“All Things Lawful” (LBCF 24.3/WCF 23.4)

In 2000, Bob Brown of Reformed Baptist Church gave a lecture titled “All Things Lawful: Or, a Biblical Perspective on Resisting Authority.” It was part of a series on the civil magistrate and it seeks to explain 24.3 of the 2nd London Baptist Confession:

“3._____ Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. 

Brown argues that the phrase “all lawful things” should be interpreted to mean “anything that does not cause you to sin.” He says “We are conscience bound to subject ourselves to every command of the civil magistrate unless that command requires us to break God’s moral law… You must obey God but you must never, ever, under any circumstances take up arms against the king that God put over you.” His main focus is to correct what he sees as a mistaken understanding of the Confession.

First of all, I want to deal with a mistaken interpretation of these words “in all lawful things.” A mistaken interpretation that is usually viewed as some “lawfully contracted civil agreement that bind both the ruler and those who are ruled.” In other words, a social contract. The thought runs like this: The citizens agreed to submit to the ruler and the ruler agrees to exercise his rule within certain negotiated parameters. If his commands fall within those parameters they are lawful and they are to be obeyed. But if they fall outside of those parameters, they are unlawful, in which case the ruler has forfeited his right to rule and may be deposed. Such a ruler, according to this view, has broken the social contract by which he obtained his authority in the first place.

He says this interpretation of the Confession is wrong because the social contract theory wasn’t developed until after the Confession was written. He goes on to argue that it was developed by enlightenment thinkers, notably John Locke, and is therefore unbiblical.

The King That God Put Over You

I actually first listened to this lecture 2 years ago. I took his point hook, line, and sinker. I disagreed with how he applied it to the U.S. Constitution, but what he said about the social contract theory and enlightenment thinking made sense – that is, until I started reading historic reformed political theology.

Brown mentions “the king that God put over you.” Paragraph 1 of the Confession reads

1. 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 defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers.

The Westminster Confession says the same thing in 23.1 and something similar in 23.4.

4. It is the duty of the people to pray for magistrates, to honour 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 pretense whatsoever.

What was very interesting to find out was how reformed theologians believed God places rulers over the people. Brown implies that it is a matter of providence. It does not matter if someone comes to power justly or unjustly. Whoever is in power is whom God has placed over you. That was actually the argument of royal absolutists, not the view of the reformed theologians I have read. Rather, they argued that God places rulers over the people, not immediately, but mediately through the consent of the people.

Samuel Rutherford was one of the most prominent members of the Westminster Assembly. He wrote a very influential book on this question during the time of the Assembly titled “LEX, REX: The Law and the Prince. A Dispute for the just PREROGATIVE of KING and PEOPLE. Containing the Reasons and Causes of the most necessary Defensive Wars of the Kingdom of SCOTLAND, and of their Expedition for the ayd and help of their dear brethren of ENGLAND.” The Westminster Assembly was meeting because of an agreement between England and Scotland. Scotland agreed to provide English Parliament with the support of the Scottish army in civil war if Parliament agreed to establish the true religion in England. Thus Rutherford’s work is the best elaboration of the Confession’s meaning on these points. (See my summary of the book here)

Rutherford said “I conceive it to be evident that royal dignity is not immediately, and without the intervention of the people’s consent, given by God to any one person, and that conquest and violence is no just title to a crown… Politicians agree to this as an undeniable truth, that as domestic society is natural, being grounded upon nature’s instinct, so politic society is voluntary, being grounded on the consent of men.” He explains that God ordained the office of magistrate to be over the people, but who lawfully fills that office is determined by the consent of the people. This is how LBCF 24.1/WCF 23.1 is to be interpreted. “It is evident from Rom. xiii. that all subjection and obedience to higher powers commanded there, is subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto, or, which is all one, to the person using the power lawfully, and that no subjection is due by that text, or any word of God, to the abused and tyrannical power of the king.”

Furthermore, when the people elect a ruler, they do so conditionally. “There is an oath betwixt the king and his people, laying on, by reciprocation of bands, mutual civil obligation upon the king to the people, and the people to the king (2 Sam 5:3; 1 Chron 11:3; 2 Chron 23:2, 3; 2 Kings 11:17; Eccl. 8:2)… There be no mutual contract made upon certain conditions, but if the conditions be not fulfilled, the party injured is loosed from the contract.” This was not a position unique to Rutherford. He was just expressing the common reformed view. Beza said

[T]he people existed before there was any magistrate and that the magistrates were made for the sake of the people and not vice versa… [T]he authority of all magistrates, however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of dignity, and not contrariwise… I maintain that as long as right and justice have prevailed no nation has either elected or approved kings without laying down specific conditions… [L]et those who so far exalt the authority of kings and supreme rulers as to dare maintain that they have no other Judge but God alone to whom they are held bound to render account of their deeds, furnish proof that there has been any nation anywhere which has consciously and without intimidation or compulsion of some kind subjected itself to the arbitrary rule of some supreme ruler without the express or tacit addition of the proviso that it be justly and fairly ruled and guided by him.

Brown quotes Calvin against resistance, but neglects the fact that Calvin says he is only referring to private men. He says, in the same section (4.20.30-31) that lesser magistrates and the estates who appointed the ruler have a duty to resist and overthrow a tyrant (Beza elaborated the same point). (See here and here for how subsequent reformed theologians pointed out Calvin’s inconsistency in obligating private men to a broken compact).

Clearly, the idea that “citizens agreed to submit to the ruler and the ruler agrees to exercise his rule within certain negotiated parameters” was not an enlightenment idea created by John Locke. Rather, this was the thinking that lay behind the Confession(s). “All things lawful” is to be interpreted as “all things the ruler has constitutional authority to command” (which necessarily excludes any authority to command people to sin). In Rutherford’s words, it refers to “the person using the power lawfully.” Given the civil war context of the Westminster Assembly, I’m not certain how that can be denied.

As we saw in the last post, this was precisely how Colonial Baptists understood their situation, explicitly appealing to this “consent of the governed” theory of government as articulated by Roger Williams as a reason for their refusal to pay the religious tax in Massachusetts. Note also that, on this basis, all the English baptists supported the American Revolution (see p. 198 fn2).

The Declaration of Independence

Brown argues that the Declaration of Independence was an enlightenment document written by a disciple of John Locke (Thomas Jefferson) and was very unbiblical. In His Majesty’s Advocate: Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees (1635–1713) and Covenanter Resistance Theory Under the Restoration Monarchy (his dissertation), E. Calvin Beisner (OPC) shows the great amount of continuity between reformed political philosophy (focusing on Sir James Stewart, who wrote after and in agreement with Rutherford), John Locke, and the Declaration of Independance.

It is not known whether Locke ever read [Stewarts’] Jus Populi. It is not listed in his library, though that does not mean he never owned or read it. Certainly the arguments in it, as we have seen, were common to many defenses of resistance from natural law, natural rights, and constitutionalist perspectives, and Locke’s wide reading in other sources could have stocked him with the concepts and arguments in the Two Treatises without his ever laying eyes on Jus Populi. Yet virtually every significant argument in the Second Treatise appears, in one form or another, often in greater complexity and bolstered by more authorities (human and divine), in Jus Populi

Jus Populi undoubtedly contributed significantly to Covenanter—and consequently wider Scottish and later American—political thought. It likely had an impact on the Claim of Right of 1689, and, as we shall see, its arguments—whether because of direct or indirect influence or simply a shared political discourse—reflect heavily in the American Declaration of Independence (1776)… Elazar has argued persuasively that the Declaration of Independence should be understood as a religious covenant. Viewing it in light of the heavy influence of English Puritan and Scotch-Irish Presbyterian political thought in the colonies during the decades leading up to the Revolution, we should expect to see in the Declaration marked similarities to the typical Scottish Covenanter resistance arguments. While no claim is made here of direct causal connection, the parallels between it and Jus Populi are strong and are to be explained by the shared discourse and perspective of the documents’ authors.

Rebellion or Suffering?

That being said, I sympathize with some of Brown’s concern when he says “Brothers, there is too much of Stallone and Schwartzeneger and Heston in our spirit and not enough of Jesus and John the Baptist, and Stephen the Martyr, and Tyndale.” However, an important distinction has to be made between the rights of all image bearers and the duty of men redeemed by a suffering servant. The fact that we are called to suffer in this life as Christians does not say anything about political philosophy proper. It does not say anything about our rights as image bearers. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 9 that, for the sake of the gospel, he has chosen not to exercise his rights. I think that is a more appropriate approach for understanding NT commands, rather than denying that men have rights (as Brown does).

[P.S. Brown’s comments about the U.S. Constitution are also very confused (it’s not a living document that speaks through the rulers), but I’ll leave that be.]

3 thoughts on ““All Things Lawful” (LBCF 24.3/WCF 23.4)

  1. Pingback: Romans 13: Person (Decretive), Office (Preceptive), or Both? – Contrast

  2. Pingback: Is John MacArthur Right About Revolution? – Contrast

  3. Pingback: Does Romans 13 Require Us to Obey "Shelter-in-Place" Laws? – Contrast

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