Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Was the Revolutionary War Biblically Justified?

I am teaching this 4th of July weekend from Titus 3:1-2 where Paul tells Titus to remind the believers on Crete "to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient." In light of the clear teaching of the text, I'm wondering, "Were the Patriots Biblically justified in fighting the Revolutionary War against Great Britan?"

I really would like to do some more reading about the nature of preaching during the Revolutionary War era. To read some of these sermons, check out The Online Library of Liberty. Just how did the preachers of the day use the Bible to justify their pro-Revolutionary War position?
The preachers of the day were basing their willingness to rebel against what they considered the tyranical British King on their reading of the Old Testament. The stories that influenced them most were Genesis, which taught all men were created equal; Exodus, which taught that the Pharaoh must be defied; and Judges, which taught that seeking the rule of a king was sinful. (In fact, Thomas Paine's very influential booklet,"Common Sense," prominently used the argument for revolution from Judges.)
John Witherspoon was President of Princeton and he was very influential through his published sermons. His most famous sermon, about the Israelites rebelling against Pharaoh, was distributed to 500 Presbyterian churches seven weeks before the Declaration of Independence.
One pastor from that era, Abraham Keteltas, celebrated the American effort as "the cause of truth, against error and falsehood . . .the cause of pure and undefiled religion, against bigotry, superstition, and human invention . . .in short, it is the cause of heaven against hell--of the kind Parent of the Universe against the prince of darkness, and the destroyer of the human race."

But in an Article in Christianity Today, Mark A. Noll, author of Christians in the American Revolution (Eerdmans), answers the question, "Was the Revolutionary War Justified?" Noll's answer is that while there were clear abuses by Britain, it was really only African American slaves who were justified in making war on Britain.

Noll then writes, "Many sermons in America (and some in Britain) supported revolt, while a few in America and England argued against it. Serious exegesis, however, of what would seem to us like the relevant passages (such as Romans 13) was very rare. Rather, it was much more common for patriots to liken George III to Pharaoh and George Washington to Moses, or to depict the conflict as a struggle between the Woman and the Beast of Revelation 12. Patriots and Loyalists were both much more likely to add scriptural authority to political reasoning rooted in some other ideology than they were to attempt reasoning from the ground up on the basis of Scripture."

In other words, it appears to Noll that many pastors were reading into the text what they wanted it to say instead of getting out of the text what it actually said.

One common theme that the Patriots used for rebellion against England was the problem of "taxation without representation." But when we look at scripture, this argument doesn't seem to hold up. Jesus told the Jewish people of His day to pay taxes to the Romans. And the Jews had no real political representation in the Roman Empire. In Matthew 22:21 Jesus says, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." We can conclude then that a lack of popular representation in a government does not mean that the government is therefore illegitimate. So, it appears that the colonists' "taxation without representation" argument for rebelling against England lacks Biblical support.

My friend Sam Jackson, a pastor from Detroit who was once a West Point Cadet, wrote, "When I was in [Columbia Biblical] Seminary, we had a good number of British classmates. To a person, they felt the answer [to the question "Was the Revolutionary War Biblical?"] was "No." They especially felt it was hypocritical of many of our founding fathers to consider taxation as slavery when they themselves were slaves owners in an outright fashion. They also pointed out that had the colonies remained attached to Britain [then] slavery would have been begun to be officially abolished without a war in 1833. The sentiments were rather strong on the issue. It was definitely interesting to hear their point of view and the view of other incredibly committed and dynamic Bible-believing Christians who were not US citizens."

So, what do you think? Let's have some conversation. The conversation might inform us about future decisions we might have to make as a nation. Was the Revolutionary War Biblically justified or not?


Anonymous said...

Man has to be careful about seeing God's will in his own desires.

While it may be well intentioned, our heart is deceitful.

As the Truth Project has taught revisionist history does have a way of proving a point. Americans have learned that the Revolutionary war was justified from a US based perspective. As you mention, when you put on the lens of a British citizen a different vision emerges.

Many of the founding fathers had a vested interest in breaking with England. They were second in command and would then move up.

David Wayne said...

Hey Rick - I've also been very interested in this subject over the years and I would lean the way you are going Have you read "The Search for Christian America" by Noll and Hatch. I think it does a fine job of addressing the issues you raised.
It has also occurred to me through the years that the Bible does describe the one true "Christian nation." The church is a "holy nation" with "citizens" laws that govern the conduct of those citizens, a governmental structure with a king and so on and so forth.
So I do think that there was a good deal of confusion on those matters during the revolutionary era.

Laura C said...

Interesting comments on slavery. We read the children's version of The Light and the Glory, (Discovering God's Plan for American from Christopher Columbus to George Washington) by Marshall and Manuel. It says that the Great Awakening united the 13 colonies and made them realize they were together under God and had been established for the special purpose to proclaim the message of Jesus. England's threats to establish the Church of England and revoke religious freedom was one of the issues that ignited the colonists to pursue freedom.

Anonymous said...

SO are you saying that we are not to rebel and fight against evil when it attacks us? no sir we will no longer sit still silent and be led to the slaughter, this pharoah IS being rebelled against as well!

Eric Mack said...

In the Old Testament, when Rehoboam decided to rule with an iron first and tax heavily, against the advise of God's prophet, the kindom of Israel was split. Rehoboam corrupted the church and oppressed the people. I think you can see some obvious parallels between this story and the Great Britian/Church of England vs the American colonies. The church of England was founded on the desire of Henry VIII to annul his marriage in defiance of the Catholic church, selfish and corrupt reasons. He then imposed this corrupted church on his subjects. Many of the initial settlers in the "new world" wanted to practice thier faith outside this corruption, eventually leading to the Revolution. Seems biblically justified and God's will IHMO.

Anonymous said...


In our nation, with its history of peace and freedom it is quite easy to muse...

...yet it is quite another when one lives under tyranny and live with its evil first hand.

From the right to live comes the right of self defense...and THAT is precisely the reasoning from those self evident truths.

Take for example, Paine's statement here:

"Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to "bind me in all cases whatsoever" to his absolute will, am I to suffer it?" --Thomas Paine The American Crisis, No. 1 Date: December 19, 1776.

While it is easy to say "only the slaves had a right to rebel...from a distance, it is much more difficult to explain why someone with soldiers quartered in their home does not.

The key principle, and one we need to embrace, is what Madison called "The First Duty of Citizens..."

God bless

"The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.

We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it." James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance (1785)

Seth Hinckley said...

Sure the founding fathers had vested interests in carrying out a Revolution just as citizens have vested interests in supporting freedom and liberty today, but one should remember the fate of the majority of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. That fate was not a surprise to the signers. Franklin stated at the signing, "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately." Their motives for separating from England were pure. They were not selfish men nor did they seek for power and influence. They could have gain so much of that since they were the founders of a new government. But what was the result of their work? It was a limited government that prevented people from gaining too much power and influence.

The founders did not want to fight England. In fact, they sought peace until war was forced on them. They were submissive and petitioned their ruler upon fair and reasonable terms, just as a son would petition a father for something. I believe this whole discussion is based on the interpretation of submit and subject. I believe Paul was simply telling the people of his day to not rebell against the established government because it would lead to their deaths. He did not mean for Christians to take on the role of a woman with an abusive husband who tortures her regularly. A woman is only to "submit" to her spouse to a point.

The early saints did not enjoy any sort of "rights" except those who were actual Roman citizens, and as is evident in the Bible, you bet they exercised those rights (being protected by legioners from the Jews). I believe Paul was advising the Christians NOT commanding them as an Apostle. Just giving them council to save their physical lives.

Now I am sure many reading this will assuredly say, "Oh, wow, this guy is picking and choosing what he follows from the Bible. What a sinner! He only sees what he already believes in. He is obviously not as Christian as I am!"

Please hold off judgement for a few moments to note some important facts. Many times throughout the New Testament the saints are instructed "not to company with _______." Fornicators, idolators, extortioners, people who are covetous, drunkards, ect (1 Corinthians 5). Also, sins are listed regularly. They include things like adultery, uncleanness, lasciviousness, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions (which I will clarify later), revelling, envying, murder, etc (Galatians 5). Also filthiness, foolishness, whoremongering, or certain types of talking/jesting (Ephesians 5). Interesting, three different books with lists of sins in their chapter 5. I just noticed that.

In these lists and others in the Bible lie sins. Peacefully choosing citizenship under a different government is not included as sin. In fact, if a Christian during this era wanted to leave and go to Asia and become a citizen there, there would be no sin in that. Sedition is another matter entirely. Sedition is not what the colonists did to gain their independence. England would call it sedition, but they are biased in their views, and they only tell half of the story.

Contrast the relationship between a landlord and tenant with the relationship a ruling body has with their citizens. Both have agreements. The landlord has a lease contract. Citizens in developed countries like England had certain rights and duties, as did the ruling class. When a landlord violates a contractual agreement once or twice it does not void the whole legal document, the same with the ruling class. But when a majority of the principles of the agreement have been ignored by the landlord or government and no effort is being made to repent and return to what is legally expected of them, the tenants or citizens are no longer legally or morally bound to that agreement. They are free to make a new agreement with another party.

Seth Hinckley said...

Sedition is rebelling and inciting rebellion for some other reason than failure of the ruling class to be true and faithful to their duties. Or a failure to repent and make good on their promises if they slacked earlier. Sedition is malicious. Its aim is to destroy peace. Tell me, was there real peace in the American colonies? The colonists were happily submitting for a very long time until their ruling class began to oppress them. The phrase "no taxation without representation" was not an original statement from the colonists. It was coined from mainland England first. It was already part of their law. But like many other things, they ignored their law and treated the colonists as non-citizens.

In summary, I submit to the readers' logic and reason. Just because and apostle says, "Put them in mind to be subject" or "Put them in mind to obey" this does not mean the same as "THOU SHALT BE SUBJECT" or "THOU SHALT OBEY" Wise council is not the same as direct commands. Titus 3 has obvious exceptions, which are not included in that book at all. We are naturally not expected to obey when our ruling class tells us to reject our Savior are we? We are not expected to be subject when our country commands us to commit sin are we? These exceptions and more where not included in the epistle to Titus because they understood those principles already.

We must remember that each epistle was written to a specific audience with specific needs who were known to already have a specific understanding of certain things. The saints in Rome needed things explained in a different fashion to them than the saints in Corith. Basing one's whole perception of the gospel on the instruction given to a completely different group of people is quite foolish. Mind you, I am not saying ignore the council and commandments given in them. They are one of our most important connections with our Father, and I value them greatly. There is just so much more to consider on this topic than two verses of scripture, often times incorrectly interpreted.

Jared M. said...

The American War for Independence wasn't a "revolution" to begin with. The American colonies sought peace with Britain time and time again while pledging and re-pledging their allegiance to the King. It's a real shame the actual history of our country is rarely taught in our classrooms, but the American colonies were made independent (against their will, believe it or not) by a legal act on the part of the King and the English Parliament known as "The Prohibitory Acts". In a nutshell, the King proclaimed the American colonies to be no longer under his protection (and in a specifically 18th century context, that was a de facto separation of countries, as no country owed allegiance to a monarch that refused to protect them) and declared them to be a foreign enemy.
In short, the American declaration of independence on July 4th, 1776, was in reality a mere formality. There was no revolution, but a war for independence against an invading foreign enemy.

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