David Lipscomb on Voting: A Voice from 1921


Lipscomb wrote much more than this about voting and the larger question of a Christian’s relationship to civil powers.  In this compact piece Lipscomb examines the basic issues he understood to be involved in the whole question.  It appears on pages 707-708 of M. C. Kurfees, ed. Questions Answered by Lipscomb and Sewell, Being a Compilation of Queries with Answers by D. Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell, covering a period of forty years of their joint editorial labors on the Gospel Advocate. Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1921.

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VOTING.

A brother and I were talking on prohibition.  He said that if I did not vote in the coming election I would be guilty of the damnation of the drunkard’s soul.  I told him that I never voted.  Please give us your views on the subject.

We cannot now enter into a lengthened argument on the subject of voting.  We believe the Scriptures furnish a man fully unto all good works.  It nowhere tells or gives the example of any Christian voting or using the governments of earth, which in the Bible are recognized as belonging to the prince of this world, to accomplish good.  God overrules them, as he does all the institutions of evil, to bring good to his children.  We believe that God’s laws, God’s provisions, are sufficient for all the good a Christian can do on earth.  If he will do what God requires, use the appointments God ordained for his use, and leave the results with God, he will save more souls that he will by using any of the powers of earth through which to work.  I know that God’s appointments and agencies look feeble and foolish to men, while man’s look wise and efficient; and if a man walks by his own wisdom, he will follow the inventions of men; but if he trusts God, he will use God’s appointed agencies and leave results in the hand of God.  I have faith in God, so do not expect to vote on any question.  If human government banishes whisky, I will rejoice; but a man that has not moral strength to quit drinking when whisky is in his reach is not fit for heaven.  Sober men that refuse to obey God need salvation as much as [708] the drunkard, and are frequently just as willing to be saved.   A sober man who refuses to obey God does as much harm and needs salvation as much as the drunkard.

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Lipscomb expresses a fundamental principle undergirding his basic thought and approach to any question: “We beleive the Scriptures furnish…”  It follows therefore that Lipscomb will search the scriptures to find a command or example for guidance in how to address any query at hand.  He finds neither instruction for example of voting in Scripture.  He moves to a larger issue and asks of Scripture: how do “governments of earth” function under God?  First, he finds no instruction or example of a Christian using these governments to “accomplish good.”  Second, he finds such governments to “belong to the prince of this world.”  A fundamental assumption of the antagonist in the query affirms the capacity of Christians to do good by voting in prohibition, therefore saving drunk men’s souls.  Lipscomb denies not only this assertion but undercuts the entire argument that Christians ought to vote morality.

“We can do so much good by voting ___X___,” the arguments goes.  “If we do not vote this or that way on this issue or that question then the country will go to hell in a handbasket…”  Or some such.  Lipscomb brooks no ground for this argument.  Instead, when he reads Scripture to find out what the proper course for his life ought to be, he finds that human governements are all already going to hell in a handbasket, period.  He understands Scripture to teach that “governments of earth” are “institutions of evil.”  Whatever good apparently comes from them in actuality comes from God working in spite of them.  They are tools in his hand to do good for his children.

Now this is quite different from any reading of Scripture that justifies one nation, say America, as God’s chosen nation.  Where the good of humanity is concerned (say, in the salvation of a drunkard when prohibition is on the ballot), Lipscomb places his confidence in God working through Christians-working-as-Christians in the lives of those about them who are addicted to alcohol.  For Lipscomb the locus of this salvific activity is the local congregation exerting its gifts of the Spirit in the life of its community.  In other words, Christians ought to take more seriously their idenitiy as Christians in their communities and work in them with grace and purity and peace and redemption, than they take any question up for vote on election day.  So what if prohibition passes thanks to the Christian vote, yet Christians cast about with no confidence in “God’s appointments and agencies” and therefore have no meaningful redmeptive impact on their neighbors?  Can we then say that our vote saved the drunkard from hell?  Can we then say with a straight face our vote saved the nation?

For Lipscomb, one aspect of this is hermeneutical, or how do you read the Scriptures?  Lipscomb finds no command or example for voting, therfore he does not vote.   Historically, this basic approach has been pervasive in Churches of Christ.  It has not been without debate as to application, but it has been pervasive and usually it proved conclusive.   No example of voting=no voting.   Further, the larger theological point Lipscomb extrapolates from what he does find in Scripture is that “God overrules…all institutions of evil.”  Therefore when Christians start talking about salvation or damnation (whether it is saving the drunkard’s soul or keeping our nation from the brink), for Lipscomb, they had better think through their commmitments and loyalties.  About these matters Scripture is clear: God works through his body (the church) as his body works in the world; God works in spite of human governments.  God’s appointments concerning ultimate human good (salvation) center on the redemptive work of the Spirit in the church.  No Christian ought to seek the results (salvation) without working loyally and steadfastly within the means (the church) God appointed.  Really, Lipscomb asks, where is your confidence?

I thought this a challenging little piece from the past to present on Election Day.  If I have misread David Lipscomb I welcome your criticism.  For my readers who attend Churches of Christ, what has been the substance of the discussion at church lately about this election?  Has it tracked more with the querist’s antagonist, or David Lipscomb?

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5 thoughts on “David Lipscomb on Voting: A Voice from 1921

  1. I don’t think you’ve misread Lipscomb. I do think, however, that in most Churches of Christ his side lost. George Benson persuaded most of a generation of American Christians that there is a religious duty to support their country and its interests — financially, politically, and even with their lives.

    The fact that such a duty cannot actually be found in Scripture (though its opposite can be found in 1 Timothy 2) is, apparently, beside the point. The fact that Benson himself and Harding College profited immensely from taking this position is also, apparently, beside the point.

  2. Brother,

    I Love this. Brother Lipscomb is right on. I wish all the brethren could see governments of man for what they are.

    Lord bless you,

    Brad

  3. Pingback: Electing Faithfulness: Concluding Thoughts | CALEB COY

  4. Thanks for the contrary opinion, Major. But it is unclear to me from your dismissiveness whether you view the fluidity of his ‘foundation’ as his own power of reason (in which case I would wish to hear more) or his precedent of scripture (in which case you may have stumbled into the wrong forum).

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