Perhaps one thing that this election season has revealed about the American Church, is our sad neglect of the Doctrine of the Civil Magistrate. We all seem to admit that electing our leaders is important, but some (like John MacArthur) have tried to then, in the next breath, minimize the importance of it and suck the air out of any sort of civic effort.
What we are seeing before us is what happens when Christians abdicate our calling to shape and create culture, and instead pursue mere power and influence. The goal ought not to be simply to elect folks with “R’s” next to their name; but rather elect men who acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things and submit to the Scriptures as the highest authority for mankind. The Magistrate, as Calvin and many other Christian writers of times gone by, called it has a high and holy calling; and our neglect of Scriptural teaching on the role and purpose of the governing authorities has brought about the hot mess we find ourselves embroiled in.
Calvin, in his last chapter of the Institutes magnificently presents to us the Doctrine of the Civil Magistrate, and when I recently read through the Institutes I was deeply struck by how insightful, even prophetic, his statements on Civil Government are. First, we must agree that God has in fact appointed the Civil Magistrate. This means, that we are not to view earthly governments as somehow outside of the scope and authority of God’s Word and Law; in fact, if ever there was a realm of authority that needs the bridle of the Scripture, it is politics! We easily affirm that the Bible should be the authority for individual Christians, families,and churches, but we hesitate to affirm it as the standard to which the Magistrate should submit and subscribe to.
Scripture teaches, in numerous places (Dan. 2:21), that God ordains the rising and falling of kings. This is not some extra realm where God’s hands are tied and he’s incapable of doing anything. We aren’t taught to hunker down and hope for the best in regards to the peace of our cities, states, or nations. We are taught to disciple nations. This means that as the Gospel shapes a culture, that its rulers must also come to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of mankind. Otherwise, the government will assume that it is god and savior.
We hold our pastors & elders to a high standard, for they are ministers of God. According to Calvin, and the historic protestant teaching on the magistrate, we should think of Pastors and Politicians in much the same way. Into the hands of the elders is given the rule of the Church, under the headship of Jesus Christ; woe to them if they preach not the Gospel and teach the faithful teachings of Scripture (1 Cor. 9:16). God has ordained and appointed the elders to task of administering the word and sacrament and the care of the flock of Christ. But, in a like manner, He has committed to the Civil Magistrate the task of wielding the sword of justice and protecting and preserving the peace; thus, woe unto them if they fail to acknowledge their calling as under the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ. Calvin puts it wonderfully:
This consideration ought to be constantly present to the minds of magistrates, since it is fitted to furnish a strong stimulus to the discharge of duty, and also afford singular consolation, smoothing the difficulties of their office, which are certainly numerous and weighty. What zeal for integrity, prudence, meekness, continence, and innocence, ought to sway those who know that they have been appointed ministers of the divine justice! How will they dare to admit iniquity to their tribunal, when they are told that it is the throne of the living God? How will they venture to pronounce an unjust sentence with that mouth which they understand to be an ordained organ of divine truth? With what conscience will they subscribe impious decrees with that hand which they know has been appointed to write the acts of God? In a word, if they remember that they are the vicegerents of God, it behoves them to watch with all care, diligence, and industry, that they may in themselves exhibit a kind of image of the Divine Providence, guardianship, goodness, benevolence, and justice. And let them constantly keep the additional thought in view, that if a curse is pronounced on him that “doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully,” a much heavier curse must lie on him who deals deceitfully in a righteous calling. 1(Book IV, Chapter 20, Section 6)
Notice the stress he places on the “ordination” of the magistrate/prince, and the heavy calling that is placed upon the ruler by God. We show that we’ve been far more influenced by our secular culture when we think that our leaders are simply appointed by human democracy; this is false doctrine in practice. Calvin again:
We say, therefore, that they are the ordained guardians and vindicators of public innocence, modesty, honour, and tranquillity, so that it should be their only study to provide for the common peace and safety. 2(Book IV, Chapter 20, Section 9)
To very many it seems that among Christians the office of magistrate is superfluous, because they cannot piously implore his aid, inasmuch as they are forbidden to take revenge, cite before a judge, or go to law. But when Paul, on the contrary, clearly declares that he is the minister of God to us for good (Rom. 13:4), we thereby understand that he was so ordained of God, that, being defended by his hand and aid against the dishonesty and injustice of wicked men, we may live quiet and secure. 3(Book IV, Chapter 20, Section 17)
This reality that the rulers have been appointed and ordained by God should cause them to tremble. Calvin drives this point home and stresses that our elected officials are in fact “ambassadors of God”, and this carries with it a great curse if they pollute their earthly tribunal of justice, and a great blessing if they dispatch their office with the understanding that they are merely servants of God:
This admonition ought justly to have the greatest effect upon them; for if they sin in any respect, not only is injury done to the men whom they wickedly torment, but they also insult God himself, whose sacred tribunals they pollute. On the other hand, they have an admirable source of comfort when they reflect that they are not engaged in profane occupations, unbefitting a servant of God, but in a most sacred office, inasmuch as they are the ambassadors of God. 4(Book IV, Chapter 20, Section 6)
Finally, Calvin goes so far as to say, that this office is the most sacred & honorable in mortal life:
With regard to the function of magistrates, the Lord has not only declared that he approves and is pleased with it, but, moreover, has strongly recommended it to us by the very honourable titles which he has conferred upon it. […] Wherefore no man can doubt that civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life. 5(Book IV, Chapter 20, Section 4)
We need not think in a sacred/secular divide, and try to leave “politics” to the devil. In fact, if we are to be thoroughly biblical, this is a doctrine we must start rockin’ and rollin’ with. This doctrine demands the amps to be cranked up to 11, and taught boldly from our pulpits. The “state” has the tendency to become an unrestrained beast if it is not kept in check by the faithful teaching of its proper role in the ordering of our nation. More should be said on this…which I hope to get to soon.