Is John MacArthur Right About Revolution?

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)

Removing Persons

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).

Ordaining Persons

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.

Conclusion

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:

“All Things Lawful” (LBCF 24.3/WCF 23.4)

In 2000, Bob Brown of Reformed Baptist Church gave a lecture titled “All Things Lawful: Or, a Biblical Perspective on Resisting Authority.” It was part of a series on the civil magistrate and it seeks to explain 24.3 of the 2nd London Baptist Confession:

“3._____ Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. 

Brown argues that the phrase “all lawful things” should be interpreted to mean “anything that does not cause you to sin.” He says “We are conscience bound to subject ourselves to every command of the civil magistrate unless that command requires us to break God’s moral law… You must obey God but you must never, ever, under any circumstances take up arms against the king that God put over you.” His main focus is to correct what he sees as a mistaken understanding of the Confession.

First of all, I want to deal with a mistaken interpretation of these words “in all lawful things.” A mistaken interpretation that is usually viewed as some “lawfully contracted civil agreement that bind both the ruler and those who are ruled.” In other words, a social contract. The thought runs like this: The citizens agreed to submit to the ruler and the ruler agrees to exercise his rule within certain negotiated parameters. If his commands fall within those parameters they are lawful and they are to be obeyed. But if they fall outside of those parameters, they are unlawful, in which case the ruler has forfeited his right to rule and may be deposed. Such a ruler, according to this view, has broken the social contract by which he obtained his authority in the first place.

He says this interpretation of the Confession is wrong because the social contract theory wasn’t developed until after the Confession was written. He goes on to argue that it was developed by enlightenment thinkers, notably John Locke, and is therefore unbiblical.

The King That God Put Over You

I actually first listened to this lecture 2 years ago. I took his point hook, line, and sinker. I disagreed with how he applied it to the U.S. Constitution, but what he said about the social contract theory and enlightenment thinking made sense – that is, until I started reading historic reformed political theology.

Brown mentions “the king that God put over you.” Paragraph 1 of the Confession reads

1. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers.

The Westminster Confession says the same thing in 23.1 and something similar in 23.4.

4. It is the duty of the people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their obedience to him: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted; much less hath the Pope any power or jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and least of all to deprive them of their dominions or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretense whatsoever.

What was very interesting to find out was how reformed theologians believed God places rulers over the people. Brown implies that it is a matter of providence. It does not matter if someone comes to power justly or unjustly. Whoever is in power is whom God has placed over you. That was actually the argument of royal absolutists, not the view of the reformed theologians I have read. Rather, they argued that God places rulers over the people, not immediately, but mediately through the consent of the people.

Samuel Rutherford was one of the most prominent members of the Westminster Assembly. He wrote a very influential book on this question during the time of the Assembly titled “LEX, REX: The Law and the Prince. A Dispute for the just PREROGATIVE of KING and PEOPLE. Containing the Reasons and Causes of the most necessary Defensive Wars of the Kingdom of SCOTLAND, and of their Expedition for the ayd and help of their dear brethren of ENGLAND.” The Westminster Assembly was meeting because of an agreement between England and Scotland. Scotland agreed to provide English Parliament with the support of the Scottish army in civil war if Parliament agreed to establish the true religion in England. Thus Rutherford’s work is the best elaboration of the Confession’s meaning on these points. (See my summary of the book here)

Rutherford said “I conceive it to be evident that royal dignity is not immediately, and without the intervention of the people’s consent, given by God to any one person, and that conquest and violence is no just title to a crown… Politicians agree to this as an undeniable truth, that as domestic society is natural, being grounded upon nature’s instinct, so politic society is voluntary, being grounded on the consent of men.” He explains that God ordained the office of magistrate to be over the people, but who lawfully fills that office is determined by the consent of the people. This is how LBCF 24.1/WCF 23.1 is to be interpreted. “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.”

Furthermore, when the people elect a ruler, they do so conditionally. “There is an oath betwixt the king and his people, laying on, by reciprocation of bands, mutual civil obligation upon the king to the people, and the people to the king (2 Sam 5:3; 1 Chron 11:3; 2 Chron 23:2, 3; 2 Kings 11:17; Eccl. 8:2)… There be no mutual contract made upon certain conditions, but if the conditions be not fulfilled, the party injured is loosed from the contract.” This was not a position unique to Rutherford. He was just expressing the common reformed view. Beza said

[T]he people existed before there was any magistrate and that the magistrates were made for the sake of the people and not vice versa… [T]he authority of all magistrates, however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of dignity, and not contrariwise… I maintain that as long as right and justice have prevailed no nation has either elected or approved kings without laying down specific conditions… [L]et those who so far exalt the authority of kings and supreme rulers as to dare maintain that they have no other Judge but God alone to whom they are held bound to render account of their deeds, furnish proof that there has been any nation anywhere which has consciously and without intimidation or compulsion of some kind subjected itself to the arbitrary rule of some supreme ruler without the express or tacit addition of the proviso that it be justly and fairly ruled and guided by him.

Brown quotes Calvin against resistance, but neglects the fact that Calvin says he is only referring to private men. He says, in the same section (4.20.30-31) that lesser magistrates and the estates who appointed the ruler have a duty to resist and overthrow a tyrant (Beza elaborated the same point). (See here and here for how subsequent reformed theologians pointed out Calvin’s inconsistency in obligating private men to a broken compact).

Clearly, the idea that “citizens agreed to submit to the ruler and the ruler agrees to exercise his rule within certain negotiated parameters” was not an enlightenment idea created by John Locke. Rather, this was the thinking that lay behind the Confession(s). “All things lawful” is to be interpreted as “all things the ruler has constitutional authority to command” (which necessarily excludes any authority to command people to sin). In Rutherford’s words, it refers to “the person using the power lawfully.” Given the civil war context of the Westminster Assembly, I’m not certain how that can be denied.

As we saw in the last post, this was precisely how Colonial Baptists understood their situation, explicitly appealing to this “consent of the governed” theory of government as articulated by Roger Williams as a reason for their refusal to pay the religious tax in Massachusetts. Note also that, on this basis, all the English baptists supported the American Revolution (see p. 198 fn2).

The Declaration of Independence

Brown argues that the Declaration of Independence was an enlightenment document written by a disciple of John Locke (Thomas Jefferson) and was very unbiblical. In His Majesty’s Advocate: Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees (1635–1713) and Covenanter Resistance Theory Under the Restoration Monarchy (his dissertation), E. Calvin Beisner (OPC) shows the great amount of continuity between reformed political philosophy (focusing on Sir James Stewart, who wrote after and in agreement with Rutherford), John Locke, and the Declaration of Independance.

It is not known whether Locke ever read [Stewarts’] Jus Populi. It is not listed in his library, though that does not mean he never owned or read it. Certainly the arguments in it, as we have seen, were common to many defenses of resistance from natural law, natural rights, and constitutionalist perspectives, and Locke’s wide reading in other sources could have stocked him with the concepts and arguments in the Two Treatises without his ever laying eyes on Jus Populi. Yet virtually every significant argument in the Second Treatise appears, in one form or another, often in greater complexity and bolstered by more authorities (human and divine), in Jus Populi

Jus Populi undoubtedly contributed significantly to Covenanter—and consequently wider Scottish and later American—political thought. It likely had an impact on the Claim of Right of 1689, and, as we shall see, its arguments—whether because of direct or indirect influence or simply a shared political discourse—reflect heavily in the American Declaration of Independence (1776)… Elazar has argued persuasively that the Declaration of Independence should be understood as a religious covenant. Viewing it in light of the heavy influence of English Puritan and Scotch-Irish Presbyterian political thought in the colonies during the decades leading up to the Revolution, we should expect to see in the Declaration marked similarities to the typical Scottish Covenanter resistance arguments. While no claim is made here of direct causal connection, the parallels between it and Jus Populi are strong and are to be explained by the shared discourse and perspective of the documents’ authors.

Rebellion or Suffering?

That being said, I sympathize with some of Brown’s concern when he says “Brothers, there is too much of Stallone and Schwartzeneger and Heston in our spirit and not enough of Jesus and John the Baptist, and Stephen the Martyr, and Tyndale.” However, an important distinction has to be made between the rights of all image bearers and the duty of men redeemed by a suffering servant. The fact that we are called to suffer in this life as Christians does not say anything about political philosophy proper. It does not say anything about our rights as image bearers. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 9 that, for the sake of the gospel, he has chosen not to exercise his rights. I think that is a more appropriate approach for understanding NT commands, rather than denying that men have rights (as Brown does).

[P.S. Brown’s comments about the U.S. Constitution are also very confused (it’s not a living document that speaks through the rulers), but I’ll leave that be.]

Is John MacArthur Right About Revolution? – Reformed Libertarian

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.

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