Whether subjects are obligated to obey rulers who issue commands contrary to the law of God.
At first, the answer to this question may seem to be obvious, for it seems to question an axiom held by all Christians, confirmed in many places in Holy Scripture, various examples throughout history, and by the deaths of all the holy martyrs. For it may be well asked why Christians have endured so many afflictions if it weren't true they were always persuaded that God must be obeyed simply and absolutely, and kings with this exception, that they command not that which is repugnant to the law of God. Otherwise, why should the apostles have answered that God must rather be obeyed than men? (Acts 5:29) Also, seeing that the will of God is always just, while the will of men may be, and often is, unjust, who can doubt that we must always obey God's commandments without any exception, and men's ever with limitation?
But there are many rulers in these days who call themselves "Christian", who arrogantly assume that their power is limited by no one, not even by God, and they surround themselves with flatterers who adore them as gods upon earth. Not to mention the many others who, out of fear or constraint, either believe, or appear to believe, that rulers ought to be obeyed in all things, and by all men. Therefore, seeing the unhappiness of these times is such that there is nothing so firm, certain, or pure, that it is not shaken, disgraced, or polluted, that anyone who shall thoroughly consider these things will admit that this question is not only most profitable, but also most necessary. For my own part, when I consider the cause of the many calamities that have afflicted Christendom lately, I am reminded of the words of the prophet Hosea: "The princes of Judah were like those that remove a boundary. On them I will pour out my wrath like water. Ephraim is oppressed, crushed in judgment, because he was determined to follow the commandments of men." (Hosea 5:10-11) Here you see the sin of the rulers and people fully displayed in these two verses. The rulers exceed their authority, not being content with that authority which the almighty and all good God has given them, but seek to usurp that sovereignty which He has reserved to Himself over all men. And not being content with absolute power over the lives and property of their subjects, these tyrants seize for themselves the right to rule over their consciences as well, over which the authority belongs to Jesus Christ alone. Holding the earth not great enough for their ambition, they want to climb and conquer heaven itself. The people, on the other hand, follow the commandments of men when they yield to these rulers who command that which is against the law of God. Thus, the people burn incense and adore these earthly gods and, instead of resisting them (if they are able), they instead permit them to usurp the place of God, apparently untroubled by their giving to Caesar that which belongs properly to God.
Everyone knows that if a man disobeys a prince who commands that which is wicked and unlawful, he shall immediately be accused of being a rebel, a traitor, and guilty of high treason. Our Savior Christ, the apostles, and all the Christians of the early church were accused with these false charges. If any man, following the example of Ezra and Nehemiah, set himself the task of rebuilding the temple of the Lord, it will be said he aspires to the crown, hatches innovations, and seeks the ruin of the state. Then you shall presently see a million of these minions and flatterers of the rulers tickling their ears with the opinion, that if they once permit this temple to be rebuilt, they will lose their kingdom, and never be able to impose levies or taxes on these men. But this is madness! There are no rulers which ought to be considered as firm and stable, except for those in whom the temple of God is built, and which are indeed the temple itself. These we may truly call Kings. For they reign with God, seeing that it is by Him only that kings reign. On the contrary, what beastly foolishness it is to think that the state and kingdom can be maintained if God Almighty is excluded, and His temple demolished. From this view comes so many tyrannous enterprises, unhappy and tragic deaths of kings, and ruinations of people. If these sycophants knew what difference there is between God and Caesar, between the King of Kings and a simple king, between the lord and the vassal, and what tributes this Lord requires of His subjects, and what authority he gives to kings over those his subjects, certainly so many rulers would not strive to trouble the kingdom of God. And we should not see some of them cast down from their thrones by the just instigation of the Almighty, revenging himself of them, in the midst of their greatest strength, and the people should not be sacked and pillaged and trodden down.
Accordingly, rulers need to know how far they are permitted to extend their authority over their subjects, and their subjects need to know in what ways they are to obey, lest should the one encroach on that jurisdiction, which no way belongs to them, and the others obey him which commands further than he ought, they be both chastised when they shall give an account of themselves before another Judge. Now the end and scope of this question in which the Holy Scripture shall principally give the resolution, is that which follows. The question is, whether subjects are bound to obey kings, in case they command that which is against the law of God: that is to say, to which of the two (God or king) must we rather obey? When the question is resolved concerning the king, to whom is attributed the fullest power, the question concerning other magistrates will be also determined. First, the Holy Scripture teach that God reigns by His own proper authority, and kings rule by derivation, God from Himself, kings from God. God has a jurisdiction proper and kings are his delegates. It follows then that the jurisdiction of God has no limits, but that of kings is finite, that the power of God is infinite, but that of kings is confined, that the kingdom of God extends itself to all places, but that of kings is restrained within the confines of certain countries. In like manner God has created out of nothing both heaven and earth, therefore, by good right He is lord and master of both. All the inhabitants of the earth have received from Him everything they have, and are, essentially, His tenants and lease-holders. All the rulers and governors of the world are but His hirelings and vassals, and are obligated to take and acknowledge their investitures from Him. God alone is the owner and lord, and all men, whatever their station in life, are His tenents, agents, officers and vassals. All without exception owe fealty to Him, according to that which He has committed to their dispensation. The higher their place is, the greater their responsibility to God must be, and according to the rank where God has raised them, must they make their reckoning before His divine majesty. This is what the Holy Scriptures teach in innumerable places, and all the faithful (and even the wisest heathens) have ever acknowledged: that "the earth is the Lord's, and all it contains" (Psalm 24:1). And to the end that men should not falsely worship their own labor and enterprise, the earth yields no increase without the dew of heaven. This is why God commanded that His people should offer to Him the first of their fruits, and the heathens themselves have consecrated the same to their gods, that is, that God might be acknowledged lord, and they his farmers and field workers. The heaven is the throne of the Lord, and the earth His footstool. And, therefore, since all the kings of the world are under His feet, it is no marvel, if God be called the King of Kings and Lord of Lords; all kings he termed His ministers established to judge rightly, and govern justly the world in the quality of lieutenants. By me (says the divine wisdom) kings reign, and the princes judge the earth. If they do it not "He takes off the shackles put on by kings and ties a loincloth around thier waist" (Job 12:18). As if He should say, it is in my power to establish kings in their thrones, or to thrust them out, and for that reason, the throne of kings is called the throne of God. As the Queen of Sheba said to King Solomon: "Blessed be the Lord your God who delighted in you to set you on his throne to be king for the Lord thy God, to do judgment and justice." (2 Chron. 9:8) In like manner we read in another place, that Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord, or on the throne of the Lord's kingdom.
For the same reason the people are always called the Lord's people, and the Lord's inheritance, and the king, governor of this inheritance, and conductor or leader of his people of God. This is the title given to David, to Solomon, to Hezekiah and to other good rulers. When also the covenant is passed between God and the king, it is upon condition that the people are, and remain always, the people of God. This shows that God will not in any case despoil himself of His property and possession, when He gives to kings the government of the people, but establish them to take charge of, and treat them well. Just as he who makes choice of a shepherd to look to his flocks, he remains still master and owner of them. This was always known to those good kings, David, Solomon, Jehosaphat, and others who acknowledged God to be the Lord of their kingdoms and nations, and yet lost no privilege that justly belongs to real power. They even reigned much more happily in that they employed themselves cheerfully in the service of God, and in obedience to his commandments. Nehuchadnezar, although he was a heathen, and a mighty emperor, did yet at the end acknowledge this, for though Daniel called him the king of kings, to whom the King of Heaven had granted power and royal majesty above all others, yet, on the contrary (said he), "Thy God, O Daniel, is truly the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords, giving kingdoms to whom He pleases," even to the most wretched of the world. For which cause Xenophon said at the coronation of Cyrus, "let us sacrifice to God." And profane writers in many places do magnify God the most mighty and sovereign king. At this day at the inaugurating of kings and Christian rulers, they are called the servants of God, destined to govern his people. Seeing then that kings are only the lieutenants of God, established in the throne of God by the Lord God Himself, and the people are the people of God, and that the honor which is done to these lieutenants proceeds from the reverence which is born to those that sent them to this service, it follows of necessity that kings must be obeyed for God's cause, and not against God, and then, only when they serve and obey God, and not otherwise.
It may be that the court flatterers will reply that God has given earthy dominion to kings, reserving heaven for himself, and allowing the earth to them to reign, and govern there according to their own fancies. In short, that the kings of the world divide an empire between them and with God Himself. Consider an argument proper enough for that impudent villain Cleon, who was the sycophant of Alexander, or for the poet Martial, which was not ashamed to call the edicts of Domitian the ordinances of the Lord God. This argument, I say, is worthy of that execrable Domitian who (as Suetonius recites) thought of himself as God and Lord. But it is one that is altogether unworthy of the ears of a Christian ruler, and of the mouth of good subjects. For this sentence of God Almighty must always remain irrevocably true, "I will not give My glory to any other." (Isa. 42:8) That is, no man shall have such absolute authority, but God will always remain sovereign.
God does not at any time divest himself of his power. He holds a sceptre in one hand to repress and quell the arrogance of those rulers who mutiny against him, and in the other, a balance to control those who do not administer justice with equity as they ought. There cannot be expressed more certain marks of sovereign command. And if the emperor, in creating a king, reserves always to himself the imperial sovereignty, or a king, as in France, in granting the government or possession of a province to a stranger (or if it be to his brother or son), reserves always to himself legal appeals, and the knowledge of such things as are the marks of royalty and sovereignty, which are always understood to be excepted from the grant, although they were not specified in the grant of investiture and fealty promised; with much more reason should God have sovereign power and command over all kings as they are his servants and officers. Accordingly, we read, in so many places of Scripture, that he will call them to an account, and punish them, if they do not faithfully discharge their duties. Therefore all kings are the vassals of the King of Kings, invested into their office by the sword, which is the recognition of their royal authority, to the end that with the sword they maintain the law of God, defend good, and punish evil. This is even as we commonly see, that he who is a sovereign lord grants his vassals possession of their landed estates by girding them with a sword, delivering them a buckler and a standard, with the condition that they shall fight for them with those arms if the occasion arises.
Now if we consider what is the duty of vassals, we shall find that what may be said of them applies also to kings. The vassal receives land from his lord with right of justice, and obligation to serve him in his wars. The king is established by the Lord God, the King of Kings, to the end he should administer justice to his people and defend them against all their enemies. The vassal receives laws and conditions from his sovereign. God commands the king to observe His laws and to have them always before his eyes, promising that he and his successors shall long possess the kingdom, if they be obedient, and that their reign will be short if they prove rebellious to their sovereign king. The vassal obliges himself by oath onto his lord, and swears that he will be faithful and obedient. In like manner the king promises solemnly to command, according to the explicit law of God. Briefly, the vassal loses his estate if he rebels, and by law forfeits all his privileges. Likewise the king loses his right, and many times his realm also, if he despise God, if he plots with his enemies, and if he rebels against that Royal Majesty. This will seem more obvious by the consideration of the covenant which is contracted between God and the king, for God does that honor to His servants to call them His confederates. Now we read of two sorts of covenants at the inaugurating of kings, the first between God, the king, and the people, that the people might be the people of God. The second, between the king and the people, that the people shall obey faithfully, and the king command justly. The latter we will treat later, and now speak of the former.