The Role of the Civil Magistrate: Part 1

“God, the supreme Lord and King of the whole world, has ordained civil authorities to be under him and over the people, for his own glory and the public good. For this purpose he has armed them with the power of the sword, to defend and encourage those who do good and to punish evildoers.”- 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 24:1

There is a lot of talk today about what the appropriate role of government is. If you ask any random person on the street you will hear any number of responses from creating laws to providing healthcare and education, for some the government exists to fix roads and build bridges while for others they exist to provide protection and safety for citizens. Everything from housing to food to clothing to internet, you name it according to many, all of these are the role of government these days and to the Biden Administration, can be filed under “infrastructure.”

As we have seen the government do many things over the last year and onward that we never thought they would or even could do, deeming some people’s very livelihoods as “non-essential”, limiting the way that some businesses can function, even going so far as trying to dictate the way that religious people worship…and some religious leaders went along with it, but that’s a topic for another article, all of this has had many of us what is actually the role of a government? In my next 3 articles I intend to unpack the role of the civil magistrate from the Reformed Baptist perspective.

Chapter 24, Paragraph 1 of the 2nd London Baptist Confession states first that God is the supreme Lord and King of the whole world. That point bears repeating for any person reading this, Christian or not; Yahweh is the supreme Lord and King of the world. The title given to our Lord Jesus, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” is meant to declare Him as the one in whom all the kings of the world are accountable to, whether they acknowledge Him or not. Xerxes and Alexander will give an account before the Almighty and so will Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and likewise, so will you. But, why has the supreme Lord and King ordained these lesser kings to rule over us?

God has ordained civil authorities to be under him and over the people, for his own glory and the public good. What this implies is that government, in and of itself is a good and righteous thing. Sorry to break it to the Anarcho-Christian audience, but your position is an unbiblical one. Romans 13:1 states 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.” There is no Christian society that can operate without governance. Let’s examine the next three verses in Romans 1 and see the purpose for which God has ordained government.

Romans 1:2-4 states, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  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.”

In the above verses we see a purpose and a caveat. First the purpose, as the confession states, “For this purpose he has armed them with the power of the sword, to defend and encourage those who do good and to punish evildoers.” Government exists to encourage good behavior and to punish evil and as Romans 1:4 states, “he does not bear the sword in vain.” Government is supposed to be an instrument of justice to encourage the just, to defend the innocent and the weak, and to punish those who do evil among you with impunity. Note what isn’t mentioned, there is nothing about provision of needs, at all. It is not government’s role to educate, feed, clothe, house, provide healthcare, build or fix roads and bridges, or any other form of infrastructure. Their one role is to encourage good behavior and punish evil.

Now the caveat, is this passage stating that the Church must obey the government no matter what lest they incur judgment? If you know anything at all about the first century church, you know that’s not what Paul was teaching the Romans. The apostle Paul wrote this letter to a church under persecution who was being told that they could not preach Jesus, they could not gather in Jesus’ name, they could not baptize new converts or partake of the Lord’s Supper unless they also stated that Caesar was lord and offered a pinch of incense as tribute to a man who believed that he was a God. The penalty for denying the ultimate authority and divinity of Caesar was crucifixion. For some, the pinch of incense and lip service seemed a small sacrifice because after all, they didn’t believe it and then they could go on living a pain-free existence at peace with the culture and with God…right? Except no one can serve two masters and those who understood this knew that they must serve God and not man. They preached, they gathered, they baptized, they partook of the supper, they refused Caesar’s pinch of incense and they died as martyrs and when they were told of Caesar’s power to destroy them they answered just and the Lord did to Pilate, “You have no power except that which God has given you.”

Romans 1 is a picture of what the civil magistrate is supposed to be, but all too often, they are not. For those times, we have been given our marching orders and we must serve God and not men. While we are on this earth, we are the Church Militant, planting the flag of Zion on every hill the Lord will give us until the day that we are the Church Triumphant. Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. Christ the royal Master, leads against the foe. Forward into battle, see His banners Go! Go serve your King Christian and pray that your civil magistrate is a servant of Christ as well and while we can, vote for Christian candidates as well. Perhaps as you’ve been reading this, you have considered civil servitude yourself? Read Part 2 for some perspective on the subject.

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