Let’s begin by distinguishing two different kinds of resistance.
In the first, let us begin by supposing a godless despotism that has been a godless despotism from its founding. There is no heritage of restrained government. If one of the subjects of this realm were converted to God, started preaching the gospel, and was told to cease and desist, it remains true that he must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). The issue is a matter of straight-up seniority. Should a private in the army obey the captain or the general, assuming their commands to be mutually exclusive? At the same time, assuming the same scenario, the cost associated with making this choice will frequently be martyrdom. The issues here are easy to understand, but would require great courage to follow out.
The second scenario is quite different. Courage is still required, as it always is, but so is an adroit use of what the French call les brains. What do we do when the Spirit of God has been working in a civilization for many centuries, and as a consequence a number of constitutional limits have grown up, restricting, restraining, and prohibiting autocratic power? Attempts at autocratic power will continue to be made (because sinful men still exist, and are always inordinately attracted to politics). But they will also be resisted in such attempts by righteous men, who know how the law is supposed to work.
Let me highlight the issue before diving into the weeds. Suppose the Constitution says that “the president may never, under any circumstances, appoint more than two judges to the Supreme Court who were born in the same month.” Of course, politics being what they are, some president will eventually appoint three men who were all born in February, and the argument will be very complicated and involve leap year, phases of the moon, and some advanced math from a Harvard mathematician that the White House has on retainer. But those resisting the president at this point will simply point to their copies of the Constitution and then at their calendars, and continued to submit to the highest authority. Those resisting him continue to submit to Romans 13, while the president continues on in his rebellious ways. I say this because the Constitution is a higher authority than the president.
I recently wrote on how this understanding of civil authority was foundational to the American War for Independence. One commenter, a Brit, said that my thinking was certainly ingenious, he would give me that, but that our rebellion was directed against very the birthplace of civic liberty, the home of the first and finest constitutional monarchy, and so on. My reply is that this is of course true, and it is the very reason why it happened. Liberty grew in England before it grew in America, and as it grew, it wrote down arguments. Those arguments went into books, which Americans brought across the water with them.
The Americans resisted because they were Englishmen, and they knew their rights under the English Constitution. Edmund Burke, foe of the leveling French Revolution from the get go, nevertheless supported the cause of the Americans on the floor of Parliament. He did this because he knew that the Americans were defending a point of constitutional law. In the American Revolution, the colonists were the conservatives, and their foes in Parliament were the innovators. This is the opposite of what happened in the French Revolution. The distinction between those two revolutions, besides a couple of decades, was the difference between righteousness and unrighteousness.
The Americans rejected an unconstitutional taxation, refused to comply, and defended themselves with arms against the king. Their adversary in this, Parliament, had done far more than that to the king the century before. They had chopped off the king’s head, thus making the Americans the moderates. My point here is not to say anything about the execution of Charles, one way or the other — another time perhaps. It is simply to point out that Charles I was handled more roughly than George III was.
Parenthetically, (let me say that there were three stages of resistance to tyranny that developed in the political theory of the Reformed. The first was to preach against the tyranny, the second was to flee, and the third was to take up defensive arms. Open revolution, trying to overthrow the constitution of the society by armed force directly, was not one of the options.)
In constitutional societies, such as England was, there is a constant ebb and flow in these affairs. Men in office will attempt to get away with things that their written terms of office obviously prohibit. Those who allow them to do so (in the name of Romans 13!) are actually the ones disobeying Romans 13. Those who resist them will get called a lot of names by scoundrels in authority, but that is part of the cost of submitting to Romans 13.
England was a cradle of liberty, but that does not mean that there wouldn’t have to be an ongoing battle there to preserve it. The same thing is true of America. We developed one of the finest constitutions in the history of the world, but liberty must always be defended with vigilance. We have one of the finest forms of government in the world, but the current guardians of our halls of civic authority are among the scruffiest you ever saw. Imagine a marble palace, with halls of glory, inhabited entirely by ruffians who do nothing but scratch themselves and spit in the corners.
Now I am about to show that resistance to encroaching tyranny is a biblical necessity. Not only is it lawful according to the laws of God, it is also lawful according to the laws of our land and the long heritage of our civilization. When such resistance occurs in a stark despotism, our weapon is our blood on the sand of the Colliseum. When such resistance becomes necessary in a society where there has been a heritage of liberty, it will be because corruption has set in. Our opposition to that corruption will not be met with loud shouts of acclaim from the corrupt establishment. We will not find ourselves walking across the golf green of reformation accompanied by the polite golf applause of the regnant scoundrels and mountebanks. That’s not how it works. There will be disputes, and court cases, not to mention some yelling, and don’t forget some IRS audits.
Let me quote a series of documents before making that point again. The first is from the Declaration:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
This is from the Idaho Constitution:
“All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter, reform or abolish the same whenever they may deem it necessary . . .”
Then there is this little gem from the New Hampshire constitution:
“Whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind” (Article X).
And what Abraham Lincoln denied to the states, he explicitly granted to the people generally. This inconsistency on his part should not blind us to the implications. He is claiming far more than I would. Here is what he said in his First Inaugural:
“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.”
Now in order to do anything of the kind, “the people,” an inchoate mass if ever there was one, would have to organize themselves, and they would not be able to do with this with the support of the current regime of corruptocrats. If they had the support of the existing corrupt establishment, there would be no need to organize. They would only need to organize because the mountebanks in power were saying things about the law, and the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and the enumerated powers, that were the very reverse of the truth.
I know that I have used the word mountbanks twice in the same post, not my usual form, but I feel strongly about this. Maybe I should have said saucy fellows, but out to the sixth decimal place.