‘Put up thy sword into his place:  for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.  Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?’  S. Matthew 26:52ff.

I recently had a theological exchange with another Anglican clergyman which began oddly enough with the mostly non-theological matter of mask-wearing.  The subject will probably seem very strange some years from now, but in the summer of 2020 it is very much an issue of public debate and concern.  In brief, Christopher Little argued that there is no reason to wear a mask due to concern for the coronavirus disease 2019 (CoViD-19).  I replied that I thought there was at least one good reason, which was to show moderately good manners.

One reaction to this reply came from a third party who argued that catering to the sensitivities of those who want other people to wear masks amounts to an irrational and even uncharitable surrender to superstition and error.  When I questioned this reaction, the same person replied that he is an expert in respiratory diseases and that he knows that the mask-wearing is futile or even counterproductive for the purpose intended.  At that point I did not attempt to discuss further the efficacy of wearing masks.  When a clergyman is discussing a technical subject with someone who holds himself forth as an expert in that subject, and when the clergyman himself has no such expertise, he should not actively continue a debate unless he is willing to investigate the claimed credentials of the self-described expert, consult and then quote other experts, and otherwise proceed to a level of knowledge and authority which, in this case, seems disproportionate to the importance of the subject in question.  I abandoned the discussion for the same reason I believe clergymen should be careful and reticent when entering political discussions:  baptism and ordination bestow no prudence or technical knowledge about, in this case, respiratory disease transmission.  I might add that I think, on the basis of no particular expertise, that objectively the usefulness of mask-wearing is in fact probably small.  The argument from good manners remains, I think, but once that point is made, I have no wish to press it further.

Father Little and I, however, then became involved in a more general discussion concerning, not the utility of mask-wearing, but the authority of civil requirements governing the matter.  In effect the discussion concerns the moral status of Christian disobedience to the magistrate.  What kind of disobedience is permitted, if any? Who possesses the right to disobey?  What are the limits and conditions under which a right to disobey may be morally exercised?

In brief, Father Little argues for a right to active disobedience and rebellion by Christians, for which he uses the example of the American Revolution.  I argue that there is no such right to active disobedience.  Christians only possess a right to refuse to perform an intrinsically immoral command.[i]  In addition Christians refusing a command to act immorally are, I contend, obliged to suffer patiently any consequences flowing from such passive disobedience.  This position, commonly called the theory of passive obedience or, more strictly, of passive disobedience, is presented in more detail in two other posts on this blog:




In contrast, Father Little asserts that he is ‘under no obligation to obey unconstitutional or irrational laws.’  Since the locus of a determination of constitutionality and reasonableness seems to be himself or other individuals, I described this position as ‘good Americanism but bad Anglicanism.’  He replied, ‘I don’t believe there is only one Anglican understanding of this issue.  That’s why some Anglicans fought on the side of the colonists, [and] drafted a constitution that is anything but monarchical’.

The mention of monarchy is a red herring, since the classical doctrine I maintain is not specific to any particular regime form.  Saint Paul in Roman 13 does not argue for the desirability of monarchy or for the so-called divine right of kings, though he mentions kings.  What Saint Paul maintains is the divine right of government:  ‘…there is no power but of God:  the powers that be are ordained of God’ (13:1).  All governments are instituted by divine authority and enjoy a right to obedience, not only because the subject or citizen is compelled to obey by fear of punishment for disobedience, but also because of what Saint Paul calls ‘conscience’s sake’ (13:5).  That is, God sustains the right of government to our obedience:  ‘Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God:  and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.’ (13:2)  The Christian is commanded by apostolic authority to ‘submit’ himself ‘to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake’ (I Peter 2:13), and if a man in any station of life ‘for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully’ he does that which ‘is thankworthy’ (I Peter 2:19).  Disobedience is condemned by the apostle Paul:  ‘damnation’ in Romans 13:2 translates krima (‘sentence’, ‘judgement’, or ‘condemnation’).  In contrast, to suffer due to obedience is blessed as ‘thankworthy’ by the apostle Peter.

The obligation to obey extends to all governments.  While the Christian must not do evil or actively obey a command to do evil, he is obliged to obey actively the magistrate’s commands to do good.  The magistrate has a general responsibility for the common good that is greater than that of individuals or of subordinate authorities.  The magistrate also usually has greater knowledge and better information than is available to individuals.  Therefore, in addition to a duty to obey lawful and godly commands, there is also a general obligation to obey the magistrate’s indifferent commands, commands which are neither intrinsically good nor bad.  When a Christian refuses to obey actively an immoral command, he may only do so passively and so as to avoid active rebellion or resistance.  In such a case the disobedient Christian also must patiently accept punishments imposed by the magistrate.  Such acceptance of punishment shows the moral and religious sincerity of the Christian and proves that he is not simply shirking a duty he finds irksome or inconvenient.  Only such passive and civil disobedience is open to Christians.

Apart from the red herring concerning monarchy, Father Little’s reference to ‘some Anglicans’ who fought in the American Revolution deserves further attention.  During the American Revolution most Anglican clergymen in America in fact were loyalists, not revolutionaries.  Samuel Seabury, who later became the first bishop in America, is a famous example of such loyalist Anglicans.  Of those Anglican clergy and learned layfolk who were inclined towards revolution, many were also inclined towards Deism or semi-Deism, heresies that unfortunately were fairly common in the mid- and late 18th century.  Deists as a rule do not patiently wait upon vindication of their rights by God in his good time because they do not believe that God is actively engaged at all in the running of human affairs.  Deists, and revolutionaries, believe they need to act in the place of God.

In my exchange with Father Little I did not mention these two facts about the Anglican colonial clergy.  I did, however, note that the most prominent of Anglicans to whom Father Little probably meant to refer were only nominally Anglican laymen.  I noted that ‘Jefferson and Madison and Washington’ all, though nominal Anglicans, were in fact Deists who ‘had abandoned Christianity by middle age.’  In later life, I might add now by way of example, while Washington would on occasion go to church, particularly to hear a friend preach, he ceased to receive the sacrament.  Father Little did not respond to or challenge this answer.  One not knowing the history of the period might wonder why the Virginians named were Anglicans at all.  The answer is simple:  in the colonial period in Virginia a political career usually began with service on a parish vestry, which required membership in the established Church of Virginia.  Likewise, only Anglicans were permitted to serve in colonial Virginia’s legislature, the House of Burgesses.  The quest for political authority and jobs tended to produce ‘Anglicans’ who were not in any serious sense Anglican.

Despite the heterodoxy of those nominally Anglican Virginian laymen, and of other revolutionaries elsewhere such as Benjamin Franklin, most of the Anglican clergy even in Virginia and Maryland were loyalist in their sympathies.

After American independence, Washington and several other of the Founding Fathers continued to value Christianity for non-religious reasons.  As Washington famously noted in his ‘Farewell Address’, religion is an educative support to governments among those who are not of refined education and exceptional ability.  That is, Washington seemed to say, while he did not need religion, the lower orders do.  Washington even provided lukewarm support for maintaining the legal establishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia, precisely for such educative and moral reasons.  This mild regard for the effects of religion did not keep the newly independent states from appropriating Church property and institutions, such as the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Regarding the Revolution, in any case, it appears that the ‘some Anglicans’ mentioned by Father Little were really ‘very few Anglicans’.

The principal name among those few was William White, later bishop of Pennsylvania.  White’s brother-in-law was the wealthy and prominent revolutionary financier, Robert Morris, and White’s loyalty to the revolutionaries was rewarded when he was made chaplain to the Continental Congress.  The behavior and fate of the Anglican clergy in the revolutionary period in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were typical.  Even White ‘felt some hesitancy about the propriety of revolt’ but went along with the majority and, after making his decision, he ‘adhered unflinchingly to’ it.  William Smith, the Provost of the College of Philadelphia, seemed to hold shifting views and ‘was placed under surveillance by Congress as a suspicious character’.  At one point, White was the only Anglican clergyman left in the whole of Pennsylvania.  In New Jersey ‘all of the ministers’ but one ‘closed their churches after they had been threatened with prosecution [by the revolutionaries]’.  William Ayers was dragged from his pulpit for saying the prayers for the king.  Several priests fled the colony.[ii]  Violence and disrespect towards loyalist clergy occurred in many places.[iii]  The relatively few Anglican supporters of rebellion did not present so far as I know strong theological defenses for rebellion.

Apart from the revolutionary Anglicans, Deistic and otherwise, Father Little in the course of our exchanges adduces very few names or specific cases.  The two main exceptions are Leonidas Polk, the bishop of Louisiana and a general officer in the Confederate army, and Anglican supporters of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in England (1688-1689).  I will return to these examples later.

Otherwise Father Little’s discussion of authorities is very sketchy.  He asserts that his reading of Scripture supports his belief in a right to active resistance, but he does not adduce any specific texts, or defend such texts from alternative interpretations, or provide Patristic evidence for his own interpretation.  The specific theologians mentioned by Father Little are mostly Anglican supporters of my position whom he mentions in order to reject.  The few others specifically claimed by Father Little as supporting his teaching in fact do not, as I will now show.

Father Little asserts that his resistance theory

…goes back from the Enlightenment to the Protestant Reformation to a stream of resistance theory running from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas. That is, it stems from *Catholic* theology….

Father Little also asserts that my posts on passive disobedience show some medieval and Catholic antecedents for his theory.  On the basis of these Catholic authorities (Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and other medieval writers mentioned by me), and perhaps on the basis of unnamed writers of the Protestant Reformation, Father Little denies that his position is merely a Lockean or Enlightenment position.

It is true that Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas are weighty authorities to whose arguments Christians should give serious attention.  In fact, however, neither Saint Augustine nor Saint Thomas presents a resistance theory.

Saint Augustine, far from supporting a right to rebellion, is a font and well-spring of the theory of passive resistance, as are the other Church Fathers who write on matters related to the subject.  One might summarize Augustine’s position by repeating, ‘Romans 13, Romans 13, Romans 13.’  Augustine asserts that no matter how wicked or despotic a ruler may be or become, rebellion against him can never be justified.  We must refuse a command to disobey the law of God, but we may only disobey passively.  Even the power of a thoroughly wicked emperor such as Nero, Augustine writes, comes from God and cannot, therefore, be removed or rejected by human beings:  which fact explains the New Testament injunctions to obey and pray for the emperor even when the emperor was Nero or some other anti-Christian.  Two passages from Augustine’s City of God are typical:

Nero Caesar…was the first to reach the summit…of…vice…luxuriousness …cruelty…effeminate in his character.  Nevertheless power and domination are not given even to such men save by the providence of the most high God, when He judges that the state of human affairs is worthy of such lords.  The divine utterance is clear on this matter; for the Wisdom of God thus speaks:  ‘By me kings reign, and tyrants possess the land’ [and] He ‘maketh the man who is an hypocrite to reign on account of the perversity of the people’.  [Book V, Chapter 19] 

[W]e do not attribute the power of giving kingdoms and empires to any save to the true God…He who gave it to the Christian Constantine gave it also to the apostate Julian.  [V.20]

In Augustine’s view, bad rulers have a positive, God-given role:  they are a divine scourge sent to punish men and nations for their sins, and they may not be rebelled against.  Saint Augustine, in short, argues for the classical Anglican position, which is my position, not Father Little’s position.

Father Little writes me that he ‘simply’ does not ‘agree with your interpretation of the Romans and other pertinent texts, especially given the American theory of the derivation of political power.’  But an American theory has no authority to contradict the plain sense of Scripture (‘the powers that be are ordained of God’, Romans 13:1, etc.) when the same Scripture is so clearly taught and reiterated by Fathers of the Church such as Saint Augustine.   Father Little’s positions on the origin of authority as well as a supposed right to active resistance are outside the central Christian tradition.  The American theory has its origins over a millennium after the writing of Scripture and cannot therefore illuminate Scripture’s sense.  American theory properly governs interpretation of American law by American courts and American citizens but does not, and does not claim, to govern interpretation of Christian authorities by Christians, most of whom are not Americans.  An American may have a right as an American which he may and does not exercise because he is Christian.  Americans may, for instance, freely neglect the worship of the Church under the first amendment to the Constitution, but doing so is sinful nonetheless.

The passages from Augustine which I have cited are not eccentric or unique.  Jason Michael Hastings, a recent writer on rebellion theory in Augustine, Calvin, and Adams, summarizes Augustine’s position simply and correctly:  ‘Augustine rejects rebellion as a morally permissible political activity in all cases.’[iv]  Hastings argues that some statements in Augustine’s huge corpus, claimed by some writers as exceptions to Augustine’s general rejection of rebellion, are in fact nothing of the sort.[v]  Again, Augustine supports the general Anglican position on passive disobedience.  This fact is not surprising, since classical Anglicanism tends to be heavily Augustinian in most respects.

In this matter Augustine represents the mainstream Patristic view, which in turn simply explains not only Romans 13, but also the practice of Jesus, of the apostles, and of the post-New Testament and later martyrs in their relations with the civil authorities.  Here are a few, typical statements from Fathers and early ecclesiastical writers, all breathing the air of the holy martyrs, concerning non-resistance:

Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence the delinquencies of sins. (Saint Clement of Alexandria [ANF II, p. 581])

Hippias is put to death laying plots against the state:  no Christian ever attempted such a thing in behalf of his brethren, even when persecution was scattering them abroad with every atrocity. (Tertullian [ANF III, p. 51])

We do not resist those who injure us, for we must yield to them.  (Lactantius [ANF VII, p. 182])

For this reason it is that none of us, when he is apprehended, makes resistance, nor avenges himself against your unrighteous violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful.  Our certainty of a vengeance to follow makes us patient. The innocent give place to the guilty; the harmless acquiesce in punishments and tortures, sure and confident that whatsoever we suffer will not remain unavenged, and that in proportion to the greatness of the injustice of  our persecution so will be the justice and the severity of the vengeance exacted for those persecutions.  (Saint Cyprian of Carthage, ANF V, p. 462)

In the Nicene and post-Nicene era one could, in addition to Saint Augustine, mention Saint Gregory the Great and many others with similar teachings.  The multiplication of pertinent citations is unnecessary, as they are so plentiful.

Saint Augustine, then, does not make for Father Little’s position.  What about Saint Thomas Aquinas?  My first blog post cited above presents Thomas’s repudiation of a right to rebellion or active disobedience.  In general Thomas argues that the enormities of a tyrant are preferable to the alternative of disobedience or rebellion.  It is true that I did present in my blog a statement from a modern commentator, who suggests that the right to self-defense, which Thomas recognizes, could serve as a beginning to an alternative or partial exception to the basic Thomistic assertion of standard passive disobedience theory.  That argument, however, is not developed by Thomas.  At most, Thomas might be read as potentially, though not actually himself, presenting ideas that might be developed into a line of argument contrary to the basic New Testament and Patristic position.  Insofar as Thomas might have been inclined under some circumstances to pursue the development of theory that he in fact did not pursue, he would have done so because of his ecclesiology, which I will discuss next in relation to John of Salisbury.

The first real, significant supporters of a right to active resistance – Father Little’s position – are John of Salisbury and others in the 11th and 12th century who resisted royal power in the controversies that now are most familiar to students of English history in association with Thomas Becket and Henry II.

In our exchange, I mentioned some of the facts of that period, including the high papalism and ecclesiastical authoritarianism that seem to undergird the resistance claim.  This mention was met by Father Little with a demurral of discussion:  ‘The historical minutiae do not concern me; it is enough for me that there is a case for resistance based on both biblical precedent and the Church’s reflection…’.  But this response is in fact question-begging.  I assert with evidence that there is no such precedent or Church reflection supporting resistance until the high papalism and ecclesiastical authoritarianism of the Middle Ages.

I do not know all of the Patristic literature, and I am prepared to be instructed.  Where are the relevant Patristic citations?  In the Pre-Reformation era who apart from medieval supporters of extravagant papal claims stated an active resistance theory?  Lutherans and Anglicans both firmly reject resistance theory.  Nor, I believe, is there any substantial New Testament case for the theory.  I have shown Patristic evidence against the theory.  Father Little simply is not engaging the evidence adduced by the weighty writers whose names I supplied in our exchanges and in my blog articles:  the Tudor Homilies, Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, Henry Hammond, Jeremy Taylor, and the Wesleys, to which I have here added Tertullian, Saint Cyprian, Saint Augustine, Lactantius, Saint Gregory the Great, Luther, Samuel Seabury, and, one might add further, the Nonjurors (see below) and a host of others.

In the case of the papalist authoritarians of the Middle Ages, their position is weak.  The case for rebellion against civil rulers rested as much as anything on what now are universally admitted to be forgeries, namely the False Decretals and the ‘Donation of Constantine’.  An ecclesiastical exalté who believes that all authority on earth, whether in Church or state, derives from and depends for its continuance on papal approval will, of course, believe in many kinds of legitimate resistance by the omnipotent Church and by those whom the Church authorizes.  But the papalist underpinnings of such a theory should not much impress, one would imagine, an Anglican.

Among Protestants the supposed right to resist the magistrate is asserted first by some in the radical Reformation.  The kind of person who, in Luther’s pungent phrase, has ‘swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all’, naturally will believe himself in a good position to resist any contrary authority on the basis of personal, individual inspiration.  The Calvinist position, which seems much more circumscribed than Father Little’s, does not rest on such claims to immediate inspiration.  This Calvinist tradition, with its history of resistance to prince bishops in, for example, Geneva, to Mary Queen of Scots, and to James II, is probably the principal precedent available to Father Little.  That precedent is definitely not Catholic and is, in terms of Church history, very late.  The real power behind resistance theory now is secular in origin and flows from the Enlightenment and later modern secular sources, though it undeniably has some Reformation support also.

On two occasions Father Little refers to his position and mine as ‘theologoumena’, with the implication that as such they are equally plausible theories which do not compel consent from traditional Anglican or Catholic Christians.  While I do not believe that a political theory is or can be dogmatic in the same way that, say, the Nicene Creed or Chalcedonian formula of 451 is, neither do I believe that the two alternatives regarding resistance are equally plausible and open for Christian acceptation.  Anglican writers in the 16th and 17th centuries regularly speak of the ‘doctrine’ of passive obedience and call it the badge of English Churchmen, in contrast with the Puritans and the Jesuits.  For Henry Hammond, passive obedience is simply ‘the doctrine of the cross’.  Saint Paul calls down an anathema on resisters.  I do not see our two positions as having anything like similar plausibility based on the authority of Scripture as reasonably interpreted by the consensus of Christian tradition.

Now, back to Bishop Polk and the ‘Glorious Revolution’.

Bishop Leonidas Polk did not understand himself to be engaged in rebellion against lawful authority.  Prior to the American Civil War many Americans both north and south understood their own states to be the locus of their primary obedience and obligation.  When, for instance, Thomas Jefferson referred to his ‘country’, he usually meant Virginia, not the United States.  In that same era many Americans believed in a right of the states under the Constitution to nullify federal laws and believed in a right of the originally and still potentially or essentially sovereign states to secede as sovereign entities from the United States.  These rights to resist the federal government, its magistrates, and its laws, many then believed, flowed mainly from the basic and original sovereignty of the individual states rather than from an individual right of resistance and rebellion, though some may have believed in such an individual right also on Hobbesian, Lockean, or Jeffersonian grounds.

As one 19th century writer reported, Bishop Polk held that

…the original sovereignty of the government resided in the several States, and that the Federal government held only delegated powers, which might be withdrawn by the States at their own discretion in the exercise of their original sovereignty; hence he held the secession of the South to be a constitutional and valid act.[vi]

Polk, therefore, indeed understood himself to act not in rebellion but rather in obedience to the sovereign authority of his nation.  Since Polk believed, further, that ‘the Church must follow nationality’[vii], he supported, with Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia and the other Southern bishops, the establishment by the Southern dioceses of a separate Church, despite saying there were no doctrinal or personal differences with the Northern dioceses and their bishops.

I certainly object to Bishop Polk’s engagement in military activity, which was and is inconsistent with the clerical state.  Bishop Polk’s political action, however, is not itself an example that contradicts general Anglican teaching on obedience.

That said, let me also note the wisdom of the gospel with which I began this post.  Our Lord commanded that Peter put down his sword and warned that ‘all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword’.  General Bishop Leonidas Polk, who took up the sword for a cause far less noble than the protection of Jesus Christ from unjust arrest, died by the sword – or, at any rate, by a Northern bullet.

Is the example of the complex of events in 1688 and 1689 commonly referred to as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ more promising for Father Little’s position?  For brevity’s sake I will refer to this set of events as ‘1688’.

The irony of the use Father Little makes of 1688 is that it unfolded largely because a group of devout Anglican bishops and divines took seriously their obligations under the doctrine of passive obedience, which most of them scrupulously observed.  1688 is an illustration of passive obedience in action.

King James II, who was baptized in the Church of England but became a Roman Catholic against the example of his father, acceded to the throne in 1685.  An attempt to prevent his succession (the so-called Exclusion Crisis) and to overthrow him (Monmouth’s rebellion) were defeated not least because Anglican clergy refused to oppose the succession of James, the lawful heir to his brother, Charles II.  James professed appreciation for the Church’s loyalty to himself and his father and he issued assurances that he would maintain the existing settlements in Church and State.  Unfortunately, not least for James himself, he did not keep his word.  In 1686, in addition to granting dispensations to allow Roman Catholics to avoid the limits of the Test Acts, James intruded Roman Catholics into Anglican benefices and into positions in the universities.  These actions and others like them disquieted the nation, where Roman Catholicism was very unpopular.

In 1688 James commanded that a ‘Declaration of Indulgence’ be read in the Anglican churches on two Sundays in May.  The ‘Declaration’ was held by many to be illegal, in that it by royal authority alone claimed to suspend all laws that established religious tests and oaths for office holders and all application of penal laws in matters of religion.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, with six other bishops and six divines, drew up a protest in the form of a petition to the king.  The bishops did not encourage anyone to resist the king, left it to every parish priest whether or not to read the declaration according to the royal command, but also refused to order the reading, which they believed to be illegal.  The bishops’ petition was wildly popular:

…the churches were thronged….When [the Seven Bishops] passed to Westminster Hall the people crowded about them and knelt to be blessed, and when any of them walked through the streets they were at once surrounded, ‘the people,’ says Lord Clarendon, ‘thinking it a blessing to kiss any of those bishops’ hands or garments.’[viii]

In response to the passive episcopal resistance, James had the Seven Bishops imprisoned in the Tower of London on June 8th.  The bishops were tried on June 29th on a charge of seditious libel.  The jury met all night and on June 30th the bishops were acquitted.  The jury verdict produced popular rejoicing and showed that the king’s popularity was very low.

The bishops obeyed their theory, supported the lawful succession of James II despite his religion, disobeyed the king only passively, quietly accepted arrest and trial for themselves, and thereby very effectively showed the sincerity of their beliefs, which no one doubted.

The further irony is that many of these same bishops and their supporters, whose moral courage led indirectly to James’s fall, then because of their godly consistency suffered from James’s opponents.  A national revolt of a non-passive kind led to the replacement of James by his daughter and son-in-law (Princess Mary and Prince William of Orange – Mary II and William III).  William invaded England in November 1688 after receiving an invitation from many prominent Englishmen.  This so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ met with rapid success.  The faithful bishops and their followers, however, refused to break their oaths of allegiance to James or to swear an oath to William and Mary.  Even when the new oath was framed so as to allow ‘wiggle room’ for someone looking for an excuse to conform, these bishops and their followers refused to take the convenient path.  Therefore these people are called the Nonjurors, or ‘non-swearers’.

Father Little, like most Whigs and liberals (in the classical sense), celebrates 1688 and its consequences.  For Anglicans, however, those consequences were mostly disastrous.

Before considering these disasters, what of the benefit of 1688 for Anglicans?  It might seem at least that 1688 ensured that England and her Church would not become Roman Catholic, for which Anglicans would be grateful.  In fact, however, it is unlikely that James could have succeeded in introducing Roman Catholicism in England.  One prominent historian notes that ‘James II turned out to be the most religiously tolerant English monarch since the Reformation.’[ix]  The same historian believes that ‘Roman Catholics were such a small proportion of the population that it can scarcely be said that they posed a significant threat to the Protestant establishment in Church and state.’ (Harris, p. 183)  It appears that James’s attempts to grant his coreligionists relief through the use of royal dispensations were sincerely believed to be legal by his contemporary advisors and that the glorification of 1688 mostly reveals the ‘preoccupations and biases of Whig mythology’ (ibid.).  In any case, it seems likely that Anglicans gained little benefit from 1688 by way of protection from a perceived Roman Catholic threat, though at the time the threat no doubt appeared more dangerous than it was.

If that benefit was probably minimal or nil, on the negative side 1688 definitely led, first, to the near destruction of the Anglican Church in Scotland, where the Scots archbishop and many in the hierarchy and clergy were principled Nonjurors.  William handed the Scottish churches and endowments over to more pliable Presbyterian fellow Calvinists, while faithful Nonjuring Anglicans were dispossessed and persecuted for many decades thereafter as probable Jacobites.

Secondly, in England William reversed the disabilities of Dissenters and many of the Anglican triumphs that began with the Cavalier Parliament after the 1660 Restoration.

Thirdly, within the English Church itself the theologically orthodox were divided into two parties, one Nonjuring and one conforming to the new order.  In other words, the principled Nonjurors, who refused the illegalities of James II, were then punished by William III:  their livings and sees were seized, their persons persecuted and suspected.  Archbishop William Sancroft, the leader of the Seven Bishops in 1688, was deprived of his office on February 1, 1690.  So too the saintly Bishop Thomas Ken of Bath and Wells, also one of the Seven Bishops, was deprived under William.  In all, in addition to Archbishop Sancroft, seven bishops and about 400 priests were deprived in England.  The resulting division of orthodox Anglicans into Juring and Nonjuring parties lowered the tone of the clergy and aided the very damaging rise of Latitudinarian and Deistic opinion.  Tolerationism, heresy, and indifferentism were all strengthened by that division.

In regard to 1688, then, what Father Little praises was in religious terms a profound disaster from which, arguably, Anglicans suffered for centuries.  In political terms, however, 1688 was less than it seems.  The same dynasty remained in place, since Mary II was a daughter of James II.  Mary and her successor and sister, Anne, were faithful to the religious legacy of their grandfather, the royal martyr, Charles I.  Apart from the flight of James and his followers and the expulsion of the Nonjurors, the nation remained largely the same:  a mixed regime with a Stuart monarch, with mostly the same hereditary peers and many of the same bishops in the House of Lords, and with a similar more popular component in the Commons.  1688 was in effect a civil war that shuffled the favored elements of the same ruling class.  There was some increase in the power of Parliament, a setback in the status of Roman Catholics, and a practical weakening of the Church of England due to the Nonjuring crisis.  There was certainly a rebellion against James II, which passive resisters deplored.  Nonetheless, 1688 was more a civil war within an elite than a real revolution.  When the Calvinist William III died, a Tory government and a sincerely Anglican queen, Anne, returned England to a state in some ways not very different from what it might well otherwise have been without 1688.  If 1688 is nonetheless deemed politically ‘glorious’ by some, it was religiously disastrous.  I do not think the results are adequate to carry the weight Father Little and the ‘Whig mythology’ put on 1688 as a shining example of resistance.  If 1688 were so noble, its second greatest victims, after James II, would not have been the heroic Seven Bishops, 400 English priests, and the entire Scottish Church.

Father Little near the end of our exchange writes,

We Anglicans are subject to the political milieu in which we live, and if we simply can’t come to terms with one of the basic facts of our American political system, which is that active resistance is justified in some cases, well, maybe we’d be happier living in the UK, the land of the Anglican divines you keep referencing.

There is yet another substantial irony in this sentence:  usually the supporters of active resistance begin by quoting the apostles in Acts 4, saying that we must obey God rather than man.  Here Father Little seems to reverse the order of authority to argue that we must obey man, in the form of the American political system, rather than God as understood by Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and the Anglican divines.   Shall we alter Philippians 2:5 to read, ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Jefferson and Madison…’?

On one level it is a simple statement of fact that Anglicans are ‘subject to the political milieu in which we live’:  Christians are always necessarily part of the place and time in which they live, for better or for worse.  The American regime is in fact independent and itself now, therefore, calls for and deserves the same obedience owed to every government by all Christian citizens.

That said, however, Father Little’s further assertion, that ‘active resistance is justified in some cases’, is equivocal and debatable.  The American regime is a liberal, revolutionary regime, and such regimes include in their makeup rights to certain kinds of resistance, protest, and even civil disobedience.  When the regime permits resistance under law, even active resistance, that resistance is not unlawful and, therefore, does not contradict passive obedience theory.  You cannot disobey if you do something that is permitted.  It does not follow that Christians are authorized to violate the law, except insofar as the law permits such violation by way of prudent, practical accommodation of dissidents.  I believe Father Little will find that if he chooses to break the law in the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom, he quite properly is subject to the laws of the secular authority, as well as to the censures of Saint Paul.

But whether or not a regime tolerates resistance does not settle the morality of resistance for Christians.   American law permits many things that the law of Christ does not permit.  American courts and legislatures purport to permit abortion, blasphemy, all manner of sexual sins, and the omission of religious duties.  But such sins, purportedly permitted under the state’s laws, are still condemned by Christians as sins that are contrary to the law of God.

On the effects of faithful observance of Christian principles, Father Little is again equivocal.  He dismisses traditional teaching on obedience as coming from ‘the UK, the land of the Anglican divines you keep referencing’.  To what other divines should an Anglican appeal, if not Anglicans and the Fathers of the Church commenting on Scripture?  Father Little himself, however, has invoked English history (1688) as the prime example, apart from the American Revolution, of such resistance.

Father Little also implies that despite its earlier example of resistance in 1688, England is in a bad way now because it is insufficiently inclined to accept his American resistance theory.  On the relative merits of the United States and the United Kingdom and of the effects of the two theories in question, Father Little is engaged in a highly speculative enterprise.  We simply cannot know what the United Kingdom would look like without the Nonjuring crisis that flowed from the rebellion of 1688.  We also do not know what the Anglo-American world would look like without the American Revolution, also ushered in by Father Little’s favored theories.  If orthodox Anglicans had not been divided after 1688, gravely weakening the Church of England, and if England’s first empire had not been lost to American independence, the world might have been vastly better and England’s development and European and world history all would surely have been very different in unknowable ways.

We cannot know what might have been.  Christians must abandon themselves in faith and trust to divine Providence.  But is that not precisely what resistance theory refuses to do?  Do not the resisters say, in effect, that if twelve legions of angels are available, they should by all means be called upon and used?  The resisters seem to say, in effect, ‘Put not up your sword, but use it as effectively and often as you can!’  And is that not the way Christians have been told on the Highest Authority that they should not behave?

Mary and Joseph went in obedience to be counted for a tax levied by a foreign overlord.  Jesus told Peter to put up his sword.  The only truly innocent Man ever to live patiently suffered an unjust death upon a cross after sentence by a Roman magistrate.  Strait may be the gate and narrow the way and difficult, but is not the way of the gospel, the way of the cross, the way of the martyrs also quite plain and very clear?

[i] On the duty to refuse a command positively to do something immoral see, e.g., Saint Augustine, Sermon XII, paragraph 13.

[ii] William W. Manross.  A History of the American Episcopal Church.  New York:  Morehouse-Gorham, 1950.  2nd edition.  For White, Smith, and Ayers, see pages 180-1.

[iii] For example, the home of the Reverend Haddon Smith, rector of Christ Church, Savannah, Georgia, was entered in June 1775 on the same night that a loyalist mariner and pilot was tarred and feathered.  Smith was away from home at the time and so escaped attack himself.  His offences were refusal to observe a day of fasting and prayer bidden by the Continental Congress and disrespectful talk concerning the Congress.  Fearing for his life, Smith took passage for England.  (See Kenneth Coleman.  American Revolution in Georgia, 1763-1789.  Athens, GA:  University of Georgia, 1958.  Page 65.  See also E. Merton Coulter.  Georgia:  A Short History.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina, 1960.  Page 131.)

[iv] Jason Michael Hastings, ‘Christian rebellion theories as delivered by St. Paul from Mars Hill by Augustine, Calvin and Adams’.  University of Lethbridge, 2003 thesis.

[v] A reader unfamiliar with the distinction between passive disobedience (a refusal to perform a positively immoral command) and active resistance (rebellion and active disobedience), can easily mistake a passage in Augustine or any writer that states the duty of passive disobedience for an authorization of rebellion and active resistance.  A responsible interpreter in such cases will draw the distinction and supply the context for the passage that has been misinterpreted.

[vi] John Fuller.  ‘The Church in the Confederate States’.  Monograph VII in The History of the American Episcopal Church:  1587-1883.  William Stevens Perry, editor.  Boston:  James R. Osgood & Company, 1885.  Volume II.  Page 580.

[vii] Henry Thompson Malone.  ‘The Georgia Church in the Confederacy’ in The Episcopal Church in Georgia:  1733-1957.  Atlanta:  Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Atlanta, 1960.  Page 95.

[viii] The English Church from the Accession of Charles I. to the Death of Anne (1625-1714).  London:  Macmillan, 1903.  Pages 228-9.

[ix] Tim Harris.  Revolution:  The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720.  New York:  Penguin, 2006.  Page 182.  Further references to this book are made parenthetically in the text as ‘Harris’ with page number.

(Copyright retained by the author, Mark Haverland)

12 thoughts on “Passive obedience: a discussion on authorities

    1. Modern totalitarians do raise such difficult challenges to the theory. But are they much worse than, say, Nero? One probably can distinguish cases among those you name. Hitler came to power in conformity with German law, and certainly German Lutherans did not believe there was a right to overthrow or actively resist him from within Germany. Mao would be more questionable, since an alternative, anti-Maoist Chinese government with a strong claim to legitimacy existed. By the time of Stalin the communists in the Soviet Union were de facto in place and recognized internationally, and so not subject to active resistance by Christians. Again, with Pol Pot I think their claim to any kind of legitimacy was questionable, since the king was their captive, wasn’t he, and then rejected them?


      1. I very much appreciated this blog post. It is particularly interesting given my background of studying such Christian Pacifists as Tolstoy (and similarly, MLK). I think, in general, that much of what you argue regarding the Orthodox Anglican perspective in “passive obedience” to be in line with Tolstoy’s thinking.

        Could make for an interesting thought piece.


      2. Thank you. Anglicanism, of course, as I note, is not pacifist in regard to war – mostly its within the just war tradition. But the passive obedience tradition in regard to the magistrate is pretty wildly outside modern thinking, both on the left and on the right. I’ve not read Tolstoy – and will be glad to be instructed sometime when we can talk at length.


  1. I don’t know enough of the relevant patristic data to know whether there is any kind of minority, dissenting position therein. Also, I think the “passive resistance only”-position is the appropriate default. However, I would note the following as possible qualifications:

    In the Book of Judges, the Israelites at times engaged in successful and apparently divinely permitted armed rebellions against oppressive overlords who had de facto rulership in the region. If we say that divinely inspired rebellions are an exception, then the door is still open to Christians so acting who sincerely believe God wants a murderous tyrant, for example, overthrown. And the same Providence that has allowed the installation of wicked rulers has sometimes allowed them to be overthrown, even in biblical history. If the powers that be are God-ordained as St Paul teaches, might that include the victorious rebels?

    As to the argument that just because some modern Western democracies permit active dissent, Christians are not so permitted due to their obligation of obedience, this misses an essential point: these democracies have explicitly made obedience partly conditional by those very provisions. In other words, their laws, taken as a corpus, deny their universal, absolute obligation, so that certain “acts of disobedience” are not disobedient simpliciter. Indeed, the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence seem to assume a fundamental right or even obligation to armed rebellion against tyranny, which potentially condition what obedience is owed to lesser laws and lawmakers.

    Indeed, the whole approach in the essay above appears to presume that there can be no conflict of laws, and that there is no principle of the hierarchy of law that would need to be applied in problematic cases. But, in fact, such conflicts are often present and Constitutions do trump statutary law.

    However, his Grace might reply, it is not up to ordinary persons and their private judgement to ascertain when a law is unconstitutional, nor is the application of force by them ever justified in resolving such conflict: only the justice system can do that. But here is the problem. Individuals can tell if a law or action is manifestly unconstitutional, and can sometimes discern if the justice system is so manifestly corrupt that it has not obeyed or will not obey the higher law. Certainly, this can be true of individual Christians in the case of erroneous decisions or laws by fallible local or regional ecclesial authorities. Otherwise we deny that a Roman Catholic Christian in the past would have had the right to reject with certainty judicial torture as intrinsically evil against the judgement of his Magisterium.

    So, if individuals can recognise manifest immorality or unlawfulness in despite of the judhement of higher authorities ecclesially, how much more civilly. Therefore, it seems there may be situations when a Christian could legitimately determine a civil power had become illegitimate by its lawlessness. Once they determined this, their choice between continued submission, passive disobedience or active rebellion would seem to be governed by prudential principles analagous to those for jus ad bellum.


  2. Finally, as regards the patristic analysis, I would note the following about their historical context and how it differs from ours.

    The Early Church Fathers, pre-Constantine, lived under systems in which Christianity had very little influence and no say legally and concepts of natural rights were not enshrined in legislation. And their attitude to civil authority normally included an absolutist pacifism that was to be theologically temporary. Nevertheless, they all tacitly accepted the moral liceity of active disobedience in celebrating their sacraments and other rites that were in fact illegal civilly. However, other forms of rebellion would have been counterproductive, pointless and without any hint of legal justification.

    Later Fathers mostly lived under systems that were officially Christian, with Emperors seen to be, in some sense, “the Lord’s anointed”. Nevertheless, Christianity had not yet leavened the lump sufficiently to enshrine in the Imperial laws concepts of natural and universal human rights based on our dignity as images of God, and a cruel pagan residue remained. Rebellion here was more unthinkable, and less tempting, due to the nature of the civil authority, and still had no legal standing.

    But the context now is quite different in the West. Governments do not claim unrestrained authority, instead enshrining certain natural and universal human rights, and assigning these a certain priority legislatively. Those retaining an established Church also sometimes have constitutional principles implying the priority of God’s Law. Thus, modern Christians in these contexts have access to explicit and implicit legal or meta-legal covering for actively disobeying one law to obey a higher one.

    What about St Paul’s seemingly absolute injunctions? This is a fair question, obviously. There are two possible answers that would allow occasional active disobedience. One is to note that in present circumstances, disobedience to a lesser law might mean obedience to a higher civil law which invalidates the lesser, making the action an example of his teaching rather than an exception to it. The other is to allow for exceptions anyway by interpreting as a real but defeasible norm rather than an absolute one, which can be trumped by a higher obligation.


    1. These are interesting and useful replies. I think there is substantial agreement on many points between my post and your replies. We agree that passive obedience is the ‘default’ position. We would agree that there can be a conflict in civil laws, which would affect Christians’ obligations. The case of Bishop Polk would be an example: in a confederation, as opposed to a unitary state, tensions and even conflicts exist between levels of authority, and the individual Christian is compelled to discern the more authoritative law or magistrate. That gives some wiggle room. In response to Professor Potts on Facebook I noted other possible examples in the case of Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. In China the former government still existed in part of the national territory, still claimed authority de jure, and still might be obeyed by conscientious Christians. Rebellion in support of the government on Taiwan would be much harder to justify today. In the case of Cambodia, the king was, I believe, at various times imprisoned by or disobeyed by the regime, and resistance to the regime as illegitimate de facto and de jure would be affected by that situation.

      I think we also agree that individual conscience is subjectively infallible and objectively fallible: therefore the individual Christian is obliged both to inform himself and to interrogate his inclinations and also to obey his conscience once he has done his best to discern his duty. Christians may disobey in good conscience and yet be objectively in the wrong.

      I think Father Little and I would have fewer disagreements if there were more answers to my questions about who is to decide on disobedience and what limits and conditions qualify the right. I noted that everybody inclined to disobey tends to claim that his disobedience is reasonable and constitutional. To that Father Little replied that in fact often such claims were less reasons and more mere rationales or excuses. But that is precisely my concern. If the locus of the right is the individual and there are not clear limitations, then we invite chaos and grossly sinful rebellion and disobedience. We also invite a general attitude that disregards authority of government. The Calvinist theory at least provides some clear qualifications to the right to disobey actively.

      I would strongly question Old Testament examples of disobedience and rebellion for several reasons. For one thing, the Israelites and Jews could claim immediate divine authority, which Christians, apart perhaps from some Roman Catholics and some in the radical reformation, would not. Secondly, the heightening of the law by Christ for Christians makes some positions and attitudes wrong that earlier were permitted or even mandatory. The New Testament, which is fairly uniform on this issue, seems a much safer guide and much more explicitly restricts rebellion.
      That God has overthrown wicked rulers is often undoubtedly true. That does not mean the assassins or rebels are necessarily blameless. God uses sin and the unjust as well as virtue and the good. One wishes the assassination attempt against Hitler in 1944 had succeeded – that does not mean one would have advised the attempt. One person in response to my views used the example of the Vendee war against the French revolutionaries as a Christian rebellion. That ‘rebellion’ began in 1793, and Louis XVI was executd in 1793: so it is not clear that this was a rebellion at all against the lawful magistrate. In any case, however, the war produced tens of thousands of deaths and did not end the revolution or persecution of Christianity. What ended the worst of that persecution was the martyrdom of the 16 Martyrs of Campiegne. They suffered without resistance and, I believe, God used them to end the revolutionary bloodshed. The problem with opening the door to rebellion is that everyone inclined to rebel will then ignore the very, very heavy weight of the passive obedience tradition. The assumption must be that active resistance and rebellion are sinful.

      You say that the decision to rebel or not is analogous to the decision to go to war in the just war tradition. But there is a clear locus for the decision of jus ad bellum. The decision is limited to the supreme magistrate or the authority determined by a constitution. The individual can decide that such a magisterial decision is erroneous and that the war is in fact immoral. The individual may then refuse to serve in such a war. But the individual cannot decide to go to war on his own against the decision of the magistrate. When I asked Father Little about ‘draft dodgers’ during the Vietnam war, he didn’t touch that issue. At present the active resistance camp here is mostly on the political right: the people who once most vehemently denounced draft dodging. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Again, what are the limits? who decides? Is the authority behind the passive obedience theory really recognized?

      Well, I will certainly think more about this all….


  3. I agree completely that the problem with opening the door to active disobedience as even an exceptional possibility is that anger and fear could quickly make it the practical default. That the weapons of our warfare are not carnal could be too easily dismissed.

    Regarding the OT cases, it is not clear to me that all of the Judges had distinct individual divine instructions. Many are shown to have had them, but not all. However, they all thought they had a divine mandate to fight their oppressors in general terms.

    In any case, that the NT has narrowed what God’s People can do is true. But the details of this are not obvious. Pacifism was an inference made by many early Fathers and now made by some Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians, and much of the evidence from the Gospels at least appears to support this. Just War theory is biblically defensible too, but less obvious.

    Just War theory applied to rebellions or active disobedience might place the decision-making locus with the demos insofar as the magistrate has abandoned fidelity to the law, on the principle lex rex. On the other hand, this traditional calculus would also forbid rebellion where the evil consequences outweighed the good and where there was little chance of success. And that would seem to rule out most proposed revolutionary action in practice.


    1. The pacifism of the early Church was situational, I believe, and religious in nature. Military service meant engaging in at least nominal pagan sacrifices. When that was no longer the case, pacifism largely passed in the Great Church. Pacifism became vocational, not general.
      No such factor is involved in the passive obedience debate. As I think about your earlier arguments, one weakness seems to be that the strongest and most exceptionlesss statements of the duty to obey come precisely when the civil magistrate was the most pagan (think Romans 13 and S. Cyprian’s quotation to the Roman governor that I quoted). Disobedience is considered thinkable precisely when the state seems more Christian, when it would be less needed or justified. If there is some good basis for a right to disobey, surely the opposite would be the case? Locating the right to rebel in the people leaves it very amorphous and dangerous. Moreover, if Tocqueville is correct that in America tyranny will tend to take the form of an oppressive majority exercising its tyranny often through opinion and private, ‘soft’ forms of oppression – the demos will often be precisely the problem. Are you answering the problem of the grossest cases of totalitarian tyranny and creating still others? And I still am chiefly impressed by the striking paucity of sources for a right to rebellion except from highly dubious quarters (medieval papalism; the radical Reformation; secular, Enlightenment writers).


    2. Judges still doesn’t seem to me to be very promising. The whole structure of Judges assumes the regular pattern of disobedience in Israel, punishment by God using foreign ‘scourges’ (a model, one might say, for S. Augustine’s view of tyrants sent by God), a divinely guided Judge (whether his instructions are explicit or not), defeat of the enemy, and a time of obedience under the Judge, before the cycle repeats. Since the norm in this period is a land in which civil and religious leadership are clearly meant to work in tight synergy (or even be united in one leader), it is hard to apply it to the more normal condition that the NT envisions of a distinction in offices.

      Anyway, these are all interesting issues I will surely think and write about more.


  4. I should also note that I am more thinking aloud than taking a position. I am uncertain regarding this area of applied theology. And I am well aware that the temptation for me as I watch the Western world become increasingly insane and oppressive with the encouragement of the powerful is to desire a unambiguous push-back.

    I watch from an Antipodean distance but fear that the U.S. is on the edge of a precipice. My fear, specifically, is that the violence and other tactics on one side will lead to the other side, so far mostly restrained, deciding to fight fire with fire, and unreservedly. And, while one side is far more prone to much low to medium level violence, I’ve noticed in the past that the other is more competent at it and more likely to go big, so to speak. Which might only lead to further asymmetric oppression. Rage is addictive, and the addiction is spreading.


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