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Jurisdiction: By Christ or by Caesar?

The state increasingly manifests the fact that its fundamental faith is that no limits exist on the jurisdiction of the state other than self-imposed ones. The self-discipline meanwhile grows less and less as the state grows more and more total, or totalitarian, in its claimed jurisdiction.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony
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Chalcedon Position Paper No. 7, September 1979

Words reveal our faith, tell us about our world, and manifest our presuppositions. A particularly important word is jurisdiction. It comes from two Latin words, jus, law, and dico, say. The one who has jurisdiction is the one who declares the law, whose word is the binding, authoritative word for that area or sphere of life and thought.

Jurisdiction is an essentially religious fact: it tells us who is the god over a particular sphere or area; it reveals to us who declares the law for that domain. In other words, it shows us who is lord.

The whole premise and affirmation of Scripture is that the earth is the Lord’s, that, because He made all things, ordained and orders all things, God the Lord is the only Lord and lawgiver over all heaven and earth, over every aspect of creation (Exod. 9:29; Deut. 10:12–14; Ps. 24:1; 1 Cor. 10:26). All creation thus is under God’s jurisdiction, Who declares, “I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images” (Isa. 42:8). God’s jurisdiction is total, and He shares it with none. Men can only exercise valid authority and dominion under God, in faithfulness to His law, and in terms of God’s sovereignty and Kingdom. He alone is the Lord. (The most used term for Jesus Christ in the New Testament is in fact Lord).

It was the essence of paganism that it reserved sovereignty to man and this world. The gods were powerful spirits who could be used, had to be placated, and could be abandoned if they failed man. For the pagan, the gods were powers to deal with, but the sovereignty, and the choice of gods, remained with man. The state reserved to itself the right to recognize or to abolish gods. The Roman senate thus could make gods at will by acts of senate. Thus, even the gods were under the jurisdiction of the state, and their legal or licit existence depended upon the state.

It was for this reason that conflict between Christ and the Caesars was inescapable, between the church and the pagan doctrine of the state. It was a conflict waged in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The doctrines of Scripture required and require Christians to declare that Caesar is under Christ’s jurisdiction, not Christ under Caesar’s.

It is a serious error on the part of scholars that leads them to view the situation in Europe after the fall of Rome as a collapse. It was indeed a collapse of Roman statism, but not of civilization. Rather, it was a movement towards a new foundation. How radical that movement was is apparent in many and virtually all areas. To cite one alone, the family had been under statist law to a far-reaching degree, as Carl C. Zimmerman, in Family and Civilization (1947), showed clearly. With the fall of Rome, and the breaking up of European forms of barbarian paganism, a different pattern emerged. As Jean-Louis Flandrin has pointed out, “Christianity seems to have brought about the disappearance of the powers of the State over the child, and thereby increased the responsibilities of the parents as regards their maintenance and education. These responsibilities were, at the same time, shared between the father and the mother” (Families in Former Times: Kinship, Household and Sexuality in Early Modern France [Cambridge University Press, 1979], p. 176).

Today, of course, the state claims increasing powers over the family. The children must be state controlled and educated, according to many. The parents must be under state controls, and some even suggest the state licensing of births, and legislation towards this goal has been proposed in two state legislatures. Whereas laws against nonmarital sexual relations are relaxed or abolished, current legislation reaches into the marital bedroom to govern ostensible rape by a husband.

In one area after another, the state advances its claims to total jurisdiction. In Florida, a literacy test required of all high school students in order to get a diploma was ruled out by the courts as discriminatory (it discriminated against illiteracy!) and thus unconstitutional. A federal judge in Detroit, Michigan, in July 1979, ruled that school districts, in teaching English, must recognize the existence of a child’s “home language,” or ghetto English. Of course, courts have ruled on the length of hair, the kind of clothing students wear, and much, much more.

Clearly, the state increasingly manifests the fact that its fundamental faith is that no limits exist on the jurisdiction of the state other than self-imposed ones. The self-discipline meanwhile grows less and less as the state grows more and more total, or totalitarian, in its claimed jurisdiction. Jeff A. Schnepper, a tax lawyer and professor, gives fearful examples of this totalitarian jurisdiction in Inside the IRS: How Internal Revenue Works (You Over) (Stein and Day, 1978).

Because all heaven and earth are God’s creation, and because man is created in God’s image, God is the great and inescapable fact; the knowledge of God is inescapable knowledge. When men in unrighteousness or injustice suppress or deny that knowledge, they cannot evade the necessity of God, and so they declare or create new gods in their image, or in terms of their imagination (Rom. 1:18–25). The most powerful, and most deadly, of these new or false gods has, through the centuries, been the state. The state, as a false god, claims total jurisdiction, and it declares itself sovereign or god: it is, in terms of ancient paganism, Hegel, and modern political thought, god walking on earth. Men, having denied the true God, cannot escape having a god, and the modern state is the great Baal (or lord) of modern man. The cry of modern man is a political cry, “O Baal, hear us” and save us (1 Kings 18:26). Here is idolatry, and for too long the church has been silent in the face of it, or has urged its people to submit to Baal in the name of Jesus Christ: to its idolatry, it has added blasphemy.

The question of jurisdiction is thus not only an urgently important one, but a religious one. Before World War I, in Ruling Case Law, volume 7 (1915), the editors, working on humanistic premises but with a more conservative bent than the law has today, admitted that perhaps no more difficult question exists in law than the question of the jurisdiction of courts. They grounded the source of jurisdiction in the constitutional form of government in the three departments, legislative, executive, and judicial, plus “certain inherent powers which of right belong to all courts.” Thus, law as it emanates from the state is the source of all jurisdiction.

From such a premise, the death of God is a logical conclusion, and the exclusion of all claims by Christians to any freedom from the state in terms of God’s Word is a necessary consequence. The humanistic state excludes God from any and all jurisdiction. Any and all liberties permitted to the church, to the Christian school, and to the Christian himself are at the sovereign grace of the state.

Thus, the Internal Revenue Service claims the right to establish, by its rules and regulations, what constitutes a valid church or Christian school. Such a claim is an assertion of jurisdiction; it is an aspect of the totalitarian claims of the modern state.

In one area or another, men claim humanistic “rights” or jurisdiction. The abortionists claim that a woman has sovereign rights over her body and her unborn child; the homosexual claims that, where his action with other consenting persons is at issue, he alone has jurisdiction. In one area after another, modern man, in defiance of God, claims an independent jurisdiction.

The result is both moral anarchy and impotence. With more and more individuals demanding a moral jurisdiction in defiance of God’s law, the social scene becomes increasingly lawless; the family declines, vocations lose their discipline, schools do not educate, churches confirm sinners in their sins, and men are at war one with another. The state gains thereby a strong argument for asserting a protecting jurisdiction over a lawless scene as the working god of society.

But the state’s claims to any jurisdiction apart from God are lawless claims, and its laws are godless, lawless laws. As Augustine pointed out, in The City of God, without faith in the Lord, the state becomes no more than a larger band of robbers, a super-Mafia. A refugee from the Soviet Union, Yuri Brokhin, in Hustling on Gorky Street, dealt with the question, is there a Soviet Mafia? thus: “There certainly is a Soviet Mafia. And it’s organized a hell of a lot better than the American mafia. But it has another name. It’s called the Communist Party. We wouldn’t dream of trying to compete with it.”

If God is dead, what is wrong with a Mafia, and its claims to jurisdiction? If God is dead, then we are beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche held, and no one has any moral basis for anything, and thus the state can claim any and all jurisdiction it pleases. This, of course, is exactly what the state is doing. It calls itself “sovereign,” or lord, and few object. It claims more and broader jurisdiction daily, and the protests are few, and the resisters are condemned.

All too many churchmen believe that submission to the state’s idolatrous claims is a virtue. Chalcedon’s leaflet, “Can We Tithe Our Children?,”1 fell into the hands of one man who reacted with amazement to the statement that the state does not own the child, and that any such claim is paganism. How could any minister think that way? He wrote, “What’s this? Another cult?”

Such a reaction is not surprising. God’s jurisdiction has been handed over to the world by all too many churchmen, and any idea that Jesus Christ has crown rights over all things, over every area of life and thought, sounds strange in their ears. Christ’s jurisdiction is limited to the church, and to the soul of man, and very feebly in both places.

But Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:9–11); He alone is sovereign: there are no limits to His jurisdiction nor to His law-word. His law and jurisdiction stand as long as heaven and earth (Matt. 5:17–19); indeed, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail” (Luke 16:17), because the triune God is the eternal, the everlasting One, and there is no end to His deity, life, and jurisdiction. To limit the Lord’s jurisdiction is to limit Him, which means to deny that He is God.

To believe in the Lord thus requires us to assert His crown rights over all things and the total jurisdiction of His law-word. Our Lord declares, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18). The word translated as power is exousia, the right to act, the rightful power, dominion, authority, and rule over all things, i.e., jurisdiction. This power in Christ is absolute and unrestricted; men can only have delegated power, subject entirely to God and His Word. The Lord does not exempt from His jurisdiction any man, any state, nor any area. For us to do so is to deny Him. Indeed, one Greek lexicon gives, as basic to the meaning of exousia, the word jurisdiction. Our Lord thus says, “All jurisdiction is given unto me in heaven and in earth.”

Then, He commands, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:19–20). Our calling thus is not only to resist any and all usurpations of Christ’s jurisdiction, but to go forth and bring all men and nations, every area and sphere of life and thought, into captivity to Jesus Christ as Lord, as Sovereign. All things in heaven and earth must be placed under His jurisdiction. This includes China, Russia, Britain, and the United States. It also includes you and me. We have no independent life nor jurisdiction. “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

The assured word is this: “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).


R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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