The Limits of Civil Authority

L. A. Smith September/October 2000 There are limits to the authority of the civil power, and these limits should be clearly understood by the people. A republican form of government, as contrasted with an absolute monarchy, implies a limitation to the powers of the government beyond which it cannot rightfully go.

Civil government is not the custodian of the souls of the people. Upon all the pages of human history the truth is written plainly that there are two spheres of life within which man moves, with one of which--the higher sphere of conscience and of his relation to God--the civil power can rightfully have nothing to do. Again and again the Almighty has vindicated the course of those who, in order to be true to Him, have refused obedience to unjust mandates from the civil authority. The darkest pages of history are those recording the results of the invasion by the civil power of the realm of conscience. The early history of most of the leading religious denominations of this day was marked by their resistance to the dictates of the civil power outside the sphere of its legitimate authority.

The true sphere of civil government was well defined by the men who founded the American republic. The Declaration of Independence, justifying the separation from Great Britain that led to the founding of this nation, says: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit off happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." This is the principle of government upon which this nation is established.

Governments are instituted among men to preserve the natural, unalienable rights that men have by creation, that is, as individuals; and not to curtail these rights, or to take them away. When civil government invades these rights, it does exactly the opposite of that which it is instituted to do. This is a perverted and illegitimate use of its power.

Legislatures cannot create natural rights, neither can they make right wrong, or wrong right. The law of right and wrong is a law antedating and wholly independent of any legislative enactments. Legislators are bound to shape their legislation by their knowledge of this law of justice which is inherent in the human mind, and their legislation will be excellent in proportion as they approximate to this ideal standard. It is proper to say, therefore, that the province of the legislature is not to create law, but to ascertain and define it. Righteousness is a law, and has been such from the foundation of the world. It is binding upon men everywhere, and at all times. All men are bound, always, to do right.

The question What is the law? is therefore not the question lying at the foundation of one's duty in any religious or spiritual matter which is brought before him. There is another question lying deeper than this, and that is the question What is right? Sometimes injustice becomes enthroned in law; but this does not put upon any person an obligation to do morally wrong. He is still bound to do right, still bound by conscience to the higher law of God. This higher law must be obeyed at any cost.

A statute commanding one to commit murder on certain occasions, or to steal, or to swear falsely, would not be binding on anyone, and would not be obeyed; and the reason given for disobedience to it would be that it was unjust. No one would claim that it ought to be obeyed simply because it was "the law"; and what would be true of such a statute would be true of every enactment that is contrary to the law of God. Unjust enactments do not derive any sanctity from being on the statute books. They ought to be repealed, not enforced.

In secular affairs the principle of majority rule is at the foundation of government; and this is proper and necessary. But in matters of conscience majority rule has no place. An individual's duty toward God cannot be determined by a majority vote. Every individual's relation to God is a direct relation, not sustained through any other individuals or through the government. "Every one of us shall give account of himself to God."

Faith, which is the essence of Christianity, is individual belief of God's Word, irrespective of the belief or opinions of any or all other persons. In religion the majority have always been on the wrong side. It is the majority that throng the broad way leading to destruction, and only the small minority who travel the narrow way leading unto life. Thus the spheres of religion and of civil government must be wholly separate from each other.

Within its legitimate sphere the civil power should have the unhesitating obedience of all persons. Only the higher claims of duty toward God can justify anyone in refusing obedience to the civil ruler. Only a plain conflict with the higher law of God can justify any disobedience to the laws of men. The legitimate realm of the civil power is that of preserving the rights of the people, and within this realm it has the sanction of God. No one can, under a plea of conscientious conviction of duty, be permitted to invade the natural rights of another person. These rights do not conflict, and each one must respect the rights of others.

L. A. SMITH, editor of Liberty magazine in 1906.

Article Author: L. A. Smith