Here of late I have been listening to John Gerstner (ligonier.org) give a series of lectures on The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) by Westminster Divines (ligonier.org). I have found the series rather interesting. I was especially fascinated by Chapter 23, Sec. 1-4 by John Gerstner from The Westminster Confession of Faith (ligonier.org). What is Chapter 23 about? The title is: Of the Civil Magistrate. The topic is the role of government and the Christian’s relationship with government.
How did Gerstner make that particular lecture so interesting? Imagine living in the 18th Century American colonies. You are serious Christian, maybe even the pastor of a church. What would have been your position on the impending conflict between the United Kingdom and the 13 American colonies?
Some would have turned to The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) by Westminster Divines (ligonier.org) to begin their quest for an answer. Why? The Bible is a much longer work. In an age when books were still scarce, The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) by Westminster Divines (ligonier.org) provided an excellent summary of Biblical principles. Moreover, better copies referenced the relevant passages that pertained to the principles enumerated in the text.
When Gerstner started talking about relationship between the The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) by Westminster Divines (ligonier.org) and The American Revolution, it hit me that here was the moral basis for Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience. I also began to wonder. What if our government gets much worse? What if our government more and more defends and encourages those that are doers of evil and punishes those that do good? Would we be justified in rebelling? When? At what point?
Below is the 1647 version of Chapter 23. Note that there are four sections. Gerstner said:
- Section 1 provided the logical basis for The American Revolution.
- Section 2 explains why we can rightly work for the government.
- Section 3 was completely rewritten in the American version in 1788, American Revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (opc.org).
- Section 4 calls upon us to obey and pray for our leaders. This section also deals with the Pope’s claims of temporal authority.
Do yourself a favor. Listen to Chapter 23, Sec. 1-4 by John Gerstner from The Westminster Confession of Faith (ligonier.org).
Of the Civil Magistrate.
I. 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 the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers.(a)
(a) Rom. 13:1, 2, 3, 4; I Pet. 2:13, 14.
II. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto;(b) in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth;(c) so for that end, they may lawfully now, under the New Testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.(d)
(b) Prov. 8:15, 16; Rom. 13:1, 2, 4.
(c) Ps. 2:10, 11, 12; I Tim. 2:2; Ps. 82:3, 4; II Sam. 23:3; I Pet. 2:13.
(d) Luke 3:14; Rom. 13:4; Matt. 8:9, 10; Acts 10:1, 2; Rev. 17:14, 16.
III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven:(e) yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be. preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed.(f) For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.(g)
(e) II Chron. 26:18 with Matt. 18:17 and Matt. 16:19; I Cor. 12:28, 29; Eph. 4:11, 12; I Cor. 4:1, 2; Rom. 10:15; Heb. 5:4.
(f) Isa. 49:23; Ps. 122:9; Ezra 7:23, 25, 26, 27, 28; Lev. 24:16; Deut. 13:5, 6, 12; I Kings 18:4; I Chron. 13:1 to 9; II Kings 23:1 to 26; II Chron. 34:33; II Chron. 15:12, 13.
(g) II Chron. 19:8, 9, 10, 11; II Chron. 29 and 30; Matt. 2:4, 5.
IV. It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates,(h) to honour their persons,(i) to pay them tribute or other dues,(k) to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake.(l) Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates’ just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them:(m) from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted,(n) much less hath the Pope any power and jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and, least of all, to deprive them of their dominions, or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretence whatsoever.(o)
(h) I Tim. 2:1, 2.
(i) I Pet. 2:17.
(k) Rom. 13:6, 7.
(l) Rom. 13:5; Tit. 3:1.
(m) I Pet. 2:13, 14, 16.
(n) Rom. 13:1; I Kings 2:35; Acts 25:9, 10, 11; II Pet. 2:1, 10, 11; Jude ver. 8, 9, 10, 11.
(o) II Thess. 2:4; Rev. 13:15, 16, 17.
Why must any rebellion be a battle between good and evil? Why not between two “goods” or even two “evils”? Deciding a good and bad “side” in order to justify fighting (killing) at all as having some higher purpose is just the usual personification of instinctual man coveting from each other. Hitler’s Wehrmacht had belt buckles inscribed with “Gott Mit Uns” (God is with us). By comparison, I am not aware of any of the Allies having any religious slogans carried into battle on their uniforms or anything else. The average German soldier thought his battles were as righteous in a spiritual sense as the average Allied soldier. Likely many German soldiers were Christian. But that was a battle of conquest and not a rebellion, right? Well… an act of open revolt against government is also an act of conquest… one side wanting to conquer the other.. all for retaining power or imposing power.
When men fight men, sinners fight sinners. So, war is not easily justified. At best, we can only point to our cause.
Imagine the problem President Abraham Lincoln had. The desire of some in the South to own other men had caused the war. but that was not what Lincoln pointed to as his cause. He fought to preserve the union.
In a sane world, slavery would not even exist, but this is not a sane world.
At the end of that war, Lincoln toured Richmond, VA, and a former slave kneeled to him.
In the end it’s all just “might makes right”… and if one needs a justification, anything will make sense as to the noble cause that required the sacrifice.
As to the current mumblings and grumblings about some “civil war” from the Right… it’s like the game of tic-tac-toe as played by the WOPR computer in the movie War Games… the only way to win is not to play the game.
If someone like Joseph Stalin stuck you in a gulag just for expressing a contrary opinion, would that be right? When a wealthy man buys a teenage girl from her poor parents so he can use her, is that right? And yet it seems the wicked prosper.
There is a psalm about that.