An Antidote to Tyranny – Lessons from our Founding

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

“We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in Heaven, and with a propitious eye beholds his subjects assuming that freedom of thought and dignity of self-direction which He bestowed on them. From the rising to the setting sun, may His kingdom come!”

-Samuel Adams after signing the Declaration of Independence

An Antidote to Tyranny – Lessons from our Founding

Two hundred and forty-five years ago the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and the United States of America were born.  Pledging their lives, fortunes and sacred honor, 56 men, representing 13 colonies affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence.  As Samuel Adams pointed out in the above quotation, the colonists had come to understand the truth that all men are subject to God.  In signing this document, they were declaring that King George III was in rebellion against lawful authority and had therefore forfeited his right to rule, or as they describe it after listing the king’s abuses, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

While we all enjoy the liberties that resulted from our separation from Great Britain, ever since the colonies took this bold step, Christians have debated whether or not it was biblically justified.  Have you ever wrestled with this important question?  What would you say if you were challenged by a friend who believes the War for Independence was a rebellious act against God-ordained authority?  In answering this question from a biblical perspective, we will also be provided with a solution to the ever-encroaching tyranny of our day.  Let us learn the lesson our Founders taught us.

Who Were the Rebels?

On first blush, it is easy to see what the American colonies did as an act of rebellion.  After all, the Bible instructs Christians to submit ourselves to civil authorities and when we resist those authorities we are resisting God (see Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2).  What many fail to recognize though, is that God gives instructions not only to citizens, but also to rulers.  This is the very point Paul makes in the first verse of Romans 13, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God…”  Notice that “every” soul is subject to God.  That would include citizens and civil leaders.

Biblically speaking both the king and the citizen are accountable to God.  Each have their duty to perform.  Once we understand this principle, how would we view the admonition in Romans 13?  The citizen is to submit to the governing authorities.  The governing authority is to be God’s minister of justice – to punish the evil and praise the righteous.  Looking at the text this way, we can see that rebellion can be defined on both sides.  If a citizen refuses to submit to a lawful order, it is rebellion.  On the other hand, if a civil authority refuses to be God’s minister of justice and instead begins punishing the righteous and praising the wicked, it is also rebellion.

How does this apply to the American colonies?  The decision to break away from Great Britain was not made lightly.  In fact, a “long train of abuses” had piled up.  It’s easy to forget that the King had been waging war against the colonists for over a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Read the list of grievances laid out for all to see in that document.  Are those the actions of a king committed to administering justice?  Was the king committed to upholding and following the law?  By no means!  It was not the colonists who rebelled, it was the king of England (and the Parliament).  Who were the rebels?  The civil leaders in Great Britain.  The idea that only citizens can be labeled “rebel” is a notion cherished by tyrants, but finds no place in Scripture.

What then are a people to do who find themselves under ever-increasing tyranny?

Biblical Resistance

In order to answer that, we again turn to Scripture.  You will notice as you read Romans 13:1 that the plural is used for civil leaders, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is not authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”  Again, in 1 Peter 2:13-14, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors…”

In human institutions God never intended for there to be a one-man rule.  The plural points to the fact that God designed for there to be layers of authority, just like Jethro instructed Moses to do in the wilderness (see Exodus 18).  Notice in the passages listed above that all of the authorities are called to be God’s ministers of justice.  What that means, practically speaking, is that if one ruler begins oppressing a people, another ruler has the duty to be God’s minister by ensuring justice for the people against the oppressor.

What is briefly described above is exactly what the American colonies did in the Declaration of Independence.  The colonial legislatures, by their respective representatives, stepped in between the tyrant king and the colonists to ensure that justice prevailed.  The legislatures were merely following what God had called them to do in the Bible, namely to be God’s minister to the colonists for good.  It was an act of love both towards God and man.  Seen in this light, it can be rightly proclaimed, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”

God’s Ministers Today

The biblical method for resistance to tyrants described above is what is known as the “Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate” or the “Doctrine of Interposition” because a lesser magistrate is interposing himself between the tyrant and the people.  Though it has been 2000 years since the writing of the New Testament and 245 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the passage of time has not eroded this pillar of truth – elected officials, even today, are called to be God’s ministers of justice for our good.

In our context, not only does every elected official bear that responsibility before God and man, but each one has sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies.  When one leader goes outside the bounds prescribed by God in the Bible and our laws in the Constitution, another leader has the right and duty to resist that leader.  Each of our elected representatives should be diligent to keep this charge, from the president down to the city councilman, from the attorney general down to the county sheriff.

Can you imagine what would happen if just the Christians started understanding what the Scripture teaches on this subject?  What if Christians began demanding their city councilmembers or county board of supervisors protect them from the tyranny of a governor, a legislature, or a president?  What if Christians refused to accept the excuse from their local officials that they are “just following orders.”  Our leaders, both high and low, have a duty before the King of kings to protect the God-given rights of each citizen under their charge.  They all are God’s ministers to us for good.  Our Founding Fathers knew this truth and applied it by resisting the tyrant on behalf of God and the people.  May we show that same love to God and man by holding our local leaders accountable to protect our rights and the rights of our neighbor.

For Further Study

The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate was well-understood in times past but largely lost in our day.  Take time this day to read the Declaration of Independence in light of the duty of the civil magistrate before God. 

One of our newer selections is a book called “The Magdeburg Confession,” which contains a document developed by the church explaining from the Bible and history the duty of Christians to resist tyranny.  If you don’t have a copy, you can find it at our bookstore.

Lastly, we believe this is a vital doctrine for Christians to understand in order to reclaim our vanishing liberties.  Because of this, in the near future, IPS will be carrying and promoting a book called “The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates” by Pastor Matthew Trewhella.  We will notify you when it is available. 

Enjoy your Independence Day celebrations!  Our Lord has truly blessed us with a great nation!