The State of Nature
During the English Civil War era (the time of the Westminster Assembly), English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained the social contract theory in his book Leviathan (1651), largely influencing modern political philosophy. The theory is a self-contradictory myth, but many Christians echo Hobbes’ understanding of “the state of nature.” He said
Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man… [There is] continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (XIII)
The only solution is
to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men… [by swearing] ‘I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition’… This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence. (XVII)
A frequent refrain you hear from many Christians is “Thank God for government. Without it, we would all just be killing each other.” For example, in a sermon on Romans 13 John Piper explained
What a tidal wave of evil would break over the world if there were no civil authorities for restraint—even bad civil authorities.
O, how we should give thanks for the restraint on evil that government brings! Consider by contrast this story from Friday’s StarTribune (June 10, 2005, p. A3). Across the border from Laredo, Texas is the city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The town has lost its civil authority and is ruled by gangs.
Alejandro Dominguez was the only person brave enough to be police chief. Hours after he took office, assailants riddled his body with dozens of bullets in this city wracked by a turf battle between Mexico’s two main drug gangs.
The streets were virtually empty Thursday, a day after the killing, with only a handful of federal police armed with rifles and automatic weapons. . . .
“We are defenseless,” attorney Zorina Medrano said at City Hall. “It’s obvious that the criminals are better organized (than the authorities.) They sent the national army and even they weren’t respected. Who else can we ask for help?’”
That’s a small snapshot of what the world would look like without God’s common grace of civil authority. What would you do if 911 didn’t answer? If there were no police. No firemen. No national guard. Only gang members stealing and murdering without any restraint or retribution.
What exactly is “God’s common grace of civil authority”? What is the definition?
1 a : of or relating to citizens – civil duties
b : of or relating to the state or its citizenry – civil strife
Ok, what is “state”?
5 a : a politically organized body of people usually occupying a definite territory; especially : one that is sovereign (Merriam-Webster)
1 a : of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government
1 : the act or process of governing; specifically : authoritative direction or controlgovern:
1 a : to exercise continuous sovereign authority overauthority:
1 a : power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior
So “civil authority” refers to the power to command the thoughts, opinion, or behavior of an organized body of people usually occupying a definite territory. Thus a portion (monarch, aristocracy, majority) of a group of people have the power to command the rest of the people. Power refers to the ability to use the sword to enforce compliance. In short: civil authority is the power of some people to tell other people what to do and to kill them if they don’t. (This raises the important question of whether or not the gangs in Nuevo Loredo are civil authorities, but we’ll address that in a moment).
Abram the Pilgrim
Upon receiving the call from God to go into the land of Canaan, Abram “went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents” (Heb 11:9). After returning from Egypt where he fled during the famine, “Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre.” (Gen 13:18) Mamre was an Amorite who let Abram live there. Abram formed a mutual covenant with Mamre, as well as Mamre’s two brothers Eschol and Aner, to become allies. This meant they would come to one another’s aid in times of trouble.
Trouble came indirectly through Lot who lived in Sodom. Sodom was under the reign of a foreign king of Elam named Chedorlaomer. After 12 years of living under his heavy reign, Bera the king of Sodom and 4 other subjugated kings rebelled. Chedorlaomer waged a campaign of terror throughout his domain and eventually made his way to these kings where he defeated them and plundered them. He took Lot captive.
Word reached Abram that Lot had been taken captive and his possessions stolen. What did Abram do? Did he call 911? No, there were no police. Did he appeal to his civil authority? No, he didn’t have one. What was defenseless Abram to do in this wretched state of nature? He called upon other defenseless people like himself that had agreed to help him in such a situation and the 4 of them rode off into the night to save Lot. By God’s grace they saved him and his possessions, and the possessions of the king of Sodom, which Abram returned.
Abram had the authority to create and use a private militia confederacy because he was an image bearer. Retaliating and defending against murderous thieves is not something reserved for an institution called “civil government.” It is a right and duty given to all image bearers as a necessary implication of the 6th and 8th commandments. God did not institute “civil government” and give them special authority to defend and retaliate against murderous thieves. Rather, image bearers voluntarily working together form any variety of different associations to protect themselves and their property. Yes, Abram was wealthier than most and thus more able to defend himself (and greatly aided by God in this extraordinary mission), but that’s one reason other people worked for him. His servants were protected too, even though Abram wasn’t a civil authority. This concept of “private defense” is “the state of nature.” You find it in tribal cultures all over the globe throughout history (see The Avenger of Blood for more).
Civil Government as Gang
The glaring problem with the idea that God instituted something called “civil government” to enable a group of people to protect fallen men from fallen men is that civil government is made up of fallen men. There is no reason why a group of sinful men called “civil government” with exclusive right to use the sword will behave any differently from the Mexican drug gangs in Piper’s example. History shows rulers are frequently nothing more than criminals with the power to totally control a particular territory (aka organized crime). That’s all that Nimrod (the first king) was. In fact, that is precisely the case in the example of Abram. Lot was taken captive by his own king. Note what Gill says concerning Abram’s militia confederacy “they had entered into a league to defend one another, their persons and properties, from the insults of invaders and tyrants, or thieves and robbers.” Their militia was created to protect them from “civil authorities”. Commenting on Genesis 14:1, Calvin notes how rulers are a cause of continual fear of violence, not a solution for it. “[A]mbition so prevailed, that they assailed one another on all sides, with sword and armor, and each attempted to subdue the rest. Wherefore, while we see, at the present day, princes raging furiously, and shaking the earth to the utmost of their power; let us remember that the evil is of ancient date; since the lust of dominion has, in all ages, been too prevalent among men.” The only difference between these rulers and a gang is that they are more organized and more powerful. Mexican drug gangs are petty compared to the millions who were murdered by “civil government” in the 20th century.
However, Calvin believed that Romans 13 enunciated a natural law that no man may ever resist his ruler.
[T]hough Chedorlaomer had rendered so many people tributary to him by tyranny rather than by lawful authority, and on that account his ambition is to be condemned; yet his subjects are justly punished for having rashly rebelled. For although liberty is by no means to be despised, yet the subjection which is once imposed upon us cannot, without implied rebellion against God, be shaken off; because ‘every power is ordained by God,’ notwithstanding, in its commencement, it may have flowed from the lust of dominion, (Romans 13:1.) Therefore some of the rebels are slaughtered like cattle; and others, though they have clothed themselves in armor, and are prepared to resist, are yet driven to flight; thus, unhappily to all concerned, terminates the contumacious refusal to pay tribute. And such narratives are to be noticed that we may learn from them, that all who strive to produce anarchy, fight against God.
Calvin recognized the problem that Abram’s actions presented for his understanding of Romans 13 and the civil magistrate. How then could Abram’s actions be anything but sinful?
But here various questions arise; as, whether it was lawful for Abram, a private person, to arm his family against kings, and to undertake a public war. I do not, however, doubt, that as he went to the war endued with the power of the Spirit, so also he was guarded by a heavenly command, that he did not transgress the bounds of his vocation. And this ought not to be regarded as a new thing, but as his special calling; for he had already been created king of that land. And although the possession of it was deferred to a future time; yet God would give some remarkable proof of the power which he had granted him, and which was hitherto unknown to men… Moreover, that Abram attempted nothing rashly, but rather, that his design was approved by God, will appear presently, from the commendation of Melchizedek. We may therefore conclude, that this war was undertaken by him, under the special direction of the Spirit. If any one should take exception, that he proceeded further than was lawful, when he spoiled the victors of their prey and captives, and restored them wholly to the men of Sodom, who had, by no means been committed to his protection; I answer, since it appears that God was his Guide and Ruler in this affair, — as we infer from His approbation, — it is not for us to dispute respecting His secret judgment.
Rather than simply acting as an image bearer, Abram must have received divine revelation commanding him to take up arms against king Chedorlaomer. The problem is the text nowhere teaches or hints at that. Abram was a pilgrim in the land, not a king. This was not a holy war. This was a just war waged by an image bearer alongside other image bearers – the inhabitants of Canaan even. But Calvin is correct that Abram was approved by God for his actions. Perhaps Calvin’s interpretation of Romans 13 is in error. Other reformed theologians disagreed with Calvin and taught that all civil authority is limited and may be resisted by any image bearer when it oversteps its bounds. Or perhaps rather than natural law, Romans 13 is a positive law for Christians. Rather than commanding all image bearers to submit unconditionally to a nebulous institution called “civil government,” perhaps Romans 13 is positive law for Christians, calling them to be subject to (not overthrow) mighty gang leaders whom God has providentially empowered to dominate a region as we wait for Christ’s return.
Mexican Drug Gangs
Returning to Piper’s example, he said that without civil government we would have “Only gang members stealing and murdering without any restraint or retribution.” As we have seen “stealing and murdering without any restraint or retribution” accurately describes many “civil authorities.” We previously defined civil authority as the power of some people to tell other people what to do and to kill them if they don’t. With this definition, the Mexican drug gangs who dominate a given city are that city’s civil authority.
One might object that we must distinguish between power and authority. The drug gangs have the power in the city, but they do not have the authority. But what makes someone a civil authority rather than a civil power? Is it the “consent of the governed”? Most reformed theologians subsequent to Calvin said yes. Rutherford said “I conceive it to be evident that royal dignity is not immediately, and without the intervention of the people’s consent, given by God to any one person, and that conquest and violence is no just title to a crown.” Thus the English Civil War (and the American Revolution following it) was justified. The problem is, Rome did not rule Jerusalem at the consent of the governed. Perhaps, then, Romans 13 is not distinguishing between power and authority. “The powers that be” mean precisely that: the most powerful faction in any given region. That is what has been providentially ordained by God. If “the powers that be” in Nuevo Laredo is the drug gang, then perhaps that is who the Christians there need to be subject to.
Long story short, it is not the case that our experience or Scripture teaches that man depends upon something called “civil authorities” for protection. God did not institute “civil government” to protect us from sinful men. God “instituted” the 6th commandment alongside the law of retribution (see also) to protect us from sinful men, whether they be our rulers or common criminals.
Looking once more at the situation in Mexico, consider the town that overthrew its local government in order to defend themselves from the gangs. “We expelled the police because we realized that they were in collusion with organized crime.” In its place they established a volunteer militia that protects the city. As a result, they no longer have a problem with violence in the city.
This situation is hardly unique in Mexico. There is an entire documentary (“Cartel Land” available on Netflix) about a movement in numerous cities where citizens took the law into their own hands (“vigilantes”) and kicked out the gangs. What happened? The “authorized civil government” stopped them. That doesn’t sound like an institution created for the purpose of protecting people from criminals. I strongly recommend watching the documentary and wrestling with the questions it raises about “God’s common grace institution of civil authority.” (For those who watch The Walking Dead – please wrestle with the figure of Negan from Seasons 7 and 8 as a “civil authority”.)