Chapter 8: The Use of Civil Disobedience


In October 2022, Christ Over All authors examined the ten chapters of Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto in order to explore their significance for today. Each title corresponds to the chapter name in Schaeffer’s work, which can be found here.

When Schaeffer turns from the limits of civil obedience in chapter 7 to the use of civil disobedience in chapter 8, he continues to rely on Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex—a book that argues even a king (Rex) must obey the law (Lex). As Ardel Caneday noted from chapter seven, Lex Rex provided an important foundation for the founders of America and for Schaffer as well (100–01). Appropriating Rutherford’s approach to civil disobedience, Schaeffer begins by rejecting violence as an “automatic response” to legislated injustice (cf. Ps. 94:20; Isa. 10:1). At the same time, he reminds us that Christians have a moral obligation to resist tyranny “if the state deliberately is committed to destroying its ethical commitments to God” (103).

1. Shortly after quoting A Christian Manifesto, Douglas Wilson, in his “Introduction” to Lex Rex, observes how “ignorant” American Christians are concerning “their own political theology” (iv). He continues, “Protestant Christians do have a long heritage when it comes to church/state relations (and this book [Lex Rex] is an essential part of that heritage), but we have been keeping this piece of legacy furniture in the attic for so long that it appears that most of us have forgotten completely about it” (iii–iv). If this is true, it is long overdue that earnest Christians recover a biblical theology of resistance to the tyrannical state.

2. For a full treatment of Christian resistance, which devotes ample time to Samuel Rutherford, see Glenn Sunshine, Slaying Leviathan.

This is a point lost on many Christians today.[1] By contrast, Schaeffer invites the church to consider more completely how Christians have stood for the faith in other ages. Again, he looks to Rutherford, as well as the saints of the Reformation, and those calling for religious liberty in America. Drawing on a rich history of Protestant Resistance Theory (i.e., a political theology that stands on the shoulders of Augustine, Luther, Junius Brutus, and Samuel Rutherford), Schaeffer outlines the way Christians can resist tyranny.[2] Employing Rutherford’s three “appropriate levels of resistance” to a government that mandates sin (103), he writes,


First, [the individual] must defend himself by protest (in contemporary society this would most often be by legal action); second, he must flee if at all possible; and, third, he may use force, if necessary, to defend himself. (103)

Fulminate. Flee. Force. These three “levels of resistance” provide a sliding scale for ways Christians may respond to legislated injustice. Indeed, not every situation demands the same response, but neither can the state’s low-grade tyranny or soft totalitarianism go unheeded. Accordingly, these three levels of resistance do a number of things:

  1. They teach restraint to those who are prone to use force as the first option.
  2. They challenge the timid to protest (i.e. fulminate) before fleeing.
  3. They acknowledge that in a world where flight is often impossible, force may be necessary and justified.
  4. They catalyze all Christians to stand for the truth out loud and in public.

As Schaeffer puts it together, “One should not employ force if he may save himself by flight; nor should one employ flight if he can save himself and defend himself by protest and the employment of constitutional means of redress” (104). In short, there is a proper time and procedure for everything under the sun (cf. Eccl. 8:6), and wise Christians, like the men of Issachar, must have an understanding of the times (1 Chron. 12:32). Importantly, such understanding is not passive, but leads to active involvement. Yet, such political action must be based on biblical truth, not mere partisanship or self-assertion.

Reformation Principles for Political Action

For the Christian, the end cannot justify the means, and how one seeks reconstruction is as important as the reconstruction he seeks.[3] As Schaeffer puts it, “Always before protest or force is used, we must work for reconstruction. . . . we should attempt to correct and rebuild society before we advocate tearing it down or disrupting it” (106). This principle of reformation over revolution is one that distinguishes Christian political action from non-Christian, as well as one that separates the American push for independence of 1776 from that in France in 1789.[4]

3. I hesitate to use the word “reconstruction,” because of its associations with theonomy and R. J. Rushdoony. Yet, this is the word Schaeffer uses. On the relationship between Rushdoony and Schaeffer, see McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, 213.

4. On the differences between revolution and reformation, see the contrast between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine in Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.

5. Technically, Lyman Hall of Georgia also served as a clergyman, but his vocational pursuits focused on medicine and education.

6. I am most comfortable using Gregg Frazier’s language of “theistic rationalism,” to describe the shared worldview of the Founders (The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution). Among the Founders, however, was a profound sense of Providence, respect for religion, and awareness of human sin. This respect led to a political restraint and wise balance of powers (in three branches of government) that was unknown in the French Revolution (1789).

In his chapter, Schaeffer traces the history of Samuel Rutherford’s call for lesser magistrates to address the evils of government, to John Locke’s secularization of Lex Rex, to the influence that both had on John Witherspoon and America’s Founders (105–6). Witherspoon, the Scotland-born President of Princeton, was the lone minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, but he was not the only Founder influenced by Christian principles of reformation.[5]

Indeed, America’s War for Independence differed fundamentally from that of France’s bloody revolution. For the thirteen colonies, Christian principles catalyzed political action and national change, even if these principles were often diffused and secularized.[6] America’s “revolution” was, in a word, constructive, and not destructive. Instead of tearing asunder the colonies, it created a new form of government, which protected the rights of individuals without ripping apart the fabric of society (106).

By contrast, France’s revolution was truly revolutionary—destructive, deadly, and dedicated to human autonomy. Indeed, founded on the anti-Christian principles of the Enlightenment, France arrogated the individual to perilous heights. Accordingly, its vision for law and politics failed to uphold both accountability for lawmakers and their need to have regard for the Imago Dei in humanity. This was the concern Edmund Burke pointed out in his classic Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a concern that came to fruition as the French Revolution resulted not in a new form of liberty, but in a loss of life and a new form of unaccountable tyranny.

Space does not permit a full investigation of these points, but it is critical to see how revolutions that reject biblical truth cannot result in human liberty. As reported in The Black Book of Communism, 100 million image-bearers died under the Communist regimes of the twentieth century. In principle, movements that do not honor God will inevitably rage against him (Ps. 2:1–3), resulting in tyranny, hatred, and violence. This is a point foundational to Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto, and it leads him to address the legal battles of his day.

Schaeffer’s Call for Action

Building on the Christian foundations of Rutherford and others, Schaeffer focuses his attention on public protest and legal engagement. Convinced that “at this time in our history, protest is our most viable alternative” (108), he sets his sights on opposing abortion (108) and the public school system (109–15).

For someone who is known today for his pro-life legacy, it is striking that he spends most of this chapter addressing the freedoms being lost in public schools. Most explicitly, he describes the inability to teach creationism alongside evolution. For instance, Schaeffer exposes the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for fabricating a novel separation between church and state (109), and he calls Christians to stand up in protest. “It is a time for Christians and others who do not accept the narrow and bigoted humanist views rightfully to use the appropriate forms of protest” (110). Sadly, many of the legal battles that Schaeffer mentioned in his book (including the creationism one above) were decided against Christians.

For Christians, protest is a secondary application of Ephesians 5:14, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Thinking about the schools: what would have happened if Christian teachers protested the policy of only teaching state-approved doctrines? Surely, this would have created “problems,” but it might have also stemmed the tide of secularism, which has washed over our country.

In fact, Schaeffer goes so far as to liken the education policies of America to Communist Russia. He begins, “In the United States the materialistic, humanistic world view [sic] is being taught exclusively in most state schools” (111). Then, after acknowledging the effect that this worldview is also having on Christian schools, he drops this bombshell.

In the public schools in the United States, all religious influence is as forcibly forbidden as in the Soviet Union. . . . We must never forget that the humanistic position is an exclusivist, closed system which shuts out all contending viewpoints—especially if these views teach anything other than relative values and standards. Anything which presents absolute truth, values, or standards is quite rightly seen by the humanist to be a total denial of the humanistic position. (112)

Painfully, everywhere we look today, Schaeffer’s indictments about public education are proven true. The sons of this world have been more shrewd in offering “rules for radicals,”[7] such that they have often eclipsed the influence of Christian salt and light. For instance, Rudi Dutschke, a 1960s radical, called for a secular revolution to “march through institutions.” In the ensuing decades, public schools and universities have become the training ground for secular humanist ideologies. Where do the pro-abortion rallies, the BLM marches, and the transgender Twitterati get their recruits? With rare exceptions, they have been trained in public high school and colleges for generations. Sadly, many professing Christian schools have even followed suit.

7. Rules for Radicals is a book by Saul D. Alinsky published in 1971 that “Guides young revolutionaries in the art of human communication and explains the tactics of organizing others to work within the system for social change.”

A Call to Stand

In response to these cultural movements, Schaeffer calls us to use our freedom to stand for truth and righteousness. While we still have freedom to protest, he says, we must do so. How many libraries would end “Drag Queen Story Hour” if members from local churches organized events to confront public immorality with grace and truth? How many public schools would allow pornography in their libraries if Christian parents came out en masse for public meetings? How many hospitals would stop castrating and mutilating confused minors if more Christians shed light on this barbaric practice? Only the Lord knows the answer to those questions, but if public good is going to result, some courageous Christians must catalyze, organize, and actualize.

As a more recent Christian dissident, Rod Dreher, has put it, we must “value nothing more than truth,” even if such truth means that we simply refuse to speak lies.[8] As Schaeffer notes, in our modern world, we cannot easily flee from one country to the next, like the Pilgrims did. And, thankfully, we are not yet forced to resist with arms (more on that in chapter 9). Still, as agencies like the FBI are being increasingly used to forcibly arrest pastors who stand for life, we must realize that our freedoms are being lost and taken away.

8. Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, 98. Dreher’s reflections (97–99) depend on Václav Havel’s powerful vignette of the greengrocer in his equally powerful essay, “The Power of the Powerless.”

And so, before it is too late, we must speak up in defense of religious liberty and genuine human rights. Indeed, if Paul calls us to pray for the peace of our nation (1 Tim. 2:1–4), then we who elect our rulers should also work for the peace of our nation (cf. Jer. 29:7). In A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer explains why this use of civil disobedience is so vital, and he explains further how to do so virtuously. Today, even more than in his day, we need to learn how to stand up and speak truth out loud and in public.

David Schrock

David Schrock

David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.