Civil Disobedience for Calvinists

I have spent the past month or so writing about how Christians should respond to the covid vaccine mandate set to take effect any day now. This blog represents my final thoughts on the matter and have been where I have been wanting to go all along, but first needed to make some qualifications and clarifications.

  1. In my first article, I examined the mandate through the lens of Jesus’ command to “go the extra mile” in Matthew 5.
  2. In my second article, I tried to create a “steel man” argument against my position.
  3. In my third article, I responded to the argument that the vaccine mandate is unconstitutional and therefore Christians don’t need to submit to it.
  4. In my fourth article, I responded to the argument that health choices fall outside of the government’s God-given parameters of authority.
  5. In my last article, I responded to the slippery slope argument, asking readers to consider what other unintentional consequences of resisting the mandate may lead to.

In this final article in this series, I want to present a case for how Christians living in America today can, in my opinion, legitimately practice civil disobedience. While I have been arguing that Christians should generally go along with the vaccine mandate, if readers thus far have been unconvinced, I want to try to present what I believe to be the best way forward for resistance that is consistent with genuine Christian piety. To do that, we will need to look at John Calvin.

“Let the princes hear, and be terrified.”

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French pastor and father of the Reformed tradition, wrote a comprehensive summary of Christian doctrine titled The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In his final chapter of the massive work, Calvin considers the role of civil government and a Christian’s obligation to it. Before Calvin was persuaded of Protestantism, he had studied law extensively at some of the most prestigious universities in France, so contemplating civil government was familiar terrain.

Calvin developed a teaching now often referred to as “the doctrine of the lesser magistrate” that became a foundation for future Reformed thinking on political resistance. Calvin believes that there are certain individuals (lesser magistrates) within society who are responsible for preventing monarchs from abusing their authority. He opens this controversial section of the Institutes reflecting on how God often overthrows wicked kings before concluding with this Latin phrase: Audiant principes, et terreantur, “Let the princes hear, and be terrified.” 

But, lest we assume Calvin was a radical revolutionary, we must first get an overview of his understanding of civil government. He opens by pointing out two equal and opposite errors that a Christian can have in considering civil government:

[On] one side, insane and barbarous men furiously strive to overturn this divinely established order [government]; while, on the other side, the flatterers of princes, immoderately praising their power, do not hesitate to set them against the rule of God himself. Unless both these evils are checked, purity of faith will perish. - Book 4.20.1

Thus, Calvin wants to guard against both extremes of anarchy or statism. The whole of his chapter bears this kind of careful balance.

Submitting to Wicked Rulers

Repeatedly, Calvin explains that government has been put in place by God (4.20.4-5), and therefore Christians are required to not only be obedient to, but to be obedient “with reverence” to governing authorities, even unjust rulers (4.20.22-29). Calvin explains that all throughout human history people have struggled to acknowledge wicked kings’ authority:

For in such great disgrace, and among such crimes...they see no trace of that minister of God, who had been appointed to praise the good, and to punish the evil [cf. 1 Peter 2:14]. - 4.20.24

But Calvin retorts that we are not only bound to submit to good, godly authority,

...but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs, even though they perform not a whit of a princes' office.- 4.20.25
Accordingly, [a wicked king] should be held in the same reverence and esteem by his subjects, in so far as public obedience is concerned, in which they would hold the best of kings if he were given to them. - 4.20.25

Calvin acknowledges the difficulty of honoring such wicked men:

I am not discussing the men themselves, as if a mask of dignity covered foolishness, or sloth, or cruelty...but I say that the order itself is worthy of such honor and reverence that those who are rulers are esteemed among us, and receive reverence out of respect for their lordship. - 4.20.22

This is grounded in Calvin’s understanding of Romans 13:1-7, and especially 1 Pet 2:13-17 (“Fear God, honor the King”)–it is God, not men, who place individuals into positions of authority, so when we honor those in the office that God fills, we honor God.

Calvin then spends considerable time demonstrating this point from Scripture, looking at Daniel, Jeremiah 27, and other places to prove that submission to wicked kings is required (4.20.26-28). Finally, he exhorts Christians that when they find themselves under an oppressive ruler, they still must obey.

If you conclude from this that service ought to be rendered only to just governors, you are reasoning foolishly. - 4:20.29

Resisting Unjust Rulers

Reflecting on how strongly Calvin words all of this, one might think that Calvin would be what I earlier described as a “maximalist” in regards to submitting to whatever the government requires. But Calvin’s perspective is more nuanced than that.

First, Calvin understands that the primary purpose of leaders in civil government (“magistrates”) is to protect the freedom and liberty of the citizens. He makes this clear when specifying what the purposes of government are:

Indeed, the magistrates ought to apply themselves with the highest diligence to prevent the freedom (whose guardians they have been appointed) from being in any respect diminished, far less be violated. If they are not sufficiently alert and careful, they are faithless in office, and traitors to their country. - 4.20.8

We shouldn’t assume that what Calvin means by “freedom” to be the exact same thing we modern Americans understand it to be, but Calvin believed that magistrates should “stoutly and constantly labor to preserve and retain” their citizens liberty, refusing to treat them like slaves (4.20.8). The failure of magistrates to do this doesn’t necessarily provide grounds for citizens to resist the authorities, as Calvin noted earlier, but shows that Calvin is not uncritical of overbearing rulers–it is no small thing to accuse a magistrate of being a “traitor to their country.”

Second, Calvin understood that “obedience to man must not become disobedience to God” (4.20.32). In his commentary on Daniel, Calvin reflects on Daniel 6:22, where Daniel refused to pray to Darius and so was fed to the lions:

He was compelled to obey God, and he neglected what the king had ordered in opposition to it. For earthly princes lay aside all their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy of being reckoned in the number of mankind. We ought rather utterly to defy than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven. - Commentary on Daniel 6:22

The English phrase “utterly to defy them” in Latin was conspuere in ipsorum capita, literally: “to spit on their heads.” So, whoever we are, if any authority demands us to do something that would require us to disobey God, Calvin thinks we should flagrantly defy them.

Third, Calvin distinguishes between the responsibility of “private citizens” and those possessing a civil office, those he describes as “constitutional defenders of the people’s freedom”–he clarifies that all of his previous comments are restricted to the former, not the latter (“I am speaking all the while of private individuals,” 4.20.31). This is where his “Let the princes hear, and be terrified” comment is (but it is clear that Calvin is calling princes to fear God and is not an endorsement of revolutionary mobs). He then writes this infamous and long-winded sentence:

For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings...I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they now that they have been appointed protectors by God's ordinance. - 4.20.31

That is a dense sentence (just for fun this week, accuse someone of their “dissimulation involving nefarious perfidy!” and see how they respond).

Here is what Calvin is saying: if anyone occupies the office of a “lesser magistrate”, a political office underneath a higher office (think of a mayor’s relationship to a governor, for instance) that lesser magistrate is duty bound to resist unjust abuses of the greater magistrate. These lesser magistrates have been instituted by God to “restrain the willfulness of kings.” If they simply keep their disapproval to themselves (dissimulation) while “winking” at injustice, they are guilty of a serious deception (nefarious perfidy), because they have betrayed what God has called them to: protecting the people’s freedom. These “lesser magistrates” in their public office are not bound by the same strictures of submission that private citizens are bound by.

Calvin did not live under a pure monarchy, but Geneva was a part of the Swiss Confederation, which at Calvin’s time enjoyed a fair deal of independence from the Holy Roman Empire (total independence came in 1648). The government of the Canton of Geneva, under Calvin’s direction, became a republic–Calvin himself believed that the best form of government was a mixture of democracy and aristocracy (4.20.8). Thus, the concept of a lesser magistrate working to balance a greater magistrate from abuses was familiar to him.

The key to this doctrine for Calvin only worked if the government itself had a system of checks and balances baked into its structure. Calvin strongly resisted private citizens improperly inserting themselves into acts of revolution or anarchy (4.20.23, 29). Peter Lillback explains:

The resistance was not the fruit of anarchy but of ordered governmental structure. Part of the duty of the inferior magistrate was to correct the king. - Reformation Theology, "The Relationship of Church and State," p. 703

Lesser Magistrates Today

Calvin’s doctrine of the lesser magistrate has been profoundly influential throughout church history, sometimes being taken to ends that Calvin himself would have disagreed with. John Knox famously took Calvin’s doctrine of resistance and pushed it to more extreme ends in his fiery pamphlet On the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which Calvin was publicly embarrassed by and refused to let it be distributed in Geneva. Shortly after Calvin died, thousands of French Calvinists (Huegonots) were slaughtered by the French Roman Catholic government on St. Bartholomew’s day, leading many Calvinists to reject the distinction Calvin made between “private citizens” and “lesser magistrates” in resisting unjust rulers. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, moved beyond Calvin’s position of passive resistance to one of private citizens actively appealing to magistrates for reform. The Reformed tradition of political theory continued to develop, particularly as it moved into the American context where a level of separation of powers was enacted more formally than ever before.

Whether or not one agrees with every particular of Calvin’s perspective, I think he does provide a helpful rubric through which to consider current resistance to a vaccine mandate. Earlier, I argued that unless you have medical reasons or believe that to take the vaccine itself would violate your conscience, you should likely go along with it. Many Christians I have spoken with admit that they don’t feel like taking the vaccine is an issue of conscience, or have medical reasons for refusing, but still believe that the mandate is an abuse of power by the federal government and that is what is wrong. As I argued earlier, while I believe the current mandate falls under the “questionable” category and should be submitted to, other Christians see it differently. They believe that “our vigilant resistance to the first sign of oppression is a noble stroke for liberty before it’s too late.” But, what then are we to do with all of the commands in the Bible that require us to submit to the governing authorities–even ungodly authorities? How are we to “go the extra mile” here?

Here is where Calvin’s “lesser magistrate” proves to be helpful. Calvin can simultaneously affirm submission and reverence to unjust kings, while also advocating for the abuses of those kings to be reigned in by lesser magistrates. For us to move to formal resistance, according to Calvin, here is what we must do:

  1. We must establish that what is being perpetrated by the governing authorities illegitimately constricts the liberty of the citizens. All rulers, of course, restrict liberties–this is the purpose of a law, to bind my liberty so that I cannot do whatever I want. What must be demonstrated is that it is illegitimate, that for the government to require this act is itself an unjust application of its authority. Calvin will not permit us to claim that laws we simply dislike to be necessarily unjust–the examples Calvin repeatedly uses of tyrants abusing authority includes serious crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, and gross negligence of duty (4.20.24).
  2. We must then seek out a lesser magistrate to take up the cause.* Today, this would look like appealing to local sheriff or a district judge to intervene and prevent the application of a governor’s or president’s unjust order. One of the prime ways to pursue justice through the “lesser magistrate” today is the court system, which is what has happened so far with parts of the vaccine mandate. Certain governors have also sought to use their authority to push against the mandate. Again, if point 1 can be established, then these acts are not acts of rebellion but are the legitimate application of a lesser magistrate.
  3. If we arrive at litigation, Calvin has much to say about how Christians must conduct themselves in court. We must restrict our aims to only being towards the right protection of our own property or rights (4.20.18) or to stop a destructive man from doing further harm to society (4.20.19-20). We can never pursue litigation out of vengeance or hatred: “a lawsuit, however just, can never be rightly prosecuted by any man, unless he treat his adversary with the same love and good will as if the business under controversy were already amicably settled and composed,” (4.20.18). Still, Christians should be slow to rely on lawsuits and should “prefer to yield their own right rather than go into court.” But if a man sees that he can pursue litigation to protect his property, his rights, or his community “without loss of love,” then he is free to (4.20.21).
  4. Throughout all our efforts to seek justice, as far as is possible, we must maintain a posture of reverence and submission towards those in authority in all other areas aside from the one we believe to be the abuse.

While I am somewhat skeptical that point 1 can be established in this instance, I don’t fault any one else for disagreeing with me. So, if you are a believer who is eager to not neglect God’s Word in submission to government, but believe that the government is illegitimately constricting their liberty, then seeking a “lesser magistrate” to intervene should be pursued. For the issue with vaccine mandates, that may look like first sifting your heart for what your motives are, then perhaps speaking with a lawyer to engage in legal procedures to challenge the application of the mandate.


One may argue that in America, each citizen in some sense is a “lesser magistrate” since “we the people” form our government. However, if an individual citizen wishes to check the power of a higher magistrate, their solitary rebellion likely will do nothing to actually limit the abuses, but will only result in their own suffering. If they want to provide real change, they likely will need to avail themselves of some kind of “lesser magistrate” in some way. The civil rights movement in the 60’s, however, provides a powerful counter-argument; these individuals, at great cost to themselves, used civil disobedience outside of the court system to seek to overturn unjust laws, and they did. Normally, however, following Beza’s advice seems to be most prudent–appeal to a lesser magistrate to take up the cause.

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