Should Christians have taken up arms in the American Revolution?
Certainly plenty did, and there were plenty who signed the Declaration of Independence. The first act of the Continental Congress (1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence) was to open their meetings in prayer to consider what they were doing.
But John MacArthur states that this was sinful rebellion, a violation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-25. Any undermining of government authorities is forbidden in Scripture, as the authorities are God-ordained. In contrast, I attended a (large) church recently where the pastor stated that the Declaration of Independence was "God's covenant with America." These positions are obviously contradictory and I believe both are problematic.
Happily, I found that Baylor University's Research on Religion Podcast devoted an episode in 2012 to present three different viewpoints on the American Revolution.
The first point of view is MacArthur's via Greg Frazer of Master's College. He argues a straight biblical viewpoint and disregards any context, legal or historical, in regards to the Revolution. The Founders were as guilty of sin as Bonhoeffer was in trying to undermine the Nazis (to give a modern example). Frazer states that states have the right to go to war with one another (which becomes important in a counter-argument below).
The first opposing viewpoint is from Jonathan der Hertog, who recently published a book entitled Patriotism & Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation.
der Hertog's argument focuses on how pastors and theologians, including George Whitfield, thought and wrote about the Revolution at the time. The Puritans of the American Colonies drew on the writings of their
Calvinist forebears when deciding whether rebellion was justified.
MacArthur et al often espouse the writings of Puritans and early
Calvinists but apparently ignore their theological wrestlings when it
came to the wars they fought in the 1500s and 1600s against their governments (some of which had Calvin's support). der Hertog
points out that John Jay and others, out of their religious convictions,
worked hard on an "olive branch" approach which King George rejected in
favor of war.
An interesting point not drawn out in this episode is that Calvinists fought rebellions against their governments and the state religion in the 1500s in Scotland, France, and the Netherlands. (That is discussed by John Owen IV in this recent episode, it's fascinating).
Mark David Hall focuses more on the legal context, something the pastors of the 1700s were well aware of. 75% of the colonists were of the Reformed tradition and had always (as mentioned above) wrestled with Romans 13:1-3 as it begs the question of what is "legitimate" government, something Thomas Aquinas had written widely influential thoughts on centuries before. King George's rejection of a peaceful solution is important because it was essentially a declaration of war on the colonies. The King withdrew protection from the colonies in violation of their charters, and Parliament had also violated the agreements. In short, the British acted as armed invaders of 13 sovereign states, justifying their self-defense-- something Frazer above grants to sovereign states.
The episode raises a question I wish had been posed to Frazer: Suppose America is invaded by an outside force. Frazer contends that it's just for sovereign states to defend themselves in wars with one another, so Christians would be justified in taking up arms. But what if America's army is defeated and the invader sets up an occupying government, as the Nazis did in Vichy France. At what point would Christians no longer be justified in taking up arms? What if the war simply goes underground in attempt to retain the sovereignty of America, which has significant probability of success? This is where MacArthur's position is problematic and again begs the question as to what "legitimate" government is.
I highly recommend these podcasts and subscribing to it.