The Authority and Purpose of Civil Magistrates

Dear Church Family,

In our current sermon series in the Gospel of John, we are in the midst of Jesus’ trial before Pilate (John 18:28-19:16). This past Sunday, we saw how Jesus testified before Pilate concerning His kingship, summarized in these words, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). This coming Sunday, as Jesus is physically scourged and beaten and while Pilate debates with the Jewish authorities about Jesus’ innocence, we will see how Jesus bears testimony to the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world – particularly earthly rulers.

So, at this point, I thought it might be good to remind ourselves of what the Bible teaches about the role and responsibilities of the civil magistrate. To begin, consider how the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the Bible’s teaching about the authority and purpose of civil magistrates (earthly governing authorities):

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 defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 23:1)

 

We may summarize the teaching of this paragraph in three points:

(1) God is Lord and King of all the world.

(2) God ordained civil magistrates to be under Him, and over the people for His glory and the public good.

(3) God has given the civil magistrates the power of the sword (physical violence) to protect and encourage people who do good, and to punish evil doers.

Many passages of Scripture speak to these points, but let’s just consider two. First, the Apostle Paul speaks of the authority and purpose earthly governing authorities in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans:

1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;  4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.  5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.  6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.  7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1-7)

 

Here are some things that we learn from this passage.

(1) Each and every earthly governing authority is established by God and derives its authority from Him. Therefore, every person (believer and unbeliever alike) is to be in subjection to them.

(2) Resisting earthly governing authorities is tantamount to opposing God, and brings condemnation upon the one who resists.

(3) Earthly governing authorities rule for the purpose of punishing evil behavior (meting out the wrath of God) and praising good behavior. Therefore, we ought to do good and not fear earthly authorities.

(4) Believers submit to earthly governing authorities not just to avoid wrathful consequences, but because of the inward witness of our conscience.

(5) Because God has given these responsibilities to earthly governing authorities (punish evil, praise good), we ought to give what is due them: taxes, custom, fear, and honor.

These are important and powerful exhortations for Christians today. Unfortunately, many Christians, by default, see themselves as opposed to civil magistrates and governing authorities. To be sure, some governments are more just and lawful than others – some are manifestations of oppressive tyranny. But, regardless of the kind of government we live under, God’s Word commands the followers of Christ to pay taxes, fear, render honor and custom that is due those who rule over us.

The Apostle Peter reiterates these very sentiments about how we ought to submit to kings and human institutions of civil authority:

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority,  14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14)

 

Conclusion

There is much more that may be said about the relationship between the church and the state, as well as the relationship between the individual Christian and the state (I’ve written before on the Christian’s duty to the magistrate here). But, just this brief overview of what the Bible teaches about the authority and purpose of the civil magistrate ought to caution and convict us about how we think, speak, and behave with regard to those earthly authorities that God has appointed over us.

To put it as simply as possible: earthly rulers have authority over us, and have that authority delegated to them by God. Therefore, let us remember to pray for them, pay tribute, submit and obey their lawful commands.

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