If you think a citizen must always obey the government, then government has become your God. To disobey government is to become a rebel and maybe a prisoner! It has always been dangerous to be right when your government is wrong. When Christians disobey government, they must do so based on biblical principles, accept the consequences, and not whine about “suffering for Jesus.”
John Bunyan preached without government permission and spent 12 years in Bedford Jail for preaching without a license; yet after his release, he accepted a license!
While John was in jail, he was only a five-minute walk to his home. When blind Mary visited, she brought her father a jug of soup. John wrote, “O the thoughts of the hardship I thought my Blind one might go under, would break my poor heart to pieces…Yet recalling myself, thought I, I must venture you all with God, though it goeth to the quick to leave you. O, I saw in this condition I was as a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his Wife and Children. Yet, thought I, I must do it, I must do it.”
Mary often brought father a jug of soup, feeling her way along the damp wall to his cell where she embraced her father and related news of their home and church. On leaving, she would reach up and feel for her father’s eyes and wipe away the tears. John said that as he considered what he was doing to his family, it was as if someone were pulling the flesh from his bones. Knowing that he could go home with Mary if he simply agreed not to preach, made the matter worse.
Although convicted illegally and without a proper trial, he served in prison 12 years of his life from age 32 to 44. Of course, unlike today’s prisoners, he did not have access to radio, television, or prison library. He didn’t even have a gym! He slept on a flea-infested straw mattress when it was available or on loose straw along with 20 to 30 other prisoners. He was cold in the winter and sweltering hot in the summer as he became well acquainted with rats, lice, and fleas. One can imagine his desire for silence and solitude.
While in prison, John began to write and authored the most-read book of all time other than the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, one of 60 books he wrote. Next to the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into more languages than any other book.
Bunyan had been convicted under the Act Against Puritans 1593, which mandated that every citizen should attend the parish church (Church of England) regularly. The punishment for breaking this law included banishment from England forever. However, the law was to expire at the end of the next session of Parliament so Bunyan was arrested and convicted under an expired law!
When King Charles II issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence in 1672, he was showing tolerance toward all religious groups but his main interest was giving Roman Catholics a boost from their disfavor. Charles was thought to be a secret Catholic and in fact did become one on his deathbed. His Catholic brother James was heir to the throne, which scared Englishmen.
As a result of this Act, Bunyan was released even though he spent six additional months in prison in 1675. With the Indulgence, it was possible for people to worship God in the way they wanted if they bought a license. Nonconformist sects such as Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, and others could register and get a license. But no preacher should get approval from government to minister–not then, not now.
The dissidents wavered for a while not knowing what to do. If they registered, then the King would have all their names and addresses, “but surely you can trust the word of the King.” Eventually, the offer was accepted with a total of 1610 ministers taking licenses: 939 Presbyterians, 458 Congregationalists or Independents, and 210 Baptists. Bunyan was one of the Baptists!
However, the Indulgence was canceled in 1673, under pressure from an Anglican-controlled Parliament, and the licenses were recalled in 1675. (That is exactly what Bunyan told the judge could happen.) It wasn’t too difficult since the government knew where everyone lived and preached. The nonconformists learned that you can’t always trust your government. However, the results for nonconformity were permanent. The dissidents made enormous advances in only a few months and there was no going back. Freedom does that.
But the mess was getting messier.
A vacillating king, a vicious Parliament, and a vindictive state church had made a mess of life in England. Charles didn’t know what he believed and was only interested in cavorting with his eight mistresses (producing 17 'bastards') and everyone “just getting along.” The king’s interest was not in politics but in philandering, partying, and playing. Things haven’t changed much, have they?
The Parliament was displaying its power after being in limbo during the rule of Oliver Cromwell (an independent Puritan). Additionally, the Church of England was getting its pound of flesh from the dissidents after the state church’s humiliation during Cromwell’s Protectorate from 1653 to 1659. (It’s interesting that Cromwell rejected the offer to make him king!)
Bunyan was released from jail and he found that his affairs were “gone to wreck” and that he had to begin life as if he were a young man again. “Before his liberation, a license had been sent to him from the king to preach, and Mr. Gifford [pastor of the Bedford Church] being dead, it had been resolved by the church that he should become their pastor, in case he concurred with their desire.” (William Brock, Life of John Bunyan, Cassell Publishing Company, New York undated, p. xxx.) However, a license “sent to him” was still a license to preach.
No one knows what happened to Bunyan that permitted him to accept permission to preach from the king after his principled reply to the judge: “No man or company of men may grant or deny me leave [permission] to preach.” The fact is, if an official can give permission to preach then he can tell you that you can’t preach.
The Bible principle is, no power on earth has the authority (power yes, authority, no) to tell a preacher he can preach or he cannot preach nor can he be told what to preach or how to preach or when to preach. Nor can any authority sit in judgment as to what a preacher or layman can believe. Modern Christians had better imbibe these convictions as an out-of-control government arrogantly tells them what they will believe about same-sex “marriage,” transgenderism, homeschooling, licensure of Christian schools, etc. It seems Charles II is still on the throne!
John Bunyan was a good, great, and godly man who was far more courageous and talented than I; however, he was wrong not to tell King Charles II that while he appreciated the thought, he would continue to preach without a license.
But then that could be dangerous since King Charles beheaded Algernon Sidney for saying that there is no divine right of kings to rule over the people. It’s dangerous to disagree with any “king.”
No one can know what changed Bunyan’s mind about a license. Maybe he liked being free; or was delighted with his enlarged ministry; or was influenced by his family; or was convinced by his preacher/friends to be “practical”; or felt that he had done enough for the cause; or maybe he became weary in the battle.
Modern Christians must learn to pronounce the most difficult word to speak - "No!" No, to government control.