ORIGIN OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
(A Biblical Examination of Its Origin and Jurisdiction)
by Kerry Lee Morgan*
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” Luke 12:13-14
“An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” Jeremiah 5:30-31.
“We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is, and the judiciary is the safeguard of our liberty and of our property under the Constitution.” Speech before the Chamber of Commerce, Elmira, New York (3 May 1907); published in Addresses and Papers of Charles Evans Hughes, Governor of New York, 1906 1908 (1908), p. 139.
Two Critical Questions To Always Ask
We are told to be ready to defend our faith and views and “know what you believe.” This is good, but this is hardly enough. The first matter of importance is do you know how to ask questions the right questions? Before moving into a further discussion of civil government, pause and understand two critical questions that should be on your mind, day and night.
First, can you discern what is right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, or to use Biblical terms, what is righteous and what is evil? When you talk to others, ask what they think. Ask them these questions: “Is that right? Is that wrong? Why?” The wise man or woman can see in the heat of the moment, in any context or set of facts– what is actually right and wrong. Why only defend your faith? Ask others to explain and justify their doubt. Yet, “it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:11-14.
The second challenge is much less discussed today and this is unfortunate. When we only discuss what is right and wrong, we ignore the more significant question: Has God given any person authority to do anything about what is wrong or wrongdoing? Or did God keep that authority for Himself to reward or punish in His good time and course. By asking this question, we are going over old ground. We are back to the lesson we thought we learned in prior chapters that God is the King, he knows evil when he sees it and He will and has punished evildoers according to His standard of justice and His timetables.
As an example of this two pronged matrix applied, recall that Cain killed Abel and this was wrong according to the law of God. Recall that God gave no one the authority to do anything about it. God kept that authority himself. Likewise it was wrong for Lamech to murder and engage in polygamy. Yet, God gave no one the right or authority to do anything about it. He authorized no one to punish either wrongdoing. God authorized no one to “do anything about it.” God severely threatened those who would presume to do anything about it. “Anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Genesis 4:15.
God retained jurisdiction. He retained the right to speak the law and punishment associated with its breach. Had you been living in those days, might you have said: “These men are murderers? We should set up a legal system to punish them.” We would feel that God was on our side in so saying. But the fact is God would have been against us. For God said that He will avenge anyone who takes Cain’s life sevenfold. We know that murder was wrong, but we would lack jurisdiction to impose punishment.
So this is our analytical model. This is how we approach legal issues and develop our understanding of civil government. What is right and wrong? Who has the authority to punish? God decides if He will share any part of his civil authority with human beings. He decides if He will authorize mankind to use force in any instance. To simply assume the power to punish is dangerous and unwarranted.
Lawless Use of Law
1 Timothy 1:8 observes that “the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” This suggests that law may not only be used lawfully, but may also be used unlawfully. We may be certain that some act or conduct is wrong, but it may also be wrong for any person, power or civil government to punish that act or conduct. We may know the law of right and wrong, but shall we act lawlessly in connection with the law of jurisdiction (who may speak the law and enforce a punishment)?
Now having this framework, let us ask difficult questions. Suppose the people before the flood got together and held an election. In that election they nominated and voted that Noah should be king of the World. They further authorized Noah by a sizable majority vote to punish murderers, something God had not extended to Noah or any man. The question is: Does the vote of the people bind God? Does the vote of the people empower Noah? The answer is “no” on both counts.
God cannot be bound by a vote of the people which contradicts his reservation of authority to punish murderers unto Him alone. Noah cannot be vested with authority by the people, when the people did not first possess any power to set aside the commands of God regarding murder and its punishment. Even if the election was fair and honest, it would have no legal effect because the people voting as a people cannot by their collective voice set aside either the law or the commands of God.
Consider another case. Noah lived for 350 years after the flood. Let’s say that in the 300th year when the earth was more populated, the people then living got together and elected Noah as king of the World. The people gave Noah the power to punish any murderer. The people also said in a duly passed initiative that only Noah and his appointed agents could punish murderers and that if anyone other than his appointed agents punished a murderer that they could be charged with murder themselves. Now, is such a declaration of the people lawful? Is God bound by such a declaration and vote? Does the vote of the People require all persons in the world to submit to Noah? The answer is “No” again on all three counts.
Is the voice of the people expanding on God’s authorization in Genesis 9:6 lawful, or is it a usurpation or modification of the authority and/or duty which God granted to mankind or the family of the murdered victim? Is this electoral authorization vesting exclusive punishment of murderers in Noah and his agents a disregard of the post-flood authorization which God extended to “man” regarding the punishment of murderers? Such a vote narrows the authority of mankind to punish murders by restricting that authority to Noah and his agents only.
We opened the chapter with a quotation from Jesus to the effect he had no authority to divide an earthly inheritance. This should seem odd as he also claimed to be God in the flesh and King of Kings. Though he undoubtedly had the power to divide an inheritance, he did not have that human authority. The point is that even Jesus understood that his then earthly authority was limited. He obviously knew what was right and wrong and could have easily divided the inheritance according to law and equity. Yet, he declined to do so because he had no such authority. He knew the extent of his jurisdiction. He had authority to heal the sick and cast out demons, but not to divide an inheritance. Just because he knew what was right, did not mean he was also authorized to intervene and solve the dispute. What a great lesson is observed here.
Just knowing what is right and wrong does not by itself authorize us to do anything about it. If you are an advocate for social justice, if you think you actually know what is right and wrong from God’s point of view as clearly stated in His writings, then you should likewise stop and ask yourself: “Who has the authority, if anyone on earth, to do anything about this injustice?” Can you conceive of a world in which God has not delegated all his power to punish wrongdoers to you, to your family, to your church, to your business, school or political party, or to civil government? Well that is the world God created and He did not share all or most of his powers with human beings.
The other two quotations at the chapter’s beginning illustrate that some things never change. Prophets, priests, and judges do what they want. They think if they know what is right and wrong, they are also empowered by that knowledge to “rule at their discretion.” God promises harsh judgment for all such imposters at the end. Let us not be counted among them. If you are a judge, pay double attention. Let us do justice, but let us be certain we have the authority from God to do so, not merely the clamor of men who demand it. Let us not be like those who Cain feared would take his life and upon whom God promised His seven-fold vengeance. Genesis 4:15.