Bercot God We Don't Trust

Was the American Revolution Sinful? – A Review of David Bercot’s In God We Don’t Trust

After a deep study of the early church’s beliefs and practices, David Bercot joined the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists have historically taken a strong stance on Christian separation from government and taught that believers are called to nonviolence. As a result of his research, Bercot has written many fascinating and helpful books that urge Christians to follow the model of the early church, such as A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs and Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?

One of his more provocative books, especially for conservative and libertarian Christians, is In God We Don’t Trust. It takes a close look at America’s founding, examining patriotic claims that the United States began as a godly, Christian nation. In Bercot’s reading, the colonists’ grievances against England were illegitimate; but even if they had been legitimate, it would not have justified their rebellion. Bercot’s argument in this regard hinges upon traditional readings of two New Testament passages: Matthew 22:15-22 and Romans 13:1-7.

Render Unto Caesar

Matthew 22:15-22 gives an account of a trap set for Jesus by the Pharisees and Herodians. They asked Him in front of a crowd, “what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” Jesus’ previous teaching had obviously conflicted with loyalty to Caesar, but He hadn’t yet told His hearers to be outright disobedient or seditious to the Roman empire. If His opponents could corner Him into seditious speech, they could call Him a rebel and sicc the empire on Him. But if He backed down and said that Jews should obey Caesar, He would lose His sway with the crowd. So, He told them to take out a coin and asked whose likeness was on it. They admitted that it was Caesar’s. Jesus’ classic response followed: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus had avoided their trap by not coming down on either side. Or had He? 

Bercot’s tidy summary of the lesson of this passage is, “Jesus made it clear that His followers must even pay taxes that are unjust or oppressive.” In other words, Jesus fell right into their trap by siding with Caesar. This is largely in line with the traditional reading of this passage–that your spirit belongs to God but your body belongs to the state. Therefore, you cannot refuse any request the state makes of you, apart from perhaps certain commands which would require sin on your part. But it is surprisingly Augustine of Hippo, usually counted on to defend pro-government readings of Scripture, who gives the correct pushback:
“Caesar seeks his image; render it. God seeks his image; render it. Do not withhold from Caesar his coin. Do not keep from God his coin. To this they could not think of anything to answer. For they had been sent to slander him. And they went back saying: No one could answer him. Why? Because he had shattered their teeth in their mouth” (On the Psalms, 58.8).

In other words, Caesar minted the coin and gave it out. It belongs to him. So give it back. But humans are made in God’s image. Therefore we belong to God, not to Caesar. Caesar thus has no claim on our bodies, but only his property.

Established by God?

A more central text for Bercot is Romans 13:1-7. In it, Paul advises the Roman church “to be subject to the governing authorities.” Why? Because, “there is no authority except from God.” Since God has ordained all political authority, this means all authority is inherently good and always does what is just. Or as Paul wrote, “rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same.”

Here is Bercot’s conclusion about this passage:

“There it is in black and white. Christians do not have the right to resist or overthrow their government. That passage is so specific and clear that there’s no room to wiggle around it. Few commandments in the New Testament are as explicit. ”
There are three problems with Bercot’s conclusion:

  1. If Paul was being serious–if there is truly no wiggle room in this text–then he was either crazy or a liar. He knew full well from personal experience and from the experiences of his people that rulers were a cause of fear for those who did good. The state often harmed those who were in the right and rewarded those who were evil. This should cause us to stop and wonder if Paul intended to use irony or sarcasm to make a subtle point that his Christian readers would understand but the Roman authorities might not–that the civil order claims to be righteous and that God even demands that it ought to do what is just, but that it often doesn’t actually do it. As a result, its rulers will be held accountable by God for this discrepancy. The fact that in the verses immediately prior Romans 13, Paul cites Deuteronomy 32, a passage wherein God promises to punish evil pagan nations like Rome for their wicked behavior, should clue us in to the reality that Paul does not actually believe that Rome is not a threat to Christians.
  2. Bercot is not an absolutist about obedience to the state. As an Anabaptist, he opposes Christians fighting in wars even when explicitly commanded to by authorities. If there truly is no wiggle room in Romans 13, then he should abandon his Anabaptist convictions and serve the state since its commands actually come from God.
  3. And finally, Bercot’s argument takes into account only one of the biblical claims about the origin of governments.

Bercot is quick to poo-poo Jefferson’s claim that humans institute government for their own protection, arguing that, “the Bible teaches that God is the ultimate authority for human governments… Governments do not derive ‘their just powers from the consent of the governed.’ They derive their powers from God.”

For Bercot, there is only one source of human governments–God. But the Bible paints a more complicated picture. While God is seen as ultimately sovereign over all kingdoms and events, and Romans 13 seems to suggest that God at least ordains that there be a social order to maintain some semblance of peace and justice, there are two other factors that shape the political realm. One is human, and the other is demonic.

The first example of a political order in the Bible is the tower of Babel (Genesis 11). It emerged from the “mighty hunter” Nimrod and was intended to bring about a one world government that was so powerful it might even displace God. God apparently did not ordain this order because he confounded the purposes of its leaders, resulting in its dissolution. While the Bible speaks of empires rising and falling through the violence of conquerors, one doesn’t need to read Scripture to understand that government is essentially the violent rule of a few over a large mass. Order and civilization is sometimes stated to be the primary goal of these rulers, but just as often their motivations are primarily selfish. Despite the claims of Caesars to want to bring peace and order to the world through violent conquest, their actions often betrayed pride and avarice as their true inspirations. They achieve power not because God supports their violence and self-idolatry, but because they are willing to destroy their fellow man to gain authority over him.

Bercot seems confused on this point. He accuses conservative American Christians of adopting “medieval, superstitious thinking” when they claim that the colonists winning the war proved that God was on their side. “In short,” he reasons:

“victory in war does not equate with God’s approval. Obviously, nothing happens anywhere without God’s permissive will. But because God allows something to happen does not mean that He approves of it. Otherwise, we would have to say that God has approved of every murder, torture, theft, injustice, assault, crime, and massacre that has ever occurred. So let’s not resort to Dark Ages thinking.”

However, this is precisely what Bercot does when he says that Americans today must obey the God-ordained American government! The revolutionists won the war–a war which Bercot argues was unjust, immoral, and criminal–and thus we must obey the American government and not the British since it is the former who are the ministers of God in the American territory. Bercot engages in the very superstitious rationalization that he accuses his ideological opponents of.

In addition to the human and divine actors on the world’s geopolitical stage, the Bible also argues that there is an infernal order working behind the scenes. The Old Testament discusses the existence of high level spiritual beings called “sons of God.” These beings were placed over the nations when God adopted Israel as His special people (see Deuteronomy 32:8-9 in conjunction with Genesis 10-11). At some point, they became corrupted and chose to direct the nations in opposition to God’s purposes (Daniel 10). In Psalm 82, God promises that He will one day judge these beings for their wickedness.

In the New Testament, Satan is presented as the leader of the corrupted spiritual beings, referred to as “the god of this world” by Jesus, and affirmed to be the puppet master behind all political power on earth (Luke 4:5-7, John 12:31, Revelation 12-13). Paul’s terms for these corrupted sons of God are “powers and principalities” and he sees them as, in some important sense, defeated by Jesus (Colossians 2:15).

Since we can say with confidence that Paul did not believe that the government always does what’s right, and because as a dutiful student of Scripture he understood that governments also derived from human and demonic maneuvering, we cannot conclude with Bercot that, without qualification, “if we resist governmental authority, we are resisting ‘the ordinance of God.’”

In fact, even Bercot does not really believe this. Let’s follow his argument to its logical conclusion. If individual governments are instituted by God and only do what is good, as Paul claims in Romans 13, then the government should never be disobeyed. But Bercot doesn’t believe such poppycock. His Anabaptist heritage informs him that Christians should never, for instance, worship Caesar or kill for him as soldiers or executioners. If one were to resist an order from a corrupt state to become a soldier to rape, pillage, and kill, surely such a one would not be “resisting the ordinance of God!” Bercot knows this and acknowledges it, but his simplistic, unbiblical reading of Romans 13 prevents him from articulating it properly.

While Christians should seek to keep the peace in the country where they sojourn as exiles, and indeed should also obey just laws and even burdensome unjust laws where they can be borne, let us never pretend for even a moment that those who organized the gulags and concentration camps were simply executing the orders of our holy and righteous God.

Rebellion to Tyrants as Obedience to God?

Bercot raises many fine points in In God We Don’t Trust. As Christians, especially if we’re Americans, we need to wrestle with them. Would obedience to King George have been a more faithful route to take in order to keep the peace? Is violence and warfare ever an acceptable path for Christians? And perhaps most crucially Christians who want to take seriously what it means to be in “the Kingdom of God”, when is nonviolent disobedience to man’s systems actually obedience to God?

From a theological vantage point, where the book falls short is in its simplistic understanding of God’s sovereignty–an understanding that Scripture itself, read contextually, militates against. From a biblical perspective, our obedience to the state is not ideological, but strategic. We are not citizens of an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly one. We do not bear the mark of Caesar, but of our God. Nevertheless, we follow Jesus’ command to suffer faithfully in order to not cause unnecessary offense (Matthew 17:27) and to obey human rulers whenever possible because our God desires for there to be a just order (Romans 13:1). However, this also means disobeying when that order becomes evil–a concession that Bercot is willing to make in very limited circumstances, but does not give the proper theological foundation for.

Knowing that governments are also ordained by men and Satan should give us pause about obeying them always. We are called as Christians to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), but we can only make this distinction if we understand that rulers are sometimes in fact a cause of fear for those who do good.