Civil Government, a Divine Ordinance Part III

This week I am continuing to reprint a sermon made by Pastor George Dana Boardman just prior to the presidential election in 1864 (see Part I here and Part II here).

In this excerpt Rev. Boardman makes his case that it is biblically justified for a government to use force to preserve its authority. I think he is right in this and I really don’t have any disagreements with his position. Of course the entire purpose of his sermon depends on this point. He is bluntly asking his congregation to support the Republican Abraham Lincoln in the election against Democratic candidate George B. McClellan. McClellan, and many Northern Democrats, felt that the North should not have been fighting the secession of the Southern states from the union. As a Christian in 1864 if you felt that the North had no business fighting to retain its sovereignty over the states that seceded then your choice for President would have been clear. In order to support his call to vote for President Lincoln, Rev. Boardman had to make a compelling case that the North was right to be fighting this war.

I also notice that Pastor Boardman basically says that if he does not believe that a war is justified that he would refuse to participate. This was before there was a draft in the U.S. so he was probably free to refuse to participate either physically or economically in the war effort. I wonder if he would support resisting the draft if he believed a war to be unjust.

Beyond this point I have to say that I was tickled to read his discussion of how Americans regard the U.S. flag and how it confused the Europeans. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Here is Pastor Boardman:

II. Having thus considered the Origin and Authority of Civil Government, we ask, secondly, whether Civil Government has the right to maintain its authority with the sword?

 This question is of primary consequence. In fact, it lies at the base of all other questions pertaining to this gigantic war. The whole spirit of the New Testament is so benignant, and war develops such terrible passions, and brings in its train such unspeakable woes, that no man, least of all the Christian, should dare commit himself to it thoughtlessly, without having carefully scrutinized, in the light of Scripture, every inch of the ground. I care not how great provocations we may have received; I care not how imperiled our Constitution, our Union, our Government, our institutions, our liberties, may be; if, as a soldier, or as a citizen required to help supply the sinews of war, I have the slightest misgivings as to the Scriptural teachings concerning war, better for me that I should let Constitution, Union, Government, institutions, country, be given over to ruin, rather than lift my hand against my fellow-man.

 I wish to meet this question fairly, in the full face, without reserve or subterfuge. The thoughtful, conscientious man will be guided by principle rather than by impulse. This question, then, is of fundamental, decisive consequence. It becomes us, then, to look at the matter calmly and as Christians.

 It must be confessed that the general tenor of the New Testament is very decided against the use of physical force in redressing injuries. Love it pronounces the grand avenger of wrongs. Take, as an instance, the Sermon on the Mount. What a sweet spirit of forgiveness and love runs throughout, teaching us, in various phrases, to suffer wrong rather than resent it! And this is the teaching of the Epistles as well as of the Gospels. “Dearly beloved I avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath. For it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ saith the Lord. Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink. For, in so doing, thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” Certainly, this does not look as if the maiming and slaying one another were accordant with the peaceful spirit of the Gospel.

 Now there is one very remarkable exception to this general tenor of the scriptural teaching. If I remember right, it is the only formal exception in the whole New Testament. But it is perfectly decisive. It is the exception of our text: “He Beareth not the Sword in Vain.” Now, what is this sword that is not borne in vain; that is, this sword which is borne authoritatively and effectively? Why, it is none other than the sword of Government wielded to maintain its own supremacy. This is perfectly demonstrable from the context, which we have already examined. “The Powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the Power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive unto themselves damnation. 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.” And to make the case the strongest possible, remember that St. Paul penned these words when living under the most merciless and nefarious despotism that ever cursed the earth — the despotism of the Caesars. Even the Caesars had the right to use the sword to maintain the supremacy of their own Government; and this on the basis of the universal fact, that the Power, that is, the Government, is ordained of God.

 The doctrine of the text, then, is this: Civil Government, in virtue of the fact that it is the ordinance of God, has the right, in order to maintain its own authority, to use physical force. This use of physical force, in the case of the single rebel, is confiscation, or imprisonment, or banishment, or the scaffold: in the case of many rebels, or of a rebellious district, it is war. The New Testament, then, though it is the evangel of Peace, and though it everywhere teaches the forgiveness of personal injuries, nevertheless justifies war, but only on this ground: Civil Government, as being the ordinance of God, in order to maintain its supremacy, has the right to use the sword, even though millions perish. Rebels are nothing as compared with an ordinance of the Almighty.

 Here, then, men and brethren, we have a complete New Testament justification of the present war, at least so far as we wage it in maintenance of Government as being God’s ordinance. The New Testament nowhere justifies a war for mere conquest, or acquisition of territory, as in our war with Mexico. It nowhere justifies war for the retaliation of injuries. It nowhere justifies war for the avenging of an insulted flag, unless, indeed, that flag be considered at the time as the symbol of the authority conferred by an ordinance of God. When I was abroad, I often heard Europeans making some such remark as this: “The Americans are a curious people. They are always talking about their flag — the Star-spangled Banner — as though that were everything!” And whenever I heard a remark like this it always filled me with pride, and I more than once said to them: ” I thank you for that tribute to America. My countrymen are so poetical that with them their flag is the symbol of everything they deem glorious. All that they have inherited from their fathers, all that they have themselves achieved, all that makes them the American people, they poetically symbolize in their glorious Stars and Stripes.” And yet, because this flag, considered simply as the emblem of our glory, has been insulted and trailed in the dust, this is no New Testament justification of our war. But if we wage this war because God’s ordinance of Government has been assailed, and if we avenge the insult to our flag because we consider it the symbol of a Divine Institution, then we are not only authorized and justified, we are compelled to wage this war to the bitter end, even though millions on millions of our countrymen perish. And if we wage the war on this basis, (and I believe, before God, that this is the basis on which we are waging it), then we confidently bring the debate before the Court of High Heaven, and we say: “Let Jehovah, the Lord of Hosts, the God of Battles, the Giver of Victories, decide between you rebels against His ordinance, and us, who are loyal to it I Let the God of Battles weigh you and us in His balance, and let the balance in which loyalty to God is wanting, kick the beam!” This is precisely the point in issue in this tremendous conflict. We call it, and properly enough, rebellion against the Government; we might, with equal propriety, call it rebellion against Jehovah’s ordinance.

Civil Government, a Divine Ordinance
Rev. George Dana Boardman
pp. 18-21

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