The Morality of Rebellion

I may have finally come up with an answer for my long-standing question of how the US Founding Fathers scripturally justified taking part in an armed rebellion.

It’s always baffled me how men so evidently knowledgeable of the Bible, living in a day and age when appeal to the Scriptures was common practice in seeking to establish something as morally sound, could apparently so totally ignore Romans 13 as to think that armed rebellion was not only justifiable but somehow a moral obligation.

And even if they themselves could think that way, why did apparently no-one challenge them based on this passage of Scripture?

I’ve learned enough about the American Revolutionary War (in mental self-defence against the weirdness of being a Brit in America around the Fourth of July if for no other reason) that I know it wasn’t completely monolithically Good American Patriots versus Evil Tyrannical Redcoats: if it were, then Canada might not exist as a country. There were, in other words, American colonials who supported the British side, just as there were British Members of Parliament who supported the Americans. If I were an American Crown loyalist back then, Romans 13 is the first thing I would pull out to justify my position. And yet at least from where I sit 200 years in the future, things seem mysteriously silent on the discussion of the morality of open armed rebellion in 1776. Surely someone brought the issue up?

But I might at last have something of an answer, though it raises its own questions:

The American rebels did not see the British Crown as constituting legitimate authority.

The Bible, of course, never casts all rebellion into the mould of sin. Daniel refused to comply with King Darius’ edict that no-one should pray to any god except to the king. The Apostles refused to bow to the Sanhedrin’s instruction to stop teaching the people in the Name of Jesus (though I have to point out that they didn’t oppose the Sanhedrin with weapons). Furthermore, what were Gideon, Ehud, Deborah and the other Judges, if not rebel leaders? For that matter, Saul was still King when David started assembling his mighty men.

What makes these acts of rebellion justified and righteous was that the rulers in question were not exercising legitimate authority.

Darius and the Sanhedrin were attempting to place their own laws over God’s Law and force people to disobey God’s direct commands. This is instructive, but less than fully relevant to the American situation. As far as I know, not even the most rabidly anti-monarchist American was claiming that the British government was trying to force them to worship idols or disobey the commands of God.

The Judges are probably the most relevant example, because firstly they took up arms against their oppressor, and secondly the people they fought against were considered foreign invaders.

It’s an open question whether the British redcoats were truly foreign invaders or not, seeing as how the Thirteen Colonies were established under the aegis of the British Crown, but it’s as close as we can reasonably come. I suspect your answer to that question will depend quite a lot on your perspective on whether the Crown had legitimate authority over the American colonists.

The Judges rose up by force of arms against foreign rulers who were oppressing the people of God. They were specifically selected by God for their role, moreover, and specifically instructed to take up the sword and save Israel.

So if the Scripture sometimes excuses, or even mandates, armed uprising against an illegitimate authority, what makes an authority legitimate or illegitimate according to Scripture?

We’ve seen part of our answer in dealing with Daniel and the Apostles: an authority may not legitimately order you to disobey God. For example, the state may not demand worship or adoration that is to be given to the Lord, nor may the state legitimately require that you commit adultery or murder (why they would is another question entirely). It’s interesting to note, however, that the Apostles didn’t consider the Roman Emperors’ self-elevation to godhood as necessarily removing any and all legitimacy from Roman civil authority. Romans 13 was written into a context of persecution by a determinedly pagan, Emperor-worshipping Roman Empire. Submission to the authorities wouldn’t be such a big deal if it were easy all the time.

So what does make an authority legitimate?

Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 seem to leave very little wiggle room: it’s God who establishes the authorities. They’re His agents to reward those who do good and punish those who do evil. Taking aside moral questions of whether or not the authority is requiring things of you that are contrary to God’s law, how do we decide that an authority has overstepped their legitimacy? How can we tell whether or not the British Crown had really become illegitimate in their authority over the Americans?

Locke and the other British philosophers that the American revolutionaries liked to quote faced a similar problem in trying to justify the (peaceful) overthrow of the Stuart dynasty and the bringing-in of William of Orange and Queen Anne from the Netherlands. To be honest, I have a hard time justifying that myself, based solely on Scripture. Parliament did it nonetheless, not having to answer to my crises of conscience, and the reasoning behind it was that the people were afraid that the Stuart monarch meant to subordinate his authority to that of the Pope (which was against the law) and make the country Catholic, but authority is authority. If the Bible is correct that God establishes the authorities, you have an issue here.

Their solution was the idea that governments rule with the consent of the governed. In other words, legitimacy comes from the willingness of the people to submit to your authority.

It’s a very American idea, and it underpins most of our modern concepts of democracy. But I try in vain to find it in Scripture in anything other than the most tenuous and oblique terms.

It seems to make “everybody’s doing it” the litmus test of legitimate sovereignty, rather than anything objective. If a majority of the people are willing to live under a British Crown, it’s therefore the legitimate authority. If they aren’t, it’s lost legitimacy and therefore it is righteous and good to oppose them.

This is looking like Absalom to me. He was popular, swaying a majority of the people of Israel to his cause. King David had to go on the run. And yet the Bible is clear that David, not Absalom, was the legitimate King. I cannot believe that genuine legitimacy comes solely from the consent of the majority to be ruled.

No, there must be some other way to prove the legitimacy or otherwise of a government, and thus give me a way to put to bed my questions and doubts about the War of American Independence once and for all.

Never mind that I’m calling into question the moral basis of the nation in which I live. Never mind that I might be undermining the idea of democracy itself. I want some answers!

It’s not like this is just some academic, historical exercise, either. The implications of how we answer this question are right up-to-date. Does the United Kingdom legitimately have authority over Scotland? A majority of Scots said in a referendum that it does, but if true legitimacy comes from somewhere else, is that actually relevant?

If a legitimate government (Daniel’s relationship to King Darius was one of subject to monarch, not rebel to tyrant) can illegitimately order you to disobey God, can a particular law be illegitimate? Can a tax be illegitimate? (Is taxation legitimate at all? I’ve met Americans who contend that all taxation is tantamount to theft).

Is there a functional difference between legitimacy in the eyes of God and legitimacy in the eyes of man? Can the situation exist of a government treated by the world as a legitimate government that God doesn’t think ought to be exercising authority? Or the other way around: a government that God treats as legitimate that is unrecognised by men?

So now I have an answer for how the American colonists could justify participation in an armed rebellion, but if leaves me with more questions than I started with. Great.


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