God the Holy Spirit worked so powerfully among the apostles (Acts 5:12) that people came to think their ill would be healed if they were laid on cots so that the apostle Peter’s shadow fell on them (Acts 5:15). Through the apostles, God the Spirit even put to death two people who had lied to the Spirit (Acts 5:1–11). The Jewish religious authorities were “filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17) because of what the Spirit of the risen Christ was doing through the apostles. So, they arrested the apostles and imprisoned them (Acts 5:18); but the Lord sent an angel who released them and instructed them to “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life” (Acts 5:20). That is just what the apostles did. When the high priest and the council sent for Peter and the others to be brought to them from prison, their officials found only the prison locked and guards at the doors, but no one inside (Acts 5:21–24). Someone pointed out that the apostles were actually in the temple teaching the people (Acts 5:25). Eventually, somewhat delicately (by the standards of Roman soldiers), officers brought them before the council. The high priest was incensed: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name [Jesus], yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:25–28; ESV modified). The apostles responded this way:
We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him. (Acts 5:29–32)
This is perhaps the classic example of Christian civil disobedience—the peaceful refusal to obey a law that requires one to transgress the moral law of God. The principle expressed by the apostles is this: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The Roman empire was doing or permitting any number of things contrary to the Word of God; but according to the New Testament record, the apostles only applied that principle to the exercise of their ministry of the gospel. They only disobeyed the civil magistrate when the magistrate ordered them to stop teaching (or preaching) in the name of Jesus. That was a restriction they could not before God obey.
The apostles led no uprising. They conducted no campaign against Caesar or his subordinate governors or authorities in Judea. They simply refused to obey the order issued by the council. Further, they accepted the punishment imposed by the authorities and simply continued preaching when God supernaturally set them free from their imprisonment.
Calvin’s comments on this passage and a parallel in Acts 4:19 are instructive:
This is the main point of the defense, that men must, indeed, are bound to, put God before men. “God commands us to bear witness to Christ, therefore, it is in vain for you to order us to be silent.” But I have explained in chapter 4:19 when this sentence, “God must be obeyed, rather than men” is relevant. God sets men over us with power in such a way that he keeps his own authority unimpaired. Therefore, we must do the will of those who rule over us to the extent that the authority of God is not violated. When the use of power is legitimate, the comparison between God and man is inopportune. If a faithful pastor orders or forbids from the Word of God there will be no purpose in inflexible men objecting that God must be obeyed; God intends to be heard, by means of men; indeed, man is nothing else but an instrument of God. If a magistrate is carrying out his function properly, then anyone setting him in contrast with God will be inverting things, seeing that the magistrate is not out of step with God. Rather, the opposite rule will then hold good, in order to obey God we must submit to his ministers, just as happens in the case of parents and masters.
But as soon as governors lead us away from obedience to God, seeing that they enter into conflict with God, impiously and boldly, they must be put in their place, so that God and his authority may stand supreme. Then all the fumes of their offices will vanish. For God does not think man worthy of titles of honor in order that they may obscure his own glory. Therefore, if a father, who is not content with his own station, tries to take from God, the highest honor, as Father, then he is a man and nothing else. If a king, or a prince or a magistrate extols himself so much that he minimizes the honor and authority of God, he is nothing but a man.1
What did Calvin say on Acts 4:19? Again, the context places Peter and John before the authorities, who challenged and threatened them. Peter and John replied by saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you judge.”2 On this Calvin wrote,
Let us remember to whom they make this answer. For the council did undoubtedly represent the Church; yet, because they abuse their authority, the apostles, say that they are not to be obeyed. And, as often happens when there is no doubt about the case, they use the verdict to reprove their adversaries. Furthermore, it is worth noting that they set against their decrees the authority of God—which would be inappropriate were it not that those who, in other respects were ordinary pastors of the Church were at the same time enemies of God. The apostles further make clear that obedience offered to evil and unfaithful pastors, even though they exercise lawful authority in the church, is contrary to God.3
Here Calvin applied the same principle in an ecclesiastical context, which also occupied him as he read Acts 5:29. Under this verse, he turned his attention to the papacy and the abuse of the office of bishop perpetrated by the occupants of that office in Rome.
In both passages we see something of how Calvin understood the Christian’s duty under Christ’s “twofold kingdom.”4 The secular magistrate is ordained and established by God; yet his authority is not unbounded. Simultaneously, the Christian is free coram Deo but obligated to obey the magistrate (and other authorities established by God). For each, however, the law is outside of them (i.e., objective). The magistrate is not a law unto himself any more than a pastor (e.g., the Pope) is a law unto himself. Yet the Christian is not a law unto himself either. Calvin was hotly critical of the Anabaptist radicals and the antinomian Libertines for their over-realized eschatology, which fueled their program of throwing off external restraints.
With this context in mind let us turn to Article XVI on civil disobedience in the Statement:
WE AFFIRM that categorical opposition to civil disobedience is idolatry of the State. We affirm that civil disobedience is a proper Christian response to civil dictates which: (1) command what God forbids; (2) forbid what God commands; (3) overstep their jurisdiction; (4) bind the conscience where God alone has jurisdiction; or, (5) have no basis in rationality (a just law is always a rational law). We affirm that lesser magistrates may and sometimes must disobey a lawless higher magistrate to obey God. For example, lesser magistrates—such as State governments, counties, and municipalities—must disregard any order, statute, or ruling from a higher magistrate—such as the Federal government—instructing them to allow abortion. We affirm that civil disobedience, although sometimes necessary, is rarely the normative relationship between a citizen and their civil government.
We should agree with the Statement that civil disobedience is sometimes necessary, that there is a law to which both citizen and magistrate are bound and which is outside both of them; but it seems too much to call the rejection of civil disobedience “idolatry.” To be quite frank, I was surprised by this rhetoric. The rejection of civil disobedience is a mistake, it is shortsighted, it is wrongheaded, and it fails to grasp the objectivity of natural law—but idolatry? It is easy to imagine a well-intentioned Christian who has not put the state ahead of God, who believes that it is the revealed will of God not to resist the magistrate ever. Not every theological mistake is idolatry. This is the sort of rhetoric that one might expect from R. J. Rushdoony.5
The Statement asserts five cases in which civil disobedience is justified:
- civil dictates that command what God forbids
- civil dictates that forbid what God commands
- civil dictates that overstep their jurisdiction
- civil dictates that bind the conscience where God alone has jurisdiction
- civil dictates that have no basis in rationality
Number one reflects the approach taken by the apostles and advocated by Calvin and his orthodox successors. The rest become increasingly problematic. For example, God commands Christians to gather for public worship. Were Christians required to disobey the public health rule closing all public gatherings for two weeks “to stop the spread” of the Coronavirus? Is the command to gather for public worship unconditional? May the state not restrict someone with an active case of leprosy from attending public gatherings (even worship)? Number three is even more tenuous. Someone has to judge when the magistrate has overstepped his jurisdiction; but that is, to a certain degree, a subjective judgment on which reasonable and well-intentioned people may disagree. Is there a universal standard known to all reasonable persons as to what, in every case, is the jurisdiction of the magistrate? Americans have a written constitution with amendments that give examples of the way that the magistrate is supposed to protect the God-given, natural liberties of citizens. The United Kingdom has no written constitution. Their idea of civil liberties is rather fluid. I prefer the American system to the British, but does the Statement require Christians (on pain of becoming an idolater) to resist recent British restrictions on free speech? Number four is likewise fraught with difficulties. In principle, insofar as it is simply a correlate to number one, it is unobjectionable in theory; but again, someone must determine where the magistrate’s jurisdiction ends and God’s, as it were, begins. Here, natural law, which the Statement has affirmed, helps us; but as it stands could this proposed axiom become a charter for chaos and the sort of Libertinism (which is what Calvin would consider Libertarianism) Calvin opposed?
Contrast Calvin’s language to that of the Statement:
The first duty of subjects toward their magistrates is to think most honorably of their office, which they recognize as a jurisdiction bestowed by God, and on that account to esteem and reverence them as ministers and representatives of God. For you may find some who very respectfully yield themselves to their magistrates and desire somebody whom they can obey, because they know that such is expedient for public welfare; nevertheless, they regard magistrates only as a kind of necessary evil. But Peter requires something more of us when he commands that the king be honored (1 Pet 2:17); as does Solomon when he teaches that God and king are to be feared (Prov 24:21). For Peter, in the word “to honor” includes a sincere and candid opinion of the king. Solomon, yoking the king with God, shows that the king is full of a holy reverence and dignity. There is also that famous saying in Paul: that we should obey “not only because of wrath, but because of conscience” (Rom 13:5, cf. Vg.). By this he means that subjects should be led not by fear alone of princes and rulers to remain in subjection under them (as they commonly yield to an armed enemy who sees that vengeance is promptly taken if they resist), but because they are showing obedience to God himself when they give it to them; since the rulers’ power is from God.6
In the very next section of the Institutes, Calvin sounds a note that is absent from the Statement:
From this also something else follows: that, with hearts inclined to reverence their rulers, the subjects should prove their obedience toward them, whether by obeying their proclamations, or by paying taxes, or by undertaking public offices and burdens which pertain to the common defense, or by executing any other commands of theirs. “Let every soul,” says Paul, “be subject to the higher powers. . . . For he who resists authority, resists what God has ordained” (Rom 13:1–2, Vg.). “Remind them,” he writes to Titus, “to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1, cf. Vg.). And Peter says, “Be subject to every human creature45x (or rather, as I translate it, ordinance) for the Lord’s sake, whether it be to the king, as supreme, or unto governors who are sent through him to punish evildoers, but to praise doers of good” (1 Pet 2:13–14).7
The fifth is the most difficult to accept without serious qualification. Rationality exists and laws must be rational, but the early Christians quietly and patiently submitted to patently irrational Roman “civil dictates.” In our time, magistrates regularly seek to impose irrational “civil dictates,” but the wiser and far less revolutionary approach to such is to make use of the avenues of redress (e.g., the legislature) and complaint (e.g., the court) rather than to declare laws willy-nilly “irrational” and disobey them. By the time we arrive at the axiom (to paraphrase) that “we must disobey irrational laws,” we have traveled some distance from the apostolic principle that “we must obey God rather than men.” Jesus, God the Son incarnate, had explicitly commanded his disciples, the apostles, to make disciples and to preach the Word and to administer the sacraments in his name. By ordering Christians to cease speaking in the name of Christ, the council was directly ordering the apostles to disobey God. A “civil dictate”—itself a rather vague category—that one finds irrational is not quite the same thing.
In contrast to the Statement, Calvin even taught that citizens ought to leave governance in the hands of the magistrate and, more or less, stay out of it.8 He went on to counsel that Christians are called to obey not only just magistrates but also unjust (i.e., those who violate the spirit of at least four of the five rules proposed by the Statement). According to Calvin, the Christian is to submit even to the unjust ruler, in whom it is impossible to find a trace of the true shepherd of a people, in whom we cannot see the sort of dignity we expect in a ruler.9 Such rulers are a judgment upon the people.10
The Statement seeks to articulate a version of the doctrine of lesser magistrates. Calvin taught a doctrine of resistance to tyranny by lesser magistrates. He only gave a few examples of the sorts of lesser magistrates he had in mind: the ephors who were “set against the Spartan kings,” or the “tribunes of the people against the Roman consuls, or the demarchs against the senate of the Athenians.”11 In ancient Sparta, an ephor was one of five senior Spartan magistrates.12 The Roman tribunes were an equally small number (about ten) of freeborn plebeians, who represented and protected the liberties of other plebeians.13 Calvin also referred to the “three estates.” If the reference was to France, then he was invoking the clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie.14
Calvin did not mention them, but the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire would qualify as an equally small, elite counterbalance to imperial tyranny. Arguably, the Continental Congress, which licensed the American Revolution, was this sort of body. The balance to be struck is between the role of a relatively limited group of lesser magistrates (in contrast to populism) and a widespread resistance by any and all subordinate office holders so as to become a de facto popular revolt.15
WE DENY that men’s consciences, homes, churches, or states are bound by legal or moral inventions of men apart from the Word of God. We further deny that civil authorities have the right to coerce or command obedience to the dictates of men apart from God’s Word. Moreover, we deny the authority of rulers to squelch civil disobedience if the free and necessary worship of and obedience to the Triune God is being hindered.
In the denials we run into some significant unresolved tensions with other parts of the Statement. They assert the liberty of human consciences, but the standard is not the universal natural law invoked by the American founders—“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . .” Rather, they propose to make “the Word of God” the Standard.
Again, the Roman Empire did not consult holy Scripture when the Senate or Emperor issued “civil dictates.” Yet, as we have seen in previous installments, Christians were instructed by the apostles to obey the magistrate insofar as the magistrate did not require disobedience to the moral law of God. The phrase, “apart from the Word of God,” is vague. In what way does the Word of God norm secular civil life? Are the Mosaic judicial laws the standard to which secular magistrates are bound?
It seems fairly clear in the denials that the framers of the Statement are reacting to the Covid restrictions. We could agree that some, perhaps many, of the restrictions were unreasonable and even draconian (e.g., the restrictions on outdoor activities in sunny Southern California). In this space, we covered the various ways in which religious liberty was infringed by the Covid regime.16 Those restrictions were largely overturned by the courts.
The Statement closes with an affirmation that civil disobedience is the exception rather than the norm. Rhetorically, like a March in Nebraska, it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. The framers ought to consider omitting the opening salvo in favor of the final line of the article.
- John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles, trans. John W. Fraser and W. J. G McDonald, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 146–47. Emphasis added.
- My translation.
- Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles, 120.
- See more on this in Calvin’s Institutes, 3.19.15, quoted in RSC, “Calvin On The Twofold Kingdom.”
- I was not able to trace this language back to Rushdoony. If the gentle reader knows of another source of this language, I would be glad to know it.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4.220.22.
- Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.23.
- Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.23.
- Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.24, 26–28.
- Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.25.
- Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.32.
- Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Lexicon Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: At The Clarendon Press, 1982), s.v., εφορος, “An overseer, a guardian, a ruler.”
- M. C. Howatson, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), s.v., “Tribune.”
- The Oxford English Dictionary s.v., “estates” says, “In France the three estates were 1. Clergy; 2. Nobles; 3. Townsmen.”
- In the American federal system, state governments have constitutional authority to resist federal lawlessness under the tenth amendment, and it may be that counties might deliberate and refuse to enforce a state law they judge to be unconstitutional.
- See RSC, “Resources On Covid And Religious Liberty.”
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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