A Constitutional Theology of Limited Government

The Gospel Coalition claims submission is a Christian virtue. It is. However, submission is only owed to duly constituted authority. Further, submission is not blind obedience to any power as a survey of the Greek explains. Rather, proper Christian submission is obedience to power limited to its appropriate sphere. Therefore, the Christian owes no obedience to tyrants. Likewise, the Christian owes no obedience to a Social Justice pastor.

The Gospel Coalition proposes a few “diagnostic questions for men” to determine if they are practicing the Christian virtue of submission. Here are a couple of interest: “Men, do you submit to your church leaders? Or are you a member who regularly kicks against accountability and oversight?” And, “Men, do you respect the governing authorities God has placed over you, regardless of their political affiliation or your opinion of their policies? Or do you mock and deride those authorities?”

Submission to church leaders is a duty. So, is their submission to correct doctrine and the body of believers. The very body of the Church has a right and duty of oversight of its ministers. Thus, any and every church member has the right and duty to hold leaders accountable.

How does a church member hold their church leaders accountable? That depends on your church polity. In a Southern Baptist church, the congregational meeting. In hierarchical systems, the individual member, if convinced of the rightness of his belief, can leave their church, and find a new one. That is not rebellion—it is the duty of every believer to search the Scriptures and meet with Christians affirming the same doctrines.

And what of TGC’s political point? Is the Christian prohibited from resistance to government authority? Are Christians prohibited from even mocking or deriding governing authorities?

Certainly not in America or any place that is ruled by Law and not fiat.

The counter to this argument is made with careless abandon. It usually runs along the lines of, “Well, Nero was bad, and the Apostles taught submission to him!”

And TGC makes that point clear in this article: “But just as wives are called to submit to imperfect husbands, citizens are called to submit to an imperfect government. And men should be leading the way in doing so.”

Christian citizens should submit to imperfect government because that is the only type of government that exists this side of the Parousia; however, TGC’s point is broader. The article claims, Christians should stop complaining or resisting COVID-19 mandates.

“When Christians flout government directives, one might understand why the watching culture begins to scratch its head in confusion,” TGC argues.

We all know this is a shot at Christians resisting mandates. This is an attack on people like John MacArthur holding church in violation of local regulations and other Christians resisting mask mandates or restrictions on worship.

TGC is teaching a political lesson disguised as a theological one. And it is a bogus lesson. The Christian citizen owes no such deference to government overreach based on Romans 13 or any other Scripture.

Romans 13 and the New Testament teachings on Government

The Submission taught by the New Testament is limited. “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” is telling. It implies that there are some things which are not Caesars. This limits all governmental forms. It places Christ in the camp of political philosophers who teach limited government. And since Jesus is Lord, His teaching is determinative. Fortunately, Christ’s teaching agrees with the Old Testament and the Apostles on this matter. Government, to be legitimate, must be limited.

In Romans 13 the submission is likewise limited. This is the only conclusion one can draw because of the Apostolic teaching that “We must obey God rather than men.” So, if one must obey God rather than men, what does that mean? We should infer that this applies to both God’s Natural Revelation and Special Revelation.

C.E.B. Cranfield explains, “It is often assumed that ὑποτάσσω in these passages simply means ‘obey.’… But, as I tried to show… ὑποτάσσω does not always mean ‘obey.’ This meaning is excluded in Ephesians 5:21; for here the word is used of a reciprocal obligation (‘subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ’), and obedience cannot be reciprocal.”

Even when commentators take the view that it is a stronger tie, there are limits. For example, “ὑποτάσσω (ὑπό—’under’;τάσσω—’place, order’) has the clear sense ‘subject, subordinate,’ and in the middle or passive, ‘subject oneself, be subjected, subordinate’ (stronger than ὑπακούω, which has more the sense of ‘respond’)… The thought that the subjection is limited by the terms of the ruler’s God-given authority is correct, but is the point of the clauses which follow. ‘Be subject’ is the principle (vv 1, 5) to which the qualifications are added.[1]

Nevertheless, there are qualifications, and the qualifications are the limit of powers God granted to the state.

These qualifications are further limited by not only God’s grant of authority but to the grant of authority to the rulers by their sovereign authority. In antiquity, a Roman governor would be limited by the senate’s grant of powers.

In America, every leader’s powers are restricted by the Constitution. Do not forget according to the Constitution, all powers not specifically granted were reserved.

This reservation of powers to the states and the people is a recognition that the power of resistance to arbitrary authority was never (and can never) be relinquished by the source of that sovereign grant—the People.

But why do people have the right to constitute governments?

Constitutional Theology: The Mayflower Compact

That man has the right to constitute governments is now unquestioned. However, it is worth examining the origins of human government. For the Christian, this begins in Genesis 9:6, which says, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”[2]

Commentators point out the structure of this verse places the focus on man, “The poetic stanza (quatrain) of v. 6 has the first two lines arranged so that the emphasis is on ‘man’ as both victim and avenging agency.”[3] In this verse, God passes to Noah and his descendants the sword. Since the emphasis in this passage is on man, it is to man that God now grants authority.

The grant is to humanity and not to an individual man. Therefore, men can organize themselves into groups for their own safety. (At this point, I shall leave the topic but return in a later essay to this important question of the origins of the state.)

One of the best examples of Christians forming their own state is the Mayflower Compact.

The Mayflower Compact

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great BritainFrance, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. 

IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of EnglandFrance, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.

Here are a few things to draw from the text of the Mayflower Compact.

They Pilgrims declared that they, “Covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.”

The signers of the compact believed they had a right and the power to combine themselves into a civil body for the political ends of “better Ordering and Preservation.” This is a clear explanation that the point of this civil body politic is the safety of the people from disorder (anarchy) and external threat.

The document also implies the people have the right to constitute the political order that will bring them safety and prosperity. As they explain, “And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony.”

Lastly, the document claims that submission and obedience are owed to the new government. However, the claim is limited. “All due submission and obedience,” is what the document promises the new state from its constitutors.

The Pilgrims put into their founding document a recognition of the limited claims on them of the state they created.

These sentiments were not new and were not outgrowths of the Enlightenment. In fact, the right to resist tyrants predates this era as Greg Forster explains. He links the right of resistance to tyranny to the political theory of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Ockham. As Forster explains, “Although Augustine did not develop a theory of rebellion against tyrants from the Ciceronian ideas he appropriated, it was those ideas that led subsequent Christian thinkers more or less directly to the conclusion that tyrannicide is not a sin.”

And if tyrannicide is not a sin, then lesser acts of resistance are not a sin.

The question then becomes a far more reasonable one for the Christian and the American: Is submission to my pastor or the government justified?

This is a question that now more than ever must be answered.

[1] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, vol. 38B, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988), 760–761.

[2] The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Ge 9:6.

[3] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 404.