WCF 23: Of the Civil Magistrate

The topic of civil government is complicated; not so much because of what the Bible says about it but because of our disparate political opinions and experiences. The civic convictions of Christians seem to depend on which party is presently in office. When our party is in control we have a more vigorous view of government; when our party loses power we are more skeptical of authority.

This is not good. Scripture doesn’t change. Neither should our basic convictions change based on the political regime in power. We honor God best when we submit to his rule even when he uses unjust people to lead us.


A Theology of Government

Scripture presents four big truths on the topic of government.


God Ordains Civil Magistrates

There is one supreme Lord and King of all the world. Christ has “dominion from sea to sea” (Ps. 72:8). So “There is no authority except from God” (Rom. 13:1; cf. John 19:11). If we miss this point either we will claim independence from the state or we will ascribe autonomy to the state. But God’s delegated leaders are under him and over the people (Dan. 4:25). The state is not autonomous. Nor can we refuse to be governed. God’s appointed leaders must rule for his glory and the public good, reflecting the general character of God who is just and merciful (Ps. 82:3, 4).


God Arms Governments with the Sword (Rom. 13:4)

God is for peace. But in a fallen world peace is maintained by strength. This is why government can be simply defined as “legal force.”[i] Under God a just government will use lawful means to protect its citizens against domestic and foreign threats. Governments should use the sword to defend the most vulnerable, whether children in the womb, the poor, or strangers and immigrants (Deut. 24:17). The state should use the sword to punish evildoers, firmly and swiftly. Governments may also use the sword to wage war. As we would relate to any extreme remedy, Christians should be both generally anti-war and supportive of war when necessary and just.


Believers May Serve as Soldiers and Magistrates

Throughout history some Christians have viewed government so negatively that they believed it sinful for believers to be civil servants or soldiers. But Peter assumes that some “masters” will be “good and gentle”—essential Christian qualities. In Scripture godly people exercise civil authority (Acts 10:1, 2). John the Baptist didn’t tell converted tax collectors and soldiers to change professions but to fulfill their callings christianly. Part of how believers serve as salt and light in the world is by living like Jesus in every noble occupation.


Government, Even under God, Is Poisoned by Sin

When Israel demanded a king other than God, the Lord warned that human government after the fall tends to overreach; Israel’s king would draft her men into armed service, and force other citizens into hard labor. He would confiscate the people’s land (1 Sam. 8:10–18). So it is today. This is the reality of life in a fallen world. It will not be so in the age to come. Then, as in the garden, God will be our God and will rule with satisfying goodness. Until then we recognize that government is inescapably imperfect, sometimes radically so. But God still uses it.


The Mutual Responsibilities of Church and State

The church and state are related but distinct spheres over both of which Christ rules with supreme authority. We must not “conflate the two kingdoms.” Neither may we “deny that Christ is Lord over the whole of creation.”[ii] So under God the state and the church must respect each other.


The Duties of the State toward the Church

The reformed understanding of church-state relations has developed over the last 500 years. European reformation believers assumed an established religion—a faith authorized, protected, and promoted by the government. To too great an extent the older faith failed to see that no modern nation carries a favored status like Old Testament Israel. Today the elect are scattered exiles living among the nations (1 Peter 1:1). Christ’s kingdom is not an empire of this world (John 18:36). With this understanding eighteenth-century American Presbyterians revised the confession to reflect this truth.

Being distinct from the church the state must respect the prerogatives of the church. The state may not do the church’s work, establishing dogma or punishing heretics. The state should, however protect the church. If the church is a voluntary organization that practices and promotes “good conduct” it must be allowed to do its work unhindered (Rom. 13:3). The state may not tell believers to stop worshipping God or force Christians to violate their consciences by celebrating sins like homosexuality. The church is not an extension of the state.


The Duties of Christians toward the State

Christians are not exempt from civic responsibilities. This is true even when leaders are infidels or heretics. We may not be anti-government even if we oppose the principles and actions of many who govern.

Christians must pray for leaders (1 Tim. 2:1, 2). Pray for the success of godly candidates. Pray for the integrity of elections. Pray for the conversion of those in office. Pray for their safety. Pray that they would practice courage, integrity, and wisdom. If appropriate, pray for their removal. Christians must also honor their leaders. This doesn’t mean treating officials like gods or fearing to criticize their errors. It means having the impulse of respect and a reluctance to slander. We should be like the angels, wary of condemning God’s anointed ones before the Lord does (2 Peter 2:11). Finally, Christians must pay dues and obey lawful commands. The paying of dues and taxes and submission to law is part of the cost of community. You must disobey those who command you to sin (Acts 5:29). But you may not disobey codes that are merely burdensome or unfai­­­r—this is expected as part of any societal bargain. God-honoring compliance is essential for maintaining both an orderly society and a clear conscience before God (Rom. 13:5).

If this sounds like Christian civics 101, it is and it isn’t. God does care about the conduct of leaders and how citizens relate to government. But Christian civics also helps us know and love Christ. For Peter, teaching on civil government easily led to exalting the ministry of our Lord in both his humiliation and glory. Peter assumes that sinful leaders will mistreat believers. Properly submitting to such injury is part of how we fulfill our calling to follow Jesus. The King of kings became a lowly servant. The sinless one accepted unjust accusations. Our Savior suffered under God’s hand through human leaders. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree … by his wounds you have been healed.” Our true Shepherd is gathering his wandering sheep (1 Peter 2:24, 25). Jesus changes the eternity and present mentality of believers. So surely he is worthy of our submission as he rules in and through other sinners.

William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.

[i] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, 509.

[ii] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, 514.


William Boekestein