Francis Schaeffer, the State, and Civil Disobedience

Some key quotes by Schaeffer on this important issue:

For quite a long time Christians in the West did not think much or worry about unchecked statism and the need to disobey leaders in civil government. If thought was given to resisting the state and facing the consequences of a hostile government, attention usually turned to Communist countries and the like.

Or believers might think of the persecution and suffering that so many Christians were undergoing in Muslim-majority nations. But as the West becomes not just increasingly post-Christian but more and more anti-Christian, then it becomes ever more apparent that believers must think carefully about our own times and our own situation.

Does the state ever become so bad, so immoral, and so opposed to God and his laws that resistance to it becomes necessary? I obviously think so, since this happens to be the 117th article I have now penned in my series on “Resistance theory.” You find all the pieces here:

The very important American apologist, writer, pastor and thinker, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) thought long and hard about such matters, and wrote and spoke about them often. Many of these quotes I would have shared before in various articles, but here I seek to bring most of them together in one place. I will just offer them in the books or talks they are found in:

How Should We Then Live? (Fleming H. Revell, 1976)

“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.” pp. 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.
|“Here is a sentence to memorize: To make no decision in regard to the growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it.pp. 256-257

Image of A Christian Manifesto
A Christian Manifesto by Schaeffer, Francis A. (Author) Amazon logo

A Christian Manifesto (Crossway, 1981, 1982)

“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.” p. 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. . . . 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

“Please read most thoughtfully what I am going to say in the next sentence: If there is no final place for civil disobedience, then the government has been made autonomous, and as such, it has been put in the place of the living God. If there is no final place for civil disobedience, then the government has been made autonomous, and as such, it has been put in the place of the living God, because then you are to obey it even when it tells you in its own way at that time to worship Caesar. And that point is exactly where the early Christians performed their acts of civil disobedience even when it cost them their lives.” p. 130


“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’.” R.C. Sproul, in David Hall, ed., Welfare Reformed: A Compassionate Approach. P&R, 1994, p. 56

Throughout the whole history of the Christian Church, (and again I wish people knew their history. In A Christian Manifesto I stress what happened in the Reformation in reference to all this) at a certain point, it is not only the privilege but it is the duty of the Christian to disobey the government. Now that’s what the founding fathers did when they founded this country. That’s what the early Church did. That’s what Peter said. You heard it from the Scripture: “Should we obey man?… rather than God?” That’s what the early Christians did.

Occasionally – no, often, people say to me, “But the early Church didn’t practice civil disobedience.” Didn’t they? You don’t know your history again. When those Christians that we all talk about so much allowed themselves to be thrown into the arena, when they did that, from their view it was a religious thing. They would not worship anything except the living God. But you must recognize from the side of the Roman state, there was nothing religious about it at all – it was purely civil. The Roman Empire had disintegrated until the only unity it had was its worship of Caesar. You could be an atheist; you could worship the Zoroastrian religion… You could do anything. They didn’t care. It was a civil matter, and when those Christians stood up there and refused to worship Caesar, from the side of the state, they were rebels. They were in civil disobedience and they were thrown to the beasts. They were involved in civil disobedience, as much as your brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union are. When the Soviet Union says that, by law, they cannot tell their children, even in their home about Jesus Christ, they must disobey and they get sent off to the mental ward or to Siberia. It’s exactly the same kind of civil disobedience that’s represented in a very real way by the thing I am wearing on my lapel tonight.

Every appropriate legal and political governmental means must be used. “The final bottom line”- I have invented this term in A Christian Manifesto. I hope the Christians across this country and across the world will really understand what the Bible truly teaches: The final bottom line! The early Christians, every one of the reformers (and again, I’ll say in A Christian Manifesto I go through country after country and show that there was not a single place with the possible exception of England, where the Reformation was successful, where there wasn’t civil disobedience and disobedience to the state), the people of the Reformation, the founding fathers of this country, faced and acted in the realization that if there is no place for disobeying the government, that government has been put in the place of the living God. In such a case, the government has been made a false god. If there is no place for disobeying a human government, that government has been made GOD.

Caesar, under some name, thinking of the early Church, has been put upon the final throne. The Bible’s answer is NO! Caesar is not to be put in the place of God and we as Christians, in the name of the Lordship of Christ, and all of life, must so think and act on the appropriate level. It should always be on the appropriate level. We have lots of room to move yet with our court cases, with the people we elect – all the things that we can do in this country. If, unhappily, we come to that place, the appropriate level must also include a disobedience to the state.

If you are not doing that, you haven’t thought it through. Jesus is not really on the throne. God is not central. You have made a false god central. Christ must be the final Lord and not society and not Caesar.

May I repeat the final sentence again? CHRIST MUST BE THE FINAL LORD AND NOT CAESAR AND NOT SOCIETY. (Excerpts from a talk delivered in 1982 to the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida. )  

[1855 words]

6 Replies to “Francis Schaeffer, the State, and Civil Disobedience”

  1. (Very) Good Bill !
    I think you describe Schaeffer in a correct and true way.
    “The very important American apologist, writer, pastor and thinker”.
    It is an important “mark”, too often described his as a philosopher and Dr. Schaeffer.
    Schaeffer himself said he was an “evangelist.”
    What do I want to say with this, well that we don’t need to strive to apply to the philosophy programs at our universities…
    It is clear that our Lord can lead us to become skilled, credible so-called apologists….

  2. Thank you so much for this article, you articulate the situation so well.
    I wonder how this topic of (who is lord of your life or the fulfilment and application today of the first and second commandments) would be received by Christians in the pews of Australia today.

  3. Thank you so much Bill. This really hit home with me. We are indeed seeing the same things happen today with freedom fighters and whilstleblowers being put into jail for communicating corruption in govts.

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