Civil Government, a Divine Ordinance Part I

This past week I stumbled upon the text of a sermon delivered in 1864 by Pastor George Dana Boardman of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia. It is titled “Civil Government, a Divine Ordinance” and it is really packed with both theology and history! If you think that a sermon delivered almost 150 years in the past would not have much relevance to those of us living in the 21st century you would be wrong. Some of the topics he discusses are:

  • Pastor Boardman calls outright for members of his congregation to vote for Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election. He seems to have thought long and hard whether to do so but there is no hint that our modern concept of “separation of church and state” ever entered into his mind.
  • Romans chapter 13, which tells Christians to submit to the governing authorities, is interpreted by Pastor Boardman in exactly the way you would expect from a “right wing conservative” pastor. Yet he stops well short of saying we must do everything the government tells us to do. I think a time is coming where faithful Christians in the U.S. are going to have to be making decisions that Pastor Boardman says belong to the domain of casuistry or cases of the conscience.
  • Pastor Boardman discusses Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and comes out in strong support of it. This breaks the modern stereotype that Christians who hold the Bible in high regard are also closet racists. For Pastor Boardman to chide opponents of the Emancipation of Proclamation for their “prejudice of color” probably took some courage. In 1864 this would not have been done out of some 19th century form of political correctness and I suspect he took some heat for saying it.
  • Pastor Boardman also comes out in support of President Lincoln suspending Habeas Corpus and arresting some journalists and politicians who were supporting the Confederacy. I don’t think I agree with him on this issue but I do sympathize. In the last ten years I have read many articles that are really unvarnished propaganda for our national enemies. It does get tiresome.

This sermon takes up about 25 pages in the pamphlet that was published (this was just one sermon!) but I am going to break it up into four or five posts along with some, hopefully, relevant comments on my part.

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DISCOURSE

We are living in a most extraordinary epoch. It is an era of stupendousness in the field, stupendousness in the court, stupendousness in the arena of the nation’s feelings. It were but a miserable, guilty affectation of indifference for the ministers of Christ to ignore mighty national crises like the present. In common with my countrymen, I have been profoundly agitated by these sublime events, following each other with such startling rapidity ; and yet, oppressed as I am with the terrible catastrophe which has overtaken our land, it is very seldom that I would venture to introduce into the pulpit topics, the discussion of which seem to have a political bearing. For, the Kingdom of which I am an ambassador, is not of this World. But, ever and anon, some billow of our tempest-tossed ocean, surging to an unwonted height, bears aloft the ship of state far above the level of considerations merely political, into the purer region of Christian morals. At such times, when the Almighty visibly makes bare His arm, and the nation passes through some sublime moral crisis, that minister is false to his trust, as the prophet or spokesman of God, who does not seize the occasion and turn it to a religious use. Such an occasion, I solemnly believe, is the approaching Presidential election. Next Tuesday, this nation is to decide whether it will obey God by maintaining His own ordinance of Civil Government, or disobey Him by ignominiously yielding it to mad insurgents. We all know that there is throughout the nation more or less of misgiving as to the righteousness of this war. The secret heart of the great Public needs assurance on this point. This is the grand question which is to be decided next Tuesday. The real question, stripped of whatsoever attaches itself to it incidentally, is simply this: Shall we have a peace by maintaining with the sword God’s ordinance of civil government, or by surrendering it? Thus surveyed, the question assumes a profoundly religious aspect. Accordingly, I invite your attention to some comments founded on a clause in the fourth verse of the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

HE BEARETH NOT THE SWORD IN VAIN.

I. The origin of Civil Government is a problem which has baffled the ingenuity of the subtlest intellects in every age. The principal theories concerning this matter may, however, be reduced to two. The first theory — recognising Civil Government as an external fact, existing independent of men’s wills — traces its origin back to the Paternal or Patriarchal system of rule. This was the view maintained by the Tories and the great body of Churchmen under the English Stuarts, and on which they founded their famous doctrines of the Divine right of Kings, and of Passive Obedience, or absolute nonresistance. The second theory, regarding Civil Government as a creature of men’s Wills, represents it as a Social Contract. Just as two or more men unite together for certain purposes of business, and pledge themselves to obey certain rules mutually agreed upon, which rules are binding so long as the contract stands, so Civil Government is conceived of as a compact between each and every citizen. This is the common theory. Thus the Parliament which deposed James II, declared by solemn vote that James had “broken the original contract between King and people.” Thus, also, we read in the Constitution of Massachusetts: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals. It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” Now this theory, as you perceive at once, does not explain at all the origin of Civil Government. Besides, it would be a difficult matter for even the astutest lawyer to ascertain the day on which you and I, as citizens of the United States, entered into any such contract, or to state the terms of the contract we agreed upon, to say nothing of the fact that Government has rights which no contract among the subjects can confer. The theory is, as the old schoolmen would have said, a simple ens rationis, or creature of reason. Yet, like some other figments of law, as, for instance, “the State is a person,” “the King never dies,” this theory, that Civil Government is a social compact, has certain advantages, as being a convenient form for expressing political and legal principles.

Now the Holy Scripture cuts short all these theories and speculations, by positively asserting that Civil Government is of Divine origin, and consequently of Divine authority, and this it asserts in the broadest terms: for, while it explicitly defines the duty of the subject, it does not define the nature or structure of the government to which that duty is owing. This is perfectly evident from the paragraph which has supplied us with our text, and on which I would now fasten your closest attention[i]:

1. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

2. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shall have praise of the same 4. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain ;

4. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain ; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

5. Wherefore ye must needs he subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

6. For, for this cause pay ye tribute also; for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

7. Render therefore to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear ; honour to whom honour. Rom. xiii. 1-7.

In these verses St. Paul is enforcing the duty of obedience to those in authority by several considerations. Let us rapidly run over them. He enforces it,

1. By the consideration that Civil Government is a Divine institution. “Let every soul be subject unto the Higher Powers. For there is no Power but of God. The Powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the Powers, resisteth the Ordinance of God. And they that resist shall receive unto themselves damnation.” That is to say: Let every man submit himself to the authorities of Government. For all civil authority comes from God. Civil Government is a Divine Ordinance. We must obey our rulers because Civil Government is of Divine appointment. Consequently, resistance to rulers is resistance to God Himself. And all who thus resist invoke upon themselves a just judgment.

2. The apostle enforces the duty of obedience to those in authority, secondly, from the end or design of their appointment. “For ruler’s are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the Power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil be afraid. For he beareth not the sword in vain: a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” That is to say: Magistrates are to be obeyed, not only because such is the will of God, but also because they are appointed for the very purpose of promoting the welfare of society. Government is a terror to none but evil doers. The magistrate is God’s steward, to whom He has entrusted the welfare of society. But if the subject rebels, it is not in vain, neither is it by chance, that Government is invested with authority to punish him: for God has appointed Government for that very purpose.

3. That we may complete the apostle’s view of the subject, let me repeat the third consideration which he presents, why we are to submit ourselves to those in authority, viz : because such submission is a religious as well as civil duty. “Wherefore, ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” That is to say: We must obey our rulers, not only from fear of civil punishment, but also out of conscientious regard for God Himself.

The apostle deduces from this statement the following inference: Since Civil Government is of Divine origin and authority, we should cheerfully sustain it with our pecuniary and moral support. “For, for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render, therefore, to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” (See Appendix, note A, page 29.)

We see then what the Scriptural teaching concerning Civil Government is. It teaches us to accept government as a Divine fact, which exists as soon as, and wherever, men exist. There has never been a nation so degraded that it had no government. There has never been a nation so advanced that it intentionally based its government on the idea of a social compact, except as a figment of law. Men never have lived, and men never will live, and this simply because men never can live, without government. Government is a fact, just as the atmosphere, or gravitation, or man himself, is a fact. God established the principle of gravitation. God created the atmosphere. God brings man into being. God makes governments. We shall never be able to trace the origin or basis of Civil Government further back than was done more than two thousand years ago by the great philosopher of Stagira: “It is manifest,” says Aristotle, “that the State is one of the things which exist by nature, and that man, in virtue of his very being, is a political animal: And a greater than Aristotle hath declared, as in our passage: ” The Powers that he are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the Power, resisteth the Ordinance of God.” That is to say: Society and Government are not altogether creatures of men’s wills ; but they are Divine institutions, existing wherever men exist. Those who are in authority are to obeyed within their sphere, no matter how or by whom appointed ; and this because Civil Government is a Divine Ordinance. The Powers that be are ordained of God, not because they chance to have been justly inaugurated, not because they are at present justly administered, but because they are the Government, and Government is a Divine institution. And we are to be subject to the Powers that be. And what is specially worthy of being noticed in this connection is, that this was the teaching of our Lord and of His apostles, living though they were, under the murderous despotism of the Caesars, in the crimson days of a Tiberius, a Caligula, a Claudius, a Nero, and a Domitian.

But if the Powers that be are ordained of God, and if whosoever resisteth the Powers, resisteth the Ordinance of God, how then, you ask, can Revolutions ever be justified? What redress have we when tyranny becomes absolutely intolerable? Will you carry your doctrine of loyalty to the extreme of pronouncing, for instance, the American Revolution an act of treason, rather than of patriotism?

Civil Government, a Divine Ordinance
Rev. George Dana Boardman
pp. 5-10

(To be continued…)


[i] Let those whose sensibilities are shocked whenever the preacher alludes to polities, beware how their eyes fall on this political chapter of an inspired apostle.

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