Self-Government, Conscience & True Liberty:
The Basis of Self-Government
by Gerald R. Thompson
People often talk about the family as the most basic unit of society, but that is not true. The most basic unit of society is the individual. Each individual person is a creation of God, and is something you must be born into. In this respect, each individual is an institution as much as a family, a nation, or the universal Church (all things created by God into which people are born). All of which are contradistinguished from voluntary associations (i.e., relationships formed by men which people become a member of by joining).
Self-government is also the most basic unit of government. That the individual is also a unit of government should be obvious, when you consider that each person is a moral being, made in the image of God, such that each person is ultimately responsible for their own individual behavior. And, should anyone seek God’s forgiveness for the wrongs they have done, that is a matter utterly dependent on individual choice. We all stand condemned or forgiven based on our own choice – no one else can do it for us.
In fact, all natural rights, and all natural freedoms, are bestowed exclusively on individuals. There are no group rights or corporate freedoms, and no collective salvation. We each stand alone before God as a moral agent – and God fully expects us to govern ourselves accordingly, i.e., as responsible moral agents. Each person is morally aware of certain fundamental principles of right and wrong as evident in our consciences, which awareness guides us in our behavioral decisions.
I daresay that without self-government, none of the other social institutions would be sustainable. Thus, a family cannot maintain itself where the husband and wife do not love and respect each together, where either is unwilling to put the interests of others above their own self-interest, or where either spouse engages in serious self-destructive behavior. Before the family unit can be strong, the spouses/parents must first govern themselves responsibly, and each must really want – truthfully neither can be forced – to fulfill their obligations to the other family members.
Similarly, where the members of a society are unwilling to refrain from unlawful or criminal behavior, no amount of civil government coercion will be able to fully restrain them. As individual unlawful behavior rises, anarchy also rises. And the witness of history is that anarchy is always followed by tyranny. Both anarchy and tyranny are essentially failures of civil government, and both have as their root cause a mass failure of self-government. One inevitably leads to the other.
When the members of a local church or any other association throw off the shackles of self-restraint and turn against each like ungoverned beasts, the result is very predictable – namely, church splits and disintegrations. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and the only thing which prevents deepening divisions in any institution or association is continual self-government and self-restraint. Hence, it is of supreme importance that every person know how God intends that each of us should function as an individual first, before we can function well in greater society.
In recent decades, the fundamental units of society have been subjected to an unrelenting attack. Much attention has been paid to the decline and redefinition of the family, and to be sure, the attacks on (and the weakening of) the family unit are very real and accelerating. Much less attention has been paid to the recent unrelenting attacks on individual self-government, and the lengths to which even well-intentioned people will go to deny others of the right of self-government. The so-called progress in that area has been staggering.
These attacks follow a predictable pattern, because it is one that has worked exceedingly well over the years. First, people are denied the right to exercise rightful self-government, then they are not only permitted but encouraged to make personal decisions that God never authorized or intended anyone to make. The end result is a warped and perverted view of personal liberty (calling good things bad and bad things good), which when fully realized, will undermine and destroy the fabric of society which holds everything together.
Let’s begin our examination by considering the most fundamental principles which form the basis of all self-government.
First, man is made in the image of God. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27). While there are a number of principles which flow from this fact, the one I want to focus on here is that every person is a moral being. This is evidenced in the biblical account of creation by comparing Gen. 1:28 with Gen. 2:7. In the one, God gave mankind dominion over every living thing on the earth, by which is meant the animal kingdom, excluding man. In the other, man is referred to as a living soul (KJV) or a living being (NASB).
So the comparison is between living things and living beings (souls), by which the image of God is bestowed on mankind but not the animals, making mankind moral beings and animals merely amoral things (life without morality). Meaning, there is no expectation that animals will be self-governing. They are either dominated (or governed) by men, or they are wild (untamed, and thus ungoverned). In either case, animals cannot exercise self-control. Further, we do not speak of animals as being subject to the behavioral laws of God.
This moral character means that the behavioral decisions of men are morally charged, i.e., our decisions raise issues of right and wrong. Not all decisions are right, and not all are wrong. There is a set of rules, called laws, which tells us what is right and wrong. This is the fundamental purpose of all laws. Right decisions are encouraged, and wrong decisions are punished. Learning the difference between them is where personal responsibility comes in.
Second, each person is ultimately responsible only for himself.
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezek 18:20). [To the same effect are Deut. 24:16; 2 Ki 14:6 and Jer. 31:30.]
The immediate question is whether fathers and sons are a special or unique case, or whether they are merely illustrative of a broader principle. Is this rule of personal responsibility one that applies to all people no matter what their relationship? I can think of no rationale whereby fathers and sons are a unique case under lonang (the laws of nature and nature’s God) – only that historically they would pose the most common case of abuse of the principle.
Thus, I conclude that personal responsibility is a general rule. Further, it is founded in the law of nature and is a foundational concept in understanding the nature of all government. What kind of world would it be, where people are held accountable for the wrongs of others? And is that, in fact, the kind of world we have? What evidence would support the idea that we live in a world where people are accountable for the sins (i.e., moral wrongs) of others before God?
A cardinal principle of all scripture is that I cannot choose either to bring salvation to any other person, or condemn them. Sin and redemption are profoundly individual, not collective. This is, if ever there was, a self-evident truth. It is ironclad, admitting of no possible exceptions. There are no strange cases or weird circumstances whereby the rule does not apply. It is universal and inescapable.
What is government?
Which brings us to the matter of government. What is government? Government is restraint. Government – all government – is the mechanism by which people are encouraged to make right decisions, and punished for making wrong ones. Since right decisions are always to be encouraged and one can never make too many right decisions, the restraint exercised by government is always a restraint of evil (or certain morally wrong decisions). Any government which works to restrain right decisions is perverse and wicked, and must not be allowed to continue.
We see this play out every day. Civil government is charged with the authority to punish certain wrong behavioral decisions which constitute crimes, and we refer to this as the administration of justice. The other side of the coin is that civil rulers are to praise those who do good. (1 Pet. 2:14.) But where would society be if that were the only restraint on evil that we had? Civil government can only do so much (and some things, it does very poorly).
A stable society cannot exist where there is not also a pervasive and decentralized system of family government. The family is where parents teach their children to distinguish between right and wrong and use corrective discipline to make the lessons stick. Churches have a collaborative function (not being vested with the authority to punish wrongs), to provide additional moral guidance to all who would listen. In other words, to strengthen and reinforce the moral fabric of society by encouraging good behaviors.
Yet, even these are insufficient to fully restrain evil in society. The society which is governed best, is that which requires the least external restraint, because its citizens govern themselves well.
Consequently, self government is self-restraint. Self-restraint is the process by which the person ultimately responsible for making right and wrong decisions restrains his own decisions to comply with the rules of law. Self-restraint, when it exists, is always the best way to restrain evil, and is therefore primary. All other methods are less effective, and secondary.
The law of promulgation
However, before an individual can be held responsible under any law (whether God or man’s), he must first know what that law is, and what it requires. This is the law of promulgation.
It [law] is likewise “a rule prescribed.” Because a bare resolution, confined in the breast of the legislator, without manifesting itself by some external sign, can never be properly a law. It is requisite that this resolution be notified to the people who are to obey it.1
That a law may be obeyed, it is necessary that it should be known: that it may be known, it is necessary that it be promulgated. … To promulgate a law, is to present it to the minds of those who are to be governed by it in such manner as that they may have it habitually in their memories, and may possess every facility for consulting it, if they have any doubts respecting what it prescribes.2
Although Blackstone and Bentham were speaking solely of human laws, the same principle holds true for the Creator, who is the supreme lawgiver. (Isa. 33:22). God is fully aware of the law of promulgation. For “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20). Also, “sin is not counted where there is no law,” (Rom. 5:13) and “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” (Rom. 7:7).
Thus, in order for God to hold anyone personally responsible for their own wrongs, each person must first know what God requires. Logically, this means that if individual responsibility is to attach to every single person, then every single person must have a knowledge of God’s laws, without exception. Do all people in fact possess this knowledge? Yes, indeed.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (Rom. 1:18-19).
God is certainly capable of keeping secrets, but when it comes to His laws and the standards of conduct He requires, He has taken great pains to reveal those to all people. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Dt. 29:29). Furthermore,
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their measuring line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4, 7a).
What The Creation Reveals
I suspect some of you may be skeptical of the nature and extent of this knowledge which the scriptures claim everyone has. So, let’s briefly review what may be learned merely from observing the creation into which we have all been placed.
First, the creation speaks of the existence and attributes of God, the Creator. The end result of which is, every individual is without excuse before God.
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:19-20).
Second, the creation speaks not only of scientific or physical laws, but also of the laws of human behavior.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. (Ps. 19:7-9).
Third, these laws include the prohibition of all forms of idolatry.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Rom. 1:21-23).
Fourth, bloodshed (murder) defiles and pollutes the land.
You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. (Num. 35:33).
Fifth, all forms of sexual immorality are contrary to nature and prohibited.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator …. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Rom. 1:24-27).
Sixth, all people are aware of behaviors which are generally evil, and that everyone who does evil things deserves to die.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Rom. 1:28-32).
Seventh, God has made it plain to all nations on earth that He will judge all wicked people.
“The Lord will roar from on high, and from his holy habitation utter his voice; he will roar mightily against his fold, and shout, like those who tread grapes, against all the inhabitants of the earth. The clamor will resound to the ends of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against the nations; he is entering into judgment with all flesh, and the wicked he will put to the sword, declares the Lord.” (Jer. 25:30-31).
This is just the really obvious stuff. There is, in fact, much more that can be learned from observing the creation, if you put some effort into it. Things like the law of the land, the law of inheritance, the laws of authority, the knowledge written in the stars, and others. But even a child can figure out the seven laws of nature listed above. Why do I say this? Because everyone has a head start, if you will – a certain knowledge of God’s laws of right and wrong placed inside us from the moment of our birth. We call this the conscience.
1. Wm. Blackstone, 1 Commentaries on the Laws of England, Introduction, §2 (1765).
2. Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843), Vol. 1.