I have said it before and I will say it again, the Church is in desperate need of a robust political philosophy today. We are in turbulent times, I don't think it will sink in to most individuals just how precarious these times are until we see an unveiling of a full blown police state. Those who have eyes to see have observed it under construction in gems like the Patriot Act and the acceptance of the practice of torture. But more dangerous than these portends is the reflexive docility toward the downward march into tyranny on the part of Christians. Basically many Christians are acting as the towel boy for the intoxicated monstrosity that is the Federal Government, this canine like lackey behaviour is allegedly extracted and justified from Romans chapter 13.
I recently had and individual on Facebook, with whom I am not acquainted, send me a private message giving me the old Romans 13 finger wagging. This was done because apparently voicing having a problem with the regime that rules us killing Pakistani civilians is actually wrong for Christians to do in light of Romans 13. I suppose the next time I happen to read about 54 Pakistani "insurgents" being killed in a predator drone strike, it is my duty in the words of Bill O'reilly to, "Sit Down and Shut Up!" To add to this, the individual further declared that the American war for Independence was in fact sinful in light of Romans 13, and it is that assertion which I shall focus on in this post.
So, what should be our response to this? Was it in fact sinful to withdraw from union with King George? My answer is simply this, not at all. In fact the colonial leaders actually would actually be disobeying Romans 13 by not standing up to King George, but more on that in a bit. We first need to get the principle of the lesser magistrate in our minds before that last sentence will make sense.
The Principle of the Lesser Magistrate
The Lesser Magistrate doctrine simply stated holds that it is not only the right but the duty of lower governing authorities (think mayor) to disobey and even oppose higher authorities (think governor or president) when those higher authorities give commands or decrees that are themselves unlawful. Theologically speaking, this all rests upon the principle that all authority is delegated authority from God, which is what we actually read in Romans 13:1. Therefore, given that the authority possessed by governments is a delegated authority or a stewardship, it has boundaries, it is not autonomous.
If we get this we can begin to understand that the American secession from King George was not in the least bit sinful, as it was in actuality the principle of the lesser magistrate in action. Since governments are not autonomous they are bound by God's laws that all men are called to obey regardless of their status. These can be simple things like, stop stealing (Eph 4:28), and stop lying (Eph 4:25). The colonial congress and government interposed on behalf of their people to protect them from the lawlessness of King George. For a recounting of what King George did that warranted a severing of their union to him the Declaration of Independence lists the grievances of the Colonies against King George and I commend its reading. The founding fathers were intimately acquainted with the principle of the lesser magistrate and based their entire secession upon it.
The logic of their separation from England went something like this:
P1. Government exists to protect persons and property.
P2. There are numerous governing authorities, (in 1776, local colonial representatives and the overseas Parliament and King.)
P3. Governing authorities can become injurious to persons and property (See King George quartering troops in homes).
/:.C. Therefore, governing authorities not only can but ought to interpose on behalf of the people to protect from other governing authorities acting tyrannically.
The principle of the lesser Magistrate was taught by John Calvin and received direct application from John Knox in his letter "Appelation" to the lesser magistrates of Scotland as he sought protection from bloodthirsty papists. The principle, being the backbone of the American Colonial secession from King George, led to the war being nicknamed the "Presbyterian War" by King George himself. Presbyterians should be proud that the American war for Independence was so called.
So with all of that said, were these men all wrong in light of the modern applications of Rom 13? Not at all, lesser magistrates would actually be violating the God given commands for government in Romans 13 if they didn't stand up to tyrants and disobey sinful orders. "For he is the minister of God to thee for good." (Rom 13:4)
Perhaps seeing the principle on a smaller scale will allow the reader to grasp its application upon a larger. A soldier is bound by oath to obey his superior officers, however, if the superior officer has ordered something that is unlawful (ex. firing upon civilians) the soldier not only can disobey but he must disobey, as he answers not to the superior officer ultimately, but the superior's Superior, God. To continue this thought, if a superior officer in the battle field loses his mind and begins dishing out all sorts of wild orders, many of them dangerous to the soldiers below him, it is no mutiny to relieve him of his charge and for a lesser officer to assume command in his place against his will. It is rather most proper and judicious for the lesser officer to depose a mad superior.
With that said, here's a real life situation, it is 1776, you are a Virginian and the Virginia congress has signed the Declaration of Independence and chosen to secede from union with England. Who do you obey, congress or the king? Who does Romans 13 tell you to obey? It simply doesn't answer this.
This is where we need to put on the big boy pants and think like adults, look over those grievances in the Declaration and decide who has our loyalty. The same can be said of the war for Southern Independence and the Lincoln's forced assimilation of the South back into a Borg like Union with Washington. It is within this seed bed of thought that men like Thomas Jefferson could say, "Disobedience to tyrants is obedience to God."
Yet, today's average Christians, not to mention your average bureaucrat recoils in horror at such sentiment as the above expressed by our 3rd president.
Simply put, we need to recapture this teaching in the church, this isn't enlightenment based rubbish. By and large I just hear the boot-licking rendition of Rom 13 ad nauseum from my brothers in Christ. The only place that kind of thinking is going to lead to is the Church being complicit as the State encroaches more and more upon the liberty of the people of this country. A robust political philosophy needs to be recovered, one that allows Christians to call evil evil and to be John the Baptists towards the Herods of our day, and there is no shortage of them. Understanding the doctrine of the lesser magistrate is a great step in that direction, and the government that rules us would rather that it was forgotten.