Romans 13:1–7 instructs Christians to submit to governing authorities and was written at a time when the evil Nero ruled Rome and all its holdings. Most American Revolutionary War-era leaders were religious men steeped in Christianity. Did they violate this biblical instruction?
At the time, this question was asked and debated both in colonial America and in England. John Wesley and other English preachers pointed to the passage and said revolutionaries should submit, maintain peace, and trust in God. American preachers, such as John Witherspoon and Jonathan Mayhew, argued that this particular passage, combined with others, allowed for the casting off of tyrannical rule.
Romans 13:1–3 tells Christians to submit to governing authorities because God ordained their rule. God establishes rulers as His servants to thwart evil. Resisting God's leader is resisting God. Verses 4–7 tells Christians that governmental authorities are to punish lawbreakers as an extension of God's justice. Subjects should pay taxes, respect, and honor to those to whom it is owed.
Because Romans was written during the rule of evil Nero, early Christians believed and followed this admonition even under the terrible rule of Claudius, Caligula, and Tacitus. There are no exceptions in this passage of Scripture.
This biblical instruction is not isolated. For example, other Scriptures counsel Christians to honor and respect governmental authority are found in Luke 20:22–25 and 1 Peter 2:13–17.
However, many accounts in the Bible show governmental authorities (kings and such) being held accountable for their actions—sometimes by God's direct action, sometimes by His followers, and sometimes by circumstance. Peter and John acted against the Sanhedrin's wishes (Acts 4:19; 5:29), Hebrew midwives refused to kill babies in Exodus 1:15–17, and Daniel's friends disobeyed Persian law by refusing to bow to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:8–12). Hebrews 11 lists several revolutionaries as heroes of the faith, including Gideon, Barak, Samson, Rahab, and Jephthah.
Evil kings and rulers are constantly being removed and punished in the Old and New Testaments. King Herod, in Acts 12:20–23, refused to give God glory when people were proclaiming that he was a god, and was immediately struck down by an angel of the Lord.
So, what about the American Revolution?
Colonial revolutionaries gave many justifications for their revolt.
Some discerned between governmental authorities and tyranny. There was no desire to spread anarchy or establish a society with no rule. They revolted against an evil ruler, not against being ruled, they argued.
Christian revolutionaries saw King George III as the one who violated Scripture by not acting as God's servant. "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God," said Mayhew in 1750.
Colonists believed they had exhausted all legal, civil, and peaceful avenues to set things right. England sent military forces and revolutionary fighters initially acted in self-defense.
Some Christian revolutionaries pointed to 1 Peter 2:13 as placing submission to authorities as secondary to submitting "for the Lord's sake." They reasoned that they could not submit to what they perceived as evil rule for the sake of the Lord.
American Christians at the time struggled with revolution, and not all joined the side of the revolt. Some of their reasoning was biblically flawed; Romans 13 does not give exceptions to its instruction. However, some of their reasoning does hold biblical merit, such as the self-defense argument. Either way, the leaders of the American Revolution seem to have acted in good faith and believed they were honoring God. And it would seem that God has brought about many good things from the freedoms lauded by the American Revolutionaries and the way many of those freedoms have persisted not only in the US but in other countries today.
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