Christ Is King! | (Part 3 of 4) A Few Observations on Civil Government Enforcing the 1st Table of the Law and the Dangers in the Original Westminster Confession and Its View of Church and State

by | May 13, 2020 | Civil Government, Ecclesiology, Law

Christ Is King!

In my first two blogs, I have attempted to point out the dangers which lurk in the waters of the original Westminster and older Presbyterianism. Someone might ask at this point about the fact that Christ is King over all things including the realm of civil authority. Is it necessary to jettison religious freedom in order to uphold the universal reign of Christ? I think that is a good question. It deserves a good answer. Thankfully, one is available.

Let me restate the question. Isn’t the civil authority to rule according to the Word of God?  If so, how can it allow religious freedom?  Must it not, therefore, enforce the first table of the law?  If God forbids idolatry, for instance, must not the state also forbid and penalize idolatry and, therefore, proscribe Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism, and, indeed, any religion which does not profess to worship the Christian Trinity? 

Here a crucial distinction must be enunciated.  It is certainly true that civil authority is subject to the Word of God, but this does not mean that it is the duty of the civil authority to enforce every part of God’s Word with its own authority.  Several illustrations will make this clear.

Ephesians 6:4, for instance, requires, “And you fathers bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”  Is the civil magistrate required to enforce this?  No!  Why?  Because the Word is not his authority?  No!  But because He is not a Father.  in 1 Peter 5:2 pastors are exhorted to shepherd the flock of God. Should the civil magistrate enforce this?  No, because he is not a pastor. 

Lest anyone think that this is just a Baptist or American way of thinking. Let me quote that great Scotsman and Presbyterian John Murray. He well says, “Since the civil magistrate is invested with this authority by God and is obliged by divine ordinance to discharge these functions, he is responsible to God, the one living and true God who alone has ordained him.  The magistrate is, therefore, under obligation to discharge the office devolving upon him in accordance with the revealed will of God.  The Bible is the supreme and infallible revelation of God’s will and it is, therefore, the supreme and infallible rule in all departments of life.  The civil magistrate is under obligation to recognize it as the infallible rule for the exercise of civil magistracy.”

Murray continues: “It must be recognized, however, that it is only within his own restricted sphere of authority that the civil magistrate, in his capacity as civil magistrate, is to apply the revelation of God’s will as provided in Scripture.  It is only to the extent to which the revelation of Scripture bears upon the functions discharged by the state and upon the performance of the office of the civil magistrate, that he, in the discharge of these functions, is bound to fulfil the demands of Scripture.  If the civil magistrate should attempt, in his capacity as magistrate, to carry into effect the demands of Scripture which bear upon him in other capacities, or the demands of Scripture upon other institutions, he would immediately be guilty of violating his prerogatives and of contravening the requirements of Scripture.”

Murray goes on: “The sphere of the church is distinct from that of the civil magistrate … What needs to be appreciated now is that its sphere is co-ordinate with that of the state.  The church is not subordinate to the state, nor is the state subordinate to the church.  They are both subordinate to God, and to Christ in his mediatorial dominion as head over all things to his body the church.  Both church and state are under obligation to recognize this subordination, and the corresponding co-ordination of their respective spheres of operation in the divine institution.  Each must maintain and assert its autonomy in reference to the other and preserve its freedom from intrusion on the part of the other.” [John Murray, Collected Writings, 1:253-54.]

Let me, then, ask the key question again. Why is the civil magistrate not to enforce the “first Table of the Law”?  Is it because he is somehow not subject to the Word of God?  No! He is not to enforce it because it is not within his jurisdiction to do so.  Simply put, it is not his job! He must protect the religious liberty of all those subject to him by guarding their liberty, but it is not his duty to enforce religious uniformity on his subordinates. Though He rules in light of the Word of God, it is not his right to enforce religious uniformity on those under him. To put this in other words, it is not within the sphere of his sovereignty to do this. The body and not the soul is the concern and the sphere of the civil magistrate. Cf. Nehemiah 9:37.

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