Pacifism: David Lipscomb and Civil Government

pacifismDavid Lipscomb was the editor of the Gospel Advocate for nearly half a century, from the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. As a result, he was perhaps the most influential man in the Churches of Christ that were in the Deep South. Many of his teachings remain orthodox among the more conservative Churches of Christ today, but a surprising number of his views have been rejected and even forgotten — largely overwhelmed by the teachings of Foy Wallace Jr. in the mid-20th Century.

Among the views that Wallace successfully erased from much of the Church of Christ psyche was Lipscomb’s view of the Christian and government. You see, Lipscomb was a pacifist — and more. His views on the subject are laid out in his influential book Civil Government, which is available online for free. Lipscomb, who saw the suffering caused by the Civil War upclose from his home in Nashville, concluded that not only is it wrong to engage in war, but any participation by the Christian in secular government is wrong.

He wrote,

It is clear that human government had its origin in the rejection of the authority of God, and that it was intended to supersede the Divine government, and itself constituted the organized rebellion of man against God. This beginning of human government God called BABEL, confusion, strife. It introduced into the world the organized development and embodiment of the spirit of rebellion, strife and confusion among men. God christened it BABEL. It soon grew into the blood-thirsty, hectoring Babylon, and subjugated the surrounding families, tribes and kingdoms to its dominion, and became the first universal empire of the earth, and maintained its sway until the days of Daniel.

(Pages 9 -10.) In short, the account of the Tower of Babel was taken by Lipscomb as the story of the beginning of human government, in rebellion against direct rule by God.

All the wars and strifes between tribes, races, nations, from the beginning until now, have been the result of man’s effort to govern himself and the world, rather than to submit to the government of God. I am not intimating in this, that human government is not necessary, I believe that it is necessary, and that God has ordained it as a punishment to man for refusing to submit to the government of God and it must exist so long as the human family or any considerable portion of it refuses to submit to the government of God. Human government originated in the rebellion of man against his Maker, and was the organized effort of man to govern himself and to promote his own good and to conduct the affairs of the world independently of the government of God. It was the organized rebellion of man against God and his government. The essential character of this government, as protrayed by God will be given here-after.

(Pages 10-11.) Therefore, all war is a result of man’s refusal to submit to God’s government. Government is necessary but only because mankind persists in rebellion to God.

This government of God among the children of Israel was corrupted and perverted, but some of the Jews were schooled by it, and trained, as were others, not Jews, by the providence of God, for service in a higher and more perfect kingdom of God. God then took the Jewish national government out of the way, and superseded it with the kingdom of heaven – the Church of God, which was fitted for the service of individuals – few or all – in all nations, and aspires to universal and eternal dominion on earth. It is to embrace all people, all nations, kindreds and tribes, and to mingle and mould them into one universal brotherhood, to break in pieces and destroy all earthly kingdoms and dominions, and fill the whole earth and stand forever. The mission of this Church is to rescue and redeem the earth from the rule and dominion of the human kingdoms, from the rebellion against God, and to reinstate the authority and rule of God on earth through this own kingdom. Through and in it Christ must reign until he shall have “put down all rule, and all authority and all power.” Then will he deliver up the kingdom to God the Father, and himself be subject to God, that God ruling in and through his restored kingdom on earth, may be all and in all, the only ruler of the heavens and of the earth.

(Pages 12-13.) The church is the kingdom of God and therefore will one day replace civil government. Thus, one role of the church is to rescue the world from human government.

Lipscomb argues,

The first of all commandments is,

    “Shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and
    all thy soul, and all thy mind and with all thy body.”

To love a ruler is to serve him from the heart. Ye cannot serve God and the ruler of this world. All the powers of the soul, mind and body must be devoted to the service of God.

(Pages 68 – 69.) Therefore,

Christ’s mission – the mission of his kingdom – is to put down and destroy all these kingdoms, and to destroy every thing that exercises rule, authority or power on earth. How can the servants of Christ and the subjects of his kingdom, enter into, strengthen, and build up that which Christ and his kingdom are commissioned to destroy. How can a Christian enter into and serve the human, how can he divide his fealty, his love, his means and his time, his talent between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the evil one? Death came with the rule of the devil. All that came with him must be destroyed by Christ; must be rooted out as not planted by the hand of God.

(Page 83.) As Jesus will destroy all powers and authorities — all civil government — how can a Christian offer allegiance to an enemy of Christ? We must obey the governments, as a matter of necessity, and we must prayer for their leaders, but we should have no loyalty to them.

Paul declared the civil ruler was ordained of God for the punishment of evil-doers; a work which he expressly declared Christians could not do but which the kingdoms of the evil one were ordained to do. He declared the exercise of the civil authority, to be a bearing the sword to execute vengeance and wrath, he told the disciples they could not execute vengeance, and that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty, through God, to the pulling down of strongholds,” 2 Cor. x: 4, showing clearly that the Christians could not use these civil powers to promote righteousness, morality, or good to humanity. Christians cannot use them? They are to serve God in earnestness and loving loyalty and in the spirit of meekness and love to obey him, and he will so bless us.

(Page 86.) We are prohibited from taking vengeance, but the civil government is charged with taking vengeance. Therefore, we cannot be part of civil government!

Lipscomb further argues —

Under this Scripture we may expect, if not specific precepts, at least general directions for man’s guidance in all the relationships of life. We do find directions for guiding Christians, as parents and children, as husbands and wives, as masters and servants, as neighbors and strangers as friends and enemies, as those who do wrong and those who suffer wrong, guidance is given Christians in every possible relationship into which a Christian may enter, except that of civil ruler or manager of the affairs of the governments of earth, if it be admissable for him to be this. The Christian’s duty, as subject of earthly governments, is definitely revealed; but not a word, nor an example is given as to his duty, or the rules that should govern him as a manager or ruler in human governments. And yet this is the most important relationship, involving the weal or woe of a greater number of human beings than any other relationship into which he may enter, if it be lawful for him to enter this. Why this failure to prescribe duty here, except on the ground that these earthly kingdoms are of the evil one, and have grown up in rebellion against God, and the mission of the church and the children of God is to displace and destroy them with the Divine government?

(Pages 86 -87.) The New Testament gives instructions for children, parents, husbands and wives, and church — but nothing about how to run the government. Clearly, God meant us to govern our families and our churches but not to participate in civil government — or else God would have given us instructions!

Lipscomb concludes that it is sin to participate in jury duty, to hold political office, or to take an oath of loyalty to the government. But teaching school as a government employee is different because it doesn’t involve government administration.

There are requirements sometimes made of persons by the government that they have difficulty in determining whether they violate the law of God in doing them. Among them is jury service. The rule determined in the preceding pages, is, the Christian should take no part in the administration or support of the government. Jury service is a part of its administration, and frequently lays on the juryman the duty of determining the life or death of his fellowman, and leads into affiliation with the agencies of government. … Teaching school is no part of the administration of the government. It seems to me a Christian might teach a government school as an employe without compromising his position. As a rule the government exacts an oath of its officers, to support the government but it does not of its employees.

(Pages 141-142.) Indeed, Lipscomb holds that Christians may not vote (p. 155).

In modern terms, I’m confident Lipscomb would have objected to Christians saying the Pledge of Allegiance, as it’s essentially a loyalty oath to a government, despite it’s acknowledgement that the government is “under God.” He sees all government as a power or authority that will be destroyed by Christ so that his Kingdom will be the only Kingdom.

The Churches remained largely pacifistic until Pearl Harbor — when Foy E. Wallace, Jr. rejected his earlier pacificism and campaigned vigorously for participation in the war effort. And the vast majority in the Churches of Christ agreed, although a few, such as B. C. Goodpasture (who later became the editor of the Gospel Advocate himself) supported pacifism, seeking to raise money to support the few church members who refused military service on grounds of conscience.

However, so far as my memory and reading go, I can find no evidence that the teaching of pacifism survived until the the Viet Nam War — and  had there been any memory of the teaching, it would have received a sympathetic hearing in those days. But by then, the Church of Christ’s views were indistinguishable from the government’s. If you’re drafted, you fight, but if you can avoid service by joining the National Guard or other deferment, fine. The civil law defined right and wrong in the minds of most people.

Leave a Reply

  1. Jay,

    Among conservatives, both Johnny Ramsey and Dave Miller taught pacifism back when i was associated with the brown trail school of preaching. Ramsey held a fairly identical position to that of Lipscomb–no voting or participation in government beyond paying taxes. i'm not sure if Miller went that far, but he definitely opposed war-participation by Christians. Anyway, point being, there were major conservative leaders that i know as recently as the late 90's taught this view in many southern churches. Willie Franklin is another popular speaker among conservatives, and as a youth i heard him say on more than one occasion it was wrong to vote.

    –Guy

  2. Economist Edward Stringham of San Jose State University wrote an article on Lipscomb’s Civil Government. The gist of Dr. Stringham’s assertion is that Lipscomb espoused many ideologies (from a Christian perspective) that were similar to modern-day “radical libertarians.” It’s pretty fascinating.

    Just thinking out loud here, but if Jesus truly did intended fore us to beat our swords into plough-shears (which I am, frankly, on the fence about), would our taking such a position give us a better standing from which to reach the “war is murder” types? Conversely, would it impede our ability to reach those in the military? Not that we can make a decision based on either one of these potentialities – again, I was just thinking out loud.

  3. Jay,

    Seems to me that we might even take his argument further and say that he is saying people should actively try to overthrow our government.

    "Christ’s mission – the mission of his kingdom – is to put down and destroy all these kingdoms, and to destroy every thing that exercises rule, authority or power on earth."

    I can't submit to that idea. For that matter, is it possible that we should not work for anyone else since they are "rulers" over us?

    I understand the language he is using here, but I do think much of this was too much shaped by his Civil War experience.

    Which leads me to a conclusion that I reached a while back. "We put too much emphasis on the writings and teachings of one or two men."(my quote) We need to put emphasis on the teachings of THE Man.

    Thanks for the continued thought process though. This is good for us all to think about.

  4. I'll take John's point even further than that.

    I was reading the account of Daniel this morning, completely humbled by his reputation. No one could find any fault in him. This is what Peter described in 1 Peter 2:14 – "For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men."

    A nation full of Christ-serving followers will negate the need for the assumed roles of government, for they will have already cared for the needs of the people in their community. Can you imagine what it would be like for the government to offer a program of handouts, only to find no takers?

    Like Daniel's story, government policy will be changed by the demonstration of God's power in his people, not by the force of lobby (what Daniels enemies were up to). Note that it was Darius, the king, that decided to change the law to worship "Daniel's God".

    The natural result of blameless God-followers is an overthrowing of the government, but not the physical overthrow. It will be like Darius – the overthrow of the heart.

    "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD;
    he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases."
    Proverbs 21:1

    Also note that Daniel was serving a Babylonian (gentile) king. How's that for civil service!

    Yes, we should overthrow the government – one heart at a time. Indeed, two kingdoms can not reign over the same territory. And the way to establish one over the other is through demonstrating to all which one is better, which is the one that needs no violence to win hearts – not that violence could win hearts.

    So, back to the Ministry Ideas posts. :^)

  5. Jay, I am sure you will discuss Lipscomb’s comments further, as I know you are just laying the ground work for this study so far. Following are just a few problems I have with his stance:

    1. I can’t come to the conclusion that Babel was the birth place of human government. Part of Cain’s punishment was that he would be a wanderer upon the earth. Meaning he would have no home, no country, no ties to a particular place. Cain himself built a city named after his son Enoch. Granted, civilization has changed drastically since Cain’s day but man has changed little. When man is gathered in cities rules must be established for civility to exist and an entity must be established in order to enforce those rules – hence Government. Babel was just the place were self-centered government reached its peak point of depravity.

    2. Lipscomb considers government evil and that Christians “should have no loyalty to them.” I can not completely draw the conclusion that government (and this is a huge qualifier) in it intended form is evil. Just because govt. is to carry out punishment (vengeance in Lipscomb’s terms) does not make a govt. evil. God established govt. for his purpose so there must be good in it. And if vengeance makes something evil, than God is evil – “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12.19. And we know that God is not evil. If govt. was so bad, would it have been too difficult for Jesus to say “give to Caesar the coins that have his face on them but other than that stay away from govt. because it is evil”? Govt. serves the will of God even if all its actions are not in accordance with His will. That sounds a lot like the life of a saint who sins.

    3. Lipscomb says a Christian can be a teacher but can’t work for the govt. or take part in civil govt. Where do we draw this line? Is it not govt. that lays out the curriculum that teachers must teach? What about housing associations? Aren’t they a body of govt. over other residents that must administer “vengeance” when a member does not pay its dues? (Ok maybe I took that a little far) Or what about serving on a school board? Is not the purpose of a teacher and a board member relatively similar? Both have the task of carrying out the govt. mandate to educate children, they just have different capacities. This just seems like so much of what was railed against over at Grace Conversation just on a different subject matter. As far as voting is concerned, I am of the mind that I would want as many Christian voices in the democratic process as possible.

    4. If we are to have no loyalty to and take no part in a govt. that provides us protection, ensures domestic tranquility, and freedom. Then how, in good conscience can we then claim the benefits that that very same govt. provides. Isn’t that a form of thievery, or am I way off on this? Paul in Act 16.37 claimed his Roman citizenry for the benefit that it provided, and to be honest, for nothing more than to humble/scare the magistrates (my opinion). There is a purpose that Paul did this I am sure, but other than what I have stated I have not figured out why.

    As Christians we have a tight line to walk when it comes to war and govt. But a total hands-off approach seems to me to be ungrateful. There is no way we can recuse ourselves from government totally; we must be subject to it. And in my view that subjectivity entails an active part in government.

    Just a short story to ponder – on the subject of Christian influence in the military. It is reported that in the case of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Army chaplains were forbidden to enter the prisoner areas, they were forbidden to observe military and prisoner interactions, and they were forbidden to approach soldiers to discuss anything. A chaplain was to counsel soldiers only if a soldier approached a chaplain and even then the discussion was to remain on the banal level. (The Faith of the American Soldier, Stephen Mansfield). If Christians had a more prominent role in govt. and even in war, wouldn’t govt./military action be more in line with the true purpose of government as God willed it? My point is this, who would be better at discerning a just punishment/treatment? A Christian or a pagan?

    Steve Valentine

  6. Brad,
    Very well put. A government not able to give its hand-out away because Christans have already taken care of the need would indeed be an awsome place to live.

    Even better from my stand point, would be a soldier standing in the unemplotment line because love eliminated all his targets.

    Steve Valentine

  7. Weldon,

    It seems common-sensical that pacifism might make outreach to military men tough. But considering other non-violent revolutions in history, maybe it's a tactic that defies common sense. Perhaps like Brad is arguing, the sheer moral force of such a tactic would over time trump any violent resistence or inclinations to violence. i will say that, wherever you stand on this issue, we should trust that God's ways will accomplish God's purposes, even if we can't understand how.

    –Guy

  8. Steve,

    Just wanted to say that's a beautiful thought and beautifully put. –brought a tear to my eye.

    "Thy kingdom come."

    –Guy

  9. Steve,

    i didn't see your more lengthy post the first time.

    Regarding your #1, i'm reading Lipscomb's book now, and he acknowledges that human government began before Babel. He mentions the establishment of Nimrod. i think his statement about Babel here should be understood more metaphorically–as in, all the events of Gen 3-11 represent the "origin" of all the worlds troubles.

    Regarding your #2, God certainly does use at least some evil governments as agents of His wrath. He did use Babylon and Assyria to punish Israel. But He also turned around and condemned the very actions of those two kingdoms which He used to correct Israel. That certainly doesn't imply that all governments are therefore evil. And it does demonstrate that all governments, evil or not, have the potential to be instrumentally good. All i'm saying is that given Babylon and Assyria as examples, potential for instrumental good doesn't demonstrate that government is intrinsically good. i don't know if this is what Lipscomb would say though.

    Regarding your #3–man, yeah. i agree. i don't know how you could draw super measurable lines without committing to some fuzzy criteria. i haven't gotten far enough in the book myself to see what justification Lipscomb offers for his views.

    Regarding your #4–we are taught to pay taxes. Thus we are paying for benefits. Paul is an poignant case because he does bring up his own citizenship a couple times and uses it to further his ministry-interests. But do we have anything that demonstrates to what extent Paul actively supported his government? Not sure–that's an honest question.

    –Guy

  10. Guy,
    Thanks for your input, I do not have Lipscombs book and was just basing my points off what was stated in Jay's orginal post. Maybe Jay was setting it up this way but I am sure that, from a man of Jay's caliber, things will become clear in future posts.

  11. A few comments:

    (1) Personally, I believe that the founding of cities was an act of rebellion against God, particularly in Cain's case. And I agree that human governments are a natural outgrowth of those cities. I've discussed those ideas more in depth in past months on my blog, if you want to read more.
    (2) God almost exclusively used ungodly governments as agents of his punishment.
    (3) [Steve's 4] I often hear people point to Paul's use of his Roman citizenship and rarely hear them point out the time he used his status as a Pharisee. (Acts 23:6) I am convinced that both of those things fell into the category of "rubbish" in Philippians 3. That's what leads to Paul's emphatic statement at the end of the chapter: "But we are citizens of heaven."

    We are aliens in this world, here on a diplomatic mission on behalf of our kingdom. We pledge loyalty to one kingdom: the kingdom of heaven.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  12. Thanks, Steve.

    I think national defense is super important, as long as it remains defense. I think of Nehemiah while he rebuilt the wall: half the men building, the other half standing guard. Everybody is armed, just in case. Evil will call Good out whenever and wherever it can. Notice, too, that Nehemiah didn't waste energy on going to a foreign place to take care of the enemy in advance. He simply said if you come into my yard, you get to meet my dogs.

    [Full disclosure: I have a family heritage full of military service, and I enlisted in the Air Force during Desert Storm. Wasn't sent (too green), but made it possible for the more experienced to be sent, and do what they were trained to do. I got out when Congress asked people to get out!]

  13. Tim,
    I agree with you on several of those points. Jay prefaced this series with the notion he (with us in tow) would study this to come to a conclusion on the issue(even to the point that Jay's stance may change by the end of the study). In Jay's first step he brings out Lipscomb's stance as exibit A in drawing conclusions and it does not influence me at all because it appears to me Lipscomb has gaping holes in his argument.

    My earlier post was to refute Lipscomb more than the idea of pacifism. I am open to changing my stance if the evidence is compeling. So far, what has been produced (Lipscomb) does not do it for me and I was stating why.

    Steve Valentine

  14. Brad,
    Your very welcome.

    I got out this past July when the Army looked me in the eye and said you're not fit for duty. I blew out a knee while on duty shortly after returning from Iraq. That combined with the news that I just learned I am kin to Alaxander Campbell through my grandmother on my father's side indicates I should become a pacifist :)

  15. Based on what I know of the lives of the two men, I really believe Lipscomb displayed more of the Spirit of Christ than did Wallace.

    This is not the criteria – or is it? A bad tree cannot produce good fruit.

    Wallace's approach to disagreement of almost any kind was to drive those who disagreed with him from the church – whether they were premillenialists, pacifists, or people who used the RSV Bible! He campaigned relentlessly on these issues – and many of the attitudes holding the church back today traces back to his influence.

    When I was a student at Alabama Christian College, most of the faculty were pacifist (and this was in the mid-1950's). Some of the notable pacifists were R.C. White, Leonard Johnson, Rex Turner, and others. I knew men who had served in C.O. camps where they did suffer abuse. I myself carried a 1-AO draft card, which meant I could be drafted, but as a non-combatant. I was too young for Korea and by the time Vietnam heated up, I was 5-A, which meant I was too old. I was nearly drafted during a Berlin crisis at the end of 1961, but I never got the call after I passed the physical.

    My own leanings have been decidedly pacifist, but I have come to recognize the concept of the "just war," though I still think of war as a great evil regardless of how honorable our purposes.

  16. Guy and Tim,
    I just went back through Jay's post and saw that Lipscomb's book is an e-book. I thought I better read it to make sure my arguments are held in context to what he wrote – come to find out it already existed in my favorites because I had read it a while back. Long story short, my opinion of Lipscomb's stance still stands but will try to reread it for the benifit of comments made here.

    Steve Valentine

  17. I was doing some research on David Lipscomb’s book, “Civil Government,” and came across this blog. I read Lipscomb’s book about 50 or 52 years ago, along with H. Leo Bole’s book on carnal warfare and other literature. My own research also convinced me that I should refuse to enter the Vietnam war, thus I had a 1-0 classification and worked in civilian hospitals for a couple years.
    Over the years, I’ve collected maybe 100-200 books dealing with Biblical nonresistance and this has been enough to convince me that the early Christians opposed warfare for at least 173 years after Christ. After that, there was some involvement. It was not until the time of Constantine in about AD 325 that things dramatically changed. Of course, by then I doubt that there were many true Christians remaining (because of their semi-magical view of baptismal regeneration, for one reason).
    I did know that various ones like Alexander Campbell, Tolbert Fanning, and David Lipscomb opposed Christian participation in war. It is interesting to know that Dave Miller and Johnny Ramsey and others also opposed it. But our main concern should be what Jesus taught and how He lived, and what the apostles and NT writers taught. That is our concern. But it is interesting that for at least 150 years after their time the early church was pacifist.

  18. The original position of churches of Christ on war and nonresistance was a major issue that made me join that mpovement in spite of my Anabaptist convictions. So far I have not undetrstood why they left that position.

    Alexander

  19. I struggle with this issue on a regular basis, not from the “going off to fight” perspective but from the difficulty of keeping the politics out of the pulpit in a very hot election year. I think it is proof that we are by no means as separated as we need to be that we allow ourselves to be more defined by the politics of the day than as Christiansor that we have allowed the definition of Christian in the US to cause folks to assume we support one party over another. The issues Lipscomb raised were solidly based on our lives as citizens of the Kingdom of Christ living as sojourners here.

  20. As an Austrian I am not allowed to vote in the US. When I’m there I am a sojourner. As a Christian I am as much a sojourner in Austria as I am as an Austrian in the US. Therefore I don’t vote here either.

    Each sojourner that lives in a foreign country, however, has to abide by the laws of that country, but he cannot take influence on them democratically. I have to work to earn my living, I benefit – as any immigrant – from our social system and pay my taxes. As a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom I expect nothing less than the collaps of the European Union and the Austrian state at the return of my King; and I live not only as a sojourner but as a messenger and representative of the coming and eternal Kingdom. This compells me to give higher allegiance to Christ’s laws than to the Austrian laws and can bring me in difficulties, if need be.

    And, of course, I since I pledged my allegiance to Christ in baptism I cannot do this to the Austrian flag. I will not fight for them as a soldier, I will not participate in their politics – “Let the dead bury the dead”, I’ll live for the Kingdom. This is a highly offensive and provocative message to preach, isn’t it? But it does bring the Kingdom back into the Gospel.

    Alexander

  21. Alexander, you are entirely correct, I believe. As the Anabaptists point out, there are two kingdoms–the kingdom of God in Christ and the kingdom of the evil one. We owe our allegiance to Christ Jesus. And our relationship to other children of God is a transcultural, transnational one. Scriptures such as John 18:36, Colossians 1:13, and the contrast between Romans 12 (the kingdom of God) and Romans 13 (the kingdom of the world), and other passages would bear this out. Thus, I would give a hearty Amen to your comments. Richard

  22. I am absolutely schocked to find this anti-gov’t stance with David Lipscomb. My grandparents are staunch CoC, yet they are micro-manage big gov’t types (and worked for NASA, IRS etc.). Wow. It seems there was an absolute 180 degree turn after WW2, and I can clearly see how that era affected my grandparents mindset. “Patriotism is belief in govt”…as in govt as a solution and bringer of Utopia. Ill have to get a copy before I go to visit. I am extremely critical of big govt, misguided compassion (tyranny always comes in the form of good intentions) and corrupt arrogance makes up 80% of it in my eyes.

  23. MM,

    I was astounded myself to learn that many in the CoC went to prison or otherwise suffered during WWI to avoid military service — back when there was no conscientious objector status and the editors of the Gospel Advocate were ordered by Wilson’s government to stop printing pacifist sentiments. (The First Amendment was severely trampled on in those days.)

  24. David Lipscomb led a convention of Christians, who met here in 1862, to adopt positions as non-combatants in the Civil War. Their petition to Military Governor Andrew Johnson was rejected. (Leipers Fork TN)