Once again, we Americans are getting together to barbecue our hot dogs, chill our beers, and light our fireworks for the Fourth of July celebration of American independence. I’ll celebrate too … I love a good party and I have been known to contribute my share to the libations and explosions that accompany such events.
I’m also grateful to live in the United States. This is a country that, with all our numerous and indisputable faults, has given me the opportunity both to live and to serve in ways that I might not have done in other circumstances. There is much good in our people, and when we put our minds to it, we can do and have done much good in the world — though not, I grant, as frequently as we ought.
But it seems to me that in the celebration of our nation, Christians fail to recognize that it is founded on a direct violation of a direct command of Scripture. I refer, of course, to Romans 13:1-2:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
This principle is also articulated in 1 Peter 2:13:
For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.
There can be no more flagrant violation of this command, than to take up arms and overthrow an established government. When the purportedly Christian colonists engaged in armed insurrection against the British rulers of the colonies, they directly and overtly disobeyed the command Paul relates in Romans. Many, including dear brothers in my own church, have suggested that Rom. 13:3-4 provides the context for rebellion — that is, when a government supports evil instead of good (v. 3), or fails to punish the evildoer (v. 4), then that authority is no longer fulfilling God’s mandate and therefore is rightly subject to overthrow. But this cannot possibly have been Paul’s intention, given that he was writing in the context of Nero’s Rome, and coming from the perspective of a Jew from occupied Israel. The government in Paul’s day routinely punished doers of good (not least, Jesus Christ himself) and inflicted evil on the people.
Nor is this the only baldfaced violation of Romans 13 that I’ve encountered among patriotic American Christians. Many Christian conservatives are staunch supporters of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. They argue that a key reason for the Second Amendment is that the people reserve the right to overthrow an American government that becomes oppressive in its own right. I believe my conservative friends are historically correct on this point: those who penned the Second Amendment had only recently revolted against the British, and clearly the concept that good government can be corrupted was not far from their mind. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, they certainly still held
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
So I think it indisputable that the Founders of the United States intended an armed populace to be an insurance policy against government overreach. But the founding documents of the United States are not God-inspired scripture, and must never be treated as such. The unmistakeable command of the Apostles Paul and Peter is to submit to the authority of established government. While it is very American to overthrow a government, it is fundamentally anti-Christian.
I must, at this juncture, hasten to add that it’s important to qualify what I believe the Apostles meant by “submission” in this context. It is certainly not blind obedience. The Apostle Peter modeled this vital nuance in the account given in Acts 5:27-32 among other places — when the authorities commanded the Apostles to desist preaching in Jesus’ name, they disobeyed the command with the statement “We must obey God rather than men.” But note what the Apostles did, and did not, do in this context. Yes, they disobeyed. But they did not rebel or attempt to seize power. Rather, they accepted the consequence of their disobedience — in this case a flogging (v. 40) and later prison and for some, execution.
This, I believe, provides us the context for correct understanding of the Christian’s role vis-a-vis earthly authority. It is not to support or obey unjust laws — which is why the use of Romans 13 to defend the Fugitive Slave Law in the 19th century or to defend American abuse of immigrants today is completely beyond the pale (note this recent article in The Atlantic). There are perfectly valid reasons why Christians may need — indeed, be obligated to — disobey the civil authority (and, in so doing, accept that authority’s punishment as a consequence). But active, armed rebellion against civil authority is completely unacceptable for the follower of Jesus.
So enjoy your picnics and your fireworks. I will. But never forget that this nation, however much it has been used by God since, began in absolute disobedience to divine order. We who believe, have no right to follow their example.