The Christian Libertarian Idea
by Andrew Sandlin
Fallen man does not seek dominion, which begins with his salvation and his ability to rule himself, but, rather, the goal of fallen man is domination, to control other people. – R. J. Rushdoony
The inner principles of biblical theocracy and of Reformed orthodoxy require the adoption of Christian libertarianism.
What is Christian libertarianism?
Christian libertarianism is the view that mature individuals (professing Christians in the church, and all externally obedient men in the state) are permitted maximum freedom under God’s law.
The name libertarian is ordinarily identified as an economic and political philosophy stressing human freedom and minimum (almost non-existent) state interference in individual lives and activities. Its proponents, despite wide differences among themselves, include Ludwig von Mises (economics), Murray Rothbard (social theory), and Ayn Rand (philosophy). This thesis usually operates on a strictly Enlightenment pre-commitment to the centrality of human freedom and man’s rational choices as the desirable features of human existence. It thereby repeats the Original Sin of lust for human autonomy (Gen. 3:5).
Nevertheless, libertarianism manifests certain distinct features of biblical-Reformed religion, and, when anchored to biblical Faith and shorn of its sinfully autonomous impulses, points toward a fully legitimate orientation to life: maximum freedom under God’s law. Indeed, one may argue that libertarianism is a secularized version of certain critical aspects of the Christian conception of freedom, which sees human authority strictly limited by divine authority as expressed in Holy Scripture.
This orientation flows from the tenet of theonomy specifically and from Christian reconstruction generally. Theonomy means God’s law as expressed in or deduced from the Bible. As held by Christian reconstructionists, it denotes that all human authorities are “relativized” (though certainly not eliminated) in terms of biblical revelation. This orientation is a key theme in the writings of the father of modern Christian reconstruction, R. J. Rushdoony.
The Reformed commitment to covenantal continuity as well as the propositional authority and sufficiency of Scripture impels one toward Christian libertarianism: as a rule, human authority may impose nothing beyond what Holy Scripture requires, appropriate to its sphere. What does this mean in practical terms?
Christian Libertarianism in the State
In the sphere of civil authority, it means the state may not impose any law not expressed in or deduced from Scripture. It means no warrant exists for the state’s regulation of the economy (beyond the assurance of just weights and measures). It means the state may not tax citizens to furnish education, welfare, or health benefits. Holy Scripture alone marks out civil and criminal laws. It does not create the impression that additional law or regulation is necessary or permissible; indeed, it conveys the opposite impression (Dt. 4:2). Even the judiciary must operate within the bounds of biblical revelation (Dt. 1:13-18). The civil magistrate is bound to enforce the inscripturated law of God apposite to the civil sphere–and nothing beyond.
The civil government (one government among many) is a ministry of justice, not of compassion and mercy. Church, and especially, family government, are ministries of mercy and compassion (Gal. 2:10; 1 Tim. 5:3-10). Health, education, wealth, welfare, and all else except those narrowly defined areas of jurisdiction invested in the state belong either to the church or the family (or private associations, whom the latter deputize–such as private schools).
Thus, the state must punish murder (Ex. 21:12), theft (Ex. 22:1-4), idolatry (Ex. 22:20), and other sins that the Scriptures explicitly requires it to punish. Since we may deduce from Scripture that abortion is murder (see Ex. 21:22, 23), that copyright infringement is theft, and that the public worship of the Earth by New Age advocates is idolatry, the state may suppress these crimes. It is not, however, authorized to punish employers whose buildings do not meet “recognized” safety codes, doctors who practice medicine without a state license, automobile drivers who drive “too fast,” or pagans who refuse to get baptized. The state’s jurisdiction is limited to the explicit word of God and valid deductions therefrom.
It bears mentioning that the charge that Christian reconstructionists and theocrats are intent to gain political power in order to coerce the unbelieving population to accept Christianity is slanderous. In the civil sphere, we want and work for one thing and one thing thing alone: the enforcement of bibical law apposite to the civil sphere, and nothing else. The civil and criminal law of the Bible is punitive. Christianizing society is the role of the family and church, not the role of the state. The state’s role is to maintain public order, which includes the punishment of evildoers (Rom. 13:1-7). It is not designed to make men good, but to restrain their evil.
This thesis of Christian libertarianism in the state is no doubt controversial among professed Christians in the United States. It should not be controversial among those who hold to unswerving biblical authority. It is impossible to defend on exegetical grounds that the civil magistrate may impose law not expressed in or deduced from the Bible.
Christian Libertarianism in the Church
In the church, Christian libertarianism means that the leadership (whether bishop, session, presbytery, synod) may not require adherence to regulation beyond the purview of the law of God. Such authority may issue positions and policies, but none that under threat of excommunication they can enforce, except those which biblical revelation requires.
For instance, church leadership must require weekly attendance at formal worship (Heb. 10:25), as well as partaking of the sacraments in appropriate times and cases (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Church leadership must, for example, excommunicate contumacious drunkards, fornicators, witches and warlocks, rebels, and schismatics (Gal. 5:19-21), and any others who willfully violate biblical dogma and injunctions (Rom. 16:17, 18).
Church leadership may not, though, excommunicate merely because one does not conform to the “church program.” It may not excommunicate merely because one does not attend all stated services or because one does not maintain a “spirit of submission” to church leadership. It may not excommunicate merely because one has personality clashes with fellow members. Much less may church leadership excommunicate over such practices as movie theater attendance, alcohol consumption, and line dancing.
Occasionally church leadership may curtail freedom when members act immaturely by refusing to exercise their freedom or by abusing their freedom (1 Cor. 3:1-3). This situation, though, is abnormal (Heb. 5:11-14), and church leadership should work diligently to liberate such juvenile individuals. An example: church leadership may impose on a member whose pre-conversion sins included voracious immorality a requirement that he (or she) may not remain alone for extended periods with a member of the opposite sex, although the Bible does not impose such a requirement. The goal of such an ordinarily unnatural and unnecessary imposition is to lead the member to full freedom. Church leadership may find it necessary in certain limited cases to impose discipline in order to lead to self-discipline.
In addition, sometimes it is necessary to limit one’s freedom to avoid offending weaker brethren (Rom. 14), but this situation may not persist if the weak brother’s actions lead to division (see v. 1). This situation is abnormal too, and church leadership should work to bring the weaker brother into a greater knowledge of the Faith.
The ecclesiastical magistrate no less than the civil magistrate is bound to enforce biblical injunctions apposite to his sphere.
Christian Libertarianism in the Family
The situation in the case of the family is somewhat different. Children are not granted the freedom of adults since they have not demonstrated that they can use that freedom responsibly (Gal. 4:1, 2), just as criminals are not granted freedom since they have demonstrated that they have used it irresponsibly. When children become of age, they leave their tutelage behind and participate in the true freedom of the Christian adult (1 Cor. 13:11). As in the case of the childish adult in the church, the goal of the treatment of the chronological child in the Christian family is self-discipline: the object of imposed discipline is self-discipline.
What greater joy is there than for the parents (naturally or ecclesiastically) to see their children walking in the truth (3 Jn. 4)!
The wife has bound herself by oath to obey her husband in all things (Eph. 5:22-24), just as the husband has bound himself to die for her if necessary (Eph. 5:25-28). The Bible does not require that all women obey all men in all things any more than it requires all men to die for all women if the situation lends itself to such sacrifice. An oath limits freedom. Christians are required to fulfill their oaths (Ec. 5:4-6), unless those oaths violate the Scriptures.
When a young man swears an oath in the armed services to defend his country, or when an employee agrees to submit to the dictates of an employer in return for monetary compensation, he willingly binds himself to greater obedience than the Bible generally enjoins. When a citizen willingly consents to obey the civil magistrate or a member church leadership in all things not contrary to Scripture, he vo-litionally limits his freedom. He is not compelled to do so by Scripture. Such servitude is biblically volitional, not mandatory (note Ex. 21:1-6).
A woman is not required to marry; but if she does, she is required to fulfill her vow to obey him. He is equally required to fulfill his vow to love her even to death, and to honor her (1 Pet. 3:7).
Obedience and Legitimate Disobedience
Nor do Christian libertarians in any way deny the validity of subordinate human authorities in the family, church, and state. The leaders in these spheres are charged to enforce the law of God, and Christians are charged to obey lawful authorities in every sphere –family, church, state (Eph. 5:22; 6:1, 2; Heb. 13:17; Tit. 3:1). They are not permitted to foment revolution. They may not disobey human authority merely because human authority (sinfully) requires that which is beyond its Biblically prescribed limits. We are called to meet injustice with justice, not with additional injustice. However, if human government requires that which God’s word forbids or forbids what God’s word requires, man must obey God and disobey human government (Ac. 5:29).
Christians may resist civil tyranny under the authority of a lower territorial magistrate. They may also resist it when their person and property are immediately threatened (Ex. 22:1-4)–even if by the civil magistrate. They may not lead revolutions. Revolutions are armed means to alter the structure of society. Resisting tyranny is not revolution; and Christians alter society by faith and obedience, not by revolution.
No human government of any sphere is unfailingly just. Man is called to reverse sin by faith and obedience (Rom. 12:17-21).
No reductionism or biblicistic or Anabaptist principle is at work in Christian libertarianism. We do not argue, for example, that adherence to the law of God invalidates the creeds and confessions of historic Christianity. Indeed, because we perceive them as valid deductions from biblical revelation, we hold them as subordinate standards in the Faith.
The Guiding Principle of Christian Libertarianism
At the root of Christian libertarianism is the biblical conviction that God grants men the freedom (never the permission) to sin. He reserves to himself the historical and eternal punishment for most sins. He does not vest authority in the hand of man to punish most sins. For example, the prophets are replete with warnings to Israel of her oppression of the poor and other disadvantaged, but God never once suggests it is the responsibility of civil magistrates to “equalize” market results by redistribution of wealth. Scripture exhorts Christians to be filled with the Spirit and avoid covetousness, but it is not given either to the state or church to suppress these sins legislatively.
The state is authorized to punish theft and the church to suppress heresy, but beyond the written law of God apposite to their spheres they are not permitted authority or jurisdiction.
God does not generally vest human authority with broad legislative jurisdiction. Christian libertarians recognize and stress this fundamental fact.
Christian libertarianism is not license. No man may disobey the law of God, even if God does not vest the state, church, or family with the authority to suppress or punish the specific sin. Vengeance is God’s and He will repay evil in His own time (Rom. 12:17, 19).
Aversion to Christian Libertarianism
Two main depraved propensities govern the violation of Christian libertarianism. First, the desire of tyrants to tyrannize, and second, the desire of slaves to experience slavery.
In the state sphere many prefer security to freedom, and they eventually are willing to sacrifice large areas of God-given freedom to obtain the security only state coercion can guarantee. Where there are social and economic slaves, social and economic tyrants will oblige them. This is the course of socialism.
In the ecclesiastical sphere, many Christians prefer subordination to the whims of a domineering and charismatic leader rather than the painful life of choices which freedom entails. This situation appears in almost all religious denominations and groups: fundamentalist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Charismatic, Episcopal, and many others. It is always easier to commit one’s soul to a church or confessor than to obey God’s law-word and bear individual responsibility for one’s choices. It is easier, and it is much more costly.
In the family sphere, many married children prefer the suffocating authority of domineering parents to the freedom creating a new covenant demands (Gen. 2:23, 24). The children lust for domination, and the parents lust to dominate. It is, from a pragmatic standpoint, an ideal arrangement. It is also sinful.
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