We might think we’re the first ones in history to encounter questions about how Christians should respond to perceived or real government overreach. However, such questions have been part of the story of the Christian church for millennia. It pays dividends to look back at how brothers and sisters in the past have tried to answer these questions.
In his 2003 doctoral dissertation on Theodore Beza, John F. Southworth explained how a two-fold emphasis developed in Reformed theology when it came to politics. On the one hand, Scripture teaches that believers must obey rulers in all things not contrary to the Word of God. When a ruler requires his subjects to sin, that is not a “license to sin.” God’s authority always supersedes that of human authorities. On the other hand, God hates anarchy. He wants law and order. Therefore even a tyrannical government is better than a situation of anarchy.
Both of these emphases come to expression in article 36 of the Belgic Confession. The principle of good order rather than anarchy is heard here: “[God] wants the world to be governed by laws and statutes, in order that the lawlessness of men be restrained and that everything be conducted among them in good order.” The “no license to sin” emphasis comes through in this sentence: “Moreover, everyone – no matter of what quality, condition, or rank – ought to be subject to the civil officers, pay taxes, hold them in honour and respect, and obey them in all things which do not disagree with the Word of God.”
But, as Phyllis Mack Crew describes in Calvinist Preaching and Iconoclasm in the Netherlands, not all Reformed church members bought into this approach. Reformed churches in the Low Countries were living under the tyrannical heel of the Spanish. King Philip II arguably had more Protestant blood on his hands than any other monarch of his time. If you want to find an example of restrictions and loss of religious freedoms motivated by anti-Christian sentiments, this is where you have to look in history.
In the face of this tyranny, some Reformed church members advocated for active resistance. Indeed, some of them were even office bearers. Phyllis Mack Crew tells of how, in September 1561, deacon Robert Dufour and at least four other deacons from the Reformed churches of Tournai and Valenciennes organized illegal nightly protests in the streets of these cities. Hundreds of Reformed church members marched through the streets loudly singing Psalms. Psalms were selected to cause the most aggravation to Roman Catholic onlookers. A favourite was Psalm 68, often described as the “War Psalm of the Reformation.” The psalms were sung by “lining” – one of the deacons leading the protest would sing a line, and then the crowd would echo that line. However, the crowd went further than singing Psalms. They parked themselves outside the deputy bishop’s residence and hurled insults at him for some two hours.
The most famous figure associated with the Reformed churches of Tournai and Valenciennes was pastor Guido de Bres. Where was he in all of this? Did he support these protests? Not at all! He strongly discouraged them, in fact. He warned the churches that these sorts of provocations were going to cause more intense persecution – which they did. De Bres also strongly cautioned against these events because they were threatening to cause schism in the Reformed churches. Indeed, there was already a degree of schism with the pastors and deacons holding opposing views. De Bres and the other pastors deplored this outcome.
They advocated for the passive resistance taught by Calvin and other Reformers. Instead of engaging in public protest events (or “tumults” as De Bres called them), the Reformed churches were to appeal to their rulers in a calm and respectful manner. De Bres and the other pastors set the example with their Belgic Confession and its prefatory letter to Philip II. But they also insisted that Christians ought to obey their rulers in everything that does not contradict God’s Word. God’s Word did not command believers to march through the streets singing provocative psalms in protest. If the rulers would forbid that, believers would have to obey. The Bible certainly did not command believers to insult the deputy bishop.
As Southworth points out, Calvin and other Reformers loathed anarchy. In his commentary on 1 Peter 2, Calvin noted how Scripture teaches us to honour even tyrants when they are in power. At the same time, the avoidance of anarchy is worth putting up with tyranny. In his commentary on Exodus 20, he said:
If any should object, that it would be wrong to praise the vices of those whom we perceive to abuse their power; the answer is easy, that although judges [magistrates] are to be borne with even if they be not the best, still that the honour with which they are invested, is not a covering for vice. Nor does God command us to applaud their faults, but that the people should rather deplore them in silent sorrow, than raise disturbances in a licentious and seditious spirit, and so subvert political government.
It has to be noted that this isn’t exceptional teaching in the context of the Reformation. Whether you call them disturbances, tumults, or protests, the Reformers saw them as expressions of a lawless and anarchic impulse.
As it happened, even the passive resistance of Guido de Bres cost him his life. The Spanish had outlawed Reformed worship. But, because obedience to God comes before obedience to human beings, the Reformed churches quietly continued to worship. They did not seek to make a scene about it. Nevertheless, it was known that the Reformed churches were doing this and, as a leader, de Bres came to have a price on his head. He was martyred on May 31, 1567 for celebrating the Lord’s Supper contrary to the order of the magistrate.
There’s much more to say about Reformed political theory and how it approaches resistance to tyranny. For example, I haven’t discussed the idea of lawful resistance led by so-called lesser magistrates. I may come back to that in another blog post soon. For now, I think it’s enough to draw attention back to those two biblical principles expressed in the Belgic Confession. Being Reformed means we ought to loathe anything that remotely approaches anarchy or revolution. But at the same time, we maintain that we’ll obey the government in anything that doesn’t require us to sin. If they do require us to transgress God’s Word, that’s where we draw the line. That’s where we stand our ground.