by Steve Golden —
And yet as I write this, we are witnessing government regulations interfering with even the most basic religious activities, including dictating when and where we can worship and even what we can and cannot do in our free exercise of our faith, while not holding secular groups or even the government itself to the same restrictions. . . . This is not the lifestyle of a free people. This is soft totalitarianism. This is how Leviathan is reborn.Glenn Sunshine, Slaying Leviathan, p. 167
One of the more helpful books I’ve read this year is Slaying Leviathan: Limited Government and Resistance in the Christian Tradition (2020) by Glenn Sunshine. Sunshine, a former history professor, is also the author of another great book, Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home (2009).
Written in the midst of the COVID-19 restriction mania, Slaying Leviathan walks readers through the development of resistance theory in the Church, beginning with the early church and ending with the American founders. But don’t let the historical emphasis fool you—this book is very much meant for lay readers who want answers to that burning question: Can a Christian defy government overreach and still be considered obedient to God? (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)
Sunshine keeps the book interesting and concise, with short chapters and an “Implications” section at the end of each chapter to help readers integrate that era’s theological developments into their own understanding of Christian conscience and resistance to tyrants.
Those who are not widely read in political theory might not recognize the reference to Leviathan in Sunshine’s title. Sunshine frames his book around a famous work of political theory by Thomas Hobbes called Leviathan (1651). Hobbes argued that absolute authority in a kingdom rested with the king, which “meant that, by definition, a king could not violate laws or deprive people of their rights because all authority had been ceded to him by the people” (p. 2). Adherents to this philosophy believed that “true freedom” came from “submitting to the ‘general will,’” which was only understood by those in the inner ring, and anyone who stood up for personal liberty or property rights was a threat that needed to be eliminated (p. 2).
Hobbes’s view stands in stark contrast to what the American founders believed about rights, drawn in large part from the work of John Locke—namely, that there are certain rights that are unalienable or objective, meaning they exist outside ourselves and cannot be given or taken away. Locke believed these rights included life, liberty, and estate, though Sunshine notes that Thomas Jefferson would later change estate to the pursuit of happiness (p. 156). Jefferson drew on the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, which he translated “happiness,” and which referred to “a life well-lived”—an unalienable right and pursuit that should not be hindered by the government (p. 158).
The Right to Rebel
Between his discussion of these two opposing ideas of government, Sunshine details the development of Christian thought on government and how the Church slowly moved from being part of the government to the two being placed in separate spheres, with limited influence on each other.
Sunshine also highlights how the many foibles and mistakes of well-known theologians like Augustine, Calvin, and Luther affected the Church’s relationship with the state. Augustine, for instance, erroneously argued that “it was perfectly appropriate for the government to coerce heretics to rejoin the orthodox church,” creating opportunity for the state to insert itself into church matters and to place limits on religious liberty1 (p. 26). Calvin saw the importance of keeping church and state in separate spheres, but left pastors to be civil servants—state employees “who could be fired on twenty-four hours’ notice” (p. 82).
Luther argued “that neither church nor state has the right to bind consciences,” but maintained that Christians had no right to resist the government short of a command to directly disobey God (p. 98). That is, until the princes who were tasked in the empire’s constitution with keeping the king in check disputed his use of Romans 13 and their rights under that constitution. Luther eventually ceded that the magistrates could resist the government, but not the people. This view was foundational to Protestant resistance theory, and most British theologians and political thinkers would align with this view that the people have no right of rebellion.
Sunshine ends with the American founders, who were heavily influenced by the work of John Locke. Locke viewed government as established by a majority of the people in an area, intended to protect their rights and property, and argued that if the government violated those rights, “the people have the right and sometimes the obligation to revolt” (p. 143). Locke put the right to rebel in the hands of the people—an idea that is found in America’s founding documents.
Sunshine also points out the many ways that biblical theology influenced the system of government America’s founders put in place, noting that “the free exercise clause is about freedom of conscience” and the “right to live according to our deepest beliefs” (p. 165). Sunshine wonders on behalf of many concerned Christians: If the Church sacrifices religious liberty, is there any area of society that is safe from government tyranny? (Spoiler alert: the answer is no).
The Romans 13 Cudgel
Christians have spent the better part of two years watching as governments worldwide embraced Leviathan and suspended the unalienable rights of humanity. But even worse, a lot of churches have been complicit, using Romans 13 as a cudgel and inappropriately binding Christians’ consciences over masking and vaccination requirements. Many American churches barred anyone who would not wear a mask from corporate worship, while at least one Canadian pastor argued Jesus would require vaccine passports. Numerous Christian leaders took it upon themselves to read the minds of the flock and determine what really counted as a conscience issue.
In a glaring example, Erik Raymond writing for The Gospel Coalition declared that “masks are not fundamentally a moral issue” and to refuse to wear one “causes disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture,” including inability to gather for worship and lack of submission to one’s elders. Funny enough, masks weren’t a moral issue until church leadership made them a moral issue by requiring them to enter corporate worship. Suddenly, any Christian with a conscience conviction over being forced to cover their face to enter church fellowship was faced with a significant moral problem: do I obey my conscience or my church leadership?
Now, church leaders claimed they put these restrictions in place in part to obey the government (despite a clear lack of scriptural support for such government intrusion in church matters) and in part to “love one’s neighbor.” But it seems like it would have been a whole lot more loving to all the folks who had a conscience conviction about masking to keep this morally neutral issue in the realm of Christian liberty rather than elevating it to something that would divide the body.
Douglas Wilson, pastor at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, defended the Christian’s conscience on issues like masks and vaccinations in a September 2021 blog post:
What is a matter of conscience for me . . . is the demand that I worship God in a mask, required by civil authorities and enforced by elders and pastors. As a pastor, I would rather die than to require healthy parishioners to be vaccinated or masked in order to worship God. This is a first order conscience issue for me, and it is both principled and visceral. I would rather die than accept masks as a condition for coming into the presence of God (2 Cor. 3:18). . . . Not only would I rather die, but if I were a member of a church that for some reason required this of me, I would rather be excommunicated than comply with it. I would seek permission to leave peaceably, and if that were denied, I would be excommunicated. I would then ask the next church I attended to review the facts of the case, and to welcome me back to the Table.https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/on-humming-a-mighty-fortress-through-your-masks.html
Wilson is dead on here, and I have vocally said the same thing for nearly the entire pandemic. A church that binds the consciences of its flock like this is not a church my family and I would attend or remain at.
This may seem tangential to the point of Slaying Leviathan, but I promise it’s entirely germane. You see, the Church has bigger fish to fry than chasing the non-compliant out the sanctuary doors because they won’t cover half their faces with a cloth or produce their papers showing they got the jab. (Your papers, please!) Glenn Sunshine provides a clarion call to the Church to engage in prayer for our nation and to defend our liberty, especially our religious liberty, in every way we can. Because if we lose our liberty while church leadership is busy saluting the state governor and acting as the mask and vaccine police, the game’s over—and Leviathan swallows the American church along with every other aspect of our lives.
1Equally common was for the church to use the state as its puppet to enrich itself. Caesaropapism was rampant from the time of Constantine to the modern era, an issue that Sunshine also addresses.
Right on Steve. The church must stand and at times openly oppose the government. Many of them have failed. I know of none in our area that remained open at the beginning. Ultimately we ended up switching churches over this issue. When the church we were attending finally opened again, (we had left by then; attending another fellowship – meeting in person) we were told that if you were 60 or older they did not want you to come! Unbelievable. That was the nail in the coffin and we’ve not been back.