Most thinking Christians have heard the Romans 13 mantra enough to know they disagree with it. Romans 13 does teach that Christians should obey the civil magistrate, but it does not teach that one should always obey unilaterally. But many Christians who agree with that do not want to be caught planning the next tax revolt. Is there a middle ground to “always obey the civil magistrate” and “never obey”? Yes, and Matthew Trewhella provides it.
Trewhella answers this question by discussing something that is called “the doctrine of lesser magistrates.” He says that “[t]he lesser magistrate doctrine declares that when the superior or higher civil authority makes unjust/immoral laws or decrees, the lesser or lower ranking civil authority has both a right and duty to refuse obedience to that superior authority.” (p. 2)
Trewhella then gives some helpful examples from Scripture. The Hebrew midwives in the book of Exodus are one commonly known example. He also gives the example of Saul and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14. Saul had made a decree that “‘Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.’” (v. 24). But Jonathan, who was not present for this declaration, later on ate some honey. (v. 27) “Then the people said to Saul, ‘Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it! As the Lord lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.’ So the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die.” (v. 45). The people interposed between Saul and Jonathan to protect Jonathan from an unjust decree.
What this shows is that whatever Romans 13 means, it does not mean unilateral obedience. We are told in that chapter that the Hebrew mid wives feared God and because of this disobeyed Pharaoh. (v. 17) Whatever Romans 13 means, it must be reconciled with Exodus 1, 1 Samuel 14, Jeremiah 26, the various acts of disobedience the apostles engaged in (Acts 4:3, 8; 5:18; and others), and various other Scripture passages.
There are also example from history, as when Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius in the 4th century for unjustly killing 7, 000 people in Thessalonica as reprisal for some men in the city having killed some Roman officers. (p. 6-7) The cover of the book itself depicts King John signing the Magna Carta in 1215 at swordpoint. His nobles were interposing on behalf of the people and forced the king to sign the Magna Carta to curb King John’s tyranny. (p. 2)
With how the most recent election has gone, I am sure that all sorts of delightful turmoil is on the horizon, and if Christians want to be a force of reformation and stability for society in the coming years, we must recover this doctrine. If you do not know where to start, start with this book; it can easily be read in less than a week. If we want peace and reformation, we must learn how to interpose on behalf of the rights of others and do so in a way that shows that “the peace of Christ” truly does rule in our hearts. (Col. 3:15)
You can get your own copy of Trewhella’s book at Amazon here.
Five questions I would like to ask Matthew Trewhella:
- Is violent uprising ever justified?
- What is your view of incrementalism?
- If you have a group of Christians who are thoroughly persuaded of your thesis, what sort of “marching orders” would you give them? How should they get involved in such a way as to conceivably resist tyranny?
- What are the next five books you would recommend someone to read on this sort of topic?
- What sort of areas of government are most Americans most ignorant about?