Civil Government, a Divine Ordinance Part II

Last week I began reproducing a sermon given by Pastor George Dana Boardman just prior to the 1864 presidential election (please see Civil Government, a Divine Ordinance Part I). I like studying the Bible and I like U.S. history so finding this sermon was a real windfall for me. In this sermon Pastor Boardman touches on many topics that are still causing contention in the United States today and I think it is worth listening to what he has to say.

This week’s excerpt from Pastor Boardman’s sermon is going to be a long one. In it he expounds on what our duties are to the government by likening the citizen/government relationship to a parent/child relationship. Children are commanded to obey their parents by the Bible but should every conceivable order given by a parent be followed by the child? Pastor Boardman says “no.”

I would like to make one point before I begin the quote. Pastor Boardman bases his entire analogy on the commandment to “honor your father and mother.” He interprets the word “honor” to mean “obey.” I have heard this before but I believe that “honor” does not mean “obey.” In Exodus 20:12 the Hebrew word used for “honor” is “kabad” (Strong’s H3513) and it appears to mean to “give honor or glory to.” I don’t believe that this commandment means that adult children have to obey their parents. Rather I think it means we are not supposed to go around bad-mouthing and maligning our parents.

Does that mean that I think Pastor Boardman’s logic has no basis? Not at all! Children still at home were commanded to obey their parents in very strong terms. Probably the best biblical example of this that I can think of is from Deuteronomy:

18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father or mother and doesn’t listen to them even after they discipline him,
19 his father and mother must take hold of him and bring him to the elders of his city, to the gate of his hometown.
20 They will say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he doesn’t obey us. He’s a glutton and a drunkard.’
21 Then all the men of his city will stone him to death. You must purge the evil from you, and all Israel will hear and be afraid.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21

I do think that Pastor Boardman’s point is a valid one but he should have used a different passage to back up his assertion.

Here is Pastor Boardman:

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?

 We will not undertake to answer these questions flippantly. They are among the most momentous that history, or the possible fortunes of our own dear land, can put to the Christian patriot. Let us, therefore, survey the matter as becomes thoughtful, conscientious, Christian lovers of country.

In reply to the question, whether resistance to the government ever can be justifiable, we answer that the question belongs to the domain of casuistry, or cases of conscience. All will admit that revolutions are not the ordinary conditions of society, but that they are exceptional cases. We cannot, therefore, argue from them; for it is manifestly absurd to deduce a rule from an exception. Again, all will admit that if revolutions are ever justifiable, they can be justified only on the plea of necessity. If the plea of necessity holds good, it holds good because “Necessity knows no law.” But who is to be the judge when a revolution is a necessity? Evidently, the question is one in casuistry; and questions in casuistry are proverbially the most puzzling of all problems. The remark is pre-eminently true of the subtleties of the law. “Law,” said Dr. Johnson, “is the science in which the greatest powers of the understanding are applied to the greatest number of facts.” No formula, then, can be enunciated that shall exactly apply to cases of revolution. Evidently, the line which separates the patriot from the traitor is very narrow and delicate. “A good action,” said Lord Macauley, “is not distinguished from a bad action by marks so plain as those which distinguish a hexagon from a square.” Take the case so often submitted to our juries — that of killing, when the defendant urges the plea of self-defence. Now, if the evidence is that the killing was in self-defence, the law, as you are aware, recognizes the validity of the plea, and pronounces the homicide justifiable. But what lawgiver, what jurist, will dare to fix, with perfect precision, the limits of self-defence? Will you show me the law which measures the precise amount of jeopardy to which the defendant must be exposed, in order to justify the killing? But, because the law cannot, from the very nature of the case, measure the precise amount of necessary jeopardy, are we prepared to affirm that all cases of killing in alleged self-defence are on the one hand justifiable homicides, or, on the other hand, murders? Evidently, each case is peculiar, and must be decided by itself, and decided, too, on an exhaustive view of all the circumstances belonging to the transaction. The general principle of these remarks may be applied to cases of resistance to the government, remembering, however, that in the latter cases the materials for our decision are vastly more complicated, since no revolution is justifiable till every means of constitutional redress has been exhausted; and this, as the English revolution of 1688, and our own colonial struggle show, is not the work of a day or of a year. Neither can any revolution be justified in which the chances of success do not clearly preponderate over the chances of defeat. For, civil war is a more terrible calamity than despotism; and the same revolution, Which, if successful, makes him who leads it a patriot, and entitles him to the patriot’s wreath, if unsuccessful, makes him who leads it a rebel, and justly exposes him to the rebel’s doom.

 The question, as I have said, is one that belongs to the domain of casuistry. It is very much like the question that often arises, whether or not a child is ever at liberty to disobey his parents. And, permit me here to remark, that I believe that the relation between parent and child is a divinely ordained type of the relation between the State and its subject. What the parent is to the child, that the State, in many particulars, is to the citizen. Not Without deep significance did the Roman law pronounce the rebel against his country a parricide. Now, the parental relation, like Government itself, is a Divine institution. The essence and gist of the fifth article of that supreme constitution which the great Lawgiver has drafted for the government of the human race, in all lands and times, Honor thy father and thy mother, consists, as I understand it, in these two principles: First, There is such a thing as law; and, secondly, law must be obeyed. This commandment is not an arbitrary enactment, but has its immutable foundation in the very essence of the relation which subsists between parents and children. We might, indeed, legitimately ground this duty on the basis of expediency, or of aesthetic propriety, or of justness, or of the personal character of the parent himself. But, resistless as are the motives to filial obedience furnished by considerations like these, I believe that our commandment rests on a basis more immutable and unconditional. It is a singular fact that, in many languages, the word employed to denote obedience to God is identical with that employed to denote obedience to parents. Both the Greeks and the Romans, heathen though they were, called devotion to parents piety. What is this but a sort of universal, intuitive feeling that the honoring of parents partakes of the nature of an absolute religious obligation, rather than of a contingent, social duty, or of an aesthetic propriety? I believe that when a son is disobedient to his parents he is guilty of something more than undutifulness; and that when he insults them he is guilty of something more than insolence; and that when he is unkind to them he is guilty of something more than cruelty; and that when he wrongs them he is guilty of something more than injustice. There is in each of these actions a peculiar element of wickedness perfectly distinguishable from that which gives to each separate action its specific title. I think that every rightminded person instinctively discriminates between the infringing of the rights of our neighbors and the infringing of the rights of our parents; so that, while he describes the former as being wicked, he spontaneously describes the latter as being impious. It is not enough, then, to say that it is expedient, or appropriate, or beautiful, or even just, that we honor our parents. But this duty, originating, as it does, outside of and above the circle of conditions and contingencies, is a thing absolutely and unconditionally right in itself. “Children! obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” is the Apostolic injunction. And this word here translated right, St. Paul is always careful to employ when he would designate an action which is right, not incidentally or relatively, but inherently and unconditionally. Hence, for a son to honor his parents is not merely an aesthetic propriety, or a matter of justness, but a religious obligation, partaking of the nature of an elementary principle. I do not know that I make myself understood. It is difficult to define this conception, just as it is difficult to define any other elementary principle. Perhaps I can illustrate it best by an ancient usage. The Pharisees had a custom, founded on tradition, of refusing, in certain cases, to assist their needy parents, on the ground that what they had to offer as gifts they had already consecrated to God, and hence they claimed that they were released from the duty of maintaining their parents. It was enough for them to exclaim: Corban! that is, already/ devoted. But the Great “Teacher pointed out the impiety which lurked beneath this cloak of sanctity, by affirming in substance that, while it Was perfectly right that they should contribute of their resources to the Lord’s treasury, nevertheless, the specific commandment. Honor thy Father and thy Mother, and the duty involved in it of maintaining them, was of the nature of an antecedent, primary, fundamental obligation, and could never be dispensed with to make room for an incidental contingent duty. But it often happens that parents, viewed in respect to their personal characters, are unworthy of being honored; and, therefore, our idea of the fifth commandment is that, in its fullest and truest significance, it does not regard the parent himself so much as it does the Parental Relation — not the person so much as the principle.

Now, this relation between parents and children involves, on the one hand, the idea of parental authority, and, on the other, of filial subordination. But, is a child never at liberty to disobey his parents? Suppose, for instance, a father commands his son to do what the latter knows he ought not to do, or forbids his doing what he knows he ought to do, must the son obey him? Now, concerning this, we must say what we are compelled to say concerning cases of conscience generally, that, in the absence of specific scriptural precepts, we must govern ourselves by general principles. We must also remember that there can be no real conflict between moral laws; and that, if any conflict appear, the difficulty is not in the objective laws themselves, but in our subjective inability to perceive their harmony; and hence, in deciding such cases, we must proceed with the utmost diffidence and caution. Some of the general principles which may help us in this matter are these: First, it is manifestly my duty to obey both God and my parents. Again, there are certain distinctly enunciated laws which lie in the unchanging plane of fundamental, unconditional obligation. In respect to these laws, my father and I stand on an equality before God. On the other hand, there are many inferential, incidental duties, which lie in the ever-shifting plane of contingencies. In respect to these, I am to yield to the commands of my father, in virtue of my own youthfulness and inexperience, and state of subjection to an authority which has been divinely ordained. For example: If my father impose on me commands which I cannot help feeling are unreasonable and cruel, I think that I ought to obey him, remembering that, in virtue of a divine arrangement, the responsibility in such cases rests with him. But if my father command me to worship graven images, or to take God’s name in vain, or to steal, or to bear false witness against my neighbor, I must, at all hazards, refuse to obey him: for my father has no right, or power, to make or unmake moral laws; and moral laws impose obligations antecedent and superior to any which parents may dictate.

 Now let us make use of these principles in answering the question, whether it can be right to refuse obedience to the Government? Let us never lose sight of the fact that the Powers that be, like the parental authority, are ordained of God. Suppose, now, that some of the enactments of the State are not such as accord with my ideas of reason, or justice, or republicanism? Am I at liberty to be undutiful to my civic father and mother? Because I do not like a particular law, am I at liberty to set myself up against the law? Who has anointed me king over the legislature, and the judiciary, and the executive, of my nation? Am I to translate the grand doctrine of the higher law, as too many have translated it, into the doctrine that the higher law is my own will? Am I to carry the noble doctrine of Popular Sovereignty to the extreme, that, as an American citizen, I am above the laws of the land, and thus illustrate, for the thousandth time, the truth of the proverb, that extremes meet, by showing that there is very little difference after all between the modern anarchical doctrine of the Divine right of citizen sovereignty, and the old monarchical doctrine of the Divine right of kings? Remember that liberty, unbalanced by law, is anarchy. Liberty, like every other blessing of God, not excepting even the grace of Christ’s Gospel, may be abused, and prove our ruin. Liberty, unabridged by law, is ever a perilous thing. Man’s true freedom consists, not in an unfettered license, but in a voluntary subordination to law. And the true freedom of a nation consists, not in the suicidal privileges of outlawry, but in a cheerful obedience to the laws which they themselves enact, and administer by representatives of their own free choice.

 But remember, ye heirs of immortality, that there is a law higher than even the ratified enactments of the freely elected deputies of a free people. There is a Power more omnipotent than that of the people. We enter a most solemn and earnest protest against the blasphemous dogma, so frequent on the lips of certain politicians, and editors, and demagogues, that the voice of the people is the voice of God! Let their motto rather be this: THE VOICE of god, let it be the voice of the people! The popular sovereignty which does not reverently bow before the Theocracy, whose constitution is the Decalogue, and whose interpretation is the Life of Jesus of Nazareth, is essentially an Atheistic Democracy. Do you want an illustration of this? You shall have one. It shall be an appalling one. It is the French Revolution. “The People is sufficient for itself,” shrieked Anacharsis Clootz, one of the haranguers of that awful epoch, “the People is sufficient for itself, and will subsist forever. Citizens! there is no other sovereign than the human race— the People-God! To this Utopia the only obstruction is Religion. Let us grind it to powder!” And in grinding it to powder, they compounded for themselves that terrific, fulminating force, which suddenly exploded into a thousand blackened fragments, the liberty, and the peace, and the virtue, and the glory of France. Let a people once be seized with the idea that they have no sovereign but their own will, and that the only curb to their freedom is physical force, and neither expediency nor patriotism, neither reason nor mercy, can prevent them from using their liberty as a cloak for a most hideous diabolism. “0, Liberty! Liberty!” exclaimed the illustrious Madame Roland, when, in the name of liberty, she was goaded on to the guillotine by a frenzied horde of Parisian outlaws: “0, Liberty! Liberty! what crimes have been perpetrated in thy name!’

 But while holding these strong notions concerning the authority of the State, I believe that there are cases in which the people are justified in resisting the Government, even though civil government is an institution of Divine ordination, just as I believe there are cases in which the child ought to disobey his parents, even though the parental authority is of Divine origin. But it is not necessary that I prosecute the topic further. For, however discontented a portion of our Northern community may be, the great mass of the people repel with utmost abhorrence the intimation that the time has come for such a resistance to the National Authority as shall amount to an organized revolution. I have adverted to the topic, not because it is specially pertinent to the object I have in view, but because I wished to obviate the objection which might be urged that I had not surveyed the matter in all its bearings.

Civil Government, a Divine Ordinance
Rev. George Dana Boardman
pp. 10-18

(To be continued…)

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4 Comments on “Civil Government, a Divine Ordinance Part II”


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