Ask the average history student what influences led to the American Revolution, and you will likely get a plethora of answers such as “taxation without representation”, the French and Indian War, and the Enlightenment. And, they would be absolutely correct: all of those were important factors leading up to the American Revolution. But this is about the extent of what you would hear in most history classes, with little to no mention of how the Reformation, the Puritans, and the Great Awakening greatly impacted the spiritual mindsets and attitudes of the Founding Fathers. Most history classes give you the Cliffnotes version of their beliefs by focusing solely on the most notable Founders (i.e., George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, etc.) and their deistic views. But the reality is far different than what is typically portrayed in secular institutions; the Founding Fathers by and large were not deists
in the sense that we often understand deism to be today, but rather devoutly religious men whose lives were deeply influenced by a biblical worldview.
This is not to say that these Founding Fathers were truly regenerate men, but their views on life, government, and the church were greatly impacted by those who came before them, namely the preachers of the Great Awakening, the Puritans, and Enlightenment-era philosophers such as John Locke. John Adams, though he was a Congregationalist who did not adhere to orthodox tenets of the Christian faith, was clear about his desire for July 4, 1776, the day that America officially declared its independence from Great Britain, to be forever “…commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to Almighty God.”1 These men were most certainly aware of biblical passages such as Romans 13 and how they were viewed by the Crown as traitors. Yet, the American colonists who took up the patriot cause were fully convinced that not only were their actions not contradictory to Paul’s command to submit to governing authorities, but they were actually obeying what Romans 13 prescribes. They asserted that it was Parliament that was in violation of Paul’s instructions, which was a big deal considering that the British during this time held to the “Divine Right of Kings” view of the monarchy.
This sounds much like the Conditional Interpretation of Romans 13 that we covered in last week’s blog, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is precisely that. This was the interpretation that 18th Century colonial preachers taught from their pulpits, undoubtedly influenced by the teachings of the Puritans from more than a century earlier. From a certain point of view, the American Revolution can be summed up as a war over Romans 13. The British maintained that kings derived their authority directly from God and, therefore, have absolute power over their subjects, a concept they could readily justify using passages such as Romans 13:1. Meanwhile, the American patriots asserted that a king who oversteps his biblically defined boundaries, as laid out in Romans 13:3-4, is a tyrant and is to, therefore, be opposed and regarded as an illegitimate ruler. Furthermore, the colonists, once they broke away from Britain after attempting every legal means of reconciliation possible, did not see themselves as rebels of the Crown when they fought for their independence but as citizens of a new country defending itself against a foreign invader.
Anyone who has studied early American history knows the outcome of the American Revolutionary War. Eight years after the first shots were fired at the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the Treaty of Paris was signed, and Great Britain formally recognized America’s sovereignty. And, Americans lived happily ever after, right? Well, not exactly. In the first few years after the war, the newly formed United States had a central government that was nearly non-existent, which led to a host of political and economic problems. In fact, some of the states even resumed their colonial rivalries and were anything but “united states”. It wasn’t until 1789 when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, which established all the laws concerning our system of government, that we know and recognize today. It is where we established our three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. It was unlike any other system of laws that had ever existed up until that time; it was truly the “Great Experiment” of the world. As we continue to trace the influences of the Protestant Reformation, the Puritan movement, and the Great Awakening, we see how the Conditional Interpretation of Romans 13 played a significant role in the birth of America, including in the development of the U.S. Constitution. If we are to understand the U.S. Constitution in the way the authors originally intended, we must, therefore, maintain that the laws that govern our land were written in a way that presupposes the Conditional Interpretation.
Why does this matter? Quite simply, it is because of how our system of government was designed to function. Unlike the systems of government that came before us, we are not ruled by a king or an emperor but by the laws that are established in the Constitution. Everyone, including our government leaders, is to submit to that authority. What impact does this have on us as present-day American Christians as we apply the principles Paul set forth in Romans 13? I would submit to you that our system of government, and how it came to be, absolutely needs to be taken into consideration. We can argue about whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation, but the fact of the matter is…this is the system of government that God has providentially placed us in, for better or worse. This is the government that we are called to submit to. However, while it is true that our Founding Fathers had a conditional understanding of Romans 13 and applied that understanding in the formation of our government, we are also no longer living under a system where the church and government are wedded together like they were in the days of the Puritans, from whom the Conditional Interpretation was developed in the first place. In our system today, the church and government are indeed separate realms
of authority, and the government has undoubtedly become increasingly secular in recent decades. We are increasingly finding ourselves submitting to a government that resembles that of the Roman Empire in the days of the early church, a time when Christians were uniformly holding to the Strict Interpretation of Romans 13.
This takes us back to one of our earlier questions in this series: how do we as modern-day American Christians apply the principles of Romans 13? I would argue that we should seek to submit to our governing authorities by obeying them whenever possible, that is simply applying the attitude of submission that we touched on in our previous series, while at the same time recognizing that we have what I would consider to be three possible exceptions to the rule: when the government contradicts the laws of God as revealed in Scripture, when it contradicts the laws of nature that God has established in the world, or when it contradicts the laws that are established in the highest law of the land: the Constitution.We would do well to consider the wisdom and insight of the theological giants who came before us, the unique history of our country and how it was established, and come away with an understanding that the specific ways we apply Romans 13 in our unique American context aren’t necessarily black-and-white. First of all, the Constitution may be the supreme law of our land, but that
does not put it on the same level of authority as the Bible. Secondly, each of us comes from a different background, our individual consciences have been uniquely shaped, and we will, therefore, have varying convictions about how to process different circumstances that may arise, such as when a government passes and enforces a law that you might deem to be unconstitutional. May this be a reminder for us to be gracious to one another as we work through these issues both individually and collectively. In whatever ways we seek to apply these truths, let us remember that our primary allegiance is always to Christ, just as it was for our spiritual forefathers. May the world see Christ in us in all that we do, and that we do all these things to bring honor to the King of kings.
1 Whipple, W. (1997). The Price of Liberty. Bulverde, Texas: Mantle Ministries.