Every Ordinance Of Man
I have known Christians who thought 1 Peter 2:13 obligated them always to obey the government. What such brethren failed to understand is that such a commandment is qualified (i.e., we are not required to obey every ordinance of man no matter what, but only those things man-made governments have been delegated by God to exercise). (For those who are interested, see my article on The Principle Of Qualification.) Anything else puts us in the position of obeying man rather than God scenario, an idea refuted by Acts 4:19 and 5:29. The contrast made in Scripture between obeying God rather than man demonstrates that governments, although ordained by God, are man-made (i.e., formed by men), and because they are, they, like individuals, can conduct themselves contrary to what God has said. When they do, they lose their authority in those matters. In other words, there are things that must be rendered to Caesar as well as to God, but when Caesar attempts to command or legislate contrary to what God has commanded, Caesar or the State has no actual authority in such areas. Consequently, any disobedience of such commands is not rebellion. It is, instead, holy disobedience.
The Greek word translated “ordinance” in the phrase mentioned above is ktisis and is, according to Strong’s, “from ktizo; original formation (properly the act; by implication the thing, literally or figuratively):—building, creation, creature, ordinance.” Thus, the very idea of such ordinances being a creation of man is built right into the words being used by the Holy Spirit. Every ordinance of man means every government/institution created by man. Particular governments, then, even particular forms of government, are instituted by men through their common consent, and not by direct divine decree. When this is understood, a whole different concept about the nature of human government is appreciated. It is this insight that motivated those subject to despotic government to realize that such institutions could be rightly resisted.
But How About God’s Anointing Of Kings?
This is a good question that begs to be answered. Surprisingly, the Bible teaches that a man lawfully assumes the right to be King only after being selected to do so by his fellow men. Again, I say “surprisingly,” not because such information ought to be a surprise for the serious student of God’s word—only that it usually is a surprise for those who have not spent much time thinking this subject through. However, when this principle is fully understood, it sheds its rays on the other areas of delegated authority of which the Christian should be familiar. One of these areas, of course, is the Home. And although the principle doesn’t hold true for children (and I’m fairly certain this is because children aren’t yet capable of rigorous rational thought and have no choice as to who their parents are), the wife chooses the man to whose authority she will be submitting. The same is true of the Church which collectively selects/ordains those who will rule over them. Why, then, should we think it would be any different for the State?
The Consent Of The Governed
In Deuteronomy 17:5 and 2 Samuel 3:21, we learn that a man lawfully becomes ruler only after being accepted by his fellow countrymen. His authority becomes effective when he enters into covenant with the people according to 2 Samuel 5:1-3 and 1 Chronicles 11:3. God does not make one king directly. Although he had anointed David years before he ever became king, he was actually made king by the consent of the people (cf. 2 Sam. 3:21; 5:1-3, and 1 Chron. 11:3).
What’s more, civil rulers do not have an absolute right to rule. In 1 Samuel 13:13-14, through His spokesman Samuel, God made this point crystal clear to Saul. Because he acted foolishly and had not kept the commandments of God, he would be removed from power and replaced by another. From the New Testament, in places like 1 Peter 2:14 and Romans 13:4, we learn that civil rulers are commanded by God to honor those who do good and punish those who do evil. Their function is to uphold Justice and Righteousness in the nation for everyone, not to enrich themselves by preying on the very subjects they are commanded to serve and protect, as passages like Deuteronomy 17:18-19, Proverbs 31:5, 8-9, Psalm 72:12-14, and Jeremiah 22:3-4 point out. In other words, such govern “for the people,” and not to heap to themselves even more power and wealth. Furthermore, if they neglect the first while engaging in the latter, then they lose their position as rulers according to Proverbs 16:12 and 25:5.
The Case Of Athaliah: A Blueprint For Lawful Revolution
The Old Testament story of Athaliah is a prime example of the usurpation of a tyrant and how the rule of such a one can be remedied by lawful revolution. Israel’s covenant with God was something the nation had entered into willingly. In other words, they were not forced to leave Egypt, enter Sinai, and there enter into a covenant relationship with God against their wills. They did so because they wanted to. This is borne out by the fact that in the throes of revolt some of the people argued that it would have been better for them to have remained in Egypt and died than to be where they were. Some were even planning on returning (cf. Deut. 14:1-4 for one of these instances).
In Exodus 19:1-8, the people agree to enter into covenant, saying in verse 8, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” They affirmed this again in Exodus 24:3, where it says, “So Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the Lord has said we will do.’” Even after the trouble in the wilderness, a new generation renewed the covenant at Moab (cf. Deut. 29:1-21). Then, after Moses’ death, the people consented to Joshua’s leadership (cf. Joshua 1:1-18). Finally and very importantly, when it comes to considering the reign of Queen Athaliah, the covenant provided for male rulership only (cf. Deut. 17:14-20).
All these facts are critical to interpreting the events surrounding the rise to power of Queen Athaliah and her subsequent overthrow. Summarizing these, Gary T. Amos wrote:
In this example, the form of government had been established by a covenant or compact. The person in the office violated the conditions of the covenant through acts of despotism and tyranny. She had no right to rule. The lower rulers and representatives of the people covenanted together to institute new government. Their revolution was forceful, but lawful. Joash was made king by the people when he entered into covenant with them (Gary T. Amos, Defending The Declaration: How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence, 1989, p. 131).
Thus, the saga of Athaliah, a rebellious, murderous woman born of rebellious, murderous parents (viz., Ahab and Jezebel), serves as a blueprint for the godly revolution the Founding Fathers seemed to have followed meticulously. The procedure outlined above is easily discernable in the Declaration of Independence. If you have never read all of it, then I strongly urge you to do so, for when you do so, you can see for yourself just how scrupulously the Founding Fathers followed the aforementioned blueprint for revolution. None of this is to say that all that the Founding Fathers had in mind matched exactly the account mentioned above, only that they were following a long list of thinkers and writers who had thought deeply about the scriptural significance of such an account and how it applied to the circumstances of their day. I’m talking about men like Samuel Rutherford, who wrote Lex Rex or The Law and the Prince (1644) during the early stages of the English Civil War and John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government (1688) so influenced the political thought of the Colonies and the Declaration of Independence, all of which were critical of the alleged Divine Right of Kings. These men had, by various means, arrived at a way of thinking about government that would, when fully embraced, cause the face of government to change dramatically in 1776 when our well-read Founding Fathers presented us with a form of government unparalleled in the history of mankind, a form to which man had actually been well-suited from the very beginning. Indeed, man does have certain “unalienable rights” that are granted to him by his Creator. Therefore, government, which is ordained by God but formed by man, must not attempt to interfere with such rights. Instead, it is duty-bound to protect them. When it doesn’t, engaging instead in tyranny, despotism and arbitrary rule, it loses its right to govern.
Rutherford and Locke, both of whom were noted earlier, insisted that mere incompetence was not a reason for revolution. In other words, “[S]uch revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs” (Locke, Second Treatise, p. 126, sec. 225). The ruler must commit repeated acts of tyranny, that is, “a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way” which “make the design visible to the people” that said ruler intends to destroy them and their land (ibid.). Again, a reading of the Declaration of Independence demonstrates that the Colonists’ rejection of King George’s rule was not a capricious, arbitrary act, but was undertaken only after a long list of abuses. Thus, the theory of revolution set forth in Lex Rex and the Second Treatise are the same and are based on scriptural examples, like the one found in the saga of Athaliah and the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Jephthah as a prince over the people in Judges 11:1-11, which Locke specifically referred to as an example of the people’s right to choose those who would, in turn, rule over them, which serves as an example of the compact theory of government— a theory that said the people and ruler enter into a compact before God that binds both the ruler and the people to certain obligations and responsibilities.
Thus, if the ruler fails in his part of the compact, then such failure is viewed as a material breach by which the ruler forfeits his right to rule. Tyranny, when it can be substantiated by repeated acts, is a material breach of the covenant or compact that exists between a ruler and those he rules. He can, then, be rightly deposed, not by riot and anarchy, but by the orderly exercise of duly constituted authorities who intercede on behalf of the people. That this is exactly what happened on July 4, 1776 is well established. Consequently, the American Revolution was not an act of rebellion against lawful authority, which would have been sinful, but resistance to, and the ultimate casting off of, a tyrant.
According to charges outlined in the Declaration of Independence, the king of England was a tyrant. This was established, it was claimed, by a series of tyrannical abuses: obstruction of justice; acts contrary to the public good; the suspension and impeding of legislatures; interfering with elections; corruption of the judiciary; wasting of the public and private wealth; the enforcement of martial law in time of peace; spying on the people; breaking charters; putting the government in the hands of those who had no right to rule; waging war against unarmed towns and cities, perpetrated repeated acts of theft, murder, and barbarity. In short, the king of England had denied the laws of nature, nature’s God, and of England, repudiating its charters. He could, then, be lawfully deposed as a tyrant who had materially and repeatedly broken his promises.
That such was formal and public is self-evident. That such a Declaration was written by “representatives” of the people who, as lower magistrates, had assembled for the express purpose of interposing themselves between the king and those he sought to destroy, cannot be denied. That in doing so, they appealed to the “Supreme Judge of the world” is another thing that cannot be denied. Based upon the evidence, and the motives of those involved, I believe it cannot be successfully denied that the American Revolution was, in fact, right and honorable in the sight of God. In other words, it was not just legal, but it was biblical as well. The biblical roots are “historically evident, logically compelling, and easily researchable” (Amos, p. 150). Although the Bible was not the only influence for its conception, I believe it is correct to say that without the Bible the Declaration of Independence could have never been written.
That the United States of America is a nation that was built on certain eternal principles taught in God’s word has continued to be its resounding legacy. As I have studied the history of its founding, it would be most difficult for me to think it happened due to some random collocation of atoms at a particular time and place—i.e., blind chance. Instead, I must think, like others before me, and I hope like others who will come after me, that America is what it is by the providential hand of Almighty God. In thinking such thoughts, I am reminded of what was said of the U. S. Constitution, a document that was constructed on the firm foundation of the Declaration of Independence—a document that was adopted on September 17, 1787, but was not formally ratified by two-thirds of the Colonies until June 21, 1788. About this document, the great British Prime Minister William Gladstone said, a century later, it was “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man,” an idea that seems to jibe nicely with George Washington’s conclusion that “the event is the hand of God” (Gladstone’s and Washington’s quotes are from Hart, op. cit., p. 329).
In closing, I leave you with what Gary T. Amos said in the epilogue of his book, arguing that the American Revolution is not over as long as there are those who do not believe that “all men are created equal.” Writing of what he thinks to be today’s consensus, he said:
Now, however, the Declaration’s ideas are scoffed at by philosophers, misrepresented by historians, attacked by clergymen, ridiculed by law professors, held in contempt by power hungry politicians, and ignored by the people. As long as this continues, the American Revolution is not over (Amos, p. 170).