During this time of government shutdown in the U.S., with the grandstanding and posturing that has occasioned and perpetuates it, it might be fruitful to revisit some insights from noted Christian anarchist, David Lipscomb. Lipscomb is probably somewhere now tugging his venerable beard at the decidedly statist bent of many of his children in the Stone-Campbell Movement. I suspect he would be equally chagrined at the Orwellian antics of those among his heritage who, while nominally protesting those currently in power, are really only offering the critiques to gain power for themselves. I hope it will prove helpful to reflect on some passages from his Civil Government: Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny, and the Christian’s Relation to It (Nashville: McQuiddy, 1913). In what follows, we shall explore Lipscomb’s thoughts on Israel’s request for a king. Lipscomb not only interpreted the rise of a monarchy and centralized government as a tragedy for Israel; he also viewed it as paradigmatic for what happens whenever God’s people pledge their allegiance to any earthly government. According to Lipscomb, a real crisis of identity and loss of integrity ever prevails when God’s people offer their trust and loyalty to any nation.
Proverbs 1.31 warns fools and scoffers that, They will eat from the fruit of their way,and they’ll be full of their own schemes (CEB). It is this passage that Lipscomb cites to explain the folly of the Israelites when they decided to appoint a king to rule over them. 1 Sam. 8.11-22 records the conversation that Samuel, Israel’s final judge, had with the people over their desire for a king:
“This is how the king will rule over you,” Samuel said:
“He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot. He will use them as his commanders of troops of one thousand and troops of fifty, or to do his plowing and his harvesting, or to make his weapons or parts for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. He will give one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards to his officials and servants. He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle and donkeys, and make them do his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves! When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the Lord won’t answer you.”
But the people refused to listen to Samuel and said, “No! There must be a king over us so we can be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.”
Samuel listened to everything the people said and repeated it directly to the Lord. Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Comply with their request. Give them a king.”
Samuel then told the Israelite people, “Go back, each of you, to your own hometown.” (CEB)
Lipscomb’s read of this event is as follows:
It was a . . . heinous sin to pattern the Divine after the human, or dovetail the human into the Divine. This changed, corrupted, and perverted the Divine. Even when the appointments and institutions ordained by God to secure justice and maintain righteousness between man and man, were perverted into instruments of injustice and oppression, and those selected to administer justice took bribes and perverted judgement, and the elders and children of Israel sought relief in a kingly government which seemed to them to be working well among the nations, and to their “sanctified common sense” seemed good to them, God pronounced it a fearful rebellion against him and his government . . .
God ordains for men what they persistently desire, even if it is an institution that displaces his appointments and overthrows his rule . . . He ordains it as a punishment for rejecting him and his government. As a way through which they are made to “eat the fruit of their own way and be filled with their own devices” . . . All of God’s ordinances are not necessarily good or desirable for his children, but are good for the end and work for which he appoints them . . . He ordains one class of institutions through which to bless his obedient servants; he ordains a different class for punishing the disobedient. Each is good for the work for which it is ordained. Each is equally the ordinance of God. Please remember these.
God ordained the Jews a king, not because he saw it was best for them, or promotive of their good, but to punish them. They rebelled against him, were reckless and persistent in that rebellion, and he ordained the kingdom as a punishment for that rebellion. The king was given as they desired, but God warned them that he would be a burden and a punishment to them for their sin in desiring to change the laws and appointments of God. Their kings, despite an occasional good one, led them further from God, deeper and deeper into sin and rebellion; led them into idolatry, involved them continually in war and strife, brought them into frequent alliances with the rebellious and idolatrous nations of earth that supported human government, all of which brought upon them the desolation of their country, the consuming of their substance, the destruction of their cities, the slaughter of their armies the captivity and enslavement, in foreign lands, of their people. When these afflictions, instead of driving them back to God and to his institutions, led them farther from him, more and more to forget him, and made them more and more rebellious against him, he took from them their king and country, left them without a head, and destroyed them as a nation . . .
The one great purpose of God’s dealings with the children of Israel, was to teach them to serve him in his appointments, to trust him implicitly and faithfully: to have no part nor lot in the kingdoms and institutions of man’s make and build, and that in doing thus the omnipotent strength of the living God was pledged to their defence and success. That when they trusted the institutions and kingdoms of man’s make, they always brought to them confusion and ruin (20-23).
Now, Lipscomb was a man of his time and his place. But he rightly observed that when God’s people–be they Israel or the church–trust in the empires around them and wish to become like the empires around them, they are no longer being true to God or to their own identity. Such compromise makes the people of God rather useless. This is what Jesus meant when he said: You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet (Matt. 5.13 CEB). When God’s people behave like the nations; when they trust in the nations for validation and protection, they have become unsalted salt. They needn’t even replace God with another, or worship the emperor. At issue is divided loyalty: praising God while venerating the empire. Equating God with the nation. Supposing God sanctions the violence your nation uses to secure itself. Lipscomb explained of Israel:
They did not cease to worship God. They were still very zealous in that service but they had introduced the human government into the Divine Institution, and divided their fealty between God and the human government. This was their destruction. (22)
Lipscomb’s point is exemplified in another teaching of Jesus, Matt. 6.24: No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon (AV). Lest we suppose that trying to satisfy God and Mammon simultaneously is a vice relegated to robber barons, loan sharks, and skinflints, let us recall that Mammon encompasses all forms of material security. Any time humans go to trusting in the works of their hands (Jer. 1.16 CEB), their loyalty is necessarily divided. And this divided loyalty leads to conflict, Divided hearts occasion violence. This point is also underscored in scripture:
What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight. You don’t have because you don’t ask. You ask and don’t have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings. (James 4.1-3 CEB)
Somewhere Stanley Hauerwas has said that we do not really desire war, but our desires make war inevitable. Someone else has stated that someone will always pay for what others pay to avoid. These are both true and compelling observations, and when it comes to the empires of the world, we see these words become flesh daily. Furthermore, it does not matter particularly what form of government obtains, these tendencies toward self-securing and exploitation–which must be guaranteed by the sword–are always present. Lipscomb argued that this would hold true even in the most enlightened of democracies:
In this description given by Samuel of what this human government would be and do to the Jews, God clearly describes what it does and is to all people. Every human government uses the substance, the time, the service of the subjects to enrich, gratify the appetites and lusts, and to promote the grandeur and glory of the rulers. And it is not true that in democratic or any other kind of governments the people themselves are rulers. They choose the rulers, at the instigation of a few interested leaders, then these rulers rule for their own selfish good and glory as other rulers do. The picture here drawn is not that of the worst and most despotic forms of governments, among the ignorant and degraded, but as it would and did exist among the Jewish people, with the best rulers that could be found. The substance of the people is, under forms of law taken now for the personal gratification and the display of our rulers just as Samuel told it would be in the Jewish nation. The licentiousness, the lewdness, the wars growing out of rivalry of different aspirants to rule, and of the desolation and bloodshed growing out of national rivalries are not mentioned by Samuel. He gave a picture of the mildest and best human governments as contrasted with the Divine. The rulers of the human oppress the subjects for their own benefit. The ministers of the Divine government deny themselves for the good of the subjects. (23)
Thus, Lipscomb sadly concluded: “it s not in man to form government in which the selfish element will not prevail, and which will not be used to tax and oppress the ruled for the glory and aggrandizement of the rulers” (24). Lipscomb rightly saw–even if only in a mirror, dimly–that what was true for Israel will prove true for God’s people whenever they give their allegiance to any ruler, nation, or political system. A crisis of identity will always result.
Lipscomb averred that the church must be true to Jesus, to itself–to the vocation God has given her. He channeled the words of Matt. 20.25-28 to highlight the contrast of God’s rule in Christ to the rulers of the nations:
You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave— just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people. (CEB)
Observing this contrast, Lipscomb counseled that:
Here [Matt. 20.25ff] the inherent distinction between the two governments is marked and emphasized. Man in setting aside the government of God and forming one of his own, cut himself off from the blessing, the service, the strength, the help that God bestows on the subjects of His government, and took on himself the burdens and oppressions and oppressors imposed by the human governments. But it is a decree of the Almighty that when man chooses his own way he shall eat of the fruit of that way. (24)
Lest we forget, Jesus himself was executed by the government, and thus “took on himself the burdens and oppressions and oppressors imposed by the human governments.” But he did this that God through Jesus’ obedience and resurrection could shame the strong and reduce what is considered to be something to nothing (1 Cor. 18.27-28 CEB). By taking on himself even the burdens and oppressions of the empires of the world in his Cross, Jesus has freed his people from them. Thus we should heed the word that warns us: if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves . . . you are slaves of the one whom you obey (Rom. 6.16 CEB). Jesus has already offered the only sacrifice that needs to be offered for our freedom (no matter what the government tells us). This means that the church ought not be petitioning any government to sanction the way of life to which we as a particular people are called: Don’t give holy things to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls in front of pigs. They will stomp on the pearls, then turn around and attack you (Matt. 7.6 CEB). This also certainly means that we oughtn’t be protesting with the tricorn hat brigade, breathing threats of insurrection while holding up “Don’t Tread on Me” placards. We are granted permission only to serve our neighbors as our neighbors ought to be served and spend our lives for others.