Morality vs. Civility


The voice from the church’s past. The article below was originally written by Alonzo T. Jones (a Seventh-day Adventist pioneer), published in The American Sentinel, April 1, 1888, Vol. 3, No. 4, prior to his argument before the US Senate Committee on Education and Labor against the Blair Education Amendment Bill. Herein, Jones lays out his argument against a union of Church and State, and draws a boundary between Morality and Civility, setting forth a lesson on how to approach Church and State relations. Many of the arguments presented here still have relevance to us in this day and age.

Morality, as defined by Webster, is “The relation of conformity or non-conformity to the true moral standard or rule; . . . the conformity of an act to the divine law.” The true moral standard is the law of God—the ten commandments. The keeping of the ten commandments is morality; the breaking of any one of them is immorality. The keeping of the ten commandments is righteousness; the breaking of any one of them is sin. This true moral standard takes cognizance of the thoughts and intents of the heart. To hate is murder; to covet is idolatry; to think impurely of a woman is adultery; and these things are immoral.

Morality or immorality lies in the heart; it pertains to the thoughts and intents of the heart; and with it the State can have nothing at all to do. The civil government has nothing to do with hatred, nor with covetousness, nor with impure thinking; yet all these things are immoral. A man may hate his neighbor all his life; he may covet everything on earth; he may think impurely of every woman that he sees; he may keep this up all his days, and the State will not touch him, nor has it any right to touch him.

It would be difficult to conceive of a more immoral person than such a man would be, yet the State cannot punish him. And this demonstrates our proposition, that ” with immorality the State can have nothing at all to do.” But only let that man’s hatred lead him to attempt to do an injury to his neighbor, and the State will punish him. Only let his covetousness lead him to lay hands on what is not his, in an attempt to steal, and the State will punish him. Only let his impure mind lead him to attempt violence to any woman, and the State will punish him. Yet bear in mind, the State does not punish him even then for his immorality, but for his incivility.

The State punishes no man because he is immoral, but because he is uncivil. It cannot punish, immorality; it must punish incivility. This distinction is shown in the very term by which we designate State or national government. It is called civil government; no person ever thinks of calling it moral government. The Government of God is the only moral Government. God is the only moral Governor. The law of God is the only moral law. To God alone pertains the punishment of immorality, which is the transgression of the moral law.

Governments of men are civil governments, not moral. Governors of men are civil governors, not moral governors. The laws of States and nations are civil laws, not moral. To the authorities of civil government, it pertains to punish incivility, not immorality. Thus, again it is demonstrated, that with immorality civil, governments can never of right have anything to do. On the other hand, as God is the only moral Governor; as his is the only moral Government; as his law is the only moral law; and as it pertains to him alone to punish immorality; so likewise the promotion of morality pertains to him alone.

Morality is conformity to the law of God; it is obedience to God. But obedience to God, must spring from the heart in sincerity and truth. This it must do, or it is not obedience; for, as we have proved by the word of God, the law of God takes cognizance of the thoughts and intents of the heart. But “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” By transgression all men have made themselves immoral. “Therefore, by the deeds of the law [by obedience] shall no flesh be justified [accounted righteous or made moral] in his sight.” Rom. 3: 20.

As all men have, by transgression of the law of God, made themselves immoral, therefore no man can, by obedience to the law, become moral; because it is that very law which declares him to be immoral. The demands, therefore, of the moral law, must be satisfied, before he can ever be accepted as moral by either the law or its Author. But the demands of the moral law can never be satisfied by an immoral person, and this is just what every person has made himself by transgression.

Therefore, it is certain that men can never become moral by the moral law. From this it is equally certain that if ever men shall be made moral, it must be by the Author and Source of all morality. And this is just the provision which God has made. For, “now the righteousness [the morality] of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness [the morality] of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned [made themselves immoral] and come short of the glory of God.” Rom. 3: 21-23.

It is by the morality of Christ alone that men can be made moral. And this morality of Christ is the morality of God, which is imputed to us for Christ’s sake; and we receive it by faith in him who is both the Author and Finisher of faith. Then by the Spirit of God the moral law is written anew in the heart and in the mind, sanctifying the soul unto obedience—unto morality. Thus, and thus alone, can men ever attain to morality; and that morality is the morality of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ; and there is no other in this world.

Therefore, as morality springs from God, and is planted in the heart by the Spirit of God, through faith in the Son of God, it is demonstrated by proofs of Holy Writ itself, that to God alone pertains the promotion of morality. God, then, being the sole promoter of morality, through what instrumentality does he work to promote morality in the world? What body has he made the conservator of morality in the world? The church or the civil power, which?—The church and the church alone.

It is “the church of the Living God.” It is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” It was to the church that he said, ” Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature;” “and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” It is by the church, through the preaching of Jesus Christ, that the gospel is “made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.” There is no obedience but the obedience of faith; there is no morality but the morality of faith. Therefore, it is proved that to the church, and not to the State, is committed the conservation of morality in the world.

This at once settles the question as to whether the State shall teach morality. The State can’t teach morality. It has not the credentials for it. The Spirit of God and the gospel of Christ are both essential to the teaching of morality, and neither of these is committed to the State, but both to the church. But though this work be committed to the church, even then there is not committed to the church the prerogative either to reward morality or to punish immorality.

She beseeches, she entreats, she persuades men to be reconciled to God; she tr
ains them in the principles and the practices of morality. It is hers by moral means or spiritual censures to preserve the purity and discipline of her membership. But hers it is not either to reward morality or to punish immorality. This pertains to God alone, because whether it be morality or immorality, it springs from the secret counsels of the heart; and as God alone knows the heart, he alone can measure either the merit or the guilt involved in any question of morals.

By this it is demonstrated that to no man, to no assembly or organization of men, does there belong any right whatever to punish immorality in any way. Whoever attempts it, usurps the prerogative of God. The Inquisition is the inevitable logic of any claim of any assembly of men to punish immorality. Because to punish immorality, it is necessary in some way to get at the thoughts and intents of the heart. The Papacy, asserting the right to compel men to be moral, and to punish them for immorality, had the cruel courage to carry the evil principle to its logical consequence.

In carrying out the principle, it was found to be essential to get at the secrets of men’s hearts; and it was found that the diligent application of torture would wring from men, in many cases, a full confession of the most secret counsels of their hearts. Hence the Inquisition was established as the means best adapted to secure the desired end. So long as men grant the proposition that it is within the province of civil government to enforce morality, it is to very little purpose that they condemn the Inquisition, for that tribunal is only the logical result of the proposition.

By all these evidences is established the plain, common-sense principle that to civil government pertains only that which the term itself implies—that which is civil. The purpose of civil government is civil and not moral. Its function is to preserve order in society, and to cause all its subjects to rest in assured safety by guarding them against all incivility. Morality belongs to God; civility belongs to the State. Morality must be rendered to God; civility, to the State. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”