“Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God”
It is a provocative phrase, but if Benjamin Franklin had his way, it would have been on our national seal, complete with a scene from the book of Exodus. Thomas Jefferson liked the sentiment so much he used it as his personal seal.
It isn’t surprising that a motto that ties opposing tyranny to Christian obedience was popular among many of our Founding Fathers, but where does the idea come from? Does it have any merit? Is it something we should believe today?
First published in 1644, the pastor and theologian Samuel Rutherford wrote a text that became a foundational legal document for the next 350 years in the Western world: Lex Rex. Lex Rex is Latin for, The Law is King. We probably do not feel the force of what those words, in that order, were intended to communicate. Rutherford was arguing against the “divine right of kings” in which potentates were seen as the source of the law, not as subject to the law. If they are the source of law, then there is no law above the king. If there is a law above the king, such as God or a God-instituted social order, then the king is just as subject to it as the rest of us are.
This was one of the critical debates of Rutherford’s age. It is one of the critical pivot points for us today.
But, can we get from Rutherford’s arguments to Franklin’s dictum? Yes, we can. And here is how.
Rutherford argued that God gives every human being internal sovereignty, to rule over their lives and to provide for and protect themselves. This belongs inherently to every human without difference.
Those humans give provisional power to a government to steward some of that sovereignty for a period of time. And because that sovereignty is granted by people to kings and governments, the people maintain their primary right over their sovereignty. At no point does the government over-rule the individual’s God-given liberty and sovereignty. Governments are sub-authorities under the individual.
As such, when governments turn tyrannical, the people have both a God-given right to take their sovereignty back, and an obligation under God to do so. If tyrants are allowed to subvert the God-ordained order of individual sovereignty, the tyrant stands in direct rebellion to God.
In his book, A Christian Manifesto, Francis Schaeffer reflects on Rutherford’s argument and says:
“Rutherford presents several arguments to establish the right and duty of resistance to unlawful government. First, since tyranny is satanic, not to resist it is to resist God – to resist tyranny is to honor God. Second, since the ruler is granted power conditionally, it follows that the people have the power to withdraw their sanction if the proper conditions are not fulfilled.”
I hope you caught that logical move, “since tyranny is satanic, not to resist it is to resist God.” Christians (and people of sound moral character) have the obligation to resist the work of Satan (because it is inherently evil). Thus, we are morally obligated to resist tyranny.
Let me add another line of argumentation. When people with the means to resist, do resist, they are also acting on behalf of their neighbor that may not have the ability to resist. Or, they stand up for truth and the God-ordained order when their neighbor is inclined to obey tyrants. In either case, the act of resistance is done for the love of and the good of our neighbor.
So, yes, it is true – resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.