Friday, October 17, 2014

"Subject to the governing authorities"

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.
Romans 13:1-2, KJV

Thomas Kidd considers a question every serious American Christian had to consider in Revolutionary times: "Does the Bible Prohibit Revolution?" The issue doesn't disappear in non-revolutionary times. When may a Christian disobey government?
My graduate students and I recently read James Byrd’s terrific Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. This book is a treasure trove of information about how the Patriots and Loyalists actually used the Bible during the Revolution. The most surprising fact I learned from the book is that Romans 13 – in which Paul commands submission to the “higher powers” – was the most commonly cited biblical text in Revolutionary America. This passage, alongside a similar passage in I Peter 2, are precisely the texts I might have imagined that Patriots would have avoided. How does one “honor the king” while engaging in revolution?

These passages would seem, on a plain reading, to have prohibited Christians from participating in the American Revolution. Indeed, some former Patriot leaders such as Savannah pastor John Zubly withdrew when they realized that the protests against British taxes were likely to morph into violent revolution, which Zubly believed was not an option for Christians.

But instead of avoiding Romans 13 and I Peter 2, Patriot pastors (to their credit) took them on frequently and directly. They usually replied to Loyalist critics that the command to submit was never unconditional – just as it is not unconditional in marriage, in church, or in any other social setting. The Bible was replete with stories of resistance against unjust rulers. Even Peter and Paul routinely confronted and flouted the authority of Jewish and Roman officials, saying that they must obey God rather than man. .... [more]
Professor Kidd refers to a sermon preached by New England clergyman Jonathan Mayhew, Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers (1750), a sermon described by John Adams as having “great influence in the commencement of the Revolution.”


“What God says is best, is best, 
though all the men in the world are against it.”
John Bunyan

 Does the Bible Prohibit Revolution?