Q&A: You Say You Want a Revolution.

You Say You Want a Revolution.

Question

Commands to give respect to those in authority are found throughout the Bible (e.g. Rom. 13:1-6). Yet, both the Americans and the French felt that because of the injustices done, it was right to rebel against those in authority. Would you agree with the leaders of these respective revolutions? Are such revolotions ever acceptable in the view of God? If so, under what circumstances?

Answer

The Bible does contain a number of commands that we are to submit to those who are in authority (Rom. 13:1-6; Tit. 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:12-17), and it provides several examples of people who have submitted to authority even when that authority has been wrong (e.g. Acts 16:19-28; 1 Pet. 2:13-23). Moreover, the people who submit to wrong authority are often the very ones we are encouraged to emulate, such as Jesus and Paul.

At the same time, Scripture also provides contrary examples. For instance, Paul did not escape from prison when his chains fell off (Acts 16:19-28), but Peter did (Acts 5:17-21; 12:6-10). Moreover, whereas Jesus submitted to death at the appropriate time, previously he fled for his life from the government (Matt. 2:13-15). Then too, in the Old Testament God blessed the Hebrew midwives for opposing the pharaoh's commands, and even for using lies to accomplish this opposition (Exod. 1:15-21). Also, God himself sometimes commanded political rivalry and even revolution in the Old Testament (e.g. 1 Kings 11:1-40). And even in the New Testament we are taught to obey God when his Law conflicts with man's law (Acts 4:18-20).

A primary reason given for our submission to government is that human government receives delegated authority from God (Dan. 2:21; 4:17; John 19:11; Rom. 13:1,2,4,6). However, this assumes that the delegated authority will be used for good, not for evil. Another reason is that our submission presents a good witness of our character and religion before men (1 Pet. 2:15), and there are other reasons provided as well. In any event, the Bible's point seems to be that in general we ought to submit to the governing authorities.

In Scripture itself, exceptions to this rule seem to occur when the governing authorities command us to do evil, and sometimes when the authorities themselves are particularly evil. When governments do evil, they are not acting under God's delegated authority - he does not sanction them to do evil. However, sometimes even when the governing authorities commit evil against us, it may be in the best interest of the gospel to submit to their authority. We have to judge each case separately.

When we begin to apply these principles to real life, it can become very difficult to know the right thing to do. For example, the Bible obligates us to defend the widows, the orphans, the strangers, the innocent, the defenseless, etc. But how do we relate this to the current abortion debate? Would God have us overthrow the government by military force in order to stop abortion? Would he have us assassinate doctors who perform abortions? These are questions with very complicated answers, and which require the assessment not only of the evil and good we see and contemplate, but also of pragmatic questions like "Would revolution or assassination really help anything?"

In America, we must also struggle with the fact that our founding documents, as interpreted by some, give us the legal right of armed resistance to the government. For example, some argue that the militia, which is protected by the Second Amendment, was intended to be one of the checks and balances on the government, and that the militia is constitutionally defined as a non-government entity (thus it cannot be the National Guard). Moreover, the Declaration of Independence itself presumes the right of revolution ("When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the poitical bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them..."), particularly in the case of governements which fail to secure the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." As the Declaration continues, "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and institute a new government." How we weigh all these factors and apply them to real life is not very clear at all.

With regard to the American and French revolutions, I'm afraid I know too little about the pre-revolution governments and actions of France and England, and too little about the issues over which the revolutions were fought, to provide a very good answer to your specific question. As I recall, a significant point of dissention between the American revolutionaries and England was the issue of taxation without representation. The Bible certainly does not assign people the right to have representation when they are taxed, and I suspect that the laws of England at the time did not require every colony to have representation before they could be taxed. If this is true, this particular motive of the American revolution, in my opinion, would not justify revolution. However, there may well have been other motives that were far more justifiable.

In summary, I would say that the Bible warrants different levels of resistance to the governement, and that these levels of resistance accord to different levels of governmental evil and force. Prudence, wisdom, and other biblical virtues must also be considered alongside resistance, as must be the advance of the gospel. However, it can be extremely difficult to know when and how to resist appropriately.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.