Friday, July 4, 2008
The American Revolution and Romans 13
As we celebrate once more the founding of our great nation, a question comes to mind as to its origin. The question concerns not the historical details, per se, but rather the theological justification. Lutherans have long held that the apostolic directives of Romans 13 require proper respect and obedience to the governing authorities, even if that authority is seen as morally suspect. The escape clause, as it were, is the other apostolic directive in Acts that reminds the church of the greater responsibility to obey God rather than man when the one attempts to restrict the other, especially the freedom to proclaim the Gospel.
I have often wondered, in light of the above, how a Lutheran would reason through the right to engage in revolutionary activity against a governing authority that did not seem, at the time, to be restricting the church's right to proclaim the Gospel. For those interested in a brief article by stellar Lutheran theologian that explores the dynamics of this question, you are encouraged to read Dr. John Warwick Montgomery's online article The Revolution: Christian In Spite of Itself (1996) which was excerpted from Christians in the Public Square, provided by the original Issues, Etc.
At the end of the article Montgomery writes:
"Were the American revolutionaries correct and the loyalists wrong? To the casual observer, it may appear very doubtful that in an age of increasing Parliamentarianism George III really offered a serious threat to English liberties, and taxation without representation seems a considerable distance from that abridgment of free decision-making which would imperil the Gospel. Likewise, the belief of many colonial pastors that the potential establishment of the bishopric in America would unify church and state so as to eliminate free expression religiously and politically (cf. Carl Bridenbaugh's Mitre and Sceptre) perhaps appears to be little more than a typical example of escalation-theory among the clergy. However, we of the twentieth century have-or should have-a perspective on totalitarianism that the eighteenth century itself lacked, and we can now see how fragile a flower liberty is and how readily its abridgment in one respect can lead to its destruction in general.
The American revolutionaries, whatever the theoretical justification they personally offered for their action and however unbiblical the beliefs of some of them were, did in fact choose to preserve the scriptural ideal of liberty and became the chief torchbearers of that ideal in the modern world. As so often happens in a fallen creation, to opt for one teaching of Scripture is to run afoul of another, and our revolutionary forefathers can well be criticized for the ease with which they glossed over the obligations of Romans 13 in choosing the "liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free." But their dilemma is the dilemma of every person in a fallen world, and-looking back on their decision from a 200-year vantage point-it is difficult to believe that they erred in creating a nation dedicated to the principle of individual freedom, where decisions for Christ could take place without fear or favor."
What do you think of Montgomery's reasoning? Is it right to even judge their decisions from our historical vantage point? Admittedly, it is difficult to be critical of their actions in light of the questions one would raise to a person's patriotic loyalties. I am very supportive of my country and have often appealed to Romans 13 for obedience and respect to the current government. It is for that reason I still wonder now how such thinking would have worked in in the 18th century.
On March 29 of last year I wrote a blog article "To What Degree Must We Obey?" in which I included a paper I had put together entitled "Romans 13 and Submission to the Governing Authorities." It can be accessed here if you care to read more.