In 1521 Martin Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms to answer for his teachings. Already excommunicated by the pope and now facing sanctions from the emperor, Luther was ordered to recant. His response was direct and unequivocal: “I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” The great showdown at Worms is an excellent example of how a courageous Christian leader and a faithful church can stand against the unlawful and ungodly actions of the state.
Reformed Christians have long emphasized the importance of sphere sovereignty, and this doctrine is foundational to any theology of Christian resistance. God has ordained separate spheres of authority in human society, including the individual, church, state, and family. Each sphere of sovereignty has a distinct function and separate authority from God. And while there will be some overlap in the authority of these spheres, it is important to protect their integrity. The state, for instance, must not encroach upon areas of authority given by God to the church and the family.
Biblical teaching on sphere authority has frequently been attacked. In the ecclesiastically-dominated Medieval period, for instance, authority was considered to have descended through the pope or the church. In the modern statist age, people think all power emanates from the state, considered to be the supreme human institution. And as modern society becomes more hostile to Biblical Christianity, there may be increasing threats to the integrity of the church.
Christians must emphasize that God has ordained the church as a separate sphere of authority. There are times when the church can and must resist the unlawful encroachments of the civil magistrate. Because Christ is head of the church, Christians must never abandon to the state the rights of Christ and His church. As Jesus put it, we must render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Mt. 22:21).1
Scripture gives many illustrations of spheres of authority. Upon taking the throne, a king was to write out a copy of the Law of God, “in the presence of the Levitical priests” (Dt. 17:18-19). The king was ordained to rule and was to be governed and guided by the Scriptures. Priests did not rule over the civil realm, but they had a unique responsibility for guarding the Word. So they had to guarantee that the king properly wrote out the Law — and had every jot and tittle correct. This provides a Biblical checks and balances and a scriptural separation of church and state.
Just as priests didn’t rule the state, so kings couldn’t intrude on the work of the church. When King Uzziah entered the temple to offer incense, usurping the God-ordained work of the priests, Azariah the priest opposed him. (Azariah’s resistance wasn’t with force, but with a public rebuke of the king. To use Presbyterian language, Azariah saw his authority as “ministerial and declarative,” not physical and coercive.) Standing with Azariah were eighty other priests of the Lord — described by Scripture as “valiant men.” And when Uzziah was smitten by God for his pride and sin, the faithful priests helped hustle the proud and leprous king out of the Temple (2 Chr. 26:16-21).
Religious leaders frequently challenged sinful and tyrannical rulers. Civil magistrates were not absolute: their actions were scrutinized by men of God and they were held accountable according to principles of scripture. Nathan denounced sinful King David (2 Sam.12). Elijah defied Ahab and Jezebel enough that he had a reputation as a “troubler of Israel” and the king’s “enemy” (1 Kin. 18:17; 21:20).
Old Testament saints provide examples of both active and passive resistance to tyranny and despotism. The book of Daniel is a case study of stalwart believers who disobeyed the civil magistrate rather than violate Scripture or conscience. This was true of issues of cleanliness and food (1:8), idolatry (3:18), and prayer (6:10). In a more dramatic episode, Jehoiada and Jehosheba hid little prince Joash in the Temple, protecting him from wicked Athaliah who had seized the throne
(2 Kin. 11).
There are New Testament examples of apostles refusing to obey the unjust commands of rulers. When commanded to stop preaching the gospel, Peter said, “we must obey God, rather than men” (Ac. 5:29). Our obligation to God is always higher than our obligation to Caesar.2
Church history also includes examples of Christian resistance, and its early pages are sprinkled with the blood of martyrs. Martyrs chose their causes carefully. Christians were willing to pay their taxes, no matter how much a nuisance. But they would not offer incense to Caesar. Jesus was their only Lord, and they resisted to the death the messianic pretensions of the humanist state.
The integrity of the church and its discipline was clearly at issue in the great showdown between Ambrose and Theodosius. Ambrose was the highly influential bishop of Milan and had been Augustine’s mentor. Theodosius was the Christian emperor of Rome who made Christianity the empire’s official religion. But in AD 390 Theodosius ordered the massacre of the people of Thessalonica. Ambrose directly confronted the emperor for his egregious sin and refused him communion until he showed repentance and gave a public confession. The emperor eventually submitted and was restored to the church. For Ambrose, the church was a distinct sphere to which even the emperor was subject.3
A more interesting and complicated case involved Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.4 Henry wanted greater state control of the church and its bishops, while Gregory hoped to enhance the church’s independence. The resulting feud over church-state authority produced a civil war in Henry’s German territories and forced him to seek the pope’s forgiveness. In 1077, at the “high water mark of the Medieval Church,” the emperor humbled himself before the pope for three days in the snow at Canossa. Canossa illustrated the power of the pope and the autonomy of the church.
My favorite example is of Thomas Becket (probably because I like the film Becket so much). Previously Chancellor of England, Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by his friend, King Henry II. As archbishop, however, Becket followed an independent course and protected the church from Henry’s designs. Frustrated by this “meddlesome priest,” Henry’s henchmen murdered Becket at Canterbury cathedral in AD 1170. The people of England had enormous respect for the memory of the martyred archbishop and his willingness to die to prevent the church from becoming a mere bureau of the state or tool of the king.
For conservative Christians in America, there was a wake-up call about the threat of the civil magistrate in the early 1980s. The alarm came from tiny Louisville, Nebraska, and the focal point was Pastor Everett Sileven, who spent months in jail. His crime? His church sponsored a school to train children in the Christian faith, and it was not licensed by the state. To prevent the school’s continued operation, the judge jailed the pastor and padlocked Faith Baptist Church.
By 1982, Sileven was a major national story. The Moral Majority became involved, and big name preachers of the Christian Right registered their support. Concerned Christians flocked to Louisville to stand with Pastor Sileven and “America’s First Padlocked Church.” Though released for a while, Sileven and six other fathers would eventually spend Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1983 in jail, while their families fled the state, all because they refused to place the church’s school under the dominion of the state.
The court’s action jeopardized other Christian schools in Nebraska. Indeed, there was strong opposition to Christian and home schools around the country at the time. The state asserted a right to control the education of children — and threatened to incarcerate anyone who stood in the way.
One man of the Louisville church became my special hero. Dramatic video footage showing the sheriff and his deputies physically removing praying congregants from the church particularly caught my attention. During the raid, officers struggled to remove this one beefy brother — who must have weighed close to 400 pounds. Two, then four, then six officers labored to lug his limp carcass out of the sanctuary. Passively, but with every ounce of his being, this Baptist Behemoth did his part to resist the tyranny of Nebraska statists.
The Louisville crisis provoked fierce discussions in my own church. One dispensational pietist insisted that Christians must never, under any circumstance, resist the state. Even if the state forbids the evangelization of one’s children (as in the Soviet Union — or Louisville), a Christian must obey. Even if the civil magistrate forbids the preaching of the gospel (as in Ac. 5:29), Christians must submit. Though likeable and devout, the man had completely misunderstood the teaching of Scripture, the Biblical doctrine of sphere sovereignty, and the parameters for Christian resistance.
Principles of Resistance
The first course of action for persecuted Christians is to pray. Christians are charged to pray for civil magistrates (1 Tim 2:1-2). Prayers are to be specific: “that we may live a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” It is always appropriate to pray that the church will be delivered from persecution, will enjoy peace, and will be sustained in its witness.
I suspect that American Christians are more willing to grumble than to pray. Scripture commands us to pray (1 Thess. 5:15-17), and the early church left a testimony of prayer. When Peter and John were released from prison, Christians immediately and instinctively prayed (Ac. 4:24). They prayed corporately (“with one accord”); they prayed from Scripture (using the words of Psalm 2 and 146); they prayed Calvinistically (acknowledging God’s sovereign power and purposes — 4:28); and they prayed for boldness in proclaiming the gospel (4:31).
Persecuted Christians must also maintain a faithful witness. Daniel’s friends (Dan. 3) declared their convictions before Nebuchadnezzar, even though it seemed likely to cost them their lives. Martyrs of the church, such as Polycarp, used persecution as an opportunity to testify to their faith. The full edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which runs to thousands of pages, contains long speeches of Christians facing martyrdom and giving their dying convictions. The testimony and “the blood of the martyrs,” Tertullian noted, became “the seed of the church.”
Christians should also use the rights that they have. This is especially true of American Christians who have Constitutionally-guaranteed liberties. The apostle Paul frequently used the legal protections he had as a Roman citizen (Ac. 16:37-38; 22:25-29; 25:11). Today, a number of Christian advocacy organizations help believers and churches who are facing pressure from the state.5
Christians should also be savvy about publicity and how they present their cases. Paul, for instance, shrewdly took advantage of the squabbles between the Pharisees and Sadducees (Ac. 23:5-6). For excellent ideas about how to deal with tyrants and bureaucrats, see Gary North’s “The Escalating Confrontation with Bureaucracy.”6 After all, Jesus calls believers to be “as wise as serpents” (Mt. 10:16).
Some Christians might flee from tyranny. The Louisville families fled Nebraska for the relative safety of Missouri. Elijah hid himself during the persecutions of Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kin. 17:1-7). David hid from Saul. The Puritans fled England during the despotic rule of Archbishop Laud and Charles I. (Among the reasons given by John Winthrop for the Puritan emigration: hopelessly compromised schools!)
As a last measure, Christians may need to resist and fight. Francis Makemie, the father of Presbyterianism in colonial America, would not submit to the tyranny of transvestite Governor Hyde and went to jail for preaching the gospel in New York in 1707. Among the examples of church history, the Covenanters of Scotland in the late 17th century are my favorites. Jock Purves’ Fair Sunshine gives thrilling illustrations of faithful Christians who laid down their lives in the “Killing Times” for the sake of Jesus and their confession.
It would be a great blessing if a new generation of Christians were willing to take a stand on the Word of God, the gospel, and the crown rights of King Jesus. I pray that our children and children’s children will have the courage to say: “We are taken captive by God’s Word. We will not recant. Here we take our stand. God help us!”
1. Christianity and Civilization: The Theology of Christian Resistance 2 (Winter, 1983) and Christianity and Civilization: Tactics of Christian Resistance 3 (Summer, 1983) had excellent articles on this topic. (Available online at http://freebooks.entrewave.com/freebooks/docs/a_pdfs/cc_2.pdf and http://freebooks.entrewave.com/freebooks/docs/a_pdfs/cc_3.pdf) Also recommend are The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Puritanism and Law V:2 (Winter, 1978-19) and The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Christianity and the American Revolution III:1 (Summer, 1976).
2. Discussions of the legitimacy of Christian resistance can come off sounding anarchistic and revolutionary. Scripture (Romans 13, for example) requires submission to proper God-ordained authority. Sphere sovereignty does not legitimize an anarchistic do-your-thing rebelliousness. Rather, sphere sovereignty emphasizes the authority of God-ordained spheres in society — and resistance under proper authorities.
3. In the 1590s, Andrew Melville delivered “two kingdom” speeches to Scotland’s King James. For Melville and Scottish Presbyterians, James was not “head of the church”; he was only “God’s silly vassal.” Ambrose would have appreciated Melville’s emphasis: “King James is a subject of King Jesus!”
4. This is a confusing case, with no real heroes, and no happy ending. Gregory VII had a megalomaniacal streak. The maxims of his Dictatus Papae (1075) include the following: ”that of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet,” and “that it may be permitted him to depose emperors,” and “that he himself may be judged by no one.”
5. Home School Legal Defense Association, for instance, does an excellent job of representing and defending home schoolers.
6. Gary North, “The Escalating Confrontation with Bureaucracy,” in Christianity and Civilization: Tactics of Christian Resistance 3 (Summer, 1983): 141-190