Are Civil Rulers Our Nurse Fathers?

I’ve been reading through Scripture chronologically. When I read Isaiah 49:23 I was struck by how entirely out of place it is to interpret that text as teaching the civil government’s duty to use the sword to enforce both tables of the law, or even to say anything at all about the nature of civil government. The whole point of the prophecy is about Israel’s enemies becoming their slaves. It’s rather amazing that the Westminster Larger Catechism cites the text to prove that obedience to rulers is required under the 5th commandment.

Q. 124. Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment?

A. By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents,[649] but all superiors in age[650] and gifts;[651] and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family,[652] church,[653] or commonwealth.[654]

[654] Isaiah 49:23. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.

The passage is about how “my servant Israel” (Christ) will bring the remnant back from exile among the nations who conquered them and took them away as captives.

49:22 This is what the sovereign Lord says:
“Look I will raise my hand to the nations;
I will raise my signal flag to the peoples.
They will bring your sons in their arms
and carry your daughters on their shoulders.

49:23 Kings will be your children’s guardians;
their princesses will nurse your children.
With their faces to the ground they will bow down to you
and they will lick the dirt on your feet.
Then you will recognize that I am the Lord;
those who wait patiently for me are not put to shame.

49:24 Can spoils be taken from a warrior,
or captives be rescued from a conqueror?

49:25 Indeed,” says the Lord,
“captives will be taken from a warrior;
spoils will be rescued from a conqueror.
I will oppose your adversary
and I will rescue your children.

49:26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh;
they will get drunk on their own blood, as if it were wine.
Then all humankind will recognize that
I am the Lord, your deliverer,
your protector, the powerful ruler of Jacob.”

Israel’s adversaries who oppressed them and took them captive will turn and lick the dirt on their feet. Their conquerors will become their slaves. This is in line with the Old Covenant’s blessing for obedience:

Deut 28:13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, 14 and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.

a Brakel notes:

The word “nurse” (for “fathers” is not to be found in the original text) does not imply supremacy, but is indicative of the labors of a servant. The nurse of a royal child—this being applicable to the church—is less than the child who is being nursed… Thus, the idea of dominion is not implied in the word “nurse,” but is expressly excluded.

It is truly bizarre the way the reformed tradition has historically interpreted and employed this passage – influenced in no small part by Aristotle’s political philosophy. The text is not a statement about “civil magistrates.” It is a statement about the enemies of Israel.

Israel was to be the greatest, most prominent nation in the world, if they obeyed the Old Covenant.

Deut 28:7 “The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face; they shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways… 9 The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, just as He has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways. 10 Then all peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you…13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them.

We see this happen in Solomon’s day, where they possessed all the land God promised them, and then some. Foreign rulers beyond Israel came and brought tribute to Solomon because of his mighty wisdom and the richness of Israel (think Queen of Sheba).

But what happend? Israel broke the Old Covenant, so God poured out the covenant curses upon Israel, which included being destroyed and taken captive by their enemies.

However, the prophets began to speak of a time when Israel would be restored because of their obedience. Moses himself prophesied the same thing in Deut 30:1

Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God drives you, 2 and you return to the Lord your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 that the Lord your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you. 5 Then the Lord your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it. He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. 6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

Note v7 “Also the Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you. 8 And you will again obey the voice of the Lord and do all His commandments which I command you today.”

In chapter 49, Isaiah is speaking of this time and he explains that it will happen because of the obedience of the Redeemer of Israel. They will be blessed. Their fortunes will be restored. Their children will return from captivity. Not only will Israel’s enemies be destroyed, but Israel’s enemies will actually come as servants of Israel, caring for its children and bowing down at their feet. Thus the roles are reversed.

22 Thus says the Lord God:

“Behold, I will lift My hand in an oath to the nations,
And set up My standard for the peoples;
They shall bring your sons in their arms,
And your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders;
Kings shall be your foster fathers,
And their queens your nursing mothers;
They shall bow down to you with their faces to the earth,
And lick up the dust of your feet.
Then you will know that I am the Lord,
For they shall not be ashamed who wait for Me.”

Shall the prey be taken from the mighty,
Or the captives of the righteous be delivered?

25 But thus says the Lord:

“Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away,
And the prey of the terrible be delivered;
For I will contend with him who contends with you,
And I will save your children.”

Thus the highest rulers of God’s enemies will lose their dominion and will become servants of Israel and will return Israel to the land from which they took them.

This verse says absolutely nothing about the institution of civil government. It speaks of the blessings for obedience that Israel would receive in the latter days – which we are to interpret typologically as referring to our eschatological inheritance earned by the only obedient Israelite: Jesus the Christ.

Psalm 72
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth!
May desert tribes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust!
May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

Yes, Masks Are a Conscience Issue

About a week ago a pastor named Erik Raymond wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition titled Are Masks a Conscience Issue? Regretfully, I think the article is a bit confusing (and perhaps confused).

Argument A

When most people say that wearing or not wearing a mask in response to COVID-19 and various governors’ Executive Orders (not laws) is a matter of conscience, what they mean is that it is not a black and white issue that Scripture speaks to directly. It is a “gray area” that requires additional information not found in Scripture over which people may disagree. Therefore Christians may disagree with one another as to whether or not God requires them to wear a mask. “[C]onscience is the application of what [one] knows both about God’s law and about [oneself] to a particular case.” This 4-min video is a helpful presentation of that point.

Let’s call this Conscience Argument A: Whether or not God requires one to wear a mask is a matter best left to individuals to decide for themselves.

Argument B

What is confusing about Raymond’s piece is that he is not responding to that argument. He is arguing against some other appeal to conscience on the mask issue. He does not provide any references, so it is hard to tell if he has accurately understood whoever he is arguing against or if he has just misunderstood the appeal to conscience on this point. What he is responding to is an individual who says their conscience forbids them from wearing a mask. “While I’ve not met anyone who enjoys wearing a mask, I’ve come across many who do not. Some say they cannot as a result of their conscience.” He refers to it as “the tenuous position that wearing a mask is a sin.”

Conscience Argument B: I cannot wear a mask because it violates my conscience.

Against Argument B, Raymond says

When a Christian says conscience forbids them from doing something, this means that for them to do it is a sin (1 Cor. 8:7 ff; Rom. 14:20–23). But, generally speaking, wearing a mask is not a moral issue. A person is not sinning if they wear a mask. When a Christian says conscience forbids them from doing something, this means that for them to do it is a sin (1 Cor. 8:7 ff; Rom. 14:20–23). But, generally speaking, wearing a mask is not a moral issue. A person is not sinning if they wear a mask… [T]he objection to masks is not fundamentally a conscience issue. It may be a health or a political objection, but it’s not fundamentally a moral objection supported by a Christian understanding of conscience.

I agree with Raymond’s refutation of Argument B, but I don’t think there are many people making that argument. His points #1 and #2 are irrelevant to Argument A. I encourage you to re-read Raymond’s article.

His point #3 is aimed at Argument B, but some parts of it would also apply to Argument A, so let’s take a closer look.

Submission to Authorities

Submission to the Authorities (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17) Christians are commanded to submit to and honor the governing authorities. This is in the Bible because it’s not something we’d naturally want to do. Imperfect people run governments. The authorities at the time of Paul and Peter were notoriously evil. Nevertheless, such submission is the will of God for his people (1 Pet. 2:15). Failing to do so is a sin against God. Disobedience to the government is reserved for when the Christian is commanded to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands. It’s hard to argue that masks fall into this category reasonably.

This is a common argument that some pastors make, but I don’t think it’s what those passages of Scripture teach. I do not believe it is true that “Disobedience to the government is reserved for when the Christian is commanded to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands.” Most theologians recognize that any divine requirement to obey civil rulers is limited to when that ruler is functioning within his proper, limited jurisdiction – a question best left to the individual conscience to determine.

Additionally, I think there is good reason to believe that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 command us to be subject to the powers that be, rather than simply to obey the powers that be. Note Louis W. Hensler III’s point in his excellent essay “Flexible Interpretations of ‘The Powers that Be’ from Constantine to Mandela and Beyond” (Regent University Law Review).

Paul begins the passage by declaring to his readers a broad obligation to submit: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”; the Greek word translated in the King James Bible as “be subject unto” is hypotassomai, “a hierarchical term.”51 It is important to note that the word is not synonymous with “obey.” “The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination.”52 The word chosen by Paul generally does not mean “obedience”…

The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.

Samuel Waldron makes the same point.

The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities [powers] is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority [power].

“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished

I do not believe that Scripture warrants a pastor telling his congregation that they are sinning if they do not wear a mask when a Governor has issued an Executive Order under the Emergency Powers.

This 2 minute clip from Sam Waldron is helpful. In addition, see his 3 part series The Christian’s Relationship to Civil Authority.

Love for Neighbor

Love for Neighbor (Matt. 22:39) In our churches, there are various levels of concern about COVID-19. Some have lost friends and family members to the virus. For many wearing a mask is one reasonable way to love other people and protect them. It would be unloving to minimize or ignore their concerns, especially in light of the evolving data and heightened case numbers. Christian love requires a willingness to follow Jesus and set ourselves aside. Christians should be eager to do this.

Here Raymond simply betrays his own opinion of the science and politics. He cannot bind others with his opinion on those points. Yes, we should love our neighbors and should not unnecessarily cause them harm. But whether or not wearing a mask is a way to protect others from harm is a disputed point. Furthermore, love for neighbor and setting ourselves aside is a two-way street. It would be unloving to minimize or ignore the concerns of those who choose not to wear a mask just as it would be unloving to minimize or ignore the concerns of those who do wear a mask. As with much of life, there is no obvious, one-size-fits-all answer to how these different people may live and assemble together, but “Christians should be eager to do this.” A proper understanding of Argument A would help Raymond better understand this point.

Wisdom Toward Outsiders

Wisdom Toward Outsiders (Col. 4:5) It’s saddening to read of some churches who disregard safety standards and then become super-spreaders for the virus. This harms the testimony of the church in the community. Christians should be concerned with reasonable efforts to preserve and promote the gospel. At this moment, failing to wear a mask doesn’t seem wise.

Once again, Raymond betrays his own opinion of the science and politics of COVID – opinions that he cannot bind other Christians with. Following Col 4:5, Raymond even says it’s a matter of wisdom. How then can he possibly place this point under the heading that not wearing a mask “causes disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture”? Once again, a proper understanding of Argument A would really help Raymond better understand and apply Col. 4:5, which says “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” After all, an argument could be made that dissenting from the COVID narrative is quite wise.

Submission to the Elders

Submission to the Elders (Heb. 13:17) God requires church members to submit to their elders. Failing to do so is a sin against God. There’s obviously a bevy of caveats here, but in this conversation, if the elders believe it’s right to submit to the government by wearing a mask, then there’s not a provision for the conscience to disregard them. There may certainly be principled disagreement, but there is no conscience clause that allows a perpetual lack of submission. The solution would be to either submit to the leadership of the church or find a church where they could worship according to their convictions and joyfully submit to the elders of that church.

Heb. 13:17 says “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” I do think this is a more valid point by Raymond. Our elders do possess spiritual authority that we must obey. But note carefully the rest of the verse “…for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Wearing or not wearing a mask is not itself a danger to one’s soul, so hopefully elders will be careful about wielding the hammer of their spiritual authority on the question of masks. (Of course, if those elders misinterpret Romans 13 and believe it is sinful to disobey a governor, then they would see the matter as a spiritual one. In that instance, I would encourage them to reconsider their interpretation of the passage.)


In my opinion, Raymond’s article confuses the issue. Wearing masks is a gray issue that is best left up to individual Christians to determine whether or not the law of God requires it.

Further Reading



Theonomy rightly believes that political theory must be deduced from Scripture, but it misinterprets Scripture – namely the law given to Israel and covenant theology as a whole.

Operating Definition

Theonomy is the starting presumption that the Old Covenant judicial laws given to Israel have not been abrogated therefore all civil governments are morally obligated to enforce them (including the specific penalties) and furthermore that all civil governments must refrain from coercion in areas where Scripture has not prescribed their intervention (the “regulative principle of the state”).

Defining Our Terms

Etymologically, theonomy simply means “God’s law.” However, the phrase was used by Greg Bahnsen in the 1970s to describe his presuppositional political philosophy in contrast to “autonomy” (man’s reason independent of God’s revelation). This post addresses theonomy as defined and defended by Bahnsen. (If you think theonomy has a broader definition, that is a separate discussion we can have. For the purposes of this post, theonomy is being defined according to Bahnsen’s theonomic thesis). Bahnsen argued that

[T]heonomy teaches that civil rulers are morally obligated to enforce those laws of Christ, found throughout the Scriptures, which are addressed to magistrates (as well as to refrain from coercion in areas where God has not prescribed their intervention)… Political codes today ought to incorporate the moral requirements which were culturally illustrated in the God-given, judicial laws of Old Testament Israel… “He who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still.”

What Is “Theonomy”? PE180 New Horizons (April, 1994)

Likewise, Brian Schwertley summarizes

The core teaching of the modern theonomy movement on the law (we will not defend all the side issues) is basic and easy to defend. All the Old Testament laws that are moral in content, that were given as a standard of personal or social ethics, are binding on all men (both Jews and Gentiles) for all time (both the Old and New Covenant administrations).

Therefore, not only the Ten Commandments are obligatory but also the moral case laws that are extensions, explanations and applications of the commandments (e.g., homosexuality, incest, bestiality, fornication, fraud, burglary, assault, attempted murder, manslaughter, etc.). In addition, the civil penalties attached to the moral case laws are declared by God Himself to be just and superior to the best laws of the heathen nations and thus are not mere suggestions but are required as well.

That being said, theonomists do not always agree with each other regarding particular Old Covenant judicial laws. Bahnsen therefore clarified that even when they do not agree, there is still nonetheless a distinct, definable view called “theonomy.”

Theonomic ethics is a definable and distinct school of thought. That school of thought is unified by certain fundamental principles of Biblical reasoning about ethics (“ethical hermeneutics or meta-ethics,” if you will) — rather than by unanimity in the particular application of those principles to concrete issues or cases… There certainly is a commonly held set of distinctive doctrines which are known as the theonomic viewpoint…

Close Resemblances: Is Everyone a Theonomist After All?

[T]here is an objective and precise difference viz., all theonomists affirm (while non-theonomists deny) that we should presume that Old Testament criminal and penal commands for Israel as a nation (not specially revealed earlier) are a standard for all nations of the earth… The theonomic principle is objective and Biblical in character. Its policy for Old Testament interpretation and for application of the laws found there is that the moral standards revealed by God are all beneficial and continue to be binding unless further revelation teaches otherwise (Deut. 42; 10:13; Ps. 119:160; Matt. 5:19; 2 Tim. 3:16-17)… As a result, the theonomist concludes that most of the judicial laws of the Old Testament, having not been modified or canceled by Scripture later, continue to be binding according to the principle which they teach or illustrate.

Chapter 2 “A Recognizable, Distinct Position,” in No Other Standard

Theonomy’s strength is its commitment to presuppositionalism – the belief that political philosophy and civil law must be deduced from Scripture. Its weakness is its actual exegesis of Scripture. While I agree that Scripture must be the source of our political philosophy, I believe that theonomy has misinterpreted Scripture on two foundational points. (Note: Bahnsen was a very gifted logician and I respect him enough to interpret and critique him according to his systematic understanding of theonomy.)

The Law(s) of God

Theonomy rejects the distinction between moral law (a transcript of God’s nature that applies at all times) and positive law (law that is created and abrogated at God’s will for certain times). Instead, it holds to a mononomism that sees all biblical law as an unchanging transcript of God’s nature. Bahnsen argued “Does God have a holiness, a standard of ethics, of perfection that is changing?… Jesus says every jot and tittle and he doesn’t allow us to draw lines and seams and divide God’s law up into what we’ll accept and what we won’t.”

I agree with the historic threefold division of Mosaic law: moral, ceremonial, and civil. Moral law transcends and predates Mosaic law and applies to all image bearers. Ceremonial and civil law are positive laws created for Israel under the Old Covenant and have been abrogated. Theonomy teaches a different two-fold division of Mosaic law.

The most fundamental distinction to be drawn between Old Testament laws is between moral laws and ceremonial laws. (Two subdivisions within each category will be mentioned subsequently.) This is not an arbitrary or ad hoc division, for it manifests an underlying rationale or principle. Moral laws reflect the absolute righteousness and judgment of God, guiding man’s life into the paths of righteousness; such laws define holiness and sin, restrain evil through punishment of infractions, and drive the sinner to Christ for salvation. On the other hand, ceremonial laws–or redemptive provisions–reflect the mercy of God in saving those who have violated His moral standards; such laws define the way of redemption, typify Christ’s saving economy, and maintain the holiness (or “separation”) of the redeemed community.

(By This Standard, 97)

The important point is that due to a mistaken exegesis of Matthew 5, theonomy has no category for positive law that may be abrogated. Not only moral (which includes judicial) law, but even “restorative” law continues (though the way we observe it changes).

It’s the thesis of my book [Theonomy in Christian Ethics] and I think it’s the way the bible would have us break down the commandments of the Old Testament – I’m suggesting that we have moral and ceremonial law, moral and restorative law and that all laws of God are binding today… I do not believe the restorative law has been abrogated.”

Has God Changed His Mind? (Lecture 2 of 6)

Covenant Theology

The reformed law/gospel distinction refers to two different ways of obtaining eternal life: through obedience to the law and through faith in Jesus Christ. It is rooted in the distinction between the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Messianic Covenant of Grace. While Bahnsen held a law/gospel antithesis with regards to salvation through faith in Christ (even having a better interpretation of Matt 5:20 than many reformed theologians), he was influenced by his thesis advisor Norman Shepherd with regards to covenant theology.

Shepherd left WTS under controversy for teaching that we are justified through faith and works. He rejected the Adamic Covenant of Works and emphasized the unity of the Covenant of God. RJ Rushdoony likewise said

[T]his idea of a covenant of works that is the problem in the confession and of course this doctrine has led to Dispensationalism and a great many other problems. It is a deadly error to believe that any covenant that God makes with man can be anything other than a covenant of grace. Precisely because He is God the only kind of covenant He can enter into with man involves free grace on His part. It is at the same time a covenant of law but every covenant is a law relationship… [T]he covenant of God with man is at one and the same time a covenant of grace and a covenant of law. [B]asic to the making of a covenant with God was the invoking of curses and blessings, Deuteronomy 27 and 28 give us that very, very clearly.

106. Systematic Theology – Covenant: 01 The Covenant and 02 Is There A Covenant Of Works

Following these men, Bahnsen said

The New Testament and Covenant continue the same demand for obedience… Continued blessing for Adam in paradise, Israel in the promised land, and the Christian in the kingdom has been seen to be dependent upon persevering obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law. There is complete covenantal unity with reference to the law of God as the standard of moral obligation throughout the diverse ages of human history.

Theonomy in Christian Ethics (201-2)

I reject this monocovenantalism. I affirm the Adamic Covenant of Works as distinct from the Messianic Covenant of Grace. Furthermore, I recognize a typological element to the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Covenant. Those blessings typified the blessings Christ earned for us through his perfect obedience to the moral law while the curses typified the judgment that we all deserve (and those outside of Christ will receive) for breaking God’s moral law. Theonomy’s commitment to monocovenantalism and mononomism, and its subsequent understanding of Mosaic blessing and curse, prevents it from affirming this understanding.

Stoning as Typological (Cherem) Curse

After responding to every known criticism offered against his thesis, Bahnsen held out the theoretical possibility of one remaining criticism that would be a valid objection.

[I]t must be argued by somebody who feels the penal sanctions were not given to anybody but Israel that there is a very strong distinction within the law itself between stipulation and sanction. That God stipulates this kind of behavior and then he lays down a punishment if you don’t follow that stipulation, and that the fact that a law binds Israel as well as the Gentiles with respect to stipulations does not therefore mean that the law with respect to sanctions binds Israel and the Gentiles. You see, the premise then is that there is a difference between stipulation and sanction. Now, is there exegetical evidence for this distinction?… Well, we haven’t been given evidence of that distinction.

It is precisely this distinction that I affirm and give evidence for (see links below – notably this one). The stipulations in question are part of God’s unchanging moral law for all image bearers. Violation of this unchanging moral law warrants eternal death at the final judgment. However, at the fall God delayed this final judgment, beginning a post-fall world restructured in subservience to the work of Christ. The death penalty instituted under the typological Old Covenant for violation of the moral law was not itself part of the moral law. It was a typological, positive law addition to the moral law given by way of covenant. The shedding of blood by man for violation of the moral law was specifically a typological curse.

“Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.'” (Gal. 3:12)

Commenting on Gal. 3:12 (Lev. 18:5) Augustine said “Now those who were living by these works undoubtedly feared that if they did not do them, they would suffer stoning or crucifixion or something of this kind.”

“‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Deut 27:26, cited in Gal 3:10).

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deut 21:22-23, cited in Gal 3:13)

It is specifically this principle of curse for violation of the law that Christ died on the cross for (Gal 3:13). Christians are not under the decalogue as a means to earn their life or lose it. Christ has earned our life and saved us from the curse. Theonomists who believe Christians should enforce Mosaic curses for violation of the moral law are putting Christians under a typological covenant of works that we are free from (Gal 5:1; Acts 15:10).

In A Consuming Fire: The Holy of Holies in Biblical Law, Joel McDurmon notes “some laws were just based upon the eye-for-an-eye rule; others were just based upon God’s immediate judgment under cherem.” He notes “These laws were typological.”

The general equity of those typological Old Covenant curses is not execution by modern government, but the moral law that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11) and the positive law that unrepentant sinners must therefore be purged from the visible church through excommunication (1 Cor 5:13 quoting Deut 22:21).


While theonomy presents an appealingly simple answer to the question of political philosophy and civil law, our presupposition must be Scripture properly interpreted.

Further Reading

by me:

by others:

Romans 13 Forbids Revolution, not Disobedience (and where Calvin erred)

On May 1, Samuel Waldron participated in a panel discussion titled “When to Disobey the Government.” He made one very important distinction between subjection and obedience. He argued that Romans 13 commands subjection, not necessarily obedience. He clarified that if Christians are commanded to sin, they must disobey, but in areas where they are not commanded to sin but a ruler exceeds their jurisdiction, Christians have the liberty to disobey. Watch this 2 minute excerpt:

Louis W. Hensler III, JD makes the same distinction (page 48) in his excellent essay “Flexible Interpretations of ‘The Powers that Be’ from Constantine to Mandela and Beyond.”

Paul begins the passage by declaring to his readers a broad obligation to submit: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”; the Greek word translated in the King James Bible as “be subject unto” is hypotassomai, “a hierarchical term.”51 It is important to note that the word is not synonymous with “obey.” “The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination.”52 The word chosen by Paul generally does not mean “obedience”…

The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.

This distinction helps untie the Gordian Knot of Romans 13:1-7. Most interpreters believe the passage forbids disobedience and revolution. However they disagree on the limits of that prohibition. One side (epitomized by Rutherford) argues that if a magistrate exceeds their jurisdiction, the prohibition no longer applies and Christians are free to disobey and revolt. The other side (epitomized by Calvin) argues that Christians must continue to obey tyrants (unless commanded to sin) and may never revolt. Waldron provides balance between the two.

Did Calvin Hold to the Distinction?

In the full video, Waldron suggests Calvin would have agreed with his distinction. However, I do not see that in Calvin. Rather, he uses the terms interchangeably. Furthermore, he is clear that the only time a Christian may disobey a ruler is when they are commanded to sin, even if the ruler is a tyrant who acts illegally.

[M]any cannot be persuaded to recognise such persons for princes, whose command, as far as lawful, they are bound to obey… But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes… in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.

Institutes 4.20.24-25

(1 Sam 8:11-17) Certainly these things could not be done legally by kings, whom the law trained most admirably to all kinds of restraint; but it was called justice in regard to the people, because they were bound to obey, and could not lawfully resist: as if Samuel had said, To such a degree will kings indulge in tyranny, which it will not be for you to restrain. The only thing remaining for you will be to receive their commands, and be obedient to their words.


But rulers, you will say, owe mutual duties to those under them. This I have already confessed. But if from this you conclude that obedience is to be returned to none but just governors, you reason absurdly.


Finally, in paragraph 36 he seems to give the only indication of a limit to a ruler’s authority and thus our requirement to obey.

But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow… On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Dan. 6:22), because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power.


Where Calvin Erred (The Two Wills of God)

The reason why subsequent generations of reformed theologians disagreed with Calvin is because his interpretation is inconsistent. He failed to adequately distinguish the two wills of God. He argued that we must obey rulers because they occupy a divine office possessed with divine authority. Rutherford agreed, but he and others (like Beza) recognized that any divinely delegated office is limited in scope and thus if an individual acts beyond the limits of that office, they act as a private individual and may be ignored. (This is the same for a pastor who steps beyond his authority and starts telling members of the church they may only marry who he says they may marry or may only take jobs he says they can take.)

The reason for the difference is that Beza, Rutherford, et al recognize that divine offices are established mediately. Beza said

[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.

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.

Calvin disagreed. He believed that conquest and violence were legitimate titles to a crown because the office is given immediately to individual rulers by God’s providence.

It is thereby intimated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority, and, in fact, represent the person of God, as whose substitutes they in a manner act… it is not owing to human perverseness that supreme power on earth is lodged in kings and other governors, but by Divine Providence, and the holy decree of Him to whom it has seemed good so to govern the affairs of men, since he is present, and also presides in enacting laws and exercising judicial equity… (Rom 13:1,3)


[I]f it has pleased him to appoint kings over kingdoms, and senates or burgomasters over free states, whatever be the form which he has appointed in the places in which we live, our duty is to obey and submit.


Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power.


And, first, I would have the reader carefully to attend to that Divine Providence which, not without cause, is so often set before us in Scripture, and that special act of distributing kingdoms, and setting up as kings whomsoever he pleases. In Daniel it is said, “He changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings” (Dan. 2:21, 37). Again, “That the living may know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Dan. 4:17, 25). Similar sentiments occur throughout Scripture, but they abound particularly in the prophetical books. What kind of king Nebuchadnezzar, he who stormed Jerusalem, was, is well known. He was an active invader and devastator of other countries. Yet the Lord declares in Ezekiel that he had given him the land of Egypt as his hire for the devastation which he had committed. Daniel also said to him, “Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all” (Dan. 2:37, 38). Again, he says to his son Belshazzar, “The most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour: and for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him” (Dan. 5:18, 19). When we hear that the king was appointed by God, let us, at the same time, call to mind those heavenly edicts as to honouring and fearing the king, and we shall have no doubt that we are to view the most iniquitous tyrant as occupying the place with which the Lord has honoured him.


If we constantly keep before our eyes and minds the fact, that even the most iniquitous kings are appointed by the same decree which establishes all regal authority, we will never entertain the seditious thought, that a king is to be treated according to his deserts, and that we are not bound to act the part of good subjects to him who does not in his turn act the part of a king to us.


[T]he Apostle intended by this word [“higher powers”] to take away the frivolous curiosity of men, who are wont often to inquire by what right they who rule have obtained their authority; but it ought to be enough for us, that they do rule; for they have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lord’s hand.

Commentary Romans 13:1

Calvin correctly understood the Old Testament example of Nebuchadnezzar as an example of God providentially empowering an individual to conquer and rule. But Rutherford was also correct that any conqueror who acts like Nebuchadnezzar has exceeded the office of magistrate. Rutherford correctly notes “I grant, often God’s decree revealed by the event, that a conqueror be on the throne, but this will is not our rule, and the people are to swear no oath of allegiance contrary to God’s Voluntas signi, which is his revealed will in his word regulating us.”

Romans 13: Which Will?

In his commentary on Romans 13, where Calvin must deal with Paul’s logic, he trips. On Romans 13:1 (“the powers that be are ordained of God.”) Calvin says

The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by God’s ordination… [T]yrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, (ἀταξίας) are not an ordained government.

That is what Rutherford said (see Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Logic of Resistance). We must obey the ordinance of God. Tyranny and injustice is not the ordinance of God. “When the magistrate doth anything by violence, and without law, in so far doing against his office, he is not a magistrate. Then, say I, that power by which he doth, is not of God.”

On 13:3 (“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.”) Calvin says

He now commends to us obedience to princes on the ground of utility… that the Lord has designed in this way to provide for the tranquillity of the good, and to restrain the waywardness of the wicked… But he speaks here of the true, and, as it were, of the native duty of the magistrate, from which however they who hold power often degenerate;

How then are we to respond to false magistrates? “…[F]rom which however they who hold power often degenerate; yet the obedience due to princes ought to be rendered to them.”

Why? Calvin offers three reasons we must still obey false magistrates.

First, he says if a ruler becomes a tyrant, it’s only because the people deserve it as chastening from God, so they must submit to it. Please note very well: Paul never offers that as a reason. Calvin has to stray from the text and invent a reason for Paul’s command, a reason that Paul himself never gave.

Second, he claims that no matter how bad tyrants become, they always “retain in their tyranny some kind of just government.” Not only is this not necessarily true, it does not explain why a tyrant must be obeyed in their tyranny.

Third, commenting on 13:2 (“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God”) Calvin says “As no one can resist God but to his own ruin, he threatens, that they shall not be unpunished who in this respect oppose the providence of God.” But notice what he has just done. He has equivocated on the word “ordinance.” In 13:1 Calvin says “ordinance” means just government, not tyranny. But in 13:2 he says “ordinance” means “providence,” including tyranny. This is the heart of Calvin’s error. He simply jumps between God’s two wills as it suits him. Regretfully, Waldron follows him in this error.

Romans 13: Providential Empowerment

So we must remain consistent throughout verses 1-7. “Ordinance” must refer to either God’s providence, or to a divine institution/office. It cannot mean both. Calvin’s interpretation is not an option. Consistently reading the passage as referring to the office (not any particular person in that office), though more logical, in my opinion winds up saying precisely the opposite of Paul: that Christians may join in tax revolt against Rome.

The remaining possibility is that the passage refers not to an office, but to God’s providential empowering of men to rule over others. This does not necessarily have any regard to an office or an institution. It refers to power, not authority. This fits much better with the background of Nebuchadnezzar. Paul commanded Christians to remain subject to Rome’s injustices, to not revolt against Rome, but instead to wait patiently upon the Lord who will avenge every wrong. I believe that God does not want us to be distracted from the kingdom of heaven by the injustice of the kingdoms of men.

Here is a paraphrase of the passage as I understand it:

Let every soul be subject to the powers over them. For there is no power but from God and the powers that exist have been providentially placed there by God. Therefore whoever rebels against those powers is rebelling against what God has appointed, and those who rebel will bring judgment on themselves. (For rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you want to be free from fear of the one who has power? Then don’t resist him and you will receive his approval. For a powerful ruler is God’s instrument for your good (Rom 8:28). But if you disobey God and rebel, be afraid, for God has not empowered him with the strength of the sword in vain. He is God’s instrument to administer retribution on those who disobey (such as Jerusalem). Therefore you must not rebel, not only because of the wrath of the powers but also because of your conscience (because you know that God has providentially given them power for your good). For this reason you should also pay taxes, for they are God’s servants attending continually upon this very thing. Pay everyone what is due: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Finally, here is a chart showing the different views (PDF):

Further reading:

On Social Justice (3): Justice for the Poor & Needy

(Note: This post has been slightly revised from it’s original version to remove comments about the 6th commandment establishing a “regulative principle of violence” as I do not believe that is sufficiently nuanced. For more on this, please see my A Note on Reformed Libertarianism.)


In Part 2 we defined justice as giving someone what they are due. We distinguished between God-man justice and man-man justice. We argued that man-man (intra-human) justice is not simply loving each other as God commands. In this post we will look at what intra-human justice is, particularly for the poor & needy.

The 6th commandment limits our use of force. Calvin explains “The sum of this Commandment is, that we should not unjustly do violence to any one… [U]nder the word kill [murder] is included by synecdoche all violence, smiting, and aggression.” Scripture clarifies that self-defense (Ex 22:2) as well as as retribution according to lex talionis (Gen 9:6; Lev 24:17-21; Ex 21:22-25; Deut 19:18-21; Num 35:9-34) are not violations of the 6th commandment.

The 8th commandment establishes the concept of private property. In his Themelios essay, Wayne Grudem notes “[T]he command, ‘You shall not steal,’ assumes private ownership of property.” In contrast, he quotes Marx. “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Mankind is given dominion over the earth and is told to subdue it. Insofar as the earth belongs to the Lord (Ps. 24:1), this dominion is relative, not absolute. We are made stewards of creation. What distinguishes one man’s stewardship from another’s is their work of subduing the earth. Men may then voluntarily trade their stewardship between each other as they see fit. The 8th commandment forbids anyone from taking someone else’s stewardship (property) without their consent.

When theft (8th commandment) is combined with violence (6th commandment), the crime of robbery has been committed.


God has instructed us how to deal with violations of the 6th and 8th commandments. Genesis 9:6 clarifies that retributive justice demands vengeance upon the wrongdoer for crimes between men. If someone is murdered, the murderer is to be put to death. The wrongdoer is “due” the wrong that he did. Lev 24:17-20 elaborates on Gen 9:6 “Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal. If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him.” This is an application on the intra-human level of the same standard of justice that applies between God and men (Obad. 15; Jer. 50:29; Hab. 2:8; Joel 3:4, 7; Rom 1:32; Rev 18:6-7). (The Mosaic Covenant also cursed men with death for violations of God’s law beyond murder. These were instances of God-man justice in the typological holy land of Canaan per Leviticus 18:5.)

Likewise, if someone steals property they must restore the property but justice demands that they are also due what they have done. So they must additionally give the same amount they stole to the victim (Ex. 22:4). Vern Poythress explains “The repayment of the first ox is simple restoration, while the repayment of the second ox is punishment for the criminal intent.” (While I do not agree with every point, Poythress’ book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses is essential reading for anyone interested in biblical justice.) He notes a very important consequence of this understanding of intra-human justice: “[W]e can conclude that the authority of human beings covers only those cases in which human beings are injured. Only then is some human being fit to exact the penalty, namely the injured human being.”

Due Process

God has left men with some liberty to determine the best way to administer justice, but the above principle (proportionally rendering what is due) must be followed in every instance. Furthermore, judgment must be impartial (Deut 1:16-17) and honest (Lev. 19:35-36). Sadly, in this fallen world that is often not the case. Some physically strong men resort to outright thuggery by holding people at gunpoint and taking their wallet. They live their life in the shadows as outlaws. But powerful men living life in the limelight often engage in judicial thuggery by relying on their power in the courts to rob and oppress others (essentially by bribing the judges). Franz Oppenheimer referred to this as “the political means” of prosperity.

In defending his innocence, Job cries “[I]f I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint.” (Job 31:21-22). Micah denounces “the political means” of fraudulently obtaining land.

Woe to those who devise iniquity,
And work out evil on their beds!
At morning light they practice it,
Because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and take them by violence,
Also houses, and seize them.
So they oppress a man and his house,
A man and his inheritance. (2:1-2)

Isaiah cries against wickedness in Jerusalem.

Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them (1:23; cf Luke 18:1-5).

The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow published 1864 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Gilbert Dalziel 1924

Commenting on Prov. 22:22, Gill explains “[W]hen he comes into a court of judicature, which was usually held in the gates of a city, 4:1; and applies for redress of any grievance, do not crush him in the gate, or oppress him in judgment; nor wrest his cause, and do him wrong; but let him have justice done him, though poor.”

Jeremiah chastises the rulers in Jerusalem: “[T]hey have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.” (5:28). Isaiah prophesies of a coming king: “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (11:4).

The issue here is impartiality before the law. The rights of the poor are constantly violated because wicked judges take bribes that the poor cannot afford.

Employers oppress and exploit day laborers by not paying them what was previously agreed upon for their work. Kevin DeYoung explains

Oppression occurred when day laborers were hired to work in the fields for the day, and at the end of the day the landowner stiffed them of their wages. This was a serious offense to your neighbor and before God, not least of all because the day’s payment was often literally you daily bread. People depended on this payment to survive.

It was all to[o] easy to cheat workers out of their wages. You could say you didn’t have anything to give. Or you could argue that the work done was shabbily. Or you could simply refuse to pay today, or ever. If the matter was simply one man’s word against another’s, there was little a worker could do to get justice, especially on that day when what the worker needed was to eat, not a legal process.

Amos warns of the coming judgment upon Israel for their wickedness. “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted.” (2:6). They are willing to give up the rights of the poor for a bribe of silver or even just a pair of sandals.

You who turn justice to wormwood,
And lay righteousness to rest in the earth!…
For I know your manifold transgressions
And your mighty sins:
Afflicting the just and taking bribes;
Diverting the poor from justice at the gate. (5:7, 12)

Amos instructs them to “Hate evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate [the courtroom].” (5:15). Jeremiah likewise declares

Thus says the Lord: “Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. (22:3)

See also Ps. 72:1-4; 82:3; 140:12; Prov. 22:22; Job 29:7-17. Commenting on Ps. 72:4, Calvin said

God is indeed no respecter of persons; but it is not without cause that God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence. Let laws and the administration of justice be taken away, and the consequence will be, that the more powerful a man is, he will be the more able to oppress his poor brethren.

Note that David called himself poor and needy because of the false accusations brought against him by people trying to kill him (Ps. 109:22, 31). E. Calvin Beisner notes that “the many Hebrew words translated ‘poor’ in these contexts often emphasize not material destitution but vulnerability to oppression.” The Bible often mentions the poor particularly as being in need of justice not because their relative lack of wealth is itself an injustice but because they are more often recipients of injustice. The poor are not victims of injustice by virtue of being poor, but in being poor they are more often passed over in societies which fail to employ justice without partiality.

In his Christian Worldview series, R.C. Sproul says

[O]ften the way in which this message [in Amos 5] is described is as a call to social justice… I can’t think of too many concepts that are more misleading in our contemporary culture than this idea of social justice. Social justice in the prophets, social justice in Israel had to do with the rule of law and of righteousness in the culture. It had nothing to do with socialism and since Marx’s understanding of law there’s been a tremendous influence in our culture today that equates social justice with social equality or economic equality – the idea being that you don’t have social justice unless everybody in the society has equal possessions and equal finances and so on. An equal distribution of wealth is considered in socialistic countries as the supreme manifestation of social justice and the complaint is if there are inequalities in a culture where there can be a division between the wealthy and the poor that that would necessarily reveal a structure of social injustice that needs to be rectified. Now again that’s the common way in which you’ll read the concept in the newspaper and in the media today. That’s not the classic understanding of social justice because classically both philosophers and theologians distinguished between equality and equity. Equity meant that everybody received what was their due not that everybody received things in terms of material possessions equally… Everybody was to be treated equally under the law so that the poor man should not have the law tilted against him or the rich man having the law tilted for him so social injustice takes place in the first instance when the rule of the land is not just because it shows favoritism to people not on the basis of righteousness but on the basis of political power.

Keller acknowledges “The word mishpat in its various forms occurs more than two hundred times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably.” (1). Note that, Biblically speaking, equity does not simply mean that once an issue reaches the courtroom, the verdict must be rendered impartially. Equity means equal standing under the law and – very importantly – “the law” here does not just mean “the law of the land.” “The law” means “You shall not murder” and “You shall not steal.” No one, no matter how powerful, may murder or steal – even if they manage to pass a law that says they can. Laws themselves can be unjust violations of negative rights (Is. 10:1). Sometimes a powerful individual can keep their crimes out of the courtroom through suppression of the matter. Other times individuals can keep their crimes out of the courtroom by passing laws that legalize their violation of the 6th and 8th commandments (i.e. the legal protection of man-stealing in the slave trade or the Monsanto Protection Act), preventing them from ever having to face a trial in the first place.

Equity is no minor matter. Neither is it just an ancient problem. America has massive equity problems. The entire economy is corrupted by very powerful people using the state to commit acts of injustice. It’s a “pay to play racket” where corporate interests not only understand they have to bribe to survive, but they lie awake at night plotting how to create new regulations to crush competition, how to use eminent domain to steal from the poor, how to use the military might of the American Empire for their own profit, and a long, long list of corporate thuggery. We have no doubt some of these powerful individuals have despised other ethnicities and that a history of abuse of legal authority has had long lasting implications. But we also have no doubt many of these individuals are themselves ethnic minorities who wield their power to crush others. Holding the state and its “private” extensions accountable for violating the negative rights of others, especially the poor under the boot of the American Empire, is a matter of justice. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with others willing to denounce this sin as injustice.

We will not, however, be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who believe justice entails not only the protection of life and property, but also the provision of daily bread, housing, education, a living wage, equal starting points in life, and more.

Negative Rights

All of this leads to the understanding of our rights as “negative.” Beisner notes “Properly understood, rights are not guarantees that something will be provided for us but guarantees that what is ours will not be unjustly taken from us. That is, properly speaking, rights are not positive but negative.”

We have a right to not have things taken away from us: our life and our property. If we are left alone then our rights have not been violated. If someone commits violence against us or steals our property, our rights have been violated.

Compare this “negative” formulation to the “positive” one used by proponents of social justice

Positive Rights

In a post at TGC, Jonathan Leeman calls Sproul’s understanding of Scripture “autistic.”

Some contemporary political ideologies claim justice requires an equality of fair process, so that the same rules apply to everyone. Others say it requires an equality of outcome or at least opportunity, such that no one’s too poor and no one’s too rich. What does the Bible say?

Certainly Scripture calls for fair processes (Exod. 23:2, 6; Deut. 16:19–20). But justice in Scripture isn’t only concerned with fair process. According to passages like Psalm 140, it’s concerned with “the cause” of the weak and disadvantaged (Ps. 140:12; cf. Deut. 24:17–18; Pss. 10:18; 82:3; Isa. 1:17, 23; 10:1–2; Jer. 5:28; 22:13–16). Psalm 72’s perfect king, for instance, possesses this concern:

May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! (v. 2)

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! (v. 4)

For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. (vv. 12–14)…

The problem with affirming justice merely as fair process is that it views people as isolated units. It depends on a shallow and almost autistic anthropology that’s low on empathy and fails to conceive of humans as relational beings with structurally-formed identities.

By “the cause [misphat],” Leeman means eliminating life disparities between the poor and the rest of society: giving them their daily bread, providing them with a better education, etc. These are known as “positive rights” because if someone leaves you alone they have violated your rights. If you do not have food or shelter and an individual who does have food and shelter does not step in to provide for you, they have violated your rights. In this particular article he specifically has in mind equal starting points in life. There is much wisdom in Leeman’s careful essay, but on this specific point regarding the nature of justice, we believe he errs. If he had left the issue as a matter of love and mercy towards the poor and needy, we would find little to disagree with and a great deal to affirm. As Beisner notes “My right to life means I have a right not to be murdered or assaulted, but it doesn’t mean I have a right to have someone else ensure that all the conditions of my survival are met.”

Note the texts Leeman appeals to are the same ones we discussed above. The difference is he assumes “the cause” (“the rights”) of the poor refers to everything they may want or need in life that those better off than them have. But there is no reason to understand these texts as anything other than insuring that the poor get their day in court and the matter is judged impartially (see Luke 18:3). Leeman largely tracks with Keller on this point and also appeals to Michael Walzer’s “Spheres of Justice.”

In Generous Justice, Keller seeks to defend the concept of positive rights (our term, not his) first of all by appeal to God’s command to care for the poor. However, as we saw in the previous post, the fact that God commands us to love our neighbor does not entail that every act of love towards our neighbor is a matter of justice. Oftentimes it is a matter of mercy (as Jesus says the Good Samaritan’s actions were), which R.C. Sproul explains is a matter of “non-justice.” Again, as we discussed in the previous post, God causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the unjust (those who do not deserve God’s rain or sun) as a matter of grace. As we imitate God, we are to graciously give to others who do not earn our gift, especially to those who need it.

Keller appeals to several Mosaic laws to argue that the poor have a right to the property of others.

But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means to give people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. So we read, “Defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. (1)

Deuteronomy 18 gives two reasons why these provisions are due to the Levites. First, because they did not receive any portion of the promised land that was divided between the other tribes (from which they derived their livelihood). Their legal inheritance was not the land, rather, their legal inheritance was to receive their livelihood from the other tribes for their work as priests. That was entirely unique to Israel’s special relationship to the holy land. Note well this second point: They were being paid for their labor. God said it was due to them because God commanded that they must do this work on behalf of the people. As Jesus said, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (Luke 10:7). So it was the priests’ right – what they were due.

Is there any basis to then interpret Proverbs 31:9 as teaching that the poor have a right to the property of others simply because they are poor? No, not at all. Proverbs 31:9 simply refers to the administration of justice to the poor and needy for violations of their negative right to life and property, as we saw above. Keller simply builds upon this foundational misinterpretation throughout the rest of his book.

Keller argues

[I]f you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”… Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. (1-2)

That’s not what the texts say. They say that neglect of fair trial for the poor and needy is a violation of justice. They do not say that failure to provide them with others’ property in order to make their prosperity equal to others is a violation of justice.

Keller appeals to the numerous laws in Deuteronomy 15 to argue the poor and needy had a right to their brothers’ property. Verses 7-11 command that if an Israelite falls in to poverty then his fellow Israelite should lend him what he needs to get out of poverty. Note that this was a loan (8-9). It was not like payment to the Levites. The poor man did not have a legal right, a legal claim to his brothers’ property. Yes, he could cry out to God for his brothers’ disobedience to God if he refused to loan the money (9), but he cannot take him to court. The loan also had to be paid back (until the year of release).

Every 7 years was a year of release wherein Israelites were commanded not to exact a debt from their brother. They were allowed to continue extracting it from any foreigners they had loaned to. Furthermore, they were commanded not to charge interest on loans made to poor Israelites (Ex. 22:25). Likewise, if a fellow Hebrew became their slave, they were to release them after 6 years. These were not matters of justice for the poor of the world, they were commands from a gracious God that had redeemed a people from slavery and established a unique covenant arrangement with them, calling them to imitate his character and care for one another as a family. Keller admits

It is true that the social legislation of the Old Testament is largely about caring for the needy inside the believing [or rather just “covenant”] community. Also most examples of generosity in the New Testament are of care for the poor within the church, such as the support for widows (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). Even Jesus’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats uses the test of caring for those whom Jesus calls “the least of these my brothers,” probably referring to poor believers. (57-58)

Surveying the texts he calls upon, we see that Keller’s opinion that mishpat means the poor have a right to the property of others, because they are poor, is not derived from Scripture. He strings various texts together to try to weave a quilt of social justice at the cost of properly understanding each passage. He has imported an unbiblical understanding of “justice” into the text. As we have seen in the last 2 posts, Keller is quite open about the fact that he first held to a Neo-Marxist understanding of justice and only later found the same “justice” in Scripture. We believe his prior sympathies have led him to misread Scripture.


The 6th and 8th commandments govern our use of force and our treatment of others’ property. We have a right to the value that accrues from our work in subduing the earth. However, the fall has cursed all of creation (Gen. 3:17-19). There is no guarantee that our sweat will be productive. If we fall into poverty, we do not therefore have the right to the property of others. We must cast ourselves upon the love and mercy of God and the love and mercy of others. If, however, in that vulnerable state someone commits violence against us, defrauds us of our wages, steals our property, or in other creative ways oppresses us by violating our negative rights, we have a just complaint before the judges and the judges have an obligation to hear our case (our cause) and administer justice according to lex talionis. That is justice for the poor and needy and it is needed today just as much as it was in the days of apostate Judah – and at every point in history since the fall.

Related Links:

A Note on Reformed Libertarianism

I had hoped to develop this further but I simply have not had time. But I do want to say something.

Libertarianism is the legal theory (with political ramifications) that the initiation of aggression (or the threat to initiate aggression) against the property of another human being, is a crime. This is commonly known as the “Non-Aggression Principle.” Notably, this applies to all men, including the government. Thus no government may initiate aggression against a citizen. The logical result of this is that taxation is theft and a monopolization of the enforcement of justice (i.e. “the state”) is immoral. Instead, a moral governing order consists of multiple, competing private justice enforcement companies who insure private individuals. (For more on this, please read Stephen Kinsella’s What Libertarianism Is.) For the libertarian, that which is illegal is determined by private property ownership and therefore not all things that may be categorized as immoral, unethical, or sinful are necessarily criminal.

I was exposed somewhat to libertarianism by my high school economics teacher. I learned more about it in college. I also learned reformed theology in college. I spent time trying to develop a biblical political philosophy but found myself reaching dead-ends. I focused instead on developing my overall theology, and covenant theology in particular, setting aside political philosophy. I considered myself a libertarian and owned Mises’ Human Action and Rothboard’s Man, Economy, and State. But I never got around to reading through them.

A few years later, C.Jay Engel stumbled upon my blog and reached out, seeing that we were of very like mind on many things. He invited me to blog at his site Around the same time I had other friends ask me to respond to a new, growing group of Facebook Theonomists. So I once again ventured into the realm of biblical political philosophy (but this time with a more robust biblical & covenant theology). The study was fruitful (at least to me) and I focused on exegetical and historical theology. My libertarianism was under-developed and I leaned heavily on C.Jay for working out the specifics and the applications (I managed to read a couple chapters from Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State but I never got around to reading any Hoppe).

The primary, underlying question for me has always been the justification of the use of violence. Put another way: the just origin of civil government. The more I studied the issue, the more convinced I became of libertarianism because all of the other justifications failed, in my opinion. Obviously might does not make right, so conquest is not a just ground for the origin of civil government. Neither can rulers claim special, divine anointing from God, so divine right is not a just ground for the origin of civil government. Some early reformed, such as Calvin, argued that the just origin of civil government/rulers is simply God’s providence. But this is a confusion of God’s two wills and merely side-steps the question.

After Calvin, most reformed argued that the only possible just origin of civil government is the consent of the governed. They argued that the office of ruler is established by God and given a monopoly on violence. The people cannot exercise that use of force so they must choose someone to do so. The problem with this view is that Gen 9:6 grants all image bearers the authority (and duty) to wield the sword in the administration of justice. Thus in the nation of Israel we see that the next of kin has the authority and duty to avenge the death of a relative (a practice found throughout tribal societies ancient and modern).

Furthermore, the “social contract” variation on the consent theory would require ongoing consent of every individual in order to remain valid (a point made by Kuyper, and Filmer before him), not to mention the fact that a majority cannot exercise authority over a non-consenting minority just because they are the majority.

And thus by processes of elimination I came to find the Non-Aggression Principle (libertarianism) to be biblical. Civil government does not possess any divine authority above and beyond divine authority given to all image bearers. Thus any claim by a ruler to have special authority over individuals must be fraudulent. Therefore “the state” (a monopoly on violence in any given region) is fraudulent. Furthermore it must therefore be immoral for any individual or institution to use force for anything other than self-defense and retributive justice according to lex talionis.

However, there remained an undeveloped aspect in my mind. I did not believe the concept of a king or prince was inherently unjust and immoral. I did not believe there was anything unjust about Abraham amassing a great deal of wealth and servants. Someone could likewise become wealthy enough to own extensive property and have people living under his authority without injustice. Such a king could place any number of requirements upon those living on his land. It’s private property after all.

Now what happens when that king/prince/landowner dies? Does all his property simply revert back to being unowned property that can be claimed by anyone? No. His property is passed on to someone of his choosing. This is often his son, but it could be anyone. If the king had an agreement/contract with his tenants, then his son would have to honor that contract. Thus various rules governing living in a particular land could be passed down through generations without losing their legal force (and without violating the 6th or 8th commandments).

In like manner, any group of landowners could come together to pool their resources for self-defense and also establish some common rules for living in any of their lands (this coming together would have to be 100% consensual – not simply a majority). This too could retain its legal force after any or all of these original owners died or even sold their land. This is more or less what a Homeowner’s Association or CC&R is. When I purchased land to build a home, it came attached with certain conditions put in place by the original owner of the land. If I violate those conditions, I am legally liable to the other homeowners under the same CC&R for violating that agreement.

Thus it begins to appear that there is a just, biblical basis for a civil government monopoly to exist and to enforce laws beyond the Non-Aggression Principle. Taxation could be one such law. This is a conclusion that C.Jay arrived at, leading him to question whether he could rightly be called a libertarian any longer. He has written about it here, here, and here.

Of course, this is all theoretical and abstract. It does not itself tell us anything about any particular, existing civil government. Any particular government could have a just basis for their authority, but they might just as well have no legitimate basis. The history of the world does not present us with a nice, tidy chain of custody (Sir Robert Filmer, who wrote against Rutherford in defense of royal absolutism, argued that 17th century kings had absolute property rights to their land that originally derived from Noah dividing the world between his sons). Rather, history is full of war, conquest, murder, and theft of people and property (i.e. lots of broken, disregarded, and illegally imposed CC&Rs). So assessing whether any particular government’s authority is de jure or merely de facto requires a great deal of wisdom (which is why, in my opinion, our command to be subject to rulers is not contingent upon their claim to authority being just).

There remain many further avenues for me to explore. Is a property owner’s authority absolute (as James Ussher argued a king’s was)? Can they prohibit an image bearer from exercising retributive justice on their property? If so, would they simply be banished, or can they justly be killed for violating the king’s law? The latter would be contingent upon a tenant making a self-maledictory oath, promising to obey the law of the land upon pain of death. Would such an oath be binding upon his children? Would they have opportunity to depart from the land if they don’t agree? What if there is nowhere else to go on earth? Are they bound by their father’s oath? Are there any restrictions on what a property owner may justly require or impose upon such tenants as an agreed condition for living in his land? Can natural law (the moral law written on the heart of all men) restrict property rights in the sense that it limits said conditions? Or would it only affect the landowner’s standing before God, but not men? In the event of conquest, is it possible to re-establish just property rights? What do we do if a chain of custody for any given land (along with any attached conditions or covenant/constitution) cannot be determined?

So much more noodling remains, but I wanted to share where I am at because I don’t anticipate having very much time to develop these thoughts further, and these thoughts do affect how we view current events around us. I don’t think there is much from my writings at that I would drastically change or disagree with (for example, I still disagree with 2LBCF 24.1). As I migrate them over to this blog, I’ll note at the beginning of any post if I have changed any part of it.

Does Romans 13 Require Us to Obey "Shelter-in-Place" Laws?

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States central government issues guidelines for states to follow in an effort to avoid a surge in demand on healthcare in the country that would outstrip supply. Various states have taken those guidelines and turned them into strict laws that require everyone to “shelter-in-place” – that is, no one may leave their home (except to obtain food and other essentials – but not including work to pay for that food).

Responses to these laws have varied, with many questioning both their prudence and their constitutional authority. This post is not intended to comment upon either of those questions. It may or may not be prudent. Various states may or may not have authority according to their state constitutions to do so. And those constitutions themselves may or may not be legitimate sources of authority. I am not addressing any of that here.

I wish to address one specific response: Christians must comply with these new laws because Romans 13:1-7 says that we must obey whatever our rulers say. Many claim it would be sinful to leave your house for any “non-essential” reason. I believe this interpretation of the text is incorrect.

A common interpretation of the text is that Romans 13 commands us to obey every single law in every jurisdiction unless that law requires us to sin because civil government is placed by God and receives its authority from him.

Another common interpretation of the text (held by the majority of reformed theologians) is that Romans 13 commands us to obey every single law in every jurisdiction unless that law exceeds the contractual agreement (constitution) established between the ruler and the people.

I believe both of these interpretations are incorrect. The first conflates God’s two distinct wills (decretive and preceptive). The second misunderstands Romans 13 as a reference to God’s preceptive will.

Which Will?

An essential component of properly interpreting Romans 13 is determining which will of God is referred to. There is God’s sovereign, decretive will: providence. All things in history happen according to God’s will. God’s second “will” is his preceptive will: His commands to men. Note that these are two distinct things that cannot logically be conflated.

God’s Preceptive Will

Which will does Paul have in mind when he says “established” (NIV), “instituted” (ESV), “ordained” (KJV), “appointed” (YLT)? If he is referring to God’s preceptive will, then the meaning is that God has commanded the establishment of the institution of civil government. He is not referring to any specific ruler, but merely to the institution. This necessarily entails that civil government, like any authority (such as husband or elder), has a specific, limited scope to its authority and need only be obeyed within the confines of that scope. If a ruler steps beyond those limits, they no longer possess authority and may be disobeyed and removed. This also necessarily entails that the ruler must possess legitimate authority. It cannot be usurped power. It cannot be the power of a conquering king. Since all men are equally created in the image of God, no man by birth possesses kingly authority over another. Thus this authority may only be established through the consent of the people (as argued by Beza, Rutherford, and the majority of the reformed tradition). If these people withdraw their consent because of the ruler’s violation of the terms of agreement (i.e. he becomes a terror to good works, not evil), then they are at liberty to replace him. This interpretation drove the 16th century Scottish revolution, the 17th century English revolution, and the 18th century American revolution (which was known in England as “The Presbyterian Revolt”). The logic here is airtight.

But this specifically does not fit the context of Romans 13 wherein Paul was warning Christians not to join with the Jewish zealots who sought to overthrow Rome’s unjust (conquering) occupation of Jerusalem through tax revolt. If Paul was referring to God’s establishment of an institution, then Rome had clearly stepped beyond the limit of that authority by their occupation of Jerusalem and thus they were owed no subjection. Yet Paul commands subjection.

God’s Decretive Will

If, however, Paul has in mind God’s decretive will, then the meaning is that God has providentially ordained and appointed specific men to have power (not authority) over other men. This, not the other interpretation, fits the Old Covenant background of Nebuchadnezzar that Paul clearly had in mind. God did not grant Nebuchadnezzar authority over Jerusalem. He granted him power over Jerusalem. How do we know this? Because God specifically says that Nebuchadnezzar would be punished for his unjust invasion and enslavement of Jerusalem – the very thing he gave him power to do.

Israel’s history was a history of rebelling against and overthrowing foreign occupation by the power and blessing of God. Subjection to all higher powers is not a creation ordinance. But in this instance, because Nebuchadnezzar was a curse against Judah for their violation of Mosaic law, God commanded the Jews not to rebel but to submit to his yoke instead – not because Nebuchadnezzar possessed legitimate authority, but because God had providentially ordained that he have power to destroy Jerusalem and take a remnant who submitted to him captive, so that God could later restore them from exile.

This is parallel to Paul’s instruction in Romans 13. While we wait for the return of our king, Christians are to be subject to (not rebel – note that the Greek word is not “obey”) the mighty men (the “state”), because God has a purpose and is providentially ordering these things for our good. We are not to avenge ourselves against the state (as Gen 9:6 gives image bearers authority to do; Rom 12:19) but we are instead to follow the example of Christ and turn the other cheek, suffering injustice until he returns. I believe this is the most logically coherent interpretation of the text and does the best justice to the immediate and intra-canonical context.

A Conflation of God’s Two Wills

It is important to note that the vast majority of interpreters conflate these two distinct interpretations. The Scottish Presbyterians were consistent enough to recognize it must be one or the other. Most today, like Kuyper (following Calvin), argue that the passage refers both to God’s establishment of an institution AND to his ordination of specific persons to that institution. That’s not a logical possibility but most people are completely unaware that they slip between these two concepts when interpreting the passage. Pointing out this inconsistency goes a long ways towards its proper interpretation.


In an unpublished master’s thesis, Dr. Samuel Waldron notes

The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities [powers] is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority [power]. Lenski sees the matter very clearly when he asserts, “Refusal to obey was not in any way standing against the arrangement of God and the governmental authority [power] this high court possessed.”

“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished


During these difficult times we must ask God for great wisdom. We must weigh the various risks and concerns and make prudent decisions. We must love our neighbors. But we should not fear that disobedience to the edicts of our governments on issues related to the pandemic is necessarily sinful. We must disobey if the government commands us to sin, but we may also disobey in other situations without incurring sin.

(If anyone is curious, I think this doctor’s recommendations for a communal response to the pandemic are wise; see last slide at 1:06:30)

For a more detailed examination, see the following posts:

Is John MacArthur Right About Revolution?

John MacArthur appeared last Sunday on Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire. I greatly appreciated MacArthur’s focus on the gospel in the interview – specifically his willingness to personally direct it to Shapiro and call him to repentance. That is very rare in situations like this. It far outweighs any other nit-picking I may have.

Towards the beginning of the interview, MacArthur said

I’m to be a citizen who submits to the powers that be I am NOT to be a revolutionary. We don’t start riots that’s not a Christian thing to do. We don’t even start revolutions, and you could argue about the American Revolution whether that was actually legitimately a Christian act or not. We don’t start revolutions. We submit to the powers that be and we work to change the culture from the inside one soul at a time.

Shapiro later asked him to elaborate.

Shapiro: Early on you mentioned that you weren’t sure that the American Revolution is in consonance with biblical values. I was wonder if you could expound on that a little bit. I think it’s an interesting idea.

MacArthur:  Well the scripture says submit to the powers that be, that they are ordained of God. That does not mean that every ruler represents God, clearly that is not the case, but that governmental authority is a god-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior, just as parents have that role, the conscience has that role we’ve talked about. So when I, when I talk about the government I’m not saying that the government is a divine authority or that the rulers are divine authorities but what I am saying is that they represent a god-given constraint to human behavior and that’s why they have to be upheld and not broken down. So Christians don’t attack the government. We don’t protest. We don’t riot. We don’t start shooting people who are in the government even if the government is King George from England and we don’t like him and even if we’re upset with taxation. We don’t start riots and we don’t start revolutions.

We live quiet according to the New Testament peaceable lives we pray for those that are over us we pray for rulers we pray for all those who are in authority and we pray that they might come to know God through the savior of the Lord Jesus Christ. So we pray regularly for our rulers we do not overthrow them and that is how a Christian a real biblical Christian would look at the at the American Revolution. I mean, I hate to say that because that’s not a popular idea, but it is nonetheless what the scripture says Christians are to do. Submit, pray, pray for the salvation of your leaders, live a quiet and peaceable life and let the the character of your life the godliness the virtue of your life affect that society one soul at a time.

Shapiro: So what does that mean for individual rights? Because obviously the American Revolution is based on the idea that we are individuals with certain rights that are inherent in us. I think that has history going all the way back to Genesis talking about us being made in God’s image with certain creative faculties and that comes along with the ability to think for ourselves the ability to worship God, the ability to build these families. The founding ideology is based around the idea that if the government itself was a threat to your fundamental rights including as a religious person then the government had lost its legitimacy. Is there a point in in your philosophy in theology where the government loses its legitimacy? It’s the Soviet Union, they’re cracking down on churches. It’s Nazi Germany, right? Is that, is there a point where a revolution would be justifiable or necessary?

MacArthur: Not, not in a biblical sense, no. I don’t think there’s ever a time when you would be justified in starting to kill the people that are in power. I don’t, I don’t see any justification for that. That is not what Christians do. We would rather suffer.

Personally, I have wrestled with MacArthur’s view for more than 10 years. My desire to take every thought captive to Christ makes me affirm MacArthur’s anti-revolution position, in light of Romans 13. But my logical, systematic bent (which is just another step in taking every thought captive to Christ) leads me to reject MacArthur’s position because it is self-contradictory. It took me a long time to push through the fog of this dissonance, but I think I have made progress and have more clarity now.

Person or Office?

How is MacArthur contradicting himself? By conflating the two wills of God – that is, conflating the person and the office. First he argues that the powers that are ordained of God does not mean particular rulers, but rather the general concept – the institution (preceptive will/command). “That does not mean that every ruler represents God, clearly that is not the case, but that governmental authority is a God-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior.” But then he argues that we must therefore never remove any particular ruler by force (because that particular ruler is ordained by God – decretive will/providence). “So we pray regularly for our rulers we do not overthrow them…I don’t think there’s ever a time when you would be justified in starting to kill the people that are in power.”

Which is it? Logically the verse must refer to one or the other. Is the institution ordained by God’s command or is the specific person ordained by God’s providence? Irenaues argued it was the person providentially ordained by God. Chrysostom argued it was the office preceptively ordained by God, not any particular ruler. In his commentary on Romans, John Murray puts it this way

The propositions that the authorities are of God and ordained of God are not to be understood as referring merely to God’s decretive will. The terms could be used to express God’s decretive ordination but this is not their precise import here. The context shows that the ordination of which the apostle now speaks is that of institution which is obliged to perform the appointed functions. The civil magistrate is not the only means decreed in God’s providence for the punishment of evildoers but God’s instituted, authorized, and prescribed instrument for the maintenance of order and the punishing of criminals who violate that order. When the civil magistrate through his agents executes just judgment upon crime, he is executing not simply God’s decretive will bu he is also fulfilling God’s preceptive will, and it would be sinful for him to refrain from so doing.

For these reasons subjection is required and resistance is a violation of God’s law and meets with judgment. (NICNT, p. 148)

Removing Persons

If the power that God has ordained is simply the institution – that is, the idea that society must have a means of constraining human behavior by punishing evil – then our submission is specifically due to that function: punishing evil. If a particular person with power is himself evil and is actually punishing good, then that has not been ordained by God and we need not submit to it, but may resist (Shapiro notes this). Thus Samuel Rutherford said “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.” This is the understanding behind the WCF and it led directly to the American Revolution, which was known in England as the Presbyterian Rebellion.

The logic is impeccable. If God has ordained/commanded that society must punish evil and reward the good, then society must replace a tyrant. Note that the American Revolution was not the rejection of society’s duty to punish evil and reward the good. Rather, it was simply a change in how that was to be done: through a constitutional republic rather than a monarchy. That’s not contrary to the divine institution of government unless you want to argue that God only ordained a specific type of government (monarchy, oligarchy, republic, democracy, etc). The American Revolution was not an overthrow of the institution of government. It was the overthrow of specific persons and their unjust laws (which were not ordained by God).

Ordaining Persons

While the logic is sound, the problem is this view makes no sense of Romans 13 in its original context. The Christians Paul was writing to were concerned with the injustice of Rome and were enticed by Jewish revolutionaries. Paul tells them to be subject to the powers that be. Note that Paul did not simply tell them to obey the rulers. He told them to be subject to them. The specific issue is not disobedience to laws, but rebellion against persons (see Waldron’s notes here). The ordination that Paul refers to in Romans 13 is the providential empowering of particular mighty men to rule over others, as Irenaeus observed. Nebuchadnezzar was the obvious background to Paul’s comments and Nebuchadnezzar was not ordained to an office. He was empowered to crush opposition – to rule. God has providentially ordained that non-theocratic rulers will have power over Christians until our King Jesus returns. Until then, we are to follow his example by patiently suffering injustice.


In conclusion, MacArthur is correct that Christians must not rebel. However, he is wrong as to why Christians are not to rebel. It is not because Romans 13 has ordained an institution that never loses its legitimacy. It is because God has commanded us to suffer patiently under the heavy hand of wicked men whom He has providentially empowered, while we wait for the return of our king (thus making us pilgrims).

Responding to injustice (tyranny) with force (rebelling) is just. In this sense, the American Revolution was just. They had a natural right to resist injustice. However, Romans 13, like Matt 5:39, commands Christians to suffer injustice by turning the other cheek and not taking up arms against “the powers that be.” Did Christ have every right to resist his unjust execution? Yes. Did he resist? No. We are to follow his example, which reaches beyond mere matters of justice.

The dissonance in MacArthur’s conflation of person and office in Romans 13 is very common. It leads to a great deal of confusion. I would encourage everyone to carefully consider and distinguish between person and office with regards to “the powers that be.”

For more detailed reading, see:

Romans 13: Person (Decretive), Office (Preceptive), or Both?

Louis W. Hensler III, JD, professor at Regent University’s School of Law, wrote a tremendously helpful paper for the Regent University Law Review titled “Flexible Interpretations of ‘The Powers that Be’ from Constantine to Mandela and Beyond.” He outlines two different understandings of “the powers that be” in Romans 13:1-7 and traces the interpretations over the last 2,000 years, showing how Christians have tried to answer “How can Paul’s teaching here about the role of rulers as “servants of God” be squared with the practical experience that rulers sometimes are and/or do evil?”

The first view, labeled the positivistic interpretation says the meaning of

“the powers that be are ordained of God” is that “God is sovereign, and this [sovereignty] seemingly extends to the placement of particular governing authorities over their subjects.”63 In this process, God sovereignly superintends so that the ruling of even evil rulers ends up redounding to good in some ultimate sense: “Paul means that consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, in one way or another, the power will praise the good work and punish the evil.” (50)

The second view, labeled the legitimistic interpretation sees it as

Paul’s normative teaching concerning what rulers ought to do rather than as a description of what rulers in fact do,67 although the context pushes against this reading… Romans 13 serves as a sort of yardstick against which the legitimacy of rulers can be measured.72 Yoder identified this legitimistic interpretation of Romans 13—the passage includes “certain basic outlines of the prescriptions which God has divinely established for the state to fulfill.”73 The “state” that fails to fulfill those God-ordained functions is no state, and no submission is owed to that state.74

Hensler observes

What is unique about Paul’s instruction in Romans 13 regarding the relationship between ruler and ruled is that, unlike Paul’s other teachings concerning relationships of power, in which he addresses both sides of the power relationship, the position of ruler fulfills no rhetorical role in Romans 13:1–7.92 While first century rulers might have had an interest in Paul’s writing, the ruler could not respond to the purpose of Paul’s writing.93 Paul addresses only the ruled, not the ruler.94 (53)

What follows is both a selective summary and my own application and commentary on Hensler’s paper. Rather than positivistic and legitimistic, I prefer to sort the logical options according to God’s two wills. God either “ordains” the powers that be providentially (He empowers specific men to rule over others by His decree) or preceptively (He establishes an office/institution of ruler/civil government that every society must fill and must submit to).

A. The Context of Paul’s Writing: “the Powers That Be” Persecute the Church Pre-312 A.D.

Irenaeus (positivistic/decretal):

[E]arly church leaders accepted the idea that even though rulers tended to be hostile to the church, those particular hostile rulers had been personally selected by God himself. In his major work railing against gnostic dualism, Irenaeus quoted Romans 13 to show God’s direct control over the selection of human rulers.101… Irenaeus resolved the tension between the character of the rulers that Christians knew and the role for rulers that Paul proclaimed (ministers of God) in another way. According to Irenaeus, God imposed the fear of the sword wielded by these human rulers to bring to mankind “some degree of justice” and “mutual forbearance through dread of the sword.”103 In this limited way, human rulers are “God’s ministers.”104 But Irenaeus taught that all human rulers, not only the good ones, perform the role of God’s minister.105 Accordingly, God appoints kings

suited to those who are at the time placed under their government. Some of these rulers are given for the correction and the benefit of their subjects, and for the preservation of justice; but others for the purposes of fear and punishment and rebuke; others, as the subjects deserve it, are for mockery, insolence and pride; while the just judgment of God . . . passes equally upon all.106

Thus, all people receive from God rulers suited to their needs. Good people may get good rulers who make them better. Bad people may receive bad rulers as a punishment. But all rulers, good and bad, are God’s ministers for good.

Origen (legitimistic/preceptive)

Origen then addresses in more detail a question that had been discussed briefly by Irenaeus: “What then? Is even that authority that persecutes God’s servants, attacks the faith, and subverts religion, from God?”113 Origen responds to this rhetorical question by drawing a perhaps imperfect analogy between rulers as given as a gift from God and sight as a gift from God.114 Origen’s text reasons that even though vision is a gift from God, people have the power to use the gift of sight for good or for evil.115 So God has given human rulers for good purposes even though they may be put to a bad use.116 Nevertheless, according to Origen, worldly judges are God’s ministers because they punish many of “the crimes that God wants to be punished.”

Here we see the beginnings of the legitimistic interpretation that understands God’s “ordination” as a reference to his preceptive will, though not fully worked out. God ordains the institution of civil government, which may be used properly or improperly by men.

B. The “Conversion” of Constantine: The Church Becomes “the Powers That Be”

Constantine converted to Christianity and it eventually became the official religion of Rome. “This shift in perspective presented a new possibility for the interpretation of Romans 13. Now, for the first time, Romans 13 might be applied to rulers as well as to ruled.137”

C. The Middle Ages Begin: The Church over “the Powers That Be”


Ambrosiaster saw Paul’s injunction to obedience to human law as a sort of stepping stone toward righteousness: “The earthly law is a kind of tutor, who helps little children along so that they can tackle a stronger degree of righteousness.”149 This view would have been unthinkable in the context of Church/state hostility in which Paul wrote.150… “In effect, Paul sees the divine law as being delegated to human authorities.”153 Ambrosiaster’s significant shift from “God sovereignly uses even bad rulers to do good” to “God delegates the divine law to human authorities” was part of a larger work that became quite influential.


Chrysostom continued to struggle with the question that had plagued the church in the pre- Constantinian era—how can an evil ruler be called “God’s minister”?160 Chrysostom’s solution to this difficulty has become one of the most widely- adopted by Christians seeking to avoid the apparent sweep of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13.161 Chrysostom did not agree with Irenaeus that God appoints all rulers—rather, Chrysostom taught that Paul was talking about God’s ordaining the institution of government, not appointing particular rulers.162 Thus, according to Chrysostom, while the institution of government is “ordained” by God, individual rulers may not be so ordained.163 Under this interpretation, Paul is commanding merely respect for the office of the ruler, not necessarily submission to the particular ruler’s commands.

Chrysostom buttressed his interpretation by pointing out the openness of the terminology used by Paul in Romans 13—the text says “ ‘there is no authority except from God,’ ” not “ ‘there is no ruler except from God.’ ”164 Chrysostom thought the word used by Paul exousia was more likely to refer to the institution of government than to individual rulers.165 But Chrysostom’s interpretation seems doubtful because he fails to take account of Paul’s next sentence. As Chrysostom notes, Paul writes that “there is no authority [exousia (singular)] except from God.”166 Chrysostom fails to account for Paul’s next clause: “the powers [exousiai (plural)] that be are ordained of God.”167 Even if the clause quoted by Chrysostom could be interpreted to apply to the concept of government generally, and not to individual rulers, that interpretation is difficult to maintain through the next phrase, which speaks of the powers using the plural, thus suggesting that Paul has multiple individual powers in mind, and not merely one concept of institutional power.

Chrysostom’s interpretation may have been foreshadowed in Origen’s idea that evil human rulers are God’s good gift put to a bad use.168 Origen’s idea moves toward abstracting from particular rulers, who may be evil, to the general concept of rulers, which is good.169


By Augustine’s time, the original gap between the Church and the political “powers that be,” which resulted in Paul’s addressing Romans 13 exclusively to subjects and not to government, was gone: “government was deeply involved with religion” and “Christians were deeply involved with the government.”176… The Donatists whom Augustine was persecuting apparently complained that the Christian authorities who were persecuting them should follow the example of the Apostles, who “did not seek [laws against impieties] from the kings of the earth.”190 Augustine’s response was direct: “Then there was no emperor who had believed in Christ, no emperor who would serve Him by passing laws in favor of religion and against impiety . . . .”191 Of course, earlier emperors had passed laws in favor of religion and against impiety, but Christians, including Jesus and Paul themselves, had been at the receiving, not at the giving, end of that earlier persecution.192 Augustine defended physical persecution by citing the positive examples of the “[m]any” cases of “bad slaves” who were “called back to the Lord by the lash of temporal scourges.”193 By “embracing in principle the use of coercion against schismatics and heretics, [Augustine] lays a general foundation for religious persecution,”194 making him, in essence, “the first theorist of the Inquisition.”195


Some of Theodoret’s commentary seems to agree with Chrysostom, at least to the extent that although God ordains the concept of rule, He does not appoint particular wicked authorities: “the divine apostle made ruling and being ruled dependent on the providence of God, not the appointment of this one or that: the authority of unjust people is not by God’s mandate—only the provision for government.”204 But then Theodoret takes a page out of Irenaeus’ book, teaching that “in his wish to correct the fallen,” God “even allows them to be ruled by wicked rulers.”205 Theodoret finally returns to Chrysostom’s argument: “For it is not the wickedness of individual rulers which comes from God but the establishment of the ruling power itself.”206

Theodoret’s attempt to combine Chrysostom (office) and Irenaeus (person) is important to note. The two interpretations are mutually exclusive. As Chrysostom said, if God’s ordination refers to the office or institution of civil government, then it does not refer to the ordination of any particular person to that office. Conversely, if God’s ordination refers to every particular ruler then it does not refer to the office or institution in general. If it refers to the office then it has nothing to do with wicked rulers. Theodoret’s self-contradictory interpretation will be taken up by others later.

Glossa Ordinaria

The commentary in the Glossa adopted Irenaeus’ position that both good and evil authorities were ordained by God: “Concerning a good authority, it is clear that God has appointed it. It can be seen that he has also reasonably appointed evil authority, since the good are themselves purified by it and the evil condemned, while the authority itself sinks lower.”212 All “power” comes from God, including the wicked ruler’s power to harm: “The power of harming is given to wicked and unworthy rulers so that the patience of the good may be proved and the iniquity of the evil may be punished.”213 Even an evil ruler “does not harm the good person but purifies him.”214 The commentary clearly recognizes that rulers do not always praise good and punish evil, but notes that those who do good always will be praised or benefitted, even by evil rulers: “you will have praise from it—even if it is an evil authority, since you have occasion for a greater crown.”215


Aquinas apparently understood Paul to be requiring submission to all higher powers, good and bad: “he says indefinitely higher powers so that we may subject ourselves to them by reason of the sublimity of their office, even if they are wicked.”221 Aquinas makes this universal obligation of submission abundantly clear in his comments on verse three, in which Paul states that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.”222 Aquinas comments that “[t]his can also refer to evil rulers, who are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. For even though they sometimes unjustly persecute those who do good, the latter have no reason to fear; because if they endure it patiently, it turns out for their good . . . .”223… Further, echoing the earlier line of teaching beginning with Irenaeus and citing the Old Testament example of Assyria sent to punish Israel, Aquinas argues that “even wicked rulers are God’s ministers for inflicting punishments according to God’s plan; although this is not their intention.”226

Note Aquinas’ continuation of Theodoret’s contradictory combination of Chrysostom and Irenaeus. We owe obedience to all rulers out of respect for the office, which has been ordained by God. This would imply that we do not have to be subject to wicked rulers since they are acting contrary to their office. Therefore he switches to Irenaeus’ interpretation that refers to God’s providential ordination of individuals, not the office.

D. Seeds of Separation of Church and State Sown in the Reformation

Martin Luther

Luther clearly concluded that Paul’s teaching concerning submission to rulers applied, not only to good rulers, but also to “evil and unbelieving rulers.”234 As discussed above, some taught that Romans 13 could be used as a yardstick, not only for the conduct of the believing ruled, but also for the ruler by interpreting Paul’s phrase “the powers that are are ordained by God” to mean that “the powers that are of God are ordered.”235 Luther definitively rejected such reinterpretation. Luther’s conclusion from Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1 was that “whatever powers exist and flourish, exist and flourish because God has ordered them.”236…

This survey of the teachings of Martin Luther on Romans 13 is a good place to revisit the distinction, introduced by Chrysostom, between the abstract concept of government and the more concrete specific individual governors. Word choice becomes important here. Modern English translations of Romans 13 translate the original Greek exousia into the rather abstract English word “authority.” Older English translations used the somewhat more concrete word “power.” It is worth noting here that the Vulgate, Luther’s “Bible” before he translated the Bible into German, translated exousia as potestas [power] instead of auctoritas [authority].239 Luther’s translation came down firmly on the side of the more concrete rather than the more conceptual term. “The principal organizing idea in Luther’s political thought is Oberkeit.”240 Oberkeit does not connote an abstract concept as the word “authority” does.241 Oberkeit “cannot fail to call to mind the persons who are in authority, ‘superiors’ . . . . And this property of the term sits well with the character of Luther’s thought, for he tends to personalize political authority.”242 This word choice facilitates Luther’s acceptance of the idea that God chooses individual rulers.

Luther moved readily from the abstract Oberkeit to the personal die Oberen (‘superiors’), signifying persons of superior political status. This translation of Oberkeit as ‘authority’ is far from felicitous. It not only implies a distinction between ‘authority’ and ‘power’ which Luther precisely did not make. It also suggests an abstract quality to Luther’s thought which it lacks: when speaking of Oberkeit he thought in terms of persons (and more often than not one person, a prince or lord), equipped with power. He alternated freely between ‘authority’ (Oberkeit) and ‘those in authority’ (die Oberen).243…

In interpreting Romans 13, Luther focused on the Christian’s obligation to submit to government force, not on the need to cooperate with some abstract concept of orderly government:

The crucial term here is Gewalt, which, according to the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, means any or all of: power, strength, might, efficacy . . . empire, rule, dominion, mastery, sway, jurisdiction, government, protection . . . potestas, facultas, imperium, dictio, arbitrium, ius . . . potentia, vis, violentia, iniuria, indignitas. Its most prominent meaning, however, is force, power or might. . . . Gewalt can mean—and often in the text does mean—mere coercion, force, or violence.246

The mere existence of the power, not its “legitimacy,” was the crucial fact for Luther… Thus, for Luther, the point of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 was that God had given the power of coercion, or force, to rulers, and Christians must submit to that power, not that God had given good government and that Christians ought to submit to the government as long as it is good.248

The Anabaptists:


The left wing of the Reformation would sweep away the Constantinian influence on the church’s view of its relationship with the state: “With believers’ baptism, nonresistance, and the rejection of the oaths binding Christians politically to Christendom, the Anabaptists sought to establish a faithful church separated from Christendom.”256 Luther’s interpretation of Romans 13 is not inconsistent with this non-resistant wing of the Anabaptist movement.257


Müntzer and his followers destroyed the Mallerbach chapel near Allstedt in the spring of 1524, and Müntzer followed up that summer with his Sermon to the Princes, in which he turned Luther’s interpretation of Romans 13 on its head: “Saint Paul . . . says that the sword of rulers is given for the punishment of evildoers and to protect the pious.”263 This is the first step in Müntzer’s radical interpretation of Romans 13—the passage is a command to the powers that be themselves, not merely to those who are to submit to the powers that be.264 Luther “saw the sense of the passage as an injunction for Christians to be obedient to secular authority since it is ordained by God,” but Müntzer “uses the passage to enjoin positive action by rulers to promote a Christian society.”265 Thus, the approach of the radical Anabaptists fit well with the post-Constantinian ideas of Chrysostom and his followers, that Romans 13 could be put to a use that Paul could not have imagined—as an injunction to temporal rulers.266


Luther’s position is similar to the pre-Constantinian position taken by Irenaeus and to that ultimately taken by the moderate Anabaptist leader, Balthasar Hubmaier… In discussing Romans 13, Hubmaier analogized human rulers to natural forces controlled by a sovereign God:

Now, God always punishes the wicked, sometimes with hail, rain, and sickness, and sometimes through special people, who have been ordained and elected for this. Therefore Paul calls the authorities handmaidens of God. For what God can do himself he often prefers to do through his creatures as his tools.273


Calvin tended to see ordained government as more of an unqualified blessing. Government “powers are of God, not as the pestilence, hunger, war and such like punishments of sin, are said to be of him; but because he hath appointed them for the lawful and right administration of the world.”278 Calvin distinguished between good government, which is the ordinance of God, and bad government: “tyrannies and unjust dominations, inasmuch as they are full of deformity, are not of the ordinary government.”279…

In thus seeing bad government as God’s blessing that man has put to bad use rather than as God’s punishment of man’s evil, Calvin tended to align his view a little more closely with those of Origen and Chrysostom and their followers.282 Calvin reads Paul’s teaching as going beyond merely commanding Christian citizens to submit—Calvin thought Paul also was writing to rulers about how they ought to view their own role.283 Calvin saw Paul as commanding magistrates to use the sword to punish evil men.284 Thus, there emerged from the Protestant Reformation two strains of thought concerning “the powers that be.” Luther and the more moderate/pacifist wings of the Anabaptists tended to focus on the Christian’s obligation to submit to all rulers, good and bad, as instruments sovereignly ordained by God.285 Calvin and the more radical Anabaptists tended to see Romans 13 as teaching further that rulers are to be self-conscious instruments of God.286

Hensler does not draw this out (perhaps because he is not aware that Calvin actually taught non-resistance to tyrants – Waldron demonstrates this very clearly in his unpublished master’s thesis), but Calvin clearly followed Aquinas and Theodoret’s self-contradictory combination of Irenaeus and Chrysostom. Romans 13 refers to God’s ordination of the institution of civil government. However, when rulers step beyond the bounds of their office, we must still submit to them because God is providentially using them for His purposes (to punish a people for their sin). In his commentary on Genesis 14, Calvin says

[T]hough Chedorlaomer had rendered so many people tributary to him by tyranny rather than by lawful authority, and on that account his ambition is to be condemned; yet his subjects are justly punished for having rashly rebelled. For although liberty is by no means to be despised, yet the subjection which is once imposed upon us cannot, without implied rebellion against God, be shaken off; because ‘every power is ordained by God,’ notwithstanding, in its commencement, it may have flowed from the lust of dominion, (Romans 13:1.)

And in his Institutes:

But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes. For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but him. Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power… even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honour, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord has by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgment, and that, accordingly, in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.

And, first, I would have the reader carefully to attend to that Divine Providence which, not without cause, is so often set before us in Scripture, and that special act of distributing kingdoms, and setting up as kings whomsoever he pleases. (Institutes 4.20.25-26)


Hensler does not mention Vermigli, but he is worth commenting on as he agreed with Calvin and quotes Chrysostom in support.

This place of the Apostle partaineth to that commandment of the law, Honor thy father and thy mother. For in the olde time, as Aristotle also wryteth, in his Politiques, fathers gave laws to their famely, and to them were as kings. And amongst the Romanes the Senators were called Patres conscripti, that is, appointed Fathers. For a magistrate is nothing els but the father of the country…

A magistrate is a person elected, and that of God, to defend the lawes and peace, and with punishments, and the sword to represse vices and evils, and by all manner of means to advaunce vertues. The efficient cause is God, the end is the preservation of the lawes and of peace, the banishing away of vices and discommodities, and the increase of vertues…

But for that we see that in kingdoms many things are done overthwarly and unjustly, lawes are perverted, and the commandments of God are violated, many thinke that it can not be, that such powers should be of God. But as Chrysostome very well admonisheth, the thing itself, that is, the principall function, must be distinguished from the person. For it is not to be doubted but that the person, for as much as he is a man, may abuse a good thing, but the thing it self considered apart, forasmache as it is good, cannot come from any els where but from God…

Howbeit God observeth this order, to use wicked and ungodly Princes to punish the wicked doinges of the people… And after that men being in this sort chastised doo returne unto God, eh comforteth them, and provideth for them gentler princes, and more just governers… Wherefore not only good and just princes doo raigne by the wil of the lord, but also ungodly and wicked tiranns…

I would to God they which beare dominion, would always have this in theyr mind, that that office which they execute is the ordinance of God, doubtles they would not then in such sort abuse it. (Commentary on Romans)

Virmigli distinguishes clearly between the two wills of God:

[F]or that evill princes, and such which after that by wicked means have obteyned the kingdome, doo by worse meanes governe it, these I say in that they thus beastly behave themselves, have not a respect to the will of God, which is revealed unto us either by the law of nature, or in the holy scriptures. For by that will of God theyr doinges and endevors are most manifestly reproved. And in this manner they are sayd not to raigne by God, for that they apply not themselves to the written and revealed will of God. Howbeit it can not be denied but that God by his hidden and effectual will would have them to raigne to that end which we have now declared.

He distinguishes yet moves fluidly between ordination by God’s preceptive will and God’s providential use of rulers as instruments, blending the two together when it is convenient to explain why we are to submit to rulers (because of their office) even when they are wicked and disregard the office (because God is providentially using them to chastise us). The result is self-contradiction. (See more here.)

The Magdeburg Confession

The Confession took the position that Paul was requiring submission only to those authorities who are “ministers” or “servants” of God.291 Governments that persecute the good are not God’s “ministers,” are not “ordained of God,” and, therefore, do not fall under the obligation of submission taught in Romans 13.292 The idea here is that in describing powers as “ministers of God,” Paul was delimiting the obligation of submission.293 As long as the power acts as God’s minister, then the power is owed an obligation of submission.294 But when the power exceeds its authority by acting contrary to God’s will, then the power loses its delegated authority and with it the obligation of submission.295

Note that this is the necessary logical consequence of the belief that Romans 13 refers to the ordination of an office or institution.


Beza had previously approved the Magdeburg Confession, which laid the groundwork for an interpretation of Romans 13 that permitted Christian resistance to evil rulers.299 Beza admitted that the tyrant “is most often an evil or scourge sent by God for the chastisement of nations.”300 Yet, he accepted the right of the “oppressed” to use “remedies in addition to repentance and prayers.”301 Beza did not, however, extend to the private citizen the right of resistance of a tyrannical sovereign—that right was reserved for lower magistrates.302

E. Samuel Rutherford and the Popularization of Resistance Theology


Rutherford’s approach is consonant with that taken in the Magdeburg Confession. Also, like Chrysostom, Rutherford grounded his understanding of the distinction between the person of the king and the office of the ruler on Romans 13.307 Rutherford affirmed that Paul was writing of the office, not the particular person.308 By thus bringing Chrysostom and the Magdeburg Confession fully together, Rutherford made it possible for the follower of Paul to resist a tyrannical ruler while obeying Paul’s command to submit to the office.309 Thus, Rutherford concluded that Romans 13 commands “subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto.”310 According to Rutherford’s reading, Paul’s text would not require subjection “to the abused and tyrannical power of the king.”311

To spell out Rutherford’s logic in greater detail, he believed that Paul commanded subjection to “higher powers.”312 “But no powers commanding things unlawful, and killing the innocent people of God, can be . . . higher powers . . . .”313 When tyrants command the unlawful and kill the innocent, they do so “not by virtue of any office.”314 Thus, rulers “commanding unjust things and killing the innocent” are not the “powers ordained of God” of which Paul writes in Romans 13.315 The office is ordained of God, but such personal tyrannies are not.316…

“But the man who is king, commanding unjust things . . . is not the minister of God . . . ; therefore the man may be resisted, by this text, when the office and power cannot be resisted.”320 Rutherford repeatedly emphasizes Chrysostom’s distinction between the abstract “office” and the concrete “officer”: “Paul . . . forbiddeth us to resist the power, in abstracto; therefore, it must be the man, in concreto, that we must resist.”321 Rutherford forcefully rejected the interpretation that whatever “powers that be” are therefore “ordained of God” and therefore owed submission: “nor dream we that the naked accident of royal authority is to be feared and honoured as the Lord’s anointed.”322 Rutherford addressed the example of the specific power that was in place at the time of Paul’s writing, the Roman emperor Nero, and argued consistent with all else Rutherford had said that Nero, the bloodthirsty “persecutor of Christians,” was owed no subjection.323

The American Revolution

Buzzard and Campbell likewise observed that “[t]he New England clergy generally taught that as long as the king enforced God’s commands, he was owed obedience and assistance. If, however, he violated God’s commands, the people had the authority to resist him.”338… [Elisha] thought a proper understanding of Romans 13 required an appreciation of the distinction “between the powers which are, and the powers which are not.”346 Subjection is owed only to the powers that be.347 “On the other hand—the powers that are not, are not . . . the powers that are of GOD, not his ordinance, and so no subjection to them [is] required in this text.”348 Legal powers are “the powers that be” and “arbitrary” powers are the powers which are not.349…

To avoid what [Samuel] West labeled “the doctrine of unlimited passive obedience,”356 he employed what will by now be a familiar interpretation of Paul’s letter. He assumed that Paul was teaching that the “magistracy” rather than that particular “magistrates” are ordained by God.357 Once he determined that magistrates are ordained of God only in the sense that the institution of magistracy is necessary “for the preservation and safety of mankind,” then he succinctly concluded that “resistance must be criminal only so far forth as they . . . act up to the end of their institution, and ceases being criminal when they cease being the ministers of God.”358… Good rulers are ordained by God, but wicked rulers are ordained by Satan.362

To his credit, West did not entirely ignore the context in which Paul had written his letter: “I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome . . . .”363 After suggesting that Paul may have written toward the beginning of Nero’s reign, when the emperor might have been characterized as a “minister of God for good,” West maintained that, to the extent that Nero was a tyrant, the plain meaning of Paul’s text is that Nero was not ordained by God and therefore not due submission.364…

Like Samuel West, [Zabdiel] Adams interpreted Paul’s phrase “the powers that be are ordained of God,” not to mean that particular “rulers are elevated to their places by the immediate agency of heaven,”371 but rather that government in general “is of divine appointment.”372 Thus, the ministers of Colonial America were able to reconcile the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 13 with the American Revolution.

Modern Context

The Third Reich

Bonhoeffer noted again (as Luther, Bonhoeffer himself, and others also already had) that Paul’s command was “addressed to the Christians, not to the powers.”411 Bonhoeffer understood Paul’s command to demand submission to whatever powers “exist,” be they good or bad, both sorts of powers God will use to work for the good of Christians.412 But Bonhoeffer also saw that Romans 13’s failure to address any command to “the powers that be” cuts the other way as well: “No State is entitled to read into St. Paul’s words a justification of its own existence.”413…

So Bonhoeffer saw the State as ordained by God in a limited way, much as Luther did415—it is a (sometimes passive or even resistant) tool that God uses to accomplish His purposes on earth.

This view of the state is confirmed in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Paul’s assurance that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” In Bonhoeffer’s view, Paul noted that the Christian need not fear the State, not because the State is the self-conscious “minister of God,” but because God sovereignly controls the State, even in its mistakes, to accomplish His divine purposes.416 This is so even if the State punishes the one who does well—in that case, such punishment is the humble calling of the follower of Jesus, who likewise was punished for doing good.417…

This interpretation of Romans 13 might be characterized as a theology of the State, but it is not a theology for the State.


Hensler does not include Murray, but I mention him here because of his comments regarding the two wills of God.

The propositions that the authorities are of God and ordained of God are not to be understood as referring merely to God’s decretive will. The terms could be used to express God’s decretive ordination but this is not their precise import here. The context shows that the ordination of which the apostle now speaks is that of institution which is obliged to perform the appointed functions. The civil magistrate is not the only means decreed in God’s providence for the punishment of evildoers but God’s instituted, authorized, and prescribed instrument for the maintenance of order and the punishing of criminals who violate that order. When the civil magistrate through his agents executes just judgment upon crime, he is executing not simply God’s decretive will but he is also fulfilling God’s preceptive will, and it would be sinful for him to refrain from so doing.

For these reasons subjection is required and resistance is a violation of God’s law and meets with judgment. (NICNT, p. 148)


Henser himself concludes

I tend to think that Paul’s statement in this paraenetic section of Romans is primarily about the believer’s life in light of the sovereignty of God… While hostile rulers might naturally engender fear, the believer who does good need not fear, for the ruler’s hostility always will be filtered through God’s sovereign control. God will see that the believer who does good receives praise, either now or hereafter.

He surveys more sources than I have included here and offers extended comments beyond what I have shown here. His paper should be read in full.

Further Remarks

Translation of “The Powers that Be”

An important question is how exousiae should be translated.

Paul commands this submission to exousiae, translated in the King James Bible as “powers.”55 The term exousiae is “remarkably open” and “unmarked,” i.e., the reader could interpret the term “in a wide variety of ways.”56

55 Romans 13:1 (King James) (“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.”). Most modern English translations translate exousia as “authorities” instead of “powers.” See infra notes 326–27 and accompanying text; see also NOONAN, supra note 26, at 8 (“Paul refers to the government as the ‘exousia,’ ‘the powers,’ not ‘the authorities’ or ‘the state,’ as some translations put it.”)...

A significant shift in the interpretation of Romans 13 among English- speaking scholars can be discerned at about the turn of the twentieth century. With the publication of The Twentieth-Century New Testament, the familiar phraseology of Romans 13 that had been quite consistent in English translations for five hundred years underwent a significant change, and this change helped to solidify the interpretation of Romans 13 expounded most forcefully by Samuel Rutherford.324 The Greek word exousiais had been consistently translated “powers” as in “the powers that be are ordained of God.”325 But with the dawning of the new century, English translators began to translate exousiais as “authorities.”326 The producers of this shift tended not to be “language or textual experts,” but rather “ministers and laypersons” who were focusing on “ease of reading.”327 This shift in translations facilitated a particular approach to Romans 13.3 28 Describing civil magistrates as among the “powers” to which believers should submit carries a sense of something that is, without regard to its legitimacy.329 Ernst Kasemann made this point forcefully:

Paul is not . . . reflecting on the process by which those powers that be of which he speaks . . . came into existence. For him the man who has asserted himself politically has a God-bestowed function and authority simply as the possessor of power de facto. This is why I translate the Greek word exousia and its derivatives by power [German Gewalt], powers, holders of power: I want to include tyranny and despotism, which in any event reigned supreme over wide stretches of the Roman Empire.330

Switching the language used by Paul to refer to political officials from “powers” to “authorities” fits better with the idea that such “authority” might be either legitimate or illegitimate. Power, by contrast, either is or is not.

As I showed in a previous post, the proper way to understand God’s ordination of Nebuchadnezzar is that he was granted the power to kill anyone who opposed him – not a lawful office.

Meaning of “Be Subject”

The context of Romans 13 is Jewish zealotry against Rome, not a question about obeying various laws of Rome. Christians were in danger of getting swept into a Jewish rebellion at a time when the full, final curse of the Old Covenant was about to be poured out upon Jerusalem by Rome in AD70. Hensler notes

Paul begins the passage by declaring to his readers a broad obligation to submit: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”; the Greek word translated in the King James Bible as “be subject unto” is hypotassomai, “a hierarchical term.”51 It is important to note that the word is not synonymous with “obey.” “The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination.”52 The word chosen by Paul generally does not mean “obedience”…

The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying. 54 (48-49)

Samuel Waldron agrees.

The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority. Lenski sees the matter very clearly when he asserts, “Refusal to obey was not in any way standing against the arrangement of God and the governmental authority this high court possessed.” (“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished)

Romans 13 does not command us to obey the edicts of our rulers. It commands us to not violently resist and overthrow them.

However, the question arises: If the powers that be refer to God’s decretive will, not His preceptive will, why are we commanded to be subject? As Rutherford noted it is “his revealed will which must rule us.” Hubmaier compared “the powers that be” to natural disasters and sickness. Yet we are not commanded to submit to storms or illness, but may work to overcome them. Thomas Watson said

God’s providence is greatly to be observed, but we are not to make it the rule of our actions. ‘Whoso is wise will observe these things.’ Psa cvii 43. It is good to observe providence, but we must not make it our rule to walk by. Providence is a Christian’s diary, but not his Bible. Sometimes a bad cause prevails and gets ground; but it is not to be liked because it prevails. We must not think the better of what is sinful, because it is successful. This is no rule for our actions to be directed by.” (A Body of Divinity)

I believe the answer is to be found in God’s command to Judah that they submit to the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar. This was not simply a natural law duty that all image bearers must submit to anyone who invades their country. God led Israel many times to resist oppressors and to rebel successfully against them. Rather, this was a positive law given to Judah and was specially revealed by prophets. It was an Old Covenant curse for their disobedience to Mosaic law. It ushered in “the times of the Gentiles” to rule over Judah (Israel was no more). Waldron notes

The period of the Gentile kingdoms is, then, the period of the Theocratic disruption. The special thing about these kingdoms is not their geographical extent, but the fact that they bear rule over the people of God in the interim between the disruption and restoration of the Theocratic kingdom. They replace the Theocratic government during this interim… The Apostle Paul utters what is only the logical conclusion of all this in Rom. 13:1 when he says, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” The statement is often understood (and is certainly true [in light of the above, I disagree -BA]) in the abstract or general sense, but it is nonetheless the fruit of a rich historical movement. For it was of the Roman Empire, the fourth and iron kingdom of Daniel 2, of which Paul was speaking. The four Gentile kingdoms of Dan. 2 include ultimately all non-Theocratic civil authority ruling over the people of God till the end of the age and the dawning of the Theocratic kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar’s authority becomes that of his sons, and their authority devolves to Cyrus and his successors, and thence to Greece and Rome. Rome’s authority unfolds to include all human, civil authority during this age until its eschatological consummation in the kingdom of Antichrist. (“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished)

Christ came to establish the kingdom of heaven, but in an “already/not yet” tension. It exists spiritually but not yet physically on earth. While we wait for his return we are to remain subject to “the powers that be” – the Gentiles whom God has given the strength to be “king of the hill,” whether justly or unjustly. They are rulers de facto regardless of whether they are rulers de jure. We are to endure unjust violence following the example of our Lord while we wait for his return when he will have vengeance on wicked rulers who rule without lawful authority, though by the providence of God (just as Nebuchadnezzar was judged by God for doing exactly what God ordained him to do).


Here is a paraphrase I’d like to offer for consideration:

Let every soul be subject to the powers over them. For there is no power but from God and the powers that exist have been providentially placed there by God. Therefore whoever rebels against those powers is rebelling against what God has appointed, and those who rebel will bring judgment on themselves. (For rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you want to be free from fear of the one who has power? Then don’t resist him and you will receive his approval. For a powerful ruler is God’s instrument for your good. But if you disobey God and rebel, be afraid, for God has not empowered him with the strength of the sword in vain. He is God’s instrument to administer retribution on those who disobey (such as Jerusalem). Therefore you must not rebel, not only because of the wrath of the powers but also because of your conscience (because you know that God has providentially given them power for your good). For this reason you should also pay taxes [see Hodge, Haldane, Stuart for translation], for they are God’s servants attending continually upon this very thing. Pay everyone what is due: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

If Romans 13 refers to God’s providential ordaining of powerful rulers (mighty men) whether they be good or evil, then it does not refer to God’s preceptive ordaining of an office. Conversely, if Romans 13 refers to the institution of civil government then the command to be subject is limited to rulers who properly fulfill their duty of punishing evildoers. If they punish those who do go good, they do not have to be submitted to: rebellion is permissible. That is the logically necessary conclusion as Rutherford ably showed. Calvin, following Theodoret and Aquinas, attempted to avoid this necessary conclusion by conflating the two concepts. We owe obedience to the office because it has been instituted by God, but when a person in that office oversteps his office he must still be submitted to because God is providentially using him for His purpose. But Calvin cannot have his cake and eat it too. He must pick one or the other. The majority of his followers saw the contradiction and chose the ordination of office interpretation, thus advocating resistance. I think perhaps it is time to return to Irenaeus’ ordination of persons interpretation. That is the only interpretation consistent with God’s ordination of Nebuchadnezzar and it makes much more sense of the context of Romans 13 as well as the principle of lex talionis and the avenger of blood. These powers are still accountable to the moral law that binds all people, especially the 6th and 8th commandments. They don’t get special exceptions. We may remind them of that, but we are not to take up arms against them.

Related Reading:

De jure magistratum (On the Rights of Magistrates) – Beza

Theodore Beza wrote De jure magistratum (On the Rights of Magistrates) in 1574. It provides a helpful, somewhat concise summary of reformed thought on civil government at the time.

The Origin of Magistrates

People desire to be ruled, so they elect someone to rule over them.

To give a clearer answer to this question I must first lay down certain principles constituting as it were the foundations of the whole question. Assuredly, (it is clear) that peoples did not in the first instance originate from rulers, but whatever peoples desired to be ruled by a single monarch or by chief men elected by them were anterior to their rulers. Hence it follows that peoples were not created for the sake of rulers, but on the contrary the rulers for the sake of the people, even as the guardian is appointed for the ward, not the ward for the guardian, and the shepherd on account of the flock, not the flock on account of the shepherd. This proposition is not merely obvious in itself but may be corroborated by the history of nearly all nations, So much so that God Himself, although he had elected Saul to substitute him for Samuel in accordance with the desires of the people, yet willed that he should be chosen and accepted as King by the suffrages of the people. Thus David, although he had first been chosen as king by God Himself, yet would not undertake the administration of the Kingdom except he had first been confirmed by the suffrages and unfettered concord of the tribes of Israel. (Question 5)

The Purpose of Magistrates

Magistrates are necessary for the preservation of the human race.

In short, if we would investigate the histories of ancient times recorded by profane writers also, it will be established — as indeed Nature herself seems to proclaim with a loud voice — that rulers by whose authority their inferiors might be guided were elected for this reason that either the whole human race must needs perish or some intermediate class must be instituted so that by it one or more (rulers) might be able to command the others, (and) protect good men but restrain the wicked by means of punishments. And this is what not only Plato, Aristotle and the other natural philosophers — furnished with the light of human reason alone – have taught and proved, but God Himself by the utterance of St. Paul writing to the Romans, the rulers of almost the entire world, confirmed this with clear words. There the origin of all States and Powers is with the best of reasoning derived from God the author of all good. (Question 5)

The Constitution

Those who elect a ruler lay down conditions for that ruler.

[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. (Question 6)

[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. (Question 6)

Constitution Limited According to Its Purpose

The people have no authority to delegate a ruler contrary to the purpose of magistrates (the peoples’ self-preservation).

[A]n agreement whether freely manifested by or extorted by means of violence or intimidation from the whole people or a majority of them should rather be annulled than observed if it were established beyond doubt that such agreement was clearly incompatible with fairness and honor. For who would persuade himself that some nation would freely, wittingly and unconstrained wish to subject itself to some ruler to this end that it might subsequently be murdered and utterly destroyed by him? (Question 5)

[I]f someone were to furnish an example of peoples who upon being defeated in war surrendered at discretion and swore to the conditions dictated by the victors, it would not be enough for me to answer with the lawyers that (undertakings) extorted by violence or intimidation which is the rule of consciences does not easily permit oaths of that kind to be heedlessly violated. But I shall further add that even if any people has consciously and of its free will granted assent to an undertaking which is as such evidently sinful and opposed to the law of nature, such obligation is null and void; so little ground is there for reasonable doubt whether that obligation which was contracted as a result of violence or intimidation or of open deceit and malpractice should be regarded as valid and binding.

Constitution Limited According to the Law of God

[T]he authority of all magistrates (with however great power and sovereignty they be vested) is as it were hedged in by these two limits set by God himself, namely Piety [first table] and Charity [second table]. And if they themselves should chance to transgress these, it will be well to call to mind that saying of the Apostles: “It is better to obey God than men” lest we be of the band of those whom the Lord cursed by the mouth of Micah because they obeyed the impious commands of their King, or lest we follow the perverse examples of those who worshipped even the most cruel tyrants as if they were gods, ascribing to them the titles and acts of God. (Question 1)

Obedience to Rulers

Inasmuch as only the will of almighty God is the eternal and immutable Rule of all Justice, we declare that it must be unconditionally obeyed. As regards however the obedience due to Princes, they too would doubtless have to be obeyed always and unconditionally if they ruled constantly in accordance with the utterance of God. Since however theirs is often the contrary case, such obedience must be made subject to the following condition, namely that they command nothing impious [first table of the law], nothing unjust [second table]… Pharaoh’s command to slay all the male offspring of the Jews was unjust and the midwives rightly refused to obey him, whose houses or families God therefore blessed… The command of Jezebel, however, to slay the prophets of God was both impious and unjust; therefore Obadiah who not only refrained from slaying them but concealed them alive and nourished them, acted piously. (Question 1)

Illegitimate Rulers

A conqueror or an elected ruler who violates the election agreement is an illegitimate ruler.

Since these principles which were demonstrated above concerning the origin of kings and other rulers have been established, it follows that they are not legitimate rulers who by force or deceit usurp that authority which by no right belongs to them… Of such tyrants there are two kinds: for some, in violation of the laws laid down and received, usurp tyranny over their fellow-citizens… Others however, not content with that absolute power which they rightfully acquire over their own people, extend their dominions at the cost of their neighbors’ liberty and increase them by means of fortified boundary-lines; for this reason have monarchies ever since the origin of the world achieved such wide dominions; of this the sacred writings offers us an example in Nimrod… it was a true remark which the captive pirate dared to utter when he was dragged before Alexander; he declared that he differed in no way from (the king) but that the latter plundered the world with a multitude of ships whereas he did so with but a single vessel. (Question 5)

Self-Defense Against a Conqueror

Private citizens may defend themselves against any non-elected conqueror, whether foreign or domestic.

[I]f anyone strives to seize or has already usurped an unjust tyranny over others, whether he be a stranger or whether as a viper he leaps from the womb of his country that by his birth he may cause her death, then shall private citizens before all else approach their legitimate magistrates in order that it may be the public enemy he cast forth by the public authority and common consent of all. But if the magistrate connives (at the attempt) or in some way refuses to perform his duty, then let each private citizen bestir himself with all his power to defend the lawful constitution of his country, to whom after God he owes his entire existence, against him who cannot be deemed a lawful magistrate since he either has already usurped that rank in violation of the public laws or is endeavoring to usurp it. (Question 5)

[H]e who launches an attack upon those who are in no way subject to him… may lawfully be prevented even by force of arms and by any (citizens) soever, even of the humblest station, to whom he desired to do violence, since they are by no obligation bound to him. (Question 6)

Self-Defense Against Lesser Magistrates

Only magistrates have the authority to act in self-defense against other magistrates.

[I]f it were to happen (as happens only too frequently in our times) that one lower magistrate should undertake some act of violence against another against the express will of their superior, then I should assuredly say that the magistrate who had been wronged is, when he has first exhausted all legitimate and peaceful means, entitled to equip himself with the armor of the laws and to oppose unjust violence with a just defence as was done by Nehemiah against Sanballat and his associates. (Question 4)

Self-Defense Against a Tyrant

Three kinds of subjects… some are private citizens performing no duty of public administration… others [are] inferior magistrates… [others are] the bridles and reins to keep the supreme ruler to his duty.

Private citizens may not defend themselves from a lawfully elected ruler.

Private citizens may not offer resistance to their lawful ruler who is a tyrant… [N]o private citizen is entitled on his own private authority to oppose the tyrant with violence against violence, but that it in every way behooves him either to depart from the realm of that (ruler) and change his domicile or to bear the yoke of the tyrant patiently by taking refuge with God in prayer…

[H]e who has once been approved and accepted by his people, though he abuse his right, yet retains the basis of his authority as against his own private subjects, since an obligation entered upon publicly and by mutual consent cannot be dissolved and broken by the will of any private citizen. For were this otherwise, endless disorders, worse even than tyranny itself, would ensue, and in the place of a single tyrant whom it might be our intention to cast down, a thousand would succeed. Furthermore, a single reason derived from the authority of the Word of God should here be of greater weight than anything else that could be adduced to the contrary. St. Paul in prescribing their duty to men in private station not merely forbids them to resist their rulers (supreme rulers as well as subordinate) but enjoins us to obey them also for conscience sake…

I maintain that no one in private station is allowed to set himself in open violence against a tyrant to whose domination the people of its own free will previously consented; for if we must so far abide by private contracts, pacts, agreements and undertakings that we suffer damage rather than break our word, how much more should private citizens be on their guard lest they in any way refuse to honor an obligation entered upon by a solemn and public agreement?…

[P]rivate citizens, unless they have authority from a subordinate magistrate or the saner part of the Estates, concerning which more is discussed shortly, here have no other just remedy but reflection combined with patience and prayers which God will assuredly not always reject and without which all other remedies however legitimate will be subject to His curse. (Question 6)

Lesser magistrates may defend themselves and private citizens, but they may not punish the tyrant.

[T]he obligation between the king and the officials of the kingdom is mutual and that not the entire administration of the kingdom is entrusted to the king alone but only the highest rank, and that the subordinate officials severally hold part of it each in accordance with his own rank, and that on fixed conditions on either side. If those conditions are not kept by the subordinate magistrates the supreme magistrate is entitled to discharge them…

In the contrary case, however, if he who has received the royal dignity either by being elected thereto or by hereditary right openly departs from those conditions under which he was expressly recognized and approved as king, who would be inclined to doubt that the subordinate magistrates of the kingdom and further the very provinces also and the cities whose administration has been entrusted to them are automatically (ipso iure) free from their oath… [W]ould it not be just according to all law, diving and human, that by reason of the oath taken by them to ensure the observance of the laws, somewhat greater (liberty of action) should be granted to these subordinate magistrates than to those (citizens) who are of entirely private station and without any public office?… [W]e are not treating the tyrant who must be utterly thrust and cast down from his throne, but we are inquiring whether no one can and should in accordance with his rank set himself against his open violence (Question 6)

The Orders or Estates may and must punish and dethrone the tyrant.

The Orders or Estates, established to curb the supreme magistrates, can and should in every way offer resistance to them when they degenerate into tyrants… [N]o nation has either elected or approved kings without laying down specific conditions. And if those kings violate these the result is that those who had the power to confer this authority upon them have retained no less power again to divest them of that authority. [Beza provides historical examples from Rome, Athens, Sparta, Israel, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, England, Poland, Venice, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and Gaul.] (Question 6)

[I]n all compacts and covenants which are contracted by mutual and sole agreement between the parties, those by whom the obligations were entered into, can of themselves cancel and annul it, whenever reason so demands. Accordingly those who possess authority to elect a king, will also have the right to dethrone him. (Question 6)

In Sum:

The purpose therefore of all that has been said above is as follows, namely that the highest authority rests with kings or other supreme rulers with this proviso that if they violate the nobelest laws and sworn conditions and degenerate into unabashed tyranny nor give heed to sound counsels, it shall be lawful and permitted to the subordinate magistrates to take precautions for themselves and for those over whom they exercise guardianship, and to offer resistance to the tyrant of the people. But the Estates or Orders of the realm upon whom this authority has been conferred by the laws, can and must so far oppose the tyrant and even, if need be, inflict just and deserved punishment upon him until matters have been restored to their former condition. (Question 6)

[E]ven in marriage also, if one party deserts the other, the Apostle proclaims the deserted party relieved of every obligation, because the deserter violates the principal condition of marriage. But let us imagine that someone declares himself willing to keep his wife with him and that he attempts to do so, yet if it becomes known that this man desires to have his wife in order to kill her or to remove her in some other way, will he not have to be regarded in the light of a manifest deserter (of his wife)? But assuredly the design of tyrants does not differ from his since they do not strive to have subjects in their power for any other reason but to persecute and crush them to their destruction while they indulge their own lusts; why therefore should the wielders of judicial authority not pronounce the same judgment over both? But if not even the canons of the Church consider that a wife who cannot safely live with her husband, should be compelled to live with him, why shall a subordinate magistrate not be allowed to take precautions on behalf of himself and his people and to have recourse to the Estates against a manifest tyrant? (Question 6)

Unless they can defend themselves upon the authority of some lawful subordinate magistrate or of the Estates of that nation, private persons must assuredly either go away until such time as a better light shall shine upon them, or bow their necks to the yoke while urgently asking God in constant prayer for patience and meantime proceeding under His chastisements. But it is the part of the subordinate magistrates (to protect against all) strenuously the good laws to whose defense they personally have sworn, each in accordance with the station he has obtained in the constitution of the community, and in general all should strive to prevent the laws and conditions upon which that constitution rests, from being undermined by any violence from without or from within. Finally, emperors, kings or other supreme rulers acquire the highest authority on the understanding that, if it should meanwhile become notorious that they rather plunder the territory of which they have undertaken the government, that cunningly and without self-control they set themselves against law and reason and wantonly break their sworn promises, they can and should be forced, compelled and brought to their duty even by armed force, if it cannot be otherwise, by those who upon special conditions have raised them to this high office. (Question 7)

Christian Meekness

I deny that the patience and gentleness which we require in Christians prevent a man from employing lawful remedies to repel an injury which is being done to him. It is certainly permissible to claim one’s property from an unjust possessor in court, and to lodge complaints with the supreme magistrate concerning the injustice of an inferior; why therefore by the same reasoning should it not be permissible to go to laws against a tyrant before the Estates? (Question 7)

Submission to Providence or Command?

[T]he will of God must be heeded to the extent that He Himself has deigned to reveal it to us; otherwise there would be no crime so heinous but what it could be imputed to the Divine will, since not even those events which are regarded as in the highest degree fortuitous occur by chance or accidentally. Hence it comes about that the man who meets with highway robbers, by whom no one is murdered without the consent of the will of God, has the power in accordance with the authority of the laws to resist them in just self-defense which incurs no blame because no one forsooth has (received) a special command from God that he meekly allow himself to be slain by robbers. Our conviction is entirely the same about that regular defense against tyrants which we are discussing. (Question 7)

Enforcement of True Religion

[T]he purpose of all well-ordered polities is not simply peace and quiet in this life, as some heathen philosophers have imagined, but the glory of God, towards which the whole present life of men should be directed, it therefore follows that those who are set over nations, ought to bring to bear all their zeal and all the faculties they have received from God to this end that the pure worship of God upon which His glory depends should in the highest degree be maintained and increased among the people over whom they hold sway. (Question 10)

True religion in a society is established by the Holy Spirit, but subsequently defended by the ruler by force.

It is one thing now for the first time to introduce religion into some part and another to preserve it when it has already been received somewhere or to wish to restore it when it has gone to ruin and has been buried as a result of the connivance or ignorance or malice of men. For I grant that initially it should be introduced and spread by the influence of the Spirit of God alone, and that by the Word of God (which is) suited to teaching, conviction and exhortation. For this is the particular task of the Holy Spirit which employs spiritual instruments.

It will therefore be the part of a pious ruler who wishes to entice his people away from idolatry and false superstitions to the true religion, to see to it in the first instance that they are instructed in piety by means of true and reliable argument, just as on the other hand it is in the part of the subjects to give their assent to truth and reason and readily to submit. Finally the ruler will be fully occupied in rendering the true religion secure by means of good and noble decrees against those who assail and resist it out of pure obstinacy, as we have seen done in our times in England, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, and the greater part of Germany and Switzerland against the Papists, the Anabaptists and other heretics. (Question 10)


Enforcement of True Religion

The magisterial reformers employed a slight of hand on this issue. They argue first that a magistrate is necessary for the self-preservation of society and that all actions of a magistrate must conform to this purpose. The reason societies elect rulers over themselves is because they cannot otherwise defend themselves against violence. Then they argue that life is about more than just surviving. The chief end of man is to glorify God. That is true, but that is a different question. Why is a magistrate necessary? is not the same as What is the chief end of man? It is true that every man ought to “bring to bear all their zeal and all the faculties they have received from God to this end that the pure worship of God upon which His glory depends should in the highest degree be maintained and increased among the people over whom they hold sway,” but that does not answer whether a ruler has “received from God” any authority to repel false doctrine with violence. Beza argued the purpose of a magistrate is determined by its necessity (what it provides that private citizens need but cannot themselves provide) and its authority is limited by its purpose. Thus, the question is, can true religion “be maintained and increased” without a magistrate, or is a magistrate necessary for true religion to “be maintained and increased”?

The strange answer from the magisterial reformers (see Rutherford here) is that true religion can be first introduced and increased “by the influence of the Spirit of God alone… which employs spiritual instruments” but it cannot be preserved without the magistrate. The enforcement of true religion is thus cast in terms of self-defense. Once the true religion has been established in a nation, it must be defended by violence against false worship. But a distinction between the introduction of true religion by the Holy Spirit and the subsequent defense of it by force is not found anywhere in Scripture. Neither Jesus or the Apostles ever used force to defend Christianity. Rather “though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” – which means that violence is not necessary to defend and maintain Christianity. Appeal is made, of course, to Israel. But Israel was established by violence in the conquest of Canaan. It was violent from beginning to end and did not first require a nonviolent establishment, as Beza says is necessary.

It took a while, but eventually reformed theologians started realizing their error. Increase Mather, who initially agreed with Beza and put it into practice in New England, upon later reflection said “A good subject has a title to all temporal possessions and enjoyments, before he is a Christian; and it looks odd, that a man should forfeit his title, upon his embracing the faith.

Private Citizen’s Right to Self-Defense

Beza’s argument for denying a private citizen the right of self-defense is very weak. He was trying to 1) make sense of Romans 13’s command to be subject to rulers, and 2) distance the reformation from the violent, radical Anabaptist revolutions. But his reasoning is self-contradictory. He says private citizens have authority to exercise self defense against a conqueror they did not elect, but they must submit to a tyrant’s killing because they swore an oath to obey him. But he also says the compact was mutual and conditional. Thus if the ruler breaks the agreement, the private citizens no longer owe him their obedience. Later reformed theologians recognized the inconsistency. Sir James Stewart expressed the Scottish reformed understanding when he said “by vertue of this mutual compact, the Subjects, have jus against the King, a Right in law to pursue him for performance… For it is absurd to say, that in a mutual conditional compact, one party shall still be bound to performe his conditions, though the other performeth none” [p. 112, 117 Jus Populi Vindicatum, or The People’s Right, to defend themselves and their Covenanted Religion, vindicated (1669), quoted in Beisner, E. Calvin His Majesty’s advocate : Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees (1635-1713) and Covenanter resistance theory under the Restoration monarchy, p. 187]. Continental reformed political philosopher Johannes Althusius said

[N]o realm or commonwealth has ever been founded or instituted except by contract entered into one with the other, by covenants agreed upon between subjects and their future prince, and by an established mutual obligation that both should religiously observe. When this obligation is dishonored, the power of the prince loses its strength and is ended [Althusius, Politica (Latin), 19.15. quoted in Beisner p. 185] …

In this election . . . certain laws and conditions concerning subjection, and the form and manner of the future imperium, are proposed to the prospective magistrate . . . . If he accepts these laws, and swears to the people to observe them, the election is considered firm and settled. This agreement entered into between magistrate and people is known as a mutually binding obligation. [19.29. quoted in Beisner p. 185] …

If this condition [ruling justly and dutifully] is lacking, the people no longer are obligated to obey. Moreover, the chain of this obligation is dissolved by that one, who first withdraws from the agreements, who therefore loses every right acquired by the agreement, that the other may become free: For the obligation vanishes and is held for nothing, when its essential conditions, on account of which it was concluded, are violated. [38.32. quoted in Beisner p. 185] …

When he abuses his power, he ceases to be king and a public person, and becomes a private person. If in any way he proceeds and acts notoriously or wickedly, any one may resist him [18.95 quoted in Beisner, p. 117]

Thus Beza’s argument that “Private citizens may not offer resistance to their lawful ruler who is a tyrant” is an oxymoron. If a ruler is a tyrant then he is not a lawful ruler and has no right to be obeyed. He is merely a private citizen committing violence against other private citizens. Roger A. Mason referred to this as the “explosive doctrine of single-handed tyrannicide.” [Roger A. Mason, ‘People Power? George Buchanan on Resistance and the Common Man’, in Robert von Friedeburg, ed., Widerstandsrecht in der frühen Neuzeit, in Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung, beiheft 26 (2001), 163–81, at 179. Quoted in Beisner, p. 115] Rutherford summarized the view, saying

[T]he royal dignity doth not advance a king above the common condition of men, and the throne maketh him not leave off to be a man, and a man that can do wrong; and therefore as one that doth manifest violence to the life of a man, though his subject, he may be resisted with bodily resistance, in the case of unjust and violent invasion. [Rutherford, Lex, Rex, Q.XXXII]

If I give my sword to my fellow to defend me from the murderer, if he shall fall to and murder me with my own sword, I may (if I have strength) take my sword from him. [Q.XXXII]