Christianity entails a moral code based on the Word of God, which pertains to every area of life (2 Tim. 3:16 cf.). Contrary to popular belief, this moral code does include the role of the civil government and the Christian’s role in relation to the civil government as an individual. The Civil Government is should be, “a minister of God to you for good . . . an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4 NASB). In other words, the civil government is to bring evildoers to justice. In addition, the Christian’s responsibility as an individual “is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Rom 13:1 NASB). Since God established the “governing authorities” “whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (Rom. 13:2 NASB). How can a Christian submit to the civil government, who God has ordained and still secede from the federal union? The purpose of this article is to explore whether secession from the union is ethically right or wrong within the moral standard of Christianity, by examining the relationship between God and the civil government, the extent of civil obedience, the morality of civil disobedience, and previous secessions.
The Relationship Between God and State
God holds the position of Governor of all creation because God gave creation existence, “for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:36 NASB). Every institute, nation, or civil government is held responsible to another institute, nation, or civil government; moreover, all civil governments or institutions are ultimately responsible to God. The civil government is an ordained institution of God (Rom. 13:1-2). The civil government is an essential function to justice by promoting good and welfare through punishing criminals and preventing crime (Rom. 13:3-4). God also defined justice, sin, and evil, and without God, the civil government would arbitrarily punish people. In short, God is the authority that gave the civil government the power of the sword, and the government must morally act within those bounds.
The Extent of Civil Obedience
Christ said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21 NASB). The civil government is under the Law of God, and He has given the world certain institutes to protect him from the evil act of man, which is a result of the fallen state of man (Rom. 13:1-2). However, when the civil government commands the Christian to act contrary to the Word of God, the Christian should follow the Word of God rather than the civil government. If the state does not act within the bounds God has set, then the state is acting without proper authority, which is tyranny. If tyranny continues, Francis Schaffer stated, “at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state.” Tyranny is ruling outside of what God has commanded; moreover, a tyrannical state is immoral. Rutherford argued that since tyranny is satanic in nature, to resisting tyranny is to honor God. Rutherford also asserted that the ruler has civil power conditionally, and if this individual violated this power, the people have the right impeach the individual in power.
Morality of Civil Disobedience
The Christian must disobey the civil institute if the state deliberately requires disobedience to the Law of God. When the civil government requires sin of the Christian, the individual is first to take legal action in protest; however, if this fails, he or she should withdraw from the government and escape. In addition, if escape is not an alternative, force is allowed, if necessary, in defense. On the contrary, when the civil government requires a corporate body to act contrary to God’s Law, often, escape is unrealistic; therefore, when protest fails, use of force is the next course of action. If at all possible, the state should act under the protection of the lesser authorities because the lesser authority in office is a minister of God just like the greater authority. The lesser official must impeach or remove from office any greater magistrate who will not act according to the Law of God. The use of force may sometimes be necessary; however, there must be legitimate grounds in order to use force, and if the grounds are not legitimate, force then becomes unnecessary violence, such as the ungodly revolutions in France. Augustine asserted that just wars are within Christianity’s moral code; however, these wars must be fought under a legitimate authority in order to establish peace and to bring justice.
In this fallen world, a time may come when physical force is necessary. This course of action is only appropriate when all other courses have been exhausted; such is the case of the War of Independence.
Secession of the Colonies (War of Independence)
Christians must resist the federal government through just defensive wars at the command of the lesser governments. The first successful secession of the time, that of the colonies, originated after the British incurred national debt due to the Seven Years’ War with France and the costs to control the Native American tribes. The first Lord of the Treasury, George Grenville (1763); introduced three major reform programs to enact on the colonies: contain American settlers east of the Appalachian Mountains, in order to tax the fur trade, force observance of the Navigation Acts to bring more wealth to Great Britain, and compel the colonists to contribute directly to British military. The main objective of Grenville was to make the colonies more supportive of the British Empire.
British Parliament enacted a wide range of restrictions on colonial trade from 1660-1732; however, in 1733, Parliament passed the Sugar Act, which imposed heavy taxation on sugar, molasses, and rum. This act amounted to 100% on these goods, which gave British West Indian sugar industries a monopoly of the market, raising tension between the colonies and Britain.
The English constitution entailed certain basic rights of Englishmen, and one of those rights was no taxation without representation. In addition, the English Bill of Rights included that these fundamental rights “shall stand, Remain and be the law of this realm forever.” This principle was between the Englishman, King, and parliament; “no taxation without representation” did not change from Englishman in England to Englishman in an English colony. The Virginia colonial charter supported this principle in 1606, which pertained that all the King’s people living in the colonies “shall have and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises and Immunities . . . as if they had been abiding and born within this our Realm of England.”
Moreover, this principle again was affirmed in the British Colonial Naturalization Act in 1740 entailing that persons in the colonies “shall be deemed, adjudged, and taken to be his Majesty’s natural born subjects . . . as if they, and every of them, had been or were born within this kingdom.” In the situation where the civil government contradicts itself, to obey one law is to disobey the other law, and to obey the other law is to disobey the first law; the Christian is free to do what is right according to God. In the case of the War of Independence, the colonial Christians subjected themselves to the colonial civil government, who deemed that the British Government broke their covenant with the people by violating the English constitution through taxation without representation; succeeded just like a man who caught his wife in adultery has the right to divorce her because she is in violation of her covenant with him.
The use of force is appropriate only after all avenues of protest have closed, and when the Christian uses force, this force must be in a defensive fashion. The Law of God does not condone the Boston Tea Party. They violated the Law of God by stealing, which is an unlawful way of protest. In actuality, the War of Independence was a “counter revolution;” the colonists defended themselves against the British revolutionaries who attempted to overthrow the legitimate colonial government.
Secession of the South (War Of Northern Aggression)
The secession of the South resulted in the Civil War, which was the most causality-producing war America has ever had since the founding of this nation; however, was the secession warranted? Prior to the Declaration of Independence, many colonies had impeached their royal governors, which was an act of state sovereignty. The states created the federal government as an agent to perform duties the states could not otherwise perform individually; moreover, the federal government only had the power that the states specifically delegated to the federal government. The states formed the Federal Union, and in doing so, they did not forfeit their rights as sovereign states. If a state chooses to secede from the Federal Union, then the Union would have no right to stop the state. The secession is a Constitutional right of the state. The Articles of Confederation entail “each State retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” In this situation, secession is lawful for the state without violation of the Constitution.
After Lincoln’s election, South Carolina called for a State Convention. In the session, South Carolina passed an ordinance of Secession and made a Declaration to justify the Secession of the state from the federal union.
Thus were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: The right of a State to govern itself, and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted. And concurrent with the establishment of these principles, was the fact that each Colony became, and was recognized by the mother Country as a Free, Sovereign, and Independent State.
After South Carolina seceded from the Union, the Federal troops had no right to be in the state and should have left; however, this was not the case at Fort Sumter. Federal troops occupied the fort unlawfully, and the Southern forces, in defense of the state of South Carolina, began firing on the fort on April 12 at 4:30 in the morning. The Civil War was a just war because the war was defensive in nature against Northern aggression; the legitimate leaders of the government were in power; and the Southern states waged the war to establish peace. The Bible does allow for this war because the war was a just war, and the Christians at the time remained in submission to the governing authority, which was defending against Northern aggression (Rom, 13:1-2).
Among all the passages pertaining to the relationship between the Christian and the civil government, Romans 13 is the most extensive indeed. Two main views of this passage entail different interpretations of Romans 13:1-7. The normative view sees Paul as prescribing what proper government is. In contrast, the descriptive view maintains that the Apostle gave an inspired description of the actual government. A descriptive view of the passage is the positivistic approach that gives autonomy to the state from God. On the contrary, other views maintain all civil governments are approved of God and that the Christian is responsible for obeying this government except when the state prohibits the preaching of the gospel. A descriptive view of this passage overlooks the logic and grammar of class descriptions. In Rom. 13:3, “rulers” is used in the plural form, designating a class not a specific ruler. The normative interpretation maintains Paul noted what civil governments ought to be and do in relation to the individual. The repetition of subornation to the state also entails that Paul is speaking theologically.
Romans 13:1-7 has two elements: what is commanded of the civil government and what is commanded of the Christian. Paul also affirmed that the civil government is an institution divinely appointed (Rom. 13:1); moreover, submitting to the state is to submit to God. Twice, Paul refers to the state as a “minister of God” (Rom. 13:4,6), which reveals the responsibility of the state to God. In this responsibility, the civil government ought to enforce the appropriate commandments of God, because God alone can define what justice is and prescribe the proper punishment to injustice in social matters. To remove God from civil government is to promote tyranny.
More often than not, after a lesser government declares secession from a greater civil government, war generally follows between the two governments. However, secession should be the last option after all other attempts at reform and protest have failed. Just like church discipline, the proper order must be followed; otherwise the Christian would be in violation of God’s law. The Christian’s duty is to try to live peacefully with others if at all possible (Heb. 12:14). But when peace is not an option, God does allow for civil disobedience, and this disobedience may just be secession from a greater tyrannical government through a lesser government. In short, there comes a point in which secession in some situations may be appropriate if Christians have exhausted all other options.
1. Gary DeMar, God and Government: A Biblical and Historical Study (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Inc., 2001), 49-51.
2. Ibid., 67-69.
3. Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media, 2002), 360.
4. Francis A. Schaeffer, “A Christian Manifesto,” The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian View of The West
(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1982), 468.
5. Ibid., 469.
6. Schaffer, 474.
7. Ibid., 475.
8. Ibid., 476.
9. Schaffer, 478,82.
10. John S. Feinberg, and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1993), 347.
11. Ibid., 483.
12. Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1982), 141.
13. Richard Alan Ryerson, “Origins of the American Revolution,” The Encyclopedia of The American Revolutionary War, 1:5.
15. Bernhard Knollenberg, Origin of the American Revolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002), 139-40.
16. Knollenberg, 149.
17. Ibid., 151.
19. Schaeffer, 483.
21. James Ronald Kennedy, and Walter Donald Kennedy, The South was Right! (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company Inc. 1994), 161,223-24.
22. John Spence, The American Union: An Inquiry into the Causes of the War Between the States by an Impartial British Observer (Wiggins, Mississippi: Crown Rights Book Company, 1862), 200-01.
23. S. A. Ashe, A Southern View of the Invasion of the Southern States and War of 1861-65 (Crawfordville, GA: Ruffin Flag Company, 1938), 41.
24. Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961), 311-13.
25. D. James Kennedy, How Would Jesus Vote: A Christian Perspective on the Issues (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2008), 78.
26. Bahnsen, 356.
27. Ibid., 357.
28. Bahnsen, 360.
29. Ibid., 365-367.
30. Ibid., 377.
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