From within the American tradition, perhaps the strangest of Jesus’ teachings is found in passing in the final discourse recorded in the Gospel of Matthew before Jesus would go up to Jerusalem for the last time: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you”. (Matthew 23:2,3a ESV)
This text is remarkable because the Pharisees are known best to us from the gospels as the hypocritical opponents of Jesus. Even here Matthew’s record immediately passes back to further warnings against the Pharisees – “but [do] not [do] the works they do.” (Matt. 23:3b) The rest of the chapter is taken up with various warnings against those works, and condemnation of the Pharisees for corrupting the Law of Moses.
This is surprising as well because Jesus had often invoked His superior authority as the Christ to correct Pharisaic teaching or justify His deviation from their illegitimate standards. Further, this instruction is recorded as happening shortly before the Resurrection and Ascension, briefly after which the Church would be declared free of the Mosaic regulations. Still, that could be explained: Jesus reminding His disciples to maintain deference to a legitimate authority until its rule passed away. We are, after all, not ourselves the Christ.
I still find it difficult to face, because Christ here commands obedience to authorities who immediately are identified as evil. Duty to authorities is hardly an uncommon theme in Scripture. But the difficulties are not always framed so starkly. Where David respects the kingship of Saul, he is still a fugitive and we know from long familiarity David’s story ends, as we judge these things, happily. Christ and the Apostles teach respect for all authority, but usually somewhat separated from condemnations of that authority or even warnings of suffering inflicted by evil rulers. Here we have the immediate contrast, which leaves no doubt about the Christian principle of submission to authority.
There is one clearly Scriptural remedy against rulers who abuse their authority: flight. From the Exodus to David’s adventures mentioned above to Elijah’s sojurn in Phoenicia to Mary and Joseph’s flight back to Egypt, and then in Jesus’ instructions to flee the seige of Jerusalem, Peter’s supernaturally-aided escape from prison, and various escapades of Paul, running away from evil is always seen as legitimate. (Almost always: Jeremiah records a prophetic warning not to flee from – or fight – the conquering Babylonians but rather surrender.)
In contrast, the favored American arguments, of throwing up law and legitimacy against usurping acts of the authorities, stands Scripturally on shakier ground. In Biblical terms, the authority of a position seems to be personal and to come from having been put in a position of authority. The odd rebellion is instigated at divine command, but the framing is that God is judging the ruler. Allowing for a nation to have formally endorsed a rule “by the people”, it would seem that their representatives would still retain even abused authority until removed.
However, it is also the case that what the Reformed often call lesser magistrates are not bound to enforce unjust or unlawful commands from superiors. Jonathan defended David against Saul; Ahab’s minister Obadiah protected the prophets; Agrippa would have freed Paul except for Paul’s own appeal to Caesar’s court itself. In more modern terms, we might recognize this as the principle which has declared “just following orders” an insufficient excuse for immoral conduct.
In many areas there is growing concern about abuse of authority, and thus how we are to respond. We may find ourselves faced with a necessity to refuse unjust requirements – and then to flee or accept unjust retribution, which is persecution for righteousness’ sake that Christ says is a sign of promised blessing. But the elements outlined above suggest active resistance – in contrast to this non-violent witness – is not the role of the private citizen acting on his own. It is of course possible for subordinate authorities to fail to act; it is possible for subordinate authorities to resist improperly what are in fact just commands. But I conclude that to identify legitimate resistance to tyranny, the Christian should look for movements being led by or at the very least cooperating with those other authorities which are given for our good in this world.