Thoughts on Jonathan Mayhew’s A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission

I truly feel that preaching is one of the most poorly executed vocations of our day. It is so lacking in basic logic, consistency, and nobleness of attitude.

What is amazing is that I can find a sermon by a “liberal” preacher of early America, and he is excellent. If anything, he seems a bit prudish (!). He is someone I would LOVE to spend a Sunday hour listening to! Why? Because he had his game together! He doesn’t bind people with unintelligent nonsense. And even after he concocts a well-thought sermon that I can agree with, he presents it in a free fashion, telling his listeners that they can take it or leave it according to their own conscience. WOW. What a concept.

SOOO… this sermon was SO good I had to stop and write an article on it!

I’ll give you a little background and then share some of the best gems.

The guy was preaching a couple decades before the American Revolution. He takes up the question of whether we should show unlimited submission to rulers, and comes to the conclusion that we should not.

But he doesn’t leave you hanging. He brings up all the Scriptures that opponents bring up and thoroughly dissects them, so that you can actually appreciate where the opponents are misusing the Scriptures.

Amazingly, the entire sermon is available here (A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission by Jonathan Mayhew)! I highly recommend you read it – it will probably be one of the best sermons you’ve ever encountered.

The intro alone is amazing:

It is hoped that but few will think the subject of it an improper one to be discoursed on in the pulpit, under a notion that this is preaching politics, instead of CHRIST . However, to remove all prejudices of this sort, I beg it may be remembred, that “all scripture— —is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for CORRECTION , for instruction in righteousness” (2 Pet. iii. 16). Why, then, should not those parts of scripture which relate to civil government, be examined and explained from the desk, as well as others ? Obedience to the civil magistrate is a christian duty : and if so, why should not the nature, grounds and extent of it be considered in a christian assembly ? Besides, if it be said, that it is out of character for a christian minister to meddle with such a subject, this censure will at last fall upon the holy apostles…Tyranny brings ignorance and brutality along with it. It degrades men from their just rank, into the class of brutes. It damps their spirits. It suppresses arts. It extinguishes every spark of noble ardor and generosity in the breasts of those who are enslaved by it. It makes naturally-strong and great minds, feeble and little; and triumphs over the ruins of virtue and humanity. This is true of tyranny in every shape. There can be nothing great and good, where its influence reaches. For which reason it becomes every friend to truth and human kind ; every lover of God and the christian religion, to bear a part in opposing this hateful monster. It was a desire to contribute a mite towards carrying on a war against this common enemy, that produced the following discourse…Civil tyranny is usually small in its beginning, like “the drop of a bucket”(Isai. xl. 15), till at length, like a mighty torrent, or the raging waves of the sea, it bears down all before it, and deluges whole countries and empires. Thus it is as to ecclesiastical tyranny also,——the most cruel, intolerable and impious, of any. From small beginnings, “it exalts itself above all that is called GOD and that is worshipped” (2 Thes. ii. 4). People have no security against being unmercifully priest-ridden, but by keeping all imperious BISHOPS, and other CLERGYMEN who love to “lord it over God’s heritage,” from getting their foot into the stirrup at all. Let them be once fairly mounted, and their “beasts, the laiety,” may prance and flounce about to no purpose : And they will, at length, be so jaded and hack’d by these reverend jockies, that they will not even have spirits enough to complain, that their backs are galled ; or, like Balaam’s ass, to “rebuke the madness of the prophet.”

First up, he talks Romans 8 (“…the powers that be are ordained of God…”). There are a number of views on Romans 8, but the most popular one seems to be that ALL authority is divine in origin, and that everything your leaders command must be honored. But if this is so, there are tons of other Scriptures saying essentially the same thing which we allow don’t apply in such a way. When the Bible tells wives to obey their husbands “in all things,” everyone readily confesses it doesn’t really mean “absolutely all things, no matter how unjust or ridiculous.” So why do we get so funny about Romans 8? A better view is that of Mayhew, who sees Paul as correcting a sort of libertarian attitude of flaunting law for the sake of Jewish pride or for the sake of “freedom in Christ.” The Jews had a long history of hating Gentile lordship, and no doubt many converts retained this attitude. Other non-Jews may have thought “freedom in Christ” meant libertinism. Paul is simply stating that generally rulers are trying to curb evil and maintain civic peace and harmony, and as such, are in-line with God. When they’re not in-line with God, it would be stupid to worship them as if they were.

Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief…It is blasphemy to call tyrants and oppressors, God’s ministers…When once magistrates act contrary to their office, and the end of their institution ; when they rob and ruin the public, instead of being guardians of its peace and welfare ; they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God ; and no more deserve that glorious character than common pirates and highwaymen.

I must say, that toward the end of my days in a “holiness” church, as they preached more and more on “submission” to the government (read Obama), I had to stop and think. If I am to be entirely subject to the US government, we are set up as a constitutional republic. The Constitution was thus given this “godlike” power (so the holiness church would be forced to view it, as they viewed all “authority”), yet it was in distinct contrast to Obama (and the “holiness” church wanted you to “respect” and “submit to” Obama – they inwardly hated the Constitution). So, I’m supposed to be in submission to the government, which on the one hand of the Constitution is telling me to speak out against Obama’s tyranny, and on the other hand of the Presidency is telling me to go against the Constitution and to give up Christianity entirely. So which is it? When government is pitted against itself, how do you obey Romans 8? Do you just pick which  of sets of contrary laws to obey? Well of course it makes no sense to interpret Romans 8 in such a ridiculous way. There is no [good] authority, but of God. The basic goodness of the authority is assumed, but removing it results in all kinds of bondage. Find the good and respect it. Find the bad and oppose it. And that is what I did.

The “holiness” church I had gone to had become so corrupted by their wrong interpretation of Scriptures like Romans 8 that they told me I had to leave if I didn’t agree to their terms: “Don’t say anything good about conservatives, and don’t say anything bad about the Democrat party”! Why? Because “the President is a Democrat, and we have to respect his party.” And just like that a “holiness” church becomes a veritable seat of Satan, worshipping all that is evil, and hating what is good.

If we calmly consider the nature of the thing itself, nothing can well be imagined more directly contrary to common sense, than to suppose that millions of people should be subjected to the arbitrary, precarious pleasure of one single man ; (who has naturally no superiority over them in point of authority) so that their estates, and every thing that is valuable in life, and even their lives also, shall be absolutely at his disposal, if he happens to be wanton and capricious enough to demand them. What unprejudiced man can think, that God made ALL to be thus subservient to the lawless pleasure and phrenzy of ONE, so that it shall always be a sin to resist him ! Nothing but the most plain and express revelation from heaven could make a sober impartial man believe such a monstrous, unaccountable doctrine, and indeed, the thing itself, appears so shocking——so out of all proportion, that it may be questioned, whether all the miracles that ever were wrought, could make it credible, that this doctrine really came from God. At present, there is not the least syllable in scripture which gives any countenance to it. The hereditary, indefeasible, divine right of kings., and the doctrine of non-resistance, which is built upon the supposition of such a right, are altogether as fabulous and chimerical, as transubstantiation ; or any of the most absurd reveries of ancient or modern visionaries. These notions are fetched neither from divine revelation, nor human reason ; and if they are derived from neither of those sources, it is not much matter from whence they come, or whither they go. Only it is a pity that such doctrines should be propagated in society…

And since those who judge kings by character rather than office are often accused of being “factious,” Mayhew continues:

It is unquestionably the duty of children to submit to their parents ; and of servants, to their masters. But no one asserts, that it is their duty to obey, and submit to them, in all supposeable cases ; or universally a sin to resist them. Now does this tend to subvert the just authority of parents and masters ? Or to introduce confusion and anarchy into private families ? No.

Another thing that may be asserted with equal truth and safety, is, That no government is to be submitted to, at the expence of that which is the sole end of all government,——the common good and safety of society. Because, to submit in this case, if it should ever happen, would evidently be to set up the means as more valuable, and above, the end : than which there cannot be a greater solecism and contradiction. The only reason of the institution of civil government ; and the only rational ground of submission to it, is the common safety and utility. If therefore, in any case, the common safety and utility would not be promoted by submission to government, but the contrary, there is no ground or motive for obedience and submission, but, for the contrary.

And while I am speaking of loyalty to our earthly Prince, suffer me just to put you in mind to be loyal also to the supreme RULER of the universe, by whom kings reign, and princes decree justice. To which king eternal immortal, invisible, even to the ONLY WISE GOD, be all honor and praise, DOMINION and thanksgiving, through JESUS CHRIST our LORD. AMEN.

The Black Robed Regiment

It’s easy to opine about being apolitical when the overwhelming scourge of its consequences are far away; it seems convenient even to shape religion into a beta-dog acquiescence of the pillars of piety – autonomy, liberty, freedom of conscience, respect, and brotherhood.

Barna Poll
Barna Poll

The Great Awakening of Jon Edwards and George Whitefield, however, led to a strong and healthy sort of worldview – one which was not merely brainy, but which was evidenced by resolve and purpose.

It was against such an awakened populace that one King George chose to fight. With a jackboot attitude, acts of terror were committed against Americans on the seas; their livelihoods were sapped by ever-increasing taxes; and their desire to be independent was disallowed by force.

When soldiers are about to kill you and your family out of petty greed, suddenly nose-bleed “spirituality” loses its appeal. Or was such stuff ever spiritual in the first place? Who isn’t for peace? The early Americans wanted peace as much as anyone; but when they “spoke,” the British crown was for war.

It seems nice to go along to get along, but eventually such an attitude results in atrocities like the Holocaust. When the church in Germany stayed silent about truth for too long, they couldn’t stop the worst nightmare reign known to man!

Charles G Finney
Charles G Finney

The church is to be the conscience of the nation, not an optional caboose. Charles Finney, for example, spoke extensively on how the church should get in politics and speak up for the enslaved Negro’s liberation.

In early America, most of the preachers spoke of standing up to tyranny. Tyranny unchecked is a cancer to the world. These pastors’ preachments on liberty and respect may have been what led the Americans to victory. Known as the “black robed regiment,” these ministers heroically stood side by side with parishioners in defending their fellow man from unjust violence. Today though, it’s considered “unacceptable” to “preach on politics.” What a contrast!

Henry Beecher Ward
Henry Beecher Ward

It is not Christians’ involvement in politics that is dirty; it is reclusion from it that makes it so.

John Wingate Thornton
John Wingate Thornton

Wherever injustice is found; wherever human dignity and autonomy are mocked and disregarded; pastors have an obligation to speak to it.

I appreciate Dan Fisher’s presentation on this subject, entitled “Bringing Back the Black Robed Regiment.” If you would like to watch one version, it is linked below. Hope you enjoy!