David Lipscomb on Voting

David Lipscomb’s opposition to participation in civil government is perhaps well-known. He is, in some ways, a Christian anarchist. This arises both from his experience in the Civil War but also out of his kingdom theology which envisions the kingdom of God destroying all human ruling authorities through Jesus Christ. Consequently, Lipscomb was a pacifist and refused to participate in any human governement. His argument is fully articulated in his Civil Government. 

His position was thoroughly discussed through the pages of the Gospel Advocate through the last quarter of the 20th century, and his position was thoroughly rejected during WWII (with Foy E. Wallace, Jr. leading the way). Ultimtely, the Churches of Christ became almost wholly alligned with the political interests of the ruling majority in the last half of the 20th century with some significant exceptions.

The below piece from the hand of Lipscomb is interesting in several respects.  First, it reflects the ongoing debate and we perhpas hear a strong sectional flavor in it.  Second, Lipscomb’s theology is thoroughly kingdomized, that is, he will hear nothing of any human institution but only a commitment to the kingdom of God. Third, we see Lipscomb’s strong opposition to violence and how his opposition to politics is partly rooted in his conviction that politics always leads to violence in some form or other.

David Lipscomb, “Voting,” Gospel Advocate (1876) 543-546

In response to a letter from N. B. Gibbons of Waxahatchie, Texas, dated May 4, 1876, Lipscomb writes:

This is the first and only request we have had to review Bro. P[inkerton]’s articles. We fully intended to do it before he wrote, but his articles fell so far short of an argument, were so wholly composed of platitudes and generalities that while sometimes true and sometimes not, had no bearing on the question, so abounded in inconsistencies with the recognized and avowed principle of Scripture application and so inconsistent with themselves, and so often not having a remote bearing on the question, whether true or false, that we did not see any necessity for reviewing it. No friend of voting that we saw was willing to accept it as a fair statement of the reasons why Christians should vote, no one opposed to Christians voting thought it needed a reply.

In the quotation made by our brother, the reason assigned for Christ’s not holding office or voting seems to us not a pertinent one. If he came to be an example to Christians, certainly he should set the example in that as in other things.

Preachers, Bishops, Pastors, Elders, Evangelists, and all officers in the church now vote. All members of the church are officers in the only sense the word is applicable to a functionary of the church. Paul says, “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office, so we being [544] many, are one body in Christ, and members of one of another.” Rom.’s xii:5. That is, as each member of the human body has its office, but all the members have not the same office to perform, so it is in the body of Christ. Bro P.’s argument then would be, if he stated it clearly and logically, Christ had offices in connection with his church, this prevented him either voting or holding office in any other institution or government. The legitimate deduction from this is, as Christ could not vote or hold office in human institutions because he had offices to fulfill in and with reference to his own kingdom, so his members who have offices to discharge in his kingdom cannot vote or hold office in other institutions. This is certainly the logical conclusion, from his premises, all members have their offices to perform in the kingdom, therefore, no member can hold office or vote in other kingdoms. It is true Bro. P. has said there is no voting in those days—and hence might claim that it did not apply to the voting part.  But every school-boy or girl that has read the simplest elements of Grecian or Roman history knows Bro. P. is wholly wrong in this. Greece and Rome both were elective democracies in their beginning. The latter stood as much longer than any modern democracy has maintained itself and even after the substitution of the empire for the democracy, the Emperors themselves were for a long time elected by voting. These elections were not always without fraud, without violence, sometimes the will of the people was set aside by military authority or the violence of the soldiery or the mob. But such things are not unknown in this providentially raised up government for the development of Christian voters and office-holders—with its credit mobilier, salary grab, post traderships almost universal crime and corruption, thrown in. We doubt if there ever was a government among intelligent people more thoroughly honeycombed with crime and corruption and more constantly tempting men to dishonesty and venality than this. It is not the general government alone, nor one party, but the whole body politic, is corrupt. No man can breathe the air of our politics and remain pure. If he can, it is not true that “evil communications corrupt good manners.” Our politics are much like the politics of all democratic governments. When a man enters into them he drinks of their spirit and becomes one with them. Instances of this kind occur constantly. It is an exceedingly rare thing for a man in politics to pay any regard to his religion.

Bro. P. in his argument maintains that as the Bible says nothing about voting, Christians may vote. Does he argue thus about the mourner’s bench and infant sprinkling &c.? Bro. Franklin in his last number of the Review, makes the argument “As the Bible says nothing about voting Christians may vote or not.” In the very same number of his paper he says the Bible says nothing about the organ, therefore Christians should not use the organ. The legs of the lame are truly not equal. When such m en as Bros. Franklin and Pinkerton reason so contradictorily with themselves something must be wrong. [545] They can never satisfy thinking men in this way. It is certain they do not reason and act on the same principle in both cases.

To show the inconclusiveness of Bro. P.’s reasoning, we refer, without re-reading his articles, to the statement, that “sometimes the voice of the people, may be the voice of God sometimes it is not.” This is given as a reason why Christians should engage in politics. But he gives no rule, by which we can determine when their voice is the voice of God and when it is not. The idea that we can ever look to the voice of the people as the voice of God in this indefinite form, not only is of no practical good to any; it is of infinite harm to the world. It is worse than direct Spiritual Influence. Instead of going to the word of God to learn his will they are looking to the voice of the people with no rule to tell when the voice is of God. They find it in the frenzy of fanaticism. In our recent strife each party concluded the voice of his people was the voice of God. And many people of the South under Bro. Pinkerton’s rule thought they did God’s service to kill the hated Yankee and to rob him of his property. It was equally true on the other side. When religious people engage in war, they clothe their strife with the frenzy of religious fanaticism. Then it makes war more bitter, more bloody, more cruel, more vindictive in its character to maintain such an idea. When God has a message for his people, he is able to deliver it, in such a manner that none of those willing to hearken can misunderstand; he can deliver it in his own voice.

Bro. P. seeing the utter incongruity of Christians striving against each other in politics, suggests that to avoid this the church shall call a convention to determine what shall be done, how they shall all vote. Well what law will govern them? What rule for deciding? Will they dare decide where God has given no direction? To do it would be to make assumptions worse than papal. Then again, what shall they decide? Whether the church shall vote for Tweed or Belknap? Whether they shall contract or expand the currency? How can a church decide such questions? Where is the rule? But suppose they conclude that Christians cannot support the corrupt men of either party and put men of their own in nomination and become a third party? Then there will be a distinctly religious party in politics, a political party on religious grounds. The most corrupt and corrupting of all parties. But he wishes these conventions confined to single congregations, not to a multiplicity of churches. That is a church in one State will decide in one way, a church in another another way. Christians will then form political parties based on sectional grounds.  These lead most surely to war and violence, and Christians, children of the Prince of Peace, foment war and murder and destroy each other as the result. These are some of the impractical and antichristian absurdities in which he involves himself. We are sure there can be no necessity in reviewing such fallacious reasoning, involving absurdities so glaring. Bro. P. conjures up men of straw to demolish, in the shape of conclusions he supposes are [546] involved in the opposite position that no man, woman or child ever did believe, and that are not in the least involved in the position. It is much easier to explode a man’s position when he state if for him than when he states it himself.  It is usually regarded somewhat more in accordance with fair discussion to accept a man’s own statements of his position. But we are not surprised that Bro. P. finds it more convenient to meet positions of his own framing than of those who believe it wrong for Christians to engage in politics. They are so much more easily disposed of.

In the particular positions to which our brother refers, certainly Christ was only prospective King and Priest while on earth. But he was an active Savior from the day he was recognized as the Son of God, and anointed with the Holy Spirit. He was a Christed Savior. His work of saving was not perfected until his blood was shed, he was buried resurrected ascended and crowned a king and made a priest.

But the sacrifice was as much a part of the work of the Savior as the offering of the blood as a High Priest at the right hand of God. He set the full example for the Christian to follow, and if he refrained from political affairs it was because he desired Christians to do likewise. So far from Bro. Jones’ or Pinketon’s articles convincing any one that Christians can go into politics, we are certain they confirm all thoughtful Christians there is no ground for it. Brethren, let us get clear of our partisan prejudices for human institutions and look plainly at the teachings of God and learn of them the truth as it is in Christ.

7 Responses to “David Lipscomb on Voting”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    i think we now as kingdom seekers are to be wise in doing gods good and Innocent concerning evil.

    today i would perceive our warfare a little more asymmetrical in the terms of conduct in the world around,all of us.
    we need to learn the “game of love in the face of evil”
    as we have been taught throughout the scriptures,helping and being accountable to our “peers and elders” to say nothing of the battle that the Trinity accomplished as we all know.
    if this is not clearly a defination of asymmetrical warfare starting out with a statement like,




    “…First, it reflects the ongoing debate and we perhaps hear a strong sectional flavor in it. Second, Lipscomb’s theology is thoroughly kingdomized, that is, he will hear nothing of any human institution but only a commitment to the kingdom of God. Third, we see Lipscomb’s strong opposition to violence and how his opposition to politics is partly rooted in his conviction that politics always leads to violence in some form or other…”

  2.   eirenetheou Says:

    The historical DL did not and would not consider himself to be an “-ist” of any kind, nor would he acquiesce to any of the pejorative labels borrowed from the human political order. DL was not a “pacifist”; he intended, rather, to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. As a disciple, DL was — with every other disciple — called to be a “peacemaker” (Matt 5:9). DL had sense enough to know that a disciple cannot make peace by making war, or by joining in the wars of the human political order. As for the label “pacifist” and its ilk, DL and many of his contemporaries would have called that word, rightly, “the language of Ashdod.”

    DL is a nineteenth-century white man in Middle Tennessee, who struggles, by the best lights he has at a hard time in a difficult place, to “seek first the kingdom of God and his justice” (Matt 6:33). We may fault him for many things, but not for that. By the time he wrote On Civil Government, DL had come to know the human political order well, for exactly what it is. “It is not in man,” DL wrote (in the language of his time), “to form government in which the selfish element will not prevail, and which will not be used to tax and oppress the ruled for the glory and aggrandizement of the rulers.” i think we have seen and continue to see that prophecy fulfilled daily in our own time.

    God’s Peace to you.


  3.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    “Isms,” of course, would be anathema to Uncle Dave. I use it only in reference to historical typologies. Lipscomb himself would equate discipleship with peacemaking and thus non-participation in any kind of violence (from war to capital punishment) or human government.

  4.   Terry G. Says:

    If you have not yet seen it, I would commend David Lipscomb’s article titled “Politics & Christianity” to you. You will find in the Gospel Advocate of 1873 at page 337.

  5.   Terry G. Says:

    Lipscomb on Voting

    “… as we have several times said to Brother Srygley, that his criticism of Brother Cave’s war speeches was just and timely, but that Brother Cave was more consistent than he, inasmuch as Cave voted, and fought to maintain his vote, while Srygley does not deny the right to vote, but does to fight. We hold that they stand or fall together. the man who votes to make others fight (and all who vote do this) ought himself to fight–that is, if he is legally liable to perform the duty. He who supports the law that requires others to fight, morally and legally fights himself. While Brother Srygley does not deny the right to vote, he seldom exercises it, we believe, but is not ready to deny it.” — David Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate 37 n. 46 (14 November 1895): 732.

  6.   Abasnar Says:

    I think what David Lipscomb says is very much in line with both the Anabaptist and the Pre-Nicene understanding of these issues. He could have worked on the tone of his article, but other than that I cannot but agree with him. I stopped voting myself a few years ago, and I started praying more often for our government …



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