Welcome to our Wednesday “Ask Beau” post. The purpose of this weekly feature is to provide you, our readers, with biblical responses to questions you have about practical issues that you face.
Both before and after I preached last Sunday on how a Christian should relate to the government, a question arose: Was the American Revolution biblically justified? As much as I would like to sidestep this question, it is a fair and legitimate question, especially given that the sermon was delivered one day before Independence Day.
Let’s first admit that those of us who love America are predisposed to answer the question, “Yes.” The question, however, is not, “Do we want the American Revolution to have been biblically justified?” but, “Was the American Revolution biblically justified?” Let me also admit at the outset that I am not extremely well-versed in the history of the Revolutionary War, so I am doubtless unaware of some of the relevant historical context. I also did not experience some of the significant injustices done by the British government, so the issue is not as personal to me as it surely was to some. With these things in mind, let us consider the words of Scripture.
As I expressed in Monday’s post and in Sunday’s sermon, there is a very clear call in the Bible for Christians to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1–6 and following; 1 Peter 2:16–17). The Bible rejects the proposition that a superior’s unjust actions are sufficient cause for a subordinate to disrespect and fail to submit to that superior (1 Peter 2:18–20). Jesus serves as the model here for enduring injustice. When Jesus was unjustly treated, He did not respond with disrespect and resistance, but entrusted Himself to the Father (1 Peter 2:21–23).
The Christian signers of the Declaration of Independence (not all were Christians) may have found support for the document and the subsequent revolution particularly in Romans 13:4: “For government is God’s servant to you for good . . . government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong” (HCSB). Some would argue that Paul presents a standard for governmental conduct within Romans 13:1–6. If the government fails to abide by this standard of conduct, it could be suggested, then lack of submission would be permissible and even proper.
I see at least two problems with this argument. First, Paul’s emphasis in Romans 13:1–6 is clearly on submission to governmental authority. He continues to discuss related topics in verses 7 through 10. Paul does speak of at least a portion of the role of government, but in the context, he is explaining God’s purposes in establishing governmental authority, not presenting an acid test by which one can tell if a governmental authority is acting properly. To suggest otherwise is to read more into the text than is present.
Second, I don’t see how we can get around the statement, “There is no authority except from God” (13:1 HCSB). This is as broad a statement about authority as one can make, and it was written to Christians who lived in a government (the Roman Empire) that tolerated and propagated the exposure of infants, emperor worship, unfair taxation, and so on. In other words, if Paul really meant, “Submit to the governing authorities as long as they govern according to godly boundaries and principles,” it’s hard to see how he could have written what he did, especially to the Roman Christians!
The truth is that every government ever instituted has failed to govern according to godly boundaries and principles at one time or another. No government has ever been completely just in its retributive function. Besides this, our own perception of justice, while not arbitrary, is imperfect. I may feel like the government is being unjust in a given instance and the guy three seats away from me in the same church pew may think the government is doing a fine job. If it were OK for us to disrespect and even rebel against the government when we feel it has overstepped its bounds or when it is acting unjustly, Paul’s words in Romans 13 would be virtually meaningless.
I suppose some might seek justification for the American Revolution in Just War Theory, which says that a war is justified if it is waged for a just cause. Augustine (354–430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) felt that the Bible supported Just War Theory. I think this proposed justification is a stretch in light of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Again, the Bible commands submission to all governmental authorities, not just authorities that act justly (which none fully do).
Another consideration is that submission to the governing authorities is limited in one important sense, which I did not mention in the sermon: Christians should not obey the government when the government directs them to commit overtly sinful acts (Daniel 3:16–18; Acts 5:27–29). I wonder if this consideration was not in the mind of some who took part in the rebellion. Some may have felt that the British government was forcing them to commit sin in some way.
While I am sure that most if not all of those who supported the American Revolution were convinced that they were doing the right thing, I do not think I would have been comfortable participating in the Revolution based on what I know of the Bible and what I know of history. While I hesitate to say dogmatically that the Revolution was biblically unjustified, my sense is that if I had been alive at the time of the Revolution, I would have chosen to remain as neutral as possible, fighting neither for the American forces nor for the Redcoats. This would have put me in league with the early American Brethren, my theological ancestors, so to speak—a group that was ostracized and persecuted for this stance. Thus, I won’t find it surprising if some of you disagree with me, perhaps strongly.
Obviously I have not covered this issue exhaustively. Are there considerations I have missed? What are your thoughts?
—Beau StanleyFollow @beaustanley