David Lipscomb on Voting

To vote or not to vote?

I go back and forth with this in my mind. In my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, David Lipscomb (1831-1917) was the leader who articulated the view that Christians should not vote. (Incidentally, I taught for a year at Lipscomb University in Nashville. A shout out to any Bison readers!)

Why did Lipscomb object to voting? According to Lipscomb voting is a form of force and, thus, a form of violence. More, voting embroils the church in the conflict between the political parties. That is, the sight of Republican Christians fighting against Democratic Christians is a vision antithetical to the Kingdom of God.

Lipscomb wrote:
[T]o vote or use the civil power is to use force and carnal weapons. Christians cannot use these. To do so is to do evil that good may come. This is specially forbidden to Christians. To do so is to fight God’s battles with the weapons of the evil one. To do so is to distrust God. The effective way for Christians to promote morality in a community, is, to stand aloof from the political strifes and conflicts, and maintain a pure and true faith in God, which is the only basis of true morality, and is as a leaven in society, to keep alive an active sense of right. To go into political strife is to admit the leaven of evil into the church. For the church to remain in the world and yet keep itself free from the spirit of the world, is to keep alive an active leaven of morality in the world. If that leaven loses its leaven, wherewith shall the world be leavened? or if the salt lose its savor wherewith shall the earth be salted or saved? God has told his children to use the spiritual weapons, has warned them against appealing to the sword or force to maintain his kingdom or to promote the honor of God and the good of man. When they do as he directs them, and use his appointments, he is with them to fight their battles for them and to give them the victory. When they turn from his appointments to the human kingdoms and their weapons, they turn from God, reject his help, drive him out of the conflict and fight the battles for man’s deliverance with their own strength and by their own wisdom. Human government is the sum of human wisdom and the aggregation of human strength. God’s kingdom is the consummation of Divine wisdom and in it dwells the power of God.
Incidentally, as you can surmise, Lipscomb was also a pacifist. When I discuss, from time to time, the pacifist and anarchist roots in the Churches of Christ I'm mainly pointing to Lipscomb and those influenced by him.

May the voice of David Lipscomb be recovered and increase in the Churches of Christ.

Our churches need him.

Courtesy of Church of Christ historian John Mark Hicks, another great David Lipscomb take on voting:
[V]oting does much more harm to the church than dancing does. 
One can only assume that David Lipscomb never saw Footloose...

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55 thoughts on “David Lipscomb on Voting”

  1. That'd be swell. For a variety of reasons (including my pacifism) I don't vote anymore, and it's frustrating to be treated like an idiot over that decision.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I go back and forth about voting as well. The process seems to produce more evil behavior among Christian than many other activities or processes. It does appear  that there is a lack of trust in God, when we see our brothers and sisters trusting so much in a faulty process. We need to trust more in Him, not in men that call us to trust in them.

  3. I feel the same thing. I think if a Christian does vote it should almost be in a perfunctory way, with little agitation or affect and with great love extended to all political "enemies." And that if you can't do that you shouldn't vote as voting would be spiritually and morally damaging to your soul and the church.

    That's the part that needs discernment. The amount of spiritual damage you do to yourself and the Kingdom in going to the polls.

  4. To advocate that people of faith should disenfranchise themselves appalls me. To equate the participation in civil society as violence itself does violence to the notion of community. I think one may productively discuss HOW to participate, but to advocate complete withdrawal seems both irresponsible and ungenerous.

  5. Perhaps, but this stance has a rich history and legacy in the Christian faith. One well worth listening to, in my opinion, if only to temper our national and ideological drunkenness.

  6. The words are nice and definitely well meaning.  But they amount to a denial of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and that civil power is not held accountable to him.  Also, it assumes that the church is some holy, special sphere untainted by the reality of sin and the only place where Jesus Christ is present.  Such a cosmology does not square with the witness of the New Testament.  God calls us into the mess of the voting booth.

  7. An interesting theory, and there is something to be said I suppose for sitting on the front porch feeling good about one's self while lesser sorts do the field work, getting themselves all dirty as advocates and voters.

  8. Lipscomb would say that the church at the polls is not the mechanism of accountability for civil power --- holy living is.  The untainted special sphere, if it's an outcome of Lipscomb's thinking at all, isn't present in this text.

  9. Lipscomb isn't criticizing participation in civil society, but voting.  He plainly says that Christians must participate in society, but not through the violence of the state.

  10. "sitting on the front porch feeling good about one's self"

    That's bullshit.

    As I said at the top of the post, I go back and forth on this, for just these sorts of reasons. Participate as a thoughtful adult, Frank, or shut up.

  11. Well, I voted early in the upcoming election, and since I picked 15 or so losers in zero close races, I won't worry that I exercised violence against my neighbors. ;-)

  12. The adversarial nature of campaigning, deciding, and voting is one evil, but Lipscomb would seem here to be opposed altogether to harnessing the violence of the state for divine ends.

    If your definition of violent evil is narrow enough, then you can believe in using the state to achieve divine ends, but I think that's tricky.

  13. I've heard this argument quoted from Lipscomb for some time now. I've yet to hear any compelling (to me) reason WHY voting is to "use force". This seems a huge jump in logic that I cannot follow. Help me understand why someone would think that voting could be considered violence.

    Also, doesn't DL say voting AND "use of civil power". This seems to preclude any form of governmental involvement. Speaking at a city council meeting, picketing, signing petitions, community organizing or any other non-violent political action are, still, acts of political power. It seems as if Lipscomb considered all political involvement, all acts of citizenship (other than benefitting from the right of citizenship) to be acts of violence.

  14. And to clarify, I do think you're right in calling out a sector of Christians who do adopt positions and then feel smug and self-righteous. So that's an important point worth making.

    My flare up was that I felt, perhaps unjustly so, folded into that group. Because for my part, I don't feel self-righteous about much.

    I tend to feel like a sinner no matter what I do. It's my own personal version of Original Sin: You're basically screwed no matter what you do (or don't do). So muddle through with kindness.

  15. I think he goes go that far, though I don't know Lipscomb all that well. I've heard him described as an anarchist.

    Regarding your point about logic, that's the central question: what is the logical connection between voting and force, particularly in a democracy? Because on first blush, it seems that if you vote and lose it is an act of yielding, forgoing force.

  16. While I understand the notion that political parties can become religions unto themselves and that "politics" is often, with good reason, a dirty word....but if you equate voting with violence, with coercion, how do you draw the line between any involvement in your environment and inappropriate violence? 

    I'm not sure how different voting is from only buying fair trade goods, or some similar economic action.  How does a figure like Martin Luther King Jr. fit into this?  How does talking to a neighbor about faith or about moral issues figure into this.  Aren't these economic or social coercion?

    I'm asking this sincerely because I generally am right with you on most things - but this one doesn't initially make sense.

    Again, the currently political polarization is terrible, and the cynical way that the parties try to co-opt certain denominations is no good.  But I feel that's a specific problem, and a general injunction against voting seems a broad solution.

  17. Whether dancing, mixed-bathing, drinking, or voting, my knee-jerk reaction is to rebel against such absolute prohibitions on behavior put forth by Church of Christ people that don't have an explicit precedent in the Bible (e.g. murder, lying, adultery, etc...).  It strikes me as nothing more than a slippery slope argument that ignores individual motives and comes across as Pharisaical legalism.

    That said, Lipscomb's opinion raises a valid concern of relying on politics and government (a principality and power) to fight perceived immorality rather than simply living moral lives.  Whether we wish government would redistribute wealth to ease poverty or wish that government would impose sexual morality on the citizenry, it helps reduce our feeling of personal responsibility to go out and be a light to our small part of the world.

  18. First of all, Footloose is awesome. Second: 

    We have now come to the fairly general conclusion that there is no "Christian" economic or political system. But there is a Christian attitude toward all systems and schemes of justice. It consists on the one hand of a critical attitude toward the claims of all systems and schemes, expressed in the question whether they will contribute to justice in a concrete situation; and on the other hand a responsible attitude, which will not pretend to be God nor refuse to make a decision between political answers to a problem because each answer is discovered to contain a moral ambiguity in God's sight. We are men [and women], not God; we are responsible for making choices between greater and lesser evils, even when our Christian faith, illuminating the human scene, makes it quite apparent that there is no pure good in history; and probably no pure evil either. The fate of civilizations may depend upon these choices between systems of which some are more, others less, just.-Reinhold, just after the horrors of WWII in Europe were really becoming evidentHugs and kisses, Chris Dowdy

  19. I don't vote because my vote is designed to choose your ruler for you as well as for me.  While I have every right to choose my own leaders, I have no right to choose the leader for anyone else. Voting is a form of violence.  Most people vote because it makes them feel good, not because they actually are capable of making a difference.

  20. Thanks for the post, Richard. Between this and your pledge of allegiance discussion you've got me coming around to the idea that the proper role of a Christian in a democracy is a lot more complicated than I first assumed...

  21. I would think that, for a pacifist like Lipscomb (and I have a degree from his University and I still don't know him all that well), voting and uses of civil power are the best option for social change for a pacifist.  That is, organizing, voting, and civic participation are all non-violent ways to bring about justice and change.  Politics or war, right?

    I was pretty anti-government, anti-institutional and anti-politics until I had a child. Then I could not justify my inaction.  Eventually, I became a organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, and learned how to build the very civic power Lipscomb criticizes. For me, I saw voting and organizing as the best way to actually achieve justice on a real, tangible scale. By organizing citizens (and by citizen, I mean anyone, documented or not-documented who live in the polis) to advocate for their interests and the change they needed in their communities, I was able to truly be apart of social change. The injustice in our communities is systemic. Governmental policies and governmental persons are responsible, and changing these these policies and people can be the only way to change the injustice.

    I sort of fall on the opposite side of Lipscomb, then--Bizarro Lipscomb. Not voting and not participating could, in fact, be considered an act of violence, because by not participating we give up the very best non-violent tool we have to actually bring about mercy, justice and love in our communities.

  22. Richard, any personal attacks aside, I wonder if you missed the real complaint here about a certain sort of "separatist" virtue.

    It's not just that any position (including voting) can be held self-righteously; it's that non-engagement is almost always less "dirty" than engagement, and appeals to those of us who are more interested in feeling "clean" than in doing good. (I'll include myself in this group--self-righteous or not, I do a lot of porch-sitting for fear of being too pushy.)

  23. Similarly, rendering taxes unto Caesar is no less a form of complicity with mechanisms of civil power.  I assume you haven't been paying yours...right?

  24. Agreed. My pushback, personal and general, is that there is a legitimate question of political theology in play here but we can't get to that if we start to question people motives, calling people "self-righteous" isn't helpful. Maybe they are (who isn't?), but that doesn't resolve the theological issue. So let's keep our eye on the...Squirrel!...er...ball.

  25. There's a logic to that, but then you are letting someone else choose a leader for you - and for everyone else.  If you are a pacifist and will not use violence to protect yourself or someone else from, say, a beating -- then that's consistent.  Not my choice, but I get that it's consistent.

  26. Lipscomb wrote; “To go into political strife is to admit the leaven of evil into the church.”  Sorry, but this happens when you allow people in. There seems to be an unbiblical Gnosticism in Lipscomb’s thinking as if believers cannot participate in matters physical and must remain in pristine spiritual realms. Lipscomb wrote; ““[T]o vote or use the civil power is to use force and carnal weapons. Christians cannot use these.”  So, Christians cannot be policemen, parents, athletes, school teachers, public servants or any role that involves legitimate discipline, force or authority.  

  27. Maybe the advice Paul gave to the believers in Rome can be applied to the issue of voting. They too were being divided over what were in essence non essential issues-(Romans 14) 'For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking (or voting), but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.' & ' everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind' & 'let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification' Perhaps it's not whether we vote or not but rather how we react to our brothers and sisters choices that enlarge or shrink the boundaries of the kingdom?

  28. Richard, here you strike upon something that gives me great concern. Voting *for* one side in hostility *against* another side. I'm saddened by the mimetic hatred in the current system. I don't want to add fuel to that fire. So, yes, discernment, and showing great, radical love to all.  

  29. Arguably, voting is violence in that you are expressing support for someone doing violence to others in your name, by your leave, or as your representative. Abduction  theft, and killing are all cornerstones of any state. Even when those things are usually done with good intentions for pragmatically useful reasons (such as imprisoning someone for drug use, taxing someone to pay for a new trail, killing a civilian as part of a drone strike on terrorists), they are still initiating force against someone. 

    And that's just a reason for someone who believes in non-aggression. Non-retaliation, or non-violence, would take that even further, refusing to ask for even real criminals (those who've already initiated violence) to be harmed in one's own name, but, instead to be willing to suffer for the sake of loving enemies.One could make an argument that voting is _not_ violence if one is voting on a referendum/proposal/etc. that reduces or removes some of the above. Or if voting for a candidate who would never extend any such policies, and would fight to reduce them. I've never seen such a candidate, though. (though you may argue that some come close)___I also want to add that this thread has had several instances of conflating pacifism with passivity. Again, not being violent (or, _supporting others to be violent on your behalf_) doesn't mean all other options are off the table. The challenge, as Christians, is to learn how to defeat social & economic evils through love and self-sacrifice, instead of outsourcing and other-sacrifice.

  30. I should also add that votes such as:

    None of the Above

    etc. could also all be considered non-violent, in that they are protest votes, wherein your assertion doesn't grant anyone authority to harm anyone else.

  31. As much as I admire the anabaptists on many things, I do find this argument seriously weird. (Admittedly I also live in a country where voting in elections is compulsory, which I tend to think of that as a *good* thing – it saves a lot of money on "getting out the vote", it restricts the ability of those in power to further disenfranchise vulnerable and marginalised people, and has tended to lead towards better voting processes though not necessarily better voter education.)

    Seriously, though, voting, one small part in the armoury of citizens holding civil power to account, is an illegitimate use of civil power that can be equated to violence and "doing evil"? 

    Richard, I agree with your comment about "voting lightly", but to take it to Lipscomb's extreme seems absurd to me.

  32. It seems worth noting that in Lipscomb's lifetime, violence in and
    around voting stations in America was pretty common. This led to a series of
    reforms we now take for granted, including the secret ballot. I don't know if he'd see things differently now, but that surely influenced the perception that violence haunts the act of voting.

  33. Yes, but the point is that there really is no coin. Essentially, there are more sides than two.

  34. Lipscomb's argument is consistant as long as you accept that voting is a direct act of violence. The issue is I have trouble accepting that. Now I understand that politics can cause strife and discord among christians and provide opportunities for social violence  but how does voting inherently equate to violence? I agree with some of the sentiment of Lipscomb. Jesus says not to put your trust in the romans, but rather ask God for what you need and God expects his people's leaders to adopt a general 'trust God' leadership style but there is still active leadership.

    I have to pushback against DL a bit based on passages like Romans 13 and Jeremiah 29. Also, Daniel the prophet was a politician in Babylon and God very clearly put him there. Also roman infrastructure was very convenient for the spread of the early church and Paul used his "I'm a roman" card several times.

    Can anyone reconcile this with Lipscomb's assertions?

  35. Today someone mentioned how timely this post was. Apparently, tomorrow is an election day. Who knew?

  36.  I wonder if there are good reasons not to vote that are more specific to the current situation. In other words, Lipscomb's argument appears to be binding for all times. People can take it or leave it. But, could not voting be the best way to engage politically (assuming not voting doesn't mean disengagement from society) considering the crappy state affairs in the system in general? When campaign finance reform is never talked about, and the campaign finance situation is an atrocity, is not a vote a sign of support for a broken system? One of the reasons I am not voting is because I don't want to contribute to a system that is fundamentally about securing power for special interests. Plus, $6 billion for campaigning? What happened to all the talk about fiscal responsibility? So, arguments like Lipscomb's aside, how do we responsibly engage politically in a system where the only people who have the power to create campaign finance reform are the ones benefiting from not having campaign finance reform? People often say we should vote so our voice will be heard. But, ironically, voting actually supports a system that seems to silence your voice through the power of special interests.
    And while I am not voting, I too am restless about it.

  37. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-iQldPiH64&list=PL1C2239325A8705F7&index=57&feature=plpp_video 

    I’m quite ignorant of Lipscomb and the history of the C of C I’m sorry to say but his argument is full of wisdom and quite sound even if not ultimately persuasive.  Now I don’t want to open up even more cans of worms but apropos the comment above, what Kevin said about coin tossing, got me thinking about the movie (and novel) “No Country For Old Men.”   This coin tossing scene in the video, one of many, is at the end of a movie that constantly provokes us to ask:  What is freedom, do we have real choices, is life determined by chance, does my death have any meaning, and where is god in this fu%&ked up world?  Earlier in the novel McCarthy writes:  

     "...anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldn't even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don't pay attention. And then one day there's an accounting.  An after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. Its just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, its just a coin. Yes. That's true. Is it?” (No Country For Old Men p. 57).  

    Maybe the decision to vote or not to vote will be clearer after we first answer the questions: will there be an accounting?  Is what I do, who I am?  Whose instrument am I?


  38. Derran, I appreciate your thoughts and agree wholeheartedly with your critique. But I proudly early-voted, and will be sitting on pins and needles all day tomorrow while the rest of the voters vote.

    I do not think that "not voting" is an appropriate protest to the broken system. Acts of protest, in general, I believe are inappropriate responses to the problems being protested. Protest does very little to change anything. It makes one feel good about standing up for the right thing, but beyond that, nothing changes.  Some are advocating we Vote for Jesus as a form of protest.  Even if a bunch of folks vote for Jesus, this will still have no effect.  No statement will be heard because no one is listening, and what is being done is not enough to make them listen.  And regardless of how many people don't vote, the system stays the same and someone will still be elected. 

    The first fight for the change-agent is the fight for recognition. If people don't know you're upset about something, they won't care. If your protest is not heard, it's useless.

    The state of campaign finance did not happen overnight, and neither Romney or Obama are bad people for taking advantage of every opportunity available to them. If one did while the other didn't, the one who didn't would certainly lose. And what would that prove? The system was made the way it is today by elected officials changing the system through legislation while we watched (or weren't watching). And then, we reelected the same folks. Many complain now, but few did anything to stop it happening when it was happening. Thus, a lack of participation in politics caused the very problems one would protest by not voting.

    There are effective means to change the system. Vote, yes, but voting is only the first act of citizenship. Get into the fray of politics, talk with your neighbors, get involved in your local political party or community organization, help build a constituency for change, talk with your representatives, register voters, and build power. Power respects power, and a non-voter, non-political person has no power. It's hard work, but if we care about these things, then we should be willing to do the work needed to make the changes we want to see.

  39. I've always seen politics and the government as very similar to the one ring from LOTR. So many people think its power can be used for good and salvation, and hey, it might even allow you to beat back the forces of "evil secularization" but it can only ultimately replace it with another probably greater evil. Because in the end, it can only do evil.

  40. I do not necessarily agree with Lipscomb, but every law is backed up with violence. If I do not comply, I will be arrested. If I resist arrest more force will be used, and if I continue to resist force will be escalated until I submit or am killed.

  41. "That is, the sight of Republican Christians fighting against Democratic
    Christians is a vision antithetical to the Kingdom of God." Democrats are antithetical to the kingdom of God. There is no such thing as a Democrat Christian or a Democrat Jew. All Democrats are atheists, no matter what religion they pretend to be a part of.

  42. And the direct result is the destruction of society. How better to destroy society than for all the moral people to check out of the political process entirely. Lipscum is directly responsible for the homo takeover of the US.

  43. A few thoughts on the "reconciliation": To use one's earthly citizenship for the purposes of the Kingdom of God isn't the same as being a senator or hurting/killing others in a military, nationalistic effort.

    To say "Daniel was a politician" may be true in a limited sense, but a) that seems a little anachronistic, given our use of the term "politician" today, and b) that was in another time, another place.

    Romans 13 never once uses the same pronouns to refer both to government and to the believer. "He" or "it" or "they (3rd person) refer to government, whereas the 2nd person is the believer in this passage. The Christian's responsibilities include submission, obedience, and the like, but participation in the running of a government (or fighting in a military effort) doesn't appear among the expectations. On the surface, it would appear that, if God in some sense puts a government in place, it is to be thought of as an instrument of God. However, God can certainly continue to use things that are not under His aegis or subservient to His will. To say "God puts the government in power" doesn't necessitate my playing a role in it.

  44. I appreciate some of the wording here -- any position *can* be held self-righteously. However, non-engagement and non-participation in civil affairs is not necessarily self-righteously or smugly "I'm cleaner than you." That strikes me as a negative spin.

    I'd put it more like this, with an admittedly positive spin that may readily be supported by scripture-based principle and precedent: non-participation in civil affairs recognizes that the believer's primary citizenship is not in this world, and facilitates a deeper, broader focus on the goals of the pervasive rule/kingdom of God.

  45. Of course, Lipscomb is simply extending the views of Barton Stone, who articulated a similar pacifist, non-participatory stance. Campbell, though a consistent pacifist, did "allow" voting, though didn't seem too invested in pushing a "civic duty" of voting. Indeed, the Stonite vision was a the dominant Restorationist position up until WWII, and continued strongly among Churches of Christ in Britain even after that time.

  46. Late to the conversation, but so much needs to be clarified here, Brian.

    1) You assert without argument: "to use one's earthly citizenship...effort." which ties being a senator with "hurting/killing others in a military, nationalistic effort." Huge leap there which entirely sidesteps the points raised by Ben. In short, you are begging the question.

    2) You are being redundant with a) and b) and neither addresses Ben's assertion. Daniel was clearly a government bureaucrat who benefited from the structure of violence and taxation. Although he resisted certain temptations (rich food) he was, by and large, part of the Government structure. It is hard to envision an argument that makes his participation at that level appropriate and participation in simple voting not appropriate to a follower of Christ. one might be tempted to argue that Daniel was coerced, but for other issues he was willing to risk his life. Idolatry was different to him morally than participating in and benefiting from a corrupt "military, nationalistic effort" with personal integrity.

    3) The fact that Roman's doesn't necessitate participation is a far cry from asserting that Christ and the Holy Scriptures prohibit participation at any and all levels. Ben provided concrete evidence of where people who were Godly participated in government. Without a direct prohibition, your focus on Romans 13 fails to address his points.

    4) From a rhetorical standpoint, your assertion that "To say 'God puts the government in power' doesn't necessitate my playing a role in it." fails for the reasons noted in 3) but also fails because of it logical extension. The beauty of the way of Christ is that we are permitted to participate in what God is doing. We become the Body of Christ and we accomplish his mission in the world. The evidence of that mission is seen in things such as "the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have heard the good news." Obviously, the fact that God does these things doesn't necessitate my playing a role in it, but my life would be much the poorer (and I would arguably be outside his Kingdom) if I did not participate. Nothing in your assertions rule out such a response to participation in government.

    5) Finally, Ben raises a precise example where Paul "used the civil power" without any indication in the text support the assertion by Lipscomb's assertion that to do so is "to use force and carnal weapons. Christians cannot use these." Can you respond to this directly?

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