How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 9

MLK_mugshot_birminghamThe last several articles in this series have dealt with Protestant Resistance Theory, which deals with the questions of when does a legitimate king turn into an illegitimate tyrant, and under what circumstances are we justified in actively resisting government. But active resistance and overthrowing governments are not the only options available for resisting unjust laws and violations of human rights. From the earliest centuries of the Christian era, believers have engaged in passive resistance as an appropriate response to unjust government.

Passive resistance is nonviolent resistance to the government. It can take many forms, such as fasting, peaceful protest, refusal to cooperate with the government, or refusing to obey laws. For Christians, the foundation of passive resistance is found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells us that those who are persecuted are blessed, and instructs us not to “resist” (in context, fight back against) those who abuse us (Matt. 5:10-12; 38-41).

The early church consistently followed a course of passive resistance in their response to a corrupt, unjust government. We see this first when governing authorities tried to use their power to silence the proclamation of the Gospel in the Acts of the Apostles. When Peter and the apostles were told by the Sanhedrin not to preach, they replied, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:27) Paul regularly accepted beatings for preaching the Gospel, though when arrested in Jerusalem as a result of a misunderstanding, he did appeal to his Roman citizenship to avoid being flogged (Acts 22:25-29).

Part of the reason for the opposition to the apostles’ preaching is that the Gospel is inescapably political: The proclamation “Jesus is Lord” means that Caesar is not. Supreme authority rests only on Jesus, not the state, and this is an idea that totalitarian governments cannot tolerate. The first systematic persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire occurred primarily because Christians refused to burn incense to the statue of the Emperor as a way of demonstrating their allegiance to the state. To Christians, because burning incense is a religious act, to do so would have been idolatrous.

In the examples from the Book of Acts, the state was demanding Christians commit a sin of omission—not proclaiming the Gospel as Jesus commanded them. These later persecutions involved refusing a sin of commission—doing something God expressly forbade. In both cases, the response was simple: Jesus’ authority was higher than any state or religious body, and thus it was only right to obey Him and to accept the consequences. And so the apostles were beaten and eventually martyred in ugly and brutal ways, along with many of their fellow believers.

A group of early Christian writers known as the Apologists wrote defenses of Christianity in an attempt to convince the state that they were not a threat. The goal was both to make Christianity more acceptable within the Empire and also to bring an end to the persecutions. The one thing no early Christian writer did was to call Christians to use force to defend themselves or to overthrow the government. Although the early Christians were not complete pacifists—Christians served in the Roman army—Jesus’ ethic of non-violence and non-retaliation governed the early Christians’ response to persecution.

Once Christianity was legalized, the persecutions stopped, at least in territories controlled by Rome. From this point, Christians were involved in making and enforcing law. Unjust laws and a lack of equity continued to be problems, of course, and throughout the Middle Ages there were a variety of responses to them. Sometimes the church intervened to try to correct the problem, though sometimes the church was the problem. At other times there were interventions from the nobles and church leaders (e.g. the Magna Carta); sometimes, the response was violent insurrection (e.g. the Jacquerie in France or the Ciompi Revolt in Florence). Nonetheless, passive resistance, particularly in the form of protests and petitions to the government, was probably the most common response to unjust laws.

Resistance to governmental authority became a major issue during the Reformation, in large part because Catholic authorities wanted to suppress Protestantism, and Protestant states wanted to suppress other versions of Protestantism in their territories. As we have seen, Luther initially advocated passive resistance to imperial decrees, until he was convinced of the legality of resistance within the context of the Holy Roman Empire. Various other people and groups resorted to violent revolution, notably including spiritualists such as Thomas Müntzer, leader of the Peasant War, and the radical Anabaptists in the city of Münster.

The last of these was particularly important. Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest turned Anabaptist, was horrified at the violence and death in Münster; in fact, he lost relatives there. As a result, he became a radical pacifist, and the Anabaptist churches that followed him (the Mennonites and Amish) have maintained their pacifist stance to this day. Other churches, such as the Quakers, adopted pacifist views as well.

Passive resistance began to turn into civil disobedience in the 19th century. Although the two terms are sometimes used nearly interchangeably, civil disobedience is a narrower term in many ways: It denotes breaking the law with the goal of effecting legal, social, or political change, and doing so while accepting the full consequences of your actions. Thus your actions may result in fines or imprisonment, which you accept as the consequence of your violation of the law and as a means of putting pressure on the powers that be to change the injustices you are protesting.

Civil disobedience was discussed in an essay by Henry David Thoreau in 1849. Its most famous advocate in the 20th century was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s ideas, which were inspired in part by the Sermon on the Mount, involved nonviolent resistance to British colonial rule in India. Gandhi led a variety of forms of protest against the British and spent a great deal of time in prison as a result. His efforts, however, eventually put enough pressure on the British that they were forced to grant India its independence.

In America, civil disobedience is closely associated with Martin Luther King Jr. King was inspired in part by Gandhi to promote nonviolent resistance to segregation and racism in America. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a powerful statement of many of his core principles. In the letter, King defends nonviolent protests, even when they break the law, as better than the alternative: rioting and a de facto race war, which he saw as inevitable if the aspirations of the black community for justice were not met.

When challenged about why he supported the Supreme Court’s decision on desegregation (and thus rule of law) on one hand, but advocated breaking the law on the other, King replied:

The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

King’s reasoning here derives from the Christian tradition anchored in natural law. Although the language is different, the argument provides some of the theological roots for the concept of unalienable rights and the limitations on what government may legitimately do.

In the Christian tradition, there are thus two models for responding to government assaults on our rights or on our persons: passive resistance and civil disobedience, or taking up arms under the direction (usually) of the lesser magistrates and actively resisting or even changing the government. Both have important supporters among Christian thinkers. So how do we determine when we should use one and when the other? This will be the topic of the next article in the series.

Image by Birmingham AL police dept (Life time: NA) -- Original publication: ciculated to news media in April 1963. Immediate source:, PD-US,



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