The Duties of Civil Magistrates
Lessons from the Westminster Confession of Faith
During this unusual season of global pandemic, government officials have shut down businesses, restricted travel, and banned gatherings of various sizes. Because of this, lawsuits have been filed and protests have sprung up across the country over what many see as government overreach and an infringement of their First Amendment rights.
It is beyond my purpose and scope to weigh the legal merits or infringements of these government actions in this article. Notwithstanding, this environment has raised some important questions related to the church’s response (in general) and the pastor’s response (in particular). While many articles have been written recently advocating the duties of citizens—being subject to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1)—I wanted to look at some of the duties of the civil magistrate.
As Christians living in this nation, we have a dual citizenship. We are citizens of the United States of America and citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). The apostle Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:27), enjoyed certain rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37), and even made appeals as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:1–12). As citizens of this nation, we too enjoy certain rights and may make appeals based on our citizenship.
However, we must recognize that we are also citizens of heaven. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). The Bible calls us “strangers,” “exiles on earth,” and “sojourners” who desire “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16; cf. 1 Pet. 2:11). We are pilgrims who are in the world, but not of it (John 17:14–16).
As US citizens, we enjoy the rights provided by our nation’s Constitution. As members of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), we enjoy the rights provided by our church’s Constitution—the Book of Church Order (BCO) and the Westminster Standards. It should go without saying that, as Christians, we must always obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29); there is a priority of biblical authority that we must never forget.
What are the Duties of Civil Magistrates?
In the PCA’s adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), chapter 23 is entitled “Of the Civil Magistrate.” It lays out a number of biblically wise, practical instructions for the duties of civil magistrates as well as the duties of those under civil magistrates. It should be noted that PCA pastors are required to subscribe to the Westminster Standards and, therefore, can and should address politics in biblical perspective. That’s not to say that pastors should “endorse” certain political candidates, but rather that they should address the roles of government and citizens from a biblical and confessional perspective.
While there are many helpful lessons found in WCF 23 (as a whole), I want to give you the text of section 3, which gives instruction on the duties of civil magistrates. I believe this section is particularly salient and relevant, given our current milieu. I’ve broken the section into four parts for your convenience:
Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith.
Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.
And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief.
It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.
As you can see, this part of the PCA’s Constitution emphasizes the fact that neither civil magistrates nor civil laws should “interfere” in matters of faith, and that they should not “hinder” the free exercise of that faith. Moreover, civil magistrates should see to it that Christians’ worship and ecclesiastical assemblies be held “without molestation or disturbance.” Basically, the government (including both civil magistrates and civil laws) has no right to dictate or control the worship, preaching, assembling, discipline, or any other matter of faith. On the contrary, civil magistrates should protect our churches and the “full, free, and unquestioned liberty” of the discharging of our sacred functions.
Arguing for limited government—especially related to matters of faith—isn’t just a right we enjoy as American citizens; it’s a right we enjoy as heavenly citizens. While Christians should be reminded of their duties to be subject to governing authorities, civil magistrates should be reminded of their duties as well, as outlined in WCF 23.3. As opinions vary as to the application of WCF 23.3 (e.g., whether or not to hold in-person worship or other church-related activities), many Christians are appealing to the US Constitution. That’s certainly lawful, but—as good Presbyterian and Reformed Christians—we can (and should) appeal to our ecclesiastical Constitution as well.
 It is beyond the purpose and scope of this article to weigh the pros and cons of the revision of WCF 23 to the original, especially section 3.