Whenever I question the timidity of today’s church in America, I receive lectures accusing me of violating a biblical principle that supposedly provides a blanket condemnation of Christian resistance to tyranny.
The contention that Christians should simply lay down and comply with even the most hideous requirements of government is an old argument. It was thoroughly debated by America’s Christian founders when they took up arms to defend their declaration of independence in 1776 – and even before at Lexington and Concord when British troops tried to take away their arms.
Many of the founders were biblical scholars – and well aware of Paul’s warning in Romans 13:1-7, most often the text cited by the new defenders of the “divine right of kings”:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
I believe we profoundly dishonor our heroic and inspired founders when we accuse them of disobeying Paul’s admonition and an even graver disservice to the Word of God when we read too much into seven verses in one book of the Bible to the exclusion of the complete context of its 66 books.
Perhaps there is no better time than now to revisit this issue – as we approach America’s Independence Day and our nation moves ever closer to tyranny, this time directed not from London but from our own nation’s capital.
To me it is clear Paul was exhorting us not to overthrow government as an institution, because it was ordained by God. However, this passage in no wise suggests that believers are simply to submit to unjust laws.
That the founders were not anarchists was demonstrated by the speed with which they acted to form a new government in the very act of declaring their independence from a foreign power that had refused to negotiate further with them on their legitimate grievances. They recognized government was, in a fallen world, a necessary evil.
But the Bible is also teeming with acts of civil disobedience and deliverance from tyranny – so much so that they inspired not just the founders but men like Martin Luther King Jr.
I think of Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ mother in Exodus 2.
I think of Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in Daniel 3.
I think of Moses himself in Exodus 2 when he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave.
I think of Daniel praying in defiance of the king in Daniel 6.
How about Abraham, who mounted an army of several hundred men and took on four kings who had captured his nephew Lot. For laying waste to those kingdoms he was toasted by Melchizedek, king of Salem, in Genesis 14.
I could go on and on, but let me give you one striking example of the way the Bible actually celebrates heroes of the faith who take extraordinary, even violent, actions to liberate themselves from ungodly rulers.
The Book of Judges recounts ancient Israel’s frequent temptations to disobey God and pay the consequences and then to cry for a deliverer – with their prayers heard.
Such was the case with Ehud, son of Gera, a left-handed Benjamite, who actually assassinated Eglon, the ruler of the Israelites’ conquerors, the Moabites, in a story told in Judges 3.
“And he said unto them, Follow after me: for the LORD hath delivered your enemies the Moabites into your hand. And they went down after him, and took the fords of Jordan toward Moab, and suffered not a man to pass over. And they slew of Moab at that time about ten thousand men, all lusty, and all men of valour; and there escaped not a man. So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest fourscore years,” we are told in Judges 3:28-30.
In Romans 13, Paul was not suggesting that any earthly kings or rulers have absolute authority and God’s blessing to torment their subjects, oppress God’s people, break covenants and, most importantly, ignore God’s laws.
Our founders believed – and I think they were right – that when King George broke his own laws, he was acting without authority. The same principle applies today to our own leaders when they break trust with the Constitution and God’s laws.