by Noel Smith
A sermon preached by Tribune founding editor Noel Smith at a meeting of the Fundamental Baptist Congress of North America and subsequently published in The Biblical Faith of Baptists: Book IV, Regular Baptist Press, 1971.
Obviously, the first consideration is the New Testament’s teaching on the Christian’s attitude toward civil government. We find this teaching, for one place, in the first eight verses of the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Romans:
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for lie beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
“Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
“For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
“Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another, for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.”
The Apostle Paul, who was a Roman citizen, is saying there that the institution of civil government was established by God, and that this institution is to be recognized and in every practical way respected, not only by Christians but by “every soul.”
I believe the Greek authorities substantially agree on the interpretation of these passages. A. T. Robertson says: “Paul is not arguing for the divine right of kings or for any special form of government, but for government and order. Nor does he oppose here revolution for a change of government, but he does oppose all lawlessness and disorder.”
Resisting the “power” of government means to take a “stand” against the institution of government. It means to “line up” against the institutions of government. It means to rebel against the institutions of government.
Of course there are bad governments. There are bad families. But this does not negate the Divine origin of the institutions of the government and the family. Nor does it minimize the absolute necessity of these two basic institutions.
Paul is not saying that citizens, Christian or non-Christian, should submit to any degree of governmental tyranny. On the contrary, the New Testament clearly teaches that when Caesar demands disobedience to God, Caesar is to be resisted — even unto death. “But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19f).
A multitude of Christians perished in that Graeco-Roman world because they would not obey the edicts of an anti-God government. When Caesar demands absolute obedience, even that of worship, Caesar is demanding that which belongs to God, and to God alone. God is not the author of that kind of government because God’s left hand is not at war with His right hand.
But on the other hand, the idea of authority and supremacy is implied in the institution of government. Government supposes an authority higher than the governed. Law is superior to the subject of law (to put it as W. G. T. Shedd puts it). It is on this point that many of us, Christians as well as non-Christians, are pretty sensitive.
We are to recognize and to respect in every practical way that civil government is a Divine institution — just as the family and the New Testament church are Divine institutions. We are to oppose, in every lawful and practical way, the antithesis of civil government — nihilism and anarchy.
Lord Chief Justice Camden was right more than two hundred years ago when he said: “Tyranny, bad as it is, is better than anarchy; and the worst of governments is more tolerable than no government at all.” As Macaulay said: “Government exists for the purpose of keeping the peace, for the purpose of compelling us to settle our disputes by arbitration instead of settling them by blows, for the purpose of compelling us to supply our wants by industry instead of supplying them by rapine.” Martin Luther in his blunt way said substantially the same thing: “Government is a sign of the Divine grace, of the mercy of God, who has no pleasure in murdering, killing, and strangling. If God left all things to go the way they would … without good government, we should quickly dispatch one another out of this world.”
Without government there can be no law. Without law there can be no progress. The barbarians found this out. When they were content to remain huddled around their camp fires in the forests, their tribal customs and laws were adequate. But when they got a taste of civilization and progress and wanted to participate in commerce and trade, they had to adopt the legal concepts of Rome.
I now come to a practical consideration and application of the New Testament’s teaching on Christian citizenship. I have no patience with mere abstractions and generalities. I am congenitally prejudiced against people who pick their teeth in public and substitute dialogue for proclamation. Ideas that are not translated into the concrete are worthless.
This is a North American Baptist Congress, not an American congress. But I believe I can be more direct and pointed and practical if I confine this discussion to Christian citizenship in my own country — the United States. What I say about Christian citizenship in my own country will be basically applicable to Christian citizenship in Canada.
To begin with, I want to make one or two things absolutely clear. Had I been a citizen of the Roman Empire, I would have done as the majority of the Christians did — made the best of it I could. My supreme objective would have been that of advancing the cause of Christ and making it as easy for my fellow Christians as I could.
And today, if I were a missionary in a foreign country I would consider myself a guest in that country. Even though the government were a Communist government, I would not criticize it and advocate a change. My primary purpose would be that of advancing the cause of Christ and making it as easy for my fellow Christians as I could.
But I am not living in the Roman Empire. I am not a foreigner in a foreign land. I am a born citizen of the United States. I live under a Constitution which says, in Article XIV, Section 1:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges of immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
As a citizen of the United States, the President doesn’t have a single privilege that I don’t have. The Chief Justice doesn’t have a single privilege that I don’t have. No politician has a single privilege that I don’t have. I pay taxes. I have to live under the laws the politicians make. And for me, this means that I am going to exercise my constitutional and moral privileges as a citizen of the United States. I have a contempt for this flabby attitude that in this country a Christian shouldn’t do anything but pay and vote and keep his mouth shut. I am going to pay, I am going to vote, I am going to obey the laws — and I am going to talk and write and act. The Apostle Paul was proud of his Roman citizenship, and he exercised his rights under that citizenship. Listen to him there at Philippi, talking loud enough for everybody to hear him:
“They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out” (Acts 16:37).
He is saying there: You are not going to treat us as though we were a couple of bums preaching a crackpot religion. I am clothed in the dignity of Roman citizenship. I was born a Roman citizen, which is more than most of the authorities here can say. You have publicly beaten us and humiliated us and imprisoned us, and now you are going to publicly admit that you violated all our rights, and you are going to publicly apologize for doing it.
That’s not the talk of a lot of the flabby, insipid, sentimental religion we have today. That’s the talk of self-respecting manhood.
But about all we talk about — if we talk about it at all — are the privileges of Christian citizenship. If you look up citizenship in the Christian reference works, in nine cases out of ten you will find the article confining itself to the privileges of Christians under various forms of government.
We say nothing about the obligations of Christian citizenship. It’s all negative, nothing positive. We have divorced love from truth, and we have divorced privilege from obligation.
As a Christian citizen of the United States I not only have privileges, I have obligations. I have the obligation to take as active and intelligent and practical a part in government as any other citizen. I have the obligation, constitutional and moral, to get “mixed up” in politics. I have the obligation to get out where there is cursing and drinking and gambling and do my duty as a citizen. Seventy-five percent of the corruption in this country today is due to the practical indifference of lazy, cowardly, flabby, “built-up” saints who don’t want to risk soiling their soft white hands by getting into politics and taking a practical stand for what is decent and right. Half of them don’t even vote. They say they are waiting for the Lord to come and “clean up the mess.” They conveniently forget that the Lord taught that they should be busy while He was away, and when He came. And if we shouldn’t be busy about our citizenship, upon which depends the very foundation of civilization and the future of our children and grandchildren, what should we be busy about?
Christian citizenship is involved in the basic national issue confronting us today. What is that issue? It is what Clinton Rossiter says is the message of The Federalist the greatest work in political science ever conceived and written by Americans. That issue is this:
Can there be any happiness without liberty, any liberty without self-government, any self-government without constitutionalism, any constitutionalism without morality, and any of these without stability and order?
The Romans were confronted with this basic issue more than 2,000 years ago. When confronted with it one of the greatest of them, Cato the Younger, committed suicide. Another one, Brutus, committed murder.
Suicide and murder are not much of a remedy for Caesarism. Neither are hysteria, fear, cowardice, and hate. This issue must be faced, debated, and resolved by men and women of good will, intelligence, reason, intellectual capacity and integrity, a genuine love for their country, and a deep concern for the kind of America their children and grandchildren are to grow up in.
And on this basic and decisive issue, if Christian citizens do not exercise in every practical way their privileges and obligations of citizenship, then they should be decent enough to keep their mouths shut about the religious, moral, and political depravity and degeneracy that surrounds them.
Christian citizens should be both thinkers and doers. This country was founded and constitutionally established by men who were both thinkers and doers. To think without doing is worthless, and to act without first thinking is to make the condition worse.
Christians have a habit of going from one extreme to another in exercising their privileges and obligations of citizenship. Either they want the country reformed from top to bottom in a week, or they want to leave the whole mess for the Lord “to clean up when He comes.”
Civil government is not that simple. In the first place, civil government was not established by God for Christians exclusively. God loves men and women who are not Christians. God loves heathens. He loves pagans. God established civil government in the interest of the human race.
Therefore Christians should not take the position that we should have none but a Christian government. I wouldn’t want to live under a government by preachers. In the first place, half of them would hang the other half before sundown — for the glory of God. And I suspect I would be on the hanging end. The best Christian on earth may know nothing about the philosophy of civil government. In government Christians have failed about as often as non-Christians.
Benjamin Franklin wasn’t a Christian. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a Christian. Willam Howard Taft was a Unitarian. Mr. Taft wasn’t one of our great Presidents. William Jennings Bryan said that he went into office by a majority and went out with universal consent. But Mr. Taft was an able Secretary of War, a wise administrator, and he was one of the great Chief Justices.
William Howard Taft was an American. He believed in and loved his country. He was a man of principle. He believed that the alternative to constitutionalism was exactly what we have today — anarchy.
I will vote for such men of character and patriotism, whether they are Christians or not.
And why? Because many professing Christians are not good Americans. And a good American is not necessarily a Christian — as I wish he were. You can be a devout Christian and know nothing about law and medicine and government.
I am saying that under the governments of the United States and Canada, Christian citizens have the constitutional privilege to participate in civil government in every practical way. I am saying that they not only have the constitutional privilege, they have the constitutional and moral obligation to do so.
But I am saying, at the same time, that Christians have the obligation to be intelligent participants. They have the obligation to be versed in the philosophy of civil government. They have the obligation to understand and appreciate the distinction between civil government and Christianity.
But again, such knowledge and intelligence is completely worthless unless the Christian citizen gets into the main stream of the life of his country and plays a practical part in government. This means, again, that the Christian citizen has got to get out in the mud and dirt, in an atmosphere of cursing and gambling and drunkenness, and do battle with the forces that are destroying the very foundations of the institution of civil government. I don’t mind smelling like the Devil’s crowd if I get the smell by fighting them. I had rather have that smell on me than the smell of a theological beauty shop.