The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate: The Biblical Model for Resisting Tyranny
By Reed Benson
When we Christians are confronted with a legitimately established authority that commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, how should we respond? Can such an authority be removed? Does his failure de-legitimize him? Such questions are becoming highly relevant in light of the massive growth and invasive character of America’s federal government.
For generations who went before us, this has certainly not been a merely abstract question. We can be certain that there must be a way to resist tyranny that is within the bounds of biblical precept and thus pleasing to God. What is the manner in which we should proceed? How can we uphold godly standards and yet not be caught up in rebellion, a condition that God plainly abhors? Surely there must be some guiding principle which can steer us between rebellion against authority on the one hand and acquiescence with evil on the other. What is that principle? How do we handle this difficult problem?
As a beginning point, let us recognize that failure does not de-legitimize a lawfully established human authority. If it did, society would be in utter turmoil on a constant basis. All humans fail in their respective offices to some degree. There is no perfect father or mother. Kings and generals may grievously blunder. No representative, governor, president, or any other elected official will function without some failures. Neither can one find a single pastor, evangelist, priest, deacon, or any other leader in God's church who gets everything right all of the time. So, although we may be confident that a leader has committed a grave error, that does not mean he should be hounded from office. Unless there is a lawful, predetermined means for doing so (an article of impeachment and dismissal is an example regarding the President of the United States), removing a legitimately placed authority is a matter that falls within God's jurisdiction.
On a cautionary note, be warned that it is quite easy to slip into the sin of rebellion. Korah and his band of highly placed princes confronted Moses with what they believed were gross failures, yet God opened the ground and swallowed them up—along with all of their families (Numbers 16). God considered all of these men to be rebels and judged them harshly. Absalom was grieved by his father David's injustice over the incident when Amnon raped Tamar, a crime that went unpunished. This was a grievous failure in David's leadership. Yet when Absalom sought to remove his father from office, with the intention of providing superior leadership and justice, God abandoned Absalom and made his name a watchword for a faithless and rebellious son (2 Samuel 13-18).
Contrariwise, with equal ease we can find ourselves wrongly accommodating sin. It is often difficult to summon the courage to defy an intimidating authority. We are all aware of the pluck of the young Hebrew men Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who alone possessed the boldness required to avoid flagrant idolatry (Daniel 3). While we rightly applaud these three, were there no other Hebrews among the multitudes who were commanded to bow to the idol? Were there others who knew better, but found what they thought was a plausible excuse to humor the king and commit this sin? Perhaps some thought, "I am a father; what will happen to my children if I am put to death?" Or maybe some said to themselves, "I may bow my neck, but in my heart I am still standing straight as an arrow, so God will understand." It is evident that confronting a wayward authority involves considerable risk, so we should strive heartily to be prepared for this challenge.
Can We Employ Wartime Ethics?
A critical distinction must be made at the outset of our circumstances. We must employ extraordinary wisdom when dealing with an erring authority who has risen from among us to be our leader, that is, one who has come to power following the generally accepted protocol of our nation. This is in contrast to an "authority" who is a foreigner, a conqueror, a man who is an outside oppressor representing a foreign power. In the latter case, God's providential mercy grants more latitude to resist this false and foreign authority. These methods of resistance even include lying and taking life; this is a condition often referred to as the ethics of war. Human affairs can sometimes become so tangled up with sin that doing what is normally wrong is overlooked to achieve a greater good. Recognizing and properly employing these unique wartime ethics is why God blessed the Hebrew midwives, despite their lying to the Egyptian Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-20). It is also why Rahab was rewarded even through she lied to the authorities in Jericho who were searching for the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2), and why Ehud became esteemed for killing the Moabite King Eglon (Judges 3:12-30). Further, it is why David went unpunished when he deceived his Philistine master Achish (1 Samuel 27:1-12). In all of these cases, an ongoing condition of warfare existed between the Hebrews and the foreign nation whom the authority represented (Egyptians, Canaanites, Moabites, and Philistines).
However, these situations are not normative. We can never employ them in our routine personal lives and should not wish to. Are they applicable to our present political condition in the United States of America? Absolutely not—even under the blighted presidency of Barack Obama. He rose to power from among our midst, following the conventional channels to achieve his high office, and he was duly sworn in with all of the pomp and protocol that every other President enjoyed. Despite his obvious sympathies with Islam and his general disdain for traditional American values, he represents no foreign nation or power. Furthermore, tens of millions of native-born Caucasian Americans who share his worldview voted him into office. We therefore cannot employ the ethics of war and cannot justify lying, deceit, or violence of any kind. This returns us to our original quandary: when confronted with a legitimately established authority who commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, how should we respond?
The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate:
This approach was given its label during the Protestant Reformation, a period of unique oppression by tyrannical native rulers. In England, Scotland, the German states, Holland, and elsewhere in Europe, lawful monarchs were compelling the people to give unprecedented homage to the unbiblical edicts of the Roman Catholic Church. Fortunately, godly scholars and brave ministers scoured the Bible for principles under which relief could be sought. This scripturally derived strategy for resistance came to be known as the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate.
Of course, it was not a new method of dealing with the ancient problem of homegrown tyrants. Indeed, scholars not only cited many biblical examples, but additionally the classical Greco-Roman world offered additional illustrations of this common sense approach of lawful resistance to an established authority who had overstepped his bounds.
In brief, the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate declares that when a ruler attempts to impose unbiblical standards, a lower authority, a "lesser magistrate," is justified to stand in defiance against a particular unbiblical edict. Also called the principle of interposition, the lesser magistrate "interposes" himself between the higher authority and the people. He becomes a shield and protector of the unjustly oppressed people. In turn, the common man has the duty to offer appropriate support and encouragement to the lesser magistrate, who is taking on considerable personal risk on the behalf of others.
A modern American illustration of this could be a governor or state legislature interposing himself between the citizens of a state to protect them from an unbiblical law that our federal Congress and President have sought to impose upon all. Locally, a mayor, a sheriff, or even a pastor could act in the same manner. Let it be clear, however, that the governor, sheriff, pastor, or whatever lesser magistrate takes such steps is not acting as a private individual, but in his capacity as a legitimate authority by virtue of his office.
The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate is predicated on the biblical fact that all authority is delegated: no person—be he king, president, or pope—holds his office autonomously. God delegates this authority received in office, and thus all those in authority stand accountable to God. Therefore, when an authority commands that which God forbids or forbids that which God commands, we have the duty to "…obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29).
Beyond its theoretical aspects, another strength of the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate is its practical effectiveness. As mere individuals, we are relatively weak; while banding together in a collective mob with a self-appointed leader or one who has been slap-dab nominated by that mob may appear to meet the criteria of the lesser magistrate, it does not. God will not bless such a "mobocracy." History proves that such models of resistance lead to excess and new forms of tyranny. Instead, individuals must seek the cover of a legitimately established lesser authority who is willing to act as their champion.
Remember, all of this is to demonstrate resistance against a particular unbiblical edict of a higher authority who has derived his position by means of the normal protocol of the land. The point of resistance is not to assassinate the higher authority; nor is it to remove him from office or to make his rule so ineffective that he cannot execute the duties he is supposed to perform, duties such as “… the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well" (1 Peter 2:14). Persuading the higher authority to alter or rescind his unbiblical edict is the singular goal.
During the Protestant Reformation, a variety of scholars produced a series of documents that articulated the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate. In Germany, the Magdeburg Confession provided a model for godly resistance. John Calvin discussed this principle in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In Scotland, John Knox cites many biblical passages in his Appellation, encouraging the Scottish nobles to protect the people from the tyrannies of Roman Catholic oppression. These include 1 Kings 12, II Kings 11, Jeremiah 26:10-16, 36:9-31, and 37:10-21. In his Appellation, Knox wrote, "You are bound to correct and repress whatsoever you know him (the higher magistrate) to attempt expressly repugning to God's Word, honour, glory, or what you shall espy him to do against his subjects great and small." Other men of that era joined their voices in the declaration of the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate, including Theodore Beza, Phillip Mornay, and Philip Melancthon. Indeed, a number of Reformers who did not write about it directly nonetheless understood and utilized the principle. Most notable was Martin Luther, who was able to offer his brave defiance to papal heresy only under the cover of Frederick, the Elector of Saxony.
When faced with an unbiblical edict from a higher authority, the lesser magistrate actually stands in a position of great accountability with respect to God. He must either choose to do that which is right and protect the people from injustice or else join the higher magistrate in rebellion against God's commandments.
The American Revolution--
Was the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate applied in the American Revolution? Yes. The American War of Independence was not really a conflict between a king and his people, but is better characterized as a struggle between the British Parliament and the Continental Congress. With the singular exception of the "Boston massacre," there was virtually no mob action. Rather, resistance to parliamentary injustice was centered in the representatives appointed by colonial legislatures to the Continental Congress. It was this body that repeatedly appealed to both king and parliament for a redress of grievances. It was this body that declared independence. It was this body that appointed field commanders, recruited and paid the levies of soldiers, and directed the war effort. The men elected to the Continental Congress were members of their colonial legislatures and were neither self-appointed nor mob-appointed. All had extensive experience as either governors, colonial legislators, successful businessmen, or ministers. They were "lesser magistrates" with respect to the king, and "equal magistrates" with respect to members of the British Parliament. While we call it a revolution, the men who made it happen were not men of seditious, mutinous moods. Their decisions that gave us independence were made with forethought, patience, considerable reluctance, and finally, courage and self-sacrifice. A remarkably little known fact is that a wide array of ministers offered vital moral, spiritual, and material support through the entire period. Episcopal, Baptist, and Presbyterian preachers were lesser magistrates in their own domain of leadership, protecting their congregations and pulpits from real dangers.
The French Revolution--
Was the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate applied in the French Revolution? The French Revolution usually refers to an approximate ten-year period of tumult from 1789-1799 that saw several successive governments seek substantial change in France. Only in the early phase can it be argued that the principle of the lesser magistrate may have been upheld; this was when the National Assembly attempted to write a constitution that would provide France with a constitutional monarchy. This effort ultimately foundered. In large part, this was a consequence of massive and nearly continuous mob action in the city of Paris. The few seasoned, mature men in the National Assembly who had experience in local government were unable to restrain the emotional and violent outbursts of the mob both in the streets and in the galleries of the National Assembly Hall. Passionate, unprincipled men of excess, such as Marat, Danton, and Robespierre, manipulated the mob and fostered timely upheavals so as to enhance personal power. By the fourth year of the revolution, all notions of limited government were essentially abandoned; harsh state controls of food, speech, and religion were imposed. Arrests and executions were made on the flimsiest of evidence. The infamous "reign of terror" descended on France. This eighteen-month nightmare ended, but the power of the new central government nonetheless remained immense. Successive governments attempted to achieve stability, peace, and reform, but with no real success until Napoleon. Notably absent through this entire period were ministers or preachers to call the people back to God. Unlike America, there were no lesser magistrates with a biblical worldview. One is hard pressed to provide any satisfactory biblical defense of the French Revolution.
The American Civil War--
Was the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate applied in the American Civil War? This conflict has such deeply personal attachments that to even discuss this topic may alienate some readers. Indeed, some may be offended already because the author referred to it as the American Civil War rather than the War Between the States, the War of Southern Independence, or the War of Northern Aggression. But to return to the central point, yes, the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate was applied. The idea that our federal government holds sovereignty over the states in our American union was by no means an established point in 1860, when southern states began seriously considering secession. The Constitution does not expressly forbid secession. New England states considered secession in the latter phase of the War of 1812 and called a convention in Hartford, Connecticut in 1815 to explore that possibility. In 1832, South Carolina almost seceded over a federal tariff and was dissuaded only through the swift action of President Andrew Jackson. These precedents gave highly plausible grounds for southern states to consider secession.
When they did, was it on biblically defensible grounds? In terms of the methodology, absolutely, for state legislatures made decisions, and they were plainly filling the role of lesser magistrates. Most states peacefully made the decision following legal protocols and made no attempt to compel any other state to act contrary to their own inclinations. Neither was there any attempt to remove President Buchanan from office or prevent President-elect Lincoln from taking office. The southern states were simply saying, "We quit. Please leave us alone." In Scripture, God plainly was in favor of the secession of the ten northern tribes in the days of Jeroboam and Rehoboam (1 King 11:26-38). Thus, the secession of southern states may very well have been a viable option in 1860.
Was it wise to exercise that option? That is more difficult to clearly answer, for one can argue that secession was premature. In the case of Jeroboam and the northern ten tribes, they did not secede until their appeal was formally rejected and King Rehoboam had formally stated how he would treat them. But by January 1861, most southern states had already seceded—many weeks before Lincoln had even taken office, based only on how they thought he would treat them. No inaugural address had been given. No official presidential policies had been articulated. Furthermore, there are broader facts regarding slavery that the South should have recognized. It is often stated that the war was fought over states' rights, and that is true as far as it goes; but the particular right of the states that was being debated at that moment was slavery. Now the specific right that was under peril in 1815 was trade; in 1832 it was tariffs. In 1815, the potential secessionists decided the states' right that was under threat was not worth the anticipated cost. In 1832, the potential secessionists also decided to reconcile regarding the particular right that was menaced. But in 1860, they decided that the states' right that was under scrutiny (slavery) was worth defending, even if it meant war. Thus, to defend the wisdom of the 1860 secession, one must defend the institution of slavery.
Some suggest that the southern states seceded for reasons other than preserving the institution of slavery. This can easily be shown to be incorrect because four of the eleven seceding states issued formal legislative statements that explained their rationale. Of these four (South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas), three make plain that the protection of slavery is the only reason. Texas alone cites other causes, but nonetheless emphasizes slavery.
Was southern slavery biblical? Certainly, it was not the cruel institution depicted by lying abolitionists in the North. Their false, vitriolic propaganda contributed enormously to the crisis. But the reality that slavery in the South was mild or even comfortable for many Negroes does not mean it was biblical. Southern plantation owners should have never willingly imported other races to live and work on their property, whether as slaves or wage laborers. (The fact that cruel slave traders from Connecticut were involved does not excuse plantation owners; after all, they were never compelled to buy.) Scripture is plain enough that different races living in close proximity is to be avoided at all costs. Furthermore, the biblical model of slavery emphasizes its temporary nature, generally limited to seven years. Additionally, by 1860, much of the western world had already eliminated slavery. Thus, southern leaders, the lesser magistrates, should have perceived that ending slavery and returning Negroes to Africa or elsewhere was not only the politically expedient thing to do, but also was a biblically correct goal to work toward. While some southerners were willing to consider these options, too many southern leaders, the lesser magistrates, were not.
So, was the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate applied in the American Civil War? Although probably premature, the correct procedure was followed; the secession of the South was no rebellion or mob action. It was entirely reasonable for them to hold secession as a right to be exercised at their own discretion. But just because one has a right to do something does not mean it is wise to exercise that right in all circumstances. In Missouri, I have a right to shoot fireworks on my property whenever I wish, but to do so during a drought is unwise. We all have a right to drive our cars where we wish; but, as a White man, it is unwise for me to drive through an urban black neighborhood on a Saturday night. Similarly, the lesser magistrates of the South rightly possessed the right of secession in 1860. However, given what they should have known, it may have been unwise to take that step.
Application of the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate:
Does this principle apply to all authorities, such as a father in his home? There are three general spheres of human authority—divisions of labor, so to speak: family authority, church authority, and civil authority. The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate is most often utilized in the civil sphere, and it is best fitted for that arena; but yes, in broadest terms, it also applies to the church and the family. If, for example, a father commands his twelve-year-old son to steal, the son is not obligated to obey his father's plainly unbiblical order. Rather, the boy ought to appeal to his mother, who should interpose herself between father and son and appeal that the command to steal be rescinded. If the father persists with threats and violence, both mother and son should respectfully refuse to comply, protect themselves from the father as they are able, and obey God rather than man. However, this does not free either the son or his mother from the general authority of the father. They must obey the father in all matters that are consistent with Scripture.
What if no lesser authority can be roused to action? This is a signal that something may be amiss in your evaluation of a given command. It is possible that what you are convinced is an unbiblical edict may, in fact, not be. Rather, you may simply be a rebel looking for an excuse to flex your seditious spirit. The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate can be misappropriated in such a manner: one good clue that such is the case is when you cannot find a lesser magistrate to "come to your rescue." If, for example, the federal government issues a new law which you believe to be unbiblical, yet you cannot find a congressman, senator, state legislator, governor, sheriff, mayor, or pastor to agree with you, there is a real possibility that you have not correctly interpreted Scripture. Hesitation, reflection, and re-evaluation are the course you should pursue.
What if it just does not work, and the lesser authorities get crushed? That can and has occurred in history. God does not promise results that are fair and just. If you have deeply reflected and remain convinced that your cause is biblically sound, your resistance is under the cover of lesser magistrates, the noble cause has been pressed forward, and yet bitter defeat is the outcome, you are left with two alternatives. First, you can flee the jurisdiction of the oppressive higher authority to find relief. If that is undesirable or impossible, then you must simply suffer for the sake of righteousness. "But and if ye suffer for righteousness sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled" (1 Peter 3:14).
Are there any lesser authorities in America today attempting to apply this principle? Yes, not nearly as many as needed, but there are a few. For example, the office of the local sheriff is more powerful than what many have realized. Fortunately, sheriff associations have been recently rectifying the situation. Many county sheriffs have been resisting federal encroachments in their jurisdiction more than in the past. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona has received considerable attention for his courage in protecting the citizens of his county from illegal aliens when federal law enforcement agencies refused to act. Others sheriffs in western and mid-western states have followed his example. There are additional local and state officers that can exercise yet more power as lesser magistrates to interpose themselves between the people and federal abuses. Our encouragement is essential to their success.
Is secession still a viable political option for Americans today? As has been shown, Scripture provides for the possibility of political secession. And speaking practically, when a higher authority reaches a level of tyranny that threatens the very lives of innocents, such an option should not be ruled out. After all, secession is no more than a collective "We quit." However, it can be pressed forward only by legitimate lesser magistrates. Additionally, there are other alternatives that first must be vigorously pursued. The most important is the appeal. Honest, wise, and even pressured appeals must be made. In our nation we have a variety of ways to bring political pressure on our wayward higher authorities that may give our appeals some non-violent teeth. All of these must be utilized. Essentially, the act of secession is a final option, one that must be based on a biblically defensible cause and carefully weighed regarding the ultimate cost.
In 2014, the United States of America has grave problems. Since the roots of our sundry problems are all spiritual, that is where the solution really lays. Apart from a remarkable spiritual renaissance, a political option cannot solve our spiritual and moral crisis. Let us focus our prayers and energies toward personal and collective repentance. Then—and only then—will we have the wisdom to perceive how best to apply the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate to alleviate our plight.