We need to return to the insights of Schaeffer on runaway Statism:
I have often written about and quoted from the key Christian apologist and evangelist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). And I have often written about the matter of resistance theory – the idea that Christians may at certain times rightly challenge the state, resist the state, and even disobey the state.
And I have penned a few pieces bringing both of these items together as I discuss Schaeffer’s views on the state, the Christian, and the place of civil disobedience. See for example this article: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/09/04/schaeffer-the-state-and-absolutes/
For those who know nothing about this important Christian pastor, thinker and activist from last century, see this piece: billmuehlenberg.com/2009/10/14/notable-christians-francis-schaeffer/
Here I want to simply offer a number of quotes from Schaeffer on these issues. Of his 22 or so books, and his numerous sermons, talks and lectures, there would be a deep intellectual and theological well to draw from. But I will limit myself to just two of his books: A Christian Manifesto (1981) and How Should We Then Live? (1976).
I will mainly just present various quotes, although at times I will say a bit more about what I am sharing. The page numbers I offer are from the original editions of the books. Many of his earlier works are still available, but often today people will run with the five-volume The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer that first appeared in 1985.
There is much that can be shared here from A Christian Manifesto, especially chapters 7, 8 and 9 which deal with: “The Limits of Civil Disobedience;” “The Use of Civil Disobedience;” and “The Use of Force.” Let me just stimulate your interest with some quotes taken from chapter 7:
The civil government, as all of life, stands under the Law of God. In this fallen world God has given us certain offices to protect us from the chaos which is the natural result of that fallenness. But when any office commands that which is contrary to the Word of God, those who hold that office abrogate their authority and they are not to be obeyed. And that includes the state. . . . God has ordained the state as a delegated authority; it is not autonomous. The state is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing the wrongdoer, and to protect the good in society. When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny. (pp. 90-91)
But what is to be done when the state does that which violates its legitimate function? The early Christians died because they would not obey the state in a civil matter. People often say to us that the early church did not show any civil disobedience. They do not know church history. Why were the Christians in the Roman Empire thrown to the lions? From the Christian’s viewpoint it was for a religious reason. But from the viewpoint of the Roman State they were in civil disobedience, they were civil rebels. The Roman State did not care what anybody believed religiously; you could believe anything, or you could be an atheist. But you had to worship Caesar as a sign of your loyalty to the state. The Christians said they would not worship Caesar, anybody, or anything, but the living God. Thus to the Roman Empire they were rebels, and it was civil disobedience. That is why they were thrown to the lions.
Francis Legge in volume one of his book Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity from 330 B.C. to A.D. 330 writes: “The officials of the Roman Empire in times of persecution sought to force the Christians to sacrifice, not to any heathen gods, but to the Genius of the Emperor and the Fortune of the City of Rome; and at all times the Christians’ refusal was looked upon not as a religious but as a political offense.”
The bottom line is that at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state. (pp. 92-93)
He goes on to say this: “Through the ages Christians have taken the same position as did the early church in disobeying the state when it commanded what was contrary to God’s Law.” He discusses William Tyndale (c. 1490-1536) and John Bunyan (1628-1688) and then says: “In almost every place where the Reformation had success there was some form of civil disobedience or armed rebellion.”
In the next ten pages he briefly discusses a number of examples of this: the Netherlands; Sweden; Denmark; Germany; Switzerland; Geneva; Scotland; Hungary; France; and Spain. He also discusses Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) and his important work, Lex Rex: or The Law and the Prince (1644). He closes this chapter this way:
It follows from Rutherford’s thesis that citizens have a moral obligation to resist unjust and tyrannical government. While we must always be subject to the office of the magistrate, we are not to be subject to the man in that office who commands that which is contrary to the Bible.
Rutherford offered suggestions concerning illegitimate acts of the state. A ruler, he wrote, should not be deposed merely because he commits a single breach of the compact he has with the people. Only when the magistrate acts in such a way that the governing structure of the country is being destroyed—that is, when he is attacking the fundamental structure of society—is he to be relieved of his power and authority.
That is exactly what we are facing today. 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. (pp. 101-102)
And here are some portions of How Should We Then Live?:
Rome was cruel, and its cruelty can perhaps be best pictured by the events which took place in the arena in Rome itself. People seated above the arena floor watched gladiator contests and Christians thrown to the beasts. Let us not forget why the Christians were killed. They were not killed because they worshiped Jesus. Various religions covered the whole Roman world. One such was the cult of Mithras, a popular Persian form of Zoroastrianism which had reached Rome by 67 B.C. Nobody cared who worshiped whom so long as the worshiper did not disrupt the unity of the state, centered in the formal worship of Caesar. The reason the Christians were killed was because they were rebels. This was especially so after their growing rejection by the Jewish synagogues lost for them the immunity granted to the Jews since Julius Caesar’s time.
We may express the nature of their rebellion in two ways, both of which are true. First, we can say they worshiped Jesus as God and they worshiped the infinite-personal God only. The Caesars would not tolerate this worshiping of the one God only. It was counted as treason. Thus their worship became a special threat to the unity of the state during the third century and during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), when people of the higher classes began to become Christians in larger numbers. If they had worshiped Jesus and Caesar, they would have gone unharmed, but they rejected all forms of syncretism. They worshiped the God who had revealed himself in the Old Testament, through Christ, and in the New Testament which had gradually been written. And they worshiped him as the only God. They allowed no mixture: All other gods were seen as false gods.
We can also express in a second way why the Christians were killed: No totalitarian authority nor authoritarian state can tolerate those who have an absolute by which to judge that state and its actions. The Christians had that absolute in God’s revelation. Because the Christians had an absolute, universal standard by which to judge not only personal morals but the state, they were counted as enemies of totalitarian Rome and were thrown to beasts. (24-26)
If we as Christians do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have a real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon the absolute. This was the issue with the early church in regard to the Roman Empire, and though the specific issue will in all probability take a different form than Caesar-worship, the basic issue of having an absolute by which to judge the state and society will be the same. (256-257)
All this is only a small part of what he said in these two important books, and what he said elsewhere. But the quotes presented here should give you a feel for where he was coming from. In many ways Schaeffer was a man well ahead of his time. He really was a prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness.
But let me share one last Schaeffer quote, which actually comes from a 1994 book edited by David Hall called Welfare Reformed: A Compassionate Approach (P&R). R. C. Sproul opens his chapter on “Statism: Land of the Free? with these words:
“A number of years ago I shared a taxi with Francis Schaeffer in St. Louis. During our cab ride I asked Dr. Schaeffer: ‘What is your greatest concern for the future of America?’ Without hesitation or interval given to ponder the question, Schaeffer replied simply, ‘Statism’.” (p. 56)
With the rise and rise of Big Brother statism throughout the West, especially as it uses the excuse of dealing with Covid to further strip us of basic freedoms and human rights, the words of Schaeffer now more than ever are well worth listening to.