WCF 23: The Civil Magistrate

Dear Church Family,

The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes what the Bible teaches in this way, “The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (WSC 5). That last part about “what duty God requires of man” includes what the Bible teaches concerning the duty of earthly governing authorities (the civil magistrate), as well as our duty to civil magistrates as those authorities appointed by God. This is the topic of chapter 23 (“Of the Civil Magistrate”) in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which we studied this past Sunday in the adult Sunday school class.

WCF 23.1 – The Role of Civil Magistrates

Three things are affirmed in this paragraph of the confession – three things that speak to God’s sovereignty over the whole world, and particularly with regard to His sovereignty over all earthly authorities. First, God is Lord and King of all the world. Second, God has ordained civil magistrates to be under Him and over the people for His glory and the public good. Third, God has given the civil magistrates the power of the sword (physical violence and coercion) to protect and encourage people who do good and to punish evil doers.

It should be noted that the main teachings of this paragraph – and for much of the rest of this chapter – is based on two main texts of Scripture: Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. In these passages, the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter speak to the proper divinely ordered role of earthly authorities. And, we should also note that, in contradistinction from the church which bears the spiritual power of the keys of the kingdom, the state bears the physical power of the sword. [More on this when we get to chapter 25, “Of the Church.”]

WCF 23.2 – Christians may serve in the office of a magistrate

Reasoning from the teachings of Romans 13, we may say that if the civil magistrate is ordained by God, then a Christian may serve in this office. So serving, Christians ought to follow and enforce the wholesome laws of that commonwealth or government in which they serve – especially in maintaining piety, justice, and peace (2 Samuel 23:3-4; Proverbs 31:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-2).

When I was a chaplain in the army, soldiers who were also followers of Christ would sometimes ask if – according to Scripture – they were allowed to serve and go to war. Of course, the Bible explicitly forbids murder or the taking of innocent life (Exodus 20:13); however, the Bible also teaches that those who follow Christ may, in their capacity as magistrates (or in service to those earthly magistrates), wage war or serve in the military (Luke 3:14; Acts 10:1-2; Romans 13:4).

Rooted in the teachings of Augustine, we also have a long tradition of what is known as “the just war theory.” It is too much to go into at this time, but you may find a summary of the seven principles of the just war theory in the appendix of our handout from the Sunday school class (you can download a pdf of that handout in the “notes” section here).

WCF 23.3 – The Church and the State

As we mentioned above, the New Testament teaches that since the coming of Christ, the state is given the power of the sword to promote justice and protect its citizens; the church is given the power of the keys of the kingdom of God to promote the gospel and the glory of God. Thus, civil magistrates have no ecclesiastical (or church) power; nor may they interfere in matters of faith (Matthew 16:19; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; John 18:36). Instead, civil magistrates are to be like “nursing father” – protecting the religious liberties of all peoples (Isaiah 49:23; Acts 16:35-40).

In the church, Christ has appointed a regular government and discipline (Ephesians 2:19-22; Philippians 1:1). Therefore, the magistrate is not to interfere with the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians (Psalm 105:14-15). Of course, some earthly governments have done this better than others, yet the fact remains that God has appointed governing authorities in this world for the purpose of protecting the dignity and person of all the people living in their realm, and to protect all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies regardless of their faith or infidelity (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:1-2).

On an historical footnote, the original formulation of this paragraph on the relationship between the church and the state was almost entirely replaced by American Presbyterians in 1787. In the original formulation of 1646, the state was said to have authority over the church to preserve the unity, truth, purity in worship, and obedience of her members; and, the state was also said to have the power to call church synods or councils and preside over them. With the separation of church and state in the new world, American Presbyterians rewrote this portion of the confession to be more in keeping with the teaching of Scripture.

Again, if you’d like to learn a little bit more of the historical context and the reasons for which this paragraph was rewritten, you can download a pdf of the handout from the Sunday school class from the “notes” section here. For further reading on this issue, I recommend the book by Darryl Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State.

WCF 23.4 – The Duty of Subjects to the State

As subjects of the state, the Word of God exhorts the followers of Christ to pray for, honor, pay tribute to, obey the lawful commands of, and submit to the magistrates – regardless of their infidelity or difference of religion (Romans 13:5-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17). This includes all “ecclesiastical persons” (or religious leaders), as well (Acts 25:9-11).

Conclusion

John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In a similar vein, we often ask, “What is the governing authority’s duty toward me?” That’s a legitimate question, but we should also be quick to ask, “What is my duty to the governing authority?” As followers of Christ, it is necessary for us to be in subjection to earthly authorities, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake (Romans 13:5). Several years ago, I tried to summarize what the Bible teaches concerning the Christian’s duty to the magistrate which you may read online here.

May we serve our God with a clear conscience as we seek to submit to those earthly authorities that He has appointed over us 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch