Category Archives: Government

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.

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.

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.

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.