“Romans 13 and the Second Amendment”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

Since I moved to Tennessee, one of the most obvious changes in my life has been a greatly increased interest in and appreciation of firearms.  I think that they’re valuable for any number of uses, from hunting to self-defense.

What’s more, I believe that it’s lawful for a Christian to use a firearm to defend innocent life, whether his own or someone else’s, from the lawless.  I argue here that Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek should be read in a context of refusing to resist governmental oppression from the Romans.  Nothing in Scripture prevents a disciple from using weapons for protection from criminals. 

However, this argument has consequences, and it particularly has consequences for our views of whether American Christians have the right to take up arms against an oppressive and tyrannical government.  At least some of the Founding Fathers (most notably Thomas Jefferson) would have argued that we do.  In this case, though, it is the word of God, not the views of the Founders, that must guide our behavior.

Most Christians who have thought about the subject recognize that Romans 13:1-7 is the most relevant text here.  On their face, Paul’s words appear straightforward.  Christians are to submit to the government, full stop.  However, I have heard brethren argue that in the case of the United States, the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment, is the true government.  Thus, Christians can “obey the government” by asserting their Second-Amendment rights against the villains in Washington who want to take away their guns.

There are two problems with this claim.  First, according to constitutional theory, the sovereign of the United States is not the Constitution.  It is the people.  The Constitution is merely an expression of the will of the people, as are the various officials elected and appointed under the Constitution’s terms.  Yes, there are checks and balances built into the Constitution to protect the minority from the majority, but if the people decide that the Second Amendment refers to the National Guard, or that it should be written out of the Constitution altogether, that is the right of the sovereign.

Second, and more tellingly, the Constitution doesn’t fit the definition of “the governing authorities” in Romans 13.  In Romans 13, the government brings wrath on those who practice evil.  It collects taxes.  It demands obedience from its subjects.  The Constitution does none of those things, so it doesn’t make sense to apply Romans 13 to the Constitution.  Instead, the clear modern analogue of the Romans 13 government is. . . our federal, state, and local governments—all those who make, carry out, and interpret the law of the land.  If they say, “Give us your guns!” and we say, “No!”, we are resisting the lawful, God-established government.

Some might argue that Romans 13 does not require Christians to submit to tyranny, but according to our definitions, all the governments of the New Testament were tyrannical.  They beat, imprisoned, and even executed the innocent without a fair trial.  They imposed taxes to which the taxed had not agreed.  The Roman Empire ruled by the swords of the legions, not the consent of the governed.

Oppressive?  Yes.  Unjust?  Yes.  The government to which first-century Christians were to submit?  Also yes.  Indeed, one of the great overlooked themes of the gospels is Jesus’ desperate attempt to persuade the Jews not to take up arms against Rome.  Christians may sometimes be forced to obey God rather than men, but they are not to be the architects of civil disorder.

I sympathize with the Christians who want to hold on to their guns, no matter what.  I think it’s good public policy for them to be allowed to do so, and it accords with the priority that God’s word places on protecting the vulnerable and weak.  When my daughter moves out of my home, I want her to take with her a firearm that she knows how to use, so that she can defend herself in the hour of desperate need. 

However, our hope is not and must not be founded on these things.  If we are blessed with the opportunity to live under a just and well-ordered government, we ought to be thankful.  If we are not, we must remember that God, not ourselves, is our ultimate hope for justice.  If we assert our rights at the expense of honoring Him, we will have made a bad bargain.