What is our duty under ungodly rulers? When should Christians take up arms? When does the right of a ruler to govern end? Were the Covenanters right? These are some of the questions which this address seeks to answer.
1. Biblical Principle of Civil Government and our Duty to Civil Rulers
i) Our Duty We have an obligation to submit to ungodly governments. (Romans 12:19; 1 Peter 2:13,14). The only exception being when any government requires us to sin against God. (Acts 4:19; 5:29).
ii) The Duty of the State The Lord Jesus is to be acknowledged as King over all nations by rulers. (Rev. 1:5; Psalm 2:10; 1 Sam 10:1). This is required of them as individuals but also as rulers in their public office. In Acts 4:24-28 the first part of Psalm 2 is applied to Herod and Pontius Pilate in their opposition to Christ in the use of their public office. If kings are admonished to kiss the Son it is still in the context of their civil power that they must acknowledge Christ. There is no neutral government. A 'neutral' State is an atheistic State and in rebellion against Christ the supreme Lawgiver and Judge. Only God can define evil, therefore God must be acknowledged in civil rule.
iii) National Covenants Joshua 9:18, "And the children of Israel smote them not, (the Gibeonites) because the princes of the congregation had sworn unto them by the LORD God of Israel. And all the congregation murmured against the princes." The princes of Israel took the oath which bound the whole nation as well as subsequent generations. God's wrath fell upon Israel during king David's reign for the breach of this oath by Saul when he slew them. (2 Samuel 21:1, 2). The question may be asked; does the fact of a people being coerced remove the obligation? Clearly not for in 2 Chronicles 36:13 and Ezekiel 17:12; 15-19, the oath which Zedekiah was made to swear to the king of Babylon stood, and he was judged by God for the breach of it. It remains the duty of all nations to enter into covenant with God.
iv) Principles of self defence and resistance to rulers This principle of self-defence is stated in the Larger Catechism Q136 when it speaks of 'necessary defence' Exodus 22:2, 3. Further Biblical examples of self defence include: the avoidance of wrongful arrest by rulers, (Matt 10:23), David's flight from Saul, Joseph and Mary's flight into Egypt, and the Apostle Paul's escape, (2 Cor 11:32, 33). However, what if fleeing isn't an option? Is it our duty to do nothing or should we take up arms if it may save innocent life? Does the right of self-defence stand if the aggressor is the agent of a ruler? Which obligation comes first, our obedience to the fifth commandment in submitting to the ruler, or to the sixth that of self defence and the preservation of life? The Covenanters concluded that as the rulers purpose to kill is wicked, so to submit to his evil purpose is compliance with his evil actions. All unnecessary suffering when it can be lawfully avoided is sinful. In Matthew 26:52, Christ admonishes Peter for an unwarranted and thoughtless use of the sword, for he used it without any regard to Christ's person and work. Christ did not condemn the use of the sword altogether. In Luke 22:36 Christ intimates that those extraordinary means of preservation during his earthly ministry would no longer be in operation following his ascension, and the sword would resume its normal defensive role.
v) The right of a people to remove a wicked ruler Summary of Rutherford's argument. The people are to be employed in the appointing of a king or ruler. Even when the king in succession inherits the throne as an hereditary heir the people are required to consent to his rule, (Deut 17:14,15). Though God should appoint a king it doesn't negate the role of the people. In extreme circumstances, i.e. tyranny, the people may recall their election of a particular king. The covenants were the constitutional basis of the nation under the Stuart kings. They were not appointed without limit for they were bound by the terms contained in the covenants, and their lawful rule depended upon their adherence to these terms. The Stuarts' open violation of their sworn allegiance overthrew their right to govern, and they therefore were to be removed. Pagan rulers, however, are not to be resisted for their infidelity or profession of false religion as the Westminster Confession Chapter 23 point 4, states, but Charles II was an outlaw.
2. Covenanting History
i) Rullion Green (1666) This occasion marked the beginning of the use of arms in the covenanting struggle. (see Vos p.89f.) The covenanters exercised their right of self-defence and were subsequently regarded as outlaws – but they were right.
ii) The killing of Archbishop Sharpe (1679) Also known as 'the Judas of the Covenant', he persecuted the Covenanters for 18 years. Whilst Sharpe was on a journey to London a group of Covenanters heard of his passage and he was taken from his carriage and killed. The Covenanters viewed Sharpe as a criminal and murderer. Charles in appointing such men acted contrary to his sworn allegiance to the covenanted constitution of the nation, and therefore Sharpe had no right to act as a legal representative of the State. It has been a matter of some debate whether or not this group of Covenanters were right to kill Sharpe, and for what reasons they were justified in doing so. Could they assume to themselves the right of civil power? The difficulty with this argument is that they were a minority of men. The argument of necessary self-defence is better, for Sharpe was notorious for his ruthless and vicious attacks upon the Covenanters and he was travelling to London to seek power to increase the killing of the Covenanters. Many Covenanters agreed that the killing of Sharpe was not murder, even when regarding it as not the best form of self defence.
iii) Cameron and The Sanquar Declaration (1680) This included the disowning of Charles Stuart as king. Did they have the right to do that? Yes, because in doing so they were upholding the constitution of Scotland. Charles could only lawfully act within the sworn constitution.
iv) Revolution Settlement (1688) The Covenanters were not happy with the Revolution Settlement. The State still exercised authority over the church. The resulting constitution conceded to this interference. Subsequent troubles in the Church of Scotland which led to the Secession and the Disruption testified to the seeds of evil within the settlement. Among the Covenanters there was a slow acceptance of the State's authority, but they were careful not to give their positive support to it.
3. Conclusions i) We are to submit to government when we are not required to sin ii) The Covenanters were justified to resist the civil power because they were defending a sworn constitution. This is no longer the case. iii) We must be careful not to over-spiritualise Scripture. Spiritual battles can take on a physical aspect. The physical battles of the Old Testament were spiritual, though Israel unique. iv) We are not to take up this former physical conflict because it was ultimately lost. We should however continue to contend for the sworn covenants which bind the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Thousands gave their pledge to the covenants and we are bound by this obligation still.
A good overview, however an ungodly government should not be submitted to, but should be resisted as much as possible. All forms of sin and sinful presence should be resisted and brought under Christ's submission. The church should address governments publicly, and individuals should resist personally whenever the opportunity arises - anything less is sinful in itself.