Part 7 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: Conclusion

“God has promoted kings, that they may promote justice. As they have a sword in their hand, to signify their power; so they have a scepter, an emblem of justice.” (Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, p. 123)

Last installment summarized the reformed, confessional stances on obedience to the civil magistrate. And I want to focus in, by way of conclusion, on a concept that all the confessions had, although they describe it in various ways.

The Heidelberg Catechism calls Christian to honor the “good instruction” of the magistrate. The Second Helvetic confession demands obedience to “just and fair commands”. The Westminster Larger Catechism says the magistrate sins when it uses its authority in an “unlawful” and “unjust” way. The point of all of them is that there are limits to the authority of the magistrate. Therefore, it is not necessary to obey the magistrate when he strays outside of his lane.

This statement is not controversial when it comes to others in authority. If I seek, because I am a father to my children, think I can command all children it should come as no surprise that those outside my family will not listen to me in the same way. If an elder from a Presbyterian Church in America congregation asserts himself at an Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s meeting, he will be ruled out of order. If the president of the United States issues orders for the Prime Minister of England, he will be ignored. And so it is for citizens. When a government takes authority that does not belong to it, Christians are right to ignore it. The civil magistrate is not god and does not have limitless powers.

There have been some examples of a public reprimand for government officials taking more authority than they have. President Biden’s administration ordered that all businesses with more than 100 employees require COVID vaccination or regular testing. The Supreme Court ruled that “Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly.”[1] In other words, the government took for itself power that had not been delegated to them. It is neither a “good instruction,” “just and fair” command, or lawful. A company would have been wrong to submit to such an order from the civil magistrate. Herein is the summary of this series.

The Christian is not called to a blind submission to all decrees from the civil magistrate. There are obvious exceptions. When the government commands a sin, the Christian is not to obey. But in the same way, the Christian is not required to yield obedience to unlawful commands. That is not an endorsement of violence and uprisings. It is simply saying that in the face of rapidly expanding unlawful powers being seized by the government, the Christian may quietly refuse an unlawful command and must be willing to suffer the consequences if they do.

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2022/01/13/supreme-court-ruling-biden-covid-vaccine-mandates.html

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