Reformed pastors are invoking Reformed resistance theory to justify disobedience to the Obama administration: Do they have a case?

Since starting up this blog about six months ago I have repeatedly encountered Reformed writers – many of them pastors – who are invoking 16th Century Reformed resistance theory to justify rejection of the Obama administration, whether in the form of civil disobedience or more open forms of resistance. The argument starts, of course, with the assertion that the federal government has become tyrannical. It then claims, supposedly on the basis of the old theory of resistance, that tyrannical governments have no claim on the obedience of Christians. It finally turns to propose that Christians take up active resistance in various ways, such as by refusing to pay taxes. Here are some examples of rhetoric I have heard or read:

  • One Presbyterian pastor whose church I visited proclaimed from his pulpit that Americans face worse oppression than the Hebrew slaves did in the land of Israel because we have higher tax rates. His audience seemed to agree with him.
  • A Reformed pastor wrote on his blog that because of its policy on immigration and health care the Obama administration has forfeited its moral authority. Christians no longer owe it any obedience.
  • A Presbyterian pastor wrote on his blog that if the government uses federal money to fund abortions, or even if it simply raises income taxes too much, Christians might legitimately refuse to pay taxes.

None of these pastors were advocating particular acts of violence, but all of them invoked Reformed resistance theory when pressed, at least asserting that violent resistance is a legitimate option.

The question is, do any of these statements actually reflect continuity with classic Reformed resistance theory? To answer this question I have to point out that there is really not one authoritative version of that theory. Over time persecution, religious war, and atrocities such as the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre clearly radicalized Reformed polemicists. Eventually some Reformed thinkers argued what would have been unthinkable to a theologian like John Calvin, that if a government fails to promote the true Reformed religion believers may seek to overthrow it.

Here, however, I want to focus on the more moderate version of Reformed resistance theory, the version famously articulated by Calvin in his 1559 Institutes. This version, I think it is fair to say, has a lot in common with the sorts of resistance theories appealed to by America’s Founding Fathers, as well as by the South in the Civil War era. But it has little in common with the sorts of arguments made by contemporary Reformed pastors as I highlighted above.

In the last chapter of the Institutes Calvin explicitly argues that Christian believers must obey the governing authorities, no matter how tyrannical they may be, in everything that does not force them to sin. He makes himself quite clear that tyranny on the part of the government does not justify disobedience, whether in the form of a refusal to obey a law or pay taxes, or in the form of seditious or violent activity.

We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office toward us uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs, even though they perform not a whit of the princes’ office. (4.20.25)

There are many things, he goes on to explain, that a tyrant does that he has no right to do from the perspective of the law, but they nevertheless retain their rights in relation to the people. For instance, relative to the tyranny of a future king described by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 Calvin writes,

Surely, the king would not do this by legal right, since the law trained them to all restraint. But it was called a right in relation to the people, for they had to obey it and were not allowed to resist. (4.20.26)

That is Calvin’s basic rule for ordinary Christians when it comes to tyrannical government. But in the second last section of the Institutes Calvin offers one significant exception, an exception that presupposes his two kingdoms distinction. He clarifies that everything he has been saying refers to Christians in their roles as private persons. It does not refer to persons who hold magisterial office within the civil government.

For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (… perhaps, as things now are, such power as the three estates exercise in every realm when they hold their chief assemblies), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. (4.20.31)

Note that Calvin’s explicit reference is to the estates in their assemblies. Here there is clear precedent for the sorts of arguments made by the Founding Fathers (i.e., that the colonial governments had the authority to resist the tyranny of Parliament) or the Southern secessionists (i.e., that the states had the authority to resist the unjust policies of the federal government), whether or not either of those cases were in fact instances of tyranny or injustice.

How did Calvin apply his theory in practice? In 1560 a French nobleman came to Geneva seeking the support of Calvin and the other pastors for a military coup against the French government. In 1559 the powerful French monarch Henri II had tragically died in a jousting accident. His oldest son, Francis II, though fifteen years of age, was neither physically nor mentally able to be King. As a result the stridently anti-Protestant House of Guise established an unofficial regency that was inevitably threatening to the Reformed churches in France. Yet the House of Guise had little right to take this step. For it was the Bourbon family, which was sympathetic to Protestantism, that was most closely related to the monarchical line. Thus it was the Princes of the Blood, Anthony of Navarre and his younger brother Louis, Prince of Conde, who should have had the primary role in the establishment of a regency.

Calvin rejected what became known as the Conspiracy of Amboise because it was not led by the Princes of the Blood. And the conspiracy ended catastrophically for the Protestant cause. Within a few years, however, Francis II also died, and the ascent to the throne of his younger brother Charles IX, too young legally to exercise the full power of the  monarchy, required the establishment of an official regency. The refusal of the House of Guise to allow the Bourbons to exercise their own legal rights in the process turned many of the French nobility against them. Although Anthony of Navarre was always indecisive, his brother Conde came to lead a political party known as the Huguenots, made up largely though not exclusively of Protestants, that challenged the Guise hold on power. War broke out in 1562 as Conde launched a failed effort to secure the King and his mother, Catherine de Midici, under his own Bourbon-led government.

In this case Calvin was entirely supportive of the cause because he, like so many other Protestant pastors and leaders, deemed it to be led by the appropriate lesser magistrates and in defense of the actual law of the land, indeed, of the monarchy itself. But what is striking is that the Huguenots emphasized just how secular and political was the nature of their cause. In his Declaration of Protestation Conde declared,

Firstly, therefore, he protests that no selfish passion leads him, but that his sole consideration is of what he owes God, with the duty he has particularly to the crown of France, under the government of the Queen, and finally the affection he bears to this kingdom, constrain him to look for all methods legitimate according to God and men, and according to the rank and degree which he holds in this kingdom, to return to full liberty the person of the King, the Queen and messieurs her children, and to maintain the observation of the edicts and ordinances of his Majesty, and namely the last edict issued concerning religion.

The document went on to list matters of taxation and debt, the intimidation of the King by his councilors, Conde’s loyalty to the King, and his willingness to lay down his arms if his opponents did so as well. The war ended indecisively in 1563 and Calvin died before the next war of religion broke out.

It should be obvious that the sort of resistance theory presupposed by Conde and articulated by Calvin has nothing in common with the claims of contemporary Reformed clergymen that Christians have a right to disobey or resist the federal government. Calvin understood that if Christians were to pay taxes and honor to a regime as tyrannical as that of Rome, the same had to be said of a regime as Catholic as that of France. It doesn’t matter if tax money is going towards unjust purposes or even towards murder (the French government was killing hundreds of Protestants). The authorities that exist have been appointed by God.

Of course, if lesser magisterial authorities determine that the federal government is practicing tyranny, and that it is their duty to resist such action, then matters change somewhat. But in the contemporary United States we are not in that position. As long as it is just a bunch of disgruntled conservative pastors who are calling us to disobey our government, we should utterly reject their arguments, take up our cross, and follow Christ.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on November 29, 2012, in American Founding, Barack Obama, Calvin, Calvinism, Just War, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Reformed pastors are invoking Reformed resistance theory to justify disobedience to the Obama administration: Do they have a case?.

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