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Studies in the Laws of Nature’s God
by Gerald R. Thompson
SELF-STUDY – CIVIL POWER
In prior studies we have been asking whether various laws are enforceable or not, and the extent to which certain rights are inalienable. In substance, these questions have been prompting us to think about what it is civil government can do, and what it cannot.
Modern jurisprudence acknowledges few absolute limitations on civil power. Though governments are limited by constitutions, there are few, if any, modern limits on what a constitution can provide, so long as the amendment procedure is followed. Plus, it may well be argued, constitutional limitations are routinely ignored. When people do advocate limits on civil power, they are often based on purely practical considerations. Thus, government actions are criticized not because civil power or authority is lacking, but simply that such actions are unwise or unpopular. The legality of any governmental action is largely conceded.
However, the lonang view of civil power is somewhat different. It would be rather astonishing if God, having reserved all moral jurisdiction for Himself, were inclined to allow civil government to exercise authority over morality. It would be more astonishing still if He had left us no guidance by which it could be discerned where civil power begins and ends, leaving us at the mercy of our rulers.
Civil government is often viewed as one of the many “necessary evils” of modern life. But, is civil government really necessary, from God’s point of view? If so, is it necessarily evil? The founders of our nation thought that civil government is both necessary and serves a beneficial purpose. Thus, the Pilgrims thought it necessary and desirable to provide for their “civil Body Politick” (in the Mayflower Compact) before they would consent to disembark at Plymouth Rock.
Previously, we briefly raised the possibility that the relationship and rights of people with respect to civil government is to some extent pre-defined, since nations are created by God. Let’s now explore that possibility further, by examining the purpose for civil government.
1. Read Ex. 19:3-6. What was the national purpose for ancient Israel? To what extent was it a civil purpose? A religious purpose? Is this text a general statement of God’s purpose for nations today, that is, to what extent is it the purpose of civil government to secure a kingdom of priests or a holy nation?
2. Read Rom. 13:3-4.
- Is it a divine purpose of all nations to punish wrongdoers (punish crime)? To what extent is it a purpose of every nation to encourage righteousness? Does your answer change if “encourage righteousness” is understood to mean “secure rights”?
- Is civil government inherently evil? Is it inherently good? What does it mean for civil rulers to be “a minister of God”?
- What means does a nation have authority to employ to punish lawlessness? May it impose physical punishment (even to the point of death)? May it exclude someone from the kingdom of God?
3. Read 1 Pet. 2:13-14.
- What parallels exist between this text and Rom. 13:3-4? Do these verses describe the full scope of civil power, that is, are they, in effect, a limitation on civil power, that it may not exceed the scope of these verses?
- Can a civil government not only praise what is right, but also perform it? That is, can civil government be charitable because charity is good? Or, can civil rulers legally establish religion because religion is good?
4. Read Deut. 32:8 and Acts 17:26. Is any nation the “policeman of the world,” that is, does any one nation or group of nations have the authority to punish other nations for crimes?
5. Read Deut. 16:18-20. What does this say about the purpose and function of civil government? Is this text consistent with punishing wrongdoers and commending righteousness?
6. Read Gen. 9:6 and review Rom. 13:4.
- What does it mean for a nation to “bear the sword”? Is the use of capital punishment limited to those who exercise civil rule (as opposed to familial or church authority)?
- Are all nations required to impose capital punishment as a part of their civil duties? Why or why not? What covenant is Gen. 9:6 a part of, and to whom does it apply?
- Some people claim that Gen. 9:6 is the original grant of civil authority to mankind, and that no civil government existed before Noah. Is this correct? What evidence is there to substantiate or repudiate this claim?
An important jurisprudential question is where to locate the ultimate source of civil authority. Is it with the people who are ruled, or the leaders who rule? Is the authority of public officials delegated to them by the people, or do they have a commission to rule direct from God? And, what difference does it make?
The difference is this: accountability runs to the source of authority. If God directly empowers certain people to rule a nation, then the accountability of the rulers is essentially moral, being enforceable only by God. On the other hand, if civil rulers are delegated authority by the people, public officials will be legally accountable directly to the people.
The issue can be expanded to also ask whether God ever (or always) prescribes the form of civil government for a nation. Does God determine whether any nation should have a monarchy, aristocracy, dictatorship, democracy, republic, or other political structure? Or, is there one form of civil government which is more lawful or biblical than any other? America’s founders understood that God does not dictate, endow, or impose any particular form of civil government on any people. Their position was that there is liberty as to the form of civil government, which the people may choose as it seems best to them in accordance with lonang.
1. Read 1 Sam. 8:4-7. On whose initiative was Israel’s form of government changed to a monarchy? Did God unilaterally set a king over Israel? Are there any indications as to whether the resulting monarchy was a lawful or unlawful form of government?
2. Read 1 Sam. 8:9-10,19,21-22. If the request for a monarch had been itself lawless, would God have consented to its institution? Why or why not?
3. Read Deut. 17:14-15,18-19.
- Did God impose the monarchial form of government on Israel, or did He merely impose the law of the kingdom, and what is the difference? If God had chosen a monarchy for Israel, why didn’t He have the nation start out that way in the beginning?
- Does the fact that God allowed Israel to move from judgeships to a monarchy indicate that choosing a form of government was a matter of liberty which the nation could choose for itself, and that they had the right to do so?
4. Read Rom. 13:1-2. When it is said that all authority is established by God, does this mean that God dictates the form of government each nation should have irrespective of the wishes of the people? Why or why not?
5. Read Jer. 27:5-8. Does the power of God to intervene in international affairs imply that He also chooses to intervene in each nation’s choice of an internal civil structure? Why or why not?
- Are a nation and its civil government one and the same? In the history of the United States, was the nation and its national government formed at the same time, or by the same legal instrument?
- Is it possible to abolish a national government without abolishing the nation itself? Is the crime of constructive treason (imagining the king’s death) more likely to regard public officials as identical with the nation, or as separate from it? Why do you think constructive treason was rejected as a criminal offense when the United States was founded?
Earlier we considered the principle that a covenant is necessary for one person to exercise rule over another. Even God, though He did not need to, chose to exercise His rule over us via covenant. Does this also hold true in the civil context? Since a civil covenant is called a constitution, the issue can be rephrased this way: If there were no constitutions, would there still be lawful civil rule?
Historically, government by consent of the people through a civil covenant was deemed to be absolutely necessary. This heritage is based on the writings of Samuel Rutherford, John Locke and the words of the Declaration of Independence.
As a case study, let’s look at the covenantal history of ancient Israel. Did it have a civil constitution, and if so, did it have the characteristic of government by consent? And, do civil rulers have the right to establish the organs of civil government, or do they merely have the authority to propose changes in the form of civil government, subject to ratification by the people?
1. Read Ex. 24:1,3,7. Was Israel’s covenant voluntarily consented to, or did God force His law upon the people against their will? Who consented to the covenant on behalf of the nation?
2. Read 1 Sam. 10:1,17,24. Did either God’s appointment or Samuel’s anointing of Saul authorize him to assume the office of king? What part did the voice of the people crying “Long live the king!” have in installing Saul as king, if any?
3. Read 1 Sam. 16:1-13 and 2 Sam. 2:3-4; 5:3-5. Who initiated the anointing of David to be Israel’s next king? Was the anointing a “mere proposal”? Did David take office immediately upon being anointed? What else took place before he assumed office? Why didn’t David assume the kingship over all twelve tribes of Israel at once? What needed to happen before he could be king over all the tribes?
- What parallels do you see between the history of Israel and the American experience? When the U.S. Constitution was written, was it immediately binding, or was it a mere proposal? Did the Constitution require ratification before it became effective, and if so, by whom?
- To what extent does the U.S. Constitution follow the pattern of the divine covenants? Does it contain the element of mutual assent? Is it irrevocable? Is it binding on the descendants of those who originally agreed to it?
4. Read 2 Chr. 22:10-23:21. When king Ahaziah died, his mother Athaliah ordered all of his sons to be slain so she could rule (unlawfully) as queen in their place. However, Ahaziah’s baby son Joash was rescued by an aunt and was hid in the house of the Lord for six years. At age seven, Joash was installed as the lawful king of Judah, and Athaliah was killed.
When a lawless civil ruler comes into power, does God depose that person, or does He wait for the people to act to restore lawful rule? Would God be more likely to depose a lawless ruler in the United States, or in Israel where he still claims control over the throne? If God did not depose the unlawful rulers in ancient Israel, would he be more or less likely to depose unlawful rulers in Gentile nations?
* Copyright © 1995, 2006 Gerald R. Thompson. Used by permission.