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.)
Lipscomb’s 17th entry in his series displays a great sense of hope in the plans of God for the good of God’s people. Having argued that the powers that be are qualified “ministers” by ordinance of God, Lipscomb carefully maneuvers explaining how that ministry works for good. He says that they do “good” in two particular ways. The first is to punish evil works, and thus further deter future evil. This is reminiscent of the “minarchist” perspective within libertarian thought (even if, clearly, Lipscomb is not arguing for a specific libertarian idea). The second is that these ministers are used to discipline his own people, as when God used Assyria and Nebuchadnezzar to discipline Israel. We can be reminded that “the Lord disciplines those he loves.”
To Lipscomb, the submission, then, that the Christian should render to the state is not due to its inherent goodness or just cause, but only because of what God has commanded. As such, the Christian is very much “in the world, but not of the world.” The command “permits him to become the partisan of none.”
I think that overall Lipscomb makes some crucial points here, but I begin to diverge from certain aspects of his thought regarding resistance and submission. At the end of this article, for instance, he suggests that if we follow these scriptural precepts (in the way that he has argued), we will “never come into a closer contact with these governments than that of submission to their authority.” This feels strained inasmuch as his argument is concerned, and I think easy counterexamples can come to mind. Even during the Civil War, Lipscomb’s “contact” involved telling the governors of both the Confederacy and the Union sides that they would not participate in the armed conflict on the basis of their faith. So, perhaps some measure of modification is warranted to how the principle is explained that takes into account that while simple submission is often prudent, submission is not always simple.
The Church of Christ and World-Powers (17) — David Lipscomb in The Gospel Advocate, December 11, 1866, pp. 785-787.
We have found that all ordinances of God are not for the use of his approved subjects, nor are all of his ministers the servants and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. We found, too, in what sense “There is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” In reference to the 12th* chapter of Romans, there is still a difficulty. Christians are commanded not to resist the power; for he that resists the power resists the ordinance of God. “If this power is of the kingdom of the wicked one, it is not the duty of the Christians to resist it, and thus destroy the kingdom of the wicked one?” The meaning here is evidently we shall not resist it by violent or forcible means; but it, and all the institutions of the wicked one, are to be destroyed – not by forcible, carnal war upon them, but by removing the cause that originated them. That cause is lack of confidence in, and dissatisfaction with God’s institutions, as fully sufficient for all the ends of good to humanity. Do not, then, destroy them by force. As long as sin and rebellion against God reign in this world, they are ordained of God to punish and restrain that rebellion and wickedness of man. So, too, we apprehend, he would say to the angels of heaven: “Do not destroy the ordinance of hell; save men from it, if possible; remove the necessity of its existence, if may be; but do not attempt to destroy it, it is the ordinance of God. Whosoever, therefore, would destroy it, would destroy the ordinance of God.” “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” Neither is hell a terror to good works or good men, but to the evil doers. The devil’s reign, both spiritual and temporal, is intended or ordained of God to punish evil works and evil workers, and thus deter men from the performance of them. But “he is a minister of God to thee for good.” He is the minister of God to the Christian for good, by punishing wickedness, and thus repressing vice and vicious men.
And even if, in the providence of God, these ministers of wrath are used to chasten the disobedient child of God, and kindle the fires of persecution, still, as a chastener and purifier, he ministers good to the child and Church of God. So God used Pharaoh, the Assyrian, and Nebuchadnezzar as the rod of chastisement to his people in earliest times, to humble them, and bring them back to obedience to God; and as such they were ministers of God to his people for good. So was Nero, and all the bloody persecutors of the church of God. For it is this self-same bloody Nero, with his host of satraps and persecuting satellites, Paul says was “the minister of God to the Christians for good.” If we will consider for a moment the rulers to whom Paul was commanding these Roman Christians to submit, and who he was telling them were God’s ministers, we cannot fail to see that this is necessarily the only construction that we can place upon the language. “For this cause pay tribute also, for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” It is our duty to pay tribute to these powers that may be over us, as a duty we owe to God himself. And he who refuses to conscientiously and faithfully pay his tribute or tax violates the solemn promise of God.
But “they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” What thing? The very thing that he has just told Christians they could not do. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves.” “Vengeance is mine.” “For he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The higher power – the earthly ruler – is God’s minister, to do that which a Christian cannot do, to wit, take vengeance. Now we affirm that there is not a single declaration made of this earthly kingdom of vengeance and its rulers, that may not just as safety and truly be made of the great spiritual kingdom of darkness and its ruler. It is ordained of God; it is his ordinance, and the wicked one is his minister to execute wrath and vengeance upon every one that doeth evil. They – the devil and hell – are terrors to the evil doer, but not to the good man. They minister good to him in repressing vice and deterring the wicked from violence, and in driving, as it were, the Christian from the paths of wickedness and the associations of the evil, to a closer and holier walk with God.
Thus it is that “all things work together for good to them that love God; to them that are called according to his purpose,” Rom. 8:28. The mercy of God, as exhibited through the condescending love of the Savior, and the promised joys and bliss of heaven, gently woos man to the path of holiness and peace. God’s undying wrath to the disobedient, as presented through the direful reign of the wicked one, and the unquenchable fires of hell, drive men from the broad road of sin and death to the straight and narrow path that leads to God. All things – both heaven and hell, Christ and the devil – then truly work together for the good of those who love God.
Thus the true position of the Church of Christ to this world-power is definitely fixed. The Christian’s connection with it is marked by the pen of inspiration, and no man need be in doubt in reference to his duty to it. This connection is one of simple submission to, not of active participation in, or support of. There is not a word of intimation in the Sacred Scriptures that indicate that it is the duty of any Christians to support, maintain, or defend any institution or organization of man, farther than a quiet, passive, but conscientious and faithful submission to its requirements, may have a tendency to sustain it. That submission he must render, not as a duty he owes to government on account of any virtue or merit it possesses, but as a solemn duty he owes to his Maker. This sense of duty to God connects him with all the governments and powers of the earth just alike. It permits him to become the partisan of none.
There was never a government more distasteful to a people, more oppressive and unjust to a people, than was the Roman government to the Jews, and especially the Jews that were converted to Christianity; yet the apostle said, submit to the power that be; they are ordained of God; they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. This thing of punishing wickedness, and testing the faith, and purifying the lives of Christians by the fires of persecution – this is the principle, and the only principle, that can safely guide Christians in the revolutions and conflicts of earthly powers. Our duty is not to determine which is right and which is wrong – which ought or ought not to succeed – but it is simply to submit to the power that is over us. If, in the conflicts and strifes, an old government is overthrown or changed, and a new one substituted, still, the voice of God with emphatic authority says, “submit to the powers that be.” As often as the authorities change, so often still the Word of God says, “submit to the powers that be” – the partisan, the supporter of none – submissive to all. If we follow the examples and precepts of the Bible, as taught and presented under the dispensation of God to man, but especially in the examples and precepts of the Savior and his apostles, we will never come into a closer contact with these governments than that of submission to their authority. (December 11, 1866, pp. 785-787)