How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 11

BonhoefferIn the previous article, we examined the question of how Christians should respond to unjust laws and regulations from the government. The first option in a republic is political engagement: to work within the system to prevent injustice and to correct it if or when it occurs.

Our Second Option: Civil Disobedience

What happens if political engagement fails or if we are cut off from the political process by, for example, a Supreme Court decision that makes legislation impossible? Leaving aside the questionable claims of supporters of state nullification, the next step is passive resistance. Put simply, we answer to God first (as does the government), and if or when the government demands that we obey it rather than God, it is our responsibility to disobey and to accept the consequences. This includes being driven out of business, bankruptcy, fines, or imprisonment.

The obvious fault lines currently concern so-called same sex marriage, with other LGBTQIA issues not far behind. Those of us not who are not directly affected by government coercion in the marriage industry have a moral obligation to support those who are. We need to follow the example of Christians in earlier centuries who took care of those persecuted for their stand for Christ. (And yes, what the government is doing qualifies as persecution.)  That means we should be developing mechanisms to help pay fines and to meet the needs of those penalized for refusing to compromise the biblical vision of marriage and to be prepared to advocate in any way we can on their behalf.

Passive resistance may not change anything in law or culture, though if done on a large enough scale it might. It only works when the opposition is honorable; against ruthless, implacable foes, it is unlikely to result in significant change. What do we do then?

The Final Option

There are some, but very few, situations in which active resistance to government is justifiable. Given the response of the Apostles and the early church to Roman persecution, the justifications found in social contract theory and Protestant resistance theory would seem to be far too broad: persecution did not lead to revolt, nor did the threat to exterminate the church. In the first instance, the Apostles and martyrs willingly went to death for their faith; in the second, even the deliberate attempt to destroy Christianity completely was not met with resistance. Evidently, the early Christians trusted that God Himself would protect the Church, and that He would be their vindication in life or in death.

Historically, from the perspective of this world, this can end badly. Prior to the rise of Islam, Christianity had travelled from the Middle East to China, and there were important Christian communities scattered throughout Central Asia. The conversion of Mongol Khans to Islam in most of Central Asia and to a fanatical form of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia itself in the 14th through 16th centuries resulted in the extermination of Christianity throughout the region. To this day, it is one of the hardest regions to reach with the Gospel. And yet God allowed it to happen.

If we accept that God is the Lord of history, we must recognize this as an expression of His sovereign will. But at the same time, we have a responsibility to try to prevent this kind of thing from happening. After all, the Book of Judges is in the Bible for a reason.

In extreme situations, active resistance against government can be justified based on the unalienable right to life, which implies the right to self-defense. If our lives are threatened, self-defense, even homicidal self-defense, is justifiable if no other options are available. It is not mandatory that we fight back in these situations—after all, the early Christians did not—but given the right to life, it can be an acceptable option. This is particularly true if we are fighting to protect the life of our neighbor as an expression of the Law of Love.

To be legitimate, active resistance requires two basic conditions. First, the government’s action must be sufficiently egregious that it demands remedy. Not all violations of unalienable rights meet this qualification. In general, the stakes must be higher than our personal lives or even persecution of the church, judging from the example of Jesus and the early Church. For example, genocide or widespread, systematic violations of human rights would qualify.

Second, all remedies short of violence must be tried and exhausted before moving to violent resistance or revolution. Only when these two conditions are met can active resistance be justified.

An outstanding example of an appropriate use of direct resistance against tyrannical government is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who worked as a spy against the Nazis and was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer knew that killing Hitler would be murder and thus a sin, but his understanding of grace told him that God would forgive this act, and that to allow Nazi atrocities to continue would be a far greater sin. It was a difficult decision and required a great deal of soul searching, but ultimately Bonhoeffer decided it was the best bad choice available.


While there are many other important figures in church history that have played important roles in the development of a biblical understanding of government—for example, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was a principal architect of the Magna Carta—these articles have focused particularly on the Augustinian idea of human government as part of the City of Man, an institution inevitably bent on increasing its own power and on self-aggrandizement, and prone to corruption and injustice. This is a reminder to us not to put our trust in princes, because even the best-intentioned of them will fail us in the end (Ps. 146:3-4).

Because of this pessimistic view of government, Christianity played an important role in the development of the Western political tradition. Both the idea of limited government and systems of checks and balances come from the recognition that while government is essential in a fallen world, it cannot be trusted. This realization led to the development of Protestant resistance theory as well as Calvinist social contract theory as attempts to understand government’s rights and responsibilities to the people before God, and what to do if it oversteps those boundaries. While the political theorists who grappled with those questions may not have gotten the answers completely right, they thought them through in ways that have shaped the best of the Western political tradition to this day.

This series and the Augustinian ideas that are at its root should also remind us that while politics is important, it is not what is ultimately important. We may be dual citizens, but our primary loyalty and citizenship is in heaven. Our hope is in God, not government. As Chuck Colson was fond of saying, the Kingdom of God will not arrive on Air Force One. With all the conflict surrounding the presidential election, it is critically important for us to remember this.

Our help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. (Ps. 121, cf. Ps. 125)

Image courtesy of Goodreads.



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