Those who know me will automatically assume the reason is my confirmed Anglophilia. "McGahey," they will say, "even has a Union Jack on the ceiling of his study and pompously pronounces words like 'process,' 'harassment,' and 'controversy' in the British fashion." Well, I must confess to being an Anglophile, like anyone else raised in my family couldn't help but being. Nonetheless, I am hardly so blind or naive. I know my history, and am well aware of the shameful legacy of such British imperial moments as the Opium Wars and the Second Boer War. Kipling may have spoken reverently of the "White Man's Burden," but such philanthropic impulses are just the bright side of the darker, more basic impulses to power that have driven all major world empires, from the Roman to the (de facto) American.
I am also a Philadelphian. My hometown has many virtues as well as faults, but there is no question that what drives the City of Brotherly Love as a tourist destination is its well-preserved buildings — the destruction of more recent Victorian buildings by the NPS in the 1950s in favor of unhistorical grass lots, no matter how scenic, gives the impression of the buildings being preserved in formaldehyde — that played a central role in the American War of Independence. I was schooled to reverence the founders of my country, and unquestioningly accepted what I was taught about the righteousness of the American cause.
One person differed in his opinion: my father. For those who didn't know him, he was not an ordinary man. Raised in an immigrant family from (British) Northern Ireland, he was the first in his family to attend college, wound up earning a doctorate in theology and teaching at Philadelphia College of Bible for 29 years. For years he told me the American cause was not just, but — rebellious teenager as I was — I brushed him off in my youthful arrogance. In the arsenal at his disposal was one paragraph from St. Paul's letter to the Romans. In the long run it was this text that eventually forced me to stop kicking against the goads:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7, NET Bible)
This text would appear, on the face of it, to be straightforward and clear. Yet a number of various proposals have been offered to mitigate its prima facie force. Some modern writers have proposed that the exhortation is situationally-dependent and hence limited to the socio-political context faced by Paul's Roman leaders. Paul, so it is argued, was naive in his praise of the Roman empire because of the grand treatment he supposedly had received from governmental authorities. Moreover, even though Nero was the emperor on the throne at the time, Romans was written during the early, promising years of his reign, before he became the erratic, anti-Christian despot he is infamous for being (recently, e.g., Christopher Bryan, A Preface to Romans: Notes on the Epistle in Its Literary and Cultural Setting [Oxford: OUP, 2000] esp. 205).
Another escape was provided by preachers in colonial America. By and large, when Romans 13 was discussed, such preachers believed that Paul was prohibiting rebellion against the institution of government itself (i.e., the promotion of anarchy) rather than individual rulers themselves (cf. the argument of David Barton here). More recent writers have limited the necessity of obedience to instances in which the governing authorities govern justly, i.e., when they act in accordance with how Paul says they should act in verses 3-4 (for a popular presentation, see Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans [Interpretation; Atlanta: John Knox, 1985] 205).
Paul provides two motivations for such submission in verse 5. First, they should be in subjection “because of wrath” (dia tēn orgēn). Despite the ESV’s interpretational translation, “to avoid God’s wrath,” this almost certainly is a summary of the authorities’ punishing capabilities illustrated by their “bearing the sword” in verse 4. Secondly, and more fundamentally, Christians are to submit “for the sake of conscience” (dia tēn syneidēsin), their recognition of what God wants them to do. As Doug Moo says,
The “necessity” for Christians to submit to government is therefore no mere practical expedient, a means of avoiding punishment; it arises ultimately from insight into God’s providential ordering of human history. (The Epistle to the Romans [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996] 803)
Nevertheless, it would be mistaken to assume that such “submission” always entails obedience to the authorities. Paul, to make his basic point, writes of the authorities as God had, in his common grace, designed human government to be. But he of course, as I asserted earlier, wasn’t so naïve. Indeed, the implied qualification is provided by Luke in Acts 5. When the Jewish authorities tried to prohibit the apostles from proclaiming the message of Jesus Messiah, Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).” There are, as it were, differing levels of authority. Believers, like all people, must place themselves under (hypotassesthō) the ruling authorities, subordinating themselves to their authority. But, as Paul states, these earthly authorities stand under God because they owe their positions to the appointment of God. When conflict arises, believers owe their ultimate allegiance to the highest power, God himself.
Moreover, despite legitimate grievances against the crown, descriptions of George’s “tyranny” often were characterized by typical polemical distortion. As historian Mark Noll has reminded us, King George himself was a Christian who believed himself acting on Christian principles, no matter how, in hindsight, we can demonstrate that he failed to do so. And, as the theologian John Wesley proclaimed at the time, the colonists themselves had no grounds to complain since they refused to pay taxes and hypocritically refused rights to the African slaves they exploited for their own gain.
Political grievances do not justify the taking up of arms. Good ideas — and I repeat, the Fathers had many great ideas which had influence both at home and ultimately in the old country —do not demand rebellion against authorities who don’t espouse them. And the desire for more “freedom” did not justify the loss of 27,000 American and 10,000 British lives on the fields of battle. One cannot but help thinking that, in time, the colonies would have gained their independence peacefully as did both Canada and Australia, both of which have kept their commonwealth ties to the crown. That, I suggest, would have been more in keeping with a genuine Christian worldview and submission to the Scriptures evangelicals claim to be their ultimate authority for doctrine and practice.
That being said, I can now look forward to those grilled burgers and hot dogs …