The recent advance of pro-abortion bills has caused many Christians to plead with local civil leaders to make their cities “sanctuary cities” for unborn babies. Some of the efforts have, in fact, been successful. During one speech to a city council, Marcus Pittman, a filmmaker, pleaded with the city’s leaders to “defy tyranny and repent, in the name of our Lord and King, Jesus Christ, who is ruling and reigning today.” The concept behind these efforts is nullification. What these men and women are asking their civil leaders to do is to nullify the unjust laws that allow abortion. However, the recent abortion bills are not the first time a higher magistrate has enacted unjust laws. The same thing happened several years ago in the state of Oklahoma when the federal government forced the state to perform gay “marriages.”
What is the Christian response? What if Oklahoma were a state made up predominantly of Christians? What if your local city had several Christians in positions of leadership? What course of action should they take? It is questions like these that many Christians are not interested in answering. They have given up on the idea of the Gospel spreading to such a degree that any city or state could consist of mainly Christians. Or, even if they grant that possibly, they say that the government is no place for the Bible or Christianity.
While we grant that genuine revival can only happen when God moves in a society—and we do in fact believe that God does move in societies—and that personal piety is a prerequisite for a Christian society, we also know that a deficient theology has led many to assume there is not a distinctly Christian response for political quandaries such as this. Fortunately, God’s Word touches on every area of life and the matter before us is no different. One of our goals at Reformed Hope is to show you how a Christian state should operate—to show you that this is not ivory tower philosophizing, but the down-to-earth application of the Gospel spreading through the land. So, let’s get to it.
Does the federal government have authority to force a state to perform gay “marriages?” Does the federal government have authority to ensure abortion is accessible? We are being told yes. The truth, however, provides us with some much needed insight and direction for the days ahead. One of the main issues here is if the federal government has the ultimate authority to force a state’s hand in a variety of matters. Thus, the issue certainly has to do with that oft discussed topic of state’s rights. A bit of biblical background will provide us with a good foundation to proceed on a Christian basis. The fact is that there is a distinctly Christian response to issues such as this. We will examine that by discussing the concept of nullification.
First of all, before getting into the historical-political understanding of nullification, we need to consider this on a personal level. When the apostles were commanded to stop preaching Christ, what did they do? They refused to obey man’s command—they nullified it—because of a higher standard, namely, God’s standard (see Acts 5:27-32). This is the simplest and most basic way to understand nullification. On a personal level, when you are asked to do something which goes against God’s Word, you have the responsibility to nullify that command. You are essentially saying, “I do not recognize your authority to command such an action and I refuse to comply with your request; I must rather obey God.” By the use of unjust force, someone can abuse you (and kill you), but they cannot make you sin against God. We are not to fear those who can simply kill the body, but rather Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). In this instance, a good example of personal nullification would be a Christian pastor refusing to “marry” homosexuals, regardless of the consequences. This personal understanding of nullification is where any discussion such as this must start. God requires all individuals (including leaders in state governments) to personally obey Jesus Christ. The person who wants to see positive change in his community must first personally submit to Christ and practice “Christian nullification” in his own life by obeying God rather than man.
We now turn our attention to how a Christian citizen and statesman should respond to things such as the mandate to “marry” homosexuals, or provide abortion services, for example. We will briefly discuss (1) the role of the statesman, (2) the historical-political concept of nullification in regards to state and federal government, and (3) how a state can use nullification to honor God.
The Role of the Statesman
The statesman (whether legislator, governor, etc.) is to rule according to God’s Word. Romans 13:3-4 tells us that civil magistrates are servants of God and are thus required to judge according to His Law. Therefore, all magistrates must first submit to Christ in all their governing. Greg Bahnsen summarizes the obligation of civil magistrates:
Civil magistrates in all ages and places are obligated to conduct their offices as ministers of God, avenging divine wrath against criminals and giving an account on the Final Day of their service before the King of kings, their Creator and judge.
He also notes that “the presently established messianic kingdom of God requires all civil magistrates to acknowledge the supremacy of Jesus Christ and perform their public tasks in obedience to His will.” Therefore, when a statesmen is asked to do something which contradicts the law of his supreme Lord, he must nullify that request.
What is Nullification?
Building upon the personal level (but not abandoning it), let’s consider the historical-political definition of nullification. (To give credit where credit is due, Thomas Woods is the historical expert on this topic—I have been educated by some of his many resources.) Nullification is a concept that is an outworking of the idea of decentralized government—a concept that was treasured by many of the founding fathers. The individual states have the right to invalidate any unconstitutional overreach of authority from the federal government. A good example of this is what Wisconsin did in the 1850’s. The Fugitive Slave Act was a federal law which mandated northern states must return slaves to their owners. Wisconsin nullified this law—they refused to comply. H. Robert Baker explains:
On March 11, 1854, the people of Wisconsin prevented agents of the federal government from carrying away the fugitive slave, Joshua Glover. Assembling in mass outside the Milwaukee courthouse, they demanded that the federal officers respect his civil liberties as they would those of any other citizen of the state. When the officers refused, the crowd took matters into its own hands and rescued Joshua Glover. The federal government brought his rescuers to trial, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court intervened and took the bold step of ruling the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional.
This incredible example of nullification and faithfulness to biblical law is overlooked in most history classes. The position defended by the men and woman from Wisconsin was the biblical position. The case law found in Deuteronomy 23:15 forbids the return of fugitive slaves:
You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him. (Deuteronomy 23:15)
The magistrates of Wisconsin (and some other northern states) chose to obey God rather than the federal government’s mandate. Thus we see a great example of nullification in action.
The Biblical Basis for Nullification in American Thought
The Bible teaches us that man is fallible (2 Chronicles 6:36). Therefore, a decentralization of power is a good thing. A man with complete and unchecked power could wreak havoc on a society. Just think about what Adolf Hitler did. The Führer hated state’s rights—he wanted (and obtained) complete power over the nation. However, the concept of a system of delegated authority from God is evident in the Bible. Even the great king of Israel, David, did not have unlimited power—he had to rule according to God’s Word. (Keep in mind as well, that it was the people who asked for a king—it was not God who forced one upon them. Nevertheless, even their voluntary request for a king did not infer that he would have unlimited powers.)
The United States of America have a rich history of biblical thought. The very concept of limited power is a biblical one—an idea based upon the idea of sin and man’s propensity for corruption. However, the history that is taught in our government school systems fails to teach the whole story. The centralization of power (statism) is praised today, rather than the decentralization of power (personal responsibility).
This issue was central in the drafting and deliberations of the Constitution of the United States—and the Constitution was not simply welcomed with open arms by all involved. Many were fearful that such a document would centralize power, removing the sovereignty of the states that made up the union. Their fears were well founded. Every tyrant wants a centralization of power—centralized in his hands, of course. But the centralization of power is more than just bad for freedom, it is rebellion against God.
For a person (or group of people) to seek to centralize ultimate power in the hands of one entity is to proclaim that person (or group) as God. If there is no other recourse beyond said group, they have effectively declared themselves divine. The so-called “divine rights of kings” is not a biblical idea. Even the king was subject to God’s Laws. There is only one ultimate centralized authority—the Lord Jesus Christ. All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18). For any branch of the civil government to claim that type of authority within a nation is idolatry. They are claiming divine status and demanding complete obedience. R.J. Rushdoony explains:
For a state to claim total jurisdiction, as the modern state does, is to claim to be as god, to be the total governor of man and the world. Instead of limited law and limited jurisdiction, the modern antichristian state claims jurisdiction from cradle to grave, from womb to tomb, over welfare, education, worship, the family, business and farming, capital and labor, and all things else. The modern state is a Moloch, demanding Moloch worship: it claims total jurisdiction over man and hence requires total sacrifice. (Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1)
How a State Can Use Nullification to Honor God
As we have now seen, the concept of nullification goes beyond the individual. It can be directly applied to our communities, and even our state. Take the recent case of Oklahoma and gay “marriage.” The state government can (and should) say, “We are refusing to acknowledge this federal ruling. Marriage has been instituted by God as between one man and one woman.” As such, they would be appealing to the ultimate lawgiver. This idea of nullification has been (and is today) championed even by those who are not Christians. The concept however, based upon biblical principles, can be used by Christians on an individual, group, and even society-wide basis. If, by God’s grace, we see revival in our state, and we have a decidedly Christian state government, nullification would be the route to take again and again as we refuse to follow the ungodly decrees of the Supreme Court. Through the use of unjust force, the tyrannical powers may attempt to harm us, but God is in control and we must act according to His will, not in response to the threatenings of man (Matthew 10:28).
What Does This Mean for Us?
What does this mean for your community or state? Statesmen should be Christians who are committed to the biblical principle of nullification and will stand up for the right of the state to invalidate ungodly and unconstitutional “mandates” from the centralized, federal government. This provides us with a very practical avenue to resist the tyranny and ungodly direction of those in the centralized federal government.
A very recent example of this is how Pastor Jon Speed called upon the city of Batavia, New York, to nullify Governor Cuomo’s unjust law and become a sanctuary city. Pastor Speed spoke the following words before the city council:
According to Romans 13:4, the city council serves as a minister of God to terrorize evildoers. You must use your authority to support what is good while punishing what’s evil…Babies are murdered in Batavia, New York, every day that Planned Parenthood is open. Every day, abortifacients are being sold over the counter in Walmart. Babies are murdered under your jurisdiction…Please lead the way in upstate New York, and make Batavia a sanctuary city for the unborn.
Speed also referenced the fact that just because abortion was made “legal” by a higher magistrate, it should still not be authorized. He declared it was “irrelevant” whether or not the murder of babies is “legal” under state law, comparing the situation to what Hitler did in Germany. “Everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal, by German law,” Speed added.
Is this something that your state would do at this moment? Most likely not. Your state is probably run by people who are willing to submit to the centralized system, even if it means murdering babies. However, all hope is not lost. The means for revival is always and ever the same: the faithful adherence to and proclamation of God’s Word by covenant members of local churches, attended to by the Spirit of God. Furthermore, the rise in Christian education can lead to a new generation of citizens who are truly educated when it comes to a biblical view of history, government, and law.
Political directives based upon God’s Word should be promoted, but until the hearts of those in our society are regenerated, they will have no desire to honor God. Does this mean we are wasting our time in seeking to change unjust laws? By no means. For God has called us to be faithful and seek to apply His Word to every area of life, even calling on the magistrate to submit to Christ and honor His Word. For the earth will be filled with knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. Therefore, let’s start living for Christ in all areas of life now. The world will tell us such a mission is foolish, but we ought to stand firm and choose to nullify all that is contrary to Christ’s lordship.