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Biblical Self-Government

  • Stiles J. Watson,
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Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled, either by a power within them, or by a power without them; either by the word of God, or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible, or by the bayonet.
—Robert C. Winthrop, Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions, 1852

Biblical Self-Government: The desire and the ability to willingly submit to God-given authority without being forced, coerced, or constantly reminded to do so.[i]

When man refuses to be self-governed, he asks to be a slave. This sums up the whole history of mankind. It started in Eden, and it is still true, even in our country today.

When God created Adam in the Garden of Eden, Adam was to be self-governed, ruled only by God. God gave him the law by which he was bound, “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:15–17). Once Adam had received the law, it was up to him to willingly submit to God and obey His law. God did not stage guards around the tree forcing Adam to stay away. God did not place a fence around the tree of the knowledge of good and evilkeeping Adam at arm’s length. Self-government is the primary means by which man was to be governed.

However, how was Adam governed after he disobeyed God? He was cast out of the garden and a guard, armed with a flaming sword, was placed at the entrance: “So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24). Since Adam could not govern himself inwardly, he had to be governed outwardly. He could no longer be trusted to obey, so he had to be restrained.

We see the same principle at work in the history of the Israelite people. They were established in the Promised Land as a self-governing people. They had no king, no parliament, and no president to rule over them, only the law of God. They had been taught the law and how to deal justly with the lawless by Moses, and now they were to put everything they had been taught into practice. However, once again, the people failed to exercise self-government. The people forsook God and His law and as a result, God sent judgment in the form of other nations to rule over them. Being greatly oppressed by godless nations, the people cried out to God for mercy. God then sent His messengers, judges, to deliver the people from their enemies and to call them to return to the worship of the one, true God. The people would then repent, turn back to God (until the judge died), and the whole cycle would start over again (Judg. 2:11–19).

What was the sin of the people? “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). This verse, and its twin, Judges 17:6, is very important to our understanding of Biblical self-government because it defines for us what it is not. Doing that which is right in our own eyes is not self-government! Self-government still is, and always has been, bound by the Word of God. It is the willing submission and obedience to the Word of God that makes us self-governed.

Before we go much further, it is important to understand the role of the judges of Israel. They were not judges as we think of judges today, sitting on a bench presiding over a legal case (although in Judges 4:4–5 we see the people coming to Deborah for judgment). They were more akin to military generals. The judges had no civil authority or jurisdiction. They could neither enact nor enforce laws. They were messengers for God, called by God for a specific, but temporary, purpose (to deliver the people from their enemies). However, regardless of the number of times they were delivered, or how miraculous the deliverance was, the people refused to be governed by God’s law. As a result, we see that every generation was more wicked than that of their fathers (Judg. 2:19).

To bring the period of the Judges to an end, the Israelites asked to be like every other nation and to be ruled by a king. By studying 1 Samuel 8:5–20, we can get a clear understanding of exactly what the Israelites were asking for; they were asking to be made slaves.

1 Samuel 8:5–20
5 And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. 6 But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD. 7 And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. 8 According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee. 9 Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them. 10 And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king. 11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint themfor himself, for his chariots, and to behis horsemen; and someshall run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set themto ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. 13 And he will take your daughters to beconfectionaries, and to becooks, and to bebakers. 14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, eventhe best of them, and give themto his servants. 15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. 16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put themto his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. 18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day. 19 Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; 20 That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.

Here are the main points of the above text:

  1. The Israelites wanted a king to rule over them like all the other nations (v. 5).
  2. God said their desire was a rejection of Him as their King (v. 7).
  3. God tells Samuel to warn the people about what they are about to do (v. 9).
  4. Samuel tells them all the ways in which they would be enslaving themselves to a human king and that they will cry out to God because of the oppression, but God will not listen (vv. 10–18).
  5. The people refused to listen and demanded to be given a king to rule over them so they could be like all the other nations and so that the king would fight their battles for them (vv. 19–20).

First Samuel 8:5 sets the tone for the verses that follow. God had miraculously delivered His people from slavery in Egypt roughly 350 years before, yet once in the Promised Land, they quickly forgot God and “went a whoring after other gods” (Judg. 2:17). The primary desire of the people was to be “like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5) and have a ruler over them. Even though Samuel took this as an indictment against him, God understood the hearts of the people and judged that it was He that they rejected (v. 7). Because of their wicked hearts, God was about to give them exactly what they wanted—just as He did in the wilderness when the Israelites, unsatisfied with God’s provision, cried out for meat:

Numbers 11:1820
18 And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow, and ye shall eat flesh: for ye have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the LORD will give you flesh, and ye shall eat. 19 Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; 20 But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the LORD which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?

God gave them the desires of their wicked hearts until it came out of their nostrils!

From reading 1 Samuel 8:10–18, we see that God warned the Israelites that they were about to enslave themselves, but they would not listen. Here is God’s warning:

  1. The king will take away your sons and put them into his service whenever and wherever he pleases. Some as military personnel, some as forced laborers to work his fields.
  2. The king will take your daughters to be his cooks and bakers.
  3. The king will confiscate your fields and vineyards and make them his own.
  4. The king will take a tenth of what you harvest as his tax.
  5. The king will take of your male and female servants and of your flocks and make them his.
  6. And last, but not least, “ye shall be his servants.”

Look at the tremendous freedom they chose to give up, and for what purpose? They thought that by alleviating themselves of God’s rule, they would be free to do as they wished. Their desire was still that of Genesis 3:5; they desired to be as gods, determining for themselves what was good and what was evil. By rejecting God, they rejected the most just and merciful master they would ever have and replaced Him with unrighteousness and oppression. They replaced Biblical self-government with statism.

This is exactly what we do when we refuse to be governed by the Word of God. We trade freedom for slavery. We trade mercy for coercion. This is the situation we are in today.

As to the Lord, and Not to Men

One great example of what Biblical self-government looks like comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Ephesians 6:5–9
5 Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; 6 Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; 7 With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: 8 Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. 9 And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

We are all personally accountable to God for our attitudes and actions. It does not matter if we are servants/slaves or free men/masters; everything we do must be done “unto Christ,” for He is our Master who is in heaven. If we only do what is right while others are watching, we have only deceived ourselves because God is ever-present, all-knowing, and able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart (Ps. 139:7–12; Heb. 4:12).

Nothing New under the Sun

America was the first country to be founded upon the principles of Christian self-government. But after she became a nation, the people quickly began to turn away from these principles and began to look to the civil governments for their provision and protection. As the people of America began to want more from the civil authorities, the more they had to give up in the way of their freedom. Go back and reread God’s warning to the Israelites when they requested a king to rule over them. Is there anything that God warned the people about that we are not also currently subject to?

George Washington himself said several times that the American form of government would not work if the people were not a Christian people.[ii] His statements have shown themselves to be true. Without a people who bow down only to Jesus, the Son of God, as their King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we are doomed to commit the same sin, and suffer the same punishment, just as every other nation in history who has forsaken God: slavery to the godless and the lawless. As God’s people, we get the kind of government we deserve. Therefore self-government (willful submission to lawful authority, starting with the Word of God) is a foundational part of the faith for all of life.

[i] Submission to God-given authority does not mean blind, unconditional obedience. We are never to disobey Christ in our obedience to derivative, human authorities. Our obedience is also limited to the area in which the derivative authority has jurisdiction. For instance, we do not have to obey the state when they tell parents they must put their children into the state school system, for God never gave the state jurisdiction over the education of children. Neither do we have to obey the state when they tell us not to preach certain doctrines because they have declared parts of the Bible “hate speech.” Similarly, children, even though commanded to both honor and obey their parents, do not have to obey if they are told to steal, commit murder, etc. See Rushdoony’s comments on Romans 13 for additional reading on submitting to proper authority.

[ii][T]he foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world. I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people” (First Inaugural Address of George Washington, The City of New York, Thursday, April 30, 1789. Emphasis added.). It is important to note that when George Washington says “the pure and immutable principles of private morality,” he is NOT speaking of a morality that is invented by each person privately. Rather, he is speaking of self-government, or the act of personally applying God’s moral law to one’s own actions. This is further shown by his statement “the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” It is God alone who has ordained the “eternal rules of order and right.”

Similar statements are found in George Washington’s Circular Letter Addressed to the Governors of all the States on Disbanding the Army, June 14, 1783, “I now make it my earnest prayer … that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation” (emphasis added).

  • Stiles J. Watson

Stiles J. Watson is the Webmaster for the Chalcedon Foundation and is a graduate of the University of Houston, where he received a B.S. in Computer Science. He has also taken courses at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife homeschool their children and attend Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC. He is also the editor of

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