Tomorrow is Independence Day—and, in fact, we are viewing fireworks here tonight—a time when we reflect on the Founding Fathers. Similarly, I think it is beneficial to consider the views of our forebears in the faith. David Lipscomb was the editor of the Gospel Advocate for more than 50 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fittingly, we want to consider his views on the relationship between Christians and the civil government. This comes from the January 9, 1866 issue of the Advocate; it has been slightly abridged to fit in our space. I printed this article here last year, but particularly in light of recent national events, I thought it appropriate to revisit. I commend it to your attention. -BP
In the Prospectus for the present volume of the Gospel Advocate, we announced our intention of examining the relation which the Church of Jesus Christ sustains to the World-powers – civil, military, and religious, by which it is surrounded and with which it often comes in contact. On this, as on many other subjects, we are apt to imbibe the ideas and adopt the habits of those by whom we are surrounded in childhood, without ever questioning ourselves as to whether those ideas and customs and correct – are they in accordance with the teachings of the great Master…We ask you then, courteous reader, to calmly investigate with us the connection that Christ has established between His kingdom and the World-Powers, or institutions, that we may learn our duties with reference to them, and be prepared ever in this, as other matters to be found walking according to the will of the Master. But for the present we will content ourselves with merely stating the three leading positions of the religious world in reference to this subject.
The 1st and most popular idea, taking the whole professed Christian world into consideration, is that the church should form alliances with the world institutions, for the purpose of controlling and using those institutions for the advancement of its own interest. The member of the Church according to this idea, enter into these organizations not for the intrinsic value of these institutions, but that the interests of the Church may be advanced. With this idea, when the interests of the Church demand it, the identical institution will by the same power be destroyed. This idea we denominate the Roman Catholic idea. It is the ruling principle with the Roman Catholic Church. She approves no special form of human government, but allies herself with every form, as her interest may demand, or her influence thereby be extended…This idea holds that there is nothing good or desirable in political institutions, farther than they may used for the advancement of the Church.
The next idea that we present, holds that political governments are of Divine origin, as such must be supported and sustained, for their own intrinsic worth, and because they are essential to the well being not only of the world, but the Church itself, and in many respects more essential to society than the church. This conception of the relationship existing between them, changes the positions of the two institutions, makes the Church subserve the interest of the State, makes the State first, the Church second. Church members enter into the contests, strifes, animosities and partisanships of the State because their first, highest duty is there, the chief interest of society is embodied therein. With this idea all Church harmony depends upon political unity. This condition of affairs makes the Church the tool of the political clique, at once the victim and fosterer of the sectional prejudice and a party to the national conflicts…This view of the relationship of Church and State pervades all the denominations of Protestant Christendom. We may safely affirm that not one of these has ever been able to maintain its unity intact, its harmony of feeling and action undisturbed, when two nations in which that Church existed was engaged in strife, or even when political partisanship or sectional excitement ran high in any one government. Hence, when the United States separated from England politically, the Church of England in this country and England severed in twain. Also, in the sectional and political strifes in our own country, sectional animosity and bitterness ran fully as high in the religious bodies even before it did in the body politic.
There is yet another view of this relationship that we desire to present. A few individuals in all ages of the Church, from the days of Jesus Christ, to the present time, have maintained that the two institutions, the Christian and the worldly, were necessarily separate and distinct. That they could form no alliances. That each was necessary in its proper place and for its proper subjects. That God’s institution, or the Church, was perfect and needed no help or addition from human hands to enable it to direct the affairs of its own children. On the other hand, that God had left those who refused to submit to his government, to form a government to their own liking, to manage it according to their own views of propriety and for the accomplishment of their own desired ends. And with this, Christians have nothing to do, farther than God has connected them with it. The limit and bound of which connection is a quiet submission to its requirements, when these do not conflict with their obligations to God. In a word, that the Christians cannot become the partisan of any human government or institution. It is his duty to submit to all alike, and with fidelity as to God himself, comply with the requirements of whatever one he may be under, modified by his first duty to obey God unto death itself rather than any man-power, but it is not his province to become an active participator or partisan of any human government or form of government.
This idea prevailing in a church and being acted upon, will at once render that church free from discords and strifes on political grounds. It causes the Christian in England to submit to the government of England, not because he approves that government, but because God requires him to submit to it. It causes the Christian in Mexico to submit to the Republic of Mexico, when under the Republic, not because he approves a republic, or is a republican, but because God says to be subject to the powers that be. It requires him in turn to submit to the Empire of Mexico, when an empire is established; not because he is a monarchist, or a partisan of the empire, but because God says submit to the powers that be, not the ones that ought to exist, or that he prefers, but to the ones that actually do exist. These three ideas of the connection of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ with the world powers and institutions, with their modifications, embrace the faith and practice of the professed Christian world on this subject. These ideas direct the actions of their respective advocates, and exercise a wonderful effect upon the course and destinies of those churches.
Will our readers ponder these questions in their bearing upon the peace, purity, unity, and destiny of the Church of Jesus Christ and the well-being of the world, and with us examine the Sacred Scriptures to see which, if any one of them be true positions assigned the church by its Divine founder.