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Detail from The Tower of Babel by Peter Brugel, 1563.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

  • Genesis 1:1

“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”  This quote, or some variant to it, has been attributed to several prominent people.  In searching for the origin of the quote, I found it credited to such notables as John Knox, William Tyndale, and Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson used “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” on his personal seal.  Jefferson wanted to use this saying on the Seal of the United States

Whatever the origin of the quote, many Christians today are troubled by the notion that it is ever a Christian’s duty to resist tyranny.  Citing Paul’s injunction in Romans 13 “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities,” they take Paul’s command to be, if not an absolute, at least something very close to it. 

The extent of the civil magistrate’s legitimate authority came to the surface in 2020 with the coming of the Covid 19 restrictions across much of the world.  These restrictions not only affected schools, universities, and businesses, but also churches.  Sincere Christians, when considering how to react to government restrictions, in particular government restrictions on church meetings, came to different conclusions.  Some believed it was the duty of Christians to obey every command of the various civil authorities that restricted, or outright prohibited, church meetings.  Others considered it a Christian duty to resist such edicts.  Because of these different views, as a follow up to last week’s post on the divine origin of civil government, it seemed good to me to say something about the relationship of civil government to the church.

To take the suspense out of things, I’ll tell you my view of the matter up front.  Christians are required to obey civil magistrates, but only in the Lord.  The civil magistrate, while a legitimate minister of God, has limited authority.  This was also John Calvin’s view.  He wrote,

The characteristic of a true sovereign is, to acknowledge that, in the administration of his kingdom, he is a minister of God. He who does not make his reign subservient to the divine glory, acts the part not of a king, but a robber. He, moreover, deceives himself who anticipates long prosperity to any kingdom which is not ruled by the sceptre of God, that is, by his divine word (Institutes, Prefatory Address).

Later in the Institutes, Calvin wrote,

We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates – a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God (Book IV, Chapter 20.32).

It is the view of this author that the civil authority has no jurisdiction to regulate how Christian churches conduct their worship services, and that all such regulation represents overreach on the part of the civil magistrate. This is not to say that Christian ministers and Christians themselves are not subject to the governing authorities.  If Christians commit acts that are contrary to the law of God and the just civil laws of society, then they are justly punished by the civil magistrate.  But the regulation or prohibition of singing hymns, capacity limits due to Covid, or even outright prohibition on gathering on the Lord’s Day?  All such restrictions by the civil authorities are tyrannical and ought to be resisted by Christians everywhere.        

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RLL.Ep.42: Happy New Year 2021!
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