John MacArthur appeared last Sunday on Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire. I greatly appreciated MacArthur’s focus on the gospel in the interview – specifically his willingness to personally direct it to Shapiro and call him to repentance. That is very rare in situations like this. It far outweighs any other nit-picking I may have.
Towards the beginning of the interview, MacArthur said
I’m to be a citizen who submits to the powers that be I am NOT to be a revolutionary. We don’t start riots that’s not a Christian thing to do. We don’t even start revolutions, and you could argue about the American Revolution whether that was actually legitimately a Christian act or not. We don’t start revolutions. We submit to the powers that be and we work to change the culture from the inside one soul at a time.
Shapiro later asked him to elaborate.
Shapiro: Early on you mentioned that you weren’t sure that the American Revolution is in consonance with biblical values. I was wonder if you could expound on that a little bit. I think it’s an interesting idea.
MacArthur: Well the scripture says submit to the powers that be, that they are ordained of God. That does not mean that every ruler represents God, clearly that is not the case, but that governmental authority is a god-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior, just as parents have that role, the conscience has that role we’ve talked about. So when I, when I talk about the government I’m not saying that the government is a divine authority or that the rulers are divine authorities but what I am saying is that they represent a god-given constraint to human behavior and that’s why they have to be upheld and not broken down. So Christians don’t attack the government. We don’t protest. We don’t riot. We don’t start shooting people who are in the government even if the government is King George from England and we don’t like him and even if we’re upset with taxation. We don’t start riots and we don’t start revolutions.
We live quiet according to the New Testament peaceable lives we pray for those that are over us we pray for rulers we pray for all those who are in authority and we pray that they might come to know God through the savior of the Lord Jesus Christ. So we pray regularly for our rulers we do not overthrow them and that is how a Christian a real biblical Christian would look at the at the American Revolution. I mean, I hate to say that because that’s not a popular idea, but it is nonetheless what the scripture says Christians are to do. Submit, pray, pray for the salvation of your leaders, live a quiet and peaceable life and let the the character of your life the godliness the virtue of your life affect that society one soul at a time.
Shapiro: So what does that mean for individual rights? Because obviously the American Revolution is based on the idea that we are individuals with certain rights that are inherent in us. I think that has history going all the way back to Genesis talking about us being made in God’s image with certain creative faculties and that comes along with the ability to think for ourselves the ability to worship God, the ability to build these families. The founding ideology is based around the idea that if the government itself was a threat to your fundamental rights including as a religious person then the government had lost its legitimacy. Is there a point in in your philosophy in theology where the government loses its legitimacy? It’s the Soviet Union, they’re cracking down on churches. It’s Nazi Germany, right? Is that, is there a point where a revolution would be justifiable or necessary?
MacArthur: Not, not in a biblical sense, no. I don’t think there’s ever a time when you would be justified in starting to kill the people that are in power. I don’t, I don’t see any justification for that. That is not what Christians do. We would rather suffer.
Personally, I have wrestled with MacArthur’s view for more than 10 years. My desire to take every thought captive to Christ makes me affirm MacArthur’s anti-revolution position, in light of Romans 13. But my logical, systematic bent (which is just another step in taking every thought captive to Christ) leads me to reject MacArthur’s position because it is self-contradictory. It took me a long time to push through the fog of this dissonance, but I think I have made progress and have more clarity now.
Person or Office?
How is MacArthur contradicting himself? By conflating the two wills of God – that is, conflating the person and the office. First he argues that the powers that are ordained of God does not mean particular rulers, but rather the general concept – the institution (preceptive will/command). “That does not mean that every ruler represents God, clearly that is not the case, but that governmental authority is a God-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior.” But then he argues that we must therefore never remove any particular ruler by force (because that particular ruler is ordained by God – decretive will/providence). “So we pray regularly for our rulers we do not overthrow them…I don’t think there’s ever a time when you would be justified in starting to kill the people that are in power.”
Which is it? Logically the verse must refer to one or the other. Is the institution ordained by God’s command or is the specific person ordained by God’s providence? Irenaues argued it was the person providentially ordained by God. Chrysostom argued it was the office preceptively ordained by God, not any particular ruler. In his commentary on Romans, John Murray puts it this way
The propositions that the authorities are of God and ordained of God are not to be understood as referring merely to God’s decretive will. The terms could be used to express God’s decretive ordination but this is not their precise import here. The context shows that the ordination of which the apostle now speaks is that of institution which is obliged to perform the appointed functions. The civil magistrate is not the only means decreed in God’s providence for the punishment of evildoers but God’s instituted, authorized, and prescribed instrument for the maintenance of order and the punishing of criminals who violate that order. When the civil magistrate through his agents executes just judgment upon crime, he is executing not simply God’s decretive will bu he is also fulfilling God’s preceptive will, and it would be sinful for him to refrain from so doing.
For these reasons subjection is required and resistance is a violation of God’s law and meets with judgment. (NICNT, p. 148)
If the power that God has ordained is simply the institution – that is, the idea that society must have a means of constraining human behavior by punishing evil – then our submission is specifically due to that function: punishing evil. If a particular person with power is himself evil and is actually punishing good, then that has not been ordained by God and we need not submit to it, but may resist (Shapiro notes this). Thus Samuel Rutherford said “It is evident from Rom. xiii. that all subjection and obedience to higher powers commanded there, is subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto, or, which is all one, to the person using the power lawfully, and that no subjection is due by that text, or any word of God, to the abused and tyrannical power of the king.” This is the understanding behind the WCF and it led directly to the American Revolution, which was known in England as the Presbyterian Rebellion.
The logic is impeccable. If God has ordained/commanded that society must punish evil and reward the good, then society must replace a tyrant. Note that the American Revolution was not the rejection of society’s duty to punish evil and reward the good. Rather, it was simply a change in how that was to be done: through a constitutional republic rather than a monarchy. That’s not contrary to the divine institution of government unless you want to argue that God only ordained a specific type of government (monarchy, oligarchy, republic, democracy, etc). The American Revolution was not an overthrow of the institution of government. It was the overthrow of specific persons and their unjust laws (which were not ordained by God).
While the logic is sound, the problem is this view makes no sense of Romans 13 in its original context. The Christians Paul was writing to were concerned with the injustice of Rome and were enticed by Jewish revolutionaries. Paul tells them to be subject to the powers that be. Note that Paul did not simply tell them to obey the rulers. He told them to be subject to them. The specific issue is not disobedience to laws, but rebellion against persons (see Waldron’s notes here). The ordination that Paul refers to in Romans 13 is the providential empowering of particular mighty men to rule over others, as Irenaeus observed. Nebuchadnezzar was the obvious background to Paul’s comments and Nebuchadnezzar was not ordained to an office. He was empowered to crush opposition – to rule. God has providentially ordained that non-theocratic rulers will have power over Christians until our King Jesus returns. Until then, we are to follow his example by patiently suffering injustice.
In conclusion, MacArthur is correct that Christians must not rebel. However, he is wrong as to why Christians are not to rebel. It is not because Romans 13 has ordained an institution that never loses its legitimacy. It is because God has commanded us to suffer patiently under the heavy hand of wicked men whom He has providentially empowered, while we wait for the return of our king (thus making us pilgrims).
Responding to injustice (tyranny) with force (rebelling) is just. In this sense, the American Revolution was just. They had a natural right to resist injustice. However, Romans 13, like Matt 5:39, commands Christians to suffer injustice by turning the other cheek and not taking up arms against “the powers that be.” Did Christ have every right to resist his unjust execution? Yes. Did he resist? No. We are to follow his example, which reaches beyond mere matters of justice.
The dissonance in MacArthur’s conflation of person and office in Romans 13 is very common. It leads to a great deal of confusion. I would encourage everyone to carefully consider and distinguish between person and office with regards to “the powers that be.”
For more detailed reading, see:
- Nebuchadnezzar and Romans 13: Person or Office?
- Romans 13: Person, Office, or Both?
- Romans 13:6 “For this reason, pay your tribute”
- The Avenger of Blood
- Older Posts on Romans 13 as Ordaining the Office