Civil Disobedience In an Age of Tyranny:
Part 3

by Gerald R. Thompson

Previous: The Nature and Extent of Natural Rights
Next: The Limited Nature of Civil Power


The mistake people have made historically is to assume that civil government is this great achievement and/or supreme authority given among men, and then try to figure out how civil disobedience fits into that assumption. I have given you several reasons already why you should have a reasonable doubt that this is the proper starting assumption.

But before we can see how civil disobedience and civil authority truly fit together, we need to understand the nature of authority in general according to the way God has revealed it. So once again let’s resist the urge to jump to the bottom line, and make sure we clearly see the big picture of man’s authority on this earth. After that, we can see how civil power and civil disobedience relate to each other.

Here, I suggest, it is best to resort to first principles. However, I have covered this ground before, particularly in Legal Foundations: Framework of Law, ch. 6 (“Jurisdiction”). Not wishing to go through all the proofs again, let me here start with the main principles that I reached as a conclusion before, and then see how much further we can take them.

God’s Authority Framework

The Delegation Principle

All human authority is delegated, not inherent. Meaning, a) all authority ultimately belongs to God; b) some authority has been delegated to men; and c) God reserves for Himself all authority which has not been delegated. To which we can also add that accountability for any delegated authority runs solely to its source. Now, specifically, what delegations of authority has God made?

God created four institutions of human society: individuals, families, nations and the universal Church, in that order. Plus, God allows people to create their own voluntary associations. So on the one hand, we have institutions created by God which derive their authority from God, and then we have associations created by man which derive their authority from their members (the consent of the governed).

Of the institutions created by God, each has been delegated a certain sphere of authority in which to operate. This delegation was made, in each case, in one of two ways: either by divine covenant, or by the law of nature (being the will of God impressed in the creation). Two of the delegations made by divine covenant are the ones made to families as part of the Adamic covenant (i.e., the Dominion Mandate of Gen. 1:28), and the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) given to the universal Church as part of the new covenant in Christ.

The one delegation made via the law of nature and merely summarized at a later date is the Greatest Commandment (Mat. 22:36-40) given to individuals. Civil power, as we have already discussed, was first given to individuals as part of the Noahic covenant (i.e., the authority to execute murderers). Thereafter, when nations were formed, people delegated civil power to their respective forms of civil government. The nature of this civil power is summarized in the New Testament (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

Each of the institutions created by God has essentially two main purposes. For individuals, there is the love of God (morality and piety – or freedom of religion and freedom of the mind) and the love of our neighbors (which covers a whole range of topics on human interactions and the ways in which we wrong each other – including the laws of torts and crimes). Families have the twin purposes of child-bearing (which includes family interrelationships, sexuality and even education), and dominion (including economic rights and liberties, property, contracts, industry, labor, occupations and stewardship).

Nations have the dual purpose of punishing those who do evil (which means government should not punish doing good, nor should government be in the business of doing good things), and praising those who do right (which historically has been understood to mean that government should secure individual rights). And of course, the two purposes of the Church are to evangelize the lost and to teach all nations the laws of God (as explained in my essay The Great Commission And God’s Law).

God has created these four institutions and given each of them certain authority which He expects each one to carry out. These tasks are not optional, but each institution is under a divine duty to carry out the authority God has delegated to it.

And the duty of each as well is to refrain from carrying out any of the authority delegated to the other institutions. Thus, each social institution has only the authority which God gave it. Which leads directly into the next principle.

The Limitation Principle

All human authority is limited, not absolute. Meaning, a) human authority extends only to that which God gives him; b) human authority is limited by the terms of the delegation; and c) no one defines his own jurisdiction.

So on the one hand God delegates authority to mankind, but on the other hand we dare not exceed the express terms of the various delegations (because as we have just seen, each social institution has a separate grant of authority). The express language used by God limits the authority each institution has, and we have no right to expand the scope of authority beyond what God has provided for. This has two primary implications.

First, there are no implied powers in life. Which is to say, authority may not be implied in the absence of an express delegation (that is, silence must be construed as a restraint on what we can do, and not as permission to do more). Contrary to popular wisdom, it is not better to ask for forgiveness than to obtain actual permission – at least not as far as God is concerned.

We already saw how this played out in the case of Cain (Gen. 4) – when the power to punish murder had not yet been expressly delegated, no one could claim it. Similarly, God gave mankind in the Garden, “every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” (Gen. 1:29). Question – did this mean people at the time were allowed to, or prohibited from, eating meat? Answer – prohibited. Why? Because eating meat was not expressly delegated. We only need jump ahead to Gen. 9:3 (after the Flood) to see when the authority to eat meat was expressly delegated, confirming this analysis.

So when interpreting God’s delegations of authority, anything not expressly delegated is denied – which is exactly the opposite of the way the world typically views things. People prefer to operate on the principle that unless God expressly denies something, we have a free hand to do whatever we want. But this is not the way God operates. We cannot imply (or assume) the existence of authority that has not been expressly given. Silence is not evidence of a delegation.

This is reflected in the constitutional principle of enumerated powers, i.e., that unless the Constitution expressly grants a specific power to the federal government, it is reserved to the people or to the states (see, 10th Amendment). Which is again, of course, completely disregarded by the legal and political system today. Public officials so much prefer to assume that they have a free hand unless it has been expressly tied (not that they actually pay attention to any express limits either), even though the unambiguous history of the Constitution flat out prohibits that construction of it.

But no matter – we want to know how God operates, so we can better understand the scriptures.

Second, and this ties the Limitation Principle directly back to the Delegation Principle of God’s reserved authority, there are some things God has not given anyone the authority to do. The things not delegated remain with God to deal with as He alone sees fit. And we have no right to step in and expand our authority so we can fill in the “gap.” The fact is, there are some things God does not want us to handle, so filling the gap (by handling those things) is exactly the opposite of what God wants us to do.

Rather than doubling down and asserting our right to do the things we should not (the typical and oft repeated human response), we should instead pull back from doing these unauthorized things, and to restrain ourselves from indulging in the lust for power. Which at the same time explains where the inevitable human tendency towards tyranny comes from, and why it is so offensive to God. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.

The Diffusion Principle

All human authority is diffuse, not concentrated. Meaning, a) God delegates authority via His covenants with people; b) God hasn’t given any person total authority; and c) the diffusion of powers is the rule, that is, there are no exceptions.

What I mean here is that no one’s authority is exclusive with respect to any basic social institution or sphere of God-given authority. Thus, as so ably taught by John Locke in his First Treatise of Government in 1680, all men are created free and equal with respect to each other, and no man is born with the right to rule over any other man. Similarly with families – each family unit is co-equal with every other family that ever was. No family is entitled to rule over any other family.

The same is true for churches, as well. No visible church is above any other visible church, and no visible church has any rightful claim to exclusively represent God, or speak for Him, or wield spiritual authority. God has a pattern, and He sticks with it – no exceptions.

Moving to nations, we see the same scenario playing out. All nations are co-equal and independent, and none has the right to rule any other nation. This is the plain assumption of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, claiming a right on behalf of the newly formed United States of America “to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”

Here we must draw a distinction which I have raised before, namely, that the equal status before God and among nations only applies to nations as such, and not to any civil government formed by the people of a nation.

Because governments are created by men, not God, no government has the inherent right to be the exclusive government of any nation. Nations can, and have, rightly dissolved and changed governments from time to time. No civil government has what might be called a right to life or even the right of self-preservation, vis-à-vis its own constituency. Against foreign powers, yes, but against the will of the governed, no.

We have already discussed how, on account of this, civil governments derive their authority from the people and not directly from God. Which ultimately means that civil governments do not stand in the same position as nations in God’s authority framework – a distinction which is absolutely crucial in understanding Rom. 13 and 1 Pet. 2, for example.

For there is yet one more corollary derived from the Diffusion Principle I will explore in the next section. Namely, not only do all individuals stand equally before God, and all families with other families, etc., but in the big picture, individuals, families, nations and the Church all stand equally with respect to each other. However, civil governments and visible churches do not share in this equality – for the creations of men can never stand equally with the creations of God.

I suspect you may need more convincing – so let’s look at this matter in detail.

God, Caesar, and the Private Sector

Our ultimate goal, remember, is to understand the nature of civil authority and individual authority in relation to each other, in order to understand the nature of civil disobedience. And to do that, we have to look at both in the full context of God’s authority framework. I suggest there are three main guiding principles:

1. Individuals and families are co-equal with the Church and nations. One of the remarkable beauties of God’s system of authority is that none of the delegations to individuals, families, nations or the Church overlap with each other. If the various delegations of authority are read narrowly (i.e., without implied or self-defined powers, or with a strict construction) then they never conflict. If you have ever read anything about “sphere sovereignty” before, you have probably seen Venn diagrams of overlapping circles showing, ostensibly, areas of intersection and/or overlap between the various “spheres,” i.e., individuals, families, nations and the Church – or something similar.

These diagrams seem to make sense (to those who don’t know better), but they are another lie. There are no areas of intersection or overlap. The state has no interest in educating children – none whatsoever. The state has no interest in providing an economic safety net to at risk families – none whatsoever. All people have religious liberty, but only the Church has authority to spread the Gospel. I could give many more examples, but in the end God never expects the same authority to be shared by multiple social institutions. All families share the same authority to bear children (the Diffusion Principle), but child-bearing authority is never shared with individuals, the Church or nations. And so on.

To say otherwise is to deny and thwart God’s revealed will concerning who has authority to deal with these things. Don’t be seduced by the illusion of shared or overlapping authority. God is a clever guy – He is not the author of confusion. (1 Cor. 14:33). He is perfectly capable of keeping things straight. And He never delegates the same authority to two different institutions. Nor has He ever given one institution oversight or supervisory authority over any other institution.

When we follow God’s design and plan, none of these basic institutions actually conflict with each other. When conflicts arise, it is inevitably because someone has assumed (i.e., usurped) authority they do not actually have. This is not to say there can never be points of disagreement between people as to which institution has rightful jurisdiction over a matter. But the progress of society is measured, in large part, by how well we have learned the lessons of history to help us determine when any given institution has overstepped its bounds.

When, as is common today, civil government and political society are stepping all over everyone else’s toes and interfering in matters not divinely entrusted to them, it is an indication that society is moving backwards, not forwards – regressing, not progressing.

But chiefly, God’s principles of authority show that I stand (individually) before God shoulder-to-shoulder with all other holders of divine authority. I am not above them, nor are they above me. When it comes to the private purposes entrusted to me (freedom of religion, freedom of the mind, and general dominion), I have plenary authority – total power and right – to exercise these as I see fit without interference by absolutely anyone on earth. And so do all individuals and families.

2. There is no direct divine delegation of civil authority. I noted earlier that visible churches and civil governments were not formed by God, but by people, and these are not to be confused with the invisible Church or nations, respectively, which were both created by God. I deal with the distinction between visible churches and the invisible Church at length in the essay, Five Biblical Principles of Church Government. I deal with the distinction between nations and civil governments in The Right To Alter Or Abolish The Government. So forgive me for not repeating here everything I said in those essays.

But the upshot is this: God never created any actual civil government by divine fiat – even the theocracy of ancient Israel was formed only by the express consent of the people. And in that case, having a king was never God’s idea, but was the desire of the people. God reserved the right to select their king, but in each case the authority to rule sprang directly from the people. Ancient Israel followed the general rule, that all governments spring from the consent of the governed as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and this understanding rests on the bedrock principle that God makes nations, and men make governments.

The scriptures nowhere indicate that God either forms any civil government, or directly vests any person with civil authority or the right to rule others. And there certainly is no biblical principle by which we might understand that God is in the business of forming the civil government of any Gentile nation, or appointing any of their civil rulers.

Nor did God ever create any visible church body, assembly or denomination. No group calling itself a church on this earth is equivalent to the universal Church (the body of Christ) as created by God, regardless of what any of them might claim. The body of Christ is a spiritual concept only, over which no one has jurisdiction except Christ alone. All churches (small “c”) are merely voluntary associations created by men, which are also subject to the consent of the governed. And whatever spiritual authority God handed out to members of His body belongs to all members equally – there is no hierarchy of authority among members of the universal Church.

Why do I make this point? Because it removes from the two most oppressive social forces in history (i.e., church and state) the possibility that either of them speaks for God, or that either of them wields divine authority. Yes, I’m talking about your church, and your nation/state, whatever they may be. Civil government has the general authority God delegated to nations (subject to the express delegations of the people), but public officials are accountable to the governed for the exercise of that authority – they are not accountable solely to God (remember, accountability runs to the source of authority). The exact same thing holds true for churches (prepare yourself): ministers and church staff are accountable directly and primarily to the members, and not solely or primarily to God.

I can almost guarantee you that anyone saying otherwise has a profound personal conflict of interest. If you hear either a public official or a religious minister tell you they are accountable only to God for their actions and not to you as a member of the public or as a member of the church, they have only one purpose in mind, and that is to limit your authority while expanding their own – a classic conflict of interest. Therefore, a public official and a religious minister are the least trustworthy and least neutral persons on earth to be advising you who they are accountable to.

With respect to civil government, we can make one further observation, namely, that government is the mere agent of the people. In other words, the authority of the people is primary and original, whereas the authority of civil rulers – all civil rulers – is secondary and derivative. As between the people and their government, the people are superior, and the government is inferior. Once again, civil government is not this super great thing, or ultimate achievement, to be held in awe and to which we owe total submission or passive obedience. It is a mere creature, not divinely invested, subordinate and inferior to the people. And therefore, not to be held up as the measure of obedience to God.

3. Ungranted powers never default to civil government. I hope you can see by this point that there are in fact four major players in society, not two. So casting social policy debates in terms of church vs. state, is generally misleading at best. If you want to make a generalization, go with Caesar vs. the private sector, where the private sector is made up of individuals, families, churches and all other voluntary associations. But nobody is in charge of the private sector – it is composed of equal and independent institutions which act autonomously and each has full authority within their respective grants of authority.

The private sector includes, but extends far beyond, churches and matters of religion. The tacit assumption of many Christians throughout history is that the vast bulk of the non-religious private sector (especially business and commerce) belong to the jurisdiction of Caesar because they are not religious in nature. However, the biblical injunction to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” (Matt. 22:21) makes no assumption that the non-religious private sector belongs to Caesar, nor that God’s jurisdiction is limited to religious matters.

I suggest quite the opposite: only specifically defined purposes and powers belong to Caesar (the biblical equivalent of the enumerated powers principle), and everything not expressly delegated to Caesar belongs to people who are not Caesar as they stand before God. The eight purposes granted by God to mankind (two to each basic institution) comprehend everything in life that is legitimate for people to do. Thus, if God didn’t expressly grant a particular authority to Caesar, then either: 1) He must have granted it to the private sector; or 2) God reserved it for Himself.

That is the default position. Absent an express grant of authority from God to the people, either as members of the private sector or in their capacity as the foundation of civil power, any ungranted authority is reserved to God alone – and among men, no one has it. At no point does civil government pick up the leftovers (i.e., any authority beyond what has been expressly delegated). And it matters not one bit how laudable or desirable the social goal is. Just because something is perceived as a social good does not make it authorized before either God or men.

Let me get specific here, so you know exactly what I’m talking about. Business and commerce are the province of the private sector (vis-à-vis the Dominion Mandate). Yes, civil government can eliminate barriers to commerce and to some extent regulate international trade, but it has no business deciding who can go into what kind of occupation, or regulate employee hours and wages, or impose regulatory burdens (i.e., unfunded liabilities) on what are otherwise lawful commercial activities. And most certainly, civil government has no right to go into business itself, or to invest in particular businesses, or pick winners and losers in any field of commerce (such as by granting licenses to do business to some but not others).

There are, of course, many other things God left to the private sector which civil government should stay out of, among them education, child care, charitable works, social services, health care, insurance, and too many other things to mention.

And then there are things God has not authorized anyone to do – punishing hate or hate crimes, judging hearts and minds, trying to achieve perfect justice, creating a utopia, and providing a remedy for all possible wrongs, redistributing wealth, reversing global warming, saving the planet, minimizing our carbon footprint, etc. There are many problems government can’t fix, shouldn’t try, and will only make worse if it does.

So the mere fact that there is some persistent evil in society (such as religious or racial prejudice) does not mean that if the private sector is unable to restrain or eliminate that evil, it defaults to civil government to undertake the task. No, the default setting is that unless something clearly and logically fits into the proper jurisdiction of only one of the four basic institutions God created, it falls to none of them. Society’s job is to let God deal with it as He sees fit, not for us to intervene, and most certainly not to expand the role of civil government so that public officials can wield more power.

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*     Copyright © 2018 Gerald R. Thompson. All rights reserved. Used by permission.