorities—or “magistrates”—were encouraged to resist the bad deeds of higher rulers.
The Reformers, in their desire to be biblical, and yet still preserve their lives and movement, developed a nuanced definition of “authority.” In their theory, when the Bible described “authority,” the writers countenanced the entire gamut of various authorities in a society. The lesser posts were referred to as “magistracies.” So, for example—in ancient Rome, where there was either a consul in the Republic, or a later Emperor, their would be various lesser officials, or magistrates, such as aediles,praetors, or prefects. Or, consider in modern American, the many lesser magistracies, such as US and state senators and likewise congressmen, etc.
Trewhella here defines lesser magistrates:
The Magdeburg Confession is an important historical work because the pastors of Magdeburg were the first in the history of mankind to set forth in a doctrinal format what only later came to be known as the doctrine of the lesser magistrates…The lesser magistrate doctrine declares that when the superior or higher civil authority makes unjust/ immoral laws or decrees, the lesser or lower ranking civil authority has both a right and duty to refuse obedience to that superior authority. If necessary, the lesser authorities even have the right and obligation to actively resist the superior authority.
To the pastors of Magdeburg, all magistrates, higher and lower, possess delegated authority from God. Therefore, the lesser magistrates have a right and duty to oppose the superior magistrate-turned-tyrant when he makes laws contrary to the law and Word of God. This responsibility is both positive and negative. In other words, a magistrate has a duty to disobey the evil commands of a bad ruler, and help protect the at-risk subjects of the realm. But if the lesser magistrate does not resist, he himself becomes an instrument in the hand of the evil ruler, and therefore subject to the judgment and wrath of God.
The argument of the Madgeburg pastors was simple, yet revolutionary. If God creates all authority, from greater to lesser magistrates, then all authorities answer to him. Further, since God does not directly call anyone to do evil things, and therefore break his law, a bad ruler becomes just a simple private citizen.
And if a bad leader begins to oppress the people and do ungodly and monstrous deeds, it is up to the lesser magistrates to do what they can to resist and protect their people. In doing this, the magistrates are not acting illegally, but fulfilling God’s higher law by acting in love in the face of hate. Further, the fact that the lesser magistrates have the duty to resist evil, means that the private citizens would not have the right to revolt. This would keep the entire society from erupting into chaos and anarchy, a position the Lutherans worked hard to avoid in their theory.
We will examine next week how the Calvinists evolved the Lutheran argument, and upped the ante, making possible the American Revolution.