Something strange that I’ve noticed about Christians is that we tend to idolize the Founding Fathers more than most people do. I think that this is ironic when you realize what these men stood for. They were in open revolt to the God-ordained government. Many of the first Americans were devout Christians but they seem to have completely ignored Romans 13… Or did they?
Romans 13 seems to be pretty clear cut in what it requires of Christians and their obedience to government. Christians should obey the authority placed over them and pay the taxes that are due of them because God put those authorities into power. I totally and completely affirm Romans 13 but I think that perhaps we should take the time to understand what that authority is that God put over us. We need to have a more nuanced view of what the context of the American Revolution actually was before we pass judgment on it.
To understand the Revolution we need to understand a few things about the history of British government. Everybody knows that Great Britain has a monarch. When we think of Kings we tend to think that whatever the King wants he gets. His word is law. England is very different. Thanks to the Magna Carta the King’s power is limited. He is not absolute. The King is subservient to the law. This limitation of the government’s power would grow with the English Bill of Rights. This document required the King to seek the consent of the governed who were given representation in Parliament. In the British system, law was king and the government received their jurisdiction (lawful use of lawful authority) from these laws (along with common law).
The Roman system of government that Paul was under when he wrote the book of Romans was not the British system. Rome was established as a Republic that represented its citizens. Unfortunately, Rome evolved into an empire. The Senate lost its power and law became arbitrary. The Emperor could do pretty much whatever he wanted. Several of them passed laws declaring that they were gods. Law was no longer the rule of the land but a man was. The Emperor would turn Romans 13 on its head with some of the laws he spoke into existence. The Emperor would outlaw Christianity. So what should a good Christian do? Should he obey Romans 13 and deny Christ because the ruling official required it? The “law” and Christianity were in conflict. Of course Christians disobeyed the ruling authorities because government had absolutely no authority whatsoever to outlaw their conscience. Despite Rome’s best efforts to prove that law was arbitrary and manmade they failed to convince the early Church that all authority in Heaven and Earth had been given them. No, Rome was still subject to a higher law, just as we are today.
It is Biblical to recognize that the government is subservient to this higher law. God is a god of order and not of chaos. He opposes tyranny and arbitrariness in governments because tyranny is an attempt for man to play God. A tyrant rejects the authority that God allotted for him and instead seeks justification for his authority from power. All authority flows from his being, not from God and the natural law that God put in place to govern us. In Deuteronomy 17:18 God reveals this to us, “Now it shall come about when he [the King of Israel] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests.” God shows us that even in Israel the King was subject to the law. The King couldn’t change the law to suit his desires. We read about a King who tried doing this in I Kings 21. It’s the story of Naboth and his vineyard. King Ahab and his wife Jezebel wanted Naboth’s vineyard but Naboth wouldn’t sell it. Naturally, Ahab killed him and took it as his own. God wasn’t pleased at Ahab so he sent the prophet Elijah with a message of doom; basically God was going to end his line and when Ahab died dogs would lick his blood and the dogs would eat Jezebel’s body. God could hardly have spoken more clearly on the subject of tyranny.
This brings us back to the American Revolution. When the Colonists rebelled were they out of line with Scripture? No, they were obedient to the authority that God placed over them. The American Colonists were not Americans, they were Englishmen who had travelled to an English territory and as such they still held their rights as Englishmen. For many years the crown had allowed self-rule in the colonies. New England had town meetings and Virginia had the House of Burgesses. Law required giving the American colonists representation but having them send representatives across the Atlantic was very inefficient considering how long it took news to travel and how far removed the representatives would have been from their constituents. Given the situation, loose self-rule made the most sense. As long as the British allowed the colonists self-rule they were keeping the law.
The problem came when the British began to usurp American authority. Suddenly, Parliament began passing laws on the colonies that the Americans could do nothing about. They were not represented. Their rights as Englishmen were violated. Town-Hall meetings were being outlawed and the House of Burgesses was being shut down. It was an abomination. That’s why “No Taxation Without Representation” became such a rallying cry for the movement. It carried a religious undertone. It stirred up memories of Naboth and Ahab. The British were out of order. They had no right to the American’s wallets just like Ahab had no right to Naboth’s vineyard. They weren’t given lawful authority to do so. The British were acting as tyrants. They went against God’s law of order, natural law. They went against their own laws by denying the consent of the governed. The Americans warned the British of this error many times but their council fell on deaf ears.
The British refused to repent of their tyranny. Pride had clouded their vision. They forgot that their authority came from the law and not from themselves. In light of all this, I think it’s time to look back at Romans 13. The British were the ones who were resisting the authority that God had placed over them, not the Americans. The Americans understood that they were not ruled by men but by a system of laws that these men were responsible for carrying out. To obey the British officials would have been like the Early Church denying Christ because Rome said that it was the “law” (although not NEARLY as serious as that the concept still applies here). Law isn’t arbitrary, the mouth of man does not dictate it; on the contrary, it flows naturally from who God is. The Americans were obedient to God and natural law. The British were the ones in revolt.