The Limits of Civil Obedience

The Limits of Civil Obedience

Christians, who understand what God requires, obey or disobey on principles, not whims or wishes. Schaeffer observes that wherever the Reformation flourished, two essential and inseparable aspects from the Christian worldview governed citizens: (1) because God ordains governments, he establishes proper order, including officials to whom honor is due (Romans 13:7); and (2) the obligation to honor God’s ordained civil authorities does not eliminate “civil disobedience” when magistrates command what God forbids or forbid what God requires (99).

A foundational premise of Francis Schaeffer’s message in A Christian Manifesto is that Christians became fragmented in their thinking concerning the American culture, society, and government. He argues that evangelical leaders failed to equip Christians adequately to recognize and address the radical shift taking place before their watching eyes. Thus, ministers unwittingly induced Christians in the pews to separate life into sacred and secular realms. This misguided compartmentalization prompted Christians to withdraw from the world around them and cede the public square to the burgeoning shift from the worldview governed by nature’s God to a worldview ruled by “material-energy, chance orientation generation” (89). Tragically this withdrawal from society intensified the worldly sacred-secular division.

So, as the general society increasingly adopted a totalizing world and life view contrary to Christianity, all the while raiding aspects from it, evangelicals also shifted away from upholding and representing Christianity as the comprehensive view for all of life. Generally, following the lead of their ministers and teachers, Christians came to think and speak in terms of “bits and pieces” instead of holistically. They’ve lamented abortion, family breakdown, or the erosion of public school education, but they have failed to see that all of these symptoms are in fact part of one larger problem: an anti-Christian worldview rooted in humanism.

At the founding of the American nation, the Christian worldview was integral to the drafting of the Constitution and the shaping of the stated principles and actions even of individuals who were not Christians, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The gradual erosion of this worldview brought incremental changes throughout the nineteenth century. Schaeffer argues that during the first eighty years of the twentieth century a more rapid departure from that worldview subjected every institution to substantial alteration—whether family, school, church, or government.

Pietism’s “platonic spirituality” regards the “material” world as separate from and less important than the “spiritual” realm. Thus, Pietism’s “bits and pieces” view of the world could not withstand the ascendancy of Naturalism’s comprehensive worldview. Scientism, one of Naturalism’s spawns, sought to supplant the infinite Creator (whose providence is the basis of all reality) with a finite and supposedly self-sustaining creation. Naturalism is a view of the whole creation consisting of only material or energy that has always existed and has self-assembled into its present complex form by the random, unintelligent, and impersonal movement of evolution through billions of years.

Published just a few years after the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, A Christian Manifesto (1981) made the case that our nation’s prevailing worldview “violently opposed . . . what the Founding Fathers of this country and those in the thirteen individual states had in mind when they came together and formed the union” (89). He rightly argues that when the nation’s Founders declared independence from Britain and drafted the Constitution, they were guided by a basically Christian and biblical understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state. While many hastily assume America’s founding was birthed in rebellion, a more diligent inquiry reveals a conservative impulse that upheld the rule of law.[1]

Importantly, the worldview that gave birth to this nation, among both Theists and Deists, upheld the belief that creation’s God endowed humans with rights to be protected by the civil government as a “delegated authority” to which citizens are obligated to submit out of reverence for God (Romans 13:1–7). 

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