With the horrendous bombing of the Federal office building in Oklahoma City, the news media has brought "citizens' militias" into the limelight. Most American Christians had little or no knowledge of citizens' militias before then. However, the Federal government needed someone to blame, and "domestic" terrorism gave them a blank check for more policing and surveillance powers. The media immediately jumped on the bandwagon, constantly comparing militias with hate-groups and terrorists, further muddying the waters.
Right now, there are conservative estimates of more than 100,000 members of various militias across the USA. It is fair to say that the average person now has firmly planted in his mind that anyone associated with these citizens' militias in any form is a red-necked, gun-toting, paranoid, potential terrorist. Most Christians have also now formed strong opinions about militias without thinking through the Biblical and theological basis.
Militias and the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate Reformed theology has always maintained a distinction between the various spheres of government; self, church, state, etc. The power of the sword clearly belongs neither to the church or to individuals; God has delegated that authority only to the state (cf. Rom. 13:1ff). While the individual himself has the right to self-defense, he never has the right to take the law into his own hands and punish evil with the sword. In historic Reformed thought, this was seen as sedition and rebellion. Self-defense is one thing, revolution another.
According to the Reformers, if the state became oppressive and tyrannical, the individual could appeal to a "lesser magistrate" to resist unlawful government since only the magistrate has the right to "bear the sword" against evil. For example, in Germany, it was the responsibility of princes to protect the people against the Emperor. In Britain, parliament was the lesser magistrate while in Scotland, it was the nobility. In Switzerland, the lesser magistrate was often the city fathers.
In American history, Reformed thought regarding militias was a perfect balance between the authority of the state and the responsibility of the individual. Individual men, living freely and responsibly under God's law, were often called up by the "lesser magistrate" as needed to defend property, life and freedom. In continental Europe, armies were often composed of the dregs of humanity, conscripted and used by the powers that be. However, in Scotland, England and the American colonies, the armies often raised were composed of local militias, raised by lairds, nobleman, local towns or colonial legislatures.
This is a crucial point: militias in American history were not autonomous groups, acting on their own, but rather agents of the local government. Such militias were raised from all the armed men of a community to fight against Indians, renegades, invaders, or in the case of the Civil War, sister states. But the key is that they were raised under the authority of the state (or county or town). They were not raised by individuals. The example of George Washington raising a militia in Fairfax county, Virginia, may or may not be an exception to this depending on how you see his role in the community as a serving colonel in the state militia. For the most part, county officials called for arming, training and establishing militias (see Every Man Armed).
This kind of militia in American history was seen as the last bastion against tyranny. When men lived self-governed under God's Law, and took personal responsibility for their welfare, tyrants could not gain power. It is significant that the first act of any tyrannical state is the elimination of private ownership of firearms, and the amalgamation of the armed citizenry into a national army.
Sadly, in this age of centralization, we have also seen the state arrogate power to itself and local governments do not often exercise their own lawful authority. As in other nations, the concept of local militias has been swallowed up by the National Guard (something which did not even exist until 1903). The National Guard then becomes an agent of an impersonal state bureaucracy, rather than the local community. But lest we read too much into this, we must remember that part of the reason is that in most towns and cities, there has been no pressing need for an armed militia. Most communities do not have to worry about foreign invaders or rampaging aboriginal war-parties raiding isolated settlements.
Contemporary Examples of the Lawful Use of Militias Crime, however, is a real problem, especially in the inner city. Though crime does not lend itself to a limited, military-type response, the concept of a citizens militia could be the answer to crime-ridden areas. Citizens could be recruited from the community, trained by local police and then used to patrol the streets. This would be an all-volunteer force, there to assist the police. The reason why such volunteer forces are not used is often because of fear of litigation. All it takes is a couple of wrongful-death suits to bankrupt a local community. Interesting, bureaucrats fear lawyers more than crack-heads, rapists and gang-bangers. Another contemporary application of the militia is in reserve deputies for the county sheriff. Reserve deputies, working under the lawful authority of the local magistrate, are trained, equipped and bear arms for the benefit of the entire community. The number of such deputies should be greatly increased. If counties really wanted to increase their ability to enforce the law and restrict crime, they could recruit hundreds of men from the local community and train them. This should cost the county little or nothing since one of the fundamental aspects of the militia is that men serve without pay and supply their own equipment. This is a concept whose time may have come. In both of these cases, we the people delegate part of our second amendment power to police and deputies for the purpose of "bearing the sword" against evil. Meanwhile, we do not give up our rights of self-defense and bearing arms.
The Problem with Modern "Militias" However, there is a real problem with individuals taking it upon themselves to form their own private armies. We are not talking about legitimate self-defense. When the rapist, the murderer, the burglar breaks into one's home, God's law clearly gives the individual the right to bear arms in self-defense (cf. Ex. 22:22). Personally speaking, I am fully prepared, willing and able to give any person who threatens my family or property the opportunity to plead his case directly to Almighty God, immediately! But militias are citizen's armies, armies intended to wage war under the lawful authority of the local government.
However, the modern militia movement is not normally in submission to a lesser magistrate, and therefore operates outside lawful authority. Contemporary militias argue that they have the right as free men to band together in self-defense. This is unquestionably their right. There is also merit to the argument, that to enforce the lawful authority of the state, especially during crises, breakdown of civil government, riots, etc., modern men need to be trained how to respond promptly and effectively. Case in point: the riots that appeared after the first Rodney King verdict could have been quickly curtailed if local citizens had been prepared to defend their homes and businesses corporately (especially since the police simply stood aside and let the looters and arsonists run wild). The difference between a militia and an armed mob is training and submission to lawful authority. Since neither local police forces nor county sheriffs seem willing to provide such training, free men have the right to train themselves. There is some merit in this argument since most militia training seems to consist of basic familiarity with firearms, land navigation, working with larger groups, etc.
But modern militias also seem to share an extreme sense of paranoia. They are not just training to provide a pool of highly skilled individuals, ready, able and willing to support lawful authority against enemies, foreign and domestic. For many of these people, the enemy is the lawfully appointed government of the United States. Conspiracy buffs abound in the militia movement. Fear of the One World Order, the U.N. and the supposed sell-out of the Constitution to foreign enemies by the Federal government play a prominent role in modern militia propaganda. Therefore such autonomous militias do not stand within the framework of historic Christian orthodoxy or the American system of government. They are not raised by local authorities, but by individuals. They therefore implicitly deny God's distinction of the separation of the spheres of authority and therefore are not "well regulated." They are thus, in essence, a revolutionary army, owing allegiance to no one, accountable to no one, except their own leaders.
Yes, I know, they claim they only want to protect and support the Constitution. But in effect they are creating a nationwide network of revolutionary forces, called by no magistrate, under no lawful authority. They are arming and training to wage war against the Federal government and thus they reveal that their underlying theology is antinomianism, autonomy and anarchy. Am I being too hard on them? Well, the self-appointed Advocate General has called nationwide for militia members to march on Washington, arrest members of Congress and conduct trials against those who had not fulfilled their vow to defend the Constitution. The basic question for any member of a militia is, who has given you the right to say, "fire?"
The Actual Problem God's work must be done God's way to receive God's blessing. I believe in fighting for freedom and liberty. Abshires have served in every major war since Independence (seems we can't get along with anybody!). Furthermore, I believe that in the last 100 years, we have lost a great measure of that freedom. But this is a symptom of a greater disease, the wholehearted, national abandonment of submission to God and His law. Men cannot live free from the tyranny of men, unless first their hearts have been freed from the tyranny of sin. Our Constitution can work only in a nation of men who are self-governed under God's law. If men reject God's law, man's law will replace it.
Thus Christians need to see our growing loss of liberty as a sign of God's judgment against our apostasy as a nation. The main problem is not an impersonal, ever-tyrannical Federal bureaucracy, but a hard-hearted people who refuse to live according to God's Word. Thus it is the height of insanity to propose revolutionary methods against any government that God Himself has imposed. "Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborer, labors in vain; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman watches in vain."
The Apostle Paul, living under one of the most arbitrary and tyrannical dictatorships in history, never once even remotely suggested revolution against Rome as a cure for the many social, economic and political problems facing the early church. Instead, he told people to obey the state, pray for the state, pay their taxes to the state. Meanwhile they were to preach and live the Word. It is the Word of God, seen through transformed lives, that will transform nations, not lawless armed bands. Remember, the Declaration of Independence itself is a theological justification for war against the British. It was signed by lawful delegates of the Continental Congress, under the authority of the individual colonies. Calvin said, "those who destroy the political order are rebellious against God." Furthermore he said in his commentary on Genesis, "All who strive to produce anarchy, fight against God." Independent militias, by their very nature, are sources of anarchy.
Yes, I believe in an armed citizenry, but an armed citizenry who live responsibly before God, in submission to lawful authority. If citizens are concerned about growing Federal control, let them work diligently first in their local communities, electing people who will support liberty. Let them petition their state governments to resist unlawful federal intrusion. Let them wean themselves from Federal handouts, by which the national government subverts local and state authority. Let them support national political action groups who can apply direct pressure on Congress. Let them join their county sheriff as reserve deputies. But most importantly, let us faithfully preach and teach the truth, humble ourselves before God and pray for His mercy that He might grant us repentance. The Biblical method of transforming a nation is through reformation, not revolution. We do not need to duplicate the anarchy of some Third World nations where the losing party in an election uses their private armies to wage war against the newly elected government.
Conclusion Thus, I believe the contemporary militia movement is headed for serious trouble. If they do not root themselves in a consistent, Biblical world view, grounded in a proper understanding of the lawful authority of the lesser magistrate, they are ripe for either extinction, or subversion. And that would be a great loss.
What they are trying to do, I think, in their own fumbling way, is to restore a sense of personal responsibility for our own safety and welfare. They are trying to get rid of an "omnipotent" state, and replace it with responsible local government. They want to defend the Constitution against those who would subvert and destroy it. Furthermore, they are in danger of being used by unscrupulous persons to engender fear into the average citizen's life. Whether they know it or not, they themselves may become the scapegoats for the Federal government's taking away even more rights from the people (just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you!).
I say again, God's work must be done God's way. When their local magistrates, the county sheriff, the town mayor, the city council, etc., authorize the raising and training of militias, the awarding of rank, etc., then their laudable goals will have God's blessing. Until then, Christians should be very careful. No, they do not have to believe the media hype; no, they should not be pushed by fear into losing even more rights to the state. We must not be motivated by fear, either of a tyrannical state, or of the militias. Christians just need to learn to think Biblically. We need to call men to repentance before a holy and sovereign Lord, to live humbly by His laws, and demonstrate the power of the resurrected life of Jesus by our acts of loving service. Jesus is the only source of freedom. He gives it, and He takes it away.
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.