Many years ago in the U.K., I spent time training to be a monk. In order to live that discipline, you had to take three vows or sacred promises: poverty, chastity and obedience. A little word of explanation is needed here because the terms by themselves don’t translate easily into everyday English. ‘Poverty’ means evangelical poverty or having no attachment to worldly goods, but sharing everything in common as envisioned by Acts 2:44. The second, chastity, means foregoing marriage and family for the sake of the Kingdom of God, as the Lord Jesus explains in Matthew 19:12. Now these two promises are radical enough, but the third was considered the most difficult of all three: obedience. This signified the voluntary surrender of one’s own freedom to another human being who was just as flawed and broken as you were. Though the word used was obedience, a better expression would have been submission, as shown in Romans 13:1. Obedience can be understood as external compliance, whereas submission speaks more to an attitude of the heart.
I’m sure that there would be many opinions out there about monks and their “monkish” ways, but there is at least one insight in all of this: older Christianity had few illusions about the capacity of the human heart to brook any authority but its own. The monks realized that there was no greater tyranny than the bondage to our own will. So they made it a rule that those who profess to stand under the cross of Christ, must be prepared to walk in wholesome submission to authority.
Western monasticism has its origins in the Rule of St. Benedict in 7th century Italy. Since those days and the advent of reformed Christianity, human beings continue to struggle with authority. Indeed, I have noticed a growing lawlessness in the way that we moderns view the world around us. Paul’s admonition in Romans 13:1-2 was never more relevant than today: “Every soul is to be in submission to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except by God, and those which exist, are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority, has opposed the decree of God. And those who have opposed it will receive judgment upon themselves.” Paul wrote this to a group of Jewish and Christian believers living under the harsh and brutal dominion of ancient Rome. Some of the emperors, like Claudius, exhibited a lesser form of sternness and cruelty. Others, like Caligula and Nero seemed like demonized sociopaths. Yet nowhere do we read about Paul or any of the New Testament writers advocating open rebellion.
Now this raises some interesting questions about rebellions and revolutions throughout history of the western world, particularly those against harsh, repressive and unjust regimes. I’m sure the American colonists of the 1780’s thought they were well justified in revolting against Great Britain, likewise the Irish in the 1920’s. Similarly, the French would staunchly defend their revolution against the rule of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Though I would not classify myself as an historian, I have noticed that one revolution does seem to spawn others or resultant disorders. For example, “…three score and ten years” after the American War of Independence came the Civil War, still to date America’s bloodiest conflict. Ireland also endured a bloody civil war after its secession from Britain, and France experienced much disorder in the 1800’s. Compare this with countries where there has been a mutually agreed transfer of authority from one to the other, as in Canada and Australia. Both countries have enjoyed peaceful times subsequent to their respective independence.
Where does this leave us? Perhaps with at least some caution when we explore the option of resisting authority, just or otherwise. There is one additional consideration. Satan is the archetypal rebel. Isaiah 14:13-15, has been quoted and interpreted as a record of his revolt against God: “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! …You who have weakened the nations! But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God…I will make myself like the Most High’. Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol…” Satan loves to “weaken the nations” by inciting human beings to act like him; to be rebels, resisting authority, and ultimately opposing God. Paul, on the other hand, exhorts us to be subject to authority. No doubt he was thinking of his Master and ours who endured false accusation, unjust condemnation and a cruel death, all the while in complete submission to His Father.
By way of conclusion, this of course does not mean some false humility or obsequiousness in the face of injustice. John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen and Paul were all very outspoken against wrongful lifestyles in leadership, both secular and religious. Their courage eventually cost them their lives. Though they and other Christian leaders were vocal in criticising authorities of the day, they could never be fairly accused of being rebels. And this is the core of the matter: the distinction between a rebel and a prophet. A rebel will always assert his own will; a prophet must submit his own will to God’s.