On Fathers resisting Tyranny

24 April 2023

By Dr Adi Schlebusch

When we think of individual resistance to tyranny within the context of the Reformed tradition, it is notable that John Calvin himself, perhaps the most prominent theologian in this tradition, categorically excluded the possibility as such by essentially limiting the right to resist tyranny to constitutionally recognized representative structures. For Calvin, private individuals do not posses the right of resistance when acting as such, whereby he effectively wrongly excluded the family itself from his theory of legitimate resistance.[1] 

In contradistinction to Calvin, however, the Magdeburg Confession of 1550 notes the examples of the midwives who saved lives by refusing to obey the commands of Pharaoh with regard to killing all the Israelite baby boys (Exodus 1:15-21) as an example of legitimate individual resistance. Furthermore, Magdeburg also notes that if a subject is not able to escape the commands of tyrannical authorities, one also has the right to flee their domain, which in and of itself constitutes a form of individual resistance.[2] Of course what is also lacking in Calvin’s theory is the role and calling of individual fathers as heads of households, who, in line with God’s created order, also act as lesser magistrates ruling over the most basic social unit, the family. Martin Luther rightly recognized fathers as acting magistrates in cases where constitutional or official political structures acting in accordance with the interests of their families are absent.[3]  

While citizens are also encouraged by the Magdeburg Confession to rather suffer injustice than revert to anarchy, it is clear that injustices such as a threat to the very lives of family members as well as the confiscation of the family's private property or other means of making a living from either civil authorities or corporations, cannot be merely tolerated without sinning. In this regard questions and answers 135 and 141 of the Westminster Larger Catechism are highly relevant. In 135 the duties required by the sixth commandment (“thou shalt not kill”) are discussed and it is noted that these duties include that we defend our own lives and the lives of others against violence.  In 141, where the eighth commandment (“thou halt not steal”) is discussed it is also stated that we ought to employ all legitimate means to protect the property rights of ourselves and of others. 

Whenever the liberties that allow us to obey God rather than man are violated by either the civil government or corporations, it is undoubtedly permissible for fathers as heads of their houses to employ legitimate means of resistance, such as misleading authorities, fleeing or even if necessary, openly using violence to this end. The confiscation of private property or other means of production under a Marxist regime, which is contrary to Biblical principles, ought also to be resisted by lesser magistrates, but in the absence of any overarching political structures to this end, fathers, as the heads of households, are responsible to both individually and collectively resist such measures. In such cases they have a duty before God to protect their property, their own lives and the lives of their family members by any legitimate means necessary.

 [1] John Calvin, Corpus Reformatorum: Ioanis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia. Vol. XXIX. Red. G. Baum, E. Cunitz, E. Reuss. Brunsvigae (1863-1900), p. 552.    

[2] Magdeburg Confession, 13th of April 1550 A.D. (Translated by Matthew Colvin. Matthew Trewhella, 2012), p. 40.   

[3] Peter Lampe, “Widerstand bei Luther: Vortrag auf die Rittertag der Pommerischen Genossenschaft in Worms 2017”. In: Der Greif, 1 (2018), pp. 30-31.