A CHRISTIAN DUTY.
WM C BRYANT & CO., PRINTERS, 41 NASSAU STREET, COR. OF LIBERTY.
The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.
These words lead us, naturally, to consider the duty of the Christian to those who are over him in civil authority. That they afford a fitting theme for the teaching of the pulpit, is evident from the fact that they are themselves a part of the instruction given by an Apostle to Christians under his spiritual oversight. It is, also, evident from the fact that Christians have duties to civil government as Christians. Their holy religion teaches them how to apply its principles to the various relations in which they stand in life, and, among others, to the relation which they hold towards the civil power; and, inasmuch as it is the duty and the office of the ministers of the Church to set forth the obligations of Christians, in all their different aspects and applications, (at least, so far as the word of God teaches them,) so, [3/4] as that word does plainly teach how the Christian is to behave himself towards those who are in authority over him, the ministers of the Church, at the present day, can hardly be excused from giving the same instruction.
You will see at once the difference between such teaching and what is commonly called "political preaching." This involves no discussion of political theories or particular acts of governmental policy. It simply lays down the rule of the permanent, abiding, and regular duty of the Christian to civil authority; as it does that of the child to the parent, the wife to the husband, the servant to the master, &c. The function of the minister, in enforcing it, is limited by the terms of Scripture. He cannot, rightfully, go beyond the Word of the Lord to say less or more. And, if he keeps himself within that limit, there is no danger of his verging into the forbidden field of temporary or local politics. The duty which he enjoins is one which, once declared by the word of God, is the same, in all ages, under all forms of government, and in every condition of civil action and polity. It is a permanent duty, towards a permanent institution, without regard to the formal changes which that institution may undergo in different ages and in different countries.
This leads me to my first remark in the discussion [4/5] of our present subject. The Bible does not indulge in theories of civil government. It assumes civil government as an existing fact, and says that it has divine sanction and ordination. "The powers that be," the powers which actually are, "are ordained of God." It does not allow the Christian to look beyond. His duty to civil government is, in its performance, to be rendered to the government under which he lives. Me is not at liberty to consider whether it is a, government that pleases him in its form or manner of action. As a Christian, he has a duty towards civil government: and that duty is practically to be fulfilled towards the government under which, in the providence of God, he finds himself placed.
"The powers that be are ordained of God." The existing government is ordained of God. It is not necessary to suppose that every form of government which, may exist, is directly created, or positively sanctioned, by God. It may have been established by wrong, by fraud, by unholy violence. We must remember the purport and object of the argument which the Apostle is using. Christians, as Christians, have, among their duties, one to civil government. The government which exists, is the one towards which that duty is to be performed. It is the one appointed by God for that purpose. The Christian [4/5] finds it ordained for him by the providence of God. This is enough. He is not to search into theories of right. He is not to investigate the character of its origin. There is hardly a government upon earth that can show a perfectly pure birth. His concern is, or should be, to do his duty as a Christian to the civil power. The duty is to be performed to the power that is. That power is the one for him ordained by God, as the authority towards which, in practice, his obligation to civil government is to be fulfilled. The powers that be are the powers which God would have you obey, the powers which His providence, by setting them over you, has ordained for your obedience. This is the clear teaching of the passage from which my text is taken; and wherever, in other parts of Holy Scripture, the duty of the Christian to civil government is enjoined, it is in a sense congruous with this. The difficulties which this interpretation of Christian obligation in the premises suggests, at least to an American mind, will have due notice bye-and-bye.
The government that is, is, then, the government towards which the Christian's duty to civil authority is to be performed. The question arises, What is that duty? What is the exact and appropriate obligation of the Christian to civil government? Each specific relation has [6/7] its specific duty. The parent to the child, the child to the parent, the master to the servant, the servant to the master, we all know by heart from the word of God, what each one of these several relations requires of the Christian. The question now is, What specific act, or acts, does the same word demand of him, in his relation to civil authority? The Bible is as clear on this point as it is with regard to the other relations just alluded to.
How is the Christian's duty to civil government to be performed? You will understand the theory of the Christian religion. The Christian has but one Master, even Christ; that is to say, He only is the supreme and absolute Master of the Christian. His obligation to inferior governments, therefore, is only that which is required or sanctioned by the Law of Christ; and it is an obligation on that account. The act of confessing Christ is the acknowledgment of Him as one's only King. It is, therefore, the renunciation of all other authority as supreme. Christ's is a real Kingdom, and He is a real King. The Christian has no other monarch or ruler, except as subordinate to Christ, and as claiming allegiance in conformity with Christ's law. Whatever, therefore, is rendered to any other authority is rendered, not to that authority in itself, as independent and supreme, but it is rendered to Christ, [7/8] through that authority. This is the simple, clear,, and complete theory of the Christian's action, m every human relation.
Now, Christ requires, by the mouth of His Holy Apostle, (and His own teaching and practice as a man, in the days of His humiliation, before God exalted Him, and gave Him a name which is above every name--the name, to wit, "King of Kings and Lord of Lords," were conformed to the same rule,) Christ, I say, requires, towards the powers that be, the civil authority under which the Christian finds himself living, the practice of subjection. This is the one duty which belongs to the civil relation, just as much as obedience belongs to the child, or to the servant. It is the specific obligation which fulfils the Christian's duty to civil government. No words can be plainer than those of St. Paul. "Let every soul," every individual person, "be subject unto the higher powers," the civil powers which are over him in this world. The reason for this subjection we have already stated. Those powers are of God. They are, providentially, ordained by Him. They are a recognized government, subordinate to Christ's universal dominion: for He alone, of men, (and He is still man,) has "all power." He, then, the Apostle continues, who resists those powers, refuses or discards subjection to them, resists the ordinance of God. His crime [8/9] goes beyond his mere human relation. It terminates on God. It is rebellion towards God. The consequence is the necessary result of crime towards God. "They that resist," the individuals, (for this is a matter of individual obligation,) "shall receive to themselves damnation." It is a mortal sin, because it is rebellion towards God; and it is in this sense that we pray in the Litany: "From all sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion, good Lord, deliver us." It is not, primarily and mainly, that we be delivered from such acts and their fearful consequences, as perpetrated by others. The petition is, chiefly and firstly, that we may not be guilty of them ourselves; as being acts which must bring upon us condemnation from God.
A farther question here arises; a delicate question, because the answer to it may run counter to some of the popular notions and prejudices which the abuse of our peculiar civil polity has engendered widely in the American mind. I beg you, as I enter upon the discussion of this question, to give me credit for a sincere desire to keep my teaching within the limits of God's word, and also to understand that I am not dealing with any political theories, of human origin, but simply, as is my office here, laying down and explaining the lines of Christian duty, as they are revealed in Scripture; and that I am doing it [9/10] now, on this particular topic, because while it is a clear obligation of my ministry to instruct you upon the subject, there is a peculiar necessity that you should, at this time, be thoroughly grounded in your duty as Christian citizens, so that your practice may the more readily and surely be conformed to your obligation.
The question which I have in mind, and which I can imagine has already sprung up in many of your minds, is this: What are the limits of this required subjection to the powers that be? Is any and all resistance, at all times, and under all circumstances, unlawful, so that it can never be anything else than rebellion against God, bringing the individual guilty of it into condemnation from Him?
To answer this question sufficiently, I must call your attention to a general truth connected with the divine precepts, and then apply it to the case in hand. God gives commands in His holy word, and threatens the violation of them with punishment. But, He does not say what shall become of those exceptional instances in which violation has some extraordinary excuse. These are reserved in His own power, and His own secret right of judgment. Let me illustrate by cases. Every one is required to be baptized; and the Scripture saith, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into [10/11] the kingdom of God." Suppose the case of an infant, dying unbaptized. He has not been born of water and of the Spirit. The law declares, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. But, he has an extraordinary apology for the omission of baptism. It is not his own fault that he was not baptized. Still, there stands the law, "Except one be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." We may think, there is an exception to be made, in favor of the unbaptized infant; and, possibly, we are correct in so thinking. But, who authorizes any such exception? Not God. He nowhere says, a case may occur, in which a person dying unbaptized can be saved. Perhaps he can be, when, as is true of the infant so dying, there is some extraordinary excuse for the non-baptism. I am myself inclined to think this of the infant, although such seems not to have been the general opinion of the Fathers. But, I think so on other grounds than any revealed declaration on the subject--for there is no such declaration--and my thinking so is a mere opinion of my own. It is not an article of faith; and my brother may, if he pleases, think differently, and I have no right to condemn him for his opinion. Take another case. The commandment of God requires that children obey their parents, and the maledictions against undutiful [11/12] children are many and vigorous in the word of God. Yet, we can conceive of an instance in which there is a singularly strong and controlling reason for filial disobedience--that is, for violating this command--a command which, in one place, is expressed in the broadest and most sweeping terms: "Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing unto the Lord." (Col. iii, 20.) But, does the word of God warrant any such exception? Not at all. It does not follow, from such want of revealed exception, that no exceptional case can arise, or that, in such case, God may not excuse an act of disobedience. All that I would affirm is, that God does not declare or provide for such exceptional cases, if they exist. He gives us the command, the promise of reward, if we keep it, the threat of punishment, if we break it,--and this is all.
What, then, are we to say of exceptional cases, supposing that they may exist? We can say, only, that they are in the secret keeping of God. He reserves them wholly to Himself; and most fitly. Our business is with the command--our duty is to obey it. It would be self-degrading in the Law-Giver, it would be derogatory to the law, were He to say, "I give you this command, but you are at liberty to understand, that, in such and such cases, and, in fine, in all instances when [12/13] you conscientiously think it right, you may violate it." This were to destroy the law, by the authorized exceptions. No! He gives the law. He makes no exception to the duty of obedience. If we make one, we must answer to Him for it. He may excuse it--He may justify it--He may even, in some cases, find, in the exception, a higher and truer obedience to Him; but, when we make the exception, we do it with the risk of condemnation, if, at the last, the exception be found untenable.
Now, in this matter of subjection to civil authority, I conceive that it stands upon precisely the same ground with all the other commands of the Gospel. You will remember, it is, like them, a matter of individual obligation. "Let every soul (each person) be subject unto the higher powers." Every person must answer for himself, as to his obedience or disobedience of this, as of every other command. His responsibility cannot be merged in that of the community. The obligation of the community is merely the aggregate of the obligation of the individuals who compose it. The command is to the individual man; and it is worthy of remark, that St. Paul, as if conscious of the particular necessity, in this instance, of impressing that idea, uses the singular person; thus addressing, as it were, separately, each one to whom he wrote, or who might [13/14] thereafter read his epistle. "Let every soul:" "Whosoever resisteth:" "Wilt thou not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, "and thou shalt have praise of the same," &c. In fine, it is a religious duty of each and every person to be in subjection to the civil authority. It is a duty, as it is the duty of the child to obey his parent, as it is the duty of every one to be baptized, as it is the duty of every one not to steal or kill. It is, simply, one of our obligations to God.
Now, then, I conceive, that exceptions, in this case, stand precisely where exceptions in the other cases supposed stand. It is the duty of every person to be subject to the civil authority which is actually over him. God has revealed no exceptions to this law. If any one makes an exception, he does it on his own responsibility: and every man must answer for his own act. If he can make his exception available before God in judgment, well. If not, he receives to himself damnation for resisting the power, as he would if he had violated any other command of God.
"But, do you not, then," it maybe asked, "destroy the sacred right of revolution?" To this I answer, first, I am not preaching to you a political sermon. I am simply declaring to you, according to my office, the law and will of God. Secondly, I answer, According to that law, there [14/15] is no sacred right of revolution. If there be a right, (which I need not deny,) it is not a sacred right, in such sense as that it has, in any particular case, the positive revealed sanction of God. When it is right, it is a formal violation of God's law, with an excuse which He will admit; and the answer must be made to Him by each separate individual who resists the power, though the revolution is the result of the combined actions of many. You may say, I am making revolution a much more riskful business than it is commonly among us supposed to be. I tell you, I am not making it one thing or another. I am simply teaching you the plain word of God. How it may affect any theories of conduct which you may have outside of that word is no concern of mine. I am setting before you a moral and religious, not a mere human political, duty. I am setting it before you just as I might set before you the duty not to steal. Mutatis mutandis, all that I have said applies equally to any other command of God.
With regard to those great events of past ages in which subjects have risen against their rulers, each is to have its separate judgment; and that judgment I am not now called upon to give. Perhaps if I were asked to give it, some I should justify, and others I should condemn. But, in every case, I must say, it was a departure from [15/16] the divine law, justified, when justifiable, by a higher obligation to the Author of that law; for, it is evident, that to make an exception to a law of God can be vindicated only as a duty to Him. All those who have acted in the great scenes of past revolutions, have made such exceptions. To their own Master they stand or fall. I have no call to judge them here. My only duty, so far as the application of principles is concerned, is to the case in hand; for there we have a duty of our own to perform. To that I shall come before I close, giving my opinion, but leaving your judgment equally free with mine. With regard to the past, let me add, that each actor in those scenes was a separate agent, and individually responsible; and individual obligation is not to be merged in general action, for this relates to moral duty, where each one has his own answer to give to his Judge. This rule is applicable to ourselves at the present time. That there has been, in former days, conscientious resistance to lawful authority, that such resistance has been urged under a sense of religious obligation, we cannot doubt. Who, for example, could doubt it of Washington? Such action we must respect; but the responsibility is with the agents, and their account is with God.
There is one contingency in which it is clear that resistance to the powers that be is not only [16/17] right, but of superior obligation. If the civil government should command anything contrary to the law of God, (as when the King Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image, and decreed that every man should fall down and worship it; or as when King Darius forbade prayer to any god or man, for the space of thirty days, save to himself; or as when the Roman Emperor Maximian required the Christians in his army to sacrifice to the pagan gods,) in every such case, there can be no just question that it is the duty of the Christian to decline obedience. And the reason for such refusal is manifest. Christians obey the civil government under the command of God. Allegiance, therefore, if we carry it back to its source, is, as we have before declared, based upon subjection to Deity. But Deity cannot have required an allegiance which violates His own laws. In such case, the reply of the Christian must be like that of St. Peter and St. John to the Council, when they were commanded not to teach in the name of Jesus: "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye." (Acts iv., 19.) The principle and ground of such refusal are well stated by Tatian, one of the early Christian apologists: "If the Emperor order me to pay tribute, I am ready to do it. If my Lord command me to serve and obey him, I confess my obligation to do so. [17/18] Man is to be served with that respect which is due to man: but God only, the Invisible and Incomprehensible, is to be religiously feared and honored. [The allusion here is to the requisition which the Christians had frequently to encounter, that they should render unto the Emperor Divine honor.] If commanded to deny Him, I must disobey, and die rather than be found disloyal and ungrateful to Him." (Oral cont. Graecos.) This was uniformly the position of the early Christians, against such demands of government as contravened their fidelity to God. While they were most exemplary in their subjection to the civil authority, even when it was a Pagan power, and most exact and scrupulous in the performance of every lawful obligation, they utterly refused to acknowledge the Emperors as gods, or to observe idolatrous festivals, or to offer heathen sacrifices.
There is little danger, perhaps, in these days, that our loyalty to God will be put to such a test as this. There is more danger that violations of God's law will be sanctioned by civil authority than that they will be required of the individual citizen. The allowance of divorce for other than the solitary reason warranted by Holy Scripture, the enactment of a lower penalty than death for murder, in contrariety to the express statute of Deity, permission to break the Sabbath, the [18/19] day of rest consecrated by God from the foundation of the world, all these, and such as these, may be sanctioned by civil government; and civil government, by so doing, may bring upon itself such punishments as we are now suffering; since, by these violations of the law of God, it is itself resisting the highest Power--the Power from which it derives its own surest guarantee. But all this falls short of an injunction upon the citizen to violate that law himself; and, therefore, is no just ground for rebellion.
Beyond this, aside from the case just supposed, in which government attempts to enforce disobedience to Deity, I do not see that a universal rule can be laid down. I am not prepared to say, that in no other case is a man at liberty to resist the civil authority. But I am prepared to say, it must be a very clear case which can justify a man in making exceptions to a law of God which makes none for itself. It appears to me, however, that it must be left to the individual conscience. But several considerations bearing upon the point may be gleaned from Holy Scripture. First, our Saviour enjoined the payment of tribute to Caesar, although his authority over the Jews was that of a conqueror, his rule was, to them, a foreign domination. Yet he was to them the existing civil authority; and this is the sacred definition of the power to which [19/20] allegiance is due. Secondly, St. Paul, in the epistle from which our text is taken, was writing to the Christians in Rome; and they were, at that time, chiefly, Jews. Yet he enjoins, in the strong terms which you have heard, subjection to the powers that be. It is worth while to add, that those powers were then heathen and anti-Christian, and that the Emperor at that time sitting upon the throne was none other than the cruel, the debauched, the infamous Nero; for whom the greatest charity can invent no better apology than that he was a madman. He was a bitter enemy of the Christians; he was personally most unworthy to reign; he was a heathen; and his dominion was to the Jews a foreign one. Yet, under such a rule, St. Paul declares, "The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God." Thirdly, St. Peter gives the direction, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme, (that is, among human rulers,) or unto governors, authorities subordinate to the Supreme Power,) as unto them that are sent by him." And in the case of oppression on account of religion, he enjoins that Christians rejoice, as partakers of Christ's suffering. He nowhere intimates a right to rebel, even in this aggravated case. And it is a significant comment on the [20/21] Apostolic teaching, that, through all the bloody persecutions of the first three centuries after Christ, the disciples bore them patiently at the hands of their Emperors, and seem never to have thought them a sufficient pretext for overturning the general law of God. Fourthly, The whole genius of Christianity intimates that wrong should be suffered meekly and unresistingly from any authority ordained by God. In what may be regarded as the lowest of such relations, that of the slave to his master, the instruction of the Bible is, that he be "subject to his master with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward," and that if he should do well and suffer for it, and take it patiently, it would be acceptable with God. Is it not a strong instance of the a fortiori argument to say, if so it is to be from the slave to his master, how much more from the master to the civil authority which is over him, since its rule is so much higher in dignity and importance than his, and such vast interests, it may be of millions, will be affected by its maintenance or its overthrow?
But it would require more time than I have at command, to go through the whole array of teaching on the point of resistance to civil authority which might be inferred from the Bible. With a very brief application of the truths which I have now delivered, to the circumstances in [21/22] which we find ourselves placed, I will conclude. That there is now a resistance to the powers that be, to the supreme authority of the land, no one, I presume, will dispute. It may be called "secession;" it may be called "revolution;" the name is of little importance. The question is, Is it a refusal to be subject to the powers that be? If so, then it falls within the verge of the Apostle's doctrine; and the only remaining question concerning it, is, Has it such justification that it may rightly set aside the positive command of God? Each man must determine that question for himself. For myself, I will say, that, in my judgment, the present uprising against the National Government is rebellion. I cannot remember, in history, a case which seems to me clearer than this. Those who are engaged in this resistance must show, not grievances suffered from a portion of their fellow-citizens, but wrongs from the government which they resist, of such a nature, so heinous, so outrageous, so diabolical, that they, undoubtedly, abrogate the law of God; so grievous that the infinite evils, the unutterable calamities, that may ensue from resistance, ought to be risked, in addition to revoking, for the time being, the divine law. If this cannot be shown, (and it must be shown beyond reasonable doubt,) then every person who has raised a parricidal hand against the civil authority is guilty of [22/23] mortal sin before God, a sin which brings condemnation. The justification necessary cannot, in my opinion, be proved. Thousands may be involved who are innocent, who are merely yielding to the powers that be, in submitting to this act of guilt. They cannot escape from it, because the authority immediately over them forces their allegiance. This, unquestionably, is the position of thousands. Here, again, each one is responsible to his Master in heaven, Who will judge all rightly.
As for our own duty in the premises, unless we are prepared to say, (and who of us is prepared to say?) that our National Government has forfeited its divine right to our subjection, by acts so hideous as to set aside the law of God, our course of duty is as plain as the sun at noonday. It is, to obey "the powers that be," as "ordained of God." It is, to give them the support which they demand. It is, to declare ourselves faithful subjects of the authority set over us by the Lord, the Supreme Ruler of all. It is, to maintain that authority to the utmost of our ability, in simple obedience, and with no distrust of consequences. If we may but do our duty in the fear of God, we can safely leave results to: Him. There can be no middle course. Inaction is resistance, because the powers that be demand action, and it is our duty to obey, unless we can show a duty to God higher than His written law. [23/24] It is, as now propounded, a simple question of religion. The flag upon our tower, which elsewhere might emblemize only the raging passions of men, or, at the best, display a carnal and temporal patriotism, is, where we have hung it out, a symbol of our allegiance to Him to whose worship and glory this House is consecrated. It testifies that in this, as in other things, we wish, and we mean, to keep God's commands. It is, therefore, where we have placed it, a religious symbol; and though one or two, I understand, have taken offence at it, as if it were a political banner, I trust that what I have now said will suffice to show that it is linked with our very hopes of heaven; since he who doeth the will of our Father who is in heaven, can alone expect to enter that blest abode, and His will is, that we be subject to, and resist not, the powers that be. The Flag at the base of our spire is, in our present condition, as truly an emblem of our religion as the Cross upon its summit, Therefore, it flies there with my full consent, and with the consent of the lay authorities of the Parish. Therefore, we gather under its folds, by the same title by which we assemble beneath the Banner of the Son of God. Therefore, we pray that it may float over the whole land, the sign of subjection, not alone to the power of man, but, chiefly and above all, to the supreme ordinance of the Most High.