Is it ever right to resist authorities? Thoughts on Bonhoeffer, Cromwell and Modern day Iran

We had a monthly men’s breakfast on Saturday. We have a Bible study preceded by a cup of tea and some bacon rolls (we feel it our Christian duty to our Muslim-background brothers, the right application of Mark 7:19 and it’s missional too, like a religious version of bullseye: ‘see what you could have to eat!’)

Anyhoo, we’ve been working our way through Titus of late. This last session, we reached Titus 3. We spent a good chunk of time looking at 3:1 and various ramifications. This started off mainly as a point of interest for our Iranian brothers. They have faced the sharp end of ungodly governance and were, understandably, wondered exactly what this meant in practice.

We considered the general rule of thumb that we are to obey the authorities, the only exception being if they ask us to do something contrary to the law of God. We then pressed into the difference between being forced to do something contrary to God’s word and disagreeing with a law but it not forcing us to do anything sinful on a personal level. We also considered the question of our duties when faced with immoral laws. We concluded this wasn’t grounds to disobey but we were at liberty to use all legal channels open to us (both national and international) to see the law changed.

An interesting question was raised by our Iranian brothers. I’m paraphrasing somewhat, and we took a few twists and turns to get there, but essentially what do we do if there is no legal channel open to us? The example, naturally, focused on Iran. Then came the question, can it ever be right to join a revolution (particularly a violent one)?

Whilst that particular example seemed to have an obvious answer to us Brits, I sense it was because of the distance between ourselves and the Iranian regime. I struggle to see any scriptural support for joining a violent revolution. But I can see good Biblical case for using constitutional means, and even international constitutional means and pressure, to effect change (and some other, not exactly constitutional, but not illegal means).

But then another interesting question arose. What about Bonhoeffer and the Evangelical church in Nazi Germany? Bonhoeffer was involved in the resistance movement backed by the Evangelical church. Indeed, Bonhoeffer was executed specifically for plotting to assassinate Hitler (or so he was accused). Does Titus 3 want to tell us – along with the similar statements by Paul in Romans – that Bonhoeffer and the Evangelical church were in the wrong? That they should have tried to bring down the Nazi Regime some other way? After all, Paul wasn’t exactly giving his instructions under benign governance.

But it strikes me Bonhoeffer’s case is different. He was involved in a resistance movement, not during peacetime, but in the midst of war. The Bible makes a definite distinction between murder and killing that happens in the midst of a war. Some of the commands of God to the Israelites would constitute murder if this were not the case. So Bonhoeffer wasn’t resisting and refusing to submit to the authorities in a peacetime situation but in the midst of war.

One person objected that, as a German citizen, Bonhoeffer was wrong to do what he did. Whilst it would be right to refuse to join the Hitler Youth or serve in the army because of much of what was going on, surely seeking to assassinate his leader was crossing a line? But again, in a peacetime situation, that may well be true. But in a war, one surely has to make a moral decision as to which side to support.

When we look in scripture, a few examples exist. Rahab, for instance, was not a passive bystander in Jericho. She actively hid spies and sought to support the Israelites in their attack against the city. Likewise, Jael saw fit to side with the Israelites and assassinate the leader of the Canaanite army. In both cases, the Bible seems to speak favourably of their decision to break with their home citizenship and side, instead, with the Lord’s people.

Now, of course, things are different in the NT. God’s people are a spiritual, not a physical, people. But Augustine famously opined, ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ If we are all agreed that a law that leads us to sin should be broken, does this mean an unjust law (or regime) that would implicate us in sin ought also to be resisted? Even if true, does this stop at passive resistance or does it include active constitutional resistance, illegal but non-violent resistance, or even violent resistance under certain circumstances?

It is my view that Bonhoeffer was justified in resisting the German authorities in a wartime scenario. There is Biblical precedent for siding with those who are not your civil leaders when at war. If killing in a war is different to murder (and scripture is clear that it is), Bonhoeffer was not necessarily crossing any boundary in his attempt to assassinate Hitler as he had sided with the allies for godly, moral reasons. If we would have no concern with a Brit doing the same, I think we have to grant Bonhoeffer the same reasoning despite his being a German national.

Somebody else, impishly, asked how this affected our view of Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War? Whilst focused on the American Revolution, the Got Questions? website have given an answer this question which is relevant. You can read their answer here. In England, Cromwell and his supporter sought to change the law by constitutional means. War only broke out as the King decided to raise an army against the parliamentarians. As Got Questions? state in respect to the American Revolution, it was a defensive war rather than an offensive one. As such, the question revolves around your view of just war theory.

But the real question revolves around resistance in peacetime. Is it ever right to resist tyrants in peacetime and, if so, to what extent? I’m not sure I have a great answer. My instinct is that the scriptures say not. We can use constitutional means – both national and international – to seek to change the law but I find scant evidence permitting violent revolution, even under the harshest of tyrants. This is not something Paul with which Paul was unfamiliar and the Bible gives us examples of exiles living under such rule who did not bear arms and resist but sought the good of the city they were in. There is a good case to be made for a different approach when faced with war but, apart from that, the data seems pretty clear.

What do you think?