All posts by Geoff Gleason

Geoff Gleason is pastor of Cliffwood Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. His passion is to see the people of God grow in their faith, and those who are lost become numbered among the faithful. He has been married for 21 years and, usually, is the joyful father of 10 children ranging in age from 21 to 3. He sees it as a great joy to preach and shepherd the people of God and does so by setting before them the full range of the gospel: that we are free from the guilt of our sin, and also free from its dominion.

Part 6 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: The Confessions and Catechisms

“To exercise authority, without recognizing and accepting the corresponding responsibility, is to act irresponsibly and is always sinful.”[1]

The last installment (Dec., 2021) dealt with the 5 limitations to the powers of the civil magistrate. And then COVID happened (to me), life got busy, and now it’s May. That certainly is not how I meant to end. At this point it feels kind of anti-climactic to continue with this examination. But before I can leave it alone, I still want to resolve two things. First, a summary of a variety of Reformed confessions and catechism to gain insight into what the church of 400 years ago thought of the Christian’s response to a magistrate who oversteps his bounds. Second, how the Christian should respond to instances of government overreach. This article will handle the first of these.

The first catechism to examine is the Heidelberg Catechism. In Q/A 104 it teaches that obedience to the fifth commandment requires, “that I show all honor, love and fidelity, to my father and mother, and all in authority over me, and submit myself to their good instruction and correction with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weakness and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us with their hand.” Here the Christian is called to obedience to all the “good instruction” the government may give. Ursinus, who is the primary author of this catechism, in his commentary on this question and answer, explains that the magistrate undermines this responsibility through tyranny. Ursinus describes tyranny as “demanding from their subjects what is unjust.”[2]

In Chapter 30 of the Second Helvetic Confession, it describes the duties of subjects of kings: “Therefore let them honor and reverence the magistrate as the minister of God; let them love him, favor him, and pray for him as their father; and let them obey all his just and fair commands.” The Second Helvetic essentially repeats the Heidelberg’s assertions, namely that the limits of the civil magistrate’s instruction are more than simply their national borders, but also justice and fairness. If the Christian is to obey all just and fair commands, the logical implication follows from these documents is that he is not obligated to obey unjust and unfair commands.

The Westminster Standards also address this issue in the Westminster Larger Catechism. As part of its Larger Catechism’s treatment on the fifth commandment, Q/A 130 notes that the sins of one in authority includes “commanding things unlawful…or anyway dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior.” In his commentary on the Larger Catechism, Johannes Vos primarily focuses on commands from people in authority that require sin on the part of its subjects. He cites the examples of Nebuchadnezzar’s command that all people worship the statue he set up, Darius’ command forbidding prayer, Amos being forbidden from prophesying by king Amaziah, and so on.[3] But it also lists Nabal as an example of an unjust authority. And though these examples may reinforce for us the limits of government, they do not aid us in determining a right Christian response.

More on that next time. Hopefully not five months from now.

[1] Johannes Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing), 353.

[2] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1852), 578.

[3] Johannes Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism, 354.

Part 5 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: The Limits of Power (Part II)

Conflict

“A power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power, and is no more from God, but from sinful nature, and the old serpent.”
Samuel Rutherford, A Christian Manifesto

Last installment looked at the limits of different authorities, all of which God has instituted to serve Him in the world He created. Before moving on to the confessional statements about authority, specifically laid out in the fifth commandment, I want to revisit these three limitations by way of quick review, and add two additional thoughts.

In the limitations drawn out so far, this series outlined three specific ways the government’s authority is naturally limited. The civil government is limited first by its national borders. That seems fairly obvious. Second, they may not treat their citizens as their own property. Tyranny is men with a derived authority, acting as if they hold that authority as their possession. Tyranny itself is usually rejected, but the response is where the waters get muddy. More on that later. Third, governments must themselves be subject to the laws of their own nation.

In this article I want to add two more limits to lawful authority, specifically as it applies to the civil government. The fourth limit is that government is to act honestly with its citizens. It may not prosecute based on bearing false witness, neither may they use false pretenses to justify powers they would not usually hold. The state must prosecute and legislate honestly. Just to address the elephant in the room here, the next paragraph is not going to be that COVID is a hoax. But I am willing to say that a 2-year state of emergency based on an illness with a less than 1% mortality rate is not honest. These claims no longer serve as a justification for sweeping powers that certain governments want to appropriate for themselves: powers that control private business, medical rights, and even ecclesiastical matters. And when an authority uses dishonesty to expand its powers, they are working outside of the limits of the authority which has been entrusted to them.

The fifth limit is that government may not assume authority entrusted to others. That means the civil magistrate has no authority over the business of the church or family. Applying that principle in church and/or family is often easier and clearer. For example, the church is only free to proclaim what God’s word has plainly said, or what can be derived from it by good and necessary consequence. It may not enter into formal discipline for matters of conscience, but only clear, unrepentant violations of God’s commandments. When the church does either of these things it exceeds the limits of the authority entrusted to it. In the same way, fathers may not administer the sacraments to their families in their homes or excommunicate their children from the church. Ironically, within the Christian community when church and father exceeds the limits of their authority, there is a large outcry in the church. Justifiably so. Why not when the same thing is done by the civil magistrate?

Some may object to this and point to cases where the civil magistrate has rightly addressed fraud in the church or abuse in the home. But to think carefully through those examples, it is plain that when a church commits fraud, it is operating unlawfully in its ecclesiastical authority. Or when a husband abuses his wife or children, he is acting unlawfully, which moves beyond the boundaries of his authority as God has given it. Returning to the realm of the civil magistrate, that means the government is in no way to interfere with anything that rightly falls under the authority of the church and/or family. That means no control over any part of religious worship as was recently seen in COVID measures in several states in our Union, most notable California. That means no right to mandatory government education as is the case in several European nations. That means a respect for bodily autonomy. The authority of the civil magistrate has limits, and these should be respected.

By way of summary, let me just enumerate the five limits described above. The government is limited in its use of power in the following ways:

    1. The authority of any civil magistrate does not extend beyond its national borders. That would be a violation of the 8th commandment;
    2. Tyranny is not within the proper purview of government authority. Its citizens are not its property. To treat them as such would be a violation of the 1st and 8th commandments;
    3. Government must themselves operate under the rules and laws of their nation. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment;
    4. Falsehood and propaganda cannot be used as a means to justify authority that would otherwise be unlawful. That would be a violation of the 9th commandment;
    5. The magistrate may not encroach on authority given by God to another institution. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment.

The main point is that, as a servant of God appointed for the good of its citizens (Rom. 13:4), the Moral Law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments also applies to the government. Its authority is exercised within the limits prescribed by God and the good laws of the commonwealth it governs.

Everything up to this point is to establish that the civil magistrate may overstep its rightful bounds. When other authorities like church and family do so, there is a reasonable expectation of response. And that should not be different in the case of the government either. The question that is so challenging is, what is that response? How does a Christian respond in a Christlike manner when the civil magistrate exceeds the limits of its powers. These questions will be addressed in our next installment.

Walking In Gratitude

As a nation, we celebrated Thanksgiving this past November 25. For many, the significance of this day has turned from an opportunity to praise God to a generic sentimentality about gratitude for family and comfort. However beneficial it is for a nation to have a day of giving thanks, it is meaningless void of an acknowledgement of God. As His people, we should remember to give Him thanks every day. His word calls us to this daily celebration in these ways: 

His covenant promises. The foundation for Christian thankfulness runs throughout the Bible. The record of God’s covenant relationship with His people reminds us daily that it is God’s grace only that allows us to be in relationship with Him.

His law. The commandments of God point us to Him in two ways. First, in showing that we are incapable of keeping them He gives us daily motivation to find salvation in Christ. Second, once living in the reality of salvation, we have daily reasons for praising Him because we have been delivered from sin’s dominion.

His works. God’s record of His providential work in this world plainly shows us His power, patience, and strength. Where we fail and fall, He is powerful to pick us up and to carry us to eventual glory.

I love Thanksgiving. I love the chance to acknowledge that the blessings we enjoy come to us from God’s hand. And yet I wish my heart was more grateful on a day-to-day basis for the eternal blessings God provides.

A Friendly Rebuttal on “An Appeal on Race in the Presbyterian Church in America”

Reed DePace, who is a fellow pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, contacted me with some push back on my 5 part series on race in the PCA. I wanted to give him the opportunity express himself here. I may respond in the future, if time allows. His thoughts appear below the line.


I think your observations in your series “An Appeal on Race in the Presbyterian Church in America” express some sufficiency, but more at the macro level than the personal level. At the personal level, I’d suggest adding a couple of diagnostic questions: 1) Parish Degree, and 2) Brotherly Sympathy.

Parish Degree

By parish degree, I’m asking the question: how broadly does the concern apply? Your suggestions appear adequate at the broadest level, e.g., say at the denominational level. With you, I agree we’ve taken quite a few “denomination-wide” actions, more than enough to address any systemic concerns. What I think remains is addressing such concerns more closer to home, as it were. Anecdotally here (not throwing any accusations out, just generally observing), we might observe that there a number of local congregations that maybe should look into some sort of response to address present (or even previous) concerns. There are two examples from out congregation.

First, we needed to address an historical pattern of the sin of partialism in our ministry. We did so, not for any intentions related to reaching out to any other groups in our community (e.g., African Americans). Instead, we did so to follow the pattern of corporate repentance seen in the ministries of Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Our actions were more of an owning our history for the sake of our witness to the integrity of God’s glory in His Son, rather than some application of secular theories.

The second example relates to the planting of a sister Korean PCA congregation. Given local considerations, we saw this as a relevant application of our Acts 1:8 imperative. Conversely, for different reasons, this imperative did not apply to African American nor Hispanic communities in this area. Yet with a recent re-location, these considerations flipped. We’re no longer in an area where ministry to/with Koreans is relevant. Conversely, reaching out to the Hispanic community now is. (for a number of socio-cultural reasons, reaching out to the African Americans in our community still faces some hurdles we’re not able to surmount.)

In both these examples, it is the parish degree diagnostic that helped us determine ministry imperatives. Following the pattern of the first Jerusalem NT church, reaching out to all the communities in their parish, we examined the degree to which Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts were in our parish. Then, prayerfully seeking God’s favor, we sought to minister to them. It seems to me that it is entirely possible to we might put to rest the denominational concerns (as your post suggests), and still need an awful lot of local parish attention. Asking a diagnostic “to what degree” will help us in determining if and where local concerns may still be prevalent.

Brotherly Sympathy

 The second, additional diagnostic question that I think might be added is the brotherly sympathy one. This is simply the examining of how my brother responds to these issues, and then adjusting my response to minister the gospel’s grace and mercy to him. For example, consider our denominational response to our Asian brothers’ concerns at this GA. On the one hand, the use of a “Korean prayer” imprecation that is gossip at best to support the argument for addressing their concerns is manipulative and beneath the integrity with which we are called to behave as elders in Christ’s church. On the other hand, I think our response was ham-fisted at best. We would have been much wiser to pause any response and ask for further clarification from Asian elders.

This brotherly sympathy diagnostic is based on passages like Acts 15 and Col 3:11. In the first, note that the prohibition against eating meat with its blood is based on brotherly sympathy. The Mosaic dietary provisions no longer applied, in toto. Thus, the “restriction” here was relative to Jewish believer sensitivities. It was a temporary restriction put in place due to Romans 14-15 weaker brother considerations. It was an expression of brotherly sympathy for the Jewish believers. Similarly, in Col 3:1, imagine the slave and Scythian responses to Paul’s teaching to the church in Colossae. The slave subject to socioeconomic prejudice, and the Scythians subject to the socioethnic prejudice variety, these words must have been a wondrous glory of the gospel to their ears. To be sure, the local congregation then had to work to put into practice this gospel truth. Nevertheless, the brotherly sympathy just from the mere expression was huge.

Going back to the Asian overtures this past GA, this is why I’d have preferred a pause and re-consider response. To be sure, there was some degree of younger Asian brothers responding out of a progressive informed hermeneutic. Yet the vast majority of the Asian elders (I did some checking) were respectfully disappointed in how we handled it. Yes, the problems being faced are more secular culture than sacred (e.g., the “Wuhan” virus effect). Yes, to the degree there are “systemic” problems in treatment of Koreans in our culture, it is more African, then Hispanic, before it is Anglo. And yet, what harm would it have been to take the time to show brotherly sympathy that the majority of our Asian elders would have appreciated? I expect had we done so, even though it would have taken more time, and we might have arrived at the same application, the time spent would have ministered to our Korean brothers in a manner that yielded increasing gospel dividends.

Again, as with my previous example under the parish degree discussion, my purpose here is not to persuade you of my opinion on this particular example. Instead, I bring it up only to demonstrate the necessary relevance of the brotherly sympathy diagnostic. Like the parish degree diagnostic, it forces us to bring into consideration other biblical; imperatives that are not necessarily surfaced by the three you’ve promulgated.

Thank you for the grateful reception of my ideas. Where I’m unclear I’ll be grateful attempt tidy up the mud. Where you disagree, I’ll be grateful to learn how I might think better on these things.


Reed DePace is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Montgommery, Alabama.

Part 4 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: the Limits of Its Power

“Whenever obedience to man is inconsistent with obedience to God,
then disobedience becomes a duty.”[1]

At the start of this series, the mission statement was made: to help the Christian navigate an exercise of government power not previously experienced in my life-time. The virus that has troubled the world since the beginning of 2020 has subjected western society to a variety of mandates and restrictions, including businesses and churches. Christians everywhere have experienced these things, but there is disagreement about a proper response. There those who advocate for complete compliance, and those who have taken up what sounds like a Christian activism. This series represents an attempt to help Christians think clearly about this subject. Whatever our gut response may be, these articles are asking whether they are biblical. And to begin that critical assessment, this series began with a biblical study and the source and purpose for the power of the government.

First, we have seen from Romans 13 that all authority is given by God. That would include the authority that the civil magistrate has, even if behaving in an ungodly manner. Clearly, the biblical position of authority is that it is God-given. Second, we have also seen that the government exists as a servant of God. It is to carry out God’s vengeance on the wrongdoer and protect those who do good. The words “wrongdoer” and “good” are theological words, which must be biblically defined. A government will apply its power well, or poorly, and the report card is based on the biblical definitions of these words. And it is in this last observation that the problem arises. What does the Christian do when the government does not match up well to the biblical definitions of wrongdoing and goodness? Is there a point when the government’s authority is to be disobeyed because of its disregard for its function as God’s servant? What are the limits to this power?

To further complicate matters, there are other authorities in the world as well. That means there may be times when different authorities (all of whom God has provided) come into conflict with each other. For example, consider parental authority or church authority. This authority is also God-given, with its own set of responsibilities. These different authority structures further add to the difficulty of what may happen. For example, Colossians 3:20 says, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” What happens if the demands of the civil authority conflict with those of parents? Which is to be obeyed? As an example, what should happen when the government mandates that a child in kindergarten participate in an explicit “educational” presentation on human sexuality. Even if it is only factual, without any propaganda about the perversion of human sexuality, does the government have the implicit right to overturn the parents’ authority over the child, simply because they have God-given authority? The bring some clarity, consider these possible limits to government authority.

Man’s authority is always delegated. God provides authority for specific reasons. Parents are provided to train up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Elders are given to protect the church from false doctrine and encourage it toward love and good works. The civil magistrate is empowered to provide necessary order in society. For each of these positions of authority there are limits. That is because a father is not the owner of his children and the elder is not the master of the congregants. These things are easily seen. For example, most would agree that parents are not free to force their children to marry against their will. Or elders are not free to require all congregants to wear a yellow suit to church each Lord’s Day. And these are recognized limitations. There is much talk about hyper patriarchy in the family or toxic leadership in the church. If limits are readily recognized in these two realms, it is right to examine if the civil government’s authority can be wielded unlawfully as well. In doing so, several limits are discovered.

There is one obvious limit, which is also described in the quote at the top of the article. If a magistrate would require sin, he has clearly exercising authority unlawfully. I have not heard any Christian leader object to this principle in the last two years. The oft-quoted biblical instruction comes in Acts 4. Peter and John are ordered not to speak of Christ anymore. Their response is instructive for all authority relationships: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20, ESV). When any human authority requires sin, whether family or church or civil, the giver of all authority, God, is to be obeyed instead. But there are other limits on government authority as well.

First, each nation’s government is limited by its geographical bounds. The people of Germany do not obey the laws on the books in Canada. If you live in the United States you do not obey the mandates of Australia. That is because the authority of each nation state is limited to its own citizens. All nations live in such a way, and this limit is universally respected.

Second, a government may not exercise authority over its people as a tyrant. The government’s relationship with its citizens is not one of master and slave. The king is to carry out the good laws of the land with justice and equity.[2] For example, a government may not enter a citizen’s home and confiscate private property without process and just cause. A government may not force families to separate, requiring the wife to move to Miami, while ordering the man to live in Seattle. A government may not, at a random check point, confiscate your vehicle and take possession of it. Unless you live under a communist government, that is. The examples of these abuses could possibly all be obeyed without the citizen sinning in obeying it. And yet the government is not justified in acting as a tyrant because it denies its delegated authority. The government does not own all, and cannot behave as if it does. When government behaves this way, says Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex, they are acting as if their authority belongs to them as a right, not as a delegated power. Yet the men and women that make up government are not gods, but part of God’s creation, just as their citizens are. That means that since God is the giver of authority, government is to wield it as His servant.

Third, a government is bound by the laws of the land. These limits that are being ignored these days. In Acts 22, Paul has been rescued by the Roman cohort of soldiers from a violent Jewish mob. Paul was brought into the Roman barracks to examine him by flogging. Before this atrocious, unjust, and violent act could be committed against him, Paul reminds the tribune that he as civil magistrate is breaking the laws of the land which he may not do. “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). It is, of course, a rhetorical question. It is not lawful for them to do so, and Paul reminds them of that. The tribune and his fellow examiners immediately reverse course. They are in positions of authority, but still under authority. They, as civil magistrate, do not live above the laws of the land, but must follow the rules of their country. It is at this point that many government abuses have taken place, at least in the United States.

Here is the point. All authority has limits because it is a derived authority. That does not mean there is a place where the civil magistrate behaves perfectly.  Since the fall, all authority is abused because it is exercised by sinful men. Today, governments are acting as a master over its people by assuming responsibility over its citizens’ consciences. Some will agree with what it is demanding and imposing, others not. The point is not agreement with policy, but limit of authority. Today, governments are failing to live under the laws of their own nations. In effect the government has become a law breaker. Again, some will agree with what it is demanding and imposing, and others not. The point is not agreement with policy, but limit of authority.

The reality for the Christian is that the government is assuming authority over people’s private businesses, their movements, their worship, and even their employment. For several members of the congregation I serve, this topic is not theoretical. It is a pressing matter that must be examined on the basis of principle, not preference. But what does the Christian do when a government behaves badly, even sinfully?

To help with that, it is always good to look at the reformed confessional statements for their understanding of what Scripture teaches on this matter. After that investigation is complete, perhaps we will be ready to consider what a proper response may be.

[1] Charles Hodge, Romans, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 406

[2] Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince, (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1982), 64-68.

God’s Faithfulness to His People

Today is Reformation Day. Really it is a bit of misnomer, because the reformation of the church is not confined to one day of the year. There is a good reformation principle that the church should remember: semper reformanda. In English this phrase means “always reforming.” This principle teaches that when the church is made aware of sin it must always correct and address it. 

And yet though the church should always be reforming, remembering God’s care during the Protestant Reformation is healthy. This day  commemorates a season of  radical correction in a church that had become increasingly corrupt. And for that reason the church continues to celebrate and remember God’s work among His people.

His patient faithfulness. There is no reason, apart from His perfect plan that God should extend mercy to those who are in the church. All have sinned and fall short of His glory. On Reformation Day the church thanks the Lord for preserving His witness in the world so that His people can be called out of it.

The need for diligent watchfulness. There is no historical era where the church is exempt from corruption and sin. The church is responsible to guard Christ’s teaching and practice. When men corrupt those things, others must stand firm. That is true for the church in the 21st century as well.

So we thank God for His faithfulness and we pray for His strength to serve Him well in preserving the the witness of the church.

Part 3 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: the Purpose of Its Power

“This whole discourse is concerning civil government; it is therefore to no purpose that they who would exercise dominion over consciences do hence attempt to establish their sacrilegious tyranny.”[1]

At the beginning of this series, I said this series was intended to help the Christian think through how to relate to the Civil Magistrate, or a national government. The mandates and shut-downs witnessed around the globe, have caused concern among Christians. To know how to rightly move forward requires an examination of the Bible’s teaching on the Civil Magistrate.

This installment examined the source of the government’s power. It showed how Romans 13:1-2 clearly establishes that the authority of the magistrate is derived from God himself. He gives it to whom He pleases. Historically this text has been used to assert the “divine right” of kings and governments. Proponents would say that, because God has given power to the government, its decisions cannot be challenged. But rather than give a carte blanche kind of power to governments, the Bible empowers them to a specific end.

There are some key descriptors about the civil magistrate in Romans 13 that help explain the specifics of their power. In verse 4, the magistrate is twice identified as God’s servant and once as an avenger who carries out God’s wrath. In all three cases the magistrate does not represent itself, but God. Identifying the magistrate as God’s servant gives a specific shape to its authority.

But Romans 13 says even more. By calling the civil magistrate God’s servant, it defines the scope of its work. The government is to be a servant “for your good” (v. 4). The Civil Magistrate is assigned a specific task as a servant of God: to establish what is good. Verse 3 talks about the task of the civil magistrate another way: the government is to be a terror to bad and approve of good conduct. Since the fall that kind of government has been necessary. Genesis 3 records Adam’s fall into sin, and the next account in Genesis 4 is of Cain slaying his brother Abel. From the moment of man’s corruption the world has needed protection from evildoers. Romans 13:3-4 identifies that task as the unique end to which God has empowered the government. The job of the civil magistrate is to approve the good and be a terror, or a deterrent, to the evil. The Westminster Confession of Faith says it this way:

“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.” (WCF 23.1)

In the Bible, the task of the government is defined using theological terms. The magistrate is to approve the good, and be a terror to the bad. These words are theological terms. The government, or anyone, can only determine how to define “good” and “evil” by looking at the moral law. That means the Civil Magistrate has been empowered to affirm what agrees with God’s definition and to be a terror to what does not. God is the only one who can define what is good or evil regardless of whether His creation agrees.

The civil magistrate is a servant. Servants do not define their own tasks. The master sets the parameters and the servant does what the master wishes. If a master instructs a servant to have a hamburger ready for him at 5:30 p.m., and the servant brings a box of crackers at 8 p.m. instead, there will be trouble for the servant. And this is the point at which things get complicated. In our society, the government is doing much to make its own definitions. The instructions of the master have been forsaken and the servants are taking over. 1 Cor 6:9-10 defines evil as sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, drunkenness, reviling, and swindling. And yet western governments are promoting such things, not punishing them.

At this point, I can hear the rumblings in the background: Theocracy! People begin imagining a mandatory Christianity with fines for failure to attend church and the civil code for Israel literally applied. However, that is not the objective of this article. It is not an attempt to establish specific policy, but rather to look at responsibility. To what end is the magistrate empowered by God? The government is God’s servant, being constrained to His definition of goodness and evil. When evil is done government is to carry out God’s wrath on the evildoer and is given the sword to do so.

National governments are servants of God. They are either faithful or unfaithful ones, but they have no divine right to do whatever they like. They have a divine master and they must carry out His agenda. The next article will look at whether there are any other limits to the government’s power.


Geoff Gleason is pastor of Cliffwood Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. His passion is to see the people of God grow in their faith, and those who are lost become numbered among the faithful. He has been married for 28 years and, usually, is the joyful father of 11 children ranging in age from 28 to 6, and two grandsons.

[1] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XIX (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2009), 482.

Part 2 » The Christian’s Relationship with the Government: The Source of Authority

“My travail is that both princes and subjects obey God. Think not, Madam, that wrong is done you, when you are willed to be subject to God.”[1]

There is much to consider when it comes to the power and authority of the government. Especially in western nations, there is consternation among Christians over recent mandates and requirements coming from the civil magistrate. As a result, there has been disagreement in churches and denominations about the extent of authority the magistrate may exercise. And then there is John Knox. Last article he is quoted as advocating for disobedience, even violent opposition to a civil magistrate who exceeds his bounds. In the quote above Knox is speaking to his queen, Mary, Queen of Scots. This time he asserts the limits of her power: she also is to be subject to God. Before there is too much excitement (either positive or negative) about these quotes, there are a series of questions that have to be answered. Before the Christian can affirm or deny Knox’s claims, there must be a clear and biblical understanding of the role and function of government. These questions and their answers make up the substance of this series of articles. The first question to be considered is, “What is the source of the civil government’s power?”

Chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession of Faith deals with government and is entitled “Of the Civil Magistrate”. The biblical texts regarding the establishment of the governing authorities cited in this confession are 1 Peter 2:13-14 and Romans 13:1-4. Reserving consideration only for the latter, in the opening verse of Romans 13 Christians are told “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Christians must allow the significance of those words to sink in. The Bible teaches here that good and bad princes are placed in their positions by God. There is no authority except from God, and those in authority are placed there by Him. Humanly speaking, rulers may assume power in a variety of ways. Monarchies and emperors do so by birth,  nations may conquer through war, deceitful men may claim power through intrigue and betrayal, and in democracies governments are chosen through the voting process. But behind all those secondary human causes sits God’s singular and divine providence. God decrees, and then carries it out by governing all His creatures and all their actions (see Westminster Shorter Catechism #11).

God’s will is done in the world, also in times when evil seems to have the upper hand. That was the case in Joseph’s life and he recognized it as such. In Gen 50:20 he tells his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” In that moment, Joseph recognizes that things appear differently to man than God. Man only has part of the picture and it can seem like evil will prevail. But God, seeing the entirety of His plan, accomplishes his will through secondary causes. When it comes to the governance of the societies of this world, He uses the civil magistrate. God may work through godly princes, but his plan is also accomplished when the wicked rule. Job understood that all things come from God’s hand: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Cf. Job 2:10). When Satan entered Judas Iscariot’s heart and convinced him to betray Christ, that evil plan resulted in the final victory over sin and death. Those moments are not accidents which God did not foresee. So God gives authority to all rulers, whether they are good or evil. Recognizing that truth will eliminate the vast majority of calls for civil disobedience.

However, when the Bible says all governing authorities are instituted and appointed by God (Rom. 13:1-2), it is not saying that all authorities behave in a godly manner. It is simply recognizing government receives its status through God’s providence. Their position is God-ordained, regardless of the personal approval of its citizens when it comes to their political decisions or personality when lawfully made. To say all authority is instituted by God is not saying anything about the right direction or proper boundaries to the government’s power. What is the civil magistrate to do? For what purpose to it wield its authority? That is a question for the next article.

[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 279.

When Worry Overtakes You

What news story gives you anxiety these days? Is it COVID infection rates? Supply chain interuptions? The southern border crisis? If you listen to the news it will not take you long before you think the world is falling apart. I have not gone through any journalism training, but it seems to me the news is actually written in such a way as to create exactly that response. And  this is where the problem is because worry is a denial of God’s ability to care for His people (Cf. Matt. 6:25-33). So how, by God’s grace, do we fight anxiety?

Pray for joy in all your circumstances. It is normal for people to fear death, discomfort, and hardship. Not right. Just normal. And our worries inevitably come true. God brings them in His perfect timing, and the inconsistency of our hearts is laid bare through our fretting. Repentance includes praying that God would change us to make us joyful as we rest in His promises.

Turn off the news, open your Bible. This statement is not promoting complete ignorance about the happenings in our world. But if the news creates anxiety, turn it off. The Bible is a book filled with comfort, so open it. The more we study God’s word the more clearly we know His ways, character and sovereignty. The more we are faced with the promised reality that, because we are in Christ, the time we spend on earth is a sojourning, in anticipation of a glorious homecoming when we are called home to glory or Christ returns. And these truths will comfort us when they are received with faith. In other words, spend more time reading the Good News as compared to hearing bad news.

Christians, of all people, should be at peace even in the most tumultuous times. And there is much to worry about these days. But, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:8).

Part 1 » The Christian’s Relationship with the Government

“If their princes exceed their bounds, Madam, no doubt they may be resisted, even by power. For there is neither greater honour, nor greater obedience, to be given to kings or princes, than God hath commanded to be given unto father and mother.” (1)

The words above were spoken by John Knox as recorded in his History of the Reformation in Scotland. They are an excerpt of a conversation he had with Mary, Queen of Scots. She had asked him to meet with her to discuss his role in the unrest that was sweeping across the land. In response to her accusation that Knox had incited her subject against her, the reformer gives the response quoted above. No doubt, few men had, have, or will have the courage and boldness of John Knox. He was a unique man, set apart by God for a unique time in the history of Scotland and His church. But the question today is not whether anyone is like John Knox, but rather if there is anything to be learned from his answer to queen Mary. In other words, should Christians be more like John Knox?

The words above are of great relevance for today, because the civil magistrate is exercising authority in ways not seen in recent memory in what is called The West. Much of recent mandates and regulations exceed the experience of most Americans. The vast majority of the demands of the government have to do with COVID. Because of the intensity of these government interventions, there is an on-going discussion about whether the government is to be obeyed when it comes to its different mandates. However, this series of articles is not addressing Americans as Americans. It is not addressing any other political entity either. Instead, it is addressing Christians who happen to live in this nation. Can the Christian say “Amen!” to what our brother Knox said to Queen Mary back in 1561?

Certainly, from the Bible there are different instances when Christians disobey their political rulers. Peter and John do so in Acts 4:19-20 where, in response to the command to stop preaching and teaching, Peter says, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” The debate among Christians is usually not over whether the government can ever be disobeyed. It is more likely to be about what may trigger civil disobedience by Christians.

Some of these questions are extremely complicated. However, in order to be positioned to give a reasonable response, the Christian must be familiar with the Bible’s treatment on the subject of government, or what will be referred to as the Civil Magistrate. Summaries of biblical doctrine can be of great help to today’s church, and for that reason this series will consult with the Westminster Confession of Faith and other confessional statements from the Protestant Reformation. In so doing, this series will address the following questions:

    1. What is the source of the civil magistrate?
    2. What is the power of the civil magistrate?
    3. Are there any limitations to this power?
    4. How does the Christian citizen respond?

God willing, these will be released over the next couple of weeks. The theology of the Christian on government will inform how he responds to its authority. So let us lay a strong foundation and live for the glory of God.

(1) John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 278.