Governing Authority

There’s one part of the Declaration of Independence that I’m not sure I fully agree with. “… Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ….” I think I agree with it, but like the PMW, it requires further explaining.

I like the wording “Governments are instituted among Men,” because it implies that the institution is not done by the Men. The only other possibility is that God institutes governments, which is in accord with “Render unto Caesar,” Romans 13, Peter’s epistles, and the Augsburg Confession.

I wonder whether it’s accurate to say that governments “derive” their just powers from the “consent” of the governed.

Shedding some light on that is Hermann Sasse, who experienced some extreme examples of governing authority first-hand. In particular, Sasse experienced the tyranny of socialism in its national flavor under the Third Reich. His ecumenical endeavors also brought him into contact with the citizens of many other governments.

This is from the compilation of his writings called The Lonely Way (volume 1), p. 98 and 99. He writes here on “The Social Doctrine of the Augsburg Confession.”

As God does his “alien work” in the midst of war, so may he also allow the outbreak of human sin in revolution in order to fulfill his angry judgment. Anarchy follows revolution. From anarchy a new power arises, and the question is whether such new power can be a legally constituted governing authority.

We must answer this question in the affirmative. For as far back in history as we are able to see, every governing authority once arose from anarchy. Legitima ordinatio is not only that governing authority which can trace its legitimacy back through an ancient past by letters of investiture and deeds, rather every political power may become the “governing authority.” How can this happen? Doubtless not by the acknowledgement of men through a national assembly or a vote of the people. The assertion “the power of the state arises from the people.” is false according to Lutheran doctrine, if it would be more than a formal description of the proceedings in a modern state by which a government is formed. The power of the state proceeds from God. One last reminder of this lives on in the religious formulas and forms with which modern peoples still surround the state and civil life. Any political power which has arisen out of anarchy may become a God-given governing authority, if it fulfills the tasks of the office of governing authority. This task is the assurance of peace and the maintenance of law through external power, the symbol of which is the sword. The governing authority is a “servant of God, the avenger for those who do evil.” Legal governing authority is distinguished from religious power in that it not only (as does the latter) possesses power, but also uses its power in the service of law. Both belong to the essence of the state: power and law [Macht und das Recht].

A governing authority which bears the sword in vain, which no longer has the fortitude to decisively punish the law breaker, is in the process of burying itself. A state which removes the concepts “right” and “wrong” from jurisprudence and replaces them with “useful” and “injurious,” “healthy” and “ill,” “socially valuable” and “socially inferior,” [a state] which in the place of the principle of remuneration places the principle of inoculation, a state which in its civil law dissolves marriage and family — [such a state] ceases to be a constitutional state and thus the governing authority. A governing authority which knowingly or unknowingly makes the interests of social position or class the norm for the formation and definition of law, or which allows the norms of the law to be dictated by the so-called “legal consciousness” of the time, sinks to the level of raw power.

This danger exists now — and this is not addressed by the Augustana — for all governing authorities, and shall for all time. It exists especially in the modern democratic forms of government and in the dictatorship. For the result of the secularization process of the last century has been that the consciousness of eternal legal norms which are not determined by man has nearly perished. But where this consciousness ceases to exist, there God-given power is changed into demonic power, resulting in its ruin among peoples and states. But wherever on earth a governing authority — irrespective of which form — is conscious of a [civil] righteousness independent of its will, exercises the power of its office, upholds the law and guards the peace, there it is “God’s good gift,” there it is “by the grace of God.”

What a juicy quote, eh? Sasse is evidently describing the sort of social development he saw in Germany ca. 1930, when this essay was first published. The door had been opened to the rightly infamous and undeniably diabolical socialism of Herr Adolph. The parallels to present-day America are uncanny.

Yet as Christians, we must ask whether a government “fulfills the tasks of the office of governing authority.” Even a social democracy might accomplish that to some degree. If it does not, we should be able to describe how it does not, before we resist that government in any way.

What about the governing authority of King George, against which the Declaration of Independance was written? He may have been fulfilling the tasks of governing authority for his subjects east of the pond, but perhaps not for his subjects in America. I haven’t quite reached a conclusion about this yet, but I think this might provide an acceptable meaning for the Declaration‘s statement about governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

What say you?

Since some of my fellow Americans seem to be mortally frightened of “theocracy,” I’ll help them back from the ledge by closing with Sasse’s next paragraph, which states something important, but rather obvious to me. Unfortunately, it’s not so obvious to everyone.

The task of the church over against the governing authorities is an especially difficult responsibility. It must guard itself against any illusion of a “Christian state” and must limit itself.

2 thoughts on “Governing Authority

  1. This is interesting, Jesse. I have never read Sasse, although I tried to at one time. It takes a bit of uninterrupted quiet time and that has been in short supply for me during the last 16 years. Thanks for introducing me to a snippet of his writing.

    I followed the beginning of your post. I followed you through Sasse’s quote. I even thought I was with you during your closing paragraphs.

    But I don’t really see how that all relates to the “consent of the governed.” Are you saying that when a person analyzes the effectiveness with which a governing body “fulfills the tasks of the office of governing authority” and when a person decides that the governing body is appropriately fulfilling these tasks and therefore does not engage in any sort of rebellion, that is akin to giving our consent? This is the only way I can make it work. Could you please clarify whether this is what you mean.

  2. I don’t remember much about what I was thinking before Easter, but from what I can tell, you probably understood that part of what I wrote correctly. Maybe you can shed more light on how we should take “the consent of the governed.” It still seems a bit problematic to harmonize it with the Fourth Commandment. I hope that we don’t experience everything Sasse witnessed in Germany, but perhaps that experience helped him to see these things a bit more clearly. Or, maybe less clearly.

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