Lesson 7 – The Civil Magistrate


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

Nomology: Lesson 7 – Of the Civil Magistrate
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2001, 2011, 2013

Lesson Index
God’s Appointment of Civil Authorities
The Duty of Civil Governments
Christians Serving in Positions of Civil Authority
The Relationship of the Church and the State
The Powers of the Civil Magistrate
Subjection to the Civil Magistrate’s Authority
Discussion topics

Westminster Confession of Faith 23

WCF 23:I. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers.

God’s appointment of Civil Authorities

God is the original authority over all other authorities. Since he is King over all of his creation, he alone has the power and right to designate others to oversee the various divisions of his universe. The Bible speaks of four basic divisions of authority. Each is to administer to bring order to matters assigned to him.

Authority in the home is entrusted to the husband of each family. Together with his wife they exercise authority over their children as parents (Colossians 3:19-21, Ephesians 5:22-6:4).

In the workplace the employers, business owners or masters are given the duty of being responsible leaders over their employees on the job. (Colossians 3:22-4:1, Ephesians 6:5-9).

In the church, authority is entrusted to the duly called and ordained Elders. They oversee the business of the church and the spiritual care of all its members (Acts 20:28-32, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9).

Authority in society is vested in civil governments. It is their duty to provide for civil order (Romans 13:1-7). It is their office, not their personal merit, or power to subjugate others, that is to be respected. God administers his kingship in human affairs by his appointed servants.

This chapter of the confession concerns itself with defining the area of God-appointed authority which rests with the civil magistrate. Its authority is secondary to the greater authority of God who is King of kings and Lord of lords. We must obey God rather than men when the two are in conflict.

Those who rule over a civil jurisdiction rule as agents of God. They answer to him and must submit to all of his laws as they carry out their duties. No government has the rightful authority to infringe upon the authorities given to other levels of leadership assigned in scripture in the home, work place, and church except where abuses of those endanger the civil order.

Observations from Romans 13:1-7
In this brief section of Scripture the Apostle Paul gives us a clear summary of the authority God places in civil leaders.

Romans 13:1, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”

All proper human authority is delegated by God himself. To disobey those he puts in charge is to disobey God himself. Everybody must be in subjection to their civil governors. There are no exceptions, not even for the Jews under Rome who looked upon them selves as a privileged people. They figured that since Rome was not honoring God, they didn’t have to honor Rome.

Their civil unrest soon caused all Jews to be expelled from Rome. Their bold rebellion finally brought about their final destruction in 70 AD when Rome destroyed Jerusalem, tore down the ancient Temple, and ended Jewish dominance in the region.

Their distorted hope was that the Messiah would come as a political revolutionary to overthrow the Empire putting the Jews in charge. Many Jews who came to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah brought those same ideas over into the church when they became Christians.

Some Gentile converts also thought that by coming to Christ they were released from civil duties. Even today some think that since leaders are corrupt they don’t have to honor them. But that is not what God’s word teaches.

Paul uses a very general term here. He called them governing authorities or higher powers. He didn’t just mean Rome, or the Sanhedrin of Jewish Elders. The Bible doesn’t prescribe a specific form of government or political system. Whether it is a monarchy, an empire, a republic, a social democracy, tribal elders, or a dictatorship, God uses the civil authorities for his own purposes even if they don’t recognize that what they are doing fits into God’s plan. God uses even our always imperfect and sometimes corrupt governments to maintain limits upon social behavior, and to ensure a common peace and safety for the sake of his own people.

All authority is from, and is established by, God
Charles Hodge puts it this way, “All human power is delegated and ministerial.”

Human authority does not come from the consent of the people, from social contracts, from traditions, or from the power of the military. It comes from God who sovereignly appoints every human to his place of power. Even the wicked King Jeroboam is said to have been appointed by God over the ten tribes.

When Paul wrote this passage, it was pagan Rome that ruled the civilized world. Some Emperors came to power by violence, some by the vote of the senate, some by the power of an army, and some were illegal successors to the throne. It should be remembered that no Roman Caesar honored Christ or the Scriptures as God’s law at that time. Yet Paul could say that all existing governing authorities are established by God.

God establishes different governments to accomplish different purposes. The civil leaders may be a blessing or a curse. They may bring honor or dishonor. But always they receive their power to rule by God’s wise providence which always advances his program.

Often wicked governors are appointed by God as a just reward for rebellion, and sometimes to execute his temporal judgments. He raised up Babylon to judge wicked Israel. He raised up the Pharaoh of Egypt to reveal his power to deliver his people and to display his holiness in judgment. God explained the rule of Pharaoh saying in Exodus 9:16, “… indeed, for this cause I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power, and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth.”

Dr. Robert Haldane wisely said, “No tyrant ever seized power till God gave it him.”

The Bible is filled with absolutely clear statements of that fact. For example, the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 75:7, “But God is the Judge; He puts down one, and exalts another.”

Even the sufferings of societies justly show us God’s Kingship. Daniel, writing from captivity said,

Daniel 4:17, “This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers, And the decision is a command of the holy ones, In order that the living may know that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes, And sets over it the lowliest of men.”

The prophet Jeremiah records what God himself said in Jeremiah 27:5, “I have made the earth, the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and I will give it to the one who is pleasing in My sight.”

We should keep this in mind even while we pray for believers undergoing persecutions. Sometimes the church has defied rightful government and brought God’s wrath upon them. Dr. Haldane warns, “When the ignorance of God’s people is punished for any offense against the government of their country, their chastisement should be looked on as a chastisement from God”

There is one biblical limit: we ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). If governing authorities overstep their delegated boundaries to force us to defy God, we are duty bound to respectfully disobey.

There is a grave danger that comes from insubordination to governing authorities:

Romans 13:2, “Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”

Since God in his providence appoints every one who is in civil power, good or evil, then to resist that authority is to resist God. Such behavior deserves to be condemned.

It is very serious when we break a civil law. The danger is not just that we may get caught by police, fined, or put in jail. It’s not that our reputation might be damaged, or that our social status might be brought down. It’s that breaking civil law is disobedience against the ordinance of God.

It is so easy to get discouraged about government corruption when we lose sight of this. No matter who wins an election, or what disgraces are done by our leaders, or what turmoil and damage their rule might bring about, we need to remember what the Bible says:

Proverbs 21:1 “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.”

Psalm 9:20 “Put them in fear, O Lord; let the nations know that they are but men.”

As pagan King Nebuchadnezzar confessed, “the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes, and sets over it the lowliest of men.” (Daniel 4:17)

This passage in Romans puts an awesome price upon rebellion against civil authorities acting within the boundaries set for them in God’s word. It tells us that it brings God’s condemnation. As startling as this may seem, even evil governments serve God’s purpose. No human government is ever perfect. They all enforce some wrong laws. There is no greater abuse of authority imaginable, than the crucifying of Jesus Christ. The Roman authorities and the Jewish elder/priests put to death the one who appointed them. Hellenistic paganism was a state religion. The Roman Empire was oppressive to God’s people. The Jews, even the faithful ones, were restricted by its intrusive laws. The early church became its target too. After Nero, many were tortured and put to death.

Yet it was to this oppressive Empire of lustful, egocentric pagan rulers that Paul called his readers to obey in the civil realm. He commands this even though Rome would soon jail him, and later it is believed that they execute him. This totalitarian state of Rome was to be honored and obeyed as God’s appointed servant as to their civil authority.

God still uses even such imperfect states to restrict evil to the degree that it serves his purposes. It protects against the outbreak of total chaos, mass murders, and lootings. It restrains large scale brutality against the church, the taking of its property, the killing and defiling of its people. Even the imperfect courts limit the flow of oppression though often motivated by political power and personal greed.

Sometimes the corruptions show God’s people their own failures, and provoke them to obedience. In times of martyrdom the church often grew in strength, though its numbers were diminished. God used not only Rome, but also Egypt, Babylon, Syria, Canaan, Midia, Philistia, and many more.

But God’s people under oppression are not to work to overthrow or to provoke disobedience against that which was instituted by the authority of God.

Even in captivity under Babylon, the captured Jews were told to pray for the cities. Jeremiah 29:7, “And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”

The duty of civil governments is plain in God’s word:

Romans 13:3-4, “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; For it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.”

Since civil leaders are ministers of God for good there should be no fear to those who obey their laws. But those who do evil, who defy the laws God gave them authority to make and enforce, have reason for fear, not just a fear of jail or fines, but also and more so a fear of God’s wrath.

The word here for “minister” which is applied here to civil magistrates is the Greek word diakonos (διακονος). It is the same word meaning “servant” that is used for the office of Deacons in the church.

Government’s job is to administer good in the civil sphere, and to keep the civil order for all who obey the civil laws. It is to preserve our creation rights of life, work, ownership, marriage and family, and liberty of conscience to obey God. They do not bear the sword in vain, that is, they do not have the power of the sword entrusted to them for no purpose, for nothing.

Governments have a right to use physical force against criminals. Bearing the sword is most often connected with the execution of capital punishment. It is not murder when the state executes a properly convicted murderer. God’s word makes that a capital crime because of the absolute dignity of human life. This is how God ordains to carry out his wrath in this world.

So government, through its courts under the limits of due process and the laws of evidence are the only rightful avengers in society. No one may take the law into his own hands.

Even the Apostle Paul when under arrest agreed with that principle as it applied to his own case,

Acts 25:11, “If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.”

The result is an absolute moral duty on us all as Christian citizens,

Romans 13:5, “Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.”

Our subjection is mandated here. Peter had learned this lesson since that impetuous moment in Gethsemane when he drew his sword. Later he wrote to the church,

1 Peter 2:13-17, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution: whether to a king as the one in authority; or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.”

Later Paul wrote to Titus saying in Titus 3:1, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed…”

If we think some laws are unwise, we can work to change them. But like it or not, we must obey them exactly as long as they don’t require us to sin.

Government has specific areas of proper God-given authority. They are to ensure public safety and to preserve life and property. For example, they enact laws against: robbery, theft, assault, murder, rape, incest, and perjury. For safety against irresponsible citizens they regulate traffic with speed laws, and they license drivers.

Governments are to provide for the national defense. For example they may prosecute people for: treason, aggression, terrorism, or espionage. They might use the military to protect us against evil aggression from other nations. Just as personal self-defense is justified, so also international self-defense is honorable in God’s eyes.

But government may not intrude upon the rightful authority God gives to others. They cannot do the work of Elders to control church membership, worship, or doctrine. They cannot do the work of parents to take over their children’s education and discipline. They cannot do the work of masters to take over industry or businesses. Sadly, today we see many in government trying to do just that. But abuses do not free us to disregard the rightful authority God puts over us.

If government is invasive, perhaps it is God’s judgment upon us who have neglected our own responsibilities in raising our children, being irresponsible citizens, caring for our employees, or in not respecting the boundaries set for church authority.

No society is so perfect that it can be certain that the immorality and corruption of its civil leaders is not to some degree a judgment of God.

We are to be in subjection for wrath and conscience sake. Not only so that we can avoid judicial wrath when we break rightful laws, but also so that our conscience is clear from disregarding the delegation of authority by God himself.

Government must be provided for so that it can do its work effectively:

Romans 13:6-7, “For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”

Government has a right to collect reasonable taxes. God says that is their due so that they can carry out their duties of law enforcement and defense. Sadly taxes often go to pay for many things beyond those biblical responsibilities. Biblical examples of how God directed his people to impose taxes include a head tax on each citizen and their property. Taxes upon income and death infringe upon other clear biblical principles. Taxes are also sometimes used for things that are in themselves evil, just as they were in ancient Rome. But Paul says we are to pay nevertheless. And Jesus himself said in Mark 12:17, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”

Taxation is not a simple matter. But corrupt governments are held responsible to God for those abuses, not the citizens. This means we shouldn’t cheat or withhold taxes just because we believe they are wrong. We can work within the laws to change them, but we do not have the right to openly and defiantly disobey.

Custom must also be paid. These are duties on imports and exports of items or services which are sold.

We are to render these payments in humble respect. This should be done in fear of the awesome power God has entrusted to our leaders, and with the honor due to the office itself which they hold by God’s providential appointment.

We have a special duty that should be obeyed every day toward those in civil authority. We are to pray for them. Paul wrote to Timothy reminding him,

1 Timothy 2:1-2, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, For kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.”

The police, the sheriff’s deputies, the mayors, governors, congressmen, the president, and all those in civil authority represent the kingship of God on earth. To disobey or to dishonor them is to defy God and to call down his judgment. The church must instruct the public to know these limits.

Christians Serving in Positions of Civil Authority

WCF 23:II. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.

As we work to bring Christ’s lordship into every area of life, committed and talented believers ought to get into government work. We need statesmen of integrity and principle rather than mere politicians.

It is lawful for Christians to accept and to execute the duties of a magistrate when called to civil office. Who is better qualified to maintain the godly conditions described in this paragraph of our Confession? Those who love God’s word and who are regenerated to spiritual life by the power of the Holy Spirit have a foundation for civil rule which would be a great benefit to society.

The Relationship of the Church and the State

Westminster Confession of Faith 23:3
When the American Presbyterians organized into their own presbyteries, synods, and a General Assembly, many of the Elders and Pastors could not in good conscience subscribe to some of the statements in the original confession regarding the powers of the King over the administration of duties God entrusted particularly to the church.

The original Confession was adopted but exceptions were permitted until the sections in question could be amended. This modified form is the one used today by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, and others.

Original Version of Chapter 23 (1648) The American Version of Chapter 23 (1788)
The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith.
yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.


The Powers of the Civil Magistrate

Areas forbidden to the civil magistrate
Since the Elders of the church are given oversight of the church, the civil government is forbidden from interfering in the administration of the Word and Sacraments, and in exercising the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven by which church members are added or removed and communicants are either admitted to or removed from the Lord’s Table.

The 1778 American Version of the Confession added that the civil magistrate may not, even in the least measure, interfere in matters of faith. This confirmed a rather clearly marked out separation of church and state. The separation is not one of isolation, but of distinct responsibilities and authority. This does not mean that the state cannot be religious and base it’s laws upon God’s word. It does not mean that the church can’t be political in advising governments concerning the absolute nature of the boundaries set by God’s word. It means that each has it’s own area of authority and responsibility and should not overstep those boundaries in carrying out it’s duties.

Areas assigned to the civil magistrate
This section of the Confession shows a great divergence between the original and the American versions. A little more detail might help in understanding:

In the 1648 version the state has the authority and duty to preserve the unity and peace of the church, to ensure that the truth of God is kept pure and entire, to suppress all blasphemies and heresies, to prevent or reform corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline, and to duly settle, administer and observe all the ordinances of God. To accomplish this oversight the civil magistrate may call church synods, be present at them, and make certain that the church council remains faithful to the mind of God.

The American churches struggled with this blending of the powers of the state with those given to the Elders in Scripture. The Synod of Philadelphia was organized by 17 ministers as the first American Presbyterian denomination in 1715. In 1729 an unanimously received Adopting Act recognized the Westminster Confession and its Catechisms as the confession of the churches. However, they permitted the Elders and Pastors to state their exceptions to the sections of the confession having to do with the powers of the Civil Magistrate. These included this third section of the Confession chapter 23, and section two of chapter 31 describing Synods and Councils.

Later, this conviction brought about an amendment to chapter 23 to conform to the conscience of those who did not believe that the Scriptures granted these powers to the state. The amended version was drawn up in 1788 and became the official confession of the church when the original Synod divided into four Synods and met as the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA in May of 1789.

The new version limited the role of the state toward the church. The civil magistrate was to protect the church without preference to any denomination, and without interfering in its internal spiritual powers. The state was to guarantee the freedom of the church to discharge its own authority without violence or danger. It was to provide for the safe assemblies of the church without molestation or disturbance.

Recommended reading:
William Hetherington, “History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines”
Morton H. Smith, “Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology”
George Gillespie, “Aaron’s Rod Blossoming” (Book 1)

Subjection to the Civil Magistrate’s Authority

WCF 23:IV. It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates , to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates’ just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted, much less hath the pope any power and jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and, least of all, to deprive them of their dominions, or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretense whatsoever.

The material in this section has been covered in our previous consideration of Romans 13:1-7 under the first section of these notes.

Discussion topics on WCF 23

1. Is there a place for civil disobedience by Christians when under the authority of a state which promotes laws contrary to the practices commanded in the word of God? If so, what are the limits of that disobedience?

2. Can revolutions against a civil magistrate ever be justified, or the forming of a new state by breaking ties with a former civil authority? How does this apply to the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence of 1776?

3. Should the first four of the Ten Commandments also be enforced by the Civil Government, or is its responsibility limited to the last six? On what Scriptural basis do you rest your position on this matter?

4. Was there a separation of powers and authority evidenced in the state of Israel under the laws of Moses?

[Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.]

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