Chapter 7: The Limits Of Civil Obedience


A foundational premise of Francis Schaeffer’s message in A Christian Manifesto is that Christians became fragmented in their thinking concerning the American culture, society, and government. He argues that evangelical leaders failed to equip Christians adequately to recognize and address the radical shift taking place before their watching eyes. Thus, ministers unwittingly induced Christians in the pews to separate life into sacred and secular realms. This misguided compartmentalization prompted Christians to withdraw from the world around them and cede the public square to the burgeoning shift from the worldview governed by nature’s God to a worldview ruled by “material-energy, chance orientation generation” (89). Tragically this withdrawal from society intensified the worldly sacred-secular division

So, as the general society increasingly adopted a totalizing world and life view contrary to Christianity, all the while raiding aspects from it, evangelicals also shifted away from upholding and representing Christianity as the comprehensive view for all of life. Generally, following the lead of their ministers and teachers, Christians came to think and speak in terms of “bits and pieces” instead of holistically. They’ve lamented abortion, family breakdown, or the erosion of public school education, but they have failed to see that all of these symptoms are in fact part of one larger problem: an anti-Christian worldview rooted in humanism.

At the founding of the American nation, the Christian worldview was integral to the drafting of the Constitution and the shaping of the stated principles and actions even of individuals who were not Christians, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The gradual erosion of this worldview brought incremental changes throughout the nineteenth century. Schaeffer argues that during the first eighty years of the twentieth century a more rapid departure from that worldview subjected every institution to substantial alteration—whether family, school, church, or government.

Pietism’s “platonic spirituality” regards the “material” world as separate from and less important than the “spiritual” realm. Thus, Pietism’s “bits and pieces” view of the world could not withstand the ascendancy of Naturalism’s comprehensive worldview. Scientism, one of Naturalism’s spawns, sought to supplant the infinite Creator (whose providence is the basis of all reality) with a finite and supposedly self-sustaining creation. Naturalism is a view of the whole creation consisting of only material or energy that has always existed and has self-assembled into its present complex form by the random, unintelligent, and impersonal movement of evolution through billions of years.

Published just a few years after the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, A Christian Manifesto (1981) made the case that our nation’s prevailing worldview “violently opposed . . . what the Founding Fathers of this country and those in the thirteen individual states had in mind when they came together and formed the union” (89). He rightly argues that when the nation’s Founders declared independence from Britain and drafted the Constitution, they were guided by a basically Christian and biblical understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state. While many hastily assume America’s founding was birthed in rebellion, a more diligent inquiry reveals a conservative impulse that upheld the rule of law.[1]

1. On this point, see Gary L. Steward, Justifying Revolution: The American Clergy’s Argument for Political Resistance, 1750–1776.

Importantly, the worldview that gave birth to this nation, among both Theists and Deists, upheld the belief that creation’s God endowed humans with rights to be protected by the civil government as a “delegated authority” to which citizens are obligated to submit out of reverence for God (Romans 13:1–7). The antithetical worldview rejects belief in Creator-endowed rights and obligations to submit to the civil government. Among adherents of this rival worldview, only “force and patronage” (90)—that is, the Government’s possession of power and distribution of money—prompt obedience to the civil authorities (and even this obedience often depends upon which political party holds the power of government).

The Founders and all who acknowledge the Christian tradition accept it as self-evident that the God of creation established government to protect the unalterable rights with which he endows every human. Thus, God authorizes our rights and our duty to disobey the state whenever those in authority command “what is contrary to God’s Law” (93). Ironically, this is what Thomas Jefferson, a respecter of religion but not a Christian, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “. . . whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

It is little wonder why those who reject creation’s God as the author of government dispute a divine bestowment of inalienable rights. To them, the government occupies the place of God in bestowing rights and mandating duties. Yet, because election cycles determine who occupies positions of authority, their obedience is capricious. Because there is no Divine Being that transcends politics, they regard their duty to obey and their right to disobey depending on whether their political party holds power. They honor authorities who agree with their worldview, and they judge dishonorable officeholders with whom they disagree—regardless of true morality.

Christians, who understand what God requires, obey or disobey on principles, not whims or wishes. Schaeffer observes that wherever the Reformation flourished, two essential and inseparable aspects from the Christian worldview governed citizens: (1) because God ordains governments, he establishes proper order, including officials to whom honor is due (Romans 13:7); and (2) the obligation to honor God’s ordained civil authorities does not eliminate “civil disobedience” when magistrates command what God forbids or forbid what God requires (99).

Colonials fought the War for Independence to become governed by the rule of law, not the rule of the king. As Schaeffer avers, greatly instrumental in establishing this quest was Samuel Rutherford’s (1600-1661) Lex Rex, translated as either The Law Is King or The Law and the Prince. This revolutionary book was immediately banned by the governments of England and Scotland. Rutherford demonstrates from Scripture (Romans 13) that God alone establishes governmental authority, that every government is to be administered in keeping with God’s law, and that any governmental actions contrary to God’s law are morally illegitimate and tyrannical. Thus, Rutherford argued: (1) failure to resist tyranny, which is devilish, is to resist God; to resist tyranny is to honor God; (2) since God bequeaths governing authority conditionally for the good of the governed, the people have the right to retract their agreement if the conditions are not fulfilled; and (3) violation of the people’s trust warrants resistance against an “unjust and tyrannical government” (100–01).

Rutherford makes the case that Paul’s letter calls Christians to submit to governing officials, even as they live in the capital city of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, such submission does not mean silence, for God ordains civil officials to commend doers of good and punish evildoers. Christians are obligated to remind governing officials that this is their God-appointed role. Thus, when governors violate their role by commending evildoers and punishing doers of good, then Christians are obligated to resist. Failure to resist is to resist God (cf. Acts 16:35–37; 22:25–29; 23:12–35; 25:10–11).

On these principles, Rutherford reasoned that no magistrate should be overthrown because of merely one violation against the governed. Rather, only when the magistrate threatens the functionality of the nation’s governing structure (ours is the Constitution), then he needs to be removed from his position of authority.

Thankfully, the young but extraordinarily wise signers of our Constitution incorporated Rutherford’s principles. The Constitution, a brilliantly conceived establishment of human government, rightly provides no means for its own dissolution. Instead of “dissolving the political bands” of the Constitution, the founders established election cycles for government officials, authorizing the people to replace one government with a newly elected one.

Schaeffer concludes the chapter: “The whole structure of our society is being attacked and destroyed. It is being given an entirely opposite base which gives exactly opposite results. The reversal is much more total and destructive than that which Rutherford or any of the Reformers faced in their day” (101–102). If civil obedience has limits (chapter eight), at what point is civil disobedience necessary (chapter nine)? And if the situation in 1981 was so dire, how should Christians then act in 2022?

(Editor’s Note: As Schaeffer addressed specific applications in the following chapters of A Christian Manifesto, so our next few articles will apply Schaeffer’s categories to related issues today).

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.