Revolution. The word often conjures images of bloody battles, angry mobs, and dramatic political upheavals. Throughout history, revolutions have toppled governments, sparked civil wars, and led to massive societal changes.
But what does the Bible have to say about revolution? As Christians, how should we understand and respond to revolutions happening around us? In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore the biblical perspective on revolution by looking at key passages, theological principles, and real-world applications.
Revolution inevitably involves upending authority structures and using violence to achieve political or social change. Because of this, Christians have long wrestled with whether participating in or supporting revolutions is ethical or permitted by Scripture.
On the one hand, passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 seem to argue against rebelling against governing authorities. The Bible calls Christians to submit to earthly rulers, who are instituted by God. On the other hand, there are examples in Scripture of righteous people resisting or overthrowing corrupt regimes that opposed God’s purposes. From Moses leading the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery to the Maccabees revolting against the Seleucid dynasty, God’s people have at times rebelled against unjust rulers.
So what is the proper Christian perspective on revolution? Below are key takeaways on this complex issue:
- While Scripture calls Christians to submit to governing authorities, there are exceptions when obedience to God requires resisting or replacing tyrannical rulers.
- Violent revolution should be an absolute last resort after non-violent options have been exhausted.
- If participation in a revolution is necessary, Christians should ensure their motives align with justice and biblical principles rather than selfish ambition or vengeance.
- God is sovereign over all earthly powers, so Christians should avoid trusting entirely in military might or revolutionary fervor for social change.
- There are examples of ungodly revolutions in Scripture, so the goals and means of a revolution must be carefully evaluated.
- Christians should focus more effort on being peacemakers and good citizens, while still advocating for justice within their societies.
- Ultimately, Christians belong to God’s eternal kingdom, so earthly revolutions should be viewed in light of eternity.
By exploring biblical principles, Old and New Testament examples, and practical applications, we can gain wisdom for how Christians should view revolutions in our age. While conclusions may differ on when revolutionary force is justifiable, God’s people must seek His heart on these complex matters.
Governing Authorities Established by God
A key passage on a Christian’s response to authority structures is Romans 13:1-7, where Paul urges followers of Jesus to submit to governing authorities. He provides theological reasoning for this command:
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2 NKJV)
Paul argues that since all authority derives from God, rebelling against governing powers is equivalent to rebelling against God’s plan. He warns that resisting authorities can lead to judgment.
In 1 Peter 2:13-17, Peter echoes Paul’s exhortation to “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors”. Like Paul, Peter roots his command in theology about authority, explaining that kings and governors are “sent by [God] for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good”.
These passages build upon Old Testament texts commanding God’s people to honor their rulers. In Jeremiah 29:7, for example, Israelites living under Babylonian captivity are told to “seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace”.
So according to Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and other biblical texts, governing authorities derive their legitimacy from God. Christians are called to honor this divinely-ordained arrangement by submitting to their leaders, even if those leaders are pagan. This principle clearly argues against the idea of lightly rebelling against the powers that be.
Exceptions: When Obedience to God Requires Resistance
While Romans 13 and other passages call for submitting to authorities, there are exceptions in Scripture where believers resisted or rebelled against corrupt regimes for obedience to God. In these cases, the governing powers had overstepped their rightful authority by commanding people to directly disobey God.
The book of Exodus provides the foremost example of righteous resistance against tyrannical rulers. Under the oppressive regime of Pharaoh, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, forced into hard labor and robbed of dignity. Moses led the people to seek freedom, appealing to Pharaoh many times to let God’s people go worship in the wilderness. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused, God sent miraculous plagues on Egypt before empowering the Israelites to escape by parting the Red Sea.
The book of Daniel provides another example of resisting earthly authorities. When king Darius signed a decree declaring it illegal to pray to any god or man other than the king, Daniel boldly defied the order, continuing to pray three times a day to God. He willingly accepted punishment by being thrown into a lions’ den as a result of his disobedience. But God protected Daniel due to his faithfulness.
In the New Testament, the book of Acts records the Apostles disobeying local authorities by continuing to preach about Jesus, in defiance of orders to stop. When challenged, Peter declared “We ought to obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). The Apostles understood the Great Commission from Jesus took priority over submitting to earthly prohibitions against evangelism.
These examples reveal that there are biblical exceptions to submitting fully to governing powers. However, several cautions should be made about using these stories to justify revolution. First, non-violent forms of resistance like prayer, preaching, and explanation of motives should be exercised before escalating to violence. Daniel and the Apostles risked punishment without taking up arms. Second, the evil of the regime must be clear and obedience to God undeniable for resistance to be valid. And third, even biblically-justified resistance does not guarantee earthly success or protection from consequences. God may allow evil regimes to persist for His sovereign purposes.
Violent Revolution Only as Last Resort
Once all non-violent options have been exhausted, could armed revolution be an appropriate response to tyranny? This question has been vigorously debated throughout church history, with a range of perspectives on how Christians should respond to this dilemma.
Noted philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued against violent uprising except under extreme conditions where the tyrannical ruler becomes a “public tyrant” by promoting widespread atrocities against the population. Reformer John Calvin opposed private rebellion but allowed for lesser magistrates to resist an ungodly ruler to protect innocent citizens. And Puritan theologians believed armed resistance could be appropriate after lesser magistrates fail to restrain tyranny and all peaceful options are blocked.
During the American Revolution, pastors such as John Witherspoon argued that the colonies were justified in taking up arms against Great Britain’s unjust policies after exhausting other options. In recent decades, some Christians have advocated for non-violence in all cases, citing Jesus’ example and the importance of loving one’s enemies. Others argue revolution can be warranted in certain contexts as a last option after peaceful means are exhausted.
There are biblical examples of both violent and non-violent forms of resistance to authority. Moses led an armed revolt against Egypt after prolonged pleas for freedom were denied. Esther intervened through peaceful appeal to King Ahasuerus to save the Jews from genocide. Neither option should be categorically ruled out. However, violent revolution contains inherent dangers for abuse and falls short of Jesus’ example of loving enemies. It merits consideration only as an absolute final option in extreme cases of tyranny.
Ensuring Biblically Justified Motives
Prior to engaging in any revolt against rulers, Christians have a solemn duty to rigorously examine their motives. Scripture warns that the “heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9 NKJV) and rebellion often stems from unchecked sinful desires rather than righteous motives.
The Apostle Paul cautions in Romans 13:9 against resistance driven by evil: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Throughout history, some revolutions have been driven by unbiblical motives like greed, pride, or revenge. Christians must guard against this temptation by aligning their motives with biblical values like justice, righteousness, and care for the vulnerable. Selfish ambition has no place in righteous resistance.
Rather than being motivated by hatred, Christians involved in revolution should emulate Jesus’ example on the cross by praying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” on behalf of their oppressors. A spirit of grace and reconciliation should permeate biblical resistance.
Of course, no resistance effort will be perfect or free of sinful motivations. But Scripture calls Christians to diligently inspect their own hearts as well as build accountability systems to identify potential blind spots or self-deception that could undermine the righteousness of revolutionary causes.
God’s Sovereignty Over All Earthly Powers
A key biblical truth that should shape a Christian perspective on revolution is God’s sovereignty. Scripture declares God “removes kings and raises up kings” (Daniel 2:21) and “the Most High rules the kingdom of mankind and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:17). Earthly rulers only have power because God permits it. This truth puts earthly revolutions in proper perspective.
Revolutionaries often place excessive confidence in their own strength or righteousness instead of recognizing that outcomes depend fully on God’s sovereign plan. God may allow unrighteous powers to remain in place for years, despite even biblically justified resistance efforts. Christians must avoid coupling revolutionary zeal with the attitude that throwing off tyrants depends on human might alone.
Rather than autonomously pursuing revolution, believers should seek God’s will with humility, recognizing He may have purposes for allowing persecution or injustice for a season. Nonetheless, Christians can have bold faith that God hears their prayers and can supernaturally remove even the most entrenched rulers in accordance with His perfect will.
Examples of Ungodly Revolutions in Scripture
Not all revolutions in Scripture aligned with God’s kingdom values. Absalom wickedly rebelled against his father King David’s regime out of pride and ambition. Jereboam rebelled against Solomon’s son Rehoboam for selfish gain rather than righteous motives. And the Corinthians violently deposed Crispus for self-seeking reasons that Paul condemned as error.
These examples reveal revolution can be driven by unrighteous motives and execute unwise strategies contrary to God’s will. Before participating in revolts, Christians must perform careful biblical analysis of both goals and means. Is the purpose of the revolution clearly just? Do the strategies align with ethical principles like protecting innocent life? Egregious sins of the past like violent mob hysteria or summary executions without fair trials must be studiously avoided.
Christians have sometimes been too simplistic in supporting revolutionary movements based on their appeal or success alone. But prayerful discernment is required. Scripture gives examples of ungodly motives tainting even the most outwardly righteous-seeming rebellion. Applying biblical wisdom is essential for avoiding repeating the errors of the past.
Balance of Justice and Order
Given the complexities of applying biblical teaching on revolution, Christians striving to be faithful citizens in imperfect societies must find creative ways to advocate for justice while emphasizing social order. There is a time for resolute resistance against tyrannical powers, but typically consistent, moderate reform efforts bear more lasting fruit.
Christians can follow the model of early abolitionists persistently opposing slavery through economic boycotts, publications, and civil discourse over decades. Pressure for change applied through ethical business practices or civic involvement may not be as immediately sensational as armed revolt, but often does more to bend the “arc of justice” in the long term.
Living as salt and light with biblical ethics frequently says more to transform society than revolutionary zeal. The Christian’s witness is fidelity to conscience under unjust regimes, while avoiding perpetuating bloody cycles of violence and revenge. As Hugh Latimer wrote to Thomas Cromwell, the Christian’s weapon is patience, not sword or anger. Christians promote lasting change by faithful presence amid injustice more than force.
Heavenly Citizenship and Perspective
As believers in Jesus, Christians are citizens of an eternal kingdom that far supersedes any earthly nation. Our ultimate hope is the new creation free from injustice, oppression, and corruption. This heavenly perspective puts any earthly revolution in sobering context. It reminds Christians that no earthly authority can extinguish the Church of Jesus Christ.
The book of Revelation portrays the inevitability of God finally overthrowing the corrupted kingdoms of this world to establish His reign forever. All dictatorships or tyrannical human regimes will one day collapse and be replaced by Christ’s perfect rule. This certain eschatological hope provides patience under injustice and courage to abide in God’s will.
Our heavenly citizenship also means no earthly revolution should be viewed as the ultimate solution to injustice. Sinful human hearts mean even the most well-meaning revolution will be tainted by partial perspectives, unjust implementation, and power abuses. Only when Christ returns will perfect justice emerge. In the meantime, Christians work for relative justice while pointing to the hope of final divine revolution.
With this sweeping biblical foundation laid, what are some practical applications for modern Christians weighing issues of justice and revolution?
First, Christians should emphasize prayer when faced with tyranny or persecution. Only God can ultimately remove oppressive powers or change sinful human hearts. Appeals to heaven have often spurred reform without violence, from the English abolitionist movement to courageous prayer during communist rule in Eastern Europe.
Second, Christians should actively practice peacemaking in their circle of influence, whether family relationships, friendships, church communities or professional roles. Becoming an ambassador of reconciliation addresses injustice at its roots in individual hearts. Expanding the spheres of healthy relationships and ethical influence does much to build a more just society.
Third, good citizenship should be exercised using legal means like voting, civic involvement, or non-violent activism to pursue change. Christians can follow biblical principles like protecting life by opposing abortion or care for creation by advocating sustainable policies. There are many avenues to be salt and light by ethical citizenship.
Fourth, Christians should serve the vulnerable, following Jesus’ example of special care for the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Meeting needs through ministries of mercy demonstrates God’s love while addressing inequities.
Fifth, in cases of egregious tyranny where all appeals fail, non-violent resistance following the model of civil disobedience pioneered by believers like Martin Luther King, Jr. can be warranted as a final alternative to armed rebellion. Mass refusal to cooperate with immoral orders can awaken conscience without bloodshed.
In summary, Scripture provides wisdom for when revolutionary fervor arises. By emphasizing prayer, peacemaking, ethical citizenship, service, and civil disobedience over violence, Christians can be salt and light amid injustice. While imperfect, biblical principles provide guidance for these complex realities.
Revolution is a complex subject that elicits strong emotions. Scripture does not give a simple answer to when revolt against governing authorities is justified. While passages call Christians to submit to rulers, there are examples of righteous resistance when obedience to God required opposing regimes that commanded sin. Wise voices across church history have proposed principles for when violent uprising could be an appropriate last resort after all peaceful alternatives fail.
As Christians navigate revolutionary times, we must have personal humility recognizing limitations of perspective. Our motives must be examined thoroughly for righteousness. And our actions must be drenched in prayer and faith rather than trust in human strength alone. Revolution holds inherent dangers of unrighteous responses to injustice, so caution is needed. But with wisdom and Spirit guidance, biblical principles can be applied to even the most extreme tensions between authority structures and God’s people. Our hope ultimately rests in God’s sovereignty and His promise to make all wrongs right in His perfect timing.