One of the challenges of this last year is the way in which Christians have been confronted with the need to think carefully about what it means to be a godly citizen — or, to write it this way, to be those whose Christianity self-consciously informs our responsibilities as citizens. Especially in the United States few of us, if pressed, could identify where the requirements of our citizenship have collided with our Christianity in a way that disrupts, inconveniences, or compromises our obedience to God. But the current societal climate has taken this topic off of the dusty shelf and put it into our every day conversations: “How can I be a godly citizen?”
Personally, I’ve been a bit disappointed by most of the public dialogue I’ve heard and read on this topic. Even among Christians there’s been over-the-top rhetoric about tyranny, a brutish need to self-assert "rights," a cowering in fear and anxiety, and a general lack of a wise and discerning spirit. Such responses don't inspire a lot of confidence that if true tyranny and persecution break out forcibly in our land we'll know what to do. Thankfully, we aren’t left to contemporary voices. The church has a long history of people who have struggled in far worse conditions and under far worse governments than are present in our small corner of world history. As we seek guidance for the present we should seek help from the past.
In my own efforts to untie some of the knots in my thinking one particular guide who I have appreciated is, maybe unsurprisingly, John Calvin. Individually and pastorally Calvin had to deal with the question of godly citizenship. At a young age he fled Paris due to contacts he had developed with anti-Roman Catholic people, eventually he would be expelled from Geneva for his uncompromising attitude, and in Strasbourg and again later upon his return to Geneva he ministered to persecuted French refugees. Calvin’s view on citizenship was informed by the Bible and forged in the flames of adversity.
In his most important work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin takes up a discussion on civil government in his section on spiritual government. From the outset he recognizes how strange it may seem to some that these two things — spiritual and civil government — should be joined together. Nevertheless, he understood it as necessary. That’s because a right understanding of the civil government will demonstrate how God has lovingly provided for mankind and a “greater zeal for piety.”
In his teaching Calvin wrote that “Civil government has as its appointed end, so long as we live among men, to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility” (4.20.2). Because of this Calvin regarded civil government as absolutely necessary and even honorable: “Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honor is far more excellent” (4.20.3). Civil government, Calvin argued, was not a construct of society but was itself ordained by God: “[T]hey have a mandate from God, have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly God’s representatives, in a manner, acting as his vicegerents” (4.20.4). He goes as far as to say that civil authority is “by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal man” (4.20.4).
After discussing the responsibilities of civil authorities —forms of government, use of force, waging war, taxation, public law, etc — he comes to the Christian’s obedience. Calvin regarded our attitudes as the place of first obedience: “The first duty of subjects toward their magistrates is to think most honorably of their office, which they recognize as a jurisdiction bestowed by God, and on that account to esteem and reverence them as ministers and representatives of God” (4.20.22), see e.g. Proverbs 24:21, 1 Peter 2:17, and Romans 13:5. Additionally, he said: “From this also something else follows: that, with hearts inclined to reverence their rulers, the subjects should prove their obedience toward them, whether by obeying their proclamations, or by paying taxes, or by undertaking public offices and burdens which pertain to the common defense, or by executing any other commands of theirs” (4.20.23), see e.g. Romans 13:1-2, 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Titus 3:1, and 1 Peter 2:13-14.
But, what about an unjust civil magistrate? Calvin isn’t ignorant enough to think that every civil authority does what they’re called by God to do, and often are careless and lazy and do things for their own pleasure (ahem...United States!). He also recognizes that the heart isn’t easily persuaded to obey the authority of tyrants in as much as is possible: “Indeed,” he writes “this inborn feeling has always been in the minds of men to hate and curse tyrants as much as to love and venerate lawful kings” (4.20.24). In answering this question Calvin offers a number of extremely useful comments —:
First, he answers that we need to remember a wicked ruler is God’s judgment on a people: “They who rule unjustly and incompetently have been raised up by him to punish the wickedness of the people […] A wicked king is the Lord’s wrath upon the earth” (4.20.25), see e.g. Job 34:30, Hosea 13:11, and Isaiah 3:4.
Secondly, even a tyrant possess the lawful power God gives to civil authorities and we are to be subject to them: “In a very wicked man utterly unworthy of all honor, provided he has the public power in his hands, that noble and divine power resides which the Lord has by his Word given to the ministers of his justice and judgment. Accordingly, he should be held in the same reverence and esteem by his subjects, in so far as public obedience is concerned, in which they would hold the best of kings if he were given to them” (4.20.25), see e.g. Daniel 2:21-38, Ezekiel 29:19-20, and 1 Samuel 8:11-17.
Third, he answers that we need to be more concerned with our duty than the duty of the civil authorities: “Every man should keep in mind that one duty which is his own. This ought to particularly apply to those who have been put under the power of others. Therefore, if we are cruelly tormented by a savage prince, if we are greedily despoiled by one who is avaricious or wanton, if we are neglected by a slothful one, if finally we are vexed for piety's sake by one who is impious and sacrilegious, let us first be mindful of our own misdeeds, which without doubt are chastised by such whips of the lord. By this, humility will restrain our patience” (4.20.29), see e.g. Daniel 9:7.
Fourth, we should commit ourselves to prayer. Calvin wrote: “Let us then also call this thought to mind, that it is not for us to remedy such evils; that only this remains, to implore the Lord’s help, in whose hand are the hearts of kings, and the changing of kingdoms […] Before his face all kings shall fall and be crushed, and all the judges of the earth, that have not kissed his anointed, and all those who have written unjust laws to oppress the poor in judgment and to do violence to the cause of the lowly, to prey upon widows and rob the fatherless” (4.20.29).
Finally, he answers that there is a single time when disobedience of a tyrant is obedience to God: “But in that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers, we are always to make this exception, indeed, to observe it as primary, that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to him, to whose will the desires of all kings ought to yield, to whose majesty their scepters ought to be submitted […] But since this edict has been proclaimed by the heavenly herald, Peter — ‘We must obey God rather than men’ — let us comfort ourselves with the thoughts that we are rendering obedience which the Lord requires when we suffer anything rather than turn aside from piety. And that our courage may not grow faint, Paul pricks us with another goad: That we have been redeemed by Christ at so great a price as our redemption cost him, so that we should not enslave ourselves to the wicked desires of men — much less be subject to their impiety” (4.20.32).