Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

08/27/2009 (9:11 pm)

A Protestant Argument for Limited Government

smugbobI have only progressed a few inches into my review of the Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion. However, as part of that review, I encountered a truly excellent defense of the basic notion of individual rights in a public brochure written by Elisha Williams, member of the Connecticut General Assembly and former rector at Yale University. The brochure was entitled “The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants,” with the subtitle “A reasonable Plea for The Liberty of Conscience, and The Right of private Judgment, in Matters of Religion, Without Controul from human Authority. Being a LETTER, From a Gentleman in the Massachusetts-Bay to his Friend in Connectivut, Wherein Some Thoughts on the Origin, End, and Extent of the Civil Power, with brief Considerations on several late Laws in Connectivut, are humbly offered.” Boston, 1744. ( You can read it for yourselves in its entirety at the link under the title.)

Williams’ essay is a long one, and will take some time to condense; I will report on it soon. In the meantime, however, a friend passed along to me a challenge from one of his friends for some Protestant to articulate the appropriate limits of government, with reference to the current administration’s attempts to nationalize health insurance. “If the public option is not a valid function of government,” this person asked, “What IS a valid function, and why?”

So, I’m setting forth my thinking at the moment regarding the proper limits of government from a Protestant’s point of view. The essential ideas are Lockean (based loosely on the ideas of John Locke), but Lockean as expressed by the Rev. Williams. This is a first cut at something I hope to refine and correct as I move forward. Enjoy.


Man in his natural state has himself, has God’s oversight, and has whatever he has taken from nature to sustain himself. Thus each person, by natural occurance and therefore by God’s initial design, has both the responsibility to answer to God out of his conscience, and the right to care for himself using his personal property.

The confirmation of this occurs in the structure of the Old Covenant. The Ten Commandments basically defend these same two principles, “honor God” and “honor private property.” The first five commandments say “Separate the holy from the profane,” in order that man may know God’s will. Have no other gods but the true God, make no gods out of created things, let no man claim authority from God that is not his to claim, treat God’s holy days as holy, and honor the teaching of your parents. The second five commandments say “Do not take what belongs to another person.” Steal nobody’s property, cohabit with nobody’s spouse, take nobody’s life, ruin nobody’s reputation, and covet nobody’s goods. Thus the central rules of God over man are “Honor and obey me, and respect each person’s property.” All belongs to God; He has apportioned to each person according to His will, and nobody has a right to reapportion it by force.

Regarding property, which at its root is the right of every person to provide for himself and his family, people fall into conflict from time to time and need an arbiter to settle disputes regarding the conflict of their needs. Government serves this role, and pursuing this, articulates the basic agreements individuals make in order to settle their disputes. Men also need to gather together to protect themselves from other men who would hinder their efforts to provide for themselves. In pursuit of this protection, men form governments, which keep the peace and provide for defense.

Regarding conscience, which is the other imperative, it is the unfortunate tendency of human beings to desire to force other people to do as they see fit, out of desire for personal profit, desire for power, or arrogant assertion of the right to decide others’ consciences. In the same vein, governments tend to force men to violate their consciences, to do as the governors see fit. Consequently, humans in community need the ability to limit the power of government, and to keep it from forcing them to violate their consciences. Inasmuch as any agent or any government attempts to force individuals to obey the conscience of that agent or government, rather than permitting the individual to obey his own conscience, that agent or government steps into the role of God and usurps God’s authority.

Thus the only valid function of a government is to protect the life and property of free citizens, so that they are at liberty to do as their conscience requires them before God. Any attempt by government to serve any other function constitutes a violation of the other core principle, an attempt to remove from people their responsibility to answer personally to God. Assigning any function to government aside from the protection of life and property constitutes blasphemy. Governments protect life, liberty, and property. This is it’s only valid purpose.

The confirmation of this occurs, again, within the structure of the Old Covenant. In the one instance in human history where we know that God established a civil polity, which was the nation of Israel after the invasion of Canaan, the polity He established was a clan — a loose affiliation of family structures, each with their own clearly demarcated property, but with each person answerable to God Himself. Both their property and their liberty were inviolable; even those who came into slavery by way of debt, were released eventually in the Jubilee, and returned to their ancestral property. He also sent periodic prophetic agents, who acted, not as governors nor as rulers, but as reminders to the consciences of individuals that they each, individually and collectively, should keep the laws of God; they also acted as leaders to free the people from invading tyrants, but their leadership ended when the tyrants were overthrown. When the people of Israel decided that they wanted a monarch instead of this loose confederacy, God announced “They have rejected ME from being king over them,” (I Sam 8:7) confirming that to raise up human government to perform any function other than mere protection of liberty and property constitutes blasphemy.

The desire of humankind to replace God’s rulership with human wisdom displayed itself in Genesis 10:8-12, and in the building of Babel in Genesis 11. This is the origin point for men declaring themselves great, establishing kingships, and attempting to perfect themselves; this is also the origin of the notion that one man might rule over another by right. Both the early deific monarchs, and the much more recent Utopian political philosophies, are expressions of the spirit of Nimrod, and recreate Babel. These efforts assert human perfectibility, represent human tyranny, and earn the opposition of God.

The subtlety of satan in deceiving mankind and drawing him into blasphemy displays itself in a very common equivocation on the notion to “protect life.” One might imagine that anything a government does to make life better for its citizens constitutes a proper function under the rubric of protecting life. With this in mind, the unwary might justify the government controlling the tiniest details of human choices in any area, dictating to citizens which washing machines to buy, which fuels to use, or which health insurance to purchase. This is demonic in origin, and constitutes nothing but a Nimrodian attempt by humans to produce Utopia apart from God, by inserting government in the place of God in ruling men’s consciences. Government exerting control over choices does not protect the common good, it attempts to produce it. Government’s job is to protect, not to produce. Government produces nothing.

By the same token, the temptation to use government to meet the needs of the poor must also be avoided. Christian imperatives to do good to others are sound responses of the conscience toward God, but since each person’s conscience is owed to God alone, never to another human being or to the state, the exercise of that conscience must remain a personal choice and not a collective one. For the government to usurp the role of private charity is for the government subtly to usurp the role of God in ruling peoples’ consciences. Conscience must remain free, and the exercise of conscience, the responsibility of the individual citizen.

It remains but to dispose of a common misconception regarding a single passage in the Apostle Paul’s writings, Romans 13:1-7, in which Paul argues that Christians should keep a good conscience toward civil authority, because the power that exists was established by God. This is commonly thought to support the claim that any government in virtually any application of power has God’s imprimatur, and that it constitutes rebellion against God to resist the authority of the state in any way.

The passage does not support this absolute position, however. The matters that Paul addresses concern merely keeping the peace, and argue for the right of governments to enforce such laws as are common to all humankind — don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and so forth. When he says “There is no authority except from God,” he is not declaring that every power the state has usurped is theirs by the approval of God, but rather, that the legitimate power of the state is limited to those things that God ordains. If the state attempts to exert power — “bear the sword” — for purposes other than those God ordains, then it acts illegitimately, without His power. However, within those central matters of common human rules that reflect the true laws of God, whatever state enforces them is enforcing the laws of God.

To assert that any government, no matter how wicked, is established by God simply by virtue of the fact that it exists, is to say something absurd, and something far beyond the context. If a parent taught his child, “Listen to your teachers, even the ones who are not Christian, because all truth is God’s truth,” is that parent asserting that anything any teacher says is therefore a truth from God? Of course not; what he’s saying, instead, is that whatever is true, is true regardless of out of whose mouth it comes. Paul, likewise, is not saying that every government represents God in all its exercises of authority, but rather that when even a secular government enforces laws that God ordained, it is defending God’s authority thereby.

The only government that rules in its entirety within the will of God, is that government that performs the simple role of protecting the ability of free citizens to provide for themselves, by arbitrating between neighbors and protecting life, liberty, and property from destroyers both within and without the community. All that any government performs within these bounds, it performs with God’s blessing. All that any government performs beyond these bounds, it performs as an act of blasphemy, taking for men that which belongs properly to God.

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