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As emphatic as Romans 13:1 seems, Christians eventually learn to nuance various submission commands while still preserving space for lawful resistance to wrongful authority. Such perspective, including both assisting and sometimes resisting limits of authority, was a signature Reformation contribution. During a half-century period, the Reformers pioneered an interpretation that moved from William Tyndale’s 1521 opinion (“Rebellion causes more harm” than good) to the view that obedience to God must take precedence, even if such obediences requires disobedience to a governor who opposes God.

Such occasional resistance was the position held by John Calvin’s closest disciples, especially after the shocking attempted genocide of the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Their basis for resistance was Scripture itself, which depicts numerous examples of believers’ seeking to keep civil governments within their designed sphere, excluding rulers from becoming totalitarian.

The 1611 King James Bible sought to correct an earlier comment from the Geneva Bible that condoned occasional resistance. Regarding Israel’s midwives who wouldn’t murder Hebrew boys—because obeying God was more important than obeying Pharaoh—the explanatory note on Exodus 1:19 from that early Reformation study Bible said this: “Their disobedience her[e]in was lawful, but their dissembling evil.” Calvin himself characterized any obedience to Pharaoh’s murderous command as “preposterously unwise,” a detestable effrontery, and an ill-conceived attempt to “gratify the transitory kings of earth” while taking “no account of God.”

Other Hebrew prophets disobeyed wicked kings (1 Kings 22); righteous judges opposed unrighteous rulers. Moreover, Daniel refused to obey a ruler who sought to outlaw prayer. Calvin justified resisting laws criminalizing public prayer: “Daniel could not obey the edict without committing an atrocious insult against God and declining from piety.” Daniel, Calvin wrote, was not obligated to the Persian king who “claimed for himself as a god what ought not to be offered to him.”

The true Sovereign gives or permits humans—even very ungodly ones at times—to rule, but the King of kings also overrules.

Not only do these precedents appear in Scripture but also, early in the church’s history, Peter and John’s refusal in Acts 4–5 to obey when they were ordered not to preach Jesus in public discourse.

In 1554, the Reformer Heinrich Bullinger summarized:

The history of Daniel, and the express command of God, Matthew 10, and the examples of the Apostles in Acts 4 and 5, . . . teach us that we must not obey the king or magistrate when their commands are opposed to God and His lawful worship; but rather that we should expose our persons, and lives, and fortunes to danger.

The teaching was, thus, to submit to nontyrannical authorities. However, when tyranny grew or the governor usurped God’s place or some other divine duty, believers were not rebuked by God for prioritizing Him over rulers.

One may ask the question this way: Is unqualified submission an absolute norm? The Reformers re-exegeted the traditional interpretation on submission and developed the understanding to conclude something like this: Citizens, church members, and family members are all to submit to the authorities that God has established in the state, church, and home. However, if any of those leaders’ commands are contrary to the Lord (for example, a father ordering his daughter into sex-trafficking), those commands must be resisted.

This doctrine spread widely, and before the American Revolution, Jonathan Mayhew rocked the Colonies with his 1750 sermon “Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” which clearly addressed the question. Affirming limited submission was a respectful way of engaging civil governors, even if British royalty did not appreciate it.

In Acts 25, the Apostle Paul humbly appealed to Caesar when leaders sought to have him condemned. As a Roman citizen, he employed fair legal process; that extended appeal led him to the center of Roman civilization for his final missionary journey. He thus joined the good company of the Hebrew midwives, Daniel, Micaiah, Peter, John, and many who would follow later. Some are forced to apply these biblical precedents still.

Occasionally, we give resistance, as even the deist Thomas Jefferson recognized in his personal seal, echoing the Reformers: “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God.” Normally, however, we give governors our assistance by praying, paying, obeying, and honoring (Rom. 13:7).

When Jesus stood before Pilate, He rightly ordered these duties: His kingdom was not of this world. Human rulers such as Pilate have nothing except what is “given” to them (John 19:11). The true Sovereign gives or permits humans—even very ungodly ones at times—to rule, but the King of kings also overrules.

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From the September 2021 Issue
Sep 2021 Issue