ORIGIN OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
(Its Application to American Government)
by Kerry Lee Morgan*
Turning from our discussion of these Biblical examples of declarations of independence, let us examine other Scriptures to gain a better understanding of how God describes the behavior of civil governments and what cautions and warnings he gives to people to restrain and limit those governments by their consent. The Biblical accounts of civil government and kings from the beginning of time, and the kings of Israel and Judah, reflect a pattern expected from civil government. Perhaps we may also see this pattern is a standard feature of civil governments in world history and that all civil governments whether monarchies, democracies, republics, aristocracies or oligarchies are simply variations of the same themes throughout human history. How does God describe or predict the behavior of civil governments and kings, and what can we expect from them?
The Way Of Kings Is War
If we just started reading the Bible from the beginning, it would not be too many chapters until we stumbled upon the first mention of kings, about two millennia after creation. Right away we would see that the existence and conduct of kings are described not prescribed. What are these kings noted for? The first thing we would learn is that the way of kings is to make a name for themselves and to wage war. It is what kings do. It is what civil governments do. War is the business of civil government. We do not here judge the rightness or wrongness of this or that particular war in any given or specific context. We simply observe that war is what governments do, enjoy doing, and have done the longest. Genesis 14 is the first mention of kings in Scripture, though the kingdom of Babel is discussed earlier. In Genesis 11:4, we are told that the goal of that kingdom among others was to “make a name for ourselves.” All governments want to make a name for themselves. Vanity and war go hand in hand along with the largesse of war — confiscating booty, enlarging territory and enslaving human captives.
They say the past is prologue. Why do we care? It might be important to know this if the founders are going to draft a Declaration of Independence criticizing the king of Great Britain for being a warmonger and making war upon the colonies. It might be an important point to know if we are going to appeal to the law of God claiming that the king’s war against the colonies is wrong. It might be important to know if we are claiming the American Revolution is a defensive war based on the laws of nature and of nature’s God.
The Way Of Civil Government Is To Take By Force
If the original recorded conduct of civil government is make war, to what other evils are they also prone? Perhaps a second insight into God’s view of civil governments universally comes from His statements about the predictable practices of civil governments already existing on the earth. What can be expected is that a civil government is prone to take, take, and take. Here is how God put it after the people demanded a civil government just like all the other nations. God describes the state of the world’s civil governments 2,850 years after creation (1100 BC). He tells us what to expect based on what was then in existence.
He says: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Samuel 8:10-18.
Here God describes the conduct of civil government. He uses the word “take” six times. He neglects to say that civil government “gives.” He doesn’t qualify it or say “Well, you know some of this taking is okay under the following terms and conditions.” He says this is what you can expect from civil government, it will take the best of what you have including your children, property and freedom, and make you its slave. He is saying you are demonstrably stupid to even ask for such a government. He is saying be careful what you wish for. God is not saying this type of civil government is a good thing. He is saying this type of civil government is a bad thing. He is not saying He has instituted or established any such civil governments.
What did the king of Great Britain take? What have your state and local governments taken? What has the United States government taken? Could God just as well have been describing all civil governments, even those approximately 5,950 years later? You bet He has.
God is not saying taking is normative. He is saying this is what covetousness and theft looks like on a grand scale. God does not desire that civil government exercise lawless authority to take, take, and take. He would not have civil government take our children. He would not have civil government take our income, land and property in whole or part. He would not have civil government take our freedom and make us slaves. He would not have us make stupid choices in selecting a tyrannical government. But, He would not prevent us from doing so if we were hell-bent upon our own destruction parading as security. He says if we tax ourselves, then pay that tax so as not to give offense. But Jesus never says that taxation is a positive virtue or right. Matthew 17:27.
Civil Government Should Be Limited If Freedom Is To Be Preserved
In addition to war, taking and slavery, several additional attributes of civil government are identified in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. It states that: “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this 5 law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.”
What does this mean? Simply put, God is warning Israel and the peoples of the nations of the earth at the same time, that civil governments should be limited if freedom is to remain alive. These universal principles of limited civil government are found in Deuteronomy 17 for those who care to look and understand. Absent severe limitations, civil governments are primarily inclined to making war, taking things and persons, and creating a society of slaves, economic or otherwise. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stated this tendency in blunt terms, “The state of our society can be well described in terms of an electromagnetic field. All the lines of force in it point away from freedom and toward tyranny. These lines are very stable, they have etched their way in and set hard in the grooves; it is almost impossible to perturb them, deflect them, twist them about. Any charge, any mass introduced into the field is blown effortlessly in the direction of tyranny, and can never break through toward freedom. For that ten thousand oxen must be yoked.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, Vol. 3, Harper & Roe, p. 479.
The principles of limited civil government on the other hand, are that: 1) civil government should be forced under the law; 2) That civil government should be limited by law; 3) that nations should avoid entangling alliances with other nations; 4) that public officials should avoid personal enrichment at the expense of the people; 5) that civil government should keep its military small and not build up a war machine or seek worldwide global hegemony. These are the minimum limitations a wise people must impose upon their civil governments, should they choose to establish one or many.
Again, God is not saying these limitations on power will happen automatically. He is saying that if people do not limit their civil governments by law and by force of law, then they will know war and poverty, slavery and murder on a grand scale. To call such a civil government an “authority” established by God is far from the truth. To command obedience to such a civil government is to advocate slavery. God would not have civil government increase its wealth through governing. He would not have civil government establish a military empire. He would not have civil government lord its superiority over each of us or any of us. He would not have civil government exempt its officials from the laws which apply to everyone else. He would not have civil government entangle the nation in non-defensive wars of foreign aggression or establish worldwide global hegemony over all nations.
A declaration of independence worthy of the Almighty’s attention should at least address His concerns about such aggression. A declaration should carefully review the conduct of the king or government and look to see if it has thrown off restraint, enriched itself, contracted foreign alliances or amassed a military to oppress the people. We likewise may weigh our current state and federal governments in the same scale of justice. God’s warnings about the wisdom of imposing and maintaining limits on civil power were true for Israel. They are no less equally true and applicable to the nations of the earth today. Careful and constant evaluation and scrutiny of the day to day conduct of civil government through the lens of this Biblical matrix of limited power, is among the chief duties of every man and woman who love freedom. Praise of those who throw off these restraints and who openly brag of these excesses, is the praise of evildoers, usually by those who financially benefit from such evildoing.
The People May Choose Their Government As Well As Their Leaders
How should such a government as described in Genesis 14 and 1 Samuel 8, be limited as described in Deuteronomy 17? Perhaps the answer lies in the consent of those who must live under that government. An example of consent, indeed of government by consent in its most basic and simple form is found in Deuteronomy 1:13. Here, Moses recounts how he proposed to the people of Israel that they should choose their own leaders and judges. He said to the people: “‘Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ And you answered me, The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.'” Here we have the idea that the people should choose their leaders. We also have the idea that those who are chosen ought to at least be wise, understanding and experienced.
Thus, our simple and brief survey has indicated three basic principles. First, that civil government left to its own devices and sense of justice will make war, take, take, take on the grand scale described in 1 Samuel 8, and servitude of the people is the result. The people serve their governments. Second, God being practical and wise has suggested that if people create a civil government they should aggressively limit its power. After that the people should limit its power even further. And if that does not work, then abolish that government and start again. Deuteronomy 17 describes five situations in which power should be limited. Third, the people should choose those persons among them who are wise, understanding and experienced and then place limits upon their offices so they too will avoid war, taking and enslavement of the people.
Remarkably, we may observe that the Declaration of Independence describes a civil government in Great Britain then waging war against the colonies, eating out the substance of the people and depriving the people of their free consent in the organization of their colonial governments including dishonoring their choice of representatives. It describes a civil government in Great Britain that took from the people and taxed them without consent. It described a civil government that pretended to aggregate all power in the office of the king. It described a civil government that dissolved their colonial legislatures and therefore denied them the right to choose any wise leaders among them. This is the only way to read the grievances of the colonists against the king in the bright light of these three basic principles made known and deduced from the laws of Nature’s God as reflected in the Scripture. It is what gives their grievances power and universal appeal, precisely because they were shown to the nations by the God of nations Himself.
Support For The Declaration’s Grievances
We will shortly compare each of the allegations against the king stated in the Declaration of Independence against the foregoing Scriptural litmus tests. Hopefully this chapter has helped us first see the big picture. The king acted in a way that the colonists thought was wrong. He acted within the stream of history as Genesis 11 & 14 and as Samuel recognized kings would act. He acted to make his dominion the world and built up his military and wealth to see that vision through. The colonies were part of his dominion, his worldwide global Empire. The colonists said “We have petitioned you to restrain yourself” and these petitions stand in the historical stream of those like petitions that went before as in the case of Rehoboam.
The framers also recognized that civil government should be limited as conceptualized in Deuteronomy 17, which is an historical waypoint. It should be limited because absent limits, God has shown us the default conduct of civil governments in 1 Samuel 8. He has also shown us worthless revolutions in 2 Samuel 20 under Sheba, and successful ones in 1 Kings 12 under Jeroboam. These too stand in the stream of history. The framers of the Declaration of Independence and the people of that day who supported independence put the pieces of the puzzle together in a cogent way: civil government tends toward tyranny, limits on its power must be imposed, the consent and participation of the people in their government and the choice of their officers is wise and good. This is the teaching of the law of Nature’s God as revealed. This is worthy of marking in yellow highlighter.
Finally, we do not intend to diminish the ancient philosophers or the Greeks in what they also observed and advised with regard to civil government. They recognized what they did because they used right reason or they were inspired by God or they learned by experience. But we do add here that the Scriptures itself contains the seeds by which lawful revolutions may be known, understood and undertaken including the American one, though not perfectly formed. Therein we have revealed practical observations of the nature of unrestrained civil power and its predisposition to make war, take, covet, steal, enslave and murder. The Scripture also describes how the people have a power within their hand to limit civil government and to provide practical limits which ought never be ignored in the framing, alteration, or abolition of any civil government.