David Lipscomb and Civil Government

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David Lipscomb and Civil Government[1]

               David Lipscomb’s work, On Civil Government, challenges some of the basic assumptions many have concerning the relationship of the church and the state. This volume was written in the mid-nineteenth century, but its message resonates today in our current charged political environment. In the last decade, the work of Trinity College economic professor Edward Stringham has brought renewed interest in the political theory of David Lipscomb.[2] Stringham sees a connection between the thought of Lipscomb and many modern radical libertarians. Stringham believes that Lipscomb’s work is a timely treatise on how one can be a Christian and a libertarian. Lipscomb’s Civil Government was originally a set of articles that were written in the Gospel Advocate from between 1866-1867. The timing of these articles is important due to the aftermath of the carnage and destruction of the American Civil War.

               Lipscomb’s biblical wisdom can help modern American Christians as they navigate the choppy waters of how one should relate to the empires and kingdoms of man. It is hard not to notice the deep political divisions in the country and those fault lines run through the center of the church. From gauging the vitriol in many social media posts and animosity between members of Christ body regarding politics Lipscomb’s corrective on government is needed. In this article, I will examine and respond to the following tenets of Lipscomb’s political theory: his view of the origin of civil government, the early church’s relationship to the civil government, and the relationship of contemporary Christians with the government.

               To begin with, Lipscomb differentiated government into the categories of God’s kingdom rule and the governments of man in a strict antithesis (Lipscomb, 43). Lipscomb said that man’s kingdoms typically exist to “enrich, gratify the appetites and lusts, and promote the grandeur and glory of the rulers” (Lipscomb, 25). Lipscomb traces the beginning of human government to the founding of Nimrod’s kingdoms in Genesis 10:8–10 (Lipscomb, 12). Lipscomb believed that God ordained these kingdoms due to man’s rebellion (Lipscomb, 12). In the same way that God capitulated and gave Israel a king, God allowed humanity to rule autonomously and, in a sense, to be their gods (Lipscomb, 23). The ultimate origin of the schism between God’s rule and man’s rule came when Adam and Eve gave into the serpent and abdicated their sovereignty under God to the Devil (Lipscomb, 12). In Lipscomb’s schemata, God ordained government to punish the disobedient (Lipscomb, 23).

               Next, Lipscomb demonstrates the relationship of the early Christians to the government of their day. The juxtaposition of the Christian movement and the secular authorities is highlighted at the beginning of the story of Christ in that Herod the Great attempts to destroy the Christ child because he is deemed as a threat to Herod’s hegemony (Lipscomb, 46–47). Lipscomb also shows that in the temptation of Jesus Satan has the authority to give Christ the kingdoms of this world, and this shows that Satan has dominion over the secular powers (Lipscomb, 55). The clash with God’s kingdom is further evidenced in the persecution of the early church by the secular powers (Lipscomb, 64–65). Lipscomb effectively shows that the earliest Christians were under authoritative apostolic teaching to do the following: live peaceably in their lives, honor the emperor, pray for the civil magistrate, pay taxes, and seek the good of their communities (Lipscomb, 69–75). To Lipscomb, for a Christian of the first century to be involved in the political order would be absurd.

               The one great strength of Lipscomb’s argument is found in his application of the Bible’s teaching as it relates to how Christians relate to the government. Lipscomb masterfully points out that the phrases used in the New Testament such as “be subject to” and “submit to” display a relationship of the subject and the government that is antagonistic and separate (Lipscomb, 76). The Christian is distinct from the government and in the Bible’s admonitions about a Christian’s relationship with the government it never tells the Christian to love the government or participate in governmental affairs (Lipscomb, 77). In contrast, the Christian is told to submit to the spiritual authorities of the church and to love the church through active participation and joint support (Lipscomb, 77).  I believe this is one of the strengths of Lipscomb’s argument. It acts as a corrective for some of the rabid jingoism that I witness in the church today.  

               Another strength of Lipscomb’s argument is his call to radical separateness from the world. The story of Abraham shows how God called him to leave his natural ties to family and to go to a land and live wholly to the Lord (Lipscomb, 17). I believe the heirs of the Restoration Movement have compromised too much in our affections for this world. We have been sectarian about some ecclesial issues, but we are worldly in dress, entertainment options, and are uber-patriotic in our attitudes toward the current political climate. We have put our faith hope and trust in political systems and candidates and not in Jesus Christ. Lipscomb believed that politicians and elected officials would use Christians to advance their cause and agenda. Lipscomb believed that if Christians voted or participated in governmental affairs, then their devotion to Christ would be compromised. It seems that Lipscomb is calling for sectarianism that emphasizes a radical kingdom concept when it comes to the world. I find it fascinating that we will call for separateness on matters of church practice and worship patterns but then accept without discernment the radical hedonism and political compromise of our age.

               Lipscomb also promotes a strong sense of pacifism. Lipscomb rightly points out that many wars come from the whims of governments that force people into warfare that would normally live peaceably (Lipscomb, 95). Lipscomb explains that a person from Maine and Texas or India and England would typically live in peace with one another, but governmental authorities bring them into conflict to promote their self-aggrandizing position.  Many blame Lipscomb’s pacifism on his experience with the Civil War, but that position is untenable.  In the last chapter of Civil Government Lipscomb traces the development of Christian thought in matters of civil government from the fourth to the fifteenth century showing that he was well read on the subject of pacifism. Lipscomb was heavily influenced by his mentor Tolbert Fanning and was also conversant other movements that refused to participate in civil affairs such as the Quakers, the Anabaptists, and Dunkards.

Lipscomb did not adhere to the post-Enlightenment fact-value dichotomy. As I read Lipscomb, I was inspired and challenged by his radical view of kingdom ethics. Lipscomb did not allow Christians to carve up their lives into a public sphere and private religious sphere. If a Christian is called to a robust role as a peacemaker, then it Lipscomb’s thought it would be impossible for them to take up the sword for the state. Lipscomb would go so far as to say that a Christian that voted for a regime that brought about warfare and bloodshed would be just as guilty as the one shedding the blood.

                Let us take to heart Lipscomb’s warning concerning making unholy alliances with the state and compromising with power. I also believe we need to take Lipscomb’s approach to the critique of government seriously. What I mean by that is that we should look at the concept of the modern state in light of Scripture and Scripture should be sovereign in that critique. What many modern Christians have done is to draw their theory about government and politics from the current system and then turn to the Scripture to make that prevailing theory fit. Lipscomb brings a paradigm shift by beginning with Scripture. That is why it is so hard for our modern hearts and minds to fathom the implications of Lipscomb’s thought. We push back on Lipscomb’s political theory because it means we must divest of power (kenosis -Phil 2) and become servants. Divestment of power or kenosis is the opposite of the concept of modern political sovereignty. Contemporary sovereignty in politics believes a candidate or elected official has a political agenda and they will cajole, connive, or use raw power to get their agenda pushed through. In an age when bipartisanship in Washington is a joke the idea of divestment of power is like an alien from another planet.

               Lipscomb’s Civil Government has challenged my heart.  As I read Lipscomb, I tried to imagine the compatibility of being a Christian and a statesman. Lipscomb would chide me and say that I am asking the impossible. Possibly it is too much of Abraham Kuyper’s political theory rolling around in my head, but I do believe there is a paradigm that we can turn to in the Bible to see a way forward for a postmodern Christian political theory. I propose that Christians should take a viewpoint that is totally in line with the narrative arc of Scripture and that is the view of God’s people being exiles. We are aliens in a strange land. But that does not mean that we should practice dispensationalist escapism. We can’t have the view that any political involvement or work for a better social order is like polishing the deck rails on the Titanic. Jeremiah tells those that are about to go into Babylonian exile, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV)” We belong to God’s kingdom, and as Christians, we are advanced signs for the world to see what God meant by the dominion mandate in the Garden. Jesus was the ultimate example of what true humanity looks like and what sovereignty means. We live in exile in a world that has been taken captive by the evil one, but by our involvement in every aspect of life, we bring God’s kenosis love to this world. I propose Daniel as an example of what a Kingdom-centered diplomat is. Daniel never compromised his identity but served the Babylonian administration in a way that brought honor to God and brought God’s wisdom to bear to our broken world.

               In conclusion, I hope this article will renew interest in an amazing man and challenging thinker. This little book will stay with me for a while as I wrestle with my view of the relationship between the state and the believer. I do wholeheartedly agree with Lipscomb in that God is the only trustworthy lawgiver and ruler that we can give our allegiance too. As one comes into the Kingdom rule of Jesus, the need for the rule of man diminishes. As humanity is transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, our affections are drawn away from man and his empire, and we are drawn to the self-emptying love of King Jesus.

[1] All in text citations come from Lipscomb’s Civil Government.

[2] See Edward Stringham’s “The Radical Libertarian Political Economy of 19th Century Preacher David Lipscomb,” Mercatus Center: George Mason University, April 2009.

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