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Limited Government and Lawful Resistance in the Christian Tradition

Trusting too much in government is un-Christian and it always results in oppression and tyranny.
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According to the Scriptures, governments are conceived by God to exercise limited responsibilities. They are expected to accomplish only limited tasks. Their primary role is the protection of the innocent and punishment of the guilty according to the law. (Romans 13:3–4). As Scripture says: ‘[t]here is no authority except that which God has established […] For government is God’s servant working for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid. The government does not bear the sword for no reason. It is God’s servant, an avenger to execute God’s anger on anyone who does what is wrong’ (Romans 13:1–4).

Above all, governments should adhere to this biblical principle: ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’ (1 Corinthians 14:40; Exodus 18:19f). As long as a civil ruler does what is right, we should be obeying him. The Apostle Peter explains: ‘Submit you for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men, whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right’. (1 Peter 2:13–14).

And since power corrupts, and, as Lord Acton famously put it, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’, a government that disperses power is better than one that gathers power into the hands of a few. Accordingly, a rigid division of powers into separated and independent branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—, works as an important protection against abuse of power. Each branch of government must wield specific power so that the concentration of power, which is always inimical of freedom, can be prevented.

To restrain the abuse of governmental power, wrote Montesquieu, ‘it is necessary from the disposition of things that power should be a check to power’. ‘There is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separate from the legislative and executive’, he warned. And as Montesquieu also pointed out: ‘When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner’. According to Barton,

This separation of powers theory is rooted in the Biblical concept espoused in Jeremiah 17:9 that man naturally tends toward corruption. Following the religious teaching of the day, it was generally accepted that the unrestrained heart of man moved toward moral and civil degradation… Thus it was logical that society would be much safer if all power did not repose in the same authority. With the power divided, if one branch became wicked, the others might still remain righteous and thus be able to check the wayward influence.[1]

This separation of powers reflects the Trinitarian nature of God that is patterned after Isaiah 33:22: ‘For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our King.’  In The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu refers to ‘the mildness so frequently recommended in the Gospels’, concluding that this ‘is incompatible with despotic rage with which a prince punishes his subjects, and exercises himself in cruelty’. Hence the great French philosopher concluded: ‘We owe to Christianity, in government a certain political law, and in war a certain law of nations, benefits which human nature can never sufficiently acknowledge’.[2]

The Source of Basic Human Rights

A biblical worldview sees God as the ultimate source of rights and freedoms. Biblical Christians believe that humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), and that we are all valuable in God’s sight. This becomes clear when one considers that Christ took upon Himself human flesh and died on the cross for all humanity. The American Declaration of Independence reflects this Christian perspective when it proclaims: ‘All men are created equal […] [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ The assumptions inherent in this declaration are:

  1. we were created by a benevolent God in his image and likeness; and
  2. this Creator provides the foundation for all human rights.

The knowledge that our basic rights rest on an eternal source of legality is crucial to our understanding of politics. Bible-based Christians regard their fundamental legal rights as not originating from government, but God Himself. And what God gives let no government take away.

In this sense, political rulers are ordained by the natural law to secure the protection of inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. If these rights are not intrinsically tied to this Christian perspective, then such rights are arbitrarily assigned according to the whims of government – such rights would be ‘alienable’ and not ‘inalienable’. They would no longer reflect God’s unchanging character. This elementary truth is revealed by John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, in 1813:

The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could unite … And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were united … Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God.[3]

The Role of Government According to Scripture

Since human nature is capable of both vice and virtue, governments are created to keep our evil inclinations at bay. We must be protected from all sorts of evil—rapists, murderers, child molesters, thieves, sex traffickers, dishonest tax collectors, etc. The legitimacy of government, therefore, lies in its level of protection afforded to our inalienable rights. Considering that these rights are God-given and inalienable, George Washington, in his First Inaugural Address as President of the United States, referred to ‘the propitious smiles of Heaven which fall on the nation which does not disregard the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.’[4]

This leads to one inevitable conclusion: government has only limited responsibilities. Trusting too much in government is un-Christian and it always results in oppression and tyranny.

Socialism, in all its variants, provides the perfect example of abusive concentration of power in the hands of a few. Today, some utopian socialists even advocate for global government. If they prevail in their attempt to establish their ‘new world order’ (and a complete abandonment of God’s natural law), then we may well experience what Scripture describes as the coming of the Anti-Christ in the book of Revelation, Chapter 13.

In contrast to dangerous socialist teachings, the American Declaration reflects this approach by declaring that ‘all men are created equal […] and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ The statement ultimately reflects the teachings of John Locke (1634-1704), an English philosopher whose interpretation of Christian political philosophy was tremendously influential in both Britain and America.[5] Locke supported a view of human equality (and human dignity) that was deeply grounded in Biblical theology.[6] The veracity of biblical teachings was a ‘working premise’ in his entire political theory, which can be particularly observed in his comments on property, family, slavery, the role of government, and religious toleration.

Scripture advocates a political philosophy of limited government. It advocates an auxiliary role of government that is limited by law and subject to a proper system of checks and balances. Hence, in Second Treatise, Locke comments that our natural rights to life, liberty and property are independent of, and antecedent to, the State. For him, governments have no other end but the preservation of these natural rights, and, therefore,  ‘can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects.’ If a government exceeds the limits of its legitimate power, then we can dismiss it for its breach of trust.

Locke then elaborates on a ‘state of nature’ that is governed by natural laws predating the creation of the first government. In a state of nature, he wrote, everyone is governed only by natural laws that everybody is able to uphold and recognise through reason. This ‘law of nature’, Locke explains:

stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the law of nature, ie to the will of God of which that is a declaration. And the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no sanction can be good or valid against it.[7]

Under this Christian perspective, the government puts itself into a ‘state of war’ against the people whenever it undermines our fundamental rights and freedoms. Being God-given and inalienable, these rights cannot be diminished even if someone unwisely seeks to do away with them. After all, these rights set limits on the power of the State, thus providing even a lawful justification to resistance against tyranny should these rights ever be violated. To the extent that any government fails to protect these rights, such a government ceases to have legitimacy and it can lawfully dismissed for the breach of trust. As Locke put it,  

Whenever the legislators endeavour to take away and destroy the property of the people [that is, their rights to life, liberty and property], or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience, and are left to the common refuge which God hath provided for all men against force and violence.[8]

Locke’s teachings played an essential role in the development of constitutional, democratic government. He is known as the ‘Founder of Classical Liberalism’ precisely because of his moral, political and legal justification for the 1688 Glorious Revolution, in England. In the struggle of parliamentary forces against the Stuart monarchs, in 17th-century England, Locke elaborated a theory of government whereby the reason for having government rests entirely on the protection of inalienable rights. It is also indisputable that his defence of limited government inspired the American revolutionaries to draft their Declaration of Independence, and also the drafters of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee the rights of every citizen to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association.  

The Limited Role of Government

Statism advocates the ideal of a powerful State perfecting our social environment and ourselves. Advocates of statism believe that salvation can be found collectively. Such a belief in human perfectibility, and an excessive trust in government, is based on a misconception about human nature. And yet, many people are now inclined to look on government for every form of assistance. This may prevent such individuals from considering their own sense of self-respect and dignity. After describing the disastrous moral consequences of the ‘modern central state’, the Rev. Robert Sirico concluded:

The welfare state pursues its tasks in terms of a moral code increasingly alien from traditional Christian tenets. For example, the very concept of a welfare ‘entitlement’ runs contrary to the scriptural understanding of aiding the poor: helping others is a moral duty that springs from spiritual commitment and is not essentially exercised through coercion or government mandates. The modern, central state has proven itself incapable of distinguishing between the deserving and the underserving poor, and between aid that fosters independence and moral development from that which reinforces a dependency mindset and moral nihilism. [9]

Perhaps nobody has better explained the moral consequences of excessive government assistencialism than Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). A German political philosopher, in his celebrated ‘Limits of State Action’ he explained how an excessive intervention of the State in society inevitably weakens the people’s character by undermining their sense of solidarity, self-restraint, and responsibility. Humboldt soberly commented:

The evil results of a too excessive solicitude on the part of the State, are still more strikingly shown in the suppression of all active energy, and the necessary deterioration of the moral character. […] The man who is often led, easily becomes disposed willingly to sacrifice what remains of his capacity for spontaneous action. He fancies himself released from an anxiety which he sees transferred to other hands, and seems to himself to do enough when he looks to their leadership and follows it. Thus, his notions of merit and guilt become unsettled. […] He now conceives himself not only completely free from any duty which the State has not expressly imposed upon him, but exonerated at the same time from every personal effort to improve his own condition; and, even fears such an effort, as if it were likely to open out new opportunities, of which the State might take advantage […] Further, […]as each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens.  This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive; or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits […] where the feeling is most acute that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that oppressed classes of the community which are…overlooked by the government, are always bound together by the closest ties. But whether the citizen becomes indifferent to his fellows, so will the husband be to his wife, and the father of a family towards the members of his household.[10]

Although government assistance can do some good for those who may need a temporary boost to get back on their feet, this sort of assistance will never eliminate the more pressing moral (and spiritual) needs that lie at the heart of every dysfunctional behaviour. Most of the time what the recipient of government aid really needs is a strong message of hope, encouragement, work, and sobriety. To a greater extent, Pearcey explains:  

Government aid can actually make things worse. By handing out welfare checks impersonally to all who qualify, without addressing the underlying behavioural problems, the government in essence ‘rewards’ antisocial and dysfunctional patterns. And any behaviour the government rewards will generally tend to increase. As one perceptive nineteenth-century critic noted, government assistance is a ‘might solvent to sunder the ties of kinship, to quench the affections of family, to suppress in the poor themselves the instinct of self-reliance and self-respect – to convert them into paupers.[11]

The moral costs of excessive government intervention in other fields are more visible than in the area of family policy. Although the family as society’s primary institution is a means of acculturation and transmission of values from generation to generation, family ties in today’s Australia are so weak that fewer people think they can get any help or assistance from their family members. Most people in distress no longer expect to get proper help this way. Instead of providing for family unity and values, government policy has actually destabilised the traditional family with disastrous consequences. Whenever and wherever the family breaks down the state must step in as a substitute for the dysfunctional family – hence the gradual increase of the state’s jurisdiction over the family.

A Question of Obedience

Of course, we all have an obligation to respect and participate in government. (Romans 13:1–2).  However, our duty to obey human authority does not require that we follow those who stray from their lawful responsibilities. We must hold every authority accountable, for example, through our own political participation—voting, petitioning, and even running for political office, or serving in non-elected positions where we can influence power (Proverbs 29:2).

But we are required to first obey God and then human authorities. For example, when the Sanhedrin commanded Peter and John to stop talking about Christ, the apostles boldly responded: ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey man rather than God’ (Acts 4:19).

The bottom line is, ‘at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the State.’[12] Such disobedience may result in death or imprisonment. Daniel understood this and chose death over worshipping a tyrannical ruler (Daniel 6:7–10). And God always honours those who demonstrate this level of commitment!

The notion that laws should protect freedom is another legacy of Christianity. According to Scripture, ‘the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul’ (Psalms 19:7). Because the law of God is also described as ‘the perfect law of liberty’ (James 1:25), in one of his letters the apostle Paul counsels believers to ‘stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free’ (Galatians 5:1). Sir John Fortescue (1394-1476), a chief justice of the King’s See also: Bench under King Henry VI, certainly had these biblical passages in mind when he proclaimed:

A law is necessarily adjudged cruel if it increases servitude and diminishes freedom, for which human nature always craves. For servitude was introduced by men for vicious purposes. But freedom was instilled into human nature by God. Hence freedom taken away from men always desires to return, as is always the case when natural freedom is denied. So he who does not favour freedom is to be deemed impious and cruel.[13]

Another celebrated advocate of the Christian ‘Law of Liberty’ was Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780). His Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) were enormously influential and they are still considered a seminal source on classical views of the common law. To avoid political tyranny, writes Blackstone in Commentaries, no law can be valid if it violates our God-given, inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. Being inherent in the human nature as a gift of God to every human being, Blackstone concludes:

No human laws should be suffered to contradict these natural rights… Nay, if any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it, we are bound to transgress that human law, or else we must offend both the natural and the divine.[14] 

There are certain aspects of human life that are naturally ordained. The State has no legitimacy to control them. These are matters concerning the application of universal and objective principles that must be applied to every government, so that the inalienable rights of every individual can be enjoyed by all and suitably protected by a legal-institutional framework that constraints power in all its potentially destructive manifestations.

In this sense, the Bible contains many passages showing God’s support to lawful resistance to tyranny. They can be found, among other passages, in Exodus 1:17–21, Esther 3:2 and 4:13–16, Daniel 3:16–18, and Acts 5:29. These and numerous other passages in Scriptures led the early Christian theologian, Origen (c 185–254), to reach the following conclusion:

Where the law of nature, that is of God, enjoins precepts contradictory to the written laws, consider whether reason does not compel a man to dismiss the written code and the intention of the lawgivers, and to devote himself to the divine Lawgiver and to choose to live according to His word, even if in doing this he must endure dangers and countless troubles and death and shame.[15]

In terms of our lawful right to resist oppressive government, the Scots Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), in Lex Rex, comments that a political power, “whenever used to oppress it is not a lawful power, but a licentious deviation of a lawful power”.[16]  Inspired by the same biblical teachings, Locke, later in that same century, affirmed:

Whenever the legislators endeavour to take away and destroy the property of the people [i.e., their basic rights to life, liberty, and property], or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state or war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience, and are left to the common refuge which God hath provided for all men against force and violence.[17]

This Christian tradition of limited government and resistance is fundamental for the preservation of our inalienable rights and freedoms. It is so important a tradition that Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the drafter of the American Declaration of Independence, once asked rhetorically: ‘Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?’[18] Jeffrie G. Murphie, an American legal philosopher, answered that rhetorical question in the following manner:   

The rich moral doctrine of the sacredness, the preciousness, the dignity of persons cannot in fact be utterly detached from the theological context in which it arose and of which it for so long formed an essential part. Values come to us trailing their historical past; and when we attempt to cut all links to that past we risk cutting the life lines on which those values essentially depend. I think that this happens in… any attempt to retain all Christian moral values within a totally secular framework. Thus ‘All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ may be a sentence we must accept in an all or nothing fashion – not one where we can simply carve out what we like and junk the rest.[19]

I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I believe that it is even possible to assume that any effective protection against political oppression and tyranny cannot, in the long run, be sustained without the higher standards of justice and morality that were brought into the texture of Western societies by Christianity.[20]

St Ambrose (c 337–397) once explained that ‘a conscientious man must sooner die than obey a command which he knows is wrong’.[21] As a dedicated follower of Christ, St Ambrose knew very well that his ultimate loyalty did not lie in political authority, but rather in the Supreme Ruler of the Universe who made us free but who may call us to political action in an effort to preserve the ‘Law of Liberty’. 

Naturally, the involvement of the righteous can significantly influence government for the better. Charles Colson once stated: ‘Christians are to do their duty as best they can. But even when they feel they are making no difference, that they are failing to bring Christian values to the public arena, success is not the criteria. Faithfulness is.’[22] Of course, he is completely right and I dare to remind the congregation that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We must remain faithful to God and uphold His ‘Law of Liberty’ under all circumstances!


Address to the congregation, Covenant Baptist Church, RossmoyThis paper is based on his “Address to the Congregation” at Covenant Baptist Church in Rossmoyne, Perth/WA, on 24th October 2021.

[1] David Barton, Original Intent (Aledo/TX: Wallbuilders, 2005), p 215. 

[2] Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws[ 1750]Bk XXIV, Ch. 3.

[3] Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), pp 339–40.

[4] George Washington, First Inaugural Address, New York City, April 30, 1789.

[5] Thomas G. West, ‘The Transformation of Protestant Theology as a Condition of the American Revolution’, in Thomas S. Engeman and Michael P. Zuckert (eds.), Protestantism and the American Founding (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), p 88.

[6] Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke and Equality: Christian Foundations of John Locke’s Political Thought (Cambridge/UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp 27-28.

[7] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (c 1681), Ch 11, sec 135.

[8] Ibid, Ch 19, sec 222.

[9] Robert Sirico, ‘Subsidiarity and the Reform of the Welfare of the Nation State’, in Michelle Evans and Augusto Zimmermann (eds.), Global Perspectives on Subsidiarity (Springer, 2014), p 123.

[10] Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action [1792]. Ch. 3, at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/humboldt/wilhelm_von/sphere/chater3.html

[11] Nancy R. Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton/IL: Crossway, 2004) p 61.

[12] Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Grand Rapids/MI: Crossway Books, 1982), p 93

[13] John Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Anglie (Cambridge/UK: Cambridge University Press, 1949) Ch. XLII, p 105.

[14] Sir William Blackstone, The Sovereignty of the Law (London/UK: McMillan, 1973), pp 58-9.

[15] Origen, Contra Celsum, Bk 5, para 37.

[16] Samuel Rutherford, ‘Lex Rex’, or The Law and the Prince – Vol. 3, 34, in: The Presbyterian Armoury, 1846.

[17] Locke, above n.7, Sec 222.

[18] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia – Query XVIII: The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that state? (1781), at  http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/jefferson/ch18.html

[19] Jeffrie G. Murphy, ‘Afterword: Constitutionalism, Moral Skepticism, and Religious Belief’, in Alan S. Greenwood (ed.), Constitutionalism: The Philosophical Dimension (New York/NY: Greenwood Press, 1988), p 249.

[20] William Aylott Orton,The Liberal Tradition: A Study of the Social and Spiritual Conditions of Freedom (new Haven/CT: Yale University Press, 1945) p.57

[21] St Ambrose, Sermon Contra Auxent, paras 1–2.

[22] Charles Colson & Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), p. 19.


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