Westminster XXIII: Of the Civil Magistrate

1. 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 evil doers (Rom. 13:1–4; 1 Pet. 2:13–14).

God has established the civil magistrate in two relations. The first is that the magistrate is under Him. The second is that the magistrate is over the people. There are two reasons for this; the first and greatest is that this glorifies God. The second reason is that the public good is advanced by this arrangement. In order to bring about these goods, God has armed the magistrate with the power of the sword—lethal violence. In its turn, the sword is to be employed for two purposes, and in two directions. The first is the defense and encouragement of good people and the second is the punishment of the wicked.

2. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto (Prov. 8:15–16; Rom. 13:1–4): in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth ( Ps. 2:10–12; 1 Tim. 2:2; Ps. 82:3–4; 2 Sam. 23:3; 1 Pet. 2:13); so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion (Luke 3:14; Rom. 13:4; Matt. 8:9–10; Acts 10:1–2; Rev. 17:14, 16).

The office of the magistrate is a lawful calling, and hence a Christian may occupy that station if he has been appropriately called to it. When a Christian holds civil office, certain things are required of him. He is called to maintain piety, justice, and peace. These things are to be defined according to the wholesome laws of the commonwealth in which this magistrate holds office. When the question arises, as it will, by what standard “wholesome laws” are identified as such, the only answer that can be given is the standard of Scripture. In particular, the Christian magistrate is not prohibited from waging war, even though the new covenant has now been established among men. But he must only wage war upon just and necessary occasion.

3. 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 (2 Chron. 26:18; Matt. 18:17; 16:19; 1 Cor. 12:28–29; Eph. 4:11–12; 1 Cor. 4:1–2; Rom. 10:15; Heb. 5:4): yet he hath 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, administered, and observed (Isa. 49:23; Ps. 122:9; Ezra 7:23, 25–28; Lev. 24:16; Deut. 13:5–6, 12; 2 Ki. 18:4; 1 Chron. 13:1–9; 2 Ki. 24:1–16; 2 Chron. 34:33; 15:12–13). 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 (2 Chron. 19:8–11; 2 Chron. 29; 30; Matt. 2:4–5).

The civil magistrate may not usurp the prerogatives of the Church. He may not discharge the office of preaching the Word, and he may not administer the sacraments. Neither may he conduct or oversee the process of church discipline; he does not have the power of the keys. In our era, this doctrine needs to be strongly reasserted. When someone is excommunicated from the Church, they do not have the right to sue in the civil courts. The fact that this is now happening in our era is a resurgence of Erastianism. In short the magistrate does not have authority

in sacris.

He does have authority

circa sacra. If public tumult breaks out in the church, for example, the magistrate must take steps to restore order. He has the responsibility to see that the truth is maintained, that blasphemy and heresy be repressed, idolatry excluded, etc. In brief, the magistrate has authority over false religion. This means that indirectly he has an effect on true religion.

As a churchman of eminence, he has the authority to convene a council of the true church, to attend himself, or through representatives, and ensure that the result of the synod is according to the will of God. Although I am in far greater sympathy with the original Westminster Confession at this point than with the American version, this last item is problematic. How can the magistrate be the final arbiter of the deliberations of the synod unless it is a corrupt synod, or the magistrate in some sense has been given the ministry of the Word?

The American downgrade of paragraph III (as revised in 1789)

3. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments (2 Chron. 26:18); or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:17; 16:19; 1 Cor. 12:28–29; Eph. 4:11–12; 1 Cor. 4:1-2; Rom. 10:15; Heb. 5:4); or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith (John 18:36; Mal. 2:7; Acts 5:29). 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 (Isa. 49:23). 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 (Ps. 105:15; Acts 18:14–15). 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 pretence 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 (2 Sam. 23:3; 1 Tim. 2:1–2; Rom. 13:4).

We have no difference with this until we come to the statement that the magistrate may not interfere in matter of faith “in the least.” This creates interesting problems. As a nursing father, the magistrate is to protect the Christian church, but to do so without giving any preference to any body of Christians above the others. And here the American version grows utterly unwieldy. Define “Christian.” The basic question is whether or not the magistrate must be required to be a Christian, and whether or not this has any creedal aspect.

The Confession goes on to say that laws cannot interfere with how people decide to voluntarily join themselves to the church of their choice. The only restriction on religious liberty that the magistrate may offer concerns the bogus right of one worshiper to assault or insult another.

4. It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates (1 Tim. 2:1–2), to honour their persons (1 Pet. 2:17), to pay them tribute or other dues (Rom. 13:6–7), to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake (Rom. 13:5; Tit. 3:1). 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 (1 Pet. 2:13–14, 16): from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted (Rom. 13:1; 1 Ki. 2:35; Acts 25:9–11; 2 Pet. 2:1, 10–11; Jude 8–11), 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 pretence whatsoever (2 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 13:15–17).

A Christian people have a collection of duties with regard to the magistrate placed over them. They must first pray for them, and honor their persons. They must pay taxes as appropriate, and obey them when the commands are lawful. They are to defer to the authority of the magistrate, and they are to do this out of conscience, and not from fear. The fact that a magistrate may be a wicked man, or an agnostic, does not remove the authority of the magistrate at all. The people are not freed from their obligation to obey because of the spiritual condition of the magistrate. In this respect, ministers are under authority just like everyone else, and no minister, including the pope, can wield civil authority over the magistrate. We have here the outlines of a doctrine of sphere sovereignty.

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