The Forgotten Theology of Rights & Revolution

Also published at SBC Voices.

By Ken Hamrick

Was the American Revolution a sinful undertaking? Were the “unalienable rights” written about in the Declaration of Independence not really “endowed by [our] Creator?” It seems to me that the Evangelical church may be forgetting the theological basis upon which our independent nation was established.

Triablogue featured a linked video of an interview of John MacArthur by Ben Shapiro, in which Rev. MacArthur denied that Christians ought ever to be involved in revolutions. Shapiro asks, (at 17:04), “…So, early on, you mentioned that you weren’t sure that the American Revolution is in consonance with biblical values. I was wondering if you could expound on that a little bit, ‘cause I think it’s an interesting idea.” MacArthur replied:

Well, the Scripture says, “Submit to the powers that be—that they are ordained of God.” That does not mean that every ruler represents God. Clearly, that is not the case. But, that governmental authority is a God-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior—just as parents have that role, and the conscience has that role […] So, when I talk about the government,… I’m not saying that the government is a divine authority or that the rulers are divine authorities; but what I am saying is that they represent a God-given constraint to human behavior. And that’s why they have to be upheld and not broken down. So, Christians don’t attack the government. We don’t protest. We don’t riot. We don’t start shooting people who are in the government—even if the government is King George from England and we don’t like him, and even if we’re upset with taxation, we don’t start riots and we don’t start revolutions. We live quiet (according to the New Testament), we live peaceable lives, we pray for those that are over us, we pray for rulers, we pray for all those who are in authority, we pray that they might come to know God through the Savior, the Lord, Jesus Christ. So we pray regularly for our rulers—we do not overthrow them. And that is how a Christian—a real, biblical Christian—would look at the American Revolution. I mean, I hate to say that because that’s not a popular idea. But it is nonetheless what the Scripture says Christians are to do: submit; pray, pray for the salvation of your leaders; live a quiet and peaceable life; and let the character of your life—the godliness, the virtue of your life affect that society one soul at a time.

Shapiro then penetrates to the heart of the matter (at 19:01):

So, what does that mean for individual rights?—because, obviously, the American Revolution was based on the idea that we are individuals with certain rights that are inherent in us. I think that has a history going all the way back to Genesis talking about us being made in God’s image with certain creative faculties… and that comes along with the ability to think for ourselves, the ability to worship God, the ability to build these families. The Federal ideology was based around the idea that if the government itself was a threat to your fundamental rights, including as a religious person, then the government had lost its legitimacy. Is there a point in your philosophy where the government loses its legitimacy? It’s the Soviet Union; they’re cracking down on churches. It’s Nazi Germany. Is there a point where a revolution would be justifiable and necessary?

MacArthur’s answer stunned me, although I don’t doubt that many Evangelicals would agree with him (at 19:44):

Not in a biblical sense, no. I don’t think there’s ever a time when you would be justified in starting to kill the people that are in power… I don’t see any justification for that. That is not what Christians do. We would rather suffer. But I don’t want to say we don’t dissent; because we do. […]

It’s clear that the founders pointed to God as justification for the rebellion against England. Can we fairly dismiss them as simply contradicting Scripture?

Rom. 13:1-7 NKJV
13 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.

Merely because we’re forgetting the theological reasoning behind the Revolution does not mean that none existed. Do we not owe it to the truth to examine this reasoning prior to rejecting it?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The founders held that God has endowed all men with certain rights, authorizing and obligating governments to secure these rights, and has conditioned the legitimacy of any government on its fulfillment of this obligation. From this, it follows that God has authorized and obligated any people to “alter and abolish [government], and to institute new Government,” “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends.”

While some of the founders were Deists, most were Christian—and all were steeped in the philosophy of Federalism, which the Pilgrims had brought over from England. What had begun in theology had spread into politics and government. According to a leading Federalist of the 16th century, Johannes Althusius, (as analyzed by Charles McCoy and Wayne Baker, in their book, Fountainhead of Federalism), all of life, including government, is based on covenants (Latin: foedus, root of federal).

The covenants of humanity exist within the covenant of God. Because all are bound within human covenants to the covenant of God, rulers who administer the sovereignty belonging to the people lose their authority when they violate their covenant with the people, by virtue of which they rule, or transgress the covenant of God. They are legitimate representatives of the people and have the right to administer the government only so long as they are faithful to these covenants. […] The federal political philosophy thus makes room for resisting tyrants and for revolution.[1]

McCoy and Baker explain how the “tradition of federalism… pervaded the entire colonial era in America:

Though ignored by most historians of the Constitution, there is a tradition of federalism that pervaded the entire colonial era, developed in distinctive ways apart from European thinkers, and formed the background of experience upon which the leaders of the Revolution and new nation relied as they shaped the institutions of what became the United States of America.[2]

The idea of rights comes from the moral right… and it is God who establishes what is morally right. An important distinction here is between the civil rights of citizens and the rights of any man before God—between civil justice and divine justice. When a sinner stands before God, it is right that he be sentenced to destruction. However, when that same citizen stands before a governmental ruler, having committed no capital offense, it is not right that he be sentenced to destruction. Further, it is not right that he be robbed of his valuables, raped, or imprisoned without cause.

Some may argue that there is no list of civil rights in the Bible; but if you survey the Bible to discover what is right and what is wrong—what is just and what is unjust—you cannot avoid finding the concept of rights (as well as wrongs). A “right” is simply that which is right. It is right that people not be unjustly deprived of life, liberty and their pursuit of happiness. And by “unjustly,” I am speaking of civil justice. God instituted government among men for precisely the purpose of securing this civil justice between them. But any government that is more accurately described as a minister of injustice has lost its divine ordination (if it ever had one).

It may also be argued that Christians ought not to assert any rights for ourselves. We are sinners, after all, worthy only of death and hell. Many believers have gladly sacrificed their rights and even their lives for the cause of Christ. Our liberty may be taken away merely because we are believers. And while many Christians have willingly given up these rights, they remain rights nonetheless. We might not demand our rights, but we ought to recognize them for what they are..

As for the pursuit of happiness, it is simply an expression for freedom of will (and assumes that people generally will to be happy). If you want to hand out Bibles or tracts or witness or preach the gospel in your pursuit of happiness, then that is your right. The world may deny this right or others, but such rights are unalienable because they are given by God. How? By setting up, in eternity past, what is right and what is not. It is not right to deny a people such things. Therefore, such things are rights, and we are endowed by our Creator with them.

Would you not agree that when the pilgrims started their settlements in America, where there was no civil government, they were obligated by God to start one? God’s ordaining of civil government is not merely a stamp of approval on all present governments. It is a divinely ordained obligation to have a government to serve as His minister of justice. If none are present, then the people are authorized and obligated to institute such a government. And, I would argue that whenever a people finds that their current government no longer serves its rightful role as God’s minister of justice, then they are authorized and obligated to overthrow that so-called “government” and institute a proper one—even on pain of death and destruction.

Having said that, though, the mere fact that the form of government is a monarchy or dictatorship does not in itself mean that the government is failing in its God-given role. Is civil justice being served? Are people being unjustly deprived of life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness? Are bribes and corruption the norm? Are the scales of justice tilted? Is the government actually doing what John MacArthur said is its role, to repress evil and reward good behavior? When a government has become corrupt and has turned its back on its proper role, then it is no longer really a government. Instead, it is a group of organized criminals claiming to be the government—and in reality, the people are living without a government, and are obligated to start one (even if it means the destruction of what currently claims to be the government).

This is exactly what those who founded our nation did. They were not some rioting mob who didn’t like King George and were angry about taxation. These were men who organized a governmental body to replace the illegitimate English government, who grounded their actions on the Bible, who deliberated and agreed by mutual dedication of their lives and fortunes, and who by every measure did all things properly and in order, producing official documents to announce to the world and record for history that a new government had been established, and to explain how the legitimacy of that new government was justified. Based on the new government’s explanation and their actions in forming this new government and organizing a military force, I contend that it was England, and not the so-called “rebels,” who tried to overthrow the God-ordained government in America during the Revolution.


[1] Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), p. 61.
[2] Ibid., p. 88.

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