Every July 4th, Christians often debate the biblical appropriateness of fighting a war against a duly constituted civil government like Great Britain. Can a biblical case be made for America’s “revolutionary war”? The first place to start is by understanding that the thirteen colonies were operating civil governments that had a contractual relationship with the King of England and Parliament. The terms of the agreement between the two governing bodies were violated in numerous ways. The war for independence “was not a lawless rebellion against authority, as some historians claim. Rather, it was a legal interposition of one lawfully elected level of government (the colonial legislatures) against a king who insisted in obdurately breaking his feudal contract with the colonies.” This understanding of our nation's constitutional beginnings has been lost on most Americans, Christians included.
For years we have been taught that we are the product of a revolutionary generation who, because of religious, economic, and political disagreements, finally (through anarchistic and violent means) tore themselves from a loving and legally constituted government.
Government vs. Government
Each of the thirteen colonies had a governor, a written constitution and laws, and a court system. The colonial militia was commanded by General George Washington under the authority and supervision of the then existing colonial governments. “Not one State, or one nation, but in the plural States; and again, in the next breath, so this multiple birth could not be misunderstood, ‘that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and things which Independent States may of right do.’”
As Fisher and Chambers point out in The Revolution Myth, the modern view of America's “revolution” is “at variance with the actions and beliefs of those who participated in the ‘Revolution.’. . . The American colonists did not revolt against constitutional authority; they did not seek independence from the King of England. The king, instead, severed all ties with his American colonies. The Declaration of Independence was not written to gain independence but to maintain and define what had been forced upon the colonies.”
A Broken Contract
The colonies wanted a dissolution only of the “political bands” with Great Britain. The colonists and their governments had kept their part of the contract with the Crown. Therefore, any discussion of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the colonists' actions is best handled under the topic of war. While revolutions are generated by “the people” against existing civil governments (e.g., the French Revolution), wars are fought by one constituted civil government against another constituted civil government. The people are conscripted to defend their national sovereignty. Some Christian writers fail to understand these dynamics behind the colonies’ war with England. The following is a representative example:
It is understandable that everyone would like to believe that the revolution in his country was just, even if those in other countries are not. But in all honesty, given the biblical criteria listed here, it is not possible to justify the American Revolution either.
None of the “biblical criteria” that this author sets forth in his book fits the circumstances surrounding the American “revolution.” In his chapter on “War,” the author summarizes his position by stating that “God has ordained government and given it the sword.” The thirteen colonies were sovereign civil governments that also had the right to “bear the sword” (Rom. 13:4). Individuals and churches are not given the sword, and they cannot legitimately revolt against the existing civil powers. But legitimate civil governments can, and the colonies were legitimate civil governments.
Noting the Exceptions
Because of its no exception tone, Romans 13 is seen as prohibiting all forms of resistance: “Let every person [soul] be in subjection to the governing authorities,” Paul writes (13:1). The apostle lists no exceptions. Peter offers a similar no-exception obligation: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:13–14). The same Peter who admonished believers to “submit yourselves . . . to every human institution” also declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19–20). How do we reconcile the apparent contradiction?
There are a number of places in Scripture where one verse speaks in absolute terms and another verse offers an exception. This is not unusual. If I tell my children to go outside and play until dinner is ready, I have spoken in absolute terms. They are not to come into the house until they are called. No exceptions are given. What if it rains? What if a large dog enters the yard? What if a stranger offers them candy or a ride in a car? Can they enter the house without violating my absolute and no exception command? They would not be violating my “no exception” command because there are unspoken or previously spoken exceptions.
The Bible operates in the same way. In one place Jesus says, “All those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Does this include the civil magistrate? What about the person who strikes an assailant in self-defense? Is this not an exception to Jesus’ “no exception” statement? Since the Bible already discusses self-defense (Ex. 21:23–25; Lev. 24:19–21; Deut. 19:21) and the role of the civil magistrate (e.g., Gen. 9:6), there is no need to repeat the exceptions since His hearers know that Jesus has anarchy and revolution in mind (e.g., Lev. 19:18), not every use of the sword.
So then, when we read passages like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13–14, we must not neglect the rest of the Bible that is equally authoritative and more fully explains these passages.
Many general statements of Scripture must be open to admitting exceptions even if those qualifications are not immediately spelled out. Why are so many generalizations stated without qualification? Because the exact conditions restricting their applicability are not known, or because the "accidental" or providential circumstances that render them inapplicable occur so seldom as to be practically negligible, or because such qualification has already been stipulated in another inscripturated context.
Our founders did not choose their course lightly. There were many meetings and consultations. There were attempts to bridge differences with England. In the end, they concluded that the political relationship was broken beyond repair.
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