The Christian's Duty to the Magistrate

Dear Church Family,

Though you’ll most likely be reading this on Wednesday, November 7th (the day after election day), I’m writing this on Tuesday, November 6th (election day). As I write, the number of decided electoral votes in the presidential election stands at zero. So, I thought that this would be a good time to reflect and write about what are our responsibilities as Christians with respect to the civil magistrate. And, I’ll email this out tomorrow after which time, hopefully, there will be some resolution in the elections; however, regardless of the outcome, our responsibilities as disciples of the kingdom of God remain the same.

Here, our confession of faith helps in giving us guidance in this matter. Chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession of Faith is called Of the Civil Magistrate. It helps in defining the biblical role of the civil government, the relationship between the Church and the State, and the relationship between the individual Christian and the State. In speaking of this last one (the relationship between the individual believer and the civil government), the confession says that:

“It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted, much less hath the Pope any power and jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people and, least of all, to deprive them of their dominions, or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretence whatsoever.” (WCF 23:4)

The reference to the Pope reveals what was a major issue in 17th century England, namely the erroneous exertion of authority by a leader in the church over the power that rightfully belonged to the state. We should add that this applies not just to the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, but all religious leaders – including our own (a biblical point that is too often missed in our day (Matthew 16:19; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; John 18:36)). Now, with respect to our relationship to the government as individual Christians, we can summarize our biblical responsibilities under three basic categories:

(1) Pray for magistrates – God’s Word exhorts believers to make entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings on behalf of all men – and particularly “for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Regardless of who rules over us in the civil magistrate, we ought to thank God for those who are in authority over us, and petition God to providentially guide and direct them. Specifically, because God has given the power of the sword (physical violence) to the civil magistrate to protect and encourage people who do good and to punish evil doers (Romans 13:1-7), we are to pray that that sword is wielded with justice and equity so that we live peaceful lives, free from molestation, in order that we might ultimately grow in Christ-likeness.

(2) Pay tribute to magistrates – The confession uses this language: “to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues.” The Apostle Peter writes that we should honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, and he specifically says that we ought to “honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Similarly, Paul states that because those who rule over us are servants of God in administering the power of the sword, we are to render all that is due them: taxes, customs, fear, and honor (Romans 13:6-7). Amazingly, Paul wrote this concerning the same government which crucified Jesus and on numerous occasions, imprisoned and persecuted Christians.

(3) Submit and obey magistrates – We are to submit and obey those who have authority over us in the civil magistrate not only out of a sense of fear of the power of the sword which they wield, but also for conscience’ sake – because God has commanded us to do so (Romans 13:5; Titus 3:1). Concerning the commands of the magistrate, the confession adds the descriptor ‘lawful’ (“It is the duty of the people…to obey [the magistrate’s] lawful commands…) for a reason: when the commands of men conflict with the law of God, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

So, whatever the results of the national, state, and local elections may be, let us at least do these three things, and do them joyfully and with thanksgiving to God that he has preserved us from civic anarchy through the provision of the civil magistrate. Who rules over us and how they rule over us in earthly kingdoms (whatever country or state Christians find themselves living in) is important as we seek to live tranquil and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity; however, our earthly citizenship is not of ultimate importance.

The Apostle Paul appealed to the laws of the state and his rights as a Roman citizen when he was about to be tortured and interrogated by a Roman centurion (Acts 22:22-30). Yet, at the same time, Paul’s ultimate hope came from his appeal to his “citizenship in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:20-21).

Praise God for those who rule over us in the kingdoms of this world. And, praise God for Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and King of the kingdom of heaven!

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