In answer to a request from a reader in Northern Ireland, we are analyzing the views of the Scottish Presbyterian theologian of the 17th century, Samuel Rutherford, on the duty of the Reformed Christian towards the civil state. (Cf. the April 1, 1989 issue ofThe SB for a summary of Rutherford’s doctrine and for the first installment of the critique of this doctrine.) Particularly, the question is whether the Christian’s calling to submit to the state is conditional, so that whenever the state becomes unjust and tyrannical the Christian may revolt. This was the position of Rutherford in his book, Lex, Rex, or the Law and the Prince, as it is the position of many Presbyterian, Reformed, and evangelical Christians in our day.

In the previous editorial, we judged Rutherford’s doctrine of a conditional submission to magistrates erroneous inasmuch as it denied the Biblical teaching that the origin of whatever state exists, and of the offices of the state, is God. The origin is not the people, by means of a contract, as Rutherford held. Since government is ordained of God, as the apostle writes in Romans 13:1, it has its authority—its right to rule—from God, not from the people; and, therefore, the people do not possess the right to strip the government of its authority by means of civil disobedience, threats, and uprising.

It is a second error of Rutherford that he misinterprets the crucial passage of Scripture on this question: Romans 13:1-7. At bottom, the issue is one of the authority of the Word of God; but. then the Word must be rightly divided. Rutherford explains Romans 13as teaching that the Christian citizen must submit to the government only if the. government on its part is carrying out its duty, namely, punishing evildoers and praising well-doers. The submission enjoined in Romans 13 is a conditional submission. This fits his theory as to the origin of government in a contract between the people of a nation and its rulers. They have made a bargain. As soon as the rulers fail to keep their part of the bargain, the people are freed from their obligations. Verses 3 and 4, then, are the condition for the calling of the Christian in verses 1, 2, and 51.

This has become a popular interpretation of the passage among Reformed and evangelical theologians. It is the interpretation of Francis A. Schaeffer in his A Christian Manifesto, in which (with express appeal to Rutherford’s Lex, Rex) this influential .evangelical thinker legitimizes the use of civil disobedience and the resort to force by Christians against the government. This is also the interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 of so conservative a Bible expositor as William Hendriksen. Hendriksen does not think that Romans 13:1-7 explicitly answers the question, “Does the moment ever arrive when, because of continued governmental oppression and corruption, the citizens have the right, and perhaps the duty, to overthrow such a government and to establish another in its place?” In fact, he supposes that the passage implies that the answer to this question is yes. For Paul is thinking only of the ruler who does his duty, i.e., rules justly. Hendriksen goes so far as to mistranslate verse 6: “. . . for when the authorities faithfully devote themselves to this end, they are Gods ministers.” The text, of course, does not contain the word, “when,” reading simply, “for they are God’s ministers . . . .”

This classic passage on the Christian’s calling towards the state does indeed lay down the state’s duty towards the people, as well as the Christian citizen’s duty towards the state. But the duty of the Christian is not conditioned by the faithfulness of the state. Paul does not write, “Let every soul be subject to the higher authorities, if they show themselves just and good.” The gospel-precept of submission is unconditional. It is based solely on the government’s being ordained of God. Peter expressly says that submission must be given to the “froward” authority, as well as to the good and gentle authority (I Pet. 2:18). The Roman government of Paul’s day was certainly not a good, just, Christian state. It was corrupt. It was the fulfillment of the prophecy of the fourth beast of Daniel 7, which blasphemes the Most High, opposes the Kingdom of God, and oppresses the saints. Every Christian to whom Paul wrote knew this well; for this state had condemned and crucified Jesus. But it was still the “higher power.” The Christian had still to submit to it. Indeed, most governments and most officials of government are ungodly, unjust, and unfaithful to their calling as servants of God. Rutherford was correct in his response from his deathbed to the officials of Charles II who served him with a summons to appear for trial, that the heaven to which he hoped shortly to go was a place “where few kings and great folks come.” If Christians must submit only to Christian governments or to rulers who are righteous, they will submit to no government at all and to precious few government officials.

In explaining I Peter 2:13 (“Submit yourselves . . . to the king”) and Titus 3:1 (“Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates . . . . “), Rutherford tries to evade the force of the apostolic admonition by distinguishing between the office and the man occupying the office, as though one might reverence kingship while revolting against the current king:

Also, it is true, subjection to Nero (the New Testament requires submission to the moral monster, Nero!—DJE) . . . is commanded here, but to Nero as such a one as he is obliged, de jure (by right -DJE) to be . . . but that Paul commandeth subjection to Nero, and that principally and solely, as he was such a man, de facto (in actual fact—DJE), I shall then believe, when antichristian prelates turn Paul’s bishops . . . . (Lex, Rex, Questions XXXIII).

This evasion is not unfamiliar even among us. It is used by the wife who professes to honor the headship of the husband as a general principle, but who rebels against her own particular husband. It is the tactic of the very pious church member who is loud in his protestations that he has the greatest respect for the office of pastor and the office of elder, but who treats his own particular pastor and his own particular elders shamefully. It is the clever distinction that teenagers know how to make: “Oh, yes, I believe that the parental office is authoritative; but I rebel against my own particular parents because they are unworthy of my respect.” But the distinction is unbiblical. Scripture calls us to submit to the flesh-and-blood men and women in their offices on account of the office they occupy. Specifically,Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13, 14 call us to submit to President Bush, Prime Minister Thatcher, my own parents, and the policeman who patrols the highway.

A third error of the Rutherford-position is that is confuses the theocracy of the Old Testament with the nation to which those who maintain this position belong. Rutherford viewed Presbyterian Scotland as the kingdom of God. It ought, therefore, to resist the heathen king and his Arminian, Roman Catholic-leaning bishops with force, just as Israel warred against her godless foes in ancient times. And the Presbyterians ought in this way to restore the kingdom of God in Scotland. This explains his use of the Qld Testament to justify resistance. But Scotland never was the kingdom of God! Nor is Northern Ireland Gods kingdom, or South Africa, or the United States of America. The kingdom of God is the true church in these nations. It is entirely and radically different and distinct from the state. It is not, and may not be, identified and entangled with the government of the nation. It is spiritual, not earthly. Its power is spiritual, not physical. Its weapon is the Word of God, never gun and sword. The confusion of church and state that began with Constantine in the 4th century has been disastrous. Luther and Calvin began to straighten things out again, so that the church would be the church and the state would be the state, each with its own sphere of authority, each with its own kind of authority, each with its own calling. For Presbyterians to engage in political resistance against ungodly rulers in the name of establishing, or restoring, a Christian nation in the United States or God’s kingdom in Ulster is ignorance of the fundamental reality of the kingdom of God.

A fourth error in Rutherford is the sad misunderstanding of the calling of the Presbyterian Christian and of the Presbyterian church under a government that oppresses the saints because of their confession of the truth. This calling is not that the saints defend themselves and the purity of their worship with force, much less that they take the offensive to overthrow the persecuting government. But our calling is to suffer for Christ’s sake. Suffering for Christ’s sake is not the ultimate evil, to be avoided at all costs, but a privilege and a blessing: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). That was the true glory of the Covenanters in the “killing time.” It was not the marching of some of them to do battle with the king’s dragons, though they were singing Psalm 68 as they came on. But it was their patient endurance of cruel suffering for the sake of the “crown rights of King Jesus.” Even when the state becomes the persecuting beast, the believer may not resist.

The submission that has such an important place in the Christian life is unconditional. Unconditionally, we submit to God. Unconditionally, we submit to those whom God puts over us (which does not, I repeat, imply unconditional obedience). Conditionality is the bane of the Christian life and the ruin of the vital institutions in which this life is to be lived (as it is the spoiling of the gospel of grace). Wives now submit to their husbands, conditionally—if their husbands please them. Children submit to their parents, conditionally—if they approve their parents’ rule. Church members submit to their elders, conditionally—if they like the particular elders and if the elders’ decisions suit them. This is supposed to be Protestant Christianity. It is not. It is revolution and anarchy. It does not come from the Spirit of Him Who submitted to unjust authority. It arises from the king that sits in the breast of each of us. The result is divorce, strife in the home, schism in the church, and shame heaped on the name of Jesus Christ.

Rutherford himself recognized that the practical consequence of his position was the chaos of the mob. To the question, who finally determines whether the rulers are tyrants, his answer was, “There is a court of necessity no less than a court of justice and the fundamental laws must then speak; and it is with the people in this extremity as if they had no ruler.” This is to dissolve all order in the nation, and to baptize the disorder as Presbyterian. The dreadful evils to which Rutherford’s position leads were starkly illustrated in the cold-blooded murder of Archbishop James Sharp by a band of Presbyterians in the course of their resistance to the higher powers in the 17th century. The deed was dreadful, not only because it was murder, but because it was murder done in the name of Jesus Christ as confessed by the Reformed religion. Of it, even Alexander Smellie, sympathetic though he was to the “men of the covenant,” had to say, “The deeds were foully done.” But the deed was born of the notion that submission to the state is conditional. Whenever Christians take up the sword to defend Jesus Christ, or to promote His gospel, against a hostile state, similar atrocities will stain His banner. Indeed, the very act of taking up the sword is a blot on His glorious standard.

This is no mere academic study of a slice of history.

The question, conditional or unconditional submission to the higher powers, is a living is for every Reformed Christian in every nation. Without exception, Christians are living under governments that are not Christian and under governmental officials who are unjust. Increasingly, the state exalts itself as the ultimate reality in human life, taking on the features of the Antichrist. Pressure will be exerted upon the confessing church. Her calling will be what it has always been, namely, faithfulness to her Lord Jesus Christ—faithfulness in pure worship; faithfulness in orthodox confession and preaching; faithfulness in a Biblical liturgy and right church government; faithfulness in the godly rearing of the covenant children. There may be no compromise! Jesus Christ is Lord, not the state. We are ready to seal this confession with our blood.

But exactly this faithfulness to King Jesus forbids resistance, unconditionally.

—DJE