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The Theology of Civil Government

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
See also coming book by that title.

Trinity V - Independence Day - 06/27/10
Deut. 17:14-20;   Psalm 76;   Heb. 11:8-16;  Mt. 28:16-20

Civil government is not supposed to have a theology.  But it does.  Let's take a look. 

This is "Independence" Day.  So, what does 'independence' mean? It is a negative, meaning 'not dependent'. 'Dependent' means relying on something outside of oneself for a need to be met. Our American dependence was upon the will of King George III for our political and legal leadership. And so our independence was declaring ourselves no longer dependent upon the will of King George III.

Every colony in America had a charter from the king -- which defined for about 200 years, the relationship of leadership and followership. In those charters, each colony was given a large measure of freedom to make its own laws, and to run its own economy and financial system. The charters were with King George III, not with Parliament -- which was irrelevant. The colonies were separate political entities from England, each with their own separate relationship to the king. The king ruled over England and each of the colonies separately. Parliament was the legislature for England, but had no jurisdiction over the colonies, which each had their own legislatures.

The kings of the 15- & 1600's with whom the colonies had first established those charters had not foreseen the economic powerhouses which might develop in those then primitive colonies. Later kings, in collusion with the financial interests of the newly emerging British Empire, believed that they would enormously benefit by commandeering those economies for their own mercantilist designs. England needed markets for its growing industry, so the colonies would be limited to producing raw materials, which would be shipped to England for making into finished goods, which would then be shipped back to the colonies for sale.

The colonies, of course, began slowly developing their own industry and commerce separate from England -- which inspired the king and financiers to collude with Parliament to take control of the colonial governments. Parliament began passing laws for which it had no authority. It was not the very minor tea tax which angered the colonials, it was the gross interference by the king in their whole economic and political system, imposing their mercantilist policy.

Given these circumstances, the king was the rebel, he was changing things. The American revolution was thus a conservative "revolution", to maintain the freedom to manage their own affairs which they had had for two centuries -- unlike the French Revolution, which was a deliberate, conscious, and total overthrow of all past traditions, most of all, the authority of God. The American leaders were quite vocal about the need to build their "new experiment" in a limited government for a free people upon the authority of God as the foundation for the authority of civil government.

What gives any person or body of persons the right to command other persons? Only the authority of God can convey that authority to humans. Guns can give power to enforce, but only God can give authority to command.

A secular southeastern university several years ago published a study of all the quotations they could find in which the founding fathers referred to another author's view of government. The founders were, of course, searching for ideas to use in their new political experiment.

It was discovered that the Bible was by far the most quoted source, with the early, conservative, and still Biblical Enlightenment thinkers coming in second. The founding fathers had a deep respect for their Christian foundations. Even non-Trinitarians ('Unitarian' might fit) such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams believed that we are both individually and corporately responsible before God for our actions, attitudes, and goals. Societies and governments are judged by God as well as individuals.

The change in America was not that God was excluded from being sovereign over government, but rather that God had removed the divine right of rulership from kings and potentates, and given it to the people.  That had been happening over centuries in England, with the Magna Carta being a milestone.  Government was squarely under the law of God, but it came to be understood to be the job of the people, not the rulers, to be the final interpreters of that law of God.  We would do that by our choice of our rulers.

John Jay was one of the leading legal scholars in America, and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He said: "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty... of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers." God has given us this freedom, and it is the duty of our Christian nation to elect Christians to govern us. That is strong language, with which very few then in America would have disagreed.

Today, most Christians are afraid to say such a thing out loud. We must do it or continue to perish as a civilization.

John Jay was echoing a common understanding in both America and Britain. William Blackstone, the primary English legal scholar of that time, was one of the first to pull the English system of common law into an orderly body of law. In his writing, he asserted that no person, no government, can supersede the law of God. We are, one and all, bound to the law of God because God is the creator of all things, and therefore owns them all, including ourselves. That principle was accepted in both England and America. It was not a matter, as in France, of contentious, soon to become murderous, public debate.

The Preamble of our Declaration of Independence, upon which we moderns tend to focus, was thus not of great interest to the colonials, it was old hat, written to show potential allies in Europe that we were not like those French -- who were becoming, subversive of all orderly authority.

If you read I Samuel 8, God is telling the Hebrews what will happen if He gives them the king they were demanding. They wanted a king who could unite the Hebrews militarily and fight their battles for them. God warns them what will happen -- they will suffer all the consequences of a centralized government -- the king will exalt himself over the people and misuse them. If you read the Declaration of Independence after the Preamble, you will read exactly the same thing -- what governments do to people when they exalt themselves over the people, that long list of grievances which the people had suffered -- under King George.

Governments in the pagan world had always, almost without exception, been exalting themselves in that manner. That was the only way they could rule. They were stuck. They had no law of God, not even of the gods or goddesses (who gave none), so they had to make up their own as they went. Control of the people was always dependent upon their military might. They ruled by the sword.

That is called "positivist" law. It does not mean 'positive' in the sense of 'plus' or 'extra good'. It means 'positive' in the sense of 'posited', 'placed' -- as in 'deposited'. In other words, legislators and judges did not discover, inherit, or receive a law from a higher source, such as God, or such as Natural Law. They posited it themselves, they put it there themselves. That is positivist law.

 

It was the arrival of Biblical law being spread throughout the Mediterranean basin and into other parts of the world which brought the idea of an overarching law covering all mankind, a universal law given by the Creator of all the world and of all the peoples of the world. The Torah, the Law of Moses, brought the laws of the potentates, the emperors, the conquering generals, all under the law of God.

That is what Christians meant when they asserted that "Jesus is Lord!", and would not put the pinch of incense on the pagan altars to honor Caesar as Lord -- sometimes paying with their lives. The lordship of Jesus was a political principle, not just a foggy spiritual principle. It had bite and consequences right in the public here and now.

That principle, along with the notion that all men are created in the image of God and of equal worth, worked its way into Western society, gradually bringing the absolute authority of all human beings under the law of God. It led, as with the Magna Carta, gradually first to the greater freedom of the nobles, and then filtered down to the common folks. A man's home became his castle. Every Englishman was a freeman, owned by nobody but God. All that was imperfectly put to work, but it was there in principle.

Those are the foundation principles which colonial Americans inherited, and upon which our Constitution was written. It was those principles for which they fought -- to keep them from subversion by their king. That is why the Decalogue is posted in the Supreme Court.

We Americans declared ourselves independent from King George, but understood ourselves to be dependent upon the power and authority of God for all things, and thus required to be obedient to Him in our national as well as personal lives. It was indeed our dependence upon God which gave us the authority, right, and obligation to throw off the king's tyrannical intrusion into our affairs. He was the rebel and subversive, not the colonials. As the Presbyterian pastors preached, "Resistance to tyranny is service to God."

The Preamble of our Declaration makes it perfectly clear that our freedoms come from God because we are created all equal by Him, and, that without God, we have no secure freedoms. If civil government gives our freedoms, it can, and routinely does, remove them -- at its own incontestable pleasure. Civil governments are established precisely to protect those freedoms given by God, says our Declaration.

But about the 1850's, the notion of positivist law was revived because Christians were finding themselves intellectually incapable of defending their Biblical faith. So lawyers were seeking another basis for the legitimacy of civil government. They went right back to the only possible alternative to God -- they, themselves, the lawyers, legislators, and judges are the foundation for the legitimacy of civil government. Right back to paganism again. They did not announce that part, of course, but that is where we are today.

Positivist law is a prescription for tyranny -- the founding fathers, just like
God and Samuel, were loud and clear about that. Civil government by nature holds a near monopoly on coercive power, but in a positivist system, there is no authority above them by which they can be held accountable. As a speaker of the House in the 1800's said, "
We will be ruled by the Bible or the by the bayonet!" He got the point.

As we just read in Deuteronomy, the king appointed by God was required to read his own copy of the law of Moses. He was required to govern by the law of God, not by his whim.

I do not know how many of the secularists knew what they were doing, and its consequences, how many were deliberately scuttling the Biblical system. But clearly very few Christians in the 1800s understood what was being done to us, and few preachers stood up and reasonably and convincingly upheld the sovereignty of God over all things. To our shame, the claim that "Jesus is Lord" has become an empty phrase in the public arena.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish commentator, said recently: We are facing the greatest crisis in American history -- right in this coming fall elections. The number of Christians voting in the recent primaries was not encouraging. If we do not begin a significant turnaround this fall, we will be much further behind the 8-ball in two years.

 

Is this a theological issue? Yes. It is a matter of obedience to God, to uphold His name and authority in all things, in all circumstances -- whether or not our governors like it. Our real Governor requires it. We do not have the option of defaulting. We do not have the option of ignoring our responsibilities.

All of our Biblical spiritual resources are aimed at two things: trust and obedience. Not trust and obedience in the milk-toast-religion-sense which we secularized Western Christians have cooked to excuse ourselves from public witness and testimony -- but rather trust and obedience in any and all possible circumstances, including when our courts demand that we put our pinch of incense on the altar of secularism and of positivist law -- to declare government to be Lord. It is a pseudo-law, a tyranny in disguise.

We did not ask God to give us a king, but we asked for a government-run school system so we would not have to teach our own children, a government-run welfare system so we would not have to take care of one another, and now for a government-run health system to make the decision for us as to who is worthy of care and who should be polite enough to just turn over and die, and get out of the way of the more healthy and productive.

We are getting this betrayal of our Godly heritage because we Christians have been persuaded to abandon God as the center of our lives, both personal and corporate, both private and public. It is a theological and a moral issue. It is a trust and obey issue. If we do not learn how and gain the courage to do so, God will have harsh words for us.

Our living-in-the-light group is to help people become more free to express themselves and their faith in public, our Bible studies point toward a deeper life in Christ and knowledge of His word to us, our Sunday School helps arm us with intelligence to meet the issues in the public arena as well as our personal lives, and our worship together points us toward God as the One to trust and obey.

We have members of our own congregation, friends, and family abroad risking their lives to defend the freedoms with which we have been blessed by the very God which our government systematically rejects. That is not acceptable. And it is not acceptable that we should do nothing about it. We must individually and corporately learn how to put the word of God out in public, including the word of God to and for our government.

It must begin here at home, in our local governments, in our church governments, and climb up the ladder right into the Whitehouse, Congress, and all the courts in our land.

The Top of the political pyramid is lost. We can no longer get at them, I think -- except through the bottom up. It must begin with we, the people. We must be reconverted, and we must risk our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor for the cause of truth and for the Lord of Truth. The Great Commission, as we read this morning, means the conversion of Caesar, or his replacement.

Thus saith the Lord..... It will probably not be in Elizabethan English, but, it must be in clear and intelligible terms so that there are no excuses for misunderstanding.

 

Prayer is the chief business of the Church. We often in prayer get the closest to God, to hearing His word for us, and to finding the inner strength to pursue those paths which He has chosen for us. We get our marching orders.

Please join me on page 62 of the Book of Common Prayer, to pray for our country.

The Lord be with you...
Let us pray, together... slowly, deliberately...
 

Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour. Bless us with industry, prosperity, learning, and purity of life. Save us from discord and violence, and from pride and arrogancy. Preserve us from public calamities, pestilence, and famine; from wars, privy conspiracy, and rebellion; and especially from national sins and corruption. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with wisdom those in authority, that justice and peace may prevail. Make us strong and great in the fear of God and in the love of righteousness, that, blessed of thee, we may be a blessing to all people. In prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in trouble suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Audio Version

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Date Posted - 07/04/2010   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012