There’s great interest in the subject of Christian resistance against tyrants. It’s not a new consideration. The Reformers had a lot to say about the topic as well as their immediate heirs. John Calvin addressed the topic in his Institutes of the Christian Religion as did Theodore Beza in his The Rights of Magistrates (1574) where he contended that resistance to an established civil government functioning outside its civil jurisdiction was legitimate if a lesser magistrate led the charge. The 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre had a lot to do with ramping up arguments about Christian resistance to tyranny.
The development of a theology of the civil magistrate can be found in such works as Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi (1551), John Ponet’s A Short Treatise of Political Power, and Christopher Goodman’s How Scripture Powers Ought to be Obeyed of Their Subjects; and Wherein They May Lawfully by God’s Word be Disobeyed and Resisted (1558). Goodman was a contributor to the Geneva Bible (1560) an annotated translation that was hated by King James I because it limited the political prerogatives of rulers. “I think that of all [English Bibles],” King James stated, “that of Geneva is the worst.” The translation was not the problem since it was very similar to what became the 1611 King James Version. The Geneva Bible had notes that King James claimed were “very partial, untrue, seditious, and savoring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits…” including references to monarchs as “tyrants.”
In addition, there was George Buchanan’s De Jure Regni Apud Scotos, Or, A Dialogue concerning the Due Privilege of Government in the Kingdom of Scotland, etc. (1579) that asserted that the monarchy is limited in its civil powers. The Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1579) was very popular. The author of the Vindiciae argued for “limited government and individual submission” while also putting “the government in its place, lodging the head of state under the authority of the civil corporation.”
Let’s not forget John Knox’s Faithful Admonition (1554) to the Protestants who remained in England and Samuel Rutherford Lex, Rex, Or The Law And The Prince: A Dispute For The Just Prerogative Of King And People.
The issue of resistance to tyrants centuries ago is with us today. What’s the proper response? Some argue that no matter what the civil magistrate commands, Christians must obey. There are no exceptions.
Some who take this position appeal to Jeremiah 27 and 29. Jeremiah was told directly by God not to resist Nebuchadnezzar and his invading army. They were to submit to this divine punishment. It’s clear that what Jeremiah was told was not typical for the nation. This was a specific pronouncement by God about Israel’s rebellion and rejection of God’s commandments. The Bible makes it clear that Nebuchadnezzar was God’s human instrument in the judgment (Dan. 1:1–2). God describes him as “My servant” (Jer. 25:9; 27:6; 43:10).
Let’s compare the specific command given by God to Jeremiah and in the New Testament where Jesus predicts the judgment on first-century Israel with the destruction of the temple that was to take place before their generation passed away (Matt. 24:1–3). In the case of Jerusalem’s judgment, Jesus told those in Judea to “flee to the mountains” (24:16) to avoid judgment. Luke adds the following: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand” and then adds the same warning that Matthew records (Luke 21:20). In Jeremiah, the Jews are told not to escape but submit, but in the gospels, they are told not to submit but to flee. So what’s the proper response?
Bill Muehlenberg offers an answer:
[T]he specific, one-off commands given to Israel concerning full submission to Babylon as they destroy Jerusalem and the temple and take away many Israelites into captivity is not a generic template for all times and all places and all people. Just as God’s command to the Israelites much earlier on to take Canaan and engage in all-out holy warfare against the pagan peoples was a specific one-off command to Israel, and not a blanket order for everyone else, so too here. This command to go along with the Babylonians and not resist was a particular, specific order that was never meant to be regarded as some generic piece of advice for all believers everywhere.
If we were to follow the Romans 13 absolutists, how would we have dealt with the resistance movements against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis? Would it have been wrong to hide Jews from being rounded up by the Gestapo? Would it have been wrong to flee from Nazi-occupied territories? Once in a ghetto always in a ghetto? Was it wrong to escape from East Berlin? We don’t have a direct word from God like Jeremiah did. Muehlenberg makes this further point:
But today we do not have the same inerrant, inspired prophets as we did back then. The biblical canon is now closed. At best we can take the general principles of Scripture and seek to apply them to the events of the day. And bear in mind that during this whole period when Yahweh was speaking through his prophet Jeremiah, very specific and detailed instructions were given to the Israelite leaders. Consider what we find in Jer. 38:17–18 for example: “Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: If you will surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. But if you do not surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then this city shall be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape from their hand.’
So all these divinely inspired instructions were time- and location-specific for the ancient Israelites. It seems foolish to think they are some sort of over-arching, binding set of instructions for believers today.
The Romans 13 absolutist argument would have made the United States and its allies complicit in sinning against God by fighting against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Corrie ten Boom and her family would have been equally guilty in hiding Jews from the Nazis.
Thinking Straight in a Crooked World
The nursery rhyme ‘There Was a Crooked Man’ is an appropriate description of how sin affects us and our world. We live in a crooked world of ideas evaluated by crooked people. Left to our crooked nature, we can never fully understand what God has planned for us and His world. God has not left us without a corrective solution. He has given us a reliable reference point in the Bible so we can identify the crookedness and straighten it.