Is Submission to the State Absolute, or Is There a Place for Resistance?

Is it ever right to disobey the state? If so, when and why? Is there a right to rebel against authority?

Those who follow my website somewhat closely will know that I have been speaking quite a bit lately about resistance theory. As I will demonstrate shortly, this is far from mere theory, but something very practical indeed, and something all Christians need to think prayerfully and carefully about.

By way of helping the reader grasp just what resistance theory is, and to show the very practical nature of it, let me begin by simply offering a number of actual cases of this – both from the Bible and from history. These are all instances of people (usually believers) in one way or another resisting the state and/or disobeying government decrees, and so on. Consider these ten cases:

  • A non-Jewish woman who fears God defies her own pagan rulers and helps some Israelite spies, even hiding them and protecting them. Was Rahab the harlot justified in such acts of disobedience and defiance?
  • A religious prophet does not just rubber-stamp the actions of the ruler of the day, but courageously calls him out when necessary. Was Nathan the prophet right to strongly rebuke King David, the Lord’s anointed?
  • The early disciples of Jesus defy the local authorities and keep preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if it means being arrested for such disobedience. Were Peter and the other disciples right to put their divine marching orders ahead of human commands?
  • Some folks resist the state when they think that government policy is immoral – be it things like slavery or unjust wars. Was Henry David Thoreau, the author of Civil Disobedience, correct to refuse to pay his taxes, serving jail time as a result?
  • Some brave Christians during WWII defied the Nazi regime and sought at great personal risk to protect Jews, even hiding them in their homes. Were people like Corrie ten Boom acting properly to defy the state in this and other ways?
  • Some German Lutherans not only openly resisted the Nazis, but a few in fact actually became part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and some others – correct to head down this path?
  • Christians in Communist countries faced hardcore persecution for seeking to stay true to Christ while defying the godless state. Were brave Christians such as Richard Wurmbrand and Haralan Popov right to resist the Communist rulers and laws?
  • Various denominations are committed to pacifism and refuse involvement with the state – at least in things like warfare. Are Mennonites, Quakers and other Anabaptist groups right to resist the state in this regard, and right to withhold at least part of their taxes so that the military is not funded by them?
  • Some religious leaders in the US knew that racial segregation and discrimination was morally wrong, and they were willing to peacefully disobey laws to bring about change and to work against ingrained racism in the political and legal spheres. Was Martin Luther King Jr. – along with others – justified in doing these things?
  • A pastor is imprisoned for 35 days for keeping his church open for worship services during corona lockdowns. After he was released, the authorities came to the church and erected large steel fences around it to prevent people from getting in. The people then tore down the fences. Are Pastor Coates and the congregation of GraceLife Church in Alberta, Canada right to take this stand?

As should be clear from these examples – and many others like them – often the people of God have decided that there is a time and a place to say no to the state, to disobey unjust laws, and to be willing to suffer for pleasing God, even if it means displeasing human authorities.

Resistance theory of course looks in some detail at these matters. Is it ever right to disobey the state? If so, when and why? Is there a right to rebel against authority? Should citizens always fully submit and comply to the government or the ruler of the day, or are there times when they must not submit and obey?

Is there ever a justification for regime change? Is there such a thing as just revolution? Should efforts be made to overthrow unjust rulers? In fact, can there ever be times when things like regicide or tyrannicide are morally – even biblically – justifiable? These are all very important questions indeed.

And thinkers – Christian and non-Christian – throughout the centuries have spent a lot of time deliberating on such matters. Those who are Christians know full well that passages like Romans 13:1-7 are not the last word on the subject, nor the only relevant biblical texts to consider. All of Scripture must be taken into account, and 2000 years of church history must also be considered.

As I have said often now, the past year with most Western nations pushing onerous and draconian lockdown measures – including the closure of churches – has got me and many others thinking a whole lot more about such issues. As such, it is always good to know that we do not need to reinvent the wheel here.

Many Christian thinkers and theologians – along with many non-Christian political theorists – have looked at these matters in some detail. We can learn from them and draw upon their deep reflections and meditations on all this. One need not agree with all that they said or wrote, but they offer plenty of insight and wisdom as we seek how to best think about such matters.

Key resistance thinkers

There are many important figures that can be appealed to here, and I have already started over a dozen new articles to look at some of the main players in more detail. At the moment I have nearly 20 of them that I wish to write about. I have already finished one of the pieces on John Knox.

Here are some of the figures I plan to discuss, and more names will likely be added to the list. I present them here in order of their birth, and offer just a brief comment on what they thought and wrote on these areas.

Martin Luther 1483-1546 – Unlike Calvin, the German Reformer wrote quite a bit on these themes. He mainly opposed resistance to authority, but later on had to alter his views somewhat. He traced his ‘two kingdoms’ doctrine back to Paul, and partly to Augustine.

Martin Bucer 1491-1551 – A German reformer who was based in Strasbourg, France. He helped to promote the notion of the ‘inferior or lesser magistrates’ and had a lot of influence on the English Puritans.

Peter Martyr Vermigli 1499-1562 – He was an early Italian Reformer who taught at Strasburg and Oxford. Like many other resistance theorists, he did not want to be seen as sanctioning popular revolt by individuals, but he felt that in some circumstances the resistance by inferior magistrates was permissible.

George Buchanan 1506-1582 – A noted Scottish historian and scholar. In his 1579 work The Powers of the Crown in Scotland he argued that the source of all political power comes from the people and that the king is bound by certain conditions. If a king veers into unjust and tyrannical rule, the people can lawfully resist and even punish him.

John Calvin 1509-1564 – The French/Swiss Reformer did not write a lot on this matter directly, but certainly, he discusses it in his Institutes and some of his commentaries and sermons. He was both influenced by some who had gone before, and also influenced many who followed him.

Peter Viret 1511-1571 – A popular Swiss preacher and friend of Calvin. He contributed important points of view on such things as the right of political resistance, how government must exist under the law, and the need for equal justice before the law.

John Knox c. 1513-1572 – The Scottish Reformer and preacher not only wrote much on the limits of government and the need to resist unjust tyranny, but he sought to bring about change in his own country, helping to set up Presbyterianism that continues to this day.

John Ponet (or Poynet) c. 1514-1556 – The British reformer and the Bishop of Winchester was among the more radical of the resistance thinkers, arguing for the need for limited government; the diffusion of political power; and, if need be, the right to overthrow tyrannical regimes, even by use of force. His 1556 A Short Treatise on Political Power was an important text on this.

Theodore Beza 1519-1605 – The French theologian and disciple of Calvin who succeeded him as a leader of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland. His 1574 The Right of Magistrates spoke of the need to protest against tyranny, especially in religious affairs. It also argued for the legitimacy of the people to oppose unjust magistrates, at times by the use of force.  

Christopher Goodman 1520-1603 – In his 1558 How Superior Powers Ought To Be Obeyed the English Reformer spoke at length about such things as how magistrates and rulers are to be under the law of God, and how they are to represent God and his word. When they refuse to do their duty, they are to be resisted.

Francois Hotman 1524-1590 – The French Calvinist, humanist and lawyer was one of the Monarchomachs (those opposed to monarchy). His major work Franco-Gallia (1573) laid out the case for government by consent and religious freedom, while railing against royal absolutism in France.

Philippe Du Plessis-Mornay 1549-1623 – A French Calvinist (Huguenot), anti-monarchist, military captain and theologian. He sought conciliation between Roman Catholics and Protestants, making his case in 1600: In Favour of the Council. He is also likely the author of the pseudonymous 1579 Vindiciae contra tyrannos.

Johannes Althusius 1557-1638 A German Reformer who was trained in Geneva and lived in the Netherlands. He is perhaps best known for his 1603 work, Politics Methodically Set Forth. It was both a mature summation and development of Calvinist political theory, as well as a systematic justification of the Dutch Revolt.

Samuel Rutherford 1600-1661 – The Famous Scottish Presbyterian pastor and writer. His most famous work is Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince, penned in 1644. It offered a theory of limited government and made the case for constitutionalism. It is a very significant work in the history of political philosophy.

The Magdeburg Confession 1550 – A group of German pastors laid out their defence of the doctrine of the lesser magistrates, and why they had to resist the 1548 Interim of Charles V.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 – The German Lutheran pastor and theologian was executed by the state because of his strong resistance to Hitler and the Nazi ideology.

While the great bulk of these folks were Reformers from the 15th and 16th centuries, others both before and after this period could be highlighted. Indeed, well before the Reformation many key religious thinkers were writing about such matters. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) for example is one very important theologian who devoted time and attention to this issue.

So this is by no means simply a Protestant matter, but one that all Christians of all stripes over the past two millennia have had to wrestle with and seek clarity on. It is hoped that as I present each of these articles, they will help us to think more carefully and more biblically about such issues.

Indeed, this is already article number 23 in my newly created sub-category, “Resistance Theory.” Please have a look at some of my earlier pieces for much more background on this.

Let me draw your attention to just three of these pieces: 

Christians and Civil Disobedience
The State Is Not Absolute
12 Biblical Cases of Civil Disobedience

Happy reading and reflecting. I hope this series of articles will be of use as we all carefully consider how we should relate to the powers that be, especially as they grow in size and scope, and increasingly push immoral, unjust or unbiblical laws and policies.

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