Part 1 of the series
Part 2 of the series
Part 3 of the series
In this series, we are examining the sixteenth-century Huguenot book Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), a Christian treatise on the civil magistrate. The treatise is written in the form of answering four questions. In parts one and two, we went through the first of these questions: whether subjects are obligated to obey rulers who issue commands contrary to the law of God. We came to the conclusion that men are not obligated to obey such commands; indeed, it would be sinful to obey them. We will continue in this series by continuing to answer the second question: whether it is lawful to resist a ruler who violates the law of God. As before, I will post in full a section of the book, followed by my summary of the section.
Continue to keep in mind that though the civil magistrate is referred to as “king” or “prince,” the principles laid out in Vindiciae are just as applicable to presidents, prime ministers, judges, congressmen, senators, governors, or whatever other form or title the civil magistrate takes.
THE SECOND QUESTION, part 2 of 3: Whether it is lawful to resist a ruler who violates the law of God, or ruins His Church; by whom, how, and to what extent it is lawful.
If their assaults are verbal, their defence must be likewise verbal; if the sword is drawn against them, they may also take arms, and fight either with tongue or hand, as circumstances warrant. Even if they be assailed by surprise attacks, they may make use both of ambushes and counterattacks, since there is no rule in lawful war that directs them to use one over the other, whether it be by openly attacking their enemy, or by waylayings; provided always that they carefully distinguish between advantageous stratagems, and perfidious treason, which is always unlawful. But I anticipate an objection at this point. Will you say that a whole people, that beast of many heads, must run in a mutinous disorder, to order the business of the commonwealth? What address or direction is there in an unruly and unbridled multitude? What counsel or wisdom, to manage the affairs of state? When we speak of all the people, we understand by that, only those who hold their authority from the people, that, the magistrates who are inferior to the king, and whom the people have substituted, or established, an assembly with a kind of tribunal authority, to restrain the encroachments of sovereignty, and to represent the whole people. We understand also, the assembly [comitia], which is nothing else but the embodiment, or brief collection of the kingdom, to whom all public affairs are referred such were the seventy elders in the kingdom of Israel, among whom the high priest was, as it were, president, and they judged all matters of greatest importance. Those seventy were first chosen by six out of each tribe that came out of the land of Egypt, then the heads or governors of provinces. In like manner the judges and provosts of towns, the captains of thousands, the centurions and others who commanded over families, the most valiant, noble, and otherwise notable personages, of whom was composed the body of the states, assembled various times as it plainly appears by the word of the holy scripture. At the election of the first king, who was Saul, all the elders of Israel assembled together at Kama. In like manner all Israel was assembled, or all Judah and Benjamin, etc. It is no way probable that all the people, individually, met together there. Of this rank there are in every well governed kingdom, the rulers, the officers of the crown, the peers, the greatest and most notable lords, the deputies of provinces, etc., of whom the ordinary body of the estate is composed, or the parliament or the diet, or other assembly, according to the different names used in various countries of the world. The main purpose of these assemblies is both for the preventing and reforming disorder or detriment in the Church or in the community.
For as the councils of Basil and Constance have well decreed that the universal council is in authority above the bishop of Rome, so in like manner, the whole chapter may overrule the bishop, the university the rector, the court the president. In short, whoever has received authority from a company is inferior to that whole company, although he is superior to any one of the individual members of it. Also, there is no doubt that the people of Israel, who demanded and established a king, must needs be above Saul who was established at their request and for their sake, as it shall be more fully proved hereafter. And since an orderly proceeding is required to wisely and judiciously address all matters, and it is not likely that such order can be maintained among large numbers of people, and since there are often circumstances which may not be made known to a multitude without obviously endangering the commonwealth, we say that all that which has been spoken of privileges granted, and right committed to the people, ought to be referred to the officers and deputies of the kingdom: and all that which has been said of Israel is to be understood of the rulers and elders of Israel, to whom these things were granted and committed as the practice also has verified.
The queen Athaliah, after the death of her son Ahazia king of Judah, put to death all those of the royal blood, except little Joash, who, being yet in the cradle, was preserved by the piety and wisdom of his aunt Jehoshabeath. (2 Chr. 22:10-12.) Athaliah took possession of the government, and reigned six years over Judah. It may well be the people murmured between their teeth, and dare not by reason of danger express what they thought in their minds.
Finally, Jehoiada, the high priest, the husband of Jehoshabeah, having secretly made a league and combination with the chief men of the kingdom, anointed and crowned his nephew Joash king who was only seven years old. (2 Chr. 23:11) And he did not just drive the Queen Mother from the royal throne, but he also had her put to death, and then he overthrew the idolatry of Baal. (2 Chr. 23:1-15) This deed of Jehoiada is approved, and for good reason, for he took on him the defence of a good cause. He assailed the tyranny, and not the kingdom. The tyranny (I say) which had no title, as our modern civilians speak. For by no law were women admitted to the government of the kingdom of Judah. Furthermore, that tyranny was in vigor and practice. For Athaliah had with unbounded mischief and cruelty invaded the realm of her nephews, and her administration committed infinite wickedness, and what was the worst of all, had cast off the service of the living God to worship the idol of Baal, and to compel others to do the same. Therefore, she was justly punished, and by him who had a lawful calling and authority to do so. For Jehoiada was not a private individual, but the high priest to whom the knowledge of civil causes did then belong. And besides, he had for his associates the principal men of the kingdom, the Levites, and he himself the king’s kinsman and ally. Also note that he was not reproved for failing to gather the people at Mizpah according to custom nor for planning the coup de etat secretly, for if he had proceeded any other way, the whole business most likely would have failed.
Such conspiracies can be either good or bad depending on whether the end to which they’re addressed is good or bad, and perhaps also according as the conspirators themselves are affected. We say then, that the rulers of Judah have done well, and that in following any other course they had failed of the right way. For even as the guardian ought to take charge and care that the goods of his pupil do not fall into disrepair or ruin, and if he neglect this duty, he may be compelled to give an account of himself. In like manner, those to whose custody and instruction the people have committed themselves, and whom they have made their teachers and defenders ought to keep them safe and whole in all their rights and privileges. In summary, just as it is lawful for a whole people to resist and oppose tyranny, so likewise the principal persons of the kingdom may, for the good of the people, do the same. And as it can be said in the first case that the majority may act for all, the same is true in the second — that despite the fact that it is only the kingdom’s high-ranking officials who have engineered the coup, it is no different than if all the people had done the deed.
But this raises another question, which deserves some consideration and debate in regard of the circumstance of time. Let us suppose that a king seeks to abolish the law of God and ruin the church. And furthermore, that the majority of the people give their consent and that all the rulers or the greatest number of them do nothing. And then suppose that a small group of people (for example, some of the rulers and magistrates) desire to preserve the law of God entirely and inviolably, and to serve the Lord purely. What is lawful for them to do if the king seek to compel those men to be idolaters, or will take from them the exercise of true religion? We are not speaking here of a small collection of private individual, but rather the population of an entire city or province, as well as the governing magistrate, that may comprise no small part of the kingdom.
Because of the tendency of men to neglect to uphold and maintain the law of God, there aren’t many examples we could use to prove our point. Nevertheless we do have a few to be considered. Libnah, a town of the priests, withdrew itself from the obedience of Joram, king of Judah, and left that ruler, because he had abandoned the God of his fathers, whom those of the town would serve (2 Chr. 21:10), and it may be they feared also lest in the end they should be compelled to sacrifice to Baal. In like manner when that the king Antiochus commanded that all the Jews should embrace his religion, and should forsake all that God Almighty had taught them, Mattathias answered, we will not obey, nor will we do anything contrary to our religion. And he did not merely confine his protest to words, but also, being transported with the zeal of Phineas, he killed with his own hands a Jew, who commanded his fellow citizens to sacrifice to idols. Then he took arms and retreated into the mountain, gathered troops, and made war against Antiochus, for religion, and for his country. He met with such success, that he regained Jerusalem, broke and brought to nothing the power of the pagans whom they had brought in to ruin the church, and then re-established the pure service of God. If you want to know who this Mattathias was, he was the father of the Machabees of the tribe of Levi, and it was not lawful for him, according to the received custom and right of his people, to restore the kingdom by arms from the tyranny of Antiochus. His followers had escaped into the mountains together with the inhabitants of Modin, to they whom had allied themselves along with some neighboring Jews and other fugitives from various places around Judaea. In other words, all who eagerly desired the re-establishment of the church. Almost all the rest, even their leaders, obeyed Antiochus, even after the rout of his army and his own miserable death. Although that was then a good time to throw off the yoke, the Jews instead went to the son of Antiochus and entreated him to assume rulership of the kingdom, promising him fidelity and obedience.
I might here produce the example of Deborah. (Judg. 4) The Lord God had subjected Israel to Jabin king of Canaan, and they had remained in this servitude for twenty years, who might seem in some sort to have thus gained a right to rule Israel kingdom, and also because almost all Israel followed after strange gods. The principal and most powerful tribes, to wit, Reuben, Ephraim, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, and some others, adhered wholly to Jabin. Yet, notwithstanding, the prophetess Deborah who judged Israel, caused the tribes of Zebulon, Nephthali, and Issachar, or at the least some of all those tribes, to take arms under the command of Barak, and they overthrew Sisera the lieutenant of Jabin, and delivered Israel, who had no thought of liberty, and was content to remain in bondage. Then, having thrown off the yoke of the Canaanites, they re-established the pure service of the living God. But even though Deborah seems to have had an extraordinary vocation, the scripture does not approve in explicit terms the doings of them of Libnah. Because the scriptures did not specifically disallowing their proceedings, it may seem in some sort to allow them, and because the history of the Machabees has had no great authority in the ancient church, and because it is commonly held that an assertion must be proved by laws and testimonies and not by examples, therefore, let us examine by the effect, what we ought to judge, according to the right of the matter now in question.
Earlier, we said said that the king swore to keep the law of God, and promised to the greatest extent of his power to maintain the church and that the people of Israel, considered in one body, covenanting by the high priest, made the same promise to God. Now, at this point, we say that all the towns and all the magistrates of these towns, which are parts and portions of the kingdom, promise each of them on his own behalf, and in explicit terms, that which all towns and Christian communities have also done, although it has only been an implied consent. Joshua, being very old and near to his death, assembled all Israel at Sichem in the presence of God, that is, before the ark of the covenant, which was there. (Josh. 24) It is said that the elders of the people, the heads of the tribes, the judges and governors, and all who had any public command in the town of Israel, met together there, and they swore to observe and keep the law of the Lord, and did willingly put on the yoke of the Almighty God. It appears, by this act, that these magistrates obligated themselves in the names of their towns and communities, who sent them for this purpose, that God should be served throughout the whole country, according as He had revealed in His law. And Joshua, for his part, having passed this contract of agreement between God and the people, and obtained the consent of all, accordingly, he immediately set up a stone for a perpetual memorial of the matter.
If there was reason to move the ark of the Lord, the principals of the country and towns, the captains, the centurions, the provosts, and others, were summoned by the decree and commandment of David; and of the synagogue Lord’s temple, it be not supposed, that some alteration has been inserted after the creation of kings. In the times of Joash and Josiah, when there was question of renewing the covenant between God and the people, all the various classes of people met together, and all were bound and obligated particularly. Also not only the king, but the kingdom, and not only all the kingdom, but also all the pastors of the kingdom, promised each of them for themselves, fidelity and obedience to God. I say again, that not only the king and the people, but also all the towns of Israel, and their magistrates, obligated themselves to God, and, as vassals to their liege Lord, made themselves His forever, with and against all men. For further proof of the aforesaid, I would ask the reader to diligently study the Holy Bible, especially the books of the Kings and the Chronicles. But for a fuller explanation of this matter, let us look at an example from the present day.
In the empire of Germany, when the emperor is to be crowned, the electors and rulers of the empire, secular as well as ecclesiastical, meet together personally, or else send their ambassadors. The prelates, earls and barons, and all the deputies of the imperial towns, come there also, or else send special proxies; then do they their homage to the emperor, either for themselves, or for them whom they represent, with, and under, certain conditions. Now, let us presuppose that one of these who has done homage voluntarily, afterwards tries to depose the emperor, and advance himself into his place, and that the rulers and barons deny their sovereign the aid and tribute which they owe him, and that they have information concerning that other who conspired and sought to possess himself of the imperial throne. Do you think that they of Strasburg or of Nuremberg, who have bound themselves by faith unto the lawful emperor, don’t have lawful right to repress and exclude this traitorous intruder? Quite the contrary, if they refuse to do it, if they do not render assistance to the emperor in this his necessity, do you think that they have satisfied or performed their fealty and promise, considering that he who refuses to assist his governor when he had means to do it ought to be held as culpable and guilty as he who afflicted the violence and injury to him? If it be so (as every one may sufficiently see it is) is it not then lawful for the men of Libnah and of Modin? And does not their duty command them to do as much as if the other estates of the kingdom have deserted God, to whose service and pleasure they know and acknowledge themselves to be bound to render obedience?
Let us imagine then some Joram or Antiochus who abolishes true religion, and lifts up himself above God, that Israel willingly participates and is content, what should that town do which desires to serve God purely? First, they should say with Joshua, look whom you desire rather to obey, the living God, or the gods of the Amorites; but for our parts, we and our families will serve the Lord. (Josh. 24:15) Choose then, I say, if you will obey in this point him, who, without any right, usurps that power and authority which no way belongs to him. As for me, whatever happens, I will keep my faith to him to whom I promised it. I have no doubt that Joshua would have done his utmost to maintain the pure service of the living God in Thamnathe Serathe (a town of Ephraim where his house and estate lay) if the Israelites all around him had so much forgotten themselves as to have worshipped the god of the Amorites in the land of Canaan.
But if the king takes it one step further, and send his lieutenants to compel us to become idolaters, and if he commands us to desert God and His service; shall we not rather shut our gates against the king and his officers, than drive out of our town the Lord who is the King of Kings? Let the representatives and citizens of towns and the magistrates and governors of the people of God dwelling in towns realize that they have contracted two covenants, and taken two oaths. The first and most ancient is with God, to whom the people have sworn to be His people; the second is with the king, to whom the people have promised obedience, as to him who is the governor and conductor of the people of God. So then, as if a provincial governor conspires against his sovereign, although he had received from him an unlimited authority, if he should summon us to deliver the king whom he held besieged within the enclosure of our walls, we ought not to obey him, but resist with the utmost of our power and means, according to the tenor of our oath of allegiance. In like manner do we think that it is not a wickedness above all most detestable, if at the pleasure of a ruler who is the vassal and servant of God, that we should drive God from dwelling among us, or deliver Him (as much as we can) into the hands of His enemies?
You will say, it may be that the towns belong to the ruler. And I answer, that the towns do not consist of a heap of stones, but rather people, and that the people are the people of God, to whom they are first bound by oath; and secondly, to the king. For the towns, although the kings have power over them, notwithstanding the right of inheritance of the soil belongs to the citizens and owners, for all that which is in a kingdom is indeed under the dominion of the king, but not in his patrimony. God in truth is the only Lord proprietor of all things, and it is of Him that the king holds his jurisdiction, and the people their patrimony. This is just like saying, you will reply, that for the cause of religion it shall be lawful for the subjects to revolt from the obedience of their king. If this be once granted, it will presently open a gap to rebellion? But I ask you to listen patiently and consider this matter more thoroughly. I will say two things, first, if the one must be done, it would be much better to forsake the king than God; second, Saint Augustine in his fourth book, Of the City of God, chapter iv, and in the nineteenth book, and chapter xxi, says that where there is no justice, there is is no commonwealth; that there is no justice when mortal men would pull another men out of the hands of the immortal God, to make him a slave of the devil, seeing that justice is a virtue that gives to every one that which is his own. Those who draw their necks out of the yoke of such rulers, deliver themselves from the tyranny of wicked spirits, and abandon a multitude of robbers, but not the commonwealth.
But to resume this discussion at a higher level, those who carry themselves as has been formerly said are not guilty of the crime of revolt. Those are said properly to have quit the king or the commonwealth, which, with the heart and purpose of an enemy, withdraw themselves from the obedience of the king or the commonwealth, by which reason they are justly accounted adversaries, and are often much more to be feared than any other enemies. But those of whom we now speak do nothing to resemble them. First, they do not absolutely refuse to obey, provided that they be commanded that which they may lawfully do, and that it be not against the honor of God.
They pay willingly the taxes, customs, imposts, and ordinary payments, provided that with these they seek not to abolish the tribute which they owe unto God. They obey Caesar while he commands in the quality of Caesar; but when Caesar exceeds his bounds, when he usurps that dominion which isn’t his, when he attempts to assail the Throne of God, when he wars against the Sovereign Lord, both of himself and the people, they then think it reasonable not to obey Caesar. Yet, after this, to speak properly, they do no acts of hostility. He is properly called an enemy who stirs up or provokes another, who, out of military insolency prepares and sets forth parties to war. Only after they have been assailed by open war, and close and treacherous surprisals; and death and destruction surrounds them, do they then they take arms, and wait their enemies’ assaults. You cannot have peace with your enemies whenever you want; for if you lay down your arms, if you cease making war, they will not respond by disarming themselves, and lose their advantage. However, with these men, desire but peace and you have it; quit attacking them, and they will lay down their arms; cease to fight against God, and they will presently leave the field. Will you take their swords out of their hands? Then all you have to do is to abstain from striking, seeing that they are not the assailants, but the defendants; sheathe your sword, and they will presently cast their buckler on the ground, which has been the reason that they have often been surprised by perfidious ambushes, of which our times have afforded too many examples.
Now, as a servant is not stubborn or a fugitive who deflects the blow which his lord strikes at him with his sword, or who withdraws or hides himself from his master’s fury, or shuts his chamber door upon him until his anger has died down, much less ought we to think those seditious, who (holding the name and place of servants and subjects) shut the gates of a city against their ruler, beside himself with anger, being ready to do all his just commandments, after he has recovered his judgment, and related his former indignation. We must place in this rank, David, commander of the army of Israel, under Saul, a furious king. David, oppressed false taxations, watched, and waylaid retired unto, and defended himself in unaccessible mountains, and provided for his defence to oppose the walls of Ceila against the fury of the king. He even drew unto his party all those that he could, not to take away Saul’s life from him, as it plainly appeared afterwards, but to defend his own cause: see how Jonathan, the son of Saul, had no difficulty making an alliance with David, and to renew it from time to time — which is called the alliance of the Almighty. And Abigail said explicitly, that David was wrongfully assailed, and that he made the war of God.
We must also place in this rank the Machabees, who, having the means to continue the war unabated, were nevertheless content to receive peace from king Demetrius and others, which Antiochus had offered them before, because by it they should be secured in the free possession and exercise of their religion. We may remember that those who in our times have fought for true religion against Antichrist, both in Germany and France, have laid down arms as soon as it was permitted them to serve God truly according to His ordinances, even after having the means and opportunity to advance and continue the war to their great advantage, as when the Philistines compelled Saul to cease attack, and Antioch to desist from an assault upon its neighbors, and other occasions when everything favored further warfare. See then the marks which distinguish those of whom we speak from actual rebels or the seditious.
But let us yet see other evidence of the justness of their cause, for their defection is such that, that if the cause of it is removed, then they presently return to their former condition (barring extreme necessity otherwise), and then you cannot properly say that they separated themselves from the king, or the country, but instead they left Joram, or Antiochus, or if you will, the tyranny and unlawful power of one alone, or of several, who had neither authority nor right to exact obedience in the manner they have commanded. The doctors of the Sorbonne have taught us similar things many times: of which we will now produce some examples.
About the year 1300 Pope Boniface VIII, seeking to appropriate to his See the royalties that belonged to the crown of France, Philip the Fair, the then king, did taunt him somewhat sharply: the tenor of whose tart letters are these:
“Philip by the Grace of God, King of the French, to Boniface, calling himself Sovereign Bishop, little or no health at all.
“Be it known to the great foolishness and unbounded rashness that in temporal matters we have only God for our superior, and that the vacancy of certain churches belongs to us by royal prerogative, and that appertains to us only to gather the fruits, and we will defend the possession thereof against all opposers with the edge of our swords, accounting them fools, and without brains who hold a contrary opinion.”
In those days, all men acknowledged the pope as God’s vicar on earth, and head of the universal church. Insomuch, that (as it is said) common error went instead of a law, notwithstanding the Sorbonne, assembled and consulted, made answer, saying that the king and the kingdom might safely, without blame or danger of schism, exempt themselves from his obedience, and flatly refuse that which the pope demanded, because it is not the separation but the cause which makes the schism, and if there were schism, it should be only in separating from Boniface, and not from the church, nor from the pope, and that there was no danger nor offence in so remaining until some honest man were chosen pope. Everyone knows into what perplexities the consciences of a whole kingdom would fall, which held themselves separated from the church, if this distinction, that is, between the papal office and the pope, is not true. I would ask now, if it is not yet more lawful to make use of this distinction, when a king invades and encroaches on the jurisdiction of God, and oppresses with hard servitude, the souls dearly bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. Let us add another example.
In the year of our Lord 1408, when pope Benedict XIII opposed the French church by tributes and taxation; the clergy, assembled by the command of King Charles VI decreed that the king and inhabitants of the kingdom ought not to obey Benedict, who was an heretic, a schismatic, and altogether unworthy of that dignity: that the nobles of the kingdom approved, and the parliament of Paris confirmed by a decree. The same clergy also ordained that those who had been excommunicated by that pope, as forsakers and enemies of the church, should be presently absolved, nullifying all such excommunications, and this has been practiced not in France only, but in other places also, as histories credibly report. Which gives us the opportunity to plainly see and know, that if he who holds the place of a ruler governs ill, there may be a separation from him without incurring justly the blame of revolt; for that they are things in themselves directly contrary, to leave a bad pope, and forsake the church, a wicked king, and the kingdom. The inhabitants of Libnah seem to have followed this before remembered expedient; for after the re-establishment of the service of God they presently became again the subjects of king Hezekiah. And if this distinction is allowed, when a pope encroaches on the rights of any ruler, which, notwithstanding in some cases acknowledges him for his sovereign, is it not much more allowable, if a ruler who is a vassal in that respect, attempts to acquire and appropriate to himself the rights of God? Let us conclude, then, to end this discussion, that all the people by the authority of those into whose hands they have committed their power, or a number of them, may, and ought to reprove and repress a ruler who commands things against God. In like manner, that all, or at the least, the principal men of provinces or towns, under the authority of the chief magistrates, established first by God, and secondly by the ruler, may according to law and reason, hinder the entrance of idolatry within the enclosure of their walls, and maintain their true religion; even further, they may extend the confines of the church, which is but one, and if having the means to do it, yet they neglect to, they justly incur the penalty of high treason against the Divine Majesty.
In part 3, we saw that it is not only the right of the people, but also their duty, to resist kings who break covenant with God. The people will be held responsible if they fail to do so. Thus we have answered the first part of the question “whether it is lawful to resist a ruler who violates the law of God, or ruins His Church,” and we now move on to the second part: “by whom, how, and to what extent it is lawful.”
When “the people” are spoken of in this context, it is understood that the lesser magistrates are being referenced. In Joshua 24, the dying Joshua gathers all of Israel in the presence of God and before the ark of the covenant to make covenant with God. These were the representatives of the people, not the many, many thousands of the whole nation itself (also see Exodus 24, Numbers 11, 1 Samuel 11). “The elders of the people, the heads of the tribes, the judges and governors, and all who had any public command in the town of Israel, met together there, and they swore to observe and keep the law of the Lord, and did willingly put on the yoke of the Almighty God.” Thus in the previous articles in this series, when it is stated that there is a covenant between God and the people, the people includes not just all the citizens, but also the lesser magistrates as representatives of the people. Special responsibility is laid on them as such. In Israel’s day, the lesser magistrates were tribal and familial elders, judges, priests, and town governors, but the fact that our lesser magistrates have different titles or are chosen differently does not negate this principle. The king receives his authority both from God and the people, so even though the king is greater than any one individual citizen, the whole of the people is greater than him. “For as the councils of Basil and Constance have well decreed that the universal council is in authority above the bishop of Rome, so in like manner, the whole chapter may overrule the bishop, the university the rector, the court the president. In short, whoever has received authority from a company is inferior to that whole company, although he is superior to any one of the individual members of it.”
When a king rebels against God, it is the duty of the lesser magistrates, as representatives of the people, to take the lead in resisting the king’s usurpation. In 2 Chronicles 22-23, we see the story of the wicked queen Athaliah who, after her son the king died, murdered all the royal house except Joash and set herself up as ruler, seeking to establish Baal-worship. But the lesser magistrate and high priest Jehoiada gathered support of the other lesser magistrates, crowned Joash king, overthrew and killed Athaliah, and reestablished the worship of God. Scripture and Christian tradition speak of and view this act with righteous approval. “In summary, just as it is lawful for a whole people to resist and oppose tyranny, so likewise the principal persons of the kingdom may, for the good of the people, do the same. And as it can be said in the first case that the majority may act for all, the same is true in the second — that despite the fact that it is only the kingdom’s high-ranking officials who have engineered the coup, it is no different than if all the people had done the deed.”
It may next be asked what is to be done should the king rebel against God and the majority (or even all) of the lesser magistrates support his rebellion? In this case, the faithful citizens and any of the lesser magistrates who side with them should do what they must to maintain the true worship of God on their own. We see this in 2 Chr. 21:10 when Libnah, a town of the priests, withdrew from the King of Judah lest he force them to sacrifice to Baal. In what form and how far may this resistance take place? “If their assaults are verbal, their defence must be likewise verbal; if the sword is drawn against them, they may also take arms, and fight either with tongue or hand, as circumstances warrant.” Words should be met with words and steel met with steel. We see in Judges 4 that Jabin, king of Canaan, had conquered Israel with the sword and set up the worship of false gods. So when Deborah rose up, she and her followers righteously responded in kind, driving him out of the land through force of arms.
Thus, if a king sets himself above God and encourages the people to forsake Him, and if many of the lesser magistrates and people follow him, we should merely respond with Josh. 24:15: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” However, if the king or one of his lesser magistrates should by force of arms attempt to compel the faithful into false religion, then “shall we not rather shut our gates against the king and his officers, than drive out of our town the Lord who is the King of Kings? Let the representatives and citizens of towns and the magistrates and governors of the people of God dwelling in towns realize that they have contracted two covenants, and taken two oaths. The first and most ancient is with God, to whom the people have sworn to be His people.” Someone might object: “it may be that the towns belong to the ruler. And I answer, that the towns do not consist of a heap of stones, but rather people, and that the people are the people of God, to whom they are first bound by oath; and secondly, to the king.”
However, we must be careful here; this resistance against the king is lawful only insofar as he attempts to usurp God’s place. Should Caesar sheathe his sword, leave God’s people unmolested, and act in the quality of Caesar as Caesar, then we must too lay down our arms, live in peace, and obey his lawful commands. For even when David was an outlaw and hunted by King Saul, David did not seek to kill him or press his own advantage, and even made alliance with his son Jonathan for the good of the kingdom. And “the Machabees, who, having the means to continue the war unabated, were nevertheless content to receive peace from king Demetrius and others . . . because by it they should be secured in the free possession and exercise of their religion.” And thus we see yet another evidence of the justice of such resistance, for “if the cause of it is removed, then they presently return to their former condition” of obedience; and thus their revolt was not against the country or the office of the king, but against “the tyranny and unlawful power of one alone, or of several, who had neither authority nor right to exact obedience in the manner they have commanded.” In this manner, when the good king Hezekiah came to power Judah and reestablished the worship of God, the town of Libnah returned to that kingdom.
“Let us conclude, then, to end this discussion, that all the people by the authority of those into whose hands they have committed their power, or a number of them, may, and ought to reprove and repress a ruler who commands things against God. In like manner, that all, or at the least, the principal men of provinces or towns, under the authority of the chief magistrates, established first by God, and secondly by the ruler, may according to law and reason, hinder the entrance of idolatry within the enclosure of their walls, and maintain their true religion; even further, they may extend the confines of the church, which is but one, and if having the means to do it, yet they neglect to, they justly incur the penalty of high treason against the Divine Majesty.”
Excerpts from Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos obtained from here.
Part 5 of the series
Part 6 of the series