Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021

The Christian and the Civil Magistrate

The Covid pandemic has demonstrated weaknesses in thinking of many pastors in the evangelical and Reformed community regarding classical Reformed teaching on church-state relations. This article examines the biblical doctrine of church and state along with key insights from the church fathers, Luther and dominant Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We are reminded that church and state have a different jurisdiction and purpose and that God intends that they work together in mutual appreciation and submission to one another. Submission to civil government is not absolute, but we must also recognise that there are limits to our religious liberty. Our church activities must not endanger the public safety. The position that is largely forgotten in the present Covid crisis is that Reformed theology has always maintained that although the civil magistrate does not have a “right in sacred things” (ius in sacra), he does have a “right around sacred things” (ius circa sacra) and may therefore temporarily forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence in the interest of saving human life.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Jesus here mandates that we must give to Caesar what is his due, our obedience and even the taxes that are owed to him. We must also give to the Lord our God what belongs to him: our ultimate love and obedience. The apostle Peter reiterates the same position – we are to “fear God” and “honour the king” (1 Pet 2:17).

I. Ecclesiastical and Civil Government

Our Lord’s command reminds us that God has placed every believer under two kinds of government, ecclesiastical and political. John Calvin put it this way: “There is a two-fold government in man: one is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained.” Church government focuses upon “the life of the soul”, while civil government has to do with “the concerns of the present life”.[1] Martin Luther spoke in a similar way:

God has ordained the two governments, the spiritual government which fashions true Christians and just persons through the Holy Spirit under Christ, and the secular government which holds the Unchristian and wicked in check and forces them to keep the peace outwardly and be still, like it or not.[2]

Philip Melanchthon likewise distinguished between ecclesiastical and civil magistrates in the first edition of his Loci Communes. Ecclesiastical magistrates have one fundamental responsibility, being “enjoined only to preach the Word of God”. The civil magistrate, conversely, “is one who bears the sword and watches over civil peace”.[3]

The same fundamental ideas are reflected in the ancient church and in the time after the Reformation. The church father John Chrysostom affirmed, “The king” is “entrusted with the care of our bodies, the priest with our souls”. “The king”, he said, “may remit our financial debts, the priest remits our moral debts”. Furthermore, “the one uses coercion, the other persuasion. The one bears weapons that may be seen and felt, the other bears weapons of the spirit”.[4] James Thornwell, the nineteenth-century Reformed theologian from South Carolina, likewise stated, “The State aims at social order; the Church at spiritual holiness. The State looks to the visible and outward; the Church is concerned for the invisible and inward.” Thornwell in this connection distinguished between the respective symbols of church and state. “The badge of the State’s authority”, he said,

is the sword, by which it becomes a terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well. The badge of the Church’s authority is the keys, by which it opens and shuts the kingdom of Heaven, according as men are believing or impenitent.[5]

Although church and state have a different jurisdiction and purpose, God intends that they work together in mutual appreciation and submission to one another. There ought to be a spirit of constructive collaboration between them. This was the point made by Gelasius, the bishop of Rome, as he addressed Anastasius, the Byzantine emperor. He reminded the emperor of his responsibility: “You submit devoutly to those who are preeminent in God’s work… learning… to be subordinate in religious matters.” “You know”, he wrote, “that you should depend upon their judgment in such questions.” Submission, though, between church and state was not a one-sided thing. Gelasius acknowledged that the pastors of the church must likewise assume a posture of humility in their relationship to the state. “Even the masters of religion”, he affirmed,

conscious that divine providence has conferred the empire upon you, obey your laws as public discipline requires, lest they should seem to obstruct the judgment you pronounce even in trivialities.[6]

II. Fundamental Biblical Perspectives on the State

Our thinking about civil government must be grounded in the teaching of Holy Scripture. The apostles provide significant instruction, much of it rooted in the Old Testament, that must guide our thinking on the topic of government. We are taught in the first place that the authorities that come into political power do not do so by accident. Paul declares, “There is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom 13:1). Daniel 4:17 states, “The Most High rules in the kingdom of men, gives it to whomever he will, and sets over it the lowest of men.” Augustine recognised that there are times when God is pleased to place Christians in political power. He contended that such occurrences cause much happiness in the Christian community:

As for those who are endowed with true piety and who lead a godly life, if they are skilled in the art of government, then there is no happier situation for mankind than that they, by God’s mercy, should wield power.[7]

Augustine, though, realised that ultimate happiness is not to be found here in this world. He argued that justice is not to be found at any level in the City of Man, for there are problems in the home, in the city and in the world. “True justice”, he maintained, “is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ.”[8]

Luther, likewise, was realistic in what we can expect from the political arena. “You should know,” he said, “that a prudent prince has been a rare bird in the world since the beginning of time, and a just prince an even rarer one.” He insisted further, “As a rule, princes are the greatest fools or the worst criminals on earth.” However, Luther acknowledged that this was not always the case: “If a prince should happen to be prudent, just or a Christian, then that is one of the greatest miracles and a most precious sign of divine favour on the land.”[9] Our political authorities may be wise and good, or they may be fools and evil. In either case, God has allowed them to rise to power. The prophet Daniel addressed the tyrant Nebuchadnezzar with these words:

You, O king, are a king of kings. For the God of heaven has given you a kingdom, power, strength, and glory; and wherever the children of men dwell, or the beasts of the field and the birds of heaven, he has given them into your hand, and has made you ruler over them all (Dan. 2:37-38).

The fundamental purpose of government is likewise addressed in apostolic doctrine. Paul states, “He is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practises evil” (Rom 13:4). Peter takes the same position regarding the administration of justice against evil men, but he adds another feature as he writes about the Roman emperor and the provincial governors who are appointed by him. The governors, he maintains, are sent by him “for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Pet 2:13-14). Political authority is also to honour people who have been model citizens; praise should be given to those who do good.

There is the recognition among the church fathers in continuity with apostolic doctrine that the civil magistrate bears the sword for the purpose of exercising capital punishment and for the purpose of waging war. Clement of Alexandria referred to people who are “running to extremes of wickedness and to all appearances” seem “beyond cure”. What is to be the response of government to this? He answered, “In its care that others should not be corrupted, it takes the course most conducive to health and puts him to death, like an amputation performed upon the body politic.”[10] Origen maintained that war per se is not necessarily wrong. He wrote, “While others fight, Christians should be fighting as priests and worshippers of God, keeping their hands pure and by their prayers to God striving for those who fight in a righteous cause.”[11]

Augustine, in particular, moved the thinking of the church in a biblical direction on the subject of war. He argued that “the natural order which seeks the peace of mankind, ordains that the monarch should have the power of undertaking wars if he thinks it advisable”.[12] Luther reflected the Augustinian view and drew attention to the necessity of a just war. He wrote,

When I think of a soldier fulfilling his office by punishing the wicked, killing the wicked, and creating so much misery, it seems an un-Christian work completely contrary to Christian love.

From another perspective, though, it is a work of righteousness. Luther reflected upon how this is the case:

When I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honour and peace, then I see how precious and godly the work is; and I observe that it amputates a leg or hand, so that the whole body may not perish.[13]

The fundamental obligation of the Christian citizen toward civil government is set forth in Romans 13:1. Paul begins his discussion of political authority with this declaration: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.” This is a remarkable statement in view of the fact that the political authorities at the time were generally not friendly to the church. Nevertheless, the mandate is repeated in Romans 13:5: “You must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.” Luther made the point that there is a reason for these directives: “Even though rulers are wicked and unbelieving, yet is their governmental power good (in itself) and of God.”[14]

Our submission to the governing authorities impacts our finances: “You also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers” (Rom 13:6). The term leitourgos, “minister”, has a religious implication – even referring at times to priests. Christ himself as our high priest is a leitourgos in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 8:2). Perhaps this is one reason for Calvin’s statement that “civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life”.[15]

God demands the submission of the Christian to the authority of the civil magistrate, but there is more to it than our outwards actions. Peter lays down an obligation that reaches into our thoughts: “Honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1 Pet 2:17). What is the “first duty” of subjects toward their magistrates? It is, Calvin affirmed, “to think most honourably of their office”. “I am not discussing the men themselves”, he noted, “as if a mask of dignity covered foolishness, or sloth, or cruelty as well as wicked morals full of infamous deeds”. “But I say that the order itself is worthy of such honour and reverence.”[16]

Honour is one aspect of what God wants from the believer, but there is also our responsibility to pray. Paul states,

I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence (1 Tim 2:1-2).

Tertullian set forth a biblical position at this point:

Looking up to heaven the Christians – with hands outspread, because innocent, with head bare because we do not blush, yes! and without one to give the form of words, for we pray from the heart – we are ever making intercession for all the emperors.

He continued,

We pray for them long life, a secure rule, a safe home, brave armies, a faithful senate, an honest people, a quiet world – and everything for which a man and a Caesar can pray.[17]

Origen stated the same thing about prayers being offered for the emperors, but he also added that our prayers are “sent up as from priests on behalf of the people in our country”.[18]

Our prayers are directly related to the indispensable nature of civil government. Luther commented,

If there were [no law and government], then seeing that all the world is evil and that scarcely one human being in a thousand is a true Christian, people would devour each other and no one would be able to support his wife and children, feed himself and serve God.[19]

Chrysostom had spoken similarly a millennium earlier:

Innumerable benefits accrue to cities from their governments, and if you removed them everything would disappear: neither city nor region nor houses nor market nor anything else would remain in place, but everything would be topsy-turvy while the strong swallowed up the weak.

He went on in the same discourse to specify some of the benefits of government. We see this, he maintained, in their “providing defences, keeping enemies at bay, suppressing disruptive forces in political communities,” and in “affording a final resolution of all disputes”.[20]

III. Political Principles That We Need to Remember

The biblical command to submit ourselves to the authority of civil government does not mean that our political obedience is absolute, allowing of no exceptions. Scripture sets forth two exceptions with respect to our compliance with civil authority:

First. We must not obey if the government commands us to do that which is forbidden by God. The Egyptian pharaoh directed the midwives to kill the male infants born to the Hebrew women. We read that they refused to do so: “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.” Their civil disobedience brought the blessing of God upon them (Exod 1:15-17, 20-21).

Second. We must not obey if the government forbids us to do what God commands us to do. The Lord commanded the disciples that they were to bear witness to him in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and in all the earth (Acts 1:8). Their preaching was soon forbidden by the Jewish authorities: “They commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). The response of the apostles is instructive. They announced that they were going to listen to God and not the contrary human directive: “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

Our compliance with political authority is not absolute, but we need to remember that there are limits to our religious liberty. This is true even under the United States Constitution which has granted not merely religious toleration, but full religious liberty to all Americans. Philip Schaff, the renowned church historian of the nineteenth century, drew attention to the fact that religious liberty is not absolute:

The relationship of church and state in the United States secures full liberty of religious thought, speech, and action, within the limits of the public peace and order.

He added,

The state has nothing to do with the church except to protect her in her property and liberty; and the state must be equally just to all forms of belief and unbelief which do not endanger the public safety.[21]

Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, the famous eighteenth-century professor of juris-prudence at the University of Geneva, had made the same point in his book The Principles of Politic Law, published in 1751, three years after he died. Burlamaqui drew attention to the bizarre and dangerous activities that have arisen in religious communities throughout history:

The ideas which mankind imbibed of the Deity, have often misled them to the most preposterous forms of worship, and prompted them to sacrifice human victims.

He added, “They have even, from those false ideas, drawn arguments in justification of vice, cruelty, and licentiousness.” He then raised the question, “Since religion therefore has so much influence over the happiness or misery of society, who can doubt but it is subject to the direction of the sovereign?”[22]

Burlamaqui’s question leads us to consider the third principle that is deeply and widely imbedded in Reformed teaching regarding the authority of the civil magistrate regarding sacred things. Classical Reformed thought insists that the magistrate does not have a “right in sacred things” (ius in sacris), even while he has a “right around sacred things” (ius circa sacra).

We begin by reflecting upon the fact that the political authorities do not have a “right in sacred things”. The magistrate, for instance, does not have a right to interfere in the content of what pastors preach. King Charles I, for example, did not have the right to prohibit the teaching of predestination in the Church of England (Article 17 of the Thirty-Nine Articles affirms predestinarian doctrine). In fact, his meddling in sacred things eventually led to the English Civil War. Another example along these lines is provided by Chrysostom in his “Fourth Homily” on Isaiah 6:1. Chrysostom drew attention to the example of Uzziah, the ancient king of Judah, who overreached the civil jurisdiction given to him by God. His attempt to take on the some of the functions of the priesthood resulted in God striking him with leprosy. Uzziah would thus “bear the trophy of his punishment like an inscription on a monument”. The act of divine judgment “was not for his own sake, but for those who would follow him”.[23] This was a warning according to Chrysostom to all politicians who would similarly intrude themselves into the affairs of the church.

Mainstream Reformed doctrine, on the other hand, has always insisted that the magistrate does have a “right around sacred things”. Francis Turretin, professor of theology at the University of Geneva in the seventeenth century, provided an elaborate defence of this position in his treatment concerning “The Political Government of the Church”. He began his consideration of this issue with this assertion concerning the civil magistrate:

They sin in defect who remove him from all care of ecclesiastical things so that he… allows free power to anyone of doing… whatever he wishes in the cause of religion.

He then set forth the orthodox Reformed position that the magistrate does have “authority over sacred things”, although it is not an “unlimited authority”. The authority is “extrinsic” and is designed “that all things be done decently and in order in the house of God”.

It is concerned with sacred and spiritual things… with respect to the external adjunct, either of place or time or persons or other circumstances (which by themselves are the object of political power).[24]

Burlamaqui, the renowned jurist, stood in continuity with what the Reformed Orthodox had taught on the “right” of the magistrate “around sacred things”. Burlamaqui declared, “The prince has a right to regulate every thing, which interests the happiness of society, and by its nature is susceptible of human direction.” He acknowledged that his authority is not absolute: “No human authority can”, he said, “forbid the preaching of the gospel, or the use of the sacraments, nor establish a new article of faith, nor introduce new worship.” In addition,

the sovereign cannot lawfully assume to himself an empire over consciences, as if it were in his power to impose the necessity of believing such or such an article in matters of religion.

He insisted, however, that the civil magistrate does have the “prerogative of regulating” the “circumstances of external worship, that the whole may be performed with greater decency”.[25]

Burlamaqui did not deny that “scripture and ancient history ascribe the government of the church to pastors”, but he maintained that this did not “diminish the authority of the sovereign” as he carefully delineated in what that authority consisted. “The government, belonging to pastors”, he contended,

is that of counsel, instruction, and persuasion, whose entire force and authority consists in the word of God, which they ought to teach the people; and by no means in a personal authority.[26]

Ecclesiastical authority “in sacred things” does not nullify civil authority “around sacred things”.

A specific example of how Reformed doctrine on this issue relates to a national crisis brought about by a plague is seen in the work of the English Reformed theologian Richard Baxter as presented in his Christian Directory. In Question CIX under the topic of Christian Ecclesiastics, Baxter asked, “May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the magistrate forbid them?” Baxter maintained that we need to be discriminating in our thinking regarding this inquiry: “It is one thing to forbid them for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, &c.) and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.” On the one hand, Baxter affirmed,

If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety), forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.

On the other hand, he continued,

If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly, or as a renunciation of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them.[27]

A final point needs to be made which lends a note of solemnity to this entire discussion. Paul issues a warning to the individual who resists civil government: “Whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment to themselves” (Rom 13:2). There are always going to be individuals who range themselves in battle against (antitasso) legitimate government which is properly acting as an instrument of common grace in society. The apostle declares that such people will be punished. The word krima, translated “judgment”, can even refer in some contexts to the ultimate penalty (Jude 4). The King James Version provided this translation: “Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” Whether or not it should be rendered “damnation” in Romans 13:2 may be debated, but it seems quite clear that this is more than a reference to punishment coming from civil government. Calvin wrote as follows:

And by judgment, I understand not only punishment which is inflicted by the magistrate, as though he had only said, that they would be justly punished who resisted authority; but also the vengeance of God, however it may at length be executed: for he teaches us in general what end awaits those who contend with God.[28]

IV. Concluding Exhortation

We are living in days of civil unrest and widespread insubordination to the governing authorities. What is the will of God for believers at such a time as this? Peter explicitly states that submission on the part of the individual is the will of God, even when we may not necessarily agree with the political authorities in their public policy determinations.

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men (1 Pet 2:13-15).

This text insists that our submission, apart from the exceptions previously noted, must be universal. We must be compliant with “every ordinance of man” – every ktisis, every political arrangement produced by human beings. If the public policy determination does not explicitly violate the moral law of God and does not direct us to sin, we must be compliant with the civil magistrate. We must manifest a spirit of cooperation. We must go out of our way to follow the directives given by our political authorities, even if we happen to think that there is a better way to do things. This is the will of God, and this is what it means to do good. If we live in such a way as this, we will silence those who slander us, for they will have nothing evil to say about us.


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