Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Duty of Civil Government

"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 defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 23.1)

Civil government is not just a good idea - it is appointed by God. In Genesis 9:3-6 he gave man the responsibility to avenge the murder of the innocent, to reestablish justice with the power of the sword when the image of God is attacked. This basic responsibility developed under God's direction to a general responsibility to enforce justice, to punish the evildoer, and to protect the innocent.

We see this point articulated in both the Old Testament law and in the New Testament in passages like Romans 13:1-7. There we see that civil rulers, even pagan rulers, have delegated authority from God (Rom. 13:1). They have their legitimacy from God’s appointment (Rom. 13:2). Just like the judges and elders of Israel (Deut. 1:17), so even pagan rulers judge not for men, but for God. They are God’s servants (Rom. 13:4). They exercise God’s authority and are accountable to Him. They are appointed to carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:4). When justice is violated, civil rulers are to restore justice. “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow…” (Deut. 16:20). Wrongdoing provokes God’s just wrath, and rulers carry it out as far as they can as limited human authorities.

The power they have to carry out God’s wrath is the sword (Rom. 13:4). The authority of civil rulers is symbolized by the sword since it is their final appeal, their ultimate power. They vindicate the innocent and restore justice by capital punishment, but also by other means, like restitution and corporal punishment. The sword is used against private criminals as well as foreign armies - rulers have the authority to defend their people and land in just war.

The result is that they are a terror to bad conduct (Rom. 13:3). They restrain evil in the earth. They promote peace by punishing those who break the peace. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:2, when kings and rulers do their job, it allows us to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Therefore, they are for your good. The saying of Cicero which was adopted as the state motto of Missouri, “Let the good of the people be the supreme law,” is not perfect when it is left unqualified and undefined. Yet it is true that rulers are God’s servant for the good of the people. They are servant leaders, ruling for the sake of those under their care, not for themselves. They serve the public good by restoring justice, judging the evildoer and defending the innocent. They are especially a benefit for those who are vulnerable and weak (Prov. 31:8-9). They also have a particular duty to protect the liberty and promote the good of Christ's church as "foster fathers and nursing mothers" of God’s people (Is. 49:23, see also WCF 23.3, WLC 191, and this post).

Since civil rulers are God's servants, they must take their standard of justice from God. This is known to some degree through the design of creation and the witness of conscience, but it has been revealed infallibly and most clearly in the Bible, being summarized in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). So to understand what the civil government ought to be doing, let us consider the principles of the Ten Commandments, what we might consider the Bible's "bill of rights."

1. God’s right to ultimate loyalty (Ex. 20:3). He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible, Sovereign over all, and all authorities on earth ought to act in accordance with this truth. The civil government ought to confess subjection to God, particularly his anointed King, Jesus Christ (Ps. 2), rather than serve a false god or treat themselves as god. In our secular age, the state - as the manifestation of the will of the people - is often seen as supreme, divine, and messianic.

2. God’s right to be worshipped as he has appointed (Ex. 20:4-6). The civil government ought to discourage false worship and idolatry, at least protecting and prioritizing the true worship of God (Is. 60:10-12, Judges 6:25-32). Certainly in its own ceremonies, assemblies, and proclamations of thanksgiving and fasts, it should worship the true God as he has appointed in his word. As our Larger Catechism says, in addition to our personal opposition to false worship, we should act against it "according to each one's place and calling" (WLC 108).

3. God’s right to his name (Ex. 20:7). The civil government ought to keep its oaths, punish oath breakers (Lev. 19:12), and suppress public blasphemers (Ex. 22:28, Dan. 3:29). Just as a human has a right to his good name (see below), so God's name ought to be vindicated from slander. As John Calvin wrote, "those laws are preposterous which neglect God's right and provide only for men" (Institutes, 4.20.9).

4. God’s right to his day and man’s right to a weekly rest (Ex. 20:8-11; note the added emphasis on rest for laborers in Deut. 5:12-15). Because this day is appointed for God's worship and man's rest, the civil government ought to enforce restrictions on business on a weekly sabbath day (see this post for more on the corporate implications of the sabbath). Since the resurrection, the sabbath day is the first day of the week, the Lord's Day. Like the rest of the Ten Commandments, this command is based in creation and binding on all people. This commandment explicitly includes "the sojourner who is within your gates" (Ex. 20:10, see also WLC 118). See Nehemiah 13:15-22 for an example of this being enforced on non-Israelites in a firm but careful manner.

5. Parental rights and authority (Ex. 20:12). The civil government should generally respect and support parental authority and training (Matt. 15:4, Deut. 6:7, 21:18-21) and the honor and duties “belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals” (WSC, 64). Civil government becomes totalitarian when it seeks to supplant the natural household and other "intermediate institutions" in society. It must be careful that its policies do not discourage or replace the natural ties and responsibilities of the household (1 Tim. 5:4).  

6. Human right to life (Ex. 20:13). Human life is valuable because God created humanity as his image, his representative (Gen. 9:6). The civil government ought to administer the death penalty for murder (Gen. 9:6) and various penalties for negligence, manslaughter, and physical abuse/injury (Deut. 22:8, Num. 35:22-29, Ex. 21:26-32). It should support the right of justified self-defense (Ex. 22:2-3) and wage just war against aggressors (Deut. 20, Rom. 13:4). This duty to defend innocent life extends to the unborn (Ex. 22:22-25), so that abortion, rather than being a right protected by the government, should be prohibited by it.

7. Rights of marriage (Ex. 20:14). The civil government ought to uphold and recognize the institution of marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, according to God's design (for more on marriage, see this sermon). It ought to put limits on divorce (Matt. 19:3-9, 1 Cor. 7:15, Deut. 24:1-4, see also WCF 24.5-6), hold men accountable for premarital sex (see Ex. 22:16-17), and punish those who are caught committing rape, adultery, and homosexuality (Deut. 22:22-27, Lev. 20:10-13).

8. Right of property ownership (Ex. 20:15). The civil government ought to enforce restitution for goods unlawfully taken or withheld (Ex. 21:33-22:15), punish fraud in the market place and unfaithfulness in contracts (Lev. 19:11-13), and punish kidnapping and enslaving (Ex. 21:16). The protection of private property encourages responsibility, initiative, and long-term thinking. Rulers should avoid using their power for unjust confiscation, excessive taxation, or other ways they might violate this principle (1 Kgs. 21, Mic. 3:1-3, Amos 5:11; see this post for more on taxation).

9. Right to one’s good name and the truth (Ex. 20:16). The civil government ought to punish false witnesses with the penalty that would have been received as a result of his witness (Deut. 19:15-21) and vindicate the innocent against slander (Lev. 19:16). This is essential to harmony in society and to a judicial system that might enforce justice justly.

10. You shall not covet (Ex. 20:17). This last one is like the first - primarily an internal command. Just as rulers should confess subjection to God, likewise should they confess their duty to protect those under their care, even from themselves, recognizing their limits and the purpose of their authority.

Finally, an important part of justice is having a just method for adjudicating cases and punishing crime. The Bible insists on an investigation of the facts, presumption of innocence, due process, and at least two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15, Josh. 7). In biblical law, there is a focus on the victim’s rights, an aim at restitution and restoration, and limits and checks on government power. I also believe it teaches that for capital offenses, the death penalty can be reduced to a lesser punishment due to various circumstances in some cases (though not in the case of murder). Also, the Bible teaches that it is vital for judges to have good character and wisdom if they are going to do their job well (Deut. 1:13, Ex. 18:21, 1 Kgs. 3).

So civil government is appointed by God to enforce justice so that people may enjoy peace and liberty. In the next two posts, I will move on to the duty of people toward the civil government:

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