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Resisting the Powers That Be

How Protestants Developed a Resistance Theory

“Whenever a superior magistrate persecutes his subjects, then, by the law of nature, by divine law, and by the true religion and worship of God, the inferior magistrate ought by God’s mandate to resist him.”

So wrote the Lutheran ministers of the German city of Magdeburg in 1550, as the armies of the Catholic Emperor Charles V descended on their city. Summoned by this document to resistance, the citizens of Magdeburg held out courageously against the imperial troops until the other Lutheran princes, who had at first meekly submitted to the Emperor’s effort to re-impose Catholic worship, took up arms in 1552 to defend their lands and their faith. The result was the extraordinary Peace of Augsburg in 1555, by which the Protestant territories of Germany won the legal freedom to establish their churches, free from papal or imperial persecution.

The Magdeburg Confession turned out to be more than a mere turning point of the Reformation; it was also a turning point in Christian political thought: the first systematic expression of a Protestant theory of resistance to unjust political rule. Today, as Christians wrestle anew with the challenge of how to respond to unjust rulers who might threaten our freedom of worship, we must return to our roots for lessons on faithful citizenship and faithful resistance.

Legitimate Exceptions to Romans 13

The Emperor’s war against the Lutheran princes put the first Protestant reformers in a difficult bind. From the outset of the Reformation, Luther and his associates had fiercely proclaimed the Christian’s obligation to “be subject to the governing authorities,” asserting, with Saint Paul, that “the powers that be are ordained by God” and “those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1-2).

This stark emphasis on Romans 13 was no coincidence. The Reformation had as much to do with political theology as with the doctrines of salvation. After centuries in which popes had claimed supreme political authority, and the right to tell Christians when to rebel against their rulers, the Reformers were eager to reassert the integrity of temporal government and the God-given authority of lay Christian rulers. Many of these rulers, in turn, were quick to support the Reformers and offer their fledgling churches protection against persecuting churchmen. When Anabaptist radicals began to proclaim a Christian freedom from all earthly authority, the magisterial Reformers doubled down on the necessity of civil government and Christian obedience.

The Reformation had as much to do with political theology as with the doctrines of salvation.

It wasn’t long, though, before this stand began to create problems for the Reformation. Not all the civil authorities were so quick to support the new faith; some, indeed, were more than happy to do the Pope’s bidding, seeking to stamp it out by force. First in Germany, and then soon in England, France, and the Netherlands, budding Protestant churches had to face fierce Roman Catholic persecutions from the very civil authorities that they had extolled as “the ministers of God.”

Could there be, they wondered, legitimate exceptions to Romans 13—times when a Christian should not be subject to the governing authorities? Obviously Christians “must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), so no one doubted that a Protestant could, for instance, disobey a direct order to attend Mass. But must he meekly accept death as the penalty? Or could he fight back against the persecutors?

Varieties of Resistance Theory

Three main varieties of resistance theory began to emerge within the middle decades of the 16th century to meet this challenge.

The first, based on divine law (that is, special revelation) argued that as in ancient Israel, a ruler who promoted idolatry incurred God’s judgment and not only could but must be resisted and perhaps deposed, as Jehu deposed the house of Ahab.

The second, based on natural law, argued from the basic right of self-defense and the duty of government to uphold the welfare of the people. If a ruler overreached his office, effectively making war on his own subjects, they could treat him like any other aggressor, and fight back in self-defense.

Finally, the third, based on human law, argued that there were after all more than one power “instituted by God” in any given polity. In the Holy Roman Empire, for instance, the various territorial princes shared with the Emperor the responsibility of rule, and had a legal right to oppose him if he illegally made war upon them or their subjects.

The first of these arguments, particularly associated with the fiery Scotsman John Knox, was the most radical but also the most doubtful. If true, it seemed to authorize any faithful Christian to take up arms against a Roman Catholic ruler, not only in self-defense but in a holy war of judgment. But could anyone really claim such a right without direct divine authorization, such as Jehu had received?

Most Protestants doubted the wisdom or usefulness of this argument, and wisely so—a string of Roman Catholic radicals were to use just this reasoning to justify their own assassination attempts (several of them successful) on rulers who supported or even tolerated Protestantism.

The second argument was also fairly radical in its implications, since it seemed to authorize resistance from every private citizen—a dangerous recipe for anarchy in an age of widespread unrest and weak or non-existent police forces. But it was generally limited in application to purely defensive ends. That is, if a corrupt magistrate made war on his own people, they could fight back in self-protection, but once he desisted, they must go back to their habits of obedience; they could not take the initiative to depose him, nor could they stop obeying any of his reasonable commands.

The third argument was the most conservative, but also the most pregnant with possibility. By vesting a right and even a duty of resistance in the whole body of civil authorities, it proposed a robust mechanism of self-correction within every government. If one ruler—even the highest authority—stepped beyond the legal limits of his office, then his associates and subordinates could refuse to follow his orders, and in some cases actively resist him. Indeed, if he persisted in tyranny, they might even be legally justified in seeking to remove him altogether from office.

Calvin, ‘Ephors’, and the Rise of Constitutionalism

It was this argument, which focused on the rights and duties of “the lesser magistrate,” that the Magdeburg Confession elaborated, and that John Calvin himself was to influentially gesture towards in the closing pages of his Institutes:

For when popular magistrates have been appointed to curb the tyranny of kings (as the Ephori, who were opposed to kings among the Spartans), so far am I from forbidding these officially to check the undue license of kings, that if they connive at kings when they tyrannise and insult over the humbler of the people, I affirm that their dissimulation is not free from nefarious perfidy, because they fraudulently betray the liberty of the people, while knowing that, by the ordinance of God, they are its appointed guardians. (Institutes IV.20.31)

Whereas Calvin had tentatively declared only that some governments were blessed with such “ephors,” the Dutch Calvinist Johannes Althusius influentially argued in 1611 that they were a constitutive part of any well-ordered government, as the representatives of the people. As such, they had the duty to “contain him [the king or supreme magistrate] within the limits and bounds of his office, and serve as custodians, defenders, and vindicators of liberty and other rights that the people has not transferred to the supreme magistrate, but reserved to itself” (Politica XVIII.63).

This was in effect to lay the foundations for a new kind of politics, constitutionalism: the doctrine that government was not a top-down hierarchy of supreme and irresistible command, but a structure of interlocking authorities governed by the rule of law, responsible for checking one another’s power when one overstepped. Such constitutional government took root and flourished in the Protestant nations of northern Europe and later North America over the following centuries.

Most modern Western governments are saturated with “ephors” at every level. Our legislatures are made up of representatives from the people tasked with making the laws by which the people are to be governed, reducing the chance that tyranny will arise. Within the executive branches, a multitude of “lesser magistrates,” from cabinet officials down to lowly law-enforcement officers, are charged not simply to obey their superiors but to faithfully execute the laws, and if necessary, to resist their superiors’ unlawful commands. Most important of all has been the development of an independent judiciary, to which both lesser magistrates and ordinary citizens can appeal for relief from unlawful orders or unconstitutional laws.

Within such constitutional governments, the question of how Christians should respond to injustice or tyranny has increasingly become less an ethical question than a legal question. Rather than asking, “Do I have a God-given duty to resist this injustice?” we can ask instead, “Do I have legal recourse to resist this injustice?” And that is a question for a lawyer, not a theologian or political theorist.

Still, even the most well-formed constitution and well-functioning system of justice can hardly excuse us from the effort at moral reasoning. In the sequel to this essay, therefore, I will reflect on how principles of Christian ethics might intersect with the legal questions that churches now face in the midst of troubling restrictions on our ability to worship together.