The War for American Independence began April 19, 1775. It seemed to be both unwanted and inevitable. Tensions had been rising for years, and there had been no resolution to what most American Colonists considered abuses of authority by King George III’s government. Despite a general consensus and shared outrage about the Crown’s disregard for their rights, the Colonials were deeply divided over the best course of action. Some railed for the Colonies to govern themselves independently of the British king, while others considered such a move rash, foolish, dangerous, and untenable. Nonetheless, when “the shot heard ‘round the world” rang out at the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, the die had been cast.
A year later, the document we know as the Declaration of Independence was drafted, being adopted by the Second Continental Congress with the passing of the Lee Resolution for independence on July 2, 1776. The Declaration was ratified on July 4, 1776—our nation’s official “birthday”—though the actual signing of the document would not take place until August 2. A new nation, the United States of America, was born, though its battle for independence would continue until 1783.
It is worth noting that our founders were quite conscientious about not promoting mere rebellion or anarchy. They believed in proper government and ordered society, but they held that the authority of any government originated in the consent of the governed, which was not uniquely American and had already been a long-held value in England. As the Patriots now declared in writing, they collectively held “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”
They further acknowledged that, by reason of Natural Law, government ought to be a just and righteous endeavor, and that both men and governments bear some natural and interdependent responsibility toward one another. For this reason, the Declaration of Independence begins by admitting that no nation exists in absolute independence; rather, it is right and good to give explanation for the necessary casting-off of existing forms and bodies of government. So begins the opening paragraph:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Though this new nation had won its independence from British rule, the fight for survival was far from over. With the resources and might of the Empire no longer behind it, the fledgling American government found independence a rather onerous burden. As an independent nation, the United States now bore the sole and absolute responsibility for its success—its defense, laws, guidance, morality, religious beliefs and practices, economy, et al. There was no “plan B”; the weight of glory and shame now fell entirely on American shoulders…stand or fall, live or die. It was fully theirs not only to ensure the continuance of the union, but to form a noble, just—indeed, a more perfect—union. If our current Constitution had not replaced the original Articles of Confederation in 1789, the American experiment in ordered liberty would have died in its infancy.
Whether nations or individuals, there are many ways in which independence is virtuous, empowering, and noble. Every child must gain increasing levels of independence to grow to maturity. Nonetheless, in all cases, independence invariably carries with it the weight of responsibility. A child enjoys the wonderful benefit of living under the guidance, provision, and protection of its parents; however, the relationship is by definition one of dependence, and the parent has expectations of the child that must be met. In a healthy family, those expectations are for the good of both the child and the society in which it lives. The parents are responsible for the welfare and upbringing of the child. For this reason, when a minor child commits a socially unacceptable or destructive act, the parents bear the social and financial responsibility for it.
God built His created order around the interconnected ideas of authority and submission, and within this framework we find the ideas of freedom, responsibility, dependence, and independence. All of Creation operates by and seeks to balance these principles. To that end, the Lord ordains ordered human relationships to carry out His purposes for the good of His people and the glory of His name. This is seen not only in governments, but in the family, the church, business, and civic organizations…it seems hard-wired in the human soul.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13:1-2 NIV)
In our society, and sadly within the church, we have too often misconstrued the nature of authority and submission, thus corrupting the principles that relate to and flow from such relationships. In so doing, we distort our picture of God’s own nature and His relationship to His people. Even we who recognize the importance of subjecting ourselves to rightful authority tend to bristle at the actual application of it. We have come to prize an Americanized sense of freedom and independence over the clear teaching of Scripture, and even then, our ideas of freedom and independence fail to reflect the broader, more reasonable perspective our forebears had…a perspective that understood that absolute independence exists only in theory and that authority has more to do with responsibility than power or status. Whenever and wherever this perspective is lost or perverted—as it is today and was in many ways among even the greatest of our founders—authority is invariably abused and those under authority invariably chafe against it.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:25-28 NIV)
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)
It is the role of those in authority to serve and protect those whom God has placed in their care. In every situation, that is the heart and purpose of God-given authority: bearing responsibility before God for the care and protection of others. Governments, supervisors, husbands, parents, and (as the writer of Hebrews points out above) church leaders are to watch over those with whose welfare the Lord has entrusted them. Authority is first and foremost a trust—a responsibility—not position, status, or clout. Therefore, God-given authority must be driven by God-reflecting love for those under our care. In the same way and for the same reason, respect for and submission to rightful authority is God-pleasing; it is ultimately to be recognized as submitting to God through His delegated authority.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior…. (1 Timothy 2:1-3 NIV)
It is natural for us to resist authority. It is deeply planted in the heart of flesh and specifically cultivated in the fertile soil of the American psyche. Nonetheless, God calls those who belong to Him to a supernatural (i.e., beyond our fleshly nature, beyond our natural tendencies) life in Christ. We choose to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). Our choice to humble ourselves in submission to the will of someone to whom we are innately equal reflects the character and submissive obedience of Jesus Himself (Philippians 2:5-8).
Whatever particular role the Lord has called us to, we are all under the authority of someone else, and we have all been given a measure of authority over someone else as delegated by the Lord Himself. Let us bear the burdens of both authority and submission as those who do so in the name of Christ and for His glory, remembering that it is ultimately God we are serving as we learn to serve one another in love. In this way, we reflect the reality of Christ through relationships.