“The Limits of Civil Jurisdiction” American Sentinel 9, 11, pp. 82, 83.

IN an article in these columns last week is was shown that the conflict between Christianity and the Roman Empire was one involving the rights of conscience. Christianity taught that the fear of God and the keeping of his commandments was the whole duty of man; Rome taught that to be the obedient servant of the State was the whole duty of man. This was the irrepressible conflict. Yet in all this Christianity did not deny to Cesar a place; it did not propose to undo the State. It only taught the State its proper place; and proposed to have the State take that place and keep it. Christianity did not dispute the right of the Roman State to be; it only denied the right of that State to be in the place of God. In the very words in which He separated between that which is Cesar’s and that which is God’s, Christ recognized the rightfulness of Cesar’s existence; and that there were things that rightfully belong to Cesar, and which were to be rendered to him by Christians. He said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Cesar’s.” In these words He certainly recognized that Cesar had jurisdiction in certain things, and that within that jurisdiction he was to be respected. As Caesar represented the State, in this scripture the phrase represents the State, whether it be the State of Rome or any other State on earth. This is simply the statement of the right of civil government to be; that there are certain things over which civil government has jurisdiction; and that in these things the authority of civil government is to be respected.

This jurisdiction is more clearly defined in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chap. 13:1-10. There it is commanded, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” In this is asserted the right of the higher powers—that is, the right of the State—to exercise authority, and that Christians must be subject to that authority. Further it is given as a reason for this, that “there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” This not only asserts the right of the State to be and to exercise authority, but it also asserts the truth that the State is an ordinance of God, and that the power which it exercises is ordained of God. Yet in this very assertion Christianity was held to be antagonistic to Rome, because it put the God of the Christians above the Roman State, and made the State to be only an ordinance of the God of the Christians. For the Roman empire, or for any of the Roman emperors, to have recognized the truth of this statement, would have been at once to revolutionize the whole system of civil and religious economy of the Romans, and to deny at once the value of the accumulated wisdom of all the generations of the Roman ages. Yet that was the only proper alternative of the Roman State, and that is what ought to have been done.

Civil government being thus declared to be of God, and its authority ordained of God, the instruction proceeds: “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they [83] that resist shall receive to themselves damnation …. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.” Governments being of God, and their authority being ordained of God, Christians in respecting God will necessarily respect, in its place, the exercise of the authority ordained by him; but this authority, according to the words of Christ, is to be exercised only in those things which are Cesars, and not in things which pertain to God. Accordingly, the letter to the Romans proceeds: “For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” This connects Paul’s argument directly with that of Christ above referred to, and shows that this is but a comment on that statement, and an extension of the argument therein contained.

The scripture proceeds: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe no man anything, but to love one another; for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Let it be borne in mind that the apostle is here writing to Christians concerning the respect and duty which they are to render to the powers that be, that is, to the State in fact. He knew full well, and so did those to whom he wrote, that there are other commandments in the very law of which a part is here quoted. But he and they likewise knew that these other commandments do not in any way relate to any man’s duty or respect to the powers that be. Those other commandments of the law which is here partly quoted, relate to God and to man’s duty to Him. One of them is, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me;” another, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” etc.; another, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain;” and another, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy; six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God,” etc.; and these are briefly comprehended in that saying, namely, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” According to the words of the Christ, all these obligations, pertaining solely to God, are to be rendered to Him only, and with man in this realm, Cesar can never of right have anything to do in any way whatever.

As, therefore, the instruction in Romans 13:1-10 is given to Christians concerning their duty and respect to the powers that be, and as this instruction is confined absolutely to man’s relationship to his fellow men, it is evident that when Christians have paid their taxes, and have shown proper respect to their fellow men, then their obligation, their duty, and their respect, to the powers that be, have been fully discharged, and those powers never can rightly have any further jurisdiction over their conduct. This is not to say that the State has jurisdiction of the last six commandments as such. It is only to say that the jurisdiction of the State is confined solely to man’s conduct toward man, and never can touch his relationship to God, even under the second table of the law.

This doctrine asserts the right of every man to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience, as he pleases, and when he pleases. Just this, however, was the subject of the whole controversy between Christianity and the Roman empire. There was never any honest charge made that the Christians did violence to any man, or refused to pay tribute. Therefore, as a matter of fact the whole controversy between Christianity and the Roman empire was upon the simple question of the rights of conscience,—the question whether it is the right of every man to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience, or whether it is his duty to worship according to the dictates of the State. [84]

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