2016-07-27
Excerpted with permission of Wallbuilders.

Some people contend that the American Revolution represented a violation of basic Biblical principles and embodied rebellion, or a spirit of anarchy. They argue from Romans 13 that since government is of God, then all government decrees are to be obeyed because they proceed from God.

But this is only one of two theological interpretations of Romans 13--interpretations representing a debate that has existed among American Christians for centuries.

On one side was the belief that when government speaks, God requires us to obey. This same theological position resulted in the "Divine Right of Kings" philosophy which reasoned that since the King was chosen by God, God therefore expected all citizens to obey the King in all circumstances; anything less was rebellion against God.

The other interpretation of Romans 13 was set out in a 1579 work by Frenchman Philippe du Plessis Mornay, which was printed in English as "A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants." This treatise took the position that government being ordained of God was referring to the general institution of government rather than to each distinct government.

God ordained government in lieu of anarchy. Yet, there clearly have been governments in recent years that promote anarchy, rebellion, and wickedness (e.g. Qadafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Idi Amin in Uganda). Has God endorsed those governments? If so, He has contradicted His nature and is commanding submission to the very things that He hates--which isn't possible.

Most Christian denominations during the American Revolution all believed that Romans 13 meant they were not to overthrow government as an institution and live in anarchy, but that this passage did not mean they had to submit to every civil law. (Note that in Hebrews 11, a number of those who made the cut in the "Faith Hall of Fame" as heroes of the faith were guilty of civil disobedience--including Daniel, the three Hebrew Children, the Hebrew Midwives, and Moses.) Furthermore, the Apostles in Acts 4-5 also declared they would obey God rather than civil authorities.

The real key to understanding civil disobedience and Romans 13 under this latter view, then, is to determine if the purpose of opposition is simply to resist the institution of government in general (which would be anarchy and would promote a rebellious spirit), or if it is to specifically resist bad laws, bad acts, or bad governments. The American Founding Fathers embraced the second interpretation of Romans 13, and therefore strongly opposed "Divine Right of Kings" theology, which was derived from the first interpretation of Romans 13. For example, Founding Father James Otis in a 1766 work argued that the only king who had any divine right was God; beyond that, God had ordained power to people.

Despite their rejection of the theory that the King spoke for God, a generally submissive attitude prevailed among the Americans. The Founders pursued peaceful reconciliation; it was Great Britain that terminated the discussions. After the separation had occurred--following years of peaceful entreaties--some British leaders specifically accused the Americans of anarchy and rebellion. To this charge, John Quincy Adams responded:
"[T]here was no anarchy....[T]he people of the North American union, and of its constituent States, were associated bodies of civilized men and Christians in a state of nature, but not of anarchy. They were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of the Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledged as the rules of their conduct."

The spiritual nature of the American resistance became so clear that even in the debates of the British Parliament, "Sir Richard Sutton read a copy of a letter relative to the government of America from a [Crown-appointed] governor in America to the Board of Trade showing that....If you ask an American, 'Who is his master?' He will tell you he has none, nor any governor but Jesus Christ."

Therefore, under the Framers' understanding of Romans 13, the American Revolution was not an act of anarchy or rebellion; rather it was an act of resistance to a government that violated the Biblical purposes for which God had ordained civil government. In fact, so cognizant were the Founders that they would account to God for what they had done and be justified in His eyes, that the flag of the Massachusetts Army proclaimed "An Appeal to God," and the flag of the Massachusetts Navy likewise declared "An Appeal to Heaven."

Additionally, the original State constitutions were overtly Christ-centered in their wordings and appeals. Quite simply, the Framers and most American Christians of that day believed they had conducted themselves in a manner in which they were not in rebellion to God or the Scriptures.

The second factor which the Framers believed gave them Biblical justification was the fact that they did not initiate the conflict. The Framers had been committed to peaceful reconciliation and had pursued that course for 11 years before the separation from Great Britain. There was no desire to raise arms against England, their mother country and the land of their birth.

Nevertheless, in the last two years of their peaceful reconciliation attempts (e.g., as in May 1776 with their Olive Branch Petition), their entreaties and appeals were met solely by military force. In fact, King George III dispatched 25,000 British troops to invade his own Colonies, enter into the homes of his own citizens, take their private possessions and goods, and imprison them without trials--all in violation of his own British common law, English Bill of Rights, and Magna Carta.

The Framers cited Biblical justification to defend their homes, families, and possessions. In their understanding of the Scriptures, God could bless a defensive war but not an offensive war. In fact, so reticent were they to separate from Great Britain that it was a full three years after King George III had sent armed troops against his own citizens in America before they announced their separation.

John Adams authored a manifesto that reflected submission to God: "We, therefore, the Congress of the United States of America, do solemnly declare and proclaim that...[w]e appeal to the God who searcheth the hearts of men for the rectitude of our intentions; and in His holy presence declare that, as we are not moved by any light or hasty suggestions of anger or revenge, so through every possible change of fortune we will adhere to this our determination."

The fact that they had been attacked completely changed their status in the eyes of God, for the Bible justified self-defense against an aggressor.

Some pacifists have noted that the American Revolution resulted in a loss of life, and therefore cannot be justifiable in the eyes of God. This position demonstrates a lack of Biblical understanding about life. Clearly, protecting innocent life is a recurring theme in the Bible. Since God is the author of life, and since He alone holds the keys of death, He is to determine when life is to end. However, taking of life is not always taking of innocent life. God allows humans to take human life on three occasions: for the cause of civil justice; for military conflict, and in defense of one's life, family, or property. Therefore, the fact that the American Revolution was a defensive rather than an offensive war made all the difference in whether it could be a righteous war.

A final indication that the Framers believed they were engaged in a defensive war was the fact that throughout the course of the struggle, the conflict was often described by the Americans as a civil war rather than a revolution. Only in later years was it called a revolution. Under the view of Romans 13 as understood by the Framers, the American Revolution was indeed a Biblically justifiable act.