The Fourth of July is next week, and a number of us are going to set off fireworks — and, if the past is to be trusted, we will set off some really good ones. But what are we celebrating? One of the things my grandchildren have been put up to during the fireworks are cries like, “Down with the House of Hanover!” But what was wrong with George III and his house? Was our War for Independence just an arbitrary rebellion? Or was it principled and scriptural? We tend to believe that the early American resistance to Parliament’s rebellion against the constitution of Great Britain was pragmatic and not principled. We tend to think this way because we have drifted into postmodern relativism and we don’t understand such principles. We don’t speak that language anymore, and in our ignorance we assume that no one ever spoke that language.
“Now these be the last words of David. David the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said, The Spirit of the LORD spake by me, and his word was in my tongue. The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God” (2 Sam. 23:1-3).
These are the words of God, spoken under inspiration. The man who rules over men must be just, and he must do what he does in the fear of God. If he does not fear God, he is actually aspiring to be God. To resist such hubris (by the appointed scriptural means only) is simply avoiding idolatry.
Some men rule. This is necessary. We as Christians are not hostile to the idea of rule (Rom. 13); indeed, we have to embrace it, and love it. The Scripture says that we are to honor the king, and this would include George III. But he was not resisted by our fathers because he was a king, but, considering our text, because he was not. A man resisting a tyrant is not the same kind of person as a scofflaw chafing under legitimate authority. The fact that we no longer grasp this important distinction is a central part of our indictment. The more we say, “But I just don’t see the difference between George Washington and Robespierre,” the more we prove ourselves worthy of being ruled the way we are.
So those who rule must be just, as the Bible defines and establishes that term. The king does not define justice, but he is called upon to embody it. Those who rule must fear God, that their rule be tempered. When God establishes a man over his brothers (Rom. 13), to the extent he is lifted up, to that same extent, his duties proportionately increase. He is responsible to God, and serves, as St. Paul argues, as God’s deacon of justice.
This leads us to something that our fathers understood, but which we have forgotten. Submission to lawful authority (even when you differ with that authority) is a Christian virtue. And at the same time, resistance to tyrants is submission to God.
Our fathers understood this distinction between lawful resistance and unlawful rebellion. We do not, and we therefore cannot praise and defend our founding fathers, without condemning ourselves. We cannot defend ourselves without condemning them. We have come to love our chains, and are largely complicit in the manufacturing of them.
Of course, when we first start realizing this, the tendency of many zealous Christians is to grab the nearest musket and head off to the fever swamps. But we must not begin by manning the barricades. We must begin by manning the pulpit—but this reveals our problem. We cannot man anything without men. The fact that one of the great debates in the Church today (including the ostensibly evangelical segment of it) exhibits large scale confusion on gender issues and the ministry does not bode well. Part of the reason there is great pressure to get women into the pulpit today is that we have not had men there for a long time. And it hard to demand effeminacy in preaching (which we have done for a century or more) without opening the door to feminist preachers. This is another subject, but not really. We need to man the pulpit first. Judgment begins with the household of God.
So we begin with what we confess when we come before God to worship Him. We say, first to ourselves, that our existing secular arrangement in the public square is offensive to God and ought to be offensive to all His people. Then we say it aloud. Then we pray that men of God would declare it in the pulpit. The American state as it is currently configured is an idol. We may (and must) live as dutiful citizens under this current arrangement. We may and must seek the good of the cities where we live. It is lawful to live in the shadow of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue because God has brought us into exile. But exiled or not, we still may not bow down when the music is played.
Despite intensive clean-up efforts by the ACLU, there are still many memorials around which remind us of the older order of things. For example, the Preamble of the Constitution of the State of Idaho says some interesting things:
“We, the people of the State of Idaho, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, to secure its blessings and promote our common welfare do establish this Constitution.”
Later, the same Constitution says this:
“All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter, reform or abolish the same whenever they may deem it necessary . . .”
These two citations placed together bring us to the issue before us. This was the same issue that confronted our fathers in the Church when they faithfully preached during our successful War for Independence, and then later during the unsuccessful War for Independence. The message today is that Christian people have the same moral obligations today as they did then. Those moral obligations include the duty of abolishing any government which pays lip service to such words, but banishes gratitude, outlaws the name of Almighty God, and hates the very idea of Christian liberty. Under the circumstances, we deem it necessary to make changes. This is not a rebellious act — our state consitution recognizes our full and legitimate authority to do this. Now this document is obviously a subordinate document to Scripture, but still the law of our state, and it would be hard to be in rebellion by doing what it said. How can you disobey by obeying?
But the earlier qualification must be remembered. How shall we go about accomplishing this? By insurrection? By riots? By individuals taking it upon themselves to establish their own tiny republics in the Montana mountains? Of course not — absolutely not. Christians have nothing to do with that kind of sedition. Before anyone opened fire at Lexington or Concord, there had been several centuries of on-going reformation and revival in the Church. A godly outcome in the War for Independence had several centuries of preconditions. We cannot have the same outcome without the same preconditions. We cannot have the liberty fruit without the liberty tree. So what do we do? Before declaring the crown rights of the Lord Jesus to the unbelieving civil magistrates, we have a much more pressing and challenging job before us, and that is to get the Church to recongize the crown rights of the Lord Jesus.