Of the Civil Magistrate

Chapter 24: Second London Confession

Baptist Protestantism

Embracing a full and enthusiastic consent to the leading doctrines of the Reformation, particularly in its English Puritan form, Baptists made their most formative contribution in ecclesiology and their consequent understanding of the relation of the church to the state. The preface explained the desire of the compilers of this confession to express their doctrines , as much as possible, in the same words as those of the Westminster Divines and the Savoy Declaration. They agreed in the ”fundamental articles of the Christian religion” with both but also “with many others whose orthodox confessions have been published to the World, on behalf of the protestants in diverse nations and cities.”

They diverged clearly on the New Testament practice and doctrine of baptism, affirming that both in command and in example it was to be given to believers only. This meant that using infant baptism as a glue for national religion was impossible, and so the emerging Baptists of the 17th century formed their churches, not on the state-church parish system, but from believers only. As a result, they would argue for massive changes in the entire concept of society and politics in all of so-called Christendom. Since the church should be formed only of those who were convinced of the gospel’s truth, there could be no forced professions of Christianity or inherited religious persuasion. Liberty of conscience was demanded for political entities if the government was to function in its lawful sphere and if the church was to be formed by New Testament principles. Separation of church and state, the freedom of the individual conscience in matters of worship, and the limitation of the sphere of government to the lawful relations between persons and other nations would become a Baptist political ideal and would produce Western democracy.

Anabaptist Influence

When Anabaptism arose in Switzerland and spread across Europe, with few exceptions, it was pacifistic and prohibited its devotees from participation in civil government. Several factors contributed to this conviction. Much of the function of government was bound up in the persecution of religious dissent and the conducting of wars of religion. Also, a major civil function was the use of the sword in taking vengeance on evil-doers, a practice specifically forbidden to the Christian.

When John Smyth adopted Baptist views in Holland, he adopted soon thereafter their view of the magistrate. He professed, “that the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion.” Men are to be free and the magistrate may “handle only civil transgressions.” So far so good. He went on to say, “That if the magistrate will follow Christ, and be his disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Christ; he must love his enemies and not kill them, he must pray for them, and not punish them, . . . he must suffer persecution and affliction with Christ, . . . and that by the authority of magistrates, which things he cannot possible do, and retain the revenge of the sword.” Magisterial functions were so bound up in the state church system, but also in contradiction to specifics of Christian discipleship, that no Christian could serve as a magistrate.

Thomas Helwys Demurs

Thomas Helwys, a friend and strong supporter of Smyth in most of his doctrinal and ecclesiological pilgrimage, stepped back from Smyth at this point. He published a confession of faith demonstrating many areas of agreement with Smyth but also isolating some distinctly important points of disagreement. He affirmed believers’ baptism, the autonomy of each local church, the necessity of discipline, worship on the Lord’s day, that church offices consisted of elders and deacons to be elected by “that church or congregation whereof they are members.” The church’s officers were to function with biblically ordained authority in that local congregation and could have no authority in any other congregation. The magistracy, however, “is a holy ordinance of God.” Every soul should be subject to it for conscience sake since they serve for the well-being of all citizens. Their function as magistrates makes it legitimate to bear the sword as “ministers of God [and] to take vengeance on them that doe evil.” Christians should pray for them for “God would have them saved and come to the knowledge of his truth.” Magistrates converted would not have to cease being magistrates but may retain the position, “for no Holie Ordinance of God debarreth any from being a member of Christ’s church.” Helwys took special exception to the pacifistic position of the Mennonites writing, “They bear the sword of God, which sword in all lawful administrations is to be defended and supported by the servants of God that are under their government with their lives and all that they have.” Should a person hold otherwise, they must conclude that magistracy is not an institution of God but of the devil.

This affirmation of the scriptural role of the magistrate did not include his authority in the consciences of men or in the church of the Lord Jesus. Helwys makes this abundantly clear in his A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity. This work is available in Joe B. Early, The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys printed in 2009 by Mercer University Press of Macon, Georgia.  Early wrote, “It is the first book in the English language to call for the king to grant complete freedom of conscience in religious matters.” (155) The king himself [James I at the time of the writing] must be subject to King Jesus, who is “a heavenly, spiritual king who requires spiritual obedience.” England’s king, therefore, “cannot as king have power over this kingdom, temple, tabernacle, house, and people of God in respect of the religion of God because our lord the king’s kingdom is an earthly kingdom.” (215) Englishmen owe to the king all “earthly obedience, service, and duty, which ought to suffice any earthly man.” Even with the followers of antichrist, the devotees of papist religion, the king has no power over their religion as long as they do their civil duty to him in all things. Helwys makes the famous statement of universal liberty of conscience: “For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. If the king’s people are obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king will not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it does not appertain to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” (209) In a handwritten note at the end of one of the four extant volumes originally printed, Helwys state, “The king is a mortal man and not God; therefore, he has no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual lords over them.” (156) Soon after his return to England, Helwys was imprisoned and died there. His co-pastor of the congregation, John Murton, who succeeded him as pastor, also wrote a work on liberty of conscience and likewise died in prison.

Particular Baptists Position Themselves

Among the rumors that spread about Baptists in the fourth decade of the seventeenth century was that they were revolutionaries who did not believe in the legitimacy of civil government. John Spilsbury, arguably the first pastor of a Particular Baptist church, wrote a ten article confession around 1643.’ Article 9 stated, “I do believe the powers that are, as the civil magistrates, and so are of God, to whom God hath committed the Sword of justice, for the punishing of evil doers, and for the good of such as do well, in which respect they ought to be honored, obeyed, and assisted by all men, and of Christians especially, and that out of conscience to God, whose ordinance and ministers they are, and bear not the sword in vain, Rom. 13, I Peter 2, Tit. 3.”

Spilsbury also was instrumental in composing and one of the signatories of the First London Confession of 1644. The preface stated as one of its purposes a refutation of the accusation that they disclaimed “Magistracy, denying to assist them either in persons or purse in any of their lawfull commands.” To counter this scandalous rumor, These Baptists placed five articles concerning the magistrate near the end of the confession, articles 48-52. They affirmed “that a civil magistrate is an ordinance of God set up by God for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well.” King and Parliament, freely chosen by the kingdom, enact the civil laws to which each person should yield subjection and obedience in all lawful things. They could not, however, presently submit to “some ecclesiastical laws, which might be conceived by them to be their duties to establish which we for the present could not see nor our conscience submit unto.” Even at that, they were willing to suffer the consequences of their disobedience to the ecclesiastical laws, but did hope that through divine mercy the magistrate’s heart would “tender our consciences, as that we might be protected by them from wrong, injury, oppression, and molestation.” Should that not be the case, however, they could not suspend their practice, but in obedience to Christ must not count as dear to them their goods, lands, wives, children, fathers, mothers, “yea, and our own lives.”

In the year this confession was written, Roger Williams went to England to present an appeal to Parliament to avoid a state church alliance implied in the Solemn League and Covenant. He published a lengthy plea for liberty of conscience entitled The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. In this he integrated his theological exposition of liberty of conscience within a narrative of John Cotton’s defense of the magistrate’s enforcement of religious uniformity. All of this was in the framework of a defense of John Murton’s prison epistle on liberty of conscience. In the same year, 1644, Christopher Blackwood wrote a piece on the same subject. He had been converted to an affirmation of believers’ baptism and thus to a disapproval of the established church and any attempt to force the consciences of men. He wrote a work entitled The Storming of Antichrist in his two last and strongest Garrisons; of Compulsion of Conscience, and infants Babtisme [sic].He argues at length from a large number of Scripture passages that the magistrate has no power to seek to force the conscience. Such an event is impossible by its very nature, for the conscience is not responsive to external physical power but only “according as the strength of the arguments present themselves to his understanding, therefore it is not just that he should be punished, for [not] believing what he cannot see grounds to believe, there being no voluntariness therein.”

After Parliament beheaded Charles I, a ten-year respite from forced conscience came during the Commonwealth and Cromwell’s protectorate. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 with the return of Charles II, a period of intolerance and persecution ensued. Lord Clarendon saw to it that Parliament passed four acts, known as the Clarendon Code, that progressively placed more oppressive restrictions and greater penalties on all dissenters from the Church of England. Fear of Catholicism in the reign of James II led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the adoption of the Act of Toleration in 1689. In that year, the Particular Baptists set forth publicly the Second London Confession which had been first adopted and printed in 1677.

The Confessional Statement

In light of the substantial literary production on liberty of conscience, independency of churches, regenerate church membership, and the irrelevance of civil government to the being or the flourishing of  the church of Jesus Christ, one would expect some polemic on that issue in the confession’s article on magistrates. Perhaps, however, such expectation would be misguided given the time of its writing and the scriptural intent of the confession. They had already written much, made their arguments with coherent biblical exegesis, theological reasoning, and suffering courage. In this article, they wanted to state as simply as possible the positive doctrine of Scripture. They would not deny the validity of the magistrate; nor would they go beyond what is clearly affirmed in the relevant texts. Their loudest statement of protest came in what they omitted from the statement in the Westminster Confession of Faith. We will look at each of the three paragraphs in this chapter.

  1. 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 defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers. (Romans 13:1-4)

This paragraph maintains all the words of the Westminster. WCF adds 1 Peter 2:13 as a proof text. This paragraph affirms the principle that God demonstrates the necessity of authority in society by establishing authority in different spheres. In the fifth commandment, parental authority is affirmed as an example of how God delegates this in society. God is the ultimate authority and we shall no other gods before, or alongside, him. Even those to whom he delegates authority do not replace the ultimate responsibility of each image-bearer to submit to God alone –“under him, over the people, for his own glory.” In any conflict between authorities, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:18-20). God, parents, magistrates, and masters are given as correspondents to the infinite paradigmatic authority of God (Ephesians 5:22-6:9; Colossians 3:16-4:1; Titus 2:1-10; 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-3:7). They show us that without authority, all social relations and attempts at human flourishing will fragment and become destructive—“and the public good.” This should lead all to see that ultimately, only an infinitely wise, just, and righteous authority will bring a final state of perfect equity based on holy love and perfect impartiality. Till then, magistrates are granted powers—“hath armed them with the power of the sword”—of both reward and punishment as they seek to emulate the divine perfection to encourage those who do good and punish those who do evil.

  1. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called there unto; 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. (2 Samuel 23:3; Psalms 82:3, 4; Luke 3:14)

One word appeared in the WCF that was omitted in the 2LC. Instead of “maintain justice,” etc. the WCF inserted “to maintain piety, justice” etc. The Baptists would not have the magistrate insert any of his power into the divine prerogative of creating and maintaining piety in his people. That is the function of the Holy Spirt by the word of God under the faithful labors of God-called ministers of the word in the context of the church. If the word “piety” were maintained, the Baptists would affirm the lawfulness of such power. Given their amendment, Particular Baptists affirmed the right of Christians to serve as magistrates and perform all the necessary functions to maintain stability and justice within and freedom from threatening aggression from without. “Just and necessary occasions” would imply the Augustinian and Reformed position on “just war.”

  1. 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. (Romans 13:5-7; 1 Peter 2:17; 1 Timothy 2:1, 2)

This simple statement is a clear application of the three passages listed as proof-texts. We yield to their laws and judgments, not only for fear of punishment, but because God has established his own authority in their rule (“for conscience sake”). Also, we are to pray for them. Though the Christian can expect tribulation in this life, though he is pledged to take up the cross and follow Christ, it is not wrong to desire that “we may live a quiet and peaceable life” and that in such a state we may not achieve it by compromise, but in “all godliness and honesty.” It is legitimate for churches to include prayers for magisterial authorities that they will function with wisdom and impartiality, that they may be protected as they seek to protect those under their sphere of authority.

The Baptists by silence on this paragraph issued a loud protest against the assertion of the WCF. It claimed that, among the magistrate’s duties, was the preservation of “unity and peace” in the church, and “that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruption and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed.” He also had the right to call synods and make sure that their decisions were “according to the mind of God.” That, of course, makes the Presbyterian and Puritan assumption that the established church should be continued, and that the magistrate would somehow have extraordinary gifts for such decisions.

This position assumes a direct continuity between Israel and political entities subsequent to the coming of Christ. It assumes that earthly kings have the same authority and duties of the king in that covenanted society. It does not embrace the distinction between Israel as an elect nation and the church as the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” These people are not all of any nation but are to be looked upon as “sojourners and exiles” who once were “not a people, but now the people of God” (1 Peter 2:9-11).

A question arises as the authority of the government over church gatherings in a time of deep health crisis. In these cases, if the prohibitions are given to the general population, businesses, schools, recreation facilities, cruise companies, sports venues and are given for the sake of the health and safety of the general population, then the institution of such a policy is not aimed at the religious liberty of the church, but is an expression of concern for the population as a whole. This is the proper sphere of government and authority should be conceded to it “for the public good.” Churches should do all they can to show genuine concern, use innovative methods for the maintenance of body life and gospel witness, and seek the health of their neighbors according to the wisest counsel available.


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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