Was the American Revolution Biblical? This question was posed to me recently, and in this post I would like to share some thoughts on the matter. I acknowledge up front that this question is one that has been strongly debated by Christians at times. In fact, there was not consistent agreement among Christians at the time of the Revolution either.
I think that the following assessment by Derek H. Davis, Director of the Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, in an article entitled How Christian Was the American Revolution?, shows the diversity of opinion among Christians at the time:
How Christian was the American Revolution? The answer perhaps depends upon how we understand the question. If we seek to know whether there was an adequate biblical justification for the Revolution, we probably cannot give a very satisfactory answer because while there were many Christian patriots who supported the Independence movement, there were many Christian Tories who supported submission to Great Britain and many Christian pacifists who thought that war under any circumstances was wrong. In other words, Christians disagreed on whether the Revolution was a part of God’s will. If, however, we seek to know whether the Revolutionary movement was sustained by Christian ideals, we can probably come closer to saying that the Revolution was indeed Christian, since so much of the Revolution's ideological underpinnings were theological arguments advanced by Christians.
When we come to Scripture for an answer as to whether or not the American Revolution was, in fact, Biblical, the primary passage has to be found in Romans:
NKJ Romans 13:1-7 “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists [ὁ, followed by the present participle of ἀντιτάσσω] the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”
Here the key verses are verses 1-2, which appear to be as universal a statement for Christians as one could imagine. These verses clearly assert that “every soul” must be subject to the governing authorities, that there is “no authority” that has not come from God, and that all the “authorities that exist are appointed by God” (vs. 1). They further clearly assert that “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God” (vs. 2). (For a restatement of the general principle see also Titus 3:1.)
Indeed, this passage appears to be so clear that it has led John MacArthur to declare:
Over the past several centuries, people have mistakenly linked democracy and political freedom to Christianity. That's why many contemporary evangelicals believe the American Revolution was completely justified, both politically and scripturally. They follow the arguments of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are divinely endowed rights.Therefore those believers say such rights are part of a Christian worldview, worth attaining and defending at all cost including military insurrection at times. But such a position is contrary to the clear teachings and commands of Romans 13:1-7. So the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles, and any blessings God has bestowed on America have come in spite of that disobedience by the Founding Fathers. (Why Government Can't Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism, p. 6)
But, of course, the many Christians who supported the Revolution at the time were not oblivious to the importance of this passage. In fact, it was at the heart of the debate about whether or not they should offer their support to the cause. Historian Derek H. Davis, in the aforementioned article, is again helpful here:
Christians seeking a scriptural perspective on a possible war with England were especially challenged by Romans 13:1: "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God." This verse was an obstacle to many Christian colonists. How could a Christian support independence in the face of such a clear statement that God ordains all governmental authority and obedient Christian citizenship requires submission to such authority? Anglican minister Jonathan Boucher of Maryland, for example, concluded in a 1775 sermon that "obedience to government is every man's duty . . . because . . . it is enjoined by the positive commands of God." Loyalists (those who opposed the Revolution) numbered about one-third of the American population and many of them cited Romans 13:1 as the basis of their loyalty to the mother country.But Romans 13:1 could be interpreted differently. Many patriot preachers taught that the passage did not require unlimited passive obedience unto despotic, evil governments; it rather approved of human government in a broad, generic way in which submission would be the normal practice. Prominent Congregational minister Jonathan Mayhew, for example, held this view, stating that civil magistrates should be obeyed only so long as “they do not grossly abuse their power and trust, but exercise it for the good of those that are governed.” This interpretation of Romans 13:1 became widespread among other colonial preachers, thus removing the verse as an obstacle to revolution.Patriot ministers regularly preached on the theme of liberty as well. If God's people had "been called to liberty," as Galatians 5:13 promised, meaning liberty in Christ, then it did not seem too much a stretch to believe that this also meant freedom from political tyranny. This theme was further supported by the social contract and natural right theories of such philosophical divines as John Milton, Algernon Sydney, and especially John Locke. Modern researchers have affirmed that outside of the Bible, the writings of John Locke were the most frequently cited source for justifying the Revolution.
The problem with the interpretation of Romans 13:1 offered by Jonathan Mayhew – i.e. that civil magistrates should be obeyed so long as “they do not grossly abuse their power and trust, but exercise it for the good of those that are governed” – is that Paul seems to envision no such qualification. And one would certainly have expected him to offer such a qualification if he agreed with it, especially since at the time he was writing Nero was most likely the Emperor. But whoever the Emperor was at the time, corruption was fairly common in Roman government in the latter half of the first century. Perhaps it would be good, then, to take a look at a couple of other arguments for a different understanding of Romans 13:
1) the argument that we must not overthrow government as an institution, and2) the argument that we may overthrow the government if in doing so we obey an interpositional authority.
First, some Christians make the argument that we must not overthrow government as an institution and live in anarchy. David Barton (“the Founder and President of WallBuilders, a national pro-family organization that presents America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional heritage") argues in an online article entitled The American Revolution: Was it an Act of Biblical Rebellion? that:
Americans embraced two specific theological positions that guided their thinking and conduct in the conflict with Great Britain.The first was that most Christian denominations during the Founding Era held that while they were forbidden to overthrow the institution of government and live in anarchy, they were not required blindly to submit to every law and policy. Those in the Founding Era understood that the general institution of government was unequivocally ordained by God and was not to be overthrown, but that did not mean that God approved every specific government; God had ordained government in lieu of anarchy – He opposed anarchy, rebellion, lawlessness, and wickedness and wanted civil government in society. Therefore, a crucial determination in the colonists’ Biblical exegesis was whether opposition to authority was simply to resist the general institution of government (an institution ordained by God Himself), or whether it was instead to resist tyrannical leaders who had themselves rebelled against God. (The Scriptural model for this position was repeatedly validated when God Himself raised up leaders such as Gideon, Ehud, Jepthah, Samson, and Deborah to throw off tyrannical governments – leaders subsequently praised in Hebrews 11:32 for those acts of faith.)[And later in the article he says] The second Scriptural viewpoint overwhelmingly embraced by most Americans during the Revolutionary Era was that God would not honor an offensive war, but that He did permit civil self-defense (e.g., Nehemiah 4:13-14 & 20-21, Zechariah 9:8, 2 Samuel 10:12, etc.). The fact that the American Revolution was an act of self-defense and was not an offensive war undertaken by the Americans remained a point of frequent spiritual appeal for the Founding Fathers. After all, Great Britain had attacked America, not vice versa; the Americans had never fired the first shot – not in the Boston Massacre of 1770, the bombing of Boston and burning of Charlestown in 1774, or in the attacks on Williamsburg, Concord, or Lexington in 1775.
Notice that the first argument here must assume that Paul had in mind only that we should not resist the institution of government in general and so opt for anarchy when he said, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God …” (Rom. 13:1-2a). But the problem is that Paul is not speaking in this way. He is quite plainly asserting that any particular authority over us has been placed there by God when he says in explanation of the command to “be subject to the governing authorities” that “there is no authority except from God.” In my opinion, to argue that Paul only has in mind resistance to the establishment of any kind of government at all is to read into the text.
As for Barton's allusion to Old Testament examples of rebellion against a governing authority, I would respond that, in my view, these cases were all instances of God's special revelation that such should be done or of His divine intervention on behalf of a people whose position was that of a national entity under His rule. Can we really apply such cases in the history of national Israel to the Church? I think not. I think this would fail to properly take into account the differences between the nature of the Old Covenant people of God as a nation among nations and the New Covenant people of God as a family of believers from among all nations. Under the Old Covenant the very nature of the case often required rebellion against foreign oppressors or the overthrow of wicked kings, and then only with Divine sanction and guidance. But the New Covenant Church is not such an entity. As Jesus said to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36 NKJ).
As for part two of Barton's argument, I suppose we would have to debate whether or not the Revolution was in reality a war of self defense or whether or not it was the resistance of an authority that had the right to quell opposition by means of force. As I consider this notion in the context of Romans 13, I can't help but wonder why the early Church did not avail herself of such an argument, especially when one considers just how unjust the Roman government could often be in its use of force.
Second, some Christians make the argument that we may overthrow the government if in doing so we obey an interpositional authority. That is, if we are subject to a lesser authority which rebels against a higher authority, then we may obey that lesser authority by joining in the rebellion. And the magistrates in early America, it is argued, constituted just such lesser authorities.
But notice that this argument assumes that it would be right for a lesser authority to seek to overthrow a higher authority in the first place. But what if it isn't right? Does Paul assume in Romans 13 that it would be right? Or does his position indicate that it would be wrong? It appears to me that it would indeed be wrong, because it would in any case entail resistance of a God ordained authority, and such resistance would be considered sin by Paul. In fact, couldn't I argue on the basis of Romans 13 that, when a lesser authority requires me to disobey and resist a higher authority, I must disobey that lesser authority because it is requiring me to sin against God?
Now, I obviously do agree that Paul expects the governing authorities to wield their authority justly, but he does not say that resistance is acceptable if they fail to do so. Not that he wouldn't agree that civil disobedience is permissible at times, for I have no doubt that he would agree with Peter and John and the rest of the Apostles when they practiced civil disobedience. For example:
NKJ Acts 4:18-20 “And they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, 'Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. 20 For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.'”
NKJ Acts 5:27-29 “And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, 28 saying, 'Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man's blood on us!' 29 But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: 'We ought to obey God rather than men.'” (For Peter's general point of view, which of course agrees with Paul, see 1 Peter 2:13-14.)
Of course we could add other Scriptural examples of civil disobedience, such as the Hebrew midwives in ancient Egypt (Exod. 1:15-21) or Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in ancient Babylon (otherwise known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, Dan. 3:8-18), or Daniel in Persia (Dan. 6:1-23). But the point is that in none of these cases is overthrow of the government involved. They disobeyed only at those points where the governing authority expressly required them to disobey God.
Now, I suppose one could give Old Testament examples where overthrow of the government did take place, such as when Jeroboam the son of Nebat rebelled against Rehoboam, but aside from the problems with directly applying such Old Covenant situations to the New Covenant Church, I would simply observe that in this case (and others like it) there was special revelation from God calling for the rebellion (1 Kings 11:29-39). Kirby Anderson, President of Probe Ministries, cites such examples in an online article entitled Civil Disobedience, and he makes the following helpful observations:
Notice that in each of these examples there are at least two common elements. First, there was a direct, specific conflict between God's law and man's law. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill male Hebrew babies. Nebuchadnezzar commanded his subjects to bow before the golden image. King Darius ruled that no one could pray. And, in the New Testament, the High Priest and the Council forbade the apostles from proclaiming the gospel.Second, in choosing to obey God's higher law, believers paid the normal consequence for disobedience. Although most of those previously cited escaped the consequence through supernatural intervention, we know from biblical and secular history that others paid for their disobedience with their lives.
Actually, we may be called upon to carry out such civil disobedience in the near future. As the recently drafted Manhattan Declaration asserts in its final paragraph:
Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s. (This document was drafted October 20, 2009 and released November 20, 2009.)