Arguing for limited government—especially related to matters of faith—isn’t just a right we enjoy as American citizens; it’s a right we enjoy as heavenly citizens. While Christians should be reminded of their duties to be subject to governing authorities, civil magistrates should be reminded of their duties as well.
During this unusual season of global pandemic, government officials have shut down businesses, restricted travel, and banned gatherings of various sizes. Because of this, lawsuits have been filed and protests have sprung up across the country over what many see as government overreach and an infringement of their First Amendment rights.
It is beyond my purpose and scope to weigh the legal merits or infringements of these government actions in this article. Notwithstanding, this environment has raised some important questions related to the church’s response (in general) and the pastor’s response (in particular). While many articles have been written recently advocating the duties of citizens—being subject to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1)—I wanted to look at some of the duties of the civil magistrate.
As Christians living in this nation, we have a dual citizenship. We are citizens of the United States of America and citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). The apostle Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:27), enjoyed certain rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37), and even made appeals as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:1–12). As citizens of this nation, we too enjoy certain rights and may make appeals based on our citizenship.
However, we must recognize that we are also citizens of heaven. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). The Bible calls us “strangers,” “exiles on earth,” and “sojourners” who desire “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16; cf. 1 Pet. 2:11). We are pilgrims who are in the world, but not of it (John 17:14–16).
As US citizens, we enjoy the rights provided by our nation’s Constitution. As members of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), we enjoy the rights provided by our church’s Constitution—the Book of Church Order (BCO) and the Westminster Standards. It should go without saying that, as Christians, we must always obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29); there is a priority of biblical authority that we must never forget.
What are the Duties of Civil Magistrates?
In the PCA’s adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), chapter 23 is entitled “Of the Civil Magistrate.” It lays out a number of biblically wise, practical instructions for the duties of civil magistrates as well as the duties of those under civil magistrates. It should be noted that PCA pastors are required to subscribe to the Westminster Standards and, therefore, can and should address politics in biblical perspective. That’s not to say that pastors should “endorse” certain political candidates, but rather that they should address the roles of government and citizens from a biblical and confessional perspective.