A tyrant then is not necessarily a sinner (we are all sinners) or even an unbeliever. A tyrant is one who defies not only God’s Law in the 10 commandments, but also the created order. In this, he destroys civil and social life and so is responsible for unrest in society as people are pitted against each other, left without freedom of movement or assembly, and have their livelihoods threatened. We were made to work, to worship, to live in relationships.
One of the challenges to understanding the times that we live in is related to our definitions. What exactly is tyranny? What exactly is persecution? How does God call us to live during times such as these?
There is a saying that is attributed to the Scottish Reformer John Knox: “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” For those who know more of the history surrounding this reformer, images might be brought to mind of the fiery reformer preaching to Mary Queen of Scots, persecutor of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. This man offered stout resistance to tyrants.
Most fundamentally, a tyrant stands opposed to the law of God as it is laid out in the 10 commandments and in the summary of the 10 commandments in the Law of Love. But while tyranny may end in a black and white opposition to the Word of God, it often begins in the grey. And so we must understand that tyranny is connected to something more fundamental to who we are as human beings before it stands in direct opposition to the law of God. Most fundamentally, tyranny is the fruit of unbelief that has blossomed in places of power.
In its initial expression, any form of tyranny stands opposed to God’s created order. In this, it also stands opposed to the law of God which is intended as a rule to order things again. There are kings and emperors in history who were not Christian and sinners who ruled well, relatively speaking. But how do we distinguish between those and other kings who have not ruled well, whether Christian or not? Johannes Althusius is a Calvinist lawyer in the 1600s who writes this: “So not every misdeed of a magistrate deprives him of his sceptre, but only that in which he, having accepted and then neglected the just rule of administration, acts contrary to the fundamentals and essence of human association, and destroys civil and social life….”
There are a couple important aspects to this quote from Althusius.
The first is the principle of equity. You can find this principle commanded throughout the book of Deuteronomy. The Bible often speaks of the call to rule with equity and points to Jesus who is the only King in history who has ruled with equity in the fullest sense of the word (Psalm 45/72). It is the just rule of administration that maintains this equity in the land and there is no partiality that is shown to one person or the other based on something outside of what is defined by God as evil or good.
The second principle that Althusius speaks of here is something that is fundamental to being human. There is an acting contrary to creational realities (ie natural law). The civil authority acts contrary to the fundamentals and essence of human association and in so doing destroys civil and social life.