Both Peter and Paul call us to submit to governing authorities. In light of that, is revolution ever possible for a Christian, and if so, under what circumstances?
It certainly is clear that the New Testament puts an emphasis on the Christian’s responsibility to be a model of civil obedience. In Romans 13, Paul tells us that the powers that be are ordained by God. That doesn’t mean that they are sanctioned by God or that God endorses everything that civil governments do; we know better than that. But Paul is saying that it is God who brings government to pass, and we are called to submit to the rulers of the government out of respect for Christ.
Peter says that we ought to obey the civil magistrates “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet. 2:13-17). How is Christ glorified by my submitting to the governor of the state of Florida or to the Congress of the United States of America? I think the broad issue here is the ultimate biblical struggle between competing voices of authority, the principles of Satan and of God. The issue is, Does the human person manifest a spirit of obedience to the law of God, or do we participate in a spirit of lawlessness? It’s interesting that the Antichrist in the New Testament is identified with the man of lawlessness.
I think that when we are called to obey the civil magistrates, it’s because the New Testament sees a hierarchical structure of authority, and that the ultimate authority in heaven and earth is God. God delegates authority to his only begotten Son: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). Yet underneath the authority of the Son, who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, are levels of earthly authority, such as government at its various levels down to the authority of employers over employees and parents over children. We see that ultimately authority finds its sanction in God’s authority and sovereignty. The principle is not difficult to understand: If I am willy-nilly and careless in my obedience to authority at the lower levels, I am therefore implicitly placing myself in a posture of disobedience to the ultimate authority that stands above and behind the earthly. It is the law of God that we disobey. We apply this principle when we say that a child who doesn’t learn to respect his parents will have trouble respecting anything or anyone else. By my being scrupulous in my civil obedience, bending over backwards to obey my teachers, my employers, my governors, and my police officers, I am honoring Christ, who is the ultimate model of authority and of obedience to the law.
Is it is ever justifiable to engage in revolt? Many Christians would say no. This was a crucial question at the time of the American Revolution, and Christian theologians fell on both sides of that issue. I believe that those who did justify the Revolution said the only time it’s justifiable to revolt is when the government itself becomes lawless and functions in an illegal or unlawful manner. In colonial America the revolt was against the unlawful taxation that was taking place. That requires a longer history lesson than we have time for here.
©1996 by R.C. Sproul. Used by permission of Tyndale.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. ©1982 by Thomas Nelson.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.