The Right to Alter or Abolish the Government:
God Makes Nations, Men Make Governments
by Gerald R. Thompson
If I were to tell you without qualification that the American people have a God-given right to alter or abolish the U.S. government or any state government and to replace them with something new, how would that strike you? Would you reject the idea because it is only me who is saying it? Does the idea seem too radical, or too extreme? Would it make a difference if you realized that without this type of radical extremist thinking, there wouldn’t be a United States of America at all? Let’s put it into context:
- We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men…. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. … Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Declaration of Independence (1776).
Still think the idea of a right to alter or abolish any of our present governments is too radical or extreme? Well, some people certainly think so, and they’ve taken steps to make sure nothing like what happened in the American Revolution ever happens again. First, they have taken pains to discredit the Declaration and to restrict the way it is taught in government approved curricula and government sponsored schools (including universities). Second, they have enacted statutes to strongly discourage any “throwing off” of the government, to wit:
- Rebellion or insurrection. Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both…. 18 U.S.C. §2383.
- Seditious conspiracy. If two or more persons … in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, … they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both. 18 U.S.C. §2384.
- Advocating overthrow of Government. Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State … by force or violence, * * * Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both…. 18 U.S.C. §2385.
Just let the above words sink in for a moment. First we have a quotation from the founding document of our nation, beloved and cherished by Americans for well over 200 years, to the effect that people have not only the right, but the duty, to throw off an abusive, despotic or tyrannical government which tramples on their individual rights.
Then we have laws enacted by that same nation having the primary purpose of ensuring that no one ever overthrows the existing government, conspires to overthrow it, or advocates its overthrow – without regard to whether those actions might actually be justified because the government has become abusive, despotic or tyrannical. Which illustrates a truism – the people have an absolute right to alter or abolish any given form of government, but the persons in power absolutely never want people to exercise that right.
It should be painfully obvious this is one reason (among others) why the Declaration of Independence has not been seriously regarded as law by legal scholars for over 100 years (and why it has been denigrated in academia). If people actually took the words of the Declaration at face value it would create all kinds of problems for our modern world, and people in academia, law and government have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Belief in a government of limited powers, or (God help us!) a government that can be discarded from time to time, would put politicians and government workers of all stripes (as well as those in the symbiotic fields of law and education) at risk for losing their jobs – an intolerable risk. That is one reason why mainstream political culture left the worldview of the American founders in the ash heap of history long ago.
However, I believe the Declaration yet has things to teach us that not only have value, but authority, as we deal with the pressing issues of an overreaching, over-regulating, abusive, and dare I say, increasingly tyrannical American government (both state and federal). I’d like to show you that the ideas embodied in the Declaration are really not radical or extreme at all. In fact, it’s not even complicated.
For this purpose, I will assume the Declaration’s statements are not based on mere political expediency (i.e., that the founders just said whatever they needed to say to give their political goals plausibility). I assume the founders were not a bunch of political charlatans – they actually believed what they said and were not deceived in their beliefs either. So in that light, let’s consider the evidence from history and the laws of nature and nature’s God, and see whether we can discover any eternal principles which undergird the Declaration’s statements.
NOT BY FORCE OR VIOLENCE
I am not advocating the exercise of any right to alter or abolish our forms of government by force or violence. I say this not because Title 18 of the U.S. Code forbids it, but because I simply don’t need to. The right to alter or abolish is a natural right which is perfectly capable of being exercised lawfully without force or violence.
The laws of nature and nature’s God allow for a way, actually several ways, to bring about fundamental government change peacefully without armed conflict. The most likely scenario for doing such a thing in America would be through a convention of states – either pursuant to Article V of the U.S. Constitution or apart from it through a Congress of States. At the state level, the people can similarly call for a constitutional convention directly.
If we look at the American Revolution, we can see that this is how the founders tried very hard to act. When the Declaration of Independence was adopted, it was brought into existence by the states through their duly appointed representatives. The Declaration followed a long series of events and documents laying the foundation for its adoption, including the Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress (1765), the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress (1774), and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775). All of which were adopted through duly appointed representatives of the people.
The war, when it came, was not instigated by the American founders. That is, the revolutionaries were careful not to be the military aggressors. Rather, the war was instigated by the British to prevent the American colonies from breaking free from Britain’s rule. For their part, the Americans fought a defensive war, i.e., to defend their right to declare independence against the British attempt to stop them.
So even though a war was fought, throwing off the British constitution in the legal sense was not accomplished by force or violence. But as often happens in life, you may have to militarily defend your freedom to act in the way you deem best. The American Revolution also illustrates the truth that no government official ever views an attempt to overthrow his position as lawful in his own mind, no matter how lawfully it may be regarded in the minds of the people who want him removed.
Looking at our current situation, no form of government can exist for over 200 years without building up a substantial amount of systemic inertia. By this I mean the tendency of all institutions to resist sudden or substantial changes to the direction they have been heading in up to that point.
By definition, any attempt to alter or abolish any form of civil government is a jolt to the system which will clash with that system’s entrenched interests. Further, any entrenched interest will resist alteration or abolition from an outside source. And when that entrenched interest is attached to the power of the sword (i.e., civil power), it will resist violently.
From the vantage point of those employed in government service (politicians, career bureaucrats, civil service workers, etc.), there is little difference between foreign attacks, domestic insurrection and lawful attempts to alter or abolish. Government employees are all part of the system, and foreign agents, domestic terrorists, and advocates of fundamental change are all outside the system. Thus, the response of government employees to all outside agents is the same – eliminate and crush all threats to their jobs. Keeping their jobs is more important than anything else.
Are you surprised that the current U.S. government labels Tea Party members, libertarians and militia groups as domestic terrorists? Don’t be. To public employees, those people are all equally outside the government system who want to significantly reduce the size of government or fundamentally alter the way the government does things. Which ultimately always translates into reducing the number of government agencies and employees, i.e., cutting large numbers of public jobs. To those inside the government, government reduction is a threat.
In a sense, it’s all about the jobs. Not just the money, but the power that goes with the position. Reduce government spending? Cut government programs? We’re not just talking about money in the abstract here – but money paid to government employees to wield power. Since that is their livelihood, and it is human nature to crave power, they will use all the force and violence they can to prevent interference with their jobs, i.e., positions of power.
You can talk about special interests all you want, but it is the entrenched interests you should worry about. Whenever I hear someone refer to government employees as career bureaucrats, a shiver runs up my spine. These are the true government insiders, who view the President as a mere temporary employee, because the bureaucrats will be there long after any President leaves office.
The upshot of which is that every government system – most especially the American system of government – will be extremely resistant to change. And that resistance will be fueled by a desire to prevent being forced to give up money and power. When people aren’t fighting over religion and power, they are usually fighting over money and power, and that is as strong a motivation as anyone needs to make things turn ugly fast.
As a proponent of change (that is, to alter or abolish the form of government), you should expect that even if you are not looking for trouble, trouble will come looking for you. People in power will ignore you as long as they can, then slander and discredit you when that is no longer possible. They will heap economic and legal problems on you in an attempt to bury you under burdens that prevent your from forcefully advocating change. If that fails, ultimately they will use police actions and military force to put down your insurrection.
The astute reader will note that there are no statutes prohibiting an overthrow of the existing government, conspiring to overthrow it, or advocating its overthrow by non-violent means. That is because such statutes are unnecessary. If you work to abolish the government peacefully, the response will be to initiate an attack against you. If you defend yourself against such an attack, you will be labeled the aggressor and be found in violation of the statutes against violent overthrow. It’s all very convenient.
So be warned. As a proponent of fundamental change you must not ever be a violent aggressor or the initiator of armed conflict. If it comes to violence, let it not begin with you. Just realize that violence may be an unavoidable consequence of actions lawfully taken. This should be a sobering thought to all who consider the matter carefully.
Ideas have consequences, and the ideas we are about to discuss in what follows are considered by some to be dangerous and/or extreme. So proceed at your own risk. But as for me, I will not be ruled by fear. Instead, I will follow the example of Jesus:
- “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matt. 10:28.
GOD MAKES NATIONS – MEN MAKE GOVERNMENTS
As we begin to consider whether people have a God-given or inalienable right to alter or abolish their form of government, we have to look at the factors which either point in that direction or mitigate against it. The first factor is whether civil governments, particularly in Gentile nations, are created, instituted or established by God or by men. If by God, then there can hardly be a God-given right to destroy what God has established. But if by men, then it is reasonable to assume that whatever men have the right to create, they can also change or destroy.
God Is the Creator of Nations
When the world, and mankind, were created, there were no nations. But that doesn’t necessarily mean nations were created by men. Gen. 10:1-31 gives us a genealogical list of the descendants of Noah, organized by family group, approximately 100 years after the flood (at the time of the tower of Babel). Gen. 10:32 summarizes the genealogy as follows: “These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.”
Gen. 10 is commonly known as the Table of Nations, because as Gen. 11:8-9 tells us, these 70 or so family groups were dispersed across the earth because they each spoke a different language. For many years these population groups had very little intermarriage, which caused each of them to develop certain distinctive physical and cultural characteristics that we now refer to as ethnicity. These ethnic groups in turn were the roots from which the nations originally sprang.
This separation of mankind into nations by language and ethnicity was not the invention of any man or group of men. The division of the world into nations was not founded on the directives of any human leader, the consent of any committee, nor was it the result of a natural evolutionary process. Rather, it was entirely God’s idea – an idea imposed on mankind without its consent as a form of divine judgment. God is the maker of the nations of the world, not men.
This is confirmed by later scriptures. “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” Deut. 32:8. “And he [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” Acts 17:26. Who made the nations? God did.
However, when God made the nations, He gave not one of them a form of government. How they governed themselves was up to each of them to determine in their own way and in their own time. Even back in Gen. 9:6, when God instructed the descendants of Noah to implement capital punishment – commonly regarded as the first delegation of civil power (the power of the sword) – there was no civil government yet instituted to wield this new power. In fact, at that time there were not yet even any nations – all of mankind was one community.
So we may say that biblically and historically, both civil power (Gen. 9:6) and nationality (Gen. 10:32) preceded the formation of any civil government. Nations came first, and civil governments followed later, which gives rise to three corollaries:
- 1) If nations and civil governments arose at different times, they likely arose by different means and were instigated by different persons. Sure enough, though scripture has abundant evidence of the hand of God in creating the nations, there is a conspicuous absence of similar evidence (except for Israel, discussed below) that He had a hand in creating any civil government. The absence of something does not prove the point, however, so I will take up this subject in more detail immediately following.
2) Logically we must conclude that nations and civil governments are not the same thing, but are two separate things. The same distinction can be made between the true Church (the invisible body of Christ) and religious institutions (the visible church). One reflects the other, and one is made to govern the other, but what God makes and what men make can never be made equal or identical. But I digress. I will discuss this topic in the next major section below.
3) Civil government was not (and is not) necessary for either the existence of nations, or the existence of the valid use of civil power. At this point we come to an inconvenient truth: civil government may be useful, but in the plan of the God who made man, it is not indispensable. No, I’m not seriously advocating that all civil government be done away with. Yes, I am seriously advocating that no particular form of civil government is absolutely critical to mankind’s existence. [Do you think people cannot possibly live well on the earth without the U.S. Constitution? Based on what?]
Governments Are Instituted Among Men
What we have as between God and men is a division of labor. God makes nations and He grants and defines the nature of civil power. God establishes rules and parameters (i.e., laws) by which all civil governments are constrained, but He does not actually form (that is, create or structure) civil governments. (More on this later on.) What man does is to determine the form of government, what documents (if any) will establish and/or define that government, what powers may be exercised in what ways, and the manner of succession. God does not interfere in such matters.
The one exception, of a sort, was ancient Israel, which was a unique situation in the history of the world. What made it unique is that ancient Israel is the only nation in which God was actually: 1) a party to the national covenant (i.e., constitution); and 2) king of the nation. These two things are what make for the existence of a true theocracy. No other nation in the history of the world can make the claim to be a theocracy in the sense that Israel was. The case of ancient Israel is unique.
Now the nation of Israel was not formed at Babel as were other nations, but was made from the descendants of Jacob (renamed Israel) – an act of God, not men. But Israel was not an independent nation until centuries later when they were delivered from bondage in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. It was at this point that the people of Israel first began the task of organizing a government.
In Exo. 19:5-6 God first announced His intention with respect to the nation. “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The response of the people is recorded in Exo. 19:8: “All the people answered together and said, All that the Lord has spoken we will do.'”
In other words, before any form of government was instituted, the first act of the people was to agree to make a national covenant with the Creator, who had called them to be a special people and a holy nation. This agreement was made by the people of their own free choice, and not by coercion.
Then, after the Ten Commandments had been delivered and various laws and rules had been spoken in the hearing of all the people (i.e., when the people actually heard the terms of the covenant), they gave their consent again.
- Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Exo. 24:7-8.
The first system of government adopted in ancient Israel was a system of judges, whereby the judge would be the court of last resort in a judicial sense and also wield some limited executive power (i.e., leader of the army, a commander-in-chief function). But even this system was largely self-directed by the people. Moses, at the urging of his father-in-law Jethro (not God) was advised to:
- “look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves.” Exo. 18:21-22.
Israel’s government during the time of the judges was one of the most de-centralized national governments in the history of the world. Most all government matters such as disputes and law enforcement were carried out in this multi-tiered fashion whereby the bulk of government functions occurred at the local level, not the national level.
Which brings us to the last verse in the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Jdg. 21:25.) This verse is often taken by commentators as an implicit indictment against the Jewish people, but I read it differently.
If nothing else, it indicates that the system of judges was highly de-centralized, had very limited powers, and essentially left the people to govern themselves as they saw fit. In other words, both God and man placed a high value on self-government. Which was a good thing, because that’s what God intended. It’s not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you envision a theocracy, is it?
What happens next in the history of Israel is even more instructive. The transition from a system of judges to a monarchy wasn’t God’s idea either. It was driven by popular demand.
- Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, … “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. … Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 1 Sam. 8:4-5, 7, 9.
So when it came to governing the theocracy, God (the Creator, the Almighty, and the king of Israel) deferred to the wishes of the people. He neither forced a monarchy upon them, nor did He veto a change in the form of government when the people asked for it. He merely warned them what a more centralized government with a strong executive power would look like. Then He let the people decide what to do. And they decided to go for it, despite the warnings. 1 Sam. 8:19-20.
Ah, but you may say, “Didn’t God anoint the kings over Israel, thus proving that He instituted the monarchy?” Yes, God did anoint the kings over Israel. But this made none of them actually king.
Saul was anointed by Samuel in 1 Sam. 10:1, but he was not actually made king until he was presented to the people and the people shouted, “Long live the king!” in 1 Sam. 10:24. Similarly, David was anointed Israel’s next king in 1 Sam. 16:13. But Saul was still king at the time, and David was probably only a teenager. In any event, it was several years before David actually became king, and then only when accepted as king by the people.
It is precisely this situation which Samuel Rutherford used to argue that it is the people who make a king, not God. “If the Lord’s immediate designation of David, and his anointing by the divine authority of Samuel, had been that which alone, without the election of the people, made David formally king of Israel, then there were two kings in Israel at one time,” a situation which Rutherford called “most repugnant to God’s truth and sound reason.” Rutherford, Lex Rex, Question 4 (1644).
In fact, David ruled over only the tribe of Judah for 7½ years. 2 Sam. 2:11. He was not installed as king over the entire nation until the elders of all the tribes of Israel came to David and made a covenant with him, i.e., until David had the consent of the people. 2 Sam. 5:1-4. Although God had a hand in conferring succession to the throne of Israel with David’s descendants (2 Sam. 7:16), this did not put God in the business of instituting Israel’s form of government, which by that point had already been established by the people.
Besides, God retains the authority and discretion to raise up and remove leaders in any nation, not just ancient Israel, none of which puts Him in the government formation business. More on this point below.
So even though ancient Israel was an exceptional case – a theocracy – the form of its government was driven by the consent of the people, not by divine imposition. In a way, ancient Israel is our hardest case. If God let the people choose their form of government in a theocracy, then why on earth would He intervene by imposing a form of government in any other non-theocratic nation? And if He had ever imposed a civil government elsewhere, what nation would it be and where is the evidence for it?
It would seem the general rule in Gentile nations is that civil governments are instituted among men via the consent of the governed. At least, that is what the American founders believed: governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed (Declaration of Independence). The founders were also familiar with what the scriptures said about ancient Israel: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction.” 1 Co. 10:11.
A NATION AND ITS GOVERNMENT ARE NOT THE SAME
The next thing to consider regarding the possible right of the people to alter or abolish their form of government is whether a nation and its government are two different things, or one and the same. If they are the same, then to destroy a government is to destroy a nation which God has created. If they are not the same, then to destroy a government has the potential to leave a nation intact and leave God’s creation untouched. Obviously the preceding discussion heavily leans toward a nation and its government being two separate things. But let us examine the matter more closely by comparing the case examples of ancient Israel and the United States of America.
As discussed above, after Israel had existed for about 400 years, it radically changed its form of government. From the time of Moses up through Samuel, Israel was governed by a series of judges which was highly decentralized and had a tribal and familial organization. Similarly, the national army was really a militia-based system which was also organized along tribal and familial lines.
Nobody’s going to argue the ancient Israelites did a terrific job at governing themselves under the judges, but that’s not the point. That’s the way God intended for them to be governed, like it or not, and He had no intention of changing it. But the Israelites had other ideas, which is what eventually brought about the monarchy.
And there is another lesson to be learned besides consent of the governed. When ancient Israel abolished its form of civil government (the system of judges) and adopted a new form of government (a monarchy), the nation as an entity – its people, language, culture, territory and for the most part, its laws – were unchanged. Abolishing the form of government did not destroy the nation. The nation itself remained intact. Why? Because a nation and its government are not the same thing.
The writers of the Declaration of Independence were familiar with the Old Testament scriptures and adopted a legal framework consistent with that model. Thus, the Declaration states that although rights are endowed by the Creator, “governments are instituted among men.” Meaning, governments are not created by God, and rights are not created by men. God and men are not opposed to each other, but they play different roles and are involved in separate aspects of national formation and governance.
The plain fact is that the Declaration made no pretense to form a government of the United States. Its sole purpose was to create the nation of the United States. The formation of its government would have to come later, and be done separately. And we know from history that this is exactly how things played out – the Declaration was made in 1776, and the first national government didn’t come along until 1781 in the form of the Articles of Confederation. But we are no longer governed by the Articles of Confederation. So what happened?
The Articles were replaced by the U.S. Constitution (drafted in 1787, implemented in 1789). Which is a polite way of saying the government instituted by the Articles of Confederation was abolished. The mission of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was merely to alter or amend the Articles of Confederation, but instead the delegates decided to discard the Articles altogether. And far from destroying the United States as a nation, the nation was strengthened as a result. One might even say that changing the form of government was a good thing.
When you think about it, the national histories of ancient Israel and the U.S.A. have some remarkable parallels. Both were created and existed for some time before any form of government was established.[Aside: If the analogy between ancient Israel and the United States be carried to its logical conclusion, some of you may be wondering – Who created the United States as a nation, God or men? That is an interesting inquiry, but I will not delve into it here. Instead, I refer the reader to explore The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, by Benjamin F. Morris (American Vision Press, 2007), or The Christian History of the American Revolution, ed. Verna M. Hall (The Foundation for American Christian Education, 1976).]
When created, the initial form of government in each nation was fully consented to by the people, but in each case the people grew dissatisfied with that form of government and decided to reformulate it in significant ways.
At that point in each nation’s history, duly appointed representatives of the people met and decided to adopt a new form of government, which actions were ratified by the people. When the old form of government was discarded, no thought was ever given to the possibility that the nation itself ceased to exist, or was in jeopardy. The people continued as one nation through the transition to a new form of government.
In each case the initial form of government was, in a real sense, disposable, i.e., not critical to the existence of the nation. And in the case of America, the initial form of government was not merely disposable, but in fact was commonly viewed as defective and/or injurious to the well being of the nation. Which is a polite way of saying the national government was more harmful than good. Its presence was not sacrosanct, but onerous.
In both ancient Israel and America the transition from one form of government to another was accomplished peacefully, without violence. No one thought that because people were proposing the adoption of a new form of government and a discarding of the old form, the proponents of change (i.e., delegates to the Constitutional Convention) were traitors, rebellious, or insurrectionist. No one viewed the proposal to change governments as a threat, a crime, an act of terror, or an act of war.
So let me ask you – If a similar thing were to happen today, who would be standing in line with our own history, with the laws of nature and nature’s God, and with natural right? The peaceful proponents of change who would dare to attempt to curtail tyranny, or those who would crush any such attempt with force and violence to preserve the status quo?
Why should the abolition of any government – even the U.S. government – be feared? Frankly, I don’t see the problem. It is not only theoretically possible to alter or abolish a nation’s form of government without being destructive to the nation or its people, but it has actually happened both in ancient and in modern times. So what is there to fear?
Which brings me to a final point. Every nation of course has a right to preserve its government against foreign threats and from the lawless actions of persons within its borders. However, no government has the right of self-preservation as against the will of its own people. The people who have the right to form a government have the inherent right to re-form it (alter) or un-form it (abolish). This right is an inalienable (God-given) right which can never under any circumstances be denied.
The creature (civil government) cannot ever say to the creator (the people), “You cannot unmake me.” This is the lesson from the potter and the clay, is it not? (Jer. 18:1-11.) The creator always has complete authority over anything it creates.
Self-preservation only applies to those persons and institutions which God has created, ordained and established (individual, family and Church), not to other associations and institutions created and established by men. Civil governments fall into this second category, not the first. A civil government has no inalienable right to life.
Of course, there’s always the problem of coming up with a suitable replacement government that will hopefully be better. But if that one doesn’t work well, it can be replaced, too. Although, I have to admit there is no such thing as a perfect system of government. All government systems will eventually become corrupted and fail, because that is man’s unavoidable nature. Until we have perfect men, there will never be a perfect government system. And that will never happen.
The American founders had a fairly good appreciation of man’s fallen nature. They tried to build in checks and balances to avoid concentrating too much power in any one place so as to prevent corruption and tyranny. Today, I’m not sure that mentality prevails anywhere. If anything, people in government positions today are pursuing a civil utopia with a zeal that tells me they either think man is perfectible, or government is. In either case, they are dead wrong.
I also don’t fear people wanting to re-form the government so much as I fear people will want to un-make our nation. In the case of America, that would mean not merely throwing out the Constitution, but actually undoing the Declaration of Independence and forming an entirely new nation. The main problem with that – and the usual motivation for anyone having that goal – is to get rid of the laws of nature and of nature’s God as the basis for our nation’s laws.
Now that I have a problem with, because there simply isn’t any better legal context for establishing a nation, regardless of its form of government. That is where the ultimate battle over national governance lies – will we as a people continue to be governed by the laws of nature and nature’s God, or not? And once a nation gets off track in that regard, how do we bring it back?
THERE IS NO AUTHORITY EXCEPT FROM GOD
Earlier I spoke of a division of labor between God and men when it comes to implementing a national government. Man chooses the form of government, what powers it may exercise, and the manner in which it will endure. God, on the other hand, grants and defines the nature of civil power. Let us now examine this latter proposition, especially as it relates to the question of whether it puts God in the government formation business, notwithstanding what we have already covered.
There are a number of key delegations of authority from God to man relating to man’s government. The first, coterminous with the creation of the world, inaugurated man’s self-government and the institution of the family, and is commonly referred to as the Dominion Mandate. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Gen. 1:28.
Another such delegation, usually called the Great Commission, inaugurated the Church. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Mat. 28:18-20.
Although God announced His intentions with respect to the nation of Israel and its government in Exo. 19:5-6 (which we have already examined), He made no express delegation of authority (i.e., civil power) with respect to the formation of the government in any Gentile nation. Since the divine delegations of authority regarding individual, family and church government apply across the board to all mankind irrespective of nationality, we might expect God would do the same for nations. But there is none.
The closest any grant of authority comes is the authorization to implement capital punishment in Gen. 9:6 which, being the quintessential power of the sword, is a type of civil power. But it is not directed to any nation or group of nations, and in fact when it was given there were a total of only eight persons on the whole face of the earth. The division of the human race into nations at Babel would not occur for another one or two centuries.
This would seem to clench the argument that all civil governments are instituted among men, not by God. Because the only time when God made an express grant of civil power to mankind in general was when no nations existed. After the nations did come into existence, God never formed a civil government among the Gentiles, and never vested any civil ruler with the divine authority to rule.
What else are we to conclude? That God gave some secret authorization to certain people so they could rule over others? That by custom or habit certain special people were vested with a divine right of kings? That some people have inherited the right to rule over others, and everyone else is born in subjection to them? Well, these arguments have certainly been used before, some of which have even tried to find justification in the Bible. But let’s not engage in idle speculation.
The Nature of Civil Authority
If the laws of nature and nature’s God are to be our guide, then what we do in fact have is a couple of statements where the nature of civil authority is generally described:
- Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Rom. 13:1-4.
- Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 1 Pet. 2:13-17.
These texts suggest, since they are unconnected with the formation of any particular civil government, what it is that God expects all civil governments to do. These expectations are twofold: 1) punish wrongdoers with the power of the sword; and 2) praise those who do good. As understood in the American context, these are taken to mean: 1) the administration of justice; and 2) securing individual rights.
I will not examine at this point what wrongs may be punished by men and which may not, why the American tradition reads praising those who do good as securing individual rights, or what things God has not authorized civil government to do. Each of these is worth pursuing at another time. For now, I just want to consider the nature and source of civil authority in general, and how God expects people to respond to that authority.
I purposely gave an extended introduction to these texts to lay a contextual framework for understanding them. First, that God has created no form of government for any Gentile nation, and second, that God has given no direct delegation of civil authority to any Gentile ruler. We need these basic principles firmly grounded before coming to these texts. I will begin by examining three key phrases which pose some interpretive challenges.
For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed. I take this text to mean primarily that civil government is not inherently evil, but that when God created the nations He in fact intended them to exercise civil power, and that it was mankind’s job to institute such forms of civil government as would carry out God’s intention. Note that it is civil authority which God has instituted, not any particular form of government, nor any specific persons as civil rulers.
For he [the civil ruler] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. This text indicates that the institution of civil government, consistent with God’s purposes and intentions, is a good thing. It is also consistent with the general intention of God that all human institutions – including individual self-government, family government, and church government – are meant to restrain evil. Civil government is likewise tasked with restraining evil – the only difference being the types of evils it may restrain and the means it may use to restrain them when compared to the individual, family and church.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him. It is the nature of all civil governments to have multiple layers or tiers of responsibility. We saw this in the system of judges in ancient Israel, which is carried over into the American system of federal, state and local government. All such authority, when properly constituted, is equally entitled to respect and obedience.
What I do not see in any of these texts is an injunction for all people to give slavish obedience and homage to their civil rulers as embodiments of the presence of God among men. First, we must read all of scripture consistent with the rest of scripture and not force an interpretation which does violence to our understanding of many other texts. Second, we must carefully note what the Rom. 13 and 1 Pet. 2 texts do not say, namely,
- Civil rulers stand in the place of God over the people, to the extent they may exercise authority which God has reserved unto Himself alone (i.e., authority over the mind and heart, and matters which God has elsewhere delegated to individuals, families or the church).
God has placed certain people in positions of civil authority, and if you dare to challenge their authority you will incur the wrath of God.
Everything civil rulers do is by definition approved and sanctioned by God, because the mere fact they are in those positions shows divine approval.
Every act taken to hold civil rulers to the limited authority God has given them is an act of rebellion against God Himself.
Locke & The Divine Right of Kings
I sincerely hope we will not ever have to re-litigate the question of whether civil rulers have a divine right to rule, be they prophet, priest, king or president. I should have thought that matter firmly settled for all ages in the negative by John Locke’s First Treatise on Government (1680), which can be viewed in its entirety at http://www.lonang.com/exlibris/locke/. However, since that essay is not as well known as the Second Treatise and is likely not required reading material in very many schools these days, let me briefly summarize it.
At the time, the crown of England through its puppet apologist Sir Robert Filmer published a book amid much fanfare claiming to show that the king of England was, to paraphrase Romans 13, the servant of God who was instituted and appointed by God, and that the only choice of the people was to be in subjection and render obedience. Filmer’s argument is referred to today as the divine right of kings. This is, of course, exactly the way many people even today interpret Romans 13, and such an interpretation can only ever lead to one conclusion – absolute tyranny.
There is nothing worse than a civil ruler who thinks not only that he has unlimited power, but he is also the special agent of God to dispense justice on earth so that his authority is beyond question. In other words, a coupling of absolute power with absolute moral authority. God is able to restrain Himself in the use of absolute power and authority, but man always corrupts it for very great evil – absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In any event, the arguments made by Filmer were largely based on the claim that the king derived his authority as the heir and successor to Adam – Adam the original man, of the Garden of Eden. Locke in his First Treatise showed that every such claim was logically false, essentially by doing a detailed exposition of the book of Genesis, destroying the concept of the divine right of kings. Locke laid bare the foundation on which Filmer’s arguments rested, namely, “That no man is born free.” And I say to you, that is still the issue today – are people born free or not?
Interestingly, there is one argument the English crown and Sir Filmer never made, which is the one people now commonly ascribe to Romans 13 – “the mere fact I am king necessarily proves that God put me here.” You see, the English king knew that such a claim is easily refuted – all one has to do is assassinate the king and install a successor. Then the new king can claim “it must have been God’s will, because He allowed it to happen.” There isn’t a whole lot of security in that argument.
It’s funny that people today gravitate towards a line of reasoning that at the time, when the divine right of kings was popular, was known to be impractical and foolish. Oh, how far we have fallen!
Which leaves us with a terrible irony. Jesus came to bring liberty (Lk. 4:18) and God intended that civil rulers would be for our good (Rom. 13:4). Yet, the way many people read Romans 13, it brings only bondage and evil. Shame on us! The solution? Change the way we understand the scriptures. And if your pastor or teacher is leading you into submission and subjection as a way of life instead of freedom and liberty, then change your pastor or teacher.
WHETHER GOD IS A KING MAKER
But someone will ask: Doesn’t the Bible say God raises up specific individuals as kings of the earth? If so, doesn’t it mean that in spite of all that we have examined so far, God doesn’t actually want people to be altering or abolishing governments because that would allow people to depose the rulers God has installed? And how can anyone claim to have a God-given right to thwart what God has done? Well, let’s see what the Bible says.
- He [God] changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. Dan. 2:21.
- The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men. Dan. 4:17.
- So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” John 19:10-11.
How are we to understand these verses? Let me make a couple of analogies. Suppose you pray that God will send you a husband or wife and you believe your prayer has been answered. Or perhaps someone just comes into your life unexpectedly who later becomes your spouse. After the wedding, you (like many people) are apt to say that God brought so-and-so into your life, for which you are very thankful and happy.
Yet, the reality is that between your first meeting and the eventual wedding, there was a period of dating, of getting to know each other, during which you gradually made a commitment to date no others, and to be an exclusive couple. At some point there was a proposal of marriage and an acceptance. At the wedding ceremony, vows were made and promises exchanged by both of you. Still, looking back on the whole experience, you are more likely to say, “Look what God did in our lives,” rather than “Look what we made happen.”
Did God force you to marry your spouse under coercion or duress? Did anything that happened occur without the consent of both of you at every step along the way? Did God bypass the institution of marriage or the family in any way, violate the norms and customs of human relationships, or negate your individual free will? Of course not. Yet you still say, “God did it.”
Move to another example. Many churches, especially in the Protestant world, engage in the process of calling a new pastor from time to time. In terms of mechanics, a pastoral search committee is formed, candidates are reviewed, interviews take place, and often select candidates are invited to come speak so the congregation can hear them. After which a vote is taken, and an offer of employment is extended, negotiated and accepted.
The net result of which is, 99 times out of 100, someone will make an announcement to the congregation that “God has called so-and-so to serve as pastor” or that “so-and-so has heard God’s call.” Did any of this occur without the consent of the church or the pastor? Did God bypass the organizing documents of the church, or its rules or procedures? Was anyone coerced or have their free will negated? Again, no. Yet people still say, “God called the pastor.”
So it is with kings and other civil rulers. The two verses from Daniel quoted above show nothing more or less than God can promote or demote individuals as may serve His purposes any time He wishes. He can grant anyone mercy, or favor, or he can judge anyone, or discipline them. God has done this throughout history and continues this type of activity today.
But when it is said that God sets up and removes rulers, or gives kingdoms to whomever He chooses, it does not mean that He: 1) bypasses the consent of the people; 2) uses coercion; 3) violates anyone’s free will; or 4) overturns, overrules, or sidesteps the laws of that nation. In other words, when it is said that God raises up or tears down individual rulers, it does not mean that God is instituting a new form of government in any nation, nor that He is altering or abolishing any form of government.
Promoting or demoting individuals with respect to positions of power does not put God in the government formation business. His intervention in the lives of individuals is perfectly consistent with the principle that governments are instituted by men.
As for John 19, Jesus’ answer to Pilate merely confirms what we already know from Romans 13 – that God established the nature and boundaries of civil power in general. There is no implication whatever that God instituted the form of government of the Roman Empire or any other Gentile nation before or since.
By this time you should see a pattern emerging: that all arguments, whether concerning the creation of the nations, the example of ancient Israel, the nature of civil authority, or the way God raises up people to prominent positions, point in the same direction, namely, that the business of setting up and tearing down civil governments is wholly within the jurisdiction of man, and not something God undertakes Himself. There is a uniform witness of the laws of nature and nature’s God to this effect.
But to see this pattern, you have to be willing to see all of the relevant scriptures in the light of each other, and not any of them in isolation. You cannot just pick out Rom. 13:1 or Dan. 4:17 by itself and make either of them into a doctrine. You have to be willing to take into account the whole counsel of God (Cf. Acts 20:27) and make sure all scriptures are read consistently with each other.