The G. of G.#2: What is the Relationship between Self Government and Civil Government?

This is part two in my series on The Grammar of Government. (If you did not read the first article, run back to my previous post.)

My study table for this series, set up in our living room in the front of the house. (I study all over the house, but usually in our sunroom in the back of the house.) I’ve been studying and simmering….

Why am I writing this series? Why would I bother to read, re-read, and study all this material in order to condense a few, good thoughts on the topic of government?

Two students of our history said it best many years ago:

“But the blessings of liberty in America cannot be perpetuated unless the principles of that liberty are re-identified and re-affirmed in each generation.”*1

My answer is because it is needed. The situation in American is now so confusing and muddled, that only by going back to the basics or “first principles” can we see our way through the maze in order to make better decisions and affirm liberty for ourselves, so that we have it to pass on.

The place to start in a grammar of government, we noted in the previous post, is not political but personal. Government — as the act of controlling, guiding, and ruling — begins  with our own persons: the self-government of self-control. This is a spiritual issue, and God has given His Son and His Spirit to enable us to grow in self-government. Then, in our homes we pass the most basic of these gifts and skills to our children in the ways we rear and train our them.

Dating back to the first century, we witness self-government as modeled in local churches.  This local church polity laid ground for self-governing patterns adopted in local communities and civil associations in America. Christians, as the Body of Christ, have always viewed authority as authority under God. Christ is the head of the church; God is the ruler of the universe. Human authority is always under God and accountable to Him.

Resources you may want to borrow or purchase.

We often use the term, self-government in reference to the civil government of our own country, a government based upon liberty, where no monarchy or oligarchy rules, but “we the people” govern. The concepts of self-government and liberty go hand in hand, as two sides of one coin. Liberty requires self-government on every level.

Those who can thus govern themselves have little need of managerial government,” writes Felix Morley in the Introduction chapter of The Christian History of the Constitution. Our Declaration of Independence found its roots in the rich history of the colonies (and the Reformation and history back to the Hebrews and the Greeks).

Morley continues, “So, when Americans gloried in being a Christian people, it was possible to replace the domination of the British monarchy by a system in which the greater part of all governmental activities were localized. The ‘determination’, in which Madison’s memorable words, was ‘to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government’.” *2

For the past few months I’ve been reading some history books about western civilization as well books about our American history. I’ve read online sources and I’ve read from my own collection of books. I’m overwhelmed with the stream of history and its lessons.

What keeps coming back to me is the concept that the American form of government — which was astoundingly unique in its early days when compared with governments around the world, from written history until the 19th century — was that its workability, its potential success was founded upon the self: the view of the nature of the “self” (God-created, yet flawed), a respect for each “self” (not subservient to the state, having inalienable rights), and the heavy responsibility of each “self” and all “selves” for living well and building a new, free, and good civilization (the dignity of individual conscience and the freedom of choice).

What a fragile foundation. What a fragile structure. But not so fast.  Fragile, yes, but not fatefully fragile. The founders and framers of our country viewed the selves as under the care of their Creator, to whom they are also accountable as their Judge.

The Declaration of Independence begins with a reference to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” language not used today, but explained in the second paragraph as “their Creator.” (The laws of nature reveal the Creator-God.) The framers viewed all nations of the world as somehow under the oversight of the Creator-God, and thus all accountable to this God. If a majority of people believed this, how might such a belief shape both personal and social character?

Good reading material stacked next to my copy of Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary and my one volume Oxford English Dictionary. Yummy mind/soul/spirit food.

The next paragraph of The Declaration states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Meditate on those claims!

The text continues, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .”  Civil government becomes a collective self-government — a representative government, built upon the self-governments of individuals within communities.

How is it in the history of tribes, city-states, local kingdoms, nations, and empires, that this inverted view of government arose? Study the history of any continent of any era. What people group was built on the distinct respect of the individual rather than the overriding interests of the state?

As William J. Federer questions, “Does power flow from Creator to King to People or from Creator to People to Political Leaders?” He continues, “Where did America’s early colonial pastors and political leaders get the idea that the people could rule themselves?”*3

Federer answers his question. Early American leaders extracted ideas of self-governmental  from ancient Israel (with no king for 400 years), Athens (Solon invented democracy), Rome (with its 500 year republic), and England (with its Magna Carta and Common Law which limited kings).*4  And we must add to this list of models, the model of the primitive and ancient church in the first three to four centuries after Christ.

When we look at the charters and constitutions of the original settlements and colonies and the active, religious life of the embryo-Americans during the 150 years before the Revolution, we see peoples being prepared for self-government, actually peoples who were used to governing themselves.

More resources. That Bible on the left is my father’s last Bible which contains lots of his markings. It warms me to read from the pages from which he read.

Speaking to fellow British statesmen in 1791, Edmund Burke declared,

What is liberty without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils… madness without restraint. Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” 

Ah. There we are. How can civil-self-government work well without the underpinning of personal-self-government? We all know that our current, civil government on multiple levels is fracturing because of a loss of personal-self-government, the government of myself over myself.

Truly successful self-government is the soul tuned to the Spirit of God, directed and energized by the Lord. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control. Self-government.  Galatians 5:22-23.  Please notice that in this passage listing the nine fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of self-control is listed last. Could it be that the spiritual fruit of self-government is the culmination and infused blend of all nine, beautiful characteristics of the Spirit?

And note that the verses leading up to this list of godly qualities is a list of characteristics of the sinful nature called “the flesh” in verses 19-21. After listing all the deeds of the flesh and contrasting them to the beautiful and fragrant fruit of the spirit culminating in self-control, the passage concludes that there is no law against the good fruit.

As the ground of all forms of self-government, Spirit-led-self-control frees civil-self-government of a burdensome load.

This little pocket edition of our American anchors is published by Hillsdale College. This college offers a free course in The Constitution, as well as other free courses. Check them out!

The bloated, encroaching weight of civil government in America today, where healthy self-government has diminished and diminished, demonstrates clearly that our foundation is crumbling and much is downright gone.

As a people, we are not like the settlers and colonials of 1620-1776, those embryo Americans, rigorously prepared for self-government. We are no longer ethically strong, temperamentally suited, and energetically prepared for a civil government based upon self-government.

So what do we do? Well, to start with, we talk to each other and pray for each other and our country and world, and we exercise more energetically our own personal powers of self-government. We choose to teach our children the Word and our country’s history, good and bad. We choose to become involved in local, governing bodies — at church, in our townships, schools systems, and so on.

And we pray through it all.  Are you praying with others? Did you see the prayer walk in Washington D.C. on Saturday, September 26? A dear friend and I watched it, each from our own homes in different states, and prayed throughout it. We were encouraged to know that we were together, though spatially separated, while praying with thousands of others for our country, for God to have mercy, for many to give their lives to Christ, for Christian repentance and revival, and for God to answer prayers we don’t even know to pray.

Check out this site and join in praying:

On October 6, I understand that there is to be a prayer meeting in Plymouth, Massachusetts, recognizing the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing in 1620. The prayer meeting involves prayers of repentance and for God’s intervention in our country. We want to join this prayer meeting long-distance.

Check out the following and listen to the three minute presentation:

We’ll join you that evening, from there to my home to yours and to others, for a time of God-seeking prayer.


*1. Verna M. Hall and Rosalie J. Slater, The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America (Published by The Foundation for American Christian Education, first ed. 1966; 1978), p. Ib.

*2. Felix Morley, “Introduction,” in The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America, p. IX. I skipped the first sentence in the paragraph of Morley that I quoted above. The idea fit later in my article, but I’ll quote that opening line here: “The essence of our now weakened Christianity is self-discipline, as preached and practiced by Christ Jesus.” Wow! He wrote these words on July 4, 1960!

*3 William Federer, Who is the King in America? (Amerisearch, Inc. 2017), p.111.

*4. Ibid.









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