Calvin’s convictions on this subject [civil disobedience] were, on the whole, strikingly conservative. In an extended series of discussions toward the close of the Institutes, he hailed the honor and reverence due to magistrates as a consequence of their appointment by God [ICR 4.20.22-29]. Calvin exhorts Christians that they must “with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens, which relate to the common defense, or in executing any other orders.” [ICR 4.20.23]. He goes on to make clear that this applies to bad rulers as well as good: “But if we have respect to the Word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes.” [ICR 4.20.25]. “The only thing remaining for you,” Calvin adds shortly thereafter, “will be to receive their commands, and be obedient to their words.” [ICR 4.20.26].
David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (pg. 121)
VanDrunen goers on to point out that Calvin, when elucidating on the topic of civil disobedience and resistance qualifies his words by saying, “I speak only of private men.” VanDrunen then goes on to show how Calvin made some interesting stipulations about the less private and more extraordinary men known as lesser magistrates, typically the doctrine invoked to justify rebelling against a magistrate who says some people can’t sit at lunch counters or on certain sides of buses. Not only may “lesser magistrates curb tyrants,” but “only magistrates who have already been appointed for such a task.”
So it would seem that, at least according to VanDrunen’s read on Calvin, that the ordinary citizen who acts contrary to his magistrate’s laws (laws that don’t require any personal violation of God’s clear moral law) is acting contrary to true Christian piety. That might not go down very easily for those of us raised to think of certain rebellious actions as more heroic and inspiring than ignoble and shun-worthy. But it could be that there is in fact more dignity in living with certain political and legal imperfections than in fighting against them. Granted, it is very easy for someone who in theory would not likely have to live with said imperfections. But with no intentions of offending anyone who has been personally maligned or injured by them, it could be that the test of a better obedience is to obey a law one finds closer to odious than immoral.
Some suggest that the Christian life may be summed up in one word: obedience. If that is true then though it certainly must include this sort of honest citizenship, it would seem that Mark 12:13-17 is about much more than filing honest and timely tax returns. After all, would they all have been really so “amazed” when Jesus told them to do something quite so obvious, even easy? Or is it more likely that the amazement stemmed from nary a word about rebelling against an authority who gave no second thought to his own deity and trampling the rights of God’s own?
Mark 12 is about authority and submission. If we’re being honest, these are not themes Americans naturally abide. Our very existence is the result of rebellion. We are nurtured on the virtues of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, complete with warnings to “not tread on me” and bids to bestow liberty or (gulp) death. We have a polity that invites, encourages, even rewards dissent of the private man that Calvin forbids. If the shorthand for the Christian life is indeed obedience, just what sort of bearing do our theological beliefs have on our ideological devotions, if any?
If the hearers of Jesus can gasp at his rendering instruction in light of obvious problems, is it really such a stretch to suggest that, despite popular sentiment to the contrary, American polity is more antithetical than encouraging to Christian piety? It could be that it isn’t quite as safe and happy to be an American Christian as sermons on Memorial Day and platitudes on July 4 might think. It might be that what we presume as a blessing is closer to what it means to struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil.