Articles on Morality and the Law of God

An Essay Detecting Some of the Errors Concerning God’s Ordinance of Civil Magistracy by James Douglas (1779-1857)



To the general position, that magistracy originates in the law or light of nature, it is not particularly objected; but it is first necessary to inquire, what is the light or law of nature. The question, I presume, is answered, Rom. 2:14,15. “The Gentiles, which have not the (written) law, do by nature the things contained in the law,–which shew the work (or matter) of the law written in their hearts.” What is this but the remainder of the moral law, originally written or put into the heart of man, in his creation-state? Then the hackneyed expressions of magistracy originating in the law of nature, amount to nothing more nor less than this;–that it originates in the moral law of God. On the same principle, it may be said of every other moral duty, that it originates in the light or law of nature. But it is one grand design of divine revelation to explain, illustrate and enforce the moral law. And is not every part of the moral law rendered hereby infinitely more luminous and plain, than it can possibly be in a state of uncivilized nature? Then how extremely absurd and unchristian is it, to abandon the light that God has, in his word, cast upon any moral duty, and go to learn the import and extent of that duty from the heathen world? Magistracy is this very circumstance. It originates in the moral law. It is found existing in a very imperfect state in the heathen condition of mankind. But God has incorporated it, like other moral duties, in the word;–has clearly pointed out its boundaries, and specified the duties that belong to it. If the light of nature on the subject of magistracy were sufficient, why so much in scripture about it? It occupies no inconsiderable part of the sacred volume. So great is its extent and importance, (for it has respect to every precept of divine law) that God has been pleased to appoint an order of men for the execution of its laws. Their characters and duties are also clearly pointed out; for the scriptures insist as much on the qualifications and duties of rulers, as on the obedience of subjects. Those who are qualified and act according to the word of God, are honoured with the appellation of “gods” [Ps. 82], as representing God, whose image they bear, as the moral Governor of the world;–are called God’s ministers [Rom. 13:4,6], as acting by his authority, for his honour, and the interests of his church in the world [Isa. 49:23; 60:12]. And the office itself is designed the ordinance of God [Rom. 13:2], because ordained or appointed by him in the volume of his word. In 1 Pet. 2:13, it is called the ordinance of man. By this I understand that God has not specified the particular form of government, that shall always and in all places be observed; but has left it to society to institute what particular form they find most suitable to their circumstances. He has given particular instructions to be observed in the appointment of rulers, however, whether supreme or subordinate; for the original term king, denoting the head of a commonwealth, whether denominated king, president, or emperor, is also generic, embracing all in civil authority, both in the legislative and executive departments: as it is said in the passage now quoted;–”whether to the king as supreme; or unto governors, that are sent by him, for the punishment of evildoers, and the praise of them that do well.” Here, as in the 13th of the Romans, where the injunctions to obedience are given, the character is also described to whom obedience is due. To observe this connection, which is established in the word of God, and should never be separated, is not only reasonable but indispensable. Yet those acting a dutiful part in this respect, have been subjected to the greatest slander and reproach, by the supporters of the heathen scheme of magistracy.

From the foregoing view, it is not too much to infer, that where qualifications and administrations according to the word of God are awanting [i.e., lacking], the ordinance of God is also awanting. Nor, in such a predicament, are the rulers to be recognized as the ministers of God. What is it that makes any thing the ordinance of God? It is when what he has appointed is done according to his word. It is on this account we are required to be subject for the Lord’s sake; which is the same as to obey in the Lord. It is not enough that the thing be of divine appointment; it must also be done according to God’s appointment. Otherwise, it is but a name without a reality; it is a body without life, and is entitled to no respect. Is not this the case with the still more important ordinance of the gospel ministry? However important in itself, when, instead of a scriptural dispensation of gospel ordinances, we meet with a corrupt, superstitious, or idolatrous mode of worship, we respect it no longer as the ordinance of God, and consider the administration entitled to rejection.

I consider it no less than the grossest absurdity to acknowledge magistracy an ordinance of God, and yet reject the scriptures of truth concerning it. Where is it ordained but in the scriptures? And if the people are at liberty to act in this affair independently of the scriptures, why is it said, Deut. 17:15, “Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose.” And for neglecting this commandment of Heaven, the charge is brought, Hos. 8:4, “They have set up kings, but not by me: they have made princes, and I knew it not.” To profess veneration for magistracy as an ordinance of God, and yet overlook the scriptural appointments concerning it, (which are the very things that make it the ordinance of God) is the same as to profess respect and obedience to a parliamentary enactment, and yet reject the act itself, or deny that there is any enactment. In this case, could such be said to yield obedience to any law? Certainly not. It is the creed of Christians, that the word of God is the alone rule of faith and practice. It is an unwarrantable exception, to make the practice of heathens the rule in the ordinance of magistracy, in preference to the divine word.

I would farther remark, that if the scriptures are to be overlooked in the affair of magistracy, on the principle that it is to be found in a rude state of society, where there is no bible, and would have existed though there never had been a bible in the world; then, upon the same principle, may the scriptures be overlooked in regard to every other duty originating in the unwritten law. For instance;–marriage belongs to man as a social being independent of divine revelation, and exists in the rude as well as in the civilized state of society. It is, then, to be traced to the light or law of nature. This is not enough; it is incorporated in the divine law; and laws are attached to it, not discoverable by the light of nature; viz. [such as] that Christians marry only in the Lord. Upon the principle that it exists among the unenlightened heathens, it may be objected that Christians are under no obligation to observe the law of Heaven concerning it; and on this infidel principle they generally act: but not always with impunity. In many places of scripture, we see what judgments of God were brought upon those who transgressed in this very respect. I might farther illustrate the same point in respect of filial and parental duty. Parents by the light of nature see that they ought to provide for their own: and children also see that they ought to yield obedience to the authority of their parents. But in addition to these natural views, the scriptures say to parents; “Bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord:” and to children; “Obey your parents in the Lord.” But according to the heathen views of magistracy, both may reject these scripture injunctions, because no such views are obtained by the light of nature. Any unprejudiced person must see, that there is much infidelity in such procedure. In rejecting those portions of scripture that treat of magistracy, the supporters of the heathen scheme act as much the part of an infidel as the deist does in rejecting the whole, though not so avowedly.

This is not all; and since in this controversy I am obliged to bring the charge of infidelity, I may yet farther notice, that this odious principle appears in another respect,–which is, in confining the magistratic office to the second table of the law [i.e., the last six commands which comprise man’s duty to man], or the civil interests of men. But this is the necessary consequence of rejecting the light of divine revelation, and groping in the mist of heathen darkness. Whereas, in looking into the divine word, we find no such limitation, but the reverse; viz. that the first, as well as the second, table of the law was, and ought ever to be, the object of magistratic regard. According to this piece of heathen morality,–idolatry, superstition, blasphemy, and Sabbath-profanation, pass with impunity. And as the church is to them no object of regard, she is hereby deprived of that hedge of defence, which God has planted around her. But if it is not a part of the magistratic office to defend the church, why are kings promised to her as nursing fathers [Isa. 49:23]? Why is she said to suck the breast of kings [Isa. 60:16]? Why are they said to bring their glory and honour unto her [Rev. 21:24,26]? To say they have nothing to do with the church, is very like a common erroneous expression;–If people are honest in their dealings, and sincere in their profession, they may believe and profess what they will.

It will, perhaps, be said, kings have to do with the church in their personal, though not in their official character. I know that the word official is peculiarly offensive to those who cannot, by any process of reasoning, make those the ministers of God for good, who are abominable, disobedient, and to every good work reprobate. They therefore contend, that it is not in their official but personal character, they are spoken of [in the aforementioned scriptures]. But the original term melechim (kings), is an official title, and denotes that with their crowns on their heads, and their sceptres in their hands, they shall acknowledge Jesus, who is Prince of the kings of the earth.

Farther, in official characters we are never to separate the person from the office, unless, from circumstances, it be evident that the thing affirmed is applicable to him in his personal character only. As when we say, The king is dead;–this is affirmed of him in his personal, not official character. Otherwise, when persons under office are spoken of, we are to understand them as brought to view in their official character. We may apply this of Christ himself, of whom it is said; “Behold, my Servant whom I uphold, mine elect in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.” This is evidently spoken of Christ in his official character; in which character, also, he is King of kings, and Lord of lords; and the Prince of the kings of the earth.–The same remark will apply to ministers of the gospel: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” It is not, surely, as men, but as ministers, that they are required to be faithful and conscientious in the discharge of all the duties of the ministerial office.–The same thing may be said of antichrist; who is never once brought to view in scripture as an individual, but as the head of the great apostasy. It is in his official character that he is brought to view as the man of sin, sitting in the temple of God [2 Thess. 2],–as the beast [Rev. 13], &c.–In like manner, in regard to kings, is it not in their official character, that they are said to be ordained of God,–are ministers of God,–are a terror to evildoers, and a praise to them that do well? Is it not in their official character that they avenge wrongs, and dispense justice [Rom. 13:1-9]?–that they give their support to the beast, and make war with the Lamb [Rev. 17:13,14]? Why, then, should we not understand that it is in their official character they are promised to be nursing fathers to the church [Isa. 49:23]?–that they are to bow to Messiah, and acknowledge their subjection unto him [Ps. 2:10-12]? It can only be to support a favourite scheme to say, that it is in their official character they are to punish evil, dispense justice, and discharge all their duties in regard to the civil interests of men; but in regard to the church, and what immediately concerns the glory of God, they act in their individual character. What apology can be offered for such illogical and unchristian reasoning? It is somewhat surprising, that in deriving their views of magistracy even from a heathen state of society, they did not also derive something of their views “on the subject of civil interference in matters of religion.” We know that in their religious observances they were most scrupulous; and the care of their gods, and ceremonials, was committed to their supreme magistrates. This no doubt arose from the importance which they attached to religion: of which, in regard to magistratic interference, they had more distinct views than those have who derive their politics from heathen light in Christian lands.

The duty of rulers in regard to the church, and the first table of the law, or what is called circa sacra, shews the necessity of the qualifications required in scripture; for without these they are unfit for being ministers of God, and nursing fathers to the church. It is objected, that as religion is not necessary in a mechanic, for the duties of his profession; nor in a father, that he may be honoured and obeyed by his children;–no more is it necessary in a magistrate, for the duties of his office. This is just such a view as may be expected to arise from the light of nature; which at best is incapable of affording distinct ideas on any subject, much less on an ordinance of divine appointment. There is in fact no application of the one character to the other: a mechanic, or a father, as such, is never called the minister of God, nor his office the ordinance of God. But the thing may be brought more clearly to view in this way: Qualifications of moral character, soundness in the faith, a regular call and ordination, are indispensible in a gospel minister. And, although one should, by some improper means, be admitted to office, either destitute of these qualifications or inadequately possessed of them, people consider themselves at full liberty to disown his legitimacy, and abandon his ministry; and that without the least disrespect for gospel ordinances. This is precisely the case in respect of magistracy. It is the ordinance of God, as well as the ministry. Qualifications are specified in scripture, and as indispensibly requisite in the one case as in the other. It is not enough to say, that much good may be done without these qualifications: this may be granted. Nor can it be refused that much good may also be done by the unqualified gospel minister; and we appreciate him in proportion to the good he does: but we never can esteem him as the minister of Christ. Yet if mere occupancy entitle to subjection, as is argued in regard to magistrates, then this unqualified minister has the same claim as the unqualified magistrate has. And he makes the same outcry about schism, undervaluing ordinances, & the ultraloyalists do against those who disown the authority of unqualified magistrates,–as rejecting the ordinance of God, &c. In this there is a great lack of honesty and candour. For those who bring the charge of despising the ordinance of magistracy, are themselves equally guilty, on precisely the same grounds, in despising the ordinance of gospel ministry. Both act upon the same principle in rejecting, not the office, but the officer, and that exclusively for want of scripture qualifications. When these things are calmly considered, and the arguments weighed in the balance of the sanctuary, it is presumed there will be no room for the charge of being muddy-headed, or high-minded, or hostile to any ordinance of God; which charges, however, are strikingly applicable to those who prefer the light of nature to that of divine revelation.

It may be thought that much more has been said upon the subject than was necessary. This, however, is by no means the case. Such a thought can arise only from an imperfect consideration of the matter. View it as an ordinance of Heaven’s appointment: is it not, then, a part of Bible truth,–an article of the faith once delivered to the saints, for which we are to contend earnestly? But view it also in its intimate connection with every precept of the moral law, and its importance will farther appear. Although magistrates cannot, nor is it their province to make men believe the gospel, or even keep the commandments with a pure heart, and with love unfeigned,–yet they can do much in restraining from the open violation of God’s law. To restrain, not enforce, is chiefly their object. We see that much good is done in punishing for the violation of many precepts of the second table of the law: and what dreadful consequences would ensue, if the second table were as much neglected as the first! Consider, again, how glorifying and honouring it would be to God, were the first table of the law guarded and defended as the second. This, however, the supporters of the heathen scheme of magistracy will by no means admit of. I know the claims of conscience will be presented as an objection against magistratic interference in matters of religion: but conscience is a subordinate rule, under the authority of the divine law, which is the supreme and infallible standard of all moral action. It is true, it would be good were the dictates of conscience more attended to than they are; but when conscience becomes so seared and callous to all that is good, as to approve of error, superstition and idolatry, instead of the pure worship of God; or would approve of putting to death the disciples of Jesus, in the observance of their holy religion (John 16:2); then such persons are to be treated as we would do those who had lost their reason:–they are to be restrained. Nor, in this restraint, is any injury done, or violence offered them: they are only restrained from what they have no right to do. So of others: they are only deprived of a lawless liberty, which they have unjustly assumed, which they have no right to enjoy, and which they cannot use, but at the expense of violating some law of God. God never gave such a liberty, nor is it in the power of any creature to give it. In depriving, then, of this usurped liberty, there is no more injury done, than in rescuing from the thief his neighbour’s property which he had stolen. This is well illustrated in the case of Nehemiah, who restrained the fish-sellers, &c. on the Sabbath, and contended with the nobles who permitted the profanation of the Sabbath; and charged this very abuse upon themselves, because they had it in their power, and it was their duty to restrain it, but [they] did it not [Neh. 13:15-18]. From this view it will appear, that magistrates have not only a right, but it is their bounden duty to restrain from the violation of the first as well as of the second table of the moral law: otherwise, why is it said, “if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil?” It is certainly a gratuitous assumption to say, that this respects the affairs of man, but not those of God. Is he not the minister of God, as much for the things of God as for those of men? The above view receives farther support from 1 Tim. 1:9,10. What is there said of the restraining nature of the moral law, will very fitly apply to magistrates as the guardians of that law. There we find, that not only such violations of the law as more immediately affect society,–murders and man-slayers, &c. are to be restrained; but also even corrupters of gospel worship,–intended in the expression,–”if there be any thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.” I know it will be objected, that magistrates are not adequate judges of sound doctrine. This is an indisputable truth in regard to by far the greater part of kings in New Testament times; most of whom are engaged in the support of popery and other false systems of religion: but I speak of the scripture-account of the duties and qualifications of civil rulers. Were they to keep the book of the law before them, and read therein, all the days of their life, as is enjoined, Deut. 17:19, they would be more qualified for the important duties of their office. These duties, as already observed, shew the necessity of the qualifications prescribed in the divine word: and where these obtain, the duties are easy; as in the case of David, Solomon, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Josiah, Hezekiah, &c. whose senses were exercised to discern good and evil; and who would not be difficulted to distinguish between truth and error; between what the law of God forbids and what it requires. The duties of the magistratic office, in regard to the first table of the law, have been exemplified in these instances; which shews there is nothing chimerical or impracticable in that department of their office; provided only they possess the qualifications that the office requires; without which, indeed, the thing is impossible. Is it any disgrace for kings now to act for the glory of God, as these worthy kings of old did? And will any venture to call their interference in matters of religion “mischievous nonsense?” The infidel charge is lavished against God himself, whose ministers they were, and by whose authority they acted.

I shall again, for sake of illustration, introduce the office of the gospel ministry. Every one knows, or should know, that extensive qualifications are necessary for the office; yet how miserably qualified are many who fill that high station! What are the consequences? The duties of the office must be as miserably discharged, in a round of mere observances, without the least edification to an intelligent auditory. Such are fitly called blind watchmen, and dumb dogs that cannot bark; Isa. 56:10. How different are those who are said to be according to the heart of God, and are qualified to feed his people with knowledge and understanding; rightly dividing the word of life, and giving to every one his portion in due season? Such ministers are not more preferable to the other in the church, than magistrates in the state, qualified according to the word of God, are preferable to those qualified only according to the light of heathen morality; to whom all religions are pretty much alike; and who are as ready (even more so) to support false systems of religion, as that which is according to truth.

The scriptures shew the dismal consequences to a nation under disqualified civil rulers; Eccl. 10:16. “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child.” Isa. 3:12. “As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them.” If such ignorant and pusillanimous rulers be a curse in respect to the civil interests of a nation, they must be much more so in regard to the church: for it is owing to such miscreants that she is persecuted to the wilderness; error, which is to her most injurious, is fostered under the wing of a diabolical toleration; and immorality is exemplified and encouraged. Ps. 12:8. “The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.” When the arm of civil restraint is withheld; when rulers, instead of being a terror to the evil, and a praise to them that do well [cf. Rom. 13:3], are the very reverse,–the voice of warning, reproof and discipline, in the church, will be of little avail to stem the torrent of impiety [cf. 2 Tim. 4:2-4]. But view magistracy, for a moment, in the light of the divine word;–as in the hands of such as fear God and keep his commandments; who are forward and ready to aid the church in suppressing immorality, blasphemy, and Sabbath-profanation: then the work of both would be easy; righteousness and peace would be our ornament and happiness; and the Lord himself would delight to dwell in the midst of us.

The importance of this subject farther appears from another consideration:–By the heathen scheme of magistracy a gem is plucked from the Redeemer’s crown. Is not this ordinance, with all its officers, one of the “all things” given into the hands of the Mediator [John 13:3]? “All power,” says he, “is given unto me in heaven and in earth” [Matt. 28:18]:–”All things are delivered unto me of my Father” [Matt. 11:27]:–The Father “gave him to be the head over all things to the church” [Eph. 1:22]. Since “he (the Father) left nothing that is not put under him” [Heb. 2:8], whence is it that any dare make the exception; especially of a matter so important as the ordinance of civil magistracy? When he is said to be “the Prince of the kings of the earth” [Rev. 1:5], does it not denote their subjection unto him? and it is expressly promised; Ps. 72:10,11. “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.” In the full view of this, the Psalmist, in the second Psalm, admonishes them of their duty of submitting to the Lord Christ. “Be wise,–O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little.” His anger is kindled against those who usurp his headship over the church;–oppose the church’s enlargement in the world;–and support his avowed enemies. Those who oppose him in these respects he will utterly destroy: for those who make war with the Lamb, he is said to overcome [Rev. 17:14]; and strike through, in the day of his wrath, those kings who do withstand him [Ps. 110:5]. Awful, indeed, will be the condition of those who will not acknowledge their subjection unto him [cf. Ps. 2:8], and act for his interest in the world [Ps. 9:17]! That unprincipled kings should refuse their subjection is not a matter of wonder; but that Christian teachers should support the sentiment, that they are under no obligation to do so, is certainly matter of great surprise! But this is a native consequence of their heathen scheme of magistracy. Is he not angry with those who will not come to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty [Judges 5:23]? And who should come, if not those who have it so much in their power to oppose and suppress the combined enemies of the Lord and of his church? We find, by an awful perversion of things, God’s own ordinance of magistracy is turned against himself! The Redeemer, in the accomplishment of his mediatory work, has to fight with that very instrument designed, in the appointment of Heaven, for advancing the interests of his church and kingdom in the world! In his vengeful work of destroying antichrist, he will employ the kings of the earth as instruments, though they may know it not: they shall hate the whore, &c. [Rev. 17:16]. Their language hitherto has been,– “We will not have this man to reign over us” [Luke 19:14]. This impious rejection of the Son of God, as the Prince of the kings of the earth, has obtained general sanction from the other ordinance,–that of gospel ministry [cf. Rev. 13:12]! Thus the two grand witnesses of God on earth [cf. Zech. 3,4; Joshua and Zerubbabel; esp. 4:14],–the magistracy and the ministry unite against their Author, and deny their subjection unto him [cf. Rev. 13]! But this inversion of things will not always continue [cf. Eccl. 3:15]. The mystery of God, in this respect, is drawing to a close. The evolutions of Providence are wonderful. He is making way for the kingdoms of this world speedily becoming the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ [Rev. 11:15]; when magistracy and ministry shall unite in promoting the Redeemer’s glory in the world; and every tongue shall cheerfully “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” [Phil. 2:11].

In this defence of magistratic interference in matters of religion, I shall, perhaps, be charged with supporting the principles of Erastianism [i.e., that theological persuasion which finds a power in the magistrate to exercise church power; particularly in regard to church government and discipline–excommunication; ED.]; or that of incorporating Messiah’s kingdom with those of this world: than which, however, I can confidently say, nothing is farther from my intention. Nor do I think, if candour be employed in the judgment, [that] any thing of the kind will be found. This is like the objection brought against the scripture doctrine of justification, viz. that it tends to licentiousness, &c. Nothing, however, but ignorance or prejudice leads to such conclusions, either in the one case or the other. I know that on the Erastian principle there is much criminal inference. This is to be prevented only by a due attention to the duties prescribed and exemplified in the divine word.

It is farther objected that, Christ has said, John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world,” magistrates, as such, have nothing to do with the question. It only shews that Christ’s kingdom is not promoted by the violent measures that are employed by ambitious monarchs, in acquiring kingdoms and swaying sceptres. It tenders a powerful reproof to the booted apostles of the Romish church [i.e., the Jesuits], who employ fire and fagot to make disciples, &c. But it says nothing against that defence, to which the Redeemer’s church is entitled from those ministers of God, who, as nursing fathers [cf. Isa. 49:23], ought to protect her from external annoyance. The employment of this passage, as is invariably done, to oppose the scripture doctrine of magistratic interference in matters of religion, is precisely like what is done in many other cases, where there is not the least application. One instance may be given; Mark 16:16. “He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Hence Baptists argue;–because children cannot believe, therefore they ought not to be baptized. But upon the same principle, neither can they enter heaven: for it is said, “he that believeth not shall be damned.” But evidently the passage has no application to infant-baptism, but to adults alone. In like manner the words,–”my kingdom is not of this world,” have no application to the disputed point of magistratic interference in matters of religion. Christ’s design is evidently to intimate, that his kingdom was of a spiritual and heavenly nature; so that Pilate need be under no apprehension that he would arm his servants to wrench the kingdom of Israel from Romish domination. This was what both Herod and Pilate feared. But though Christ’s kingdom be not of this world, it is in the world, and needs to be defended from the evils of the world; against which defence the passage does not in the least militate. It shows a miserable want of argument, when passages are dragged in to support a favourite hypothesis, on which they evidently have no bearing.

For so long an [Essay], my apologies are–[1.] the importance of the subject–[2.] the improper conceptions that are generally entertained concerning it, especially that of deriving it from heathen origin, and requiring no higher qualifications, nor duties, than such as are discoverable by the light of nature–[3.] and because magistracy is hereby virtually denied to be an ordinance of God for his glory and the church’s good, and made subservient only to the civil interests of men–[4.] and lastly, because of the little attention that is generally paid to the subject; although it is one of prominent aspect in the divine volume, and of all the importance attached to it in the foregoing observations; yet, as unworthy of Ministerial or Christian regard, it is rarely meddled with: and why?–”Lest we offend” [Matt. 17:27].


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