Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why I Agree with the American Revolution

Some argue that because the Bible calls Christians to submit to and obey the civil government, there is never any justifiable reason to overthrow it. But I have come to disagree with this viewpoint.

In his recent book, Politics: According to the Bible, Wayne Grudem wrote the following:

“According to Greg Forster, a scholar with expertise in the history of governmental theory, one common argument among Christian writers was that a tyrannical 'government' is 'not really a government at all but a criminal gang masquerading as a government and is therefore not entitled to the obedience that governments (properly so called) can claim.' Another argument was that 'the principle of the rule of law . . . implies the right of rebellion.'” 

On that second point, the idea is that if a government refuses to rule according to law, then it ceases to be a government and the people have the right of rebellion. Romans 13:1-6 teaches that “governing authorities” are those that approve what is good and oppose what is evil. This implies that any centralized power that fails to uphold law (because it opposes what is good and approves what is evil) is not a biblically sanctioned “governing authority.”

John Calvin's view (with which I agree) was that lesser government officials must protect and defend citizens from higher government officials who abuse their power to oppress and harm the people. This is clearly what happened in the Revolutionary War against King George. British officials in America saw that the king committed many injustices and acts of oppression against his own people, and they rightly rebelled.

In the Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin wrote:

“If there are now any magistrates [government officials] of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings . . . if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that . . . they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God's ordinance” (4.20.31). 

Scripture teaches that God raised up leaders to deliver people from tyranny. Moses delivered Israel out of oppression in Egypt (Exodus 1-14). The book of Judges is about how God raised up a series of deliverers to oust illegitimate native rulers in the land of Canaan. Judges 2:16 says, “The LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them.” Hebrews 11:33 speaks of those “who through faith conquered kingdoms.”

King George was a terrible tyrant. If you haven't read the Declaration of Independence lately, let me encourage you to do so. Pay special attention to the long list of serious crimes committed by the king and imagine living under his rule in the colonies.  They include his dismissal of the established legislative bodies, paying judges to rule according to his will alone, quartering troops in the homes of citizens without their consent, using the military to overrule the recognized local government, etc.  George overthrew the rule of law.  Had I lived in that day, I would have followed the lesser magistrates in revolt against the tyrant King George.


  1. Hey Tom, I had to come back and read this post because I taught on 1Timonthy 6:1 today and it seemed to be somewhat relevant and I wanted to get your take on it. From what I understand, scripture teaches that we ought not revolt against our authorities and even in the case that we are slaves to a harsh unbelieving master. The reason given is so that the name of God and the Gospel may not be reviled. It seems to be calling us to patiently endure all of our situations in humility, serving even bad masters as though we are serving Christ because it is Christ who repays. Does this apply to governments? I have always thought that it did.

  2. Hey TJ, there is a lot of disagreement about this issue. The central question at hand, as I see it, is: "Is there such a thing as 'illegitimate' authority?" Does such a category exist? If I get a large enough band of thugs together and forcibly take over the US government, am I now the "legitimate" government of the United States? Furthermore, if I overturn all things good and right, including the rule of law itself, is it not stretching the very boundaries of language to say I am a "government" since I do not "govern?"

    We can apply this question to every sphere of authority.

    1. The home. Can we imagine a scenario in which a husband has abdicated legitimate authority over his wife? What if he commands her to sin? What if he brutalizes her and the family, threatening the lives of her and the children with knives? What if he violates the marriage vows? Does a woman in such a home have the right to remove herself from his authority? The Bible requires wives to submit to their husbands in all things. But does there come a point when the man she is living with so violates the pattern of a biblical "husband" that she is no longer bound? Scripture, in fact, grants the right of divorce to cases of adultery and willful abandonment. Certainly this is not the violent overthrow of authority, but that is because of the nature of the institution. The home doesn't have the power of the sword.

    2. The church. All the same questions apply to the church and pastoral authority. Scripture commands church members to obey their leaders (Heb 13:17). But it also says, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith" (Heb 13:7). What if a church leader no longer speaks the Word of God? What if, a pastor justifies his personal adultery, saying God told him to take a new wife? This is a real case I know. What if pastors are abusive to Christ's sheep, driving the law and condemnation at them, controlling them, using them for his own financial gain? Is the church then required to submit to such a pastor? Or are church members free? I would argue that based on Heb 13:7, they are free.


  3. 3. Slavery. Your point about slavery is a good one. The Bible never encourages slaves to rise up in violence against their masters. It does say, however, "But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity . . . You were bought with a price: do not become slaves of men" (1 Cor 7:21-23). Thus, the institution of slavery is not a biblical ideal. Scripture makes allowances for it, but ideally, slaves should be free and they should look for every opportunity to come out from under the illegitimate authority of slave masters. The fact that Scripture doesn't encourage or advocate individual violence does not mean it gives no sanction to corporate violence. Throughout the Old Testament, God sanctions warfare and even delineates principles of "just war."

    4. Government. This is the crux of the question. Does there come a point when a band of thugs running things is no longer biblically to be regarded a "government?" Throughout the whole OT, God pronounced judgment upon the wicked rulers of the nations and He sent civil wars to divide them, and foreign nations to invade them. God never sanctioned individual violence or opposition against governments. But when just portions of the extant government or other nations rise up against the thugs in another nation, God grants His approval.

    This is why in the Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin wrote:

    “If there are now any magistrates [government officials] of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings . . . if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that . . . they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God's ordinance” (4.20.31).

    That's my own view as well.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful response. I guess any decision to overthrow/leave an authority or to declare them illegitimate should be preceded with much prayer and consideration and not taken lightly. Perhaps that is what the scriptures are advocating rather than willful submission to an "illegitimate authority." Your examples were helpful.