When You Need a Precedent for Civil Disobedience

Go to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoffer. That’s exactly what David Koyzis does in a curious way for readers of Christianity Today.

But first he clears the obstacle of 2k:

Of course, there was nothing wrong with following Rome’s legitimate decrees. Jesus had said so himself. When the Pharisees tried goading him into speaking against imperial taxes, he surprised them with words that form the touchstone of Christian reflection on civil disobedience: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Some mistakenly interpret this to mean that there are two kingdoms—one belonging to God and the other to Caesar. But that would put God and Caesar on the same level. In reality, Caesar receives his authority, including his divine mandate to rule, from God. As Jesus affirmed before Pontius Pilate: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11).

Whether Koyzis knows better, the point of 2k is not that politics belongs to (the) man and religion belongs to God. For the guhzillionth time, 2k affirms that government of all stripes — family, church, state — comes from God. The issue is whether church and state have different tasks and so different jurisdictions. It sure sounds like even the Westminster Divines thought so. The task of the state is:

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers. (23.1)

What the church does is not that:

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (25.3)

Oh, that neo-Calvinists could keep straight what 2k is (as if all non-neo-Calvinists look the same).

Then Koyzis pulls an interesting feat. He notices that Protestants have no real tradition of civil disobedience until the Nazis and racism:

The Reformation forced Christians to reflect once again on the limits of Caesar’s domain. In previous centuries, when Western Europe was essentially a single Christian commonwealth, occasional clashes between political and church authorities rarely spilled over into the pews. But by the 16th century, the Reformers would face hostility from both pope and emperor.

Martin Luther may or may not have uttered his famously defiant declaration—“Here I stand. I can do no other”—before the Holy Roman Emperor. But he was certainly skeptical of civil disobedience. Condemning a German peasant uprising, Luther cited Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, justifying disobedience only when government tries to coerce faith.

Like Luther, John Calvin supported obedience to political authority, which he praised in the highest terms: “Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honor is far more excellent.” He held that Scripture requires obedience even to a bad king, who may be carrying out God’s judgment. Calvin favored constitutional checks on the ruler’s authority, but he opposed individuals launching rebellions.

Two major 20th-century events decisively shaped the church’s perspective on civil disobedience: the rise of Nazi totalitarianism in Germany and the struggle for black civil rights in the United States.

As the church lady used to say, “well, isn’t that convenient.” Too bad Koyzis doesn’t explain how the persecution of Christians by the Roman empire or the wars between Protestants and Roman Catholics or the taxes of Parliament on British colonists were such a walk in the park compared to Hitler and Jim Crow.

12 thoughts on “When You Need a Precedent for Civil Disobedience

  1. I often muse on Zrim’s clever distinction between “civil-disobedience” (insurrection with a nice name), and “cultic-disobedience” (no, you can’t make me sin).


  2. “Some mistakenly interpret this to mean that there are two kingdoms—one belonging to God and the other to Caesar.”

    Ah yes, Koyzis must have read Van Drunen’s “Living in God’s and Cesar’s Kingdoms.”


  3. Marsh, but where do we get the idea of musing? Hmm, sounds so Greek mythology-ish. Hmm, I wonder where it comes from, hmm, could it be, oh, I don’t know, maybe SATAN!!!!


  4. DG: For the guhzillionth time
    and also for the bajillion or maybe katrillion time, everyone is a minister in the world, ie ambassadors, ie authorized representative:
    -rulers as ministers of God for good;avengers who bring wrath on the one who practices evil (Rom 13: 4)
    -angels as ministers of God sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation (Heb 1:14);
    -and the church, ie believers – as ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us (2 Cor 5:20) -ministers of reconciliation and lights, that while we have opportunity, shining before men in such a way that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven, doing good to all people, especially to those who are of the household of the faith, and learning to do good-seeking justice, reproving the ruthless, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow, etc. (Matt 5:16; Gal 6:10, Isa 1:17)

    ‘course speaking of Matt 5 v16 after that comes v 17-19:
    17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
    ..so those in error about the full and true meaning of that, probably aren’t gonna shine


  5. oh hello … not governor?, how ‘bout ‘prime’ minister then (prime, ie a lead ambassador/ authorized representative) of old life, your home, your flock, and then in the world, since you’re r2k, and that seems to mean incognito there about that, then just #3 above, like the rest of us just-plain-Jesus- followers/lovers in the world, unless r2k means incognito about that as well?! ?


  6. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/civil-religion-or-christianity/

    Richard Gamble—Wilsey’s book unintentionally confirms Darryl Hart’s thesis that American evangelicals are temperamentally ill-suited to be conservatives….Wilsey shows his evangelical colors by the degree to which he craves a transformative role for America and the Church. His America is a very bright beacon that will change the world. This expansive exceptionalism will promote “justice, natural rights and the ethical well-being of the nation and the world.” It is “inclusive,” and it ) promotes “human flourishing.” This America still pursues the liberal, rights-based, universal, benevolent, humanitarian mission the Kantians have always dreamed of. Open exceptionalism, Wilsey writes, “is never satisfied, because it is reaching for an ideal based on natural law and rights theory as well as historical contingency.” This “open exceptionalism … serves as a benefit to the nation to religion and to the world by fostering a civic engagement informed by freedom, equality and justice.” And Wilsey grounds much of this idealism in a very loose reading of the Declaration of Independence as the key to the Constitution and the “real” America.

    Gamble– An “ethicized” Christianity, via the social gospel, is also fatal, as we figured out more than a hundred years ago. …Evangelicals eager to rethink nationalism and imperialism need to go further and rethink the social gospel of “applied Christianity” as well…. Wilsey accepts a modern and liberal (mis)reading of American history and identity. He endorses the radical social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, affirms Robert Bellah’s interpretation of civil religion…Conservative Christians will be left wondering what this grand vision of the benevolent empire has to do with constitutional republicanism. Wilsey offers Christians a false choice between two kinds of imperialism—selfish and altruistic—both at war with American constitutionalism and both unsafe


  7. “Gun ownership is necessary to resist a tyrannical government that oversteps its bounds.”


    Mcgahey—Do these supposed Bible believers fail to read the Bible? Or worse, do they not care what St. Paul wrote in Romans 13 while Nero was Emperor? Perhaps, as Americans, they should be granted curve points. Nevertheless, the time has got to come when they, as Christians, realize that the founding fathers were not acting Christianly when they rebelled against King George, and that the ensuing conflict, while dubbed “the Presbyterian War,” ran counter to the explicit teaching of the Holy Scripture they so vociferously profess to follow.

    But what about Jesus? The one incident in Jesus’ life that has some relevance to the current issue is one found in all four Gospels. I am speaking, of course, about the account of Jesus’ betrayal to the Jewish authorities by Judas and his subsequent arrest on the Mount of Olives on the night before he was executed on a Roman cross. After Jesus’ apprehension, one of those with him (the Fourth Evangelist identifies him as Peter) takes out a sword and, in an erratic example of loyal bravado, slices off the ear of the High Priest’s slave (identified as Malchus in the Fourth Gospel). Jesus’ response, most of which is found only in Matthew’s Gospel, is telling:

    “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54)


  8. “Too bad Koyzis doesn’t explain how the persecution of Christians by the Roman empire or the wars between Protestants and Roman Catholics or the taxes of Parliament on British colonists were such a walk in the park compared to Hitler and Jim Crow.”

    My first draft contained more of this history, but I’m afraid it didn’t survive the editorial process.


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