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The Fourth of July and Romans 13

While the Bible is rarely discussed in popular American culture, the citation of Romans 13 by a politician a few weeks ago led to discussions of this passage on the news and in public venues. The Apostle Paul instructs Christians how to relate to the government in these verses, and it begins this way: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2, ESV).

Rather than deliberating what this passage means for us today, I want to take us back in time about 240 years to the events that are remembered on the 4th of July: If Christians are called to obey the government, does that mean Christians should not have participated in the American Revolution?

View 1: The American Revolution Violates Romans 13

Those who were loyal to the British government cited Romans 13 to say that Christians should not have participated in the Revolution, and some prominent Christians today similarly argue that “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” (John MacArthur, Why Government Can't Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism, p. 6). These thinkers do not deny the reality of the grievances listed by the colonists in the Declaration of Independence, but point out that none of these laws prevented Christians from practicing their religion since the list focuses on such issues as taxes, trade, trials, and presence of soldiers. Many of these practices – and things much worse, such as killing Christians – were done by the Roman government whom Paul here (and Peter elsewhere; see 1 Peter 2:13-17) calls for Christians to respect and obey. In fact, Paul discusses taxes and tells Christians to pay them, not reject them (see Romans 13:6-7). There are other places in Scripture where God’s people live under oppressive governments. These colonial and modern thinkers would thus say the American Revolution was not biblically justified, deeming the American Revolution to be inspired by the ‘social contract’ theory of government developed in the Enlightenment era rather than the biblical text.  

View 2: The American Revolution Does Not Violate Romans 13

At the same time, many Christians participated in the Revolution and did not see it as disobeying Romans 13. Their reasoning was that the British government was tyrannical, as discussed in the Declaration of Independence, and there are places where God’s people rebelled against tyrannical actions and tyrannical government. Examples of God’s people disobeying the laws of the land when they violate the moral laws of God include Daniel and his friends not eating the food served them by the government, Daniel praying even though it was illegal, and the Apostles sharing the gospel against the orders of the Romans. While the British colonists were not the Israelites, we see God leading people out of the land (Egypt) and the Israelites overthrowing their oppressors at times (see the book of Judges), which might offer precedent for a nation to overthrow rulers who are oppressive. In addition, one could say the revolution was an act of “self defense” since the British government was oppressing them and fired the first shots. One may also point out that the colonists did not declare their independence as a first resort but as a last resort – they had asked for changes in the laws, but within the colonial system, they did not have any other recourse (they couldn’t vote to change the government, etc.). The colonies had legitimate local governments and were simply now asserting that these governments were uniting as a free and independent nation, which was then attacked by the British.

What Do You Think?

I bring up this debate not to say the American Revolution was or was not immoral (you have to decide that for yourself as you examine the biblical text and the historical details around the American Revolution). My goal, rather, has been to show that Christians living in America have long pondered how to relate to the government and in what cases disobedience to it might be justified. While Paul calls for Christians to obey even an immoral government (and in the process, overcoming evil with good - see Romans 12:24 that immediately precedes Romans 13), the Bible shows the people of God at times not following the laws of the land. However, the laws they disobeyed were typically  laws which caused them to violate God’s law by what they would or would not do, not just laws they disliked or thought were unwise. It is one thing to disobey a law (and risk being punished for doing so), but is there a point in which an immoral government forfeits its right to govern,and if so, at which point? Moreover, Paul calls for respect to governing authorities (see Romans 13:7), but respect does not mean silence or prohibit one from expressing disagreement, outrage, and a desire to see laws changed.

As we ponder this issue, something we should not overlook is that we are indeed free to ponder – and we should be thankful for that! Whatever one might think of the origins of the country, its history, and its present moment, when we look around the world and back to the time of the Apostles,  we should remember our freedom and use it not just to think, but to proclaim the good news of the gospel.

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