The Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter XXIII. Of the Civil Magistrate

Section 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 evildoers.

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


The Sacred Scriptures are a perfect "rule of faith and manners." They prescribe the duty incumbent upon men in every station and relations, whether as members of the Church or of the commonwealth - whether as rulers or as subjects. Any summary of Christian doctrine, therefore, which did not exhibit the duty of civil rulers, especially in reference to religion and the kingdom of Christ, would be extremely defective. This subject, accordingly, occupies a prominent place in the Confessions of all the Reformed Churches; and the harmony of these Confessions is a strong presumptive proof that the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures on this interesting topic is neither ambiguous nor "hard to be understood."

It is true that sects have sprung up, at various periods, which have held principles subversive of all civil government, and hostile especially to all interference of the civil magistrate about matters of religion. The German Anabaptists who, in the sixteenth century, produced such dreadful commotions, maintained that, "in the kingdom of Christ civil magistrates were absolutely useless." And even after their principles were modified by Menno, they "neither admitted civil rulers into their communion, nor allowed any of their members to perform the functions of magistracy." They also denied "the lawfulness of repelling force by force, and considered war, in all its shapes, as unchristian and unjust." Similar sentiments were broached by the English sectaries, at the period when the Westminster Assembly was sitting. Among the many pernicious errors vented at that time, we find the following: - "That "tis not lawful for a Christian to be a magistrate; but, upon turning Christian, he should lay down his magistracy: That it is unlawful for Christians to fight, and take up arms for their laws and civil liberties." It is well known that the lawfulness of war is still denied by the Society of Friends, or Quakers.

In opposition to such opinions, our Confession here teaches–I. That magistracy or civil government is the ordinance of God. II. That magistrates are appointed for the promotion of the public good, in subordination to the glory of God. III. That Christians may lawfully accept the office of a magistrate. IV. That magistrates ought to maintain piety as well as peace and justice. V. That they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions.

I. Magistracy, or civil government, is the ordinance of God. Several eminent writers have supposed that government is founded in the social compact; but it has been more generally held that government is founded in the will of God. When it is asserted that magistracy is a divine institution, it is not meant that it is of direct and express divine appointment, like the office of the gospel ministry. Nothing more is intended than that government is agreeable to the will of God. It is his will that the happiness of mankind be promoted. But government is indispensable to their happiness–to the preservation of peace and order–to the safety of life, liberty, and property. Nay, it is necessary to the very existence of any considerable number of mankind in a social state. The deduction natively follows, that it is the will of God that government should exist; and this deduction of reason is amply confirmed by the express declaration of an inspired apostle: "There is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God."–Rom. xiii. 1, 2. It is to be observed, that magistracy was instituted by God, as the moral Governor of the world, and is not derived from Christ as Mediator. This forms an important distinction between the civil and the ecclesiastical powers. "The King of nations," says Gillespie, "hath instituted the civi1 power; the King of saints hath instituted the ecclesiastical power. I mean, the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth, who exerciseth sovereignty over the workmanship of his own hands, and so over all mankind, hath instituted magistrates to be in his stead, as gods upon earth; but Jesus Grist, as Mediator and King of the Church, whom the Father hath set upon his holy hill of Zion (Ps. ii. 6), to reign over the house of Jacob for ever (Luke i. 33), who hath the key of the house of David upon his shoulder (Isa. xxii. 22), hath instituted an ecclesiastical power and government in the hands of Church officers, whom, in his name, he sendeth forth." It may be further remarked, that, although God has instituted civil government, yet he has not enjoined any one form of government as obligatory upon all communities; he has left it free to the several countries to choose that form which they think fittest for themselves; and in this respect the Apostle Peter calls it a the ordinance of man." - 1 Pet. ii. 13.

II. Magistrates are appointed for the promotion of the public good, in subordination to the glory of God. Magistrates are called "the ministers of God for good."–Rom. xiii. 4. They are invested with dignity and power, not for their own honour and advantage, but for promoting the welfare of society; especially "for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well." As this is the design of civil government, so this end is in some measure gained even by the worst of governments. But when this design is systematically and notoriously disregarded–when rulers become habitual tyrants, invading and overthrowing the liberties and privileges of the nation–the governed must have a right to remedy the evil. This is a principle essential to true liberty, and it was acted upon in our own country at the Revolution.

III. Christians may lawfully accept of the office of a magistrate. It cannot be questioned that, under the former dispensation, some of the most pious men, such as David, Josiah, and Hezekiah, exercised this office with the divine approbation. There are also many predictions which clearly intimate that Christians should execute this office under the New Testament dispensation.–Isa. xlix. 23, Ps. lxxii. 10,11. Those who consider it unlawful for Christians to bear such an office, chiefly rest their opinion upon the example of Christ (Luke xii. 14), and upon his declaration to his disciples.–Matt. xx. 25, 26. But though Christ came not to exercise temporal dominion, and though he repressed the ambitious temper which then manifested itself among his apostles, and interdicted them and the ministers of the gospel in succeeding ages from holding such an office, this does not exclude all Christians from executing that function. Were it unlawful for Christians to accept of the office of a magistrate, it would follow, either that there must be no magistrate at all in Christian countries–which would involve them in anarchy and dissolution–or else, that magistrates who are not Christians must be established among them; and who does not perceive the absurdity of this?

IV. Christian magistrates ought to maintain piety, as well as justice and peace. The apostle (2 Tim. ii. 1) exhorts, that prayers be made by Christians "for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." "What Christians are here to pray for, that magistrates must be bound to promote as their end; and this is not simply "a quiet and peaceable life,' but "in all godliness and honesty.' Rulers are not, in their official capacity, to be indifferent to godliness any more than to honesty; both are to be countenanced and promoted by them.–Ezra vi. 8-10."

V. Christian magistrates may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions. War must be regarded as a great evil, but in the present state of the world it is sometimes necessary; and if a nation were to adopt and act upon the principle that war is absolutely unlawful, it would soon become a prey to its ambitious neighbours. Under the Old Testament, wars were undertaken by the express command and with the approbation of God; but he could never command and approve of what is morally wrong. In the New Testament, too, there are various circumstances stated which countenance the lawfulness of magistrates waging war, and of Christians bearing arms. When the soldiers inquired of John what they should do, he said unto them, "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely;" but he did not command them to relinquish their profession, as unlawful; on the contrary, the precept which he added, "Be content with your wages," supposed them to continue in their situation.–Luke iii. 14. The first Gentile convert who was received into the Christian Church was a centurion; but Peter, when he baptised him, did not require him to give up his situation in the Roman army.–Acts x. To determine the several cases in which war may be justifiable would be out of place here; it may, however, be generally stated, that aggressive wars, or such as are undertaken to gratify views of ambition or worldly aggrandisement, cannot be justified; but that defensive wars, or those which, as to the first occasion of them, are defensive, though in their progress they must often be offensive, are lawful.

Section 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; 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, administered, and observed. 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.


In this section it was manifestly the object of the compilers of our Confession to guard equally against Erastian and Sectarian principles. In opposition to Erastian principles, according to which the government and discipline of the Church are devolved upon the civil magistrate, they declare that the magistrate may not take upon himself either the ministerial dispensation of the Word and sacraments, or any part of the government of the Church. But while they deny to the magistrate all ministerial or judicial power in the Church, in opposition to Erastians, yet, to guard against the other extreme, they assert, in opposition to the Sectarians of that age, that it is his duty to employ his influence and authority, in every way competent to him, for the good of the Church, and the advancement of the interests of true religion.

It is somewhat remarkable that parties holding the most opposite views, in regard to the power of the civil magistrate about religion and the connection between Church and State, have concurred in representing this section of our Confession as allowing to the civil magistrate a controlling power in and over the Church. The defenders of the recent interferences of the civil courts in matters strictly ecclesiastical, now homologated by the State or Legislature, have appealed to this section as sanctioning these interferences. The opponents of all civil establishments of religion, on the other hand, have put the same construction on this section, and have alleged that it does allow to the civil magistrate an Erastian power in and over the Church. "This, if true, would be very strange, considering that the Assembly who compiled it were engaged in a dispute against this very claim with the Parliament under whose protection they sat; and that, owing to their steady refusal to concede that power to the State (in which they were supported by the whole body of Presbyterians), the erection of presbyteries and synods in England was suspended." Independently of this important fact; it would be easy to adduce numerous declarations from the Confession itself more than sufficient to repel the imputation. These declarations will come under our consideration afterwards, and at present we only remark, that the Confession must be presumed to be consistent with itself; and if some detached phrases in this section may be thought to admit of a construction unfavourable to the freedom and independence of the Church, yet if these phrases are susceptible of an interpretation which harmonises with other explicit declarations respecting the independence of the Church and the sole headship of Christ over it, that interpretation ought certainly to be received as their true and intended import.

Before proceeding to explain the several clauses of this section, it will be proper to offer a few general remarks. In the first place, it may be observed, that by the civil magistrate is here meant the State, or supreme civil power of the nation. In the Confession, and in theological writings in general, the civil magistrate means, not the sovereign, acting singly and exclusively, but the government of the country, or the power which is entitled to frame the national laws, and to regulate national measures. In the second place, it is unquestionable, that what the Confession here teaches respecting the duty of the civil magistrate, belongs to him as a magistrate; for it says, "He hath authority" to do what is ascribed to him. He is to discharge the duty here assigned to him, not merely by his advice and example, as a Christian placed in an exalted station, but by his official authority and influence as a magistrate. But, in the third place, it is not less evident, that our Confession here speaks of such a magistrate as is also a Christian, making a profession of the true religion. To suppose that any other than a Christian magistrate can do the things here ascribed to the magistrate, is an absurdity too gross to be imputed to the Confession. In the fourth place, our Confession here teaches, that the advancement of religion, and the promotion of the interests of the Church of Christ, form an important pant of the official duty of Christian magistrates. Although the proper and immediate end of civil government, in subordination to God's glory, is the temporal good of men, yet the advancement of religion is an end which civil rulers, in the exercise of their city authority, are bound to aim at; for even this direct end of their office cannot be gained without the aids of religion. And although magistracy has its foundation in natural principles, and Christianity invests civil rulers with no new powers, yet it greatly enlarges the sphere of the operation of that power which they possess, as civil rulers, from the law of nature. That law binds the subjects of God's moral government, jointly and severally, to embrace and reduce to practice whatsoever God is pleased to reveal as the rule of their faith and duty. And therefore nations and their rulers, when favoured with divine revelation, should give their public countenance to the true religion; remove everything out of their civil constitution inconsistent with it, or tending to retard its progress; support and protect its functionaries in the discharge of their duty; and provide, in every way competent to them, that its salutary influence have free course, and be diffused through all orders and departments of society. The compilers of our Confession had not imbibed the doctrine, that the exercise of the magistrate's authority must be limited to the secular affairs of men, and that it is no part of his duty, in his official capacity, to aim at the promotion of the true religion. "Certainly," said an eminent member of the Westminster Assembly, "there is much power and authority, which by the Word of God, and by the Confessions of Faith of the Reformed Churches, doth belong to the Christian magistrate, in matters of religion."

But while our Confession undeniably teaches, that the civil magistrate is authorised to do something about religion and the Church of Christ; yet it lays certain restrictions and limitations upon the exercise of his authority in regard to these matters. According to our Confession, the civil magistrate must not assume a lordly supremacy over the Church; for a there is no other head of the Church; but the Lord Jesus Christ."–Chap. xxv., sect. 6. He must not interfere with her internal government; for "the Lord Jesus, as king and head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church-officers, distinct from the civil magistrate;" and "to these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed."–Chap. xxx., sect. 1, 2. He must not, as a magistrate, sustain himself a public judge of true or false religion, so as to dictate to his subjects in matters purely religious; for "it belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience," &c.–Chap. xxxi., sect. 3. In the first paragraph of the section now under consideration, there is another important limitation of the power of the civil magistrate in regard to the Church. It is expressly declared, that he may not take upon himself the administration of the her ordinances of worship: "He may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments." Neither may he take upon himself the administration of the government and discipline of the Church: "He may not assume to himself the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven." The keys, in the most extensive sense, include the whole ecclesiastical power, in distinction from the sword, or the civil power. But "the power of the keys," taken in its more limited sense, as it must be here, where it is distinguished from the administration of the Word and sacraments, just means the ordinary power of government, in the administration of the affairs of the Church; and more particularly, the right of authoritatively and judicially determining all questions that may arise as to the admission of men to ordinances and to office in the Church of Christ, and the infliction and relaxation of Church censures." This is not the only restriction laid upon the power of the civil magistrate in the present section. It is also plainly intimated, that, in the execution of the duty here entrusted to him, he must be regulated by the Word of God. He is not to act arbitrarily, but must be guided by the standard of God's Word. In regard to one important branch of the functions here assigned to him–that which concerns synods–it is expressly declared, that he is to see that "what is transacted in them be according to the mind of God"–the mind of God, as revealed in his Word, being thus distinctly prescribed as a rule to him, as it is to the ordinary members of synods. This principle was admitted by the Erastians of former times; for they conceded to their opponents, "that the Christian magistrate, in ordering and disposing of ecclesiastical causes and matters of religion, is tied to keep close to the rule of the Word of God; and that as he may not assume an arbitrary government of the State, so far less of the Church." It may be further added, that, according to our Confession, the civil magistrate is bound to act, in his official capacity, "according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth." - Sect. 2. Now, as our Confession of Faith is founded upon the Word of God, so it is embodied in our Statute-Book; and, therefore, when civil rulers assume a proper jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters, which the Confession has denied to them, their proceedings must be inconsistent at once with the Word of God and the law of the land.

Keeping these remarks in view, it will not be difficult to explain, in full consistency with the liberty and independence of the Church, this section of our Confession. The civil magistrate, it is declared, "hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order," &c. This cannot mean, that he is to accomplish the objects specified by all the ways in which it may be attempted; for, in the introductory clause, some of these are carefully excepted. it cannot mean, that he has a rightful jurisdiction in these matters, and is entitled to judge and determine them, not only for himself, but for the regulation of the conduct of others; for this would be to usurp the keys of the kingdom of heaven. It can only imply, that the matters specified are objects which he is entitled and bound to aim at, and to effect by such methods as are competent to him, without invading the jurisdiction of the Church.

The Confession specifies certain means which the civil magistrate may lawfully employ for effecting the objects mentioned: "For the better effecting whereof; he hath power to call synods." From this it cannot be inferred that ministers have not a power to meet of themselves in synods and assemblies, without being called by the civil magistrate; for in chapter xxxi. it is expressly declared that they have such power "of themselves, and by virtue of their office." The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, indeed, were of opinion that, in the chapter now referred to, the Confession is not sufficiently explicit in regard to the intrinsic power of the Church to call her own assemblies; and accordingly, in their Act of 1647, by which the Confession was approved, they expressly declare that they understood that part of it "only of kirks not settled or constituted in point of government;" and that explanation must apply equally to the section now before us. Our Confession, then, does not assert that the magistrate may exercise this power on all occasions, and in all circumstances, or whenever there are any evils of a religious kind to correct. It is sufficient that there may be times and circumstances in which he may warrantably exercise this power. When the state of the nation as well as of the Church may be convulsed, and its convulsions may be in a great degree owing to religious disorders, it is surely a high duty incumbent on him to take such a step, provided he finds it practicable and advisable. And such was the state of matters when the Westminster Assembly was convoked by the Parliament of England.

After stating that the magistrate has power to call synods, it is added, "To be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God." "Not to insist here," to use the language of Dr M'Crie, "that these words ought, in fair construction, to be understood of such synods as have been convoked by the magistrate, what reasonable objection can be made to his being present? May he not claim a right to be present at any public meeting within his dominions?–may he not be present in a synod to witness their proceedings, to preserve their external peace, to redress their grievances, or (why not?) to receive their advice or admonitions? But, if it be supposed that his presence is necessary to give validity to their proceedings, and that he sits as praeses of their meeting, or as director of their deliberations and votes, I shall only say, that the words of the Confession give not the slightest countenance to such claims, which are utterly inconsistent with the common principles of Presbyterians, and, in particular, with toe well-known and avowed principles of the Church of Scotland. A similar answer may be given to the objection against the last clause of the paragraph. May not any Christian, whatever his station be, "provide that whatsoever is transacted,' even in synods, "be according to the mind of God?' If the legislature or government of a nation have a special care about religion, or if there is any particular duty at all which they have to discharge respecting it, and particularly, if they have power in any case to call synods, must it not in a special manner be incumbent on them to see to this? Nor does this imply that they are in possession of any ecclesiastical powers, or that they pass a public judgment on true and false religion. Their private judgment is sufficient to regulate them in their public managements in this as well as on many other subjects about which they exercise their authority, without sustaining themselves as the proper judges of them, as in the case of many arts and sciences which they patronise and encourage. Must not Christian rulers, judges, and magistrates, provide that "whatsoever is transacted' by themselves "be according to the mind of God?' Is it not highly fit that they should be satisfied, and that they should, by every proper means, provide, that the determinations of synods be according to the mind of God, if they are afterwards to legalise them, or if they are to use their authority for removing all external obstructions out of the way of their being carried into effect; both of which they may do, without imposing them on the consciences of their subjects? And, in fine, are there not various ways in which they may provide, as here stated, without assuming a power foreign to their office, or intruding on the proper business of synods, or ecclesiastical courts? But if it be supposed that the magistrate, as the proper judge in such matters, is to control the deliberations of the ecclesiastical assembly–to prescribe and dictate to them what their decisions shall be; or that, when they have deliberated and decided, he may receive appeals from their decisions, or may bring the whole before his tribunal, and review, alter, and reverse their sentences, I have only to say, as formerly, that the words of the Confession give not the slightest countenance to such claims, which are utterly inconsistent with the common principles of Presbyterians, and, in particular, with the well-known and avowed principles and contendings of the Church of Scotland."

Section IV.–It is the duty of the people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate's just and legal authority, nor free the people from their obedience to him: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted; much less hath the Pope any power or 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.


1. This section, in the first place, states the duty of subjects towards their, rulers; and the proofs adduced by the compilers of our Confession clearly show that it is their duty to pray for the divine blessing upon them, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute, and to yield them a conscientious subjection and obedience in all their lawful commands.

2. It is affirmed, in opposition to a Popish tenet, that "infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate's just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to him." Christ himself paid tribute to Caesar, and his apostles inculcated upon Christians subjection to "the higher powers" then existing, although all these powers were heathen. It must be admitted, however, that nations favoured with supernatural revelation ought, in choosing their rulers, to have a respect to religious qualifications. And nations that have made great attainments in reformation, and pledged themselves, by national vows to the Most High, to hold fast their attainments, certainly ought, in setting up magistrates, to look out for those who will concur with them in the maintenance of the true religion, and rule them by laws subservient to its advancement. On this principle our Reformers acted; for they provided, by their deed of civil constitution, that the sovereign over these realms should be of the same religion with the people, and co-operate with them in prosecuting the ends of the national covenants. But where a magistrate has authority, by the will and consent of the body politic, or majority of a nation (this being what renders his authority "just and legal," according to the Word of God), "infidelity, or difference in religion, does not make void his authority;" nor release individuals, or a minority, from subjection and obedience to him in all lawful commands. With this principle, so clearly laid down in our Confession, accords the practice of "our reforming fathers in Scotland under Queen Mary, and of their successors during the first establishment of Episcopacy, and after the Restoration, down to the time at which the government degenerated into an open and avowed tyranny."

3. It is affirmed that "ecclesiastical persons are not exempted" from due obedience to the civil magistrate. This is an explicit denial of the Popish doctrine of the exemption of the persons and property of ecclesiastics from the jurisdiction of the ordinary criminal and civil tribunals. Our Confession decidedly maintains that the civil magistrate may not claim authority to control or overrule the office-bearers of the Church in the discharge of their proper functions; but it no less clearly teaches that ecclesiastical persons are not exempted from his authority in matters that fall under his rightful jurisdiction, as being of a civil nature. The apostolic injunction is general, and extends to all sorts of persons: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers."–Rom. xiii. 1. The expression every soul is very emphatic, and seems intended to bring the idea of the universality of the obligation more strongly out than the use of the ordinary phrase, every one, would have done. The civil and ecclesiastical authorities have separate and distinct jurisdictions. In ecclesiastical matters, civil rulers have no rightful jurisdiction; and in civil matters, ecclesiastical persons, as they are members of the commonwealth, are equally bound with others to be subject to the ruling authorities.

4. It is further affirmed, that the Pope hath no power or jurisdiction over magistrates in their dominions, or over any of their people. The Popes, when in the plenitude of their power, usurped a supremacy over the whole earth, in temporals as well as in spirituals. They pretended to have authority, by divine right, over kings and their dominions, and claimed a power to dispose of crowns and kingdoms at their pleasure. This arrogant claim they have, in innumerable instances, reduced to practice. They have deposed and excommunicated kings, on the ground of pretended heresy or schism–absolved their subjects from their allegiance, and transferred their dominions to others. Since the Reformation, however, the exorbitant power of the Pope has been greatly restrained. Protestants disclaim his authority, not only in temporal, but also in spiritual matters; and even in the most of those countries where his spiritual authority is still acknowledged, his temporal supremacy is disowned; but since Papists boast of the unchangeableness of their Church, and since the Roman Pontiffs lay claim to infallibility, it cannot be supposed that they have renounced their right to universal dominion; and should they again attain to power, it may be presumed that their ancient extravagant principles would be openly avowed, and their universal supremacy enforced as rigorously as in the darker ages. Every friend of civil and religious liberty ought, therefore, strenuously to resist every encroachment of "the Man of Sin, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called god."

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