This article continues a series of weekly posts originally authored by David Lipscomb, an important figure in the Churches of Christ in the 1800s. Learn more about Lipscomb’s background here and here, and see other references to him on LCI here. The series is titled “The Church of Christ and World-Powers”, and it was also originally published as a series of 18 articles in The Gospel Advocate in 1866. (To read from the beginning of the series, start here.)
A common objection to the idea that the state is founded in rebellion against God is the language of the Bible describing various kings and leaders as “God’s servants” or “ministers”. Romans 13 can be included as one of these texts. But do such verses justify their actions? Lipscomb argues that such texts do not, making a similar argument to my own work on Romans 13 (which admittedly is inspired in part by Lipscomb and others). He notes that while faithful Christians are not fit to act as vessels of God’s punishment, many tyrants can be. Indeed, even the Satan is a “minister” in this respect. Nonetheless, the examples of Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, and others clearly show that God intends to punish them as well. They did not act as God’s “ministers” because they were pious and faithful, but because God “overruled” them for his purposes. They are not justified to do violence and wage war at all, and they will be held to account.
So, God’s holy people are not vessels of wrath. Lipscomb concludes his article with a further argument regarding the Christian’s participation in civic affairs. The typical argument is that Christians should be promoting God’s ordinances and servants, the state is God’s servant, therefore Christians need to participate in the state. Lipscomb’s rebuttal is that this is incorrect on multiple levels. First, not every ordinance of God is a good in and of itself, but only for the purpose for which God ordained it. Second, to go beyond the “approval limits” of what God has ordained is to make a grave error. I remain not entirely convinced that Lipscomb’s logic holds perfectly for any and all “participation” in civil government, but the warning should be well taken nonetheless.
The Church of Christ and World-Powers (14) — David Lipscomb in The Gospel Advocate, November 20, 1866, pp. 737-739.
Again, in the 25th chapter, 9th verse of Jeremiah, “Behold, I will send and take all the families of the North, saith the Lord, and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, “my servant,” and will bring them against the land, and against the inhabitants thereof, and against all these nations round about,” &c.; “and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when the seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, for their iniquity,” &c. Now this Nebuchadnezzar is called God’s servant, and yet he immediately adds that he would punish this king and his nation when he had accomplished the punishment of Judea and the other nations. The seventy years of punishment and captivity to the Jews are completed, for the accomplishment of which God uses Nebuchadnezzar as his “servant.” And the time for the punishment of Babylon for its iniquities has come.
In the 51st chapter, 34th verse of Jeremiah the counts of her indictment are being made out by Jehovah, chief among them is the following: “Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, hath devoured me, he hath crushed me, he hath made me an empty vessel, he hath swallowed me up like a dragon,” &c. “For this Babylon shall become heaps, a dwelling place for dragons, an astonishment and a hissing, without inhabitant,” 37th verse. Here Nebuchadnezzar is used as a servant or minister of God in punishing his disobedient children and wicked opposers, to be in turn utterly destroyed for doing the very work which God overruled as service to him. A similar instance is given, 10th chapter 5th verse of Isaiah, with the reason or explanation of such dealing. “O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread down like the mire of the streets. Howbeit he meaneth not so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few.” Here God uses the Assyrian as his minister or servant in punishing wickedness and rebellion against him as a revenger to execute wrath. But he significantly adds: “Howbeit he thinketh not so,” that is, the Assyrian was not punishing them, because of their rebellion against God, for God was not in all his thoughts – he was a wicked idolator, a blood-thirsty, ambitious despot, who had “it in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few.” The simple truth is, the Jews have rebelled against God’s authority, other nations have become wicked beyond endurance. God determines to punish them.
An humble, pious worshipper of God has no heart for such a work – it would be to punish him to impose the work upon him, he is unfitted in character for the inflicting such sore destruction. But God finds a wicked, blood-thirsty tyrant, panting to bathe his sword in blood, to destroy his neighbors and extend his own inquisitions rule. God simply overrules this wicked disposition and so directs it, that in the exercise of its cruel ambition it results in the punishment and destruction of those whom God has determined to punish and destroy. God has not made him wicked, but finds an instrument in character – fitted for the performance of a work which the rebellion of man has made necessary to be performed, and he overrules that wicked man to the accomplishment of the desired work. Thus the wicked are the sword of the Lord, Psalm 17:13. Thus too, they are used as his ministers, yet are not his approved subjects. A similar minister was Pharaoh, was Cyrus, whom God calls “his Anointed, whose right hand I have holden to subdue nations before him,” Isaiah 45:1. Yet he was no true subject of God, but a wicked idolator. Such a minister was Nero, and that long catalogue of “God’s ministers, revengers to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The major premise – the lending predicate of the proposition is untrue if the Bible be true.
We might even go further than this. Jesus Christ is the minister of God to encourage and nurture virtue, truth, purity, and holiness. But God has also another minister different in character, to perform a different work. The work of punishing the wicked and rebellious spirits, of continually stirring up the fires of God’s unquenchable wrath, is utterly incompatible with the meek, lowly, self-sacrificing spirit of the Son of God. He and his attending angels could leave the realms of light and come to this world of sin and sorrow to lift man’s hopes upward, to rescue him from the dark abode of misery and death, beyond this world, and to help him upward to Heaven and happiness. But to descend into the dark abode of the damned, to torment the soul of the fallen forever, would have been to have themselves become the recipients of unabating woe. God has indicted no such punishment upon them, but he finds a wicked spirit, the Devil, with his attending fiends suited in character for the work, which the sins of the human family make necessary. To him and his associate demons, the Lord assigns the work of punishing the persistently rebellious, and in the performance of this work, they are his “servants.” “God’s ministers attending continually upon this very thing,” yet they are not his approved subjects. The leading predicate of the proposition is necessarily untrue, and the conclusion altogether unreliable.
A minister of God may be the most wicked and corrupt of men – may be the most deeply damned of fallen angels or wicked spirits. God’s ministers to execute wrath and vengeance, are never his humble, holy, sanctified, separated people. Even under the retaliatory code of Judaism, which Christ so effectually nailed to the cross in his own death, and which he so clearly abrogated in his sermon upon the mount, God’s people, the Jews, were called upon to engage in bloody conflicts only as they become distrustful and disobedient. “Thou will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee,” Isaiah 26:3. But another form of the same reasoning is, “Civil Governments is ordained of God (the powers that be are ordained of God) therefore Christians may and should engage in it, to establish, carry forward and perpetuate it.” This reasoning, when fully stated is this: Christians should participate in every ordinance of God, to establish, carry forward, and perpetuate it. Civil government is an ordinance of God. Therefore Christians should participate in civil affairs. Now we apprehend that there is lameness in both predicates of this proposition. In the first place, it is a usually received idea that every ordinance of God is necessarily good and desirable in itself. Every ordinance of God is good for the purpose for which God ordained it, not otherwise. Institutions that God has established for the benefit and blessing of his children are desirable to be perpetuated and to have their influences extended. But other institutions for specific purposes, and for special classes, can not be extended beyond God’s approval limits, either in their operations, or in the agents who operate them, without their becoming a curse to man. These truths are so self-evident we need not dwell upon them.