The Kingdoms of God and Men
David Lipscomb was prominent voice in our movement during and after the Civil War. He was a Southerner who stridently opposed the war and discouraged all Christians from entering it. In fact, Lipscomb oppose all Christian participation in government at all—no serving in the military, no being a police officer, no running for public office or voting for those who ran. Lipscomb saw all human government as a sing of rebellion against God’s rule (1 Samuel 8) and an abuse of power that contradicted Jesus call to love and serve (Matt 20:24). Lipscomb had what Richard Hughes calls an “apocalyptic worldview” totally focused on the kingdom of God. That kingdom was advancing, and it was opposed by the kingdom of men. Lipscomb denied we can be citizens of two kingdoms, so we must choose whether we are going to live a citizens of the kingdom of God or the kingdoms of men.
James Abram Garfield was a preacher who contemporary with Lipscomb. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted and was made a colonel in Union army. He recruited 250 students from Hiram College, a preacher training school in Kentucky. Garfield won several battles and fought at the Battle of Shiloh. Like many army heroes, Garfield went into politics after the war, being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Garfield was then elected 20th president of United States, still the only president elected while in House. So Garfield’s view of the Christian and government was just a bit different from Lipscomb; he saw politics and government service as an extension of faith and a blessing from God Himself.
So who was right—Garfield or Lipscomb. What is the Christian's relationship to the government? Should we avoid all contact like Lipscomb or grow up to be president like Garfield? Jesus said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…” But just what belongs to Caesar? Can I vote and be a faithful Christian? Must I vote to be a faithful Christian? Must I vote a certain way to be a faithful Christian? That depends on whether you ask Lipscomb or Garfield! If you ask Paul in today’s reading in Romans 13, you will get a pretty generic answer.
Paul’s words in this chapter on our relationship to the government can be summed up in three words—OBEY and PAY. We are to submit to the government as if we were submitted to God, obeying the law and refusing to be lawbreakers. That specifically means that we are to pay our taxes to the government, even if our tax money is used in ways with which we personally disagree. The king Paul mentions is Nero who was neither a nice guy nor careful spender of tax revenue; some of Paul’s tax money went to support the gladiator games in the coliseum; if Paul wanted to start a tax payer revolt, he missed a great chance here! Obey and pray. In writing to Timothy in the church in Ephesus, he adds one more Christian responsibility to the government-- PRAY (1 Tim 2:1-2).
The Bible’s focus is always on the kingdom of God, not on the kingdoms of men. There really is a fundamental difference in those kingdoms (Matt 20:25-28). The Kingdom of men is based on rule by power and force; the kingdom of God is about service and a cross. Lipscomb was right in that there is and always will be a fundamental tension between these two kingdoms. Garfield was right in that God can use His people for good in BOTH kingdoms. Both were wrong in seeing their views as being the essentially Christian view on the government.