A Baptist Confession: The Role of Civil Government

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| March 31, 2016

Historically, American Calvinistic Baptists have been fairly unified on their understanding of the role of civil government. They expressed their views in various confessions but the the Second London Baptist Confession was their mother confession. In Chapter 24, Of the Civil Magistrate, it provides the historic Calvinistic Baptist understanding of the role of civil government. It reads:

CHAPTER 24; OF THE CIVIL MAGISTRATE

Paragraph 1. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end has armed them with the power of the sword, for defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers.1

1 Rom. 13:1-4

Paragraph 2. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called thereunto; in the management whereof, as they ought especially to maintain justice and peace,2 according to the wholesome laws of each kingdom and commonwealth, so for that end they may lawfully now, under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions.3

2 2 Sam. 23:3; Ps. 82:3,4

3 Luke 3:14

Paragraph 3. Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience’ sake;4 and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty.5

4 Rom. 13:5-7; 1 Pet. 2:17

5 1 Tim. 2:1,2

This chapter is divided into 3 sections. Paragraph 1 is on God’s ordination of the civil magistrate. Paragraph 2 is about Christians who hold the office of civil magistrate. Paragraph 3 is about how Christians should submit to the civil magistrate. We’ll look at these one at a time.

Paragraph 1: God’s ordination of the civil magistrate.

It says, “God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end has armed them with the power of the sword, for defense and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers.”

First, notice that God himself ordained the civil magistrate. Some insist that the civil magistrate’s right to exist is founded upon a social contract, that the people are free to have a government or not. But government, according to the confession, is a divine institution, and God Himself has established it. The confession says that the civil magistrate is to be “under” God. Its authority is given by God and limited by God. Romans 13:1 says, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

Second, this paragraph affirms a twofold purpose of the civil magistrate. First, it says the government is to bring glory to God. Government glorifies God by ruling in its sphere according to the way God requires it to rule. It is to discharge its duties and exercise its authority without exceeding or neglecting its proper boundaries. Second, the government is to promote the public good. The government promotes the public good by a specific means, or instrument: the power of the sword. The sword is a tool of bloodshed and violence. God gives the government the power to coerce the submission of its subjects in all things lawful.

Third, it tells us that government is to use its power in two ways. First, it is to defend and encourage those who do good. It should use the sword to protect the weak and innocent. Second, government is to punish evil doers. Government should use the power of the sword to punish those who commit social evils.

Romans 13:3-4 discusses the power of the sword given to the government: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive his approval for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

“Doing good” and “doing evil” in the context of Romans 13 are defined by the moral law of God, revealed in the Ten Commandments. Romans 13:9 mentions commandments from the second table of the Ten Commandments, showing that government is primarily responsible to uphold social order by enforcing the social commandments of God’s moral law. So, there we see God’s ordination of the civil government along with the purpose of it.

Paragraph 2: Christians holding office as civil magistrates.

The confession says, “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called thereunto; in the management whereof, as they ought especially to maintain justice and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each kingdom and commonwealth, so for that end they may lawfully now, under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions.”

First, this paragraph says that Christians may hold the office of civil magistrate. The Anabaptists denied that Christians may be magistrates based on passages like the Sermon on the Mount which teach non-violence, but the Baptists insisted on a distinction between personal responsibilities and official responsibilities, and said that Christians may hold governmental office. While individuals may not do violence, the institution of the government is required to use violence to fulfill its God-given responsibilities. Christians may wield the sword as office bearers, but must turn the cheek as individuals.

2 Samuel 23:3-4 teaches that it’s good for rulers to fear God, which means it must be good for Christians to be rulers: “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning.” There is nothing inconsistent about Christians holding governmental office.

Second, it provides the specific responsibility of civil magistrates. It says they are to “maintain justice and peace according to the wholesome laws of each kingdom and commonwealth.” The responsibility of a ruler has to do with law. Rulers are to rule according to wholesome laws that are consistent with God’s laws. And by ruling according to wholesome laws, they will maintain justice and peace. Psalm 82:3-4 says, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Third, the confession says that civil magistrates may wage war under just and necessary conditions. It’s very clear that the purpose of war must be justice and peace. Christ cannot have been opposed to war, since when Roman soldiers asked Him what they should do, He did not tell them to get out of the army. Instead, He told them to behave justly and be content as soldiers. Luke 3:14 says, “Soldiers asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?,’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats and accusation, and be content with your wages.’”

Paragraph 3: The relationship between Christians and the civil magistrate.

As we move to the third paragraph, I’ll note that the Second London Confession leaves out a paragraph that is found in the Westminster Confession and in the Savoy Declaration. Paragraph 3 in the original Westminster Confession denies the civil magistrate the power to administer the Word and sacrament, but it gives the civil magistrate the power to punish heretics and blasphemers and to correct corruptions in worship and discipline. Paragraph 3 in the Savoy Declaration also says the government has the power to suppress the publication of blasphemy and serious heresies, but should allow men to differ on secondary doctrines, such as the nature of the church. Baptists strongly disagreed with both the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists that the government is given such powers by the Word of God. Paragraph 3 in the Second London Confession is about the relationship between Christians and the civil magistrate. This paragraph is virtually identical to a paragraph in the First London Confession.

It says, “Civil magistrates being set up by God, for the ends aforesaid; subjection in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us, in the Lord; not only for wrath but for conscience sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings, and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.”

First, this tells us how Christians should be subject to the civil magistrate. It clearly says that Christians should be subject to the government in all things lawful. So, when the government makes requirements of us that do not violate the law of God, we must yield obedience to it. This is another reason it’s so important that Baptists recover a clear doctrine of the law of God. We need to understand where we’re required to obey the government and where doing so would violate God’s law. The confession also says that we should be subject to the government, not just to avoid wrath or punishment, but for conscience sake. That means we should submit to the government because it is the right thing to do. It’s an act of obedience to God Himself. Romans 13:1-2 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Second, the confession tells us to pray for our governmental leaders. We should make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority. And it tells us why we should pray for them. The goal of our prayers is that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and honesty. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

So, there we have the teaching of the Second London Confession on the civil magistrate. May the Lord give Christians wisdom to choose leaders who understand the responsibilities of government, who lead in accordance with the biblical parameters of government, and who submit to civil government for conscience sake.

Christ Perfectly Fulfills the Office of Civil Magistrate

Lastly, we thank God for Jesus Christ who perfectly fulfills the office of the civil magistrate. He defends His people and promotes their good. He upholds just law. And He only wages just warfare. We long for His return and the day when the government will be fully upon His shoulders. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. We long for His return, when He will right all injustices, rule with wisdom, and when the glorified kings of the nations will bring their glory into the new Jerusalem.