Autonomy, Authority, and Government Under God

in a flashanti libertyTowards the Rebirth of Government

By Rev. R.J. Rushdoony

  Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him. (Ps. 2:10-12)

U.N. BuildingIn, the modern world, the state has made itself man’s provider; its goal is to provide cradle to grave security, as well as “social justice.” We need to remember that other agencies have at times assumed this role. In old China, the effective government was not the emperor but the family system. It provided the basic religion, ancestor worship; the family courts administered what was religiously believed to be justice, and the family also provided social security. All this was accompanied by religious ideas and practices alien to Biblical faith, but old China was ruled by the family system more effectively than by civil authorities. More often than not, the civil rulers impeded rather than furthered effective government.

The medieval monastery was commonly a better functioning “state” than was the regional king. Decarreaux noted of the monastery that “the ecclesiastical property had already acquired the general outlines of a little sovereign State.”1 The monastery, usually begun on donated land, was a landed estate. The lands were often marginal and undeveloped; through good administration, they became richer than surrounding properties. The monastery would commonly have one or two hundred monks. It also acquired serfs, who “were part of the monastic ‘family’ and often better off there than in lay service.”2 Independent small landowners would frequently seek monastic protection and oversight, as would villages. The monastery lent money to these peoples at a lesser rate of interest than professional moneylenders. Surplus production was sold by the monastery at lower prices than those charged by others. All charity was in the hands of the church, and the monasteries took over a large part of it. Travellers and pilgrims were housed; infirmaries cared for the sick, and learning in varying degrees was preserved and fostered. At the same time, the monastery faced confiscation by kings, or abbots imposed upon it by a lord or king.

It should not surprise us that William Cobbett, writing on Henry VIII’s seizure of the monasteries, should view this as a great disaster for the common people of England. So savage was the destruction, that Henry’s wreckers did not spare Hyde Abbey, founded by King Alfred. Not even Alfred’s tomb there was spared.3 The state was determined to be man’s essential government.

The conflict between church and state has been a continuing one since the days of Rome. The battle has seen various rises and falls of Christian freedom, but, with it all, an advance in the awareness of the implications of the struggle.

On the institutional side, there have been losses. Both within the church and the state, there has been a steady growth in the power of bureaucracies. When the Avignon “captivity” of the papacy took place, the popes were less vocal in vetoing the policies of kings. They turned inward to control the clergy, develop a bureaucracy, and centralize power in the papacy. There was much good in this, in that universities and learning were promoted, some Orders reformed, uniform practices furthered, and canon law strengthened.4 However, how deeply the bureaucratic mentality took hold appeared when the papacy returned to Rome. The irresponsible Urban VI was so deadly for the church, and his election so questionable, that some cardinals met to plan some kind of restraint on the pope. They were concerned with a legitimacy of argument, and they wrote down their scholarly opinions and findings and thereby ensured their arrest, torture, and murder.5

It is worthy of note that a very great improvement of the church’s administration and bureaucracy also occurred under the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, in the latter half of the 15th century. Moral reform was lacking under Alexander, but there was a major advance in administrative controls.6

By the time of the Reformation, the church was very much on the retreat in the struggles with the states. Government was shifting from the family and the church to the state. The Protestant princes often rebelled against Rome in part to have the freedom which the major Catholic states, as against the lesser ones, had gained.

Ozment has said, of the Middle Ages, that they were not an era of church domination. The church was on the defensive; it was an embattled institution which “won battles, but lost wars.”7 The Reformation represented a theological advance, even as the Counter-Reformation meant the revivification of a faltering and failing church. The Reformation era did give, even in the midst of increasing statism, some great opportunities for action against the previously growing departure from old Christian norms. Both “tithes and alms have fallen away,” Luther wrote Elector John Frederick on October 31, 1525.8The clergy in both Protestant and Catholic circles became in many cases very poor. For some time, the Calvinists were almost alone in a sustained challenge to the state.

In England, the Puritans revived the older position of confrontation. The Puritans represented, not an order sponsored by a prince but one created in terms of the daring faith of many. They also stressed and produced moral reform. Richard Baxter wrote that, during his 56 years of close contact with non-conforming congregations, he knew of only one instance of fornication. The offender had been disciplined, and, when Baxter wrote some years later, had not been restored to fellowship.9

In America, Puritanism lacked a like moral clarity. The reason for this was that the colonies essentially followed the English pattern of mandatory church attendance plus the equation of citizenship and church membership. To be an Englishman meant being a subject of the crown and a member of the Church of England by birth, not by profession. This meant that many immigrants who had come for wealth or as a prison sentence were in the church, while not truly of it. The control of their behavior, and their conversion, was a continuing church problem.

With the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, there was an edge of freedom which stimulated evangelism as well as congregational financial responsibility. Behind the settlement involved in the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution were certain presuppositions. The state, the church, and the individual conscience had each in its place a measure of authority. All had, however, a common superior, the triune God. These human authorities,

whatever their claims, had no right to set the limits to their power, because this is God’s prerogative.10

Since the writing of the First Amendment, the state, the church, and the individual have in varying degrees denied their common superior, the triune God. The results have been a greatly weakened church, a state playing god, and individuals whose actions neither recognize nor tolerate any superior power, let alone God. If the church does not see its authority as a transcendental one, from God and not from man, and in a manner set forth in Jesus Christ, then the church is readily absorbed into the state’s power. It then falls into the humanistic ecumenicism displayed by Sergio Mendez Arceo, Bishop of Cuernavaca, Mexico, at the Vatican II Council. The church should be, he held, an open community inclusive of Jews and Freemasons.11 Since then, Bishop Arceo has become more inclusive!

Amid all this decay, certain counter-trends are increasingly in evidence. Only a few will be cited here. First, there is the rise of fundamentalism with an increasingly faithful and clear-cut dedication to the faith. Christian Schools, missions to the needy, to delinquent children, to criminals, and to a variety of other causes signify a return to an ancient Christian catholicity of faith and life. Arbitration courts and like developments make clear that fundamentalism is a governing force.

Second the intellectual foundations for the return of Christianity to government are being laid down. In this area, Chalcedon Foundation has pioneered, rebuilding on ancient foundations.

Third, the modern state exercises more and more power and less and less true government. As the state’s power grows, the people’s liberties and the securities of their life and property diminish. The modern state is increasingly a taxing rather than a governing power. The decay of messianic politics is steadily in evidence. In May, 1984, a Democrat in Pennsylvania, asked about the presidential primary, expressed some dismay over the available candidates. As against Mondale, he said, “I did end up voting for Hart in the primary, just to throw a wrench into the system to see if maybe the convention would become somewhat of a stalemate and they could come up with a ‘savior.’ Unfortunately, I think I am looking for the ideal person, and I’m sure he doesn’t exist.”12 In 1932, Americans elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president in a campaign in which Roosevelt and the Democrats ran with a plain-spoken slogan: “Throw the spenders out.”13 They then instituted the most massive spending career in American history to that date. Subsequent administrations have been as faithful to their promises, usually.

The state is sick and dying. Government needs to be reborn. This can only happen as men govern themselves and their spheres under God, as, step by step, they take government back from the state and restore to man his responsibility and freedom to be, in every sphere of life, a participating and governing power. Earlier, we pointed out that in most countries today the problem is no longer one of church and state in the classical sense, i.e., a single church versus a single state. There are now a multiplicity of churches, and the result has been good for Christianity. It must be added that the need is now for the development (and, in some areas, redevelopment) of a multiplicity of governmental agencies and institutions. Nothing is more dangerous or more deadly to government than to restrict it to the state.

The state taxes to govern, and taxation becomes its major instrument of power and control. After a certain point, sound government decreases as taxes increase, because the state’s central and unspoken goal becomes the growth of its controls, regulations, jurisdiction, and power. The average man today pays taxes on a scale unknown in the medieval era, and prior to this century, except, as Knowles noted, by those in the medieval era who were in the hands of usurers.14 The victims of the usurer had their debts to blame for their predicament, not the state.

The state has used its powers over the centuries to compel many things outside the legitimate province of civil government. Our concern is the compulsion to be a part or member of a particular church. The same power has often been used against Christianity or the church, and sometimes against both. Thus, in England, under King William Rufus, converts were forced back into Judaism. This was done at the instigation and the pay of influential Jews, and William Rufus himself threatened to become a Jew.15 Such a use of the state was commonplace over the centuries. Thus, as Burckhardt noted, in Persia under Shapur II (310-382), the Jews, who were very influential in Persia, took part in a great persecution and killing of Christians.

Both Christians and Jews used the state in different eras to gain their ungodly ends, and rulers exploited their animosities. This kind of situation, together with the often enforced very close financial ties of Jews to the monarchs, led later to massacres of the Jews. As Ames noted,

A prudent king would cheerfully watch the Jewish usurers grow rich and then levy a tax on them. Under Henry II, for example, the richest man in the kingdom was a Jew, Aaron of Lincoln, and he kept Henry almost solvent. In 1187, the Jews were reckoned to have one-fourth of the moveable wealth of the kingdom, and theirs were the only stone houses, besides the king’s, in the realm. Inevitably, Christian debtors considered the wealth of the creditors to be built on their misery. And however a riot started, it ended in the robbing of the houses of the money-lenders – and the burning of the records of indebtedness.16

The same kind of privilege led later to a like unreasoning and destructive hostility against the church. Neither Jews nor the church had freedom most of the time. The monarchs regarded every concession as a privilege to be exploited, and the results were disastrous for both Jews and the Christian church.

As Burckhardt observed, some years ago, “First and foremost . . . what the nation desires, implicitly or explicitly, is power.”17 The medieval monarchs did not bequeath national debts to their posterity in any appreciable degree. This was the work of “the modern centralized State, dominating and determining culture, worshipped as a god and ruling like a sultan.”18 In recent years, not only the Marxists but other humanists have seen the state as the new source and center of religion. The English idealist philosophers, for example, held, in Hallowell’s words, that “The state is not limited by morality, it is morality.” Bosanquet wrote, for example,

The Nation-State as an ethical idea is, then, a faith or a purpose – we might say a mission, were not the word too narrow and too aggressive . . . The modern nation is a history and a religion rather than a clear-cut idea.19

Another modern scholar has said, “It is a distinguishing mark of a State that there is no authority external and superior to itself.”20

Unless the state is under the triune God, there is no hope for freedom for either the church or men. If the state is its own god and its own source of morality, then the state can do no wrong, and no man has then the right or freedom to differ from or to challenge the state.

Again, if the state is equated with government, there is then no freedom for man, because freedom is inseparable from self-government under God.

Thus, the Christian community must assert the priority of God’s law-word as binding on all of life, including church, state, and school. Christians must once again take over government in education, welfare, health, and other spheres. Basic to this take-over is tithing.21

At times in the past, the conflict between church and state has been an institutional conflict, sometimes for power, and often for very principled reasons of jurisdiction. It is more than a jurisdictional dispute now: it is religious conflict, and a war unto death. The modern humanistic state is history’s most jealous god, and it will tolerate no rivals. Hence, its war against Christianity. In this struggle, however, the state has taken on a power far greater than itself. As the humanistic world powers take “counsel together against the LORD, and against His anointed,” planning to overthrow His law and government, “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the LORD shall have them in derision” (Ps. 2:4). He shall break His enemies with a rod of iron.


1. Jean Decarreaux: Monks and Civilization, p. 362. London, England: George Allen and Unwin, 1967.

2. Ibid., p. 362.

3. William Cobbett: A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, p. 142. Written in 1824-1827. F. A Gasquet edition. New York, NY: Benziger

4. Alec Glasfurd: The Antipope, Peter de Lunce, 1342-1423, pp. 19, 26ff. London,
England: Barrie and Rockliff, 1965.

5. Ibid., pp. 105ff.

6. Clemente Fusero: The Borgias, pp. 156ff. New York, NY: Praeger, 1972.

7. Steven Ozment: The Age of Reform, 1250-1550, p. 180. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.

8. Ibid., p. 393.

9. Gerald R. Scragg: Puritanism in the Period of the Great Persecution, 1660-1688, p. 176f. New York, NY: Russell & Russell & Russell, (1957) 1971.

10. Robert E. Rodes, Jr.: “Sub Deo et Lege: A Study of Free Exercise,” in Donald A. Giannela, editor: Religion and the Public Order, Number Four, p. 29. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968.

11. Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Daniel O’Hanlon, editors: Council Speeches of Vatican II, pp. 179-184. Glen Rock, NJ: Dens Book, Paulist Press, 1964.

12. U.S. News and World Report, May 14, 1984, vol. 96, no. 19, p. 30, “What Voters are Thinking on Race for President.”

13. Thomas A. Bailey: Presidential Saints and Sinners, p. 207. New York, NY: The Free Press, Macmillan, 1981.

14. David Knowles: Thomas Becket, p. 47. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1971.

15. Ruth M. Ames: The Fulfillment of the Scriptures: Abraham, Moses, and Piers, p. 31. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

16. Ibid., p. 33f.

17. Jacob Burckhardt: Force and Freedom, p. 183. New York, NY: Random House, Pantheon Books, (1943) 1964.

18. Ibid., p. 224.

19. Cited from Bosanquet’s Philosophical Theory of the State (1899) by John H. Hallowell: Main Currents in Modern Political Thought, p. 288. New York, NY: Henry Holt, (1950) 1959.

20. Henry A. Mess: Social Groups in England, p. 118. London, England: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1940.

21. See E. A. Powell and R.J. Rushdoony: Tithing and Dominion, Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979.

 Rev. R.J. Rushdoony  (1916-2001) was the founder of Chalcedon and a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical Law to society.

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