Chapter 24

Chapter 24

1 God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil authorities to be under him

Contrary to much modern ideology, the foundation and legitimacy of human government does not reside in “the consent of the governed” or “the will of the majority,” but in the will of God. While some are busy trying to limit the sphere of God’s activity to some small part of life they label “the spiritual,” God is busy as the Sovereign of the whole world directing the affairs of states as well as of individuals. Governments do not operate outside the sphere of the Lord’s influence. They do not, they cannot operate independently of God. Whatever the validity there is to the separation between the powers of the church and the state, there can be no separation between the authority of God and the authority of the state. They function only at his leave and only for so long as he permits them. Though God makes use of secondary causes, ultimately those who govern us have power not because we have elected them or because they had the most support among the military leaders but because God has placed them in their position of authority. If Paul could say this of Roman emperors like Nero who persecuted Christians we certainly can agree that it is true of those who are elected to office in democracies like ours. “No particular form of government is designated in Scripture. And the Christian is not a liberty to render or to withhold obedience depending upon the type of government that exists” (Williamsom, 241).

and over the people,1 for his own glory and the public good.2

Civil authority is of divine origin, but this does not mean that civil authority is divine or absolute. God ordained human governments for a purpose. Ultimately the purpose of the government is to glorify God, and that is to be accomplished in the case of the state by promoting the public good. This purpose of government defines the limits of its power. It is ordained by God to suppress violence and injustice and to defend and promote what is civilly and socially good. When those who rule fail in promoting good, their judgments actually serve to promote injustice. The government brings glory to God by properly exercising its authority in the civic and social realm. This might include concerns in the areas of education, morals, physical prosperity, the protection of life and property, and the preservation of order. So long as the government fulfills this purpose the Christian must support, pray for and honor that government.

For this purpose he has armed them with the power of the sword, to defend and encourage those who do good, and to punish evil doers.3

To protect the safety of its citizens, to reassure those who seek to do good that order and justice they desire in society will be maintained and to punish the wicked the government has been given the powers of life and death. The testimony of the OT is very clear on the point that God gave the governing authorities in Israel the right to punish evildoers with death and it is equally clear that the Roman government in the NT days exercised that same power. When Paul wrote that the authorities did not bear the sword for nothing his readers would naturally have understood a reference, at minimum, to capital punishment (cf. Heb 11:37 for the use of this sword in putting people to death).

There has been a growing movement among some Christians that rejects the capital punishment as a legitimate exercise of the civil government. They do not deny that the Jews of the OT legitimately punished people with the death penalty, but argue that the NT commands to love and non-retaliation preclude modern governments from doing the same. Often times those who hold this position have a sentimentalized view of love that is unscriptural. They forget that the God who is love will one day judge and sentence to eternal death those who have been disobedient to him. Also, if we carried the idea of non-retaliation by government to is logical conclusions there could be no police and no courts to bring any criminal to justice. God has established government to maintain order and peace in society and has empowered it to do so with rights that do not belong to the individual. While it is true that we should be willing to turn the other cheek, if society as a whole lived by this rule there would be no suppression of man’s evil tendencies and no justice. This is not what God intends.

2 It is lawful for Christians to accept and carry out the duties of public office when called upon to so.4

If God has established our governing authorities (Rom 13:1) and their function is to promote good and restrain evil so that we might “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2) then how could we say this is a calling forbidden to Christians. “Indeed, in the highest sense, it is lawful for none other than Christians to be magistrates or anything else, since it is a violation of God’s will that any man is not a Christian. And the greater the number and the importance of the relations a man assumes, the greater becomes his obligation to be a Christian, in order that he may be qualified to discharge them all for the glory of God and the good of all concerned” (Alexander Hodge, 23:1-2:4).

In the performance of such office they are particularly responsible for maintaining justice and peace in accordance with the wholesome laws of the nation.

If a Christian takes on the duties of public office he is to execute his duties in accordance with the laws of the place where he lives. It is true that he has no more duty as a public official to obey an ungodly law than he does as a private citizen, but he is not to govern as though he lived in a theocracy either. His purpose is to enact and execute laws for the state that make for good citizens, not matters of doctrine that make for good church members.

It is at this point that our Baptist confession differs significantly from the Westminster confession as it was originally written. According to the Westminster confession the civil government had the authority and the duty to preserve order and unity in the church, to maintain doctrine that was pure and whole, to suppress heresy and all corruption in worship and discipline. American Presbyterians revised the confession so that the duty of civil authorities was only to protect the free and independent function of the church without giving preference to any particular denomination. Baptists needed to make no such revision for they were from the beginning advocates of religious freedom or what has often been called ‘soul liberty.’

There are a number of reasons for advocating this separation between the powers of the state and the church, three of which will be mentioned here. First, it is the function of the state to maintain order in society, and the fact is, people can and do differ widely in their religious beliefs without disrupting the peace and doing harm to one another. Second, the weapon given to the government to carry out its ordained duties is the sword, and the sword is not an effective tool for shaping the conscience of men. Third, if the state is involved in maintaining the purity of doctrine there is an inevitable confusion between the authority of the state and of the church with either the state ruling the church or the church ruling the state.

An objection that is sometimes raised to this separation between church and state is that civil authority should rule according to the Word of God. If the state so rules, how can it permit churches that teach doctrine contrary to that Word by which they rule? The answer to this question lies in the distinction between the basis of their authority and the purpose of their authority. The government should rule according to God’s Word, but should do so only in the sphere where God has granted them authority: the civil and social realms. I know that if I spare the rod I spoil the child and properly exercise such discipline in my home when necessary. This does not mean however that I should feel free to go into your home and freely exercise that same discipline. In a similar fashion it would be inappropriate for the state to step in where God has granted elders and pastors authority and assume the right to enforce their version of true and godly doctrine. Only to the extent that Scripture bears upon his ordained functions is the civil magistrate bound to fulfill the demands of Scripture in his role as an officer of the state. The government is not to enforce proper worship because that is not their job.

For that purpose they may (in terms of the New Testament) lawfully engage in war if it is just and necessary.5

If the God ordained functions of the state are lawful and good and if ‘bearing the sword’ includes the duty sometimes of waging war and if public office is not something forbidden to the Christian then it is only reasonable to assume that a believer in his capacity as a civil authority might exercise this duty. This does not mean a Christian leader may wage war on the basis of national interests or to fulfill a sense of manifest destiny for the cause must be both just and necessary. The Christian magistrate cannot go beyond his bounds as the “agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” in waging war.

Though the purpose of this confession is not to defend any theory of just war, it is nevertheless helpful to have some general idea as to what is meant by a war being “just”. Not every defender of this theory will state it in the same way, but a useful outline can be provided in seven brief principles. 1) Just cause. All aggression is condemned; only defensive war is legitimate. 2) Just intention. A just peace for all involved must be the desire. This eliminates revenge, conquest, economic gain and ideological supremacy as motives. 3) Last resort. War must be waged only when all attempts at negotiation and compromise have been tried and failed. 4) Formal declaration. Since war is the prerogative of governments, no individuals, a state of war must be officially declared by the governing authorities. 5) Limited objectives. If the purpose is peace, then unconditional surrender or the destruction of a nation’s economic or political institutions is unwarranted. 6) Proportionate means. The weaponry and force used should be limited to what is needed to repel the aggression and deter future attacks, that is, to secure a just peace. 7) Noncombatant immunity. Since war is an official act of government, only those who are officially agents of government may fight, and individuals not actively contributing to the conflict should be immune from attack. (Holmes, War, 120-121) The application of these principles in modern warfare poses problems that are not easy to resolve, but the primary intent of acknowledging the legitimacy of war while placing severe limits on it is still valid.

3 As civil authorities are established by God for the purposes given, we ought to be subject to6 all their lawful commands7 for the Lord’s sake, not merely to avoid punishment, but for conscience’ sake.

We ought also to make supplications and prayers for rulers and all who are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty.8

There are limits to religious freedom. When anyone’s religion disrupts civil justice or peace and threatens violence to others, then it must be restrained. Our prayer is to be for a ‘quiet and peaceable life.’ Those whose religious beliefs threaten the lives of others (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses rejection of blood transfusions for their children, bombing abortions clinics) must be restrained. Our greatest desire as Christians from government is not that they would take care of us, but that they would provide the kind of society in which we are free to pursue a life of godliness and honesty. To this end we ought to pray for all those to whom God has given authority.