Guest Essayist: Jennie Jones

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Few factors are more fundamental to our early state constitutions, declarations of rights, and bills of rights than the Christian theory and practice of the right, or duty, of resisting injustice and tyranny.  The right of resistance is rooted in the Biblical principle summarized by the Apostle Peter: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  Civil government is one of the kinds of governments ordained by God (others being self-government, family government, church government, and employment-based government), and the “powers that be” are ordained by God, so every soul is to be subject to them, not to resist them (Romans 13:1,2).

But it does not follow from this that the ruled are obligated to obey absolutely everything that the rulers of civil government (or any kind of government) command.  Being ordained by God does not authorize government officials to usurp the place or authority of God.  Being ordained by God does not exempt the ruler from the standards by which all men’s words and actions are judged: the standards decreed by God in His law.  Furthermore, the ruler, like everyone else, is sinful: in the very core of his being, he longs to replace God with himself and God’s standards of good and evil with his own (Genesis 3:5).  Neither the providence of God nor the judgment of his Christian peers enables any man, or any ruler of civil government to act without sin in all that he does.  These highly unflattering truths are hard sayings, but they are essential to good government.

Moreover, the ruler of civil government is not to use the power of the sword to be a terror to good works but to evil deeds: he is the minister of God to the ruled for good, not for evil (Romans 13:3-7).  The ruler is God’s minister, or servant, not his own.  The rulers and the ruled are under the authority of God and His law.  God’s law is the authoritative standard that defines good and evil, the ethical laws of “nature,” and love.  Hence the Apostle Paul summarizes God’s law as the standard by which men can know that they are following the law of love and working no ill to their neighbors (Romans 13:8-10).  The ruler who enacts evil laws that violate God’s standards of law exceeds his authority, rebels against God, and violates the terms of his ministry under God.  To the extent that he violates God’s legal standards he is unworthy of honor, for Christians are not bound to honor or obey that which is evil (or he who commands that which is evil) but rather that which is good.[1]

A ruler who systematically violates God’s law—God’s standards and definitions of justice (and injustice)—is rebelling against God.  He is systematically scrapping God’s standards of good and evil and replacing them with his own.  He is a tyrant.

A tyrant is to be resisted by his subjects, and if he persists in his tyranny, may be removed from office.  Medieval, Reformation, and later Christian theorists differed about who should undertake this process of resistance and (if necessary) revolution.[2]  Most held that the “lesser civil magistrates,” lower-ranking civil government officials—who are also among the “powers that be” who are ordained by God—are to lead the people in this process of resistance (the constitutional theory).  Some maintained that the people, private individuals or the majority of citizens, are to do what is Biblically permissible to resist or overthrow the tyrant (the private right theory).  Such was a long tradition of Christian resistance theory dating back to the medieval period.  It was:

  • fundamental to the action of the barons led by Archbishop Steven Langton, who gave England the Magna Carta in 1215;
  • revived in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation;
  • practiced in the Dutch war for independence from the Spanish tyrant Philip II;
  • exemplified in the Petition of Right (1628);
  • taught and practiced in the English Civil Wars (1642-1651);
  • maintained (after a fashion) against the king in the Glorious Revolution (1688);
  • asserted in the English Bill of Rights (1689);
  • continued in the English colonies in America;
  • and preached in sermons before congregations and public officials during the movement to resist British tyranny.[3]

The right to petition rulers for a redress of grievances was a basic part of this tradition of Christian resistance theory.  The colonies followed this theory in resisting the king-in-Parliament and in their War for Independence.  This theory continued to be widespread in early America before and long after the framing and ratifying of the Constitution of the United States (and, of course, of our national Bill of Rights).  At least six states—New Hampshire, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts—stated this right explicitly in their fundamental laws, and thereby implied the people’s right to use all legitimate means of resistance endorsed by that tradition.  The Maryland Declaration of Rights (1776) phrased it pointedly:

IV. That all persons invested with the legislative or executive powers of government are the trustees of the public, and, as such, accountable for their conduct; wherefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought, to reform the old or establish a new government. The doctrine of non-resistance, against arbitrary power and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.

Where not stated explicitly, this doctrine was implicit in all the states’ constitutions and declarations—which owed their existence to exercising precisely such a conviction.

The right and duty of the states to resist the central government was originally intended to apply to future civil government officials. The Framers gave the states the means of protecting their people and the only legitimate means of changing the Constitution—the amendment process and convention of the states stated in Article V. That right and that means still apply. State and local officials have a duty to resist injustice and tyranny imposed upon their people by our central government. American citizens need to remind not only candidates for federal office, but also candidates for state office, of this fundamental constitutional reality, right, and duty. That is the only way (humanly speaking) we will reclaim and preserve our freedom.

Jennie Jones, Assistant Professor, American Government and History, Weatherford College

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[1] Romans 13:1-7 is frequently misinterpreted.  Including verses 8-10 of Romans 13 makes it easier to avoid misinterpreting the first seven verses, but a reading of the Rev. James M. Willson’s The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government; An Exposition of Romans 13:1-7 (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision Press, [1853] 2009) should eliminate all controversy over this crucial passage, for it destroys the misinterpretations that were fashionable in the early nineteenth century and which are too fashionable now.

[2] Revolution to depose the tyrant, not revolution to overthrow the religious and social or economic order, is the intention here, for to overthrow a religious, social or economic order based upon Biblical standards of justice would be sinful and unjust.

[3] See Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume Two: The Age of Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978); Julian H. Franklin, trans. and ed., Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century: Three Treatises by Hotman, Beza and Mornay (New York: Pegasus, 1968); Junius Brutus, A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants; or, of the Lawful Power of the Prince Over the People and of the People Over the Prince: Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (St. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1989); and Richard L. Greaves, Theology and Revolution in the Scottish Reformation; Studies in the Thought of John Knox (Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1980).

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