The Evil and Danger of Arbitrary Government
The foundation of our political system is that governments are ordained by God, have limited, defined authority, and hold their authority “from the consent of the governed.” Elected officials are legally bound to uphold the written laws; this is their only commission. If elected officials do not uphold the laws, they lose their moral authority and become lawless. They are not commissioned to do what their constituents want, remake society, or foment social upheaval. We have our present system, as tenuous and broken as it is, because our founding fathers recognized the evil and danger of arbitrary government. They believed that the law is king; the king is not the law.
It is important to recognize this about our system of government. We do not live in Communist China, Socialist France, or the warlord ruled nations of Africa. We live in a law-defined system. Thus, when it is said that Romans 13 requires us to obey the civil magistrates, we whole-heartedly agree, within government’s proper scope as defined by the laws of our particular land. Romans 13 is not a statist declaration of absolute power, as if we are obligated to obey everything the civil powers demand. In our system of limited government, Romans 13 obligates us to obey the civil magistrates in their legally recognized sphere. When they go beyond the laws, we may obey them, depending upon circumstance and other duties, but when their orders violate other and higher laws, we must politely decline obedience. As our Confession states, we are to obey all “lawful” commands of civil government – lawful as defined by God’s higher law and the laws of the land as recognized by constitutional and lawful judicatories.
The genius, if we may call it this, of the American system is that law does not reside in exalted persons, whether Presidents or Governors. Law does not reside in non-elected state agencies, technocratic dreams, or in popular fervor and social movements. Authority resides in the written laws to which we have agreed. These laws may be altered by approved bodies vested with authority to do so, i.e., the Congress of the United States or the various state legislatures. Yet, when a state governor says, “Churches cannot meet,” or, “Churches can only meet under certain conditions,” he has exceeded his authority. Or, “This business is hereby declared non-essential and to be shut down because of an invisible enemy,” he has no authority to make such a claim and to forbid men from earning their bread, which God commands them to do. When a department of education says, “You must use this curriculum for all school aged children,” Christian parents are not bound to obey this dictate. Or the health department declares, “All children must be vaccinated in order to attend college,” they do not have legal authority to make such a demand. This is not to declare that we are in principle rebellious but in principle law-abiding, not arrogantly militant but passionately obedient. We are learning painfully that secularism is lawless.
With respect to the church, the first amendment to the Constitution is clear. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Our founders rejected the political and religious tyranny of Roman Catholicism and British Prelacy. They adopted a “hands off” policy of the federal government toward religion, specifically the Christian religion, to which virtually all were committed. What belongs to Caesar, what is his legitimate domain as spelled out in our laws, we gladly yield respect and obedience. Otherwise, we must decline to yield, defend the laws of the land, petition legitimate authorities to defend the laws they swore to uphold and preserve us from tyrannical government overreach, and, if necessary, resist tyranny to defend our lives, our faith, and higher yet, the honor of God. If having exhausted all other remedies God calls us to suffer for our obedience to him, we consider it a privilege to suffer shame for the name and lordship of Jesus Christ.
Should our Lord delay his return, he is making clear two very different views of civil government, and I find myself blinded by the light of his glory that is exposing the danger and villainy of secularism. This is a very dark philosophy. Its advocates always speak of dark days ahead, sees man as the helpless product of his environment, with no God to help him, no Bible to guide him, and no Redeemer to save him. Secularism’s creed is: “There is no God; we must save ourselves.” Rejecting God, there is no transcendent law, no future but man’s extinction, and no preservation for man except by government force. Secularism has no soul, no morality beyond social expedience, no standard of judgment beyond raw power. Secularism has no problem with population control, economic devastation to save “mother nature,” and complete human subservience to the paternal state. Secularism has an “our father,” but he is the government official, the scientific expert, the financier of social movements, and the technocrat.
Conservatism has proven unable to resist this juggernaut of unbelief. This should not surprise us, for conservatism does not really believe in the old ways of obedience to God as the path to liberty. It speaks of less government, not out of principle but from selective expedience, because it is too skittish to ride the train of unbelief all the way to its terminus. Conservatism respects the Bible out of tradition, but not out of conviction. It respects history, but only because it desires respectability. It is content to ride the train of unbelief, but in the last car, shouting at the conductor that he is going too fast, but unwilling to warn that the bridge ahead is washed out. Conservatism vainly hopes in the inherent goodness of man and the durability of social conventions. It is usually too wedded to its posh lifestyle and appearance of virtue to expose the danger of arbitrary government and to stand for true liberty under God.
Conservatism seems like a friend, or at least a safer alternative, but Christians at least should be able to see that it is only a common grace, stop-gap measure. We need public men to resist vicious lawlessness, but when the God of nations removes common grace, conservatism is swept along with the legion of unbelief off the precipice of rebellion against God. Yet for most, even in the church, a truly Christian philosophy of limited government based upon submission to God’s government of the nations through his Son, seems pointless to assert. The people will not stand for it, for it requires self-government when there is none. Liberty means standing on your own two feet without government bailouts, no abortion for fornication decisions, and no tolerance for fiscal irresponsibility and moral depravity. But this is the cost of liberty. Public leaders should not practice appeasement parenting in the political sphere. They should learn to say, “No.” They should feel their office too sacred to be bought and paid for by the highest bidder or shouted down by rioters on either side of the street. This is the true lawlessness – public officials who ignore our written laws and mock God’s laws, which alone bring true liberty and peace and prosperity under the blessing of the God of heaven.
Only the Christian faith has the undergirding, the inner dynamic, and the heavenly grace to enjoy true religious and political liberty. All unbelief, whatever its colors, is captive to the devil (2 Tim. 2:26) and blinded by him (2 Cor. 4:4). He works in the children of disobedience (Eph. 2:2), and one of his devastating works is political and economic slavery. The Christian faith raises high the standard of the cross of Jesus Christ. It is by him alone that we are delivered from sin’s blinding slavery. He alone “frees the conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” His cross is not only the standard of personal liberty under his Lordship but of religious and civil liberty, freed from the traditions and commandments of men, freed from the fearmongering and manipulation of secularist rebels.
Our forefathers defended this precious gospel fruit of liberty, and we, their children, must learn to defend it again. As unbelief has risen in the West, love of liberty and willingness to defend it has been eclipsed. This has been Satan’s work, and his real target is the church. He wants to rekindle again the fires of persecution. The cost of obeying God in the face of man’s threats will be no less high for us than it was for our fathers and mothers in the faith. Begin where you are, living as free man or woman in union with the Son of righteousness, the true and only King. Walk by the Spirit, in his Word, and you are Christ’s freedman (1 Cor. 7:22). Pray, speak, and work to deliver men and women from bondage to sin and Satan by using the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Urge those in authority over us to uphold the laws of the land and resist tyranny. The way forward is not easy, but Jesus Christ walks on the path, for he alone gives men liberty and justice by faith working through love and bearing fruit in obedience.