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The Commands of God versus the State

This entry is part 18 of 18 in the series The Church of Christ and World-Powers

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.) Fun fact: Today is the 154th anniversary of the final concluding essay of the original Lipscomb article series!

Lipscomb’s 18th and final essay in the World-Powers series takes direct aim at the idea that biblical “submission” means doing whatever the civil government says. He first surveys various commands to submit in the New Testament: wives to husbands, children to parents, even servants to masters. But, he argues, these commands are utterly subject to the greater command: “Obey God.” Now, if we understand that we ought not obey our parents if their command violates God’s primary command, then why would we assume that this principle changes if the ordering entity is the state? It is as though we are tacitly saying the state has the authority to issue an “indulgence” for sin. Lipscomb even compares this to the Roman Catholic Church’s practice that in part sparked the Reformation, but this statist practice is arguably worse. In fact, he even suggests he has “more respect” for Rome’s idea than the Protestant one. (Clearly, he is ecumenically critical!)

Lipscomb is particularly savage with this severe indictment:

A more baseless assumption, one more in direct conflict with God’s teaching, was never made by man, than the idea, “that when the civil authority commands the Christian to do something contrary to the law of God, and he does it, the responsibility rest upon the civil authority, and not on the individual who violates the laws of God at the behest of the civil ruler.”

There is no privileged position of morality one obtains by being a King, a democratically-elected politician, or a soldier. We are all individually responsible to God for our actions. You do not get a pass because you were just “following orders.” Full stop.

This concludes the World-Powers series, and if you have stuck with this for the full 18 weeks then I commend you for your commitment! You may not have realized it, but the entire series is well over 31,000 words long — nearly as much as our new book Faith Seeking Freedom! I hope to turn this series into a book itself, but if you have a more immediate desire to read more Lipscomb, be sure to get a copy of Lipscomb’s Civil Government which covers many similar topics. (Free PDF download here.)

Finally, the meta-point behind me reprinting this series, in part, is to remind us all that we are not the first in history and we are not alone amongst Christians who have accepted the notion that the State is not the Kingdom of God. We libertarian Christians are in great company, and I hope to continue chronicling the great thinkers throughout historical Christianity whose shoulders we stand upon. Onward and upward!


The Church of Christ and World-Powers (18) — David Lipscomb in The Gospel Advocate, December 18, 1866, pp. 801-805.

The Christian’s duty to civil government is to submit to it, as a duty he owes to God. this is the limit and bound of his connection with it, so far as set forth in the teachings of Holy Writ, Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-15: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of the evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well… Honor the king. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear… Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands,” 3:1. Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder,” 5:5. “Children, obey your parents in all things,” Col. 3:20. These several commands are given to those in these different relationships, by the same authority. The duty of obedience is equally binding in all these relationships. Is the duty of submission, in any or all of these relationships, unconditional, absolute, and obligatory, under all circumstances, or are they conditional, modified by other duties, and limited by higher and more sacred obligations? Is it the duty of the child to submit to the parent, under all circumstances? If the parent commands the child to lie, steal, do murder, and the child does the bidding of the parent – who sins, the child, or the parent who gave the command?

It is the same with reference to the wife and husband, the servant and master. The wife is commanded to be subject to her husband, the servant to his master. Suppose the husband or the master to command the wife or servant to kill his enemy. The Bible commands them to be subject in these relations just as positively as it commands the Christian to submit to the “powers that be.” If the wife or the servant obey the husband or master, is she or he guilty in the sight of God, or does the whole responsibility rest upon the ruler or superior in this case? Who has a doubt but that the child, the wife, and the servant, in such a case is guilty of sin in the sight of God? The same submission is required upon the part of the younger to the elders of the congregation; yet can the elders, God’s appointed overseers of the congregation, abrogate a command of God, and grant to the younger members the right to violate God’s law? Rome has assumed that the Church could, and so grants indulgence to sin, herself assumes the responsibility of the sin committed. At such an assumption Protestants and Christians have held up hands of holy horror. But what have they claimed* – not that the Church of God, approved and authorized institution for administering his laws to and for his children; but that the wicked, corrupt powers of earth, that fear not God, may require and authorize Christians to violate God’s law, and yet Christians, violating God’s law under such authority or requirements, are blameless. In other words, they deny that the church can abrogate or change the law of Christ, but that the wicked, earthly powers may. And the power of granting indulgence to sin, and of requiring individuals to act contrary to God’s law, is transferred simply from the Church of God to the wicked world-powers. We confess that we have more respect for the Romish than for the Protestant idea. We regret exceedingly that some, who eschew to be simply Christians, yet tolerate and lend the influence of their names to such loose ideas of responsibility to God. We quote a sentence or two from an editorial comment in the Christian Review of Nov. 13: “We incline strongly to the opinion that when the authorities call out men to arrest a robber or murderer, that the men called out are not responsible even though an innocent man should be arrested, or though lives should be lost in making the arrest. It may be, in like manner, that when the civil authorities call out men in war, they are responsible for all that is done in war.”

Upon a certain occasion, “a lawyer, tempting Christ, asked him a question, saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said to him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment; and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Matt 22:35-40. In this we find that Jesus distinctly asserts that the commandment to love God, and, as a consequence, obey him, was greater than the commandment to honor father or mother, and of greater and more sacredly binding force. Indeed, under all circumstances, from the expression, “on these hang all the law and the prophets,” we learn that all the other commands receive their virtue and efficiency from their connection with this commandment. It clearly indicates that our relationship to God is the first, highest, most sacred relationship into which we can enter – its duties and obligations to be observed first – all other relations and duties are secondary, and are modified and controlled by this duty we owe to God. In other words, all the commands regulating these minor and secondary relationships are modified, limited, and even annulled and abrogated by the great commandment of the Lord. It limits and modifies all – it is limited and modified by none.

God says emphatically, “thou shalt not steal.” God says, however, “obey your parents.” The parent says, “you shall steal.” What is the duty of the child? The great, first, unchangeable, unmodified, and unlimited command, is love, and, of course, obey God. The second command which hangs or depends upon this great law, says, “obey your parents.” The language of the Savior will certainly allow no other meaning than this ­– Obey your parent, subject to the modifying and limiting influence of the command, “obey God ;” that is, obey your parent when the parent’s command does not conflict with the law of God. When it conflicts with the law of God, it is a sin to obey the parent, husband, master, civil ruler, or overseer of the congregation. Thus, this great first command modifies, limits, or even annuls and abrogates all the laws regulating the secondary relationships, when they conflict with the law of God. Thus the Savior laws down the principle that none of these secondary powers or authorities can intervene between us and our responsibility to God. Their authority can never release us from our obligations to obey God under all circumstances.

The Savior lays down this principle, not with reference to the Jewish law alone, but with reference to its bearing upon his own laws and kingdom. Hence, he says to the child, “obey your parents, in the Lord,” Ephes. 6:1. That is, obey your parents so far as they command according to the law of God. So the law to obey the parent is made to depend upon the first great law, “obey God.” Christ has also settled this question most emphatically when he says, “He that loves father or mother, husband or wife, more than me, is not worthy of me;” or, as Luke records it, “If any one come to me, and hate not his father and mother, he cannot be my disciple.” That is, if an individual does not respect and reverence the law of God above all other things, he cannot be the disciple of Jesus Christ. To respect the law of a parent, or any earthly superior, in preference to the law of God, amounts to a rejection of God as lawgiver, and Jesus Christ as teacher.

Christ is equally as specific in reference to the civil ruler as he is in reference to the other relationships of an earthly and secondary nature. Speaking to his twelve apostles of the certainty of their coming in conflict with the governors and rulers of the world, tells them, “Fear not them (the civil rulers) who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him (God) who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell,” Matt. 10:28. Here he admonishes us by the consideration of the more weighty importance of both soul and body, than of the body alone, to fear (and obey) God rather than the civil ruler. The great importance of obeying God rather than the civil ruler, and in violation of his rules, commands, and the extent to which we are to carry this principle, is set forth in the 10:39 and 16:25 of Matthew, “Whoever will save his life shall lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” That is, the civil rulers will require you to do things contrary to the will of God, and if you refuse to do those things, they will kill you. But whoever will save his life by doing the requirements of the civil ruler, and violating the law of God, shall lose his life (or soul forever) but whoever will die rather than violate God’s commandment at the behest of the civil ruler, shall save his soul unto life eternal. Instruction could not be clearer or more positive. The salvation of the soul in heaven is made to depend upon our setting at defiance the human law in order to obey the Divine. No power, then – neither of parent, husband, master, civil ruler, or church elder, can remit the obligation to the Christian, at all times, to obey the command of God, even unto death, if need be.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” is the first great command; it is as universal, unchangeable, and inexorable as the existence of God himself. It modifies, limits, abrogates all other laws, obligations, and duties – it can be limited and modified by none. Christ practiced as he taught. He died on the cross, refusing to save his life by a violation of the law of God, at the behest of the civil power. The apostles were arrested, imprisoned, beaten, and some of them slain, for refusing to save their lives by disobeying God, at the behest of the civil ruler. When commanded to disobey God, Peter’s answer was, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge you,” Acts 4:19. And again, “We ought to obey God rather than men,” Acts 5:29. We know that it is sometimes said, “These were not the proper political rulers, but the religious leaders of the Jews to whom Peter and John thus spoke.” The rulers, elders, and scribes were the persons who condemned them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, embracing the civil or military rulers appointed by the great central power at Rome, whose undisputed swat extended to the limits of the known world, together with the Jewish elders and scribes. Peter and John themselves forever settle the question, when they state that this persecution and prohibition was a part of the fulfillment of the prophecy of David, when he said, “Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things. The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his Christ,” Acts 4:26. They go on to show that this prohibition is a continuation of the conspiracy of the rulers and people that crucified the Son of God. Hence, there cannot be a doubt but that this language was used with reference to the legitimate civil and political rulers of the land.

The apostles, too, one and all, sealed their fidelity to their teachings by dying for refusing to obey the civil power when its requirements came in conflict with the Divine law. A more baseless assumption, one more in direct conflict with God’s teaching, was never made by man, than the idea, “that when the civil authority commands the Christian to do something contrary to the law of God, and he does it, the responsibility rest upon the civil authority, and not on the individual who violates the laws of God at the behest of the civil ruler.” There is not a point of obligation more strongly enforced in the Sacred Scriptures than this – no power of heaven, earth, or hell can come between man and his Maker, to relieve him of his responsibility, under all circumstances, to obey his Maker.

The command, then, “Submit to the powers that be,” is clearly limited by the highest duty to submit to God. He who violates the law of God in order to submit to the “powers that be,” surely sins against God. The limit and bound of the Christian’s connection with the world-powers, is a quiet and faithful submission to it in all the requirements it makes at his hands, until it demands some thing contrary to the letter or spirit of God’s law, then it his duty to meekly but firmly refuse to obey, on peril of eternal death. This duty of obedience is imperative, under all circumstances, to any government, power, or principality, under which we may be placed. Our conceptions of the right or wrong of the government, its justice or injustice, its constitutionality or unconstitutionality, its good or evil tendency, neither weaken or strengthen the obligations we owe it. As a duty we owe to God, “submit to the powers that be,” – not the ones that we like or approve, or that has the best right to rule; but to the “powers that be,” – that are in existence. We must give an unreserved and faithful submission in all things save when submission to them involves violation to God’s laws. There are no circumstances that will justify the child in refusing obedience to the parent, the wife to the husband, the servant to the master, or the Christian subject to his civil or military ruler, save the one specified, when obedience to these superiors involved disobedience to the letter or spirit of God’s law. When it does, the duty in one and all of these relationships is, to refuse that obedience unto death itself. And in thus losing our life for the sake of Christ, we save it unto life eternal. (December 18, 1866, pp. 801-805)

* In the original text, there was an extra word “done” inserted before the word “claimed” that appears to have been a typo.

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