In his recent interview on the Ben Shapiro Show, pastor John MacArthur responded to Shapiro’s question regarding the biblical justification of rebellion against civil government, in particular with reference to the American Revolution:
Governmental authority is a God-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior. . . . They represent a God-given constraint to human behavior. And that’s why they need 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. . . . 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 who are over us. . . . We do not overthrow them.
When pushed by Shapiro on the question of whether there was ever a justifiable revolution against a tyrannical authority, MacArthur responds unequivocally with “not in a biblical sense, no.”
MacArthur’s pacifistic rhetoric clearly hints at the Christian counter-revolutionary ideals of the post-Enlightenment era, but sadly reflects what has become a common misrepresentation of the classical counter-revolutionary position that emerged in opposition to the revolutionary political manifestation of the Enlightenment in France in 1789 and in many European nations in its aftermath in the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. It is certainly true that the counter-revolutionaries valued societal stability (which worthwhile political theorist doesn’t?) and that it blamed the political tumult at the time on the Enlightenment revolutionaries. The theme of order and tradition versus chaos and radical change played a decisive role in their writings as well. However, this was only one argument used by the traditionalist counter-revolutionaries in the nineteenth century to defend their philosophical position, which was based in their understanding of the transcendent and aimed at something far greater.
The primary sources reveal that the fathers of conservatism had something very different from the evangelical pacifism we see nowadays. The counter-revolutionary position entailed, first and foremost, an opposition to revolution as an epistemic shift in the societal conscience away from the recognition of the transcendent authority of God, the Creator and Ruler of the universe, whose will is revealed in Scripture and nature. This epistemic shift has inevitable sociopolitical implications. Accordingly, societally disruptive events like the French Revolution are merely the consequence and manifestation of the real revolution, which already took place in the hearts and minds of the people. For the counter-revolutionaries, the “Revolution” they opposed was essentially epistemic antagonism to the teachings of historical Christianity and the nature of created reality.
Edmund Burke, for example, referred to the French Revolution as a “barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings.” This points to the philosophical nature of his opposition to the very ideas of the revolution as at the heart of the political tumult, rather than merely appealing for order and stability.
The Dutch Reformed counter-revolutionary political theorist Groen van Prinsterer, in employing the distinction between a liberal revolution and a conservative anti-revolution, could in turn positively refer to the Brabant (or “Belgian”) Revolution of 1790 as a Christian traditionalist political revolution, due to the anti-Enlightenment and therefore “Anti-Revolutionary” spirit that informed it. He explains the epistemic – as opposed to merely political – nature of his anti-revolutionary position in his magnum opus, Unbelief and Revolution:
By “Revolution” I do not mean one of the many historical events whereby in a given state the public authority is replaced by another, also not simply the tumultuous upheaval in France, but the entire change in thinking and attitude in the process of forsaking and scorning of the older principles revealed by Christianity. These revolutionary ideas are their principles of liberty and equality, human sovereignty, the social contract and conventional re-constitutionalization.
Understanding this requires one to embrace a radically different concept of Christian counter-revolutionary than that espoused by John MacArthur. Being a counter-revolutionary means opposing egalitarianism, licentiousness, abstract theories of law, human attempts to overthrow God’s authority, etc., but it certainly does not entail being anti-violence, nor does it always forbid the overthrow of those in authority. It is fundamentally concerned not about the authority and power of the government, but the authority of God. The Christian isn’t to stand by and passively tolerate godless governments when they rebel against God’s law – in fact, that would be fundamentally opposed to the counter-revolutionary position, because it would amount to a failure to counter the revolution against God’s authority. To be a counter-revolutionary in the sense MacArthur is advocating, is to confuse Marxism for Christianity. In the Christian view, the government is a servant of God, and servants are not to rebel against their legitimate masters.
There are, sadly, times in history where there are neither peaceful nor democratic solutions to very serious problems. In such cases, it is vital for the army of Christ – which is not for nothing called the church militant – to resist and, if need be, take up the sword against tyranny and injustice. In these unfortunate circumstances Christians have to act in what can best be described in a political sense as “revolutionary,” while remaining fundamentally counter-revolutionary on an epistemic level.
While we must always pray for circumstances to never reach such a point, one of the unfortunate scenarios which might require such drastic action is in formerly white nations where demographic replacement leads to the active suppression of white Christians as a minority in their own country. For dire circumstances such as these, it is valuable to revisit the Christian theory of lawful resistance against tyrannical governments as set out in the sixteenth century Huguenot treatise, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants).
In a follow-up piece I aim to look at the establishment of an actual counter-revolutionary state in twentieth-century Europe, which would never have come into existence, nor have survived for the time that it did, had it embraced the pacifism of the neo-evangelicalism of MacArthur and ilk.