We Must Obey God Rather Than Man: John Ponet’s “Short Treatise,” Part III
“Wicked princes [are much like] warthogs, which if they be suffered to have their snouts in the ground…will suddenly have in all the body.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In the fourth chapter on his Short Treatise on Political Power, John Ponet drew upon a comparison well‐worn throughout English history: the great “Commonwealth” was very much like a single gigantic body. Just as the body is structured by bones and sinews, the English commonwealth required that the people keep themselves “in good order by obedience.” To Ponet, however, recent events, ancient history, and Biblical teachings all proved in abundance that order and obedience need not be enforced by tyrannical rulers. When rulers became corrupted by their power, the commonwealth’s great body became “racked and stretched too much,” causing “great pain and deformity” on the society at large. Ponet attempted to steer a middle course between radical Protestants (notably the Anabaptists) and Catholics. While the Anabaptists recognized no worldly powers, the Catholics sought a single (papal) ruler for all the peoples of the earth. For later theorists in the English tradition of whiggish republicanism–including John Adams–Ponet’s arguments that subjects are ultimately responsible only to God and that kings, too, may be discarded and damned, proved both prophetic and timely.
Compiled by Dr. John Ponet, Bishop of Rochester and Worchester.
A Short Treatise on Political Power, and of the true obedience which subjects our to kings and other civil governors, with an Exhortation to all true and natural English men.
Chapter IV. In what things, and how far subjects are bound to obey their princes and governors.
As the body of man is knit and kept together in due proportion by the sinews, so every commonwealth is kept and maintained in good order by obedience. But as the sinews are racked and stretched too much, or shrink together too much, it breeds great pain and deformity in a man’s body: so if obedience is too much or too little in a commonwealth, it causes much evil and disorder. For too much makes the governors forget their vocation, and to usurp upon their subjects: too little breeds a licentious liberty, and makes the people to forget their duty. And so in both ways the commonwealth grows out of order, and at length comes to havoc and utter destruction.
Some will have too little obedience, as the Anabaptists. For when they heard of a Christian liberty, they would have had all political power taken away: and so in deed no obedience.
Others (as the English Papists) rack and stretch out obedience too much, and have no need of civil power obeyed in all things, and whatsoever it commands, without respect it ought and must be done. But both of them be in great error. For the Anabaptists mistake Christian liberty, thinking that men may live without sin, and forget the fall of man, whereby he was brought into such misery, that he is no more able to rule himself by himself, than one beast is able to rule another: and that therefore God ordained civil power (his minister) to rule him, and to call him back, whenever he should pass the limits of his duty, and would give an obedience back to him.
And the Papists neither consider the degrees of powers, not over what things civil power has authority, nor how far subjects ought to obey their governors. And they do this not for a lack of knowledge, but from a spiritual malice, because it goes against their purpose, that the truth should be disclosed.
If any Christian prince should do about to redress the abuses of the Sacraments (brought in and devised by the Papists to maintain their kingdom) to correct their abominable lies, their whoredom, buggery, drunkenness, pride, and other vices: then he is another Ozias, another Osa, a heretic, a schismatic, cursed from top to toe, with book, bell, and candle, as black as a pot side: no obedience of the subjects ought to be given unto him. But if he be content to wink at their abominations, to run with them, to dishonor God, to commit idolatry, to kill the true ministers and counselors of Christ, to destroy the poor innocents which abhor the Papist’s wicked vices, and be desirous that God’s kingdom not be promoted: then he is another Ezekiel, a Josiah, a catholic prince, a dear son of the church, the protector of the church, the defender of the faith, the fosterer of the church, a counselor while he lives, after his death a saint (yes, a saint devil) canonized with Ora pro nobis: when Beelzebub dances at his dirge.
Such a one (they say) must be obeyed in all things, not may speak against his proceedings, for he that resists the power, resists the ordinance of God, and he that resists, purchases for himself damnation: as though to leave evil undone, and to do good, were to resist the power. And here also they wring this saying of Saint Peter (Servants obey your masters, although they be froward and churlish) to free subjects under a king: as if bondsmen and freemen were alone, and king and bondsmen had similar authority. So with violent wringing and false application of God’s life giving word, Caiphas and Herod rode cheek by cheek, and arm in arm, with both the swords and Cross before them. Friend to the one, friend to both: and he that is a heretic with Caiphas must be a traitor to Herod.
Thus they go about to blind men’s eyes to confirm and increase their devilish kingdom. But popish prelate’s practices are no warrant to discharge a Christian man’s conscience. He must seek out what God would have him do, and not what the subtlety and violence of wicked men will force him to do. He may not rob Peter to clothe Paul, not take from God his due to give it unto civil power: neither may he make confusion of the powers, but yield unto everyone that is his due, not in obeying the inferior commandment, leave the commandment of the highest undone. “Yield unto Caesar, those things that be Caesar’s,” says Christ, “and unto God the things that be God’s.” Civil power is a power and ordinance of God, appointed to certain things, but no general minister over all things. God has not given it power over the one and best part of man, that is, the soul and conscience of man, but only over the other and the worst part of man, that is, the body, and those things that belong unto the temporal life of man.
And yet over that part with the appurtenances he has not only not given man the whole power, and stripped himself of all the authority, but also he has reserved to Himself the power thereof. For we read that when civil power (his minister) has been negligent in doing his duty, or winked at the evil life of the people, God has not held his hand, but has whipped and plagued such people, as he did the Sodomites, Gomorrians, and in diverse times, the Jews.
And in our days his hand is not short, but he has, and daily does, plague blasphemers, whoremongers, drunkards, murders, thieves, traitors, tyrants, such as in man’s sight no man would touch: some with incurable plagues of their body, some with loss of their children, some with the loss of their goods, and some with shameful deaths.
And to the contrary, when the worldly powers have violently, tyrannously, over sharply, and wrongfully oppressed and condemned innocents, God (to testify that He has also power of the body) has many times in all ages mightily and miraculously delivered His people from the power of tyrants…
God is the highest power, the power of powers, from Him is derived all power. All people are His servants made to serve and glorify Him. All other powers are but His ministers, set to oversee that everyone behaves himself, as he should towards God, and to do those things, that he is justly commanded to do by God.
Whatever God commands man to do, he ought not to consider the matter, but be straight to obey the commander. For we are sure, what He commands, is just and right: for from Him, that is, all together just and right, no injustice nor wrong can come…
But contrary in man’s commandments, men ought to consider the matter, and not the man. For all men, whatever ministry or vocation they exercise, are but men, and so may err. We see councils against councils, parliaments against parliaments, commandments against commandments, this day one thing, tomorrow another. It is not the man’s warrant that can discharge them, but it is the thing itself that must justify thee…
For the subjects ought not (against nature) to further their own destruction, but to seek their own salvation: not to maintain evil, but to suppress evil: for not only the doers, but also the consenters to evil, shall be punished, say both God’s and man’s laws. And men ought to have more respect to their country, than to their prince: to the commonwealth, than to anyone person. For the country and commonwealth is a degree above the king. Next unto God, men ought to love their country, and the whole commonwealth before any member of it: as kings and princes (be they never so great) are but members: and commonwealths may withstand well enough and flourish, albeit there be no kings, but to the contrary, without a commonwealth there can be no king. Commonwealths and realms may live, when the head is cut off, and may put on a new head, that is , make them a new governor, then they see their old head seek too much his own will and not the wealth of the whole body, for which he was ordained. And by that justice and law, that lately has been executed in England (if it may be called justice and law) it should appear that the ministers of civil power do sometimes command that which the subjects ought not to do…
For although the king or queen of a realm have the Crown never justly, yet may they dispose of the Crown or realm, as it pleases them. They have the Crown to minister justice, but the realm being a body of free man and not of bondmen, he not she can not give or sell them as slaves and bondsmen. No, they can not give or sell away the holds and forts (as Calais or Berwick, or such like) without the consent of the Commons: for it was purchased with their blood and money. Yea and thine own pope’s laws (whereby you measure all things to be lawful or not lawful) say that if a king or governor of any realm do about to diminish the regalities and rights of his crown, he ought to be deposed…
Christ says: “He that does not take up his cross and follow me, is not mete for me”. And again: “Blessed be those that suffer persecution for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when men shall curse you, and persecute you, and speak all evil against you, living for my sake: be glad and rejoice, for your reward is plentiful in Heaven. So did they persecute the Prophets that were before you”. And the Apostle says: “All that live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution”. And so in a great number of places in Scripture.
But such persecution cannot be meant the injuries that private man does to private man: for God has ordained a means, that is, the magistrate to redress them. But by persecution is meant the injuries and tyranny that the magistrates and governors exercise over God’s people. For they, not content to let a Christian man have justice in civil things against a papist, not an honest man against such a one as favors their proceedings, do themselves spoil the Christians and honesty of their goods: and not only spoil them, but by all manner of force, violence, and snares seek their life and blood, not only in their own country, but where then have no authority, because they will not obey their commandments, and follow their wicked proceedings.
God will have His tried by persecution, that the world may see, who love the chief power, more than the inferior powers: His commandments, more than man’s fond proceedings: the soul, more than the flesh: the sure and everlasting inheritance of Heaven, more than the uncertain and temporal possessions of this world. Yea he has no other way to let the differences appear to men’s eyes between His servants and parasite princes, than only by persecution…And yet God does not so severely require of his people, that they should offer themselves to the princes slaughterhouse, their necks to the halter, their heads to the block, their blood to make prince’s pudding, their entrails to make tripes, their quarters to be boiled or roasted: but he has left them a special rule and commandment, whereby to guide themselves, that is, in all things to seek first the Kingdom of God. If he that is persecuted, feels in his conscience, that he may do God greater service and glorify by suffering than by fleeing, he ought rather to suffer a thousand deaths, that to flee one foot. But if his conscience witnesses with him that he may do God greater glory by fleeing that by tarrying, but is bound by the commandment to depart. “If they persecute you in one city”, says Christ, “flee to another”. And he did not only teach it, but did it himself, forsaking Jewry, and going into Galilee, when he heard John the Baptist was laid by the heels, because the time was not yet come, wherein he was appointed to glorify God. And because God would have a refuge place, and sanctuary for his, when such tyranny and persecution should be exercised, he would never suffer the power and ambitious tyrannies, to make one perfect monarchy of all, but when they had done their best to bring all together, and the string had been almost in the nick of the bow (as the proverb says) it had suddenly slipped, and not only destroyed the doer, but it has fallen into a great many shivers then it ever was before. Thus God dallies and plays with His puppets the prince of this world.
Since we be God’s people and servants, and He our Lord and the highest power: and the princes of the world be but his ministers and inferior powers, ordained to do good and not evil: we ought to seek chiefly to do God’s commandments before all men, to please God rather than men. For the princes (do they the worst they can) can but take from men their goods and lives: but God can take from us both goods and body, and cast both body and soul into hell. And yet should not they be able to work their will in this world, not execute their malice, if men would behave themselves toward their Lord and Master, God, as they ought. For as he can, so would he soon dispatch the world of tyrants. But because many be open enemies of God, and many dissemblers of God, God sends and suffers evil governors (and will send worse) to plague the people for their iniquity, and to try the faith of his Elect, from whom not one hair of the head can be taken without God’s will. And seeking always to do that which is good, they should always eschew to do that is evil, and commit the end to God.
But admit there be a great number that have drunk of the Whore of Babylon’s cup, and think that there is neither Heaven not Hell, and that God’s word is but friars matters: and that (like Sardanapalus) they should seek to eat and drink, and serve their lusts, and nothing else, were there no sure way for them to do what they would, if they should obey their princes in whatever they commanded.
The nature of wicked princes is much like to the warthogs, which if they be suffered to have their snouts in the ground, and be not forthwith let, will suddenly have in all the body: So they if they be obeyed in any evil thing (be it never so little) will be obeyed in all at length… All the paper in England would not serve to record the mischief that might follow, then princes evil commandments should be obeyed and fulfilled. But men that are wise, may by a little, consider the whole.
Seeing that God wills princes commandments should not be obeyed in all things, but will have His rather suffer a thousand deaths, than do anything that is evil: and since also many evils and mischiefs may follow in this life, where wicked princes will may stand for laws, men ought, both for God’s sake and commandment, abstain to obey such commandments, and cleave unto this maxim: We must obey God rather than man, for whose sake if we lose both goods and life, we ought to rejoice, that we be called to serve him, and not doubt, but as He is able to recompense it, so will He (according to His promise) reward it. And besides also they ought to consider, that princes be ordained for the wealth and benefit of the people, and not to their destruction: to maintain commonwealths, and not to subvert them: which rather that any man should consent unto, he ought (being a faithful man to his country) to abide all losses, both of body and goods. For next after God, men be born to love, honor, and maintain their country.