The American Revolutionary War was a pivotal event in world history, and the constitutional republic that followed has produced the freest, most productive society ever. No one can deny that most of the Founding Fathers were religious men or that the liberty they fought for has benefited millions of people, but was their revolt against England biblically justified? Specifically, was the American Revolution a violation of Romans 13:1-7?
During the years before the Revolutionary War, the issue of justified rebellion was widely debated, with good men on both sides of the issue. Not surprisingly, most English preachers, such as John Wesley, urged restraint and pacifism on the part of the colonists; while most Colonial preachers, such as John Witherspoon and Jonathan Mayhew, fanned the flames of revolution.
Before we weigh the actions of the colonists, we must take a look at the Scripture they struggled with. Here’s a verse-by-verse summary of Romans 13:1-7:
The passage starts with a clear-cut command to submit to “the governing authorities” (v1a). Immediately following the command is the reason for it: namely, authorities are God-ordained (v1b). Therefore, resisting earthly authority is the same as resisting God (v2). Rulers are a deterrent to evil in society (v3); in fact, a ruler is “God’s servant,” bringing retribution to the wrongdoer (v4). Christians should submit to human authority not only to avoid punishment but also to maintain a clear conscience before God (v5). Specifically, Christians should pay their taxes (v6) and pay the proper respect and honor to “God’s servants” (v7).
The commands in Romans 13 are quite broad, aimed at “everyone,” with no exceptions listed. In fact, when Paul wrote these words, Nero was on the throne. If Romans 13 applies to the cruel and capricious Nero, it applies to all kings. The early church followed the principles of Romans 13 even during the wicked and oppressive reigns of Claudius, Caligula, and Tacitus. No qualifications or “outs” are given in the passage. Paul does not say “be subject to the king UNLESS he is oppressive” or “you must obey all rulers EXCEPT usurpers.” The plain teaching of Romans 13 is that all governments in all places are to be honored and obeyed. Every ruler holds power by the sovereign will of God (Psalm 75:7; Daniel 2:21). New Testament examples of believers paying proper obedience and respect towards government authority include Luke 2:1-5; 20:22-25; and Acts 24:10 (see also 1 Peter 2:13-17).
This is not to say that God approves of everything governments do or that kings are always right. On the contrary, Scripture has many examples of kings being held to account by God (e.g., Daniel 4). Furthermore, Romans 13 does not teach that Christians must always obey the governing authorities, no matter what. The one exception to the general rule of obedience is when man’s laws are in direct conflict with the plainly revealed law of God. Examples of God’s people practicing civil disobedience include Peter and John defying the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:19; 5:29), the Hebrew midwives refusing to practice infanticide (Exodus 1:15-17), Daniel ignoring the Persian law concerning prayer (Daniel 6:10), and Daniel’s friends refusing to bow to the king’s image (Daniel 3:14-18).
So, as a general rule, we are to obey the government; the lone exception is when obeying man’s law would force us to directly disobey God’s law.
Now, what about Romans 13 as it pertains to the American Revolutionary War? Was the war justified? First, it is important to understand that many of those who supported the Revolutionary War were deeply religious men who felt that they were biblically justified in rebelling against England. Here are some of the reasons for their perspective:
1) The colonists saw themselves not as anti-government but as anti-tyranny. That is, they were not promoting anarchy or the casting off of all restraint. They believed Romans 13 taught honor for the institution of government, but not necessarily for the individuals who ruled government. Therefore, since they supported God’s institution of government, the colonists believed that their actions against a specific oppressive regime were not a violation of the general principle of Romans 13.
2) The colonists pointed out that it was the king of England himself who was in violation of Scripture. No king who behaved so wickedly, they said, could be considered “God’s servant.” Therefore, it was a Christian’s duty to resist him. As Mayhew said in 1750, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
3) The colonists saw the war as a defensive action, not as an offensive war. And it is true that, in 1775 and 1776, the Americans had presented the king with formal appeals for reconciliation. These peaceful pleas were met with armed military force and several violations of British Common Law and the English Bill of Rights. In 1770, the British fired upon unarmed citizens in the Boston Massacre. At Lexington, the command was “Don’t fire unless fired upon.” The colonists, therefore, saw themselves as defending themselves after the conflict had been initiated by the British.
4) The colonists read 1 Peter 2:13, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority . . .,” and saw the phrase “for the Lord’s sake” as a condition for obedience. The reasoning ran thus: if the authority was unrighteous and passed unrighteous laws, then following them could not be a righteous thing. In other words, one cannot obey a wicked law “for the Lord’s sake.”
5) The colonists saw Hebrews 11 as justification for resisting tyrants. Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah are all listed as “heroes of faith,” and they were all involved in overthrowing oppressive governments.
It is safe to say that the American patriots who fought against England were fully convinced that they had biblical precedent and scriptural justification for their rebellion. Although their view of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 is a faulty interpretation (there are no provisos concerning obedience in those passages), it was the popular preaching of the day. At the same time, the self-defense argument (number 3, above) is a convincing and substantial rationale for war.
Even if the American Revolution was a violation of Romans 13, we know that the patriots acted in good faith in the name of Christian freedom, and we know that, in the ensuing years, God has brought about much good from the freedom that was won as a result.