The Reformers on Civil Government

Legitimate discourse on the role of the civil magistrate in modern life is range bound between classical liberalism on the political right and progressive liberalism on the political left. The two sides of the liberal coin hold to different perspectives on the role of government in society but share a common telos in what they seek to achieve. Classical liberals hold to a Lockean conception of the state, which sees the primary role of government as keeping the peace and protecting property rights. Filtering John Locke through the rhetoric of Thomas Paine, this view sees government as merely a necessary evil created by contract, which at its best can remove special privileges and enforce contracts between consenting individuals. Progressive liberals, on the other hand, see government as a benevolent institution that, when guided by technical expertise, can use coercion to improve society by remaking mankind’s malleable nature through education. Though differing in their conceptions of the role of government as a means, both versions of liberalism see the end of the state as freeing the individual from external pressures and obligations by extending greater liberty or equality. Both sides are deeply committed to the institution of a purely secularized state divorced from any kind of Christian conception of the good. Both would largely embrace some version of the Whig theory of history, seeing the modern world as the march of progress toward greater individual freedom or social equality. Conservative evangelical Christians are beginning to wonder, and with good reason, if there is another option. Is this the best that conservatism has to offer? Must a Christian magistrate be committed to religious agnosticism and merely play a negative role in society, preserving every individual’s right to pursue their own happiness? A serious reading of the Protestant Reformers shows that far from being agnostic on matters of state and society, they are a source of great wisdom and stand far to the right of the entire acceptable political spectrum allowed within the typical, American, evangelical church.

Reformation and Restoration

The Protestant Reformation is uniquely important to these questions about the proper role of civil government because, in addition to being a reformation of the doctrine and worship of the church, it should also be understood as a restoration of the role of the civil magistrate that had been taken captive by the medieval Roman Catholic church. Rather than being under the authority of the pope, the Reformers sought to free the civil magistrate to serve, like the clergy, its own unique role as a minister of God. The Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli stated that both the magistrate and the clergy “nourisheth the godly, but after a diverse manner: the magistrate encreaseth them with riches, honors and dignities: the minister comforteth them with the promises of god, and with the Sacramentes.”[1] Though performing different functions, both the magistrate and the clergy served vital roles in the kingdom of God. The Reformers understood that the office of civil magistrate is not made Christian by being subjugated to the rule of the church, but by allowing it to exercise authority as the minister of God’s justice. Furthermore, to free the office of the magistrate to rule the civil realm was to serve the dual purpose of freeing the church from corruption produced by political entanglements. By fulfilling its God-given role, the civil magistrate could truly be a blessing to the church and to God’s people. Thus, Martin Luther could write in his commentary on Psalm 82:

In a word, after the Gospel, or spiritual office, there is on earth no better jewel, no greater treasure, no richer alms, no fairer endowment, no finer possession than a ruler who makes and preserves just laws. Such men are rightly called gods. These are the virtues, the profit, the fruits and the good works that God has appointed to this rank in life. It is not for nothing that He has called them gods, and it is not His will that it shall be a lazy, empty, idle estate, in which men seek only honor, power, luxury, selfish profit, and self-will; but He would have them full of great, innumerable, unspeakable good works, so that they may be partakers of His divine majesty, and help Him to do divine and superhuman works.[2]

As instruments of God’s justice, magistrates are worthy of great honor and obedience, according to Luther. Just as God uses the sacraments to minister his grace to his people, God uses civil magistrates to minister his justice. Governments do not exist as a necessary evil or merely for the purpose of maintaining order but can and should be a source of blessing to their people. If the magistrate is punishing wickedness and upholding true religion, regardless of his personality or motivation, Christians are called to honorably submit to his governance. Thus, American evangelical Christians need not feel guilty or apologetic about having a magistrate that seeks to publicly champion their values or defend an enculturated Christianity.

A magistrate is not just another man that serves the people but is referred to as a “god” in Scripture, which is befitting of his status in relation to God in heaven, according to John Calvin:

Since those who serve as magistrate are called “gods”, let no one think that their being so-called is of slight importance. For it signifies that they have a mandate from God, have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly God’s representatives, in a manner, acting as his vicegerents.[3]

The Right to Enforce the Law

As a vicegerent, or little god, on earth, the magistrate has a duty to command what is right and prohibit what is wrong. As God has written laws into nature to govern his creation, the sovereign of a nation or realm has the power and authority to provide order to the state. However, the ability to command was not really in dispute between the Reformers and Rome. It was the ability to uniformly enforce those commands within the realm that raised objections from the Roman hierarchy. Clerics were excluded from the civil magistrate’s jurisdiction, claiming they could only be judged by canon law in ecclesiastical courts. This not only in effect created a two-tiered system of justice where some subjects received special legal benefits not enjoyed by others but undermined the claim of a civil magistrate to uphold equal justice within the realm since he was ultimately beholden to the whims and wishes of an international power when it came to enforcing the nation’s laws. Thus, the Reformers affirmed that in addition to the ability to command, magistrates must be able to enforce the law within their realms and to punish those who violate it. Without the ability to apply sanctions against wrongful actions, the magistrate’s ability to command or make law is in effect void, they argued. Anglican Bishop George Carleton rightly understood that a civil government that cannot enforce its own laws on all people within its realm is no civil government at all:

When we say the king may command, we mean plainly as we speak, that the king hath from God lawful authority to command and punish them that break his command. This is the common understanding of the king’s command…For otherwise, the king’s command is but as the word of a private man, or of a child, if he have not power to judge and punish.[4]

When enforcement of law becomes, or is perceived to be, arbitrary, the civil order breaks down as people lose confidence in the state’s ability to establish justice. Thus, the Roman practice of excluding clerics from the laws of the land that they may be tried by the church undermined the civil authority and did not allow for the application and enforcement of equal justice.

A Sword to be Fearfully Wielded

However, the power to punish is not a privilege that magistrates employ as a trump card against rival authorities but is a sword to be wielded diligently and with great fear. The Reformers believed that not only are civil magistrates duty-bound to punish wickedness and violence, but a failure to do so is a sin against God. When the magistrate swings the sword to execute justice, his very hands are extensions of God himself and carry out his judgments: “the Lawgiver himself puts into the hand of his ministers a sword to be drawn against all murderers.”[5] Even as ministers of the gospel are consecrated to preach and administer the sacraments, ministers of God’s justice in the civil realm are consecrated for administering the sword. Thus, the failure to punish wickedness and wrongdoing opens the magistrate up to severe judgment by God. Magistrates who do not use the sword to punish wickedness “will become guilty of the greatest impiety,” says Calvin, and have defiled their hands.[6] There is no middle ground for the civil magistrate. He is either the instrument of God’s justice or an accomplice to the crime being committed. According to Luther, the sins of the perpetrator can justly be attributed to the magistrate who through inaction has tacitly permitted and approved of the perpetrator’s crimes:

For a prince and lord must remember in this case that he is God’s minister and the servant of His wrath (Romans 13:4), to whom the sword is committed for use upon such fellows, and that he sins as greatly against God, if he does not punish and protect and does not fulfill the duties of his office, as does one to whom the sword has not been committed when he commits a murder. If he can punish and does not — even though the punishment consists in the taking of life and the shedding of blood — then he is guilty of all the murder and all the evil which these fellows commit, because, by willful neglect of the divine command, he permits them to practice their wickedness, though he can prevent it, and is in duty bound to do so.[7]

The Impiety of a Therapeutic Magistrate

Since the magistrate’s authority to execute judgment is delegated to him by God, his actions reflect God’s character. The magistrate is always communicating something about the character of God: he is either declaring truth about God and his standards for justice or he is lying. A magistrate may lie by promoting tyranny, but also may lie by putting away the sword to take on the role of a therapeutic counselor. By his actions, the therapeutic magistrate provides no hope for justice to a society. For the pardoning of the guilty constitute “acts of mere grace to one man, but acts of blood to the community.”[8] A failure to punish the perpetrator of a crime makes the magistrate complicit in the crime. For this reason, punishment of wickedness is an act of piety by the civil magistrate, says Calvin:

[I]f princes and other rulers recognize that nothing is more acceptable to the Lord than their obedience, let them apply themselves to this ministry, if, indeed, they are intent on having their piety, righteousness, and uprightness approved by God.[9]

A civil magistrate demonstrates Christian piety by using the power of the sword that has been entrusted to him and should devote themselves to this ministry. Far from being a necessary evil, Calvin writes that the magistrate’s calling to punish wickedness is a holy and sacred ministry and “the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men.”[10] Luther goes even further to state that in times of rebellion, assisting the magistrate in restoring order and protecting property is worthy of heavenly reward. “Thus it may be that one who is killed fighting on the ruler’s side may be a true martyr in the eyes of God.”[11]

The Magistrate and the Church: Different Roles

The magistrate is not called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, extending the offer of redemption and forgiveness to those who have committed crimes or upset the peace or their neighbor in rebellion. In our day, the modern church seeks to make the state nicer than God. There is a reason the state’s power is referred to as a sword in Scripture and not a therapist’s pen or a doctor’s prescription or a priest’s sacrament. It is precisely because the church was tasked with preaching the gospel and administering the grace of the sacraments that it is ill-suited to perform the role of the magistrate. A church that exercises coercive authority is not gracious and exercises tyranny over the flock rather than feeding the sheep. The state is given coercive authority for the purpose of maintaining public order. The magistrate does not exist for the purpose of dispensing grace. When the magistrate takes on the role of rendering judgment, “he preacheth no gospel, but the sharp law of vengeance,” says William Tyndale. “Let him take the holy judges of the Old Testament for an ensample, and namely Moses, which in executing the law was merciless.”[12] Both the cleric that picks up the sword and the magistrate that seeks to employ the keys of the kingdom overstep their bounds and corrupt the purposes of their respective institutions. Tyndale continues:

To preach God’s word is too much for half a man: and to minister a temporal kingdom is too much for half a man also. Either other requireth an whole man. One therefore cannot well do both. He that avengith himself on every trifle is not meet to preach the patience of Christ, how that a man ought to forgive and to suffer all things. He that is overwhelmed with all manner riches, and doth but seek more daily, is not meet to preach poverty. He that will obey no man is not meet to preach how we ought to obey all men. Peter saith, Acts 6, “It is not meet that we should leave the word of God, and serve at the tables.” Paul saith in the 9th chapter of the first Corinth. “Woe is me if I preach not.” A terrible saying, verily, for popes, cardinals, and bishops! If he had said, ‘Woe be unto me if I fight not and move princes unto war, or if I increase not St Peter’s patrimony,’ as they call it, it had been a more easy saying for them.[13]

The church has a duty to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to offer redemption and forgiveness to those who have committed offenses against God and man. However, the state is not called on to be the instrument of God’s mercy, but the instrument of God’s justice.

Failures of Love for Neighbor

From these words, we may conclude that not only does the magistrate have the duty to apply the death penalty to those who have surrendered their right to life by taking the life of another, but they also have a duty to bring the full force of the law against those who would upset the peace of a society by overturning law and order and threatening persons and property. In the summer of 2020, as riots broke out in cities across the United States, resulting in the loss of life as well as billions of dollars of damage to personal property, the magistrate and his officers had a duty to use all necessary force to quell the riots as fast as possible. According to the Reformers, the love of neighbor required the magistrate to employ violence to protect the life, property, and peace of law-abiding subjects. Failure to do this amounted to a participation in the crime against law-abiding American citizens on the part of law enforcement.

A Duty to the Interests of Their Own People

The magistrate also has a duty to protect and to promote the welfare of his people. Just as magistrates are called to punish the evil-doer lest they be complicit in the offense against the victim, they also have a duty to stop the oppression and suffering of those over whom they have been given authority and to further their prosperity. Magistrates do not exist to promote international interests, but to ensure the safety and economic well-being of their people. Says Tyndale, “Let kings, if they had lever be Christian in deed than so to be called, give themselves altogether to the wealth of their realms after the ensample of Christ; remembering that the people are God’s, and not theirs.”[14] That magistrates are to further the national interests and prosperity of their people is not a warrant for exploiting or enslaving people outside the nation, but the magistrate does have a unique duty to represent his people and promote their interests above other competing foreign interests.

The Spiritual Interests of the Realm

The magistrate’s protection of his people extends beyond threats from criminals and invaders and includes oppressive spiritual institutions as well. In his letter to the German Christian nobility, Martin Luther argues that civil magistrates who have been baptized and are members of Christ’s church belong to the spiritual kingdom just as the clerics and priests. Temporal authorities do not serve under spiritual authorities and are not precluded from involvement in spiritual matters, for all baptized believers are priests of necessity. In an emergency, laymen are authorized to administer the sacraments to the people of God. Likewise, in a time of great corruption within the church, temporal authorities are best positioned to guard the church against error by calling ecumenical councils given their elevated station and superiority over all other men in the civil realm:

Would it not be an unnatural thing, if a fire broke out in a city, and everybody were to stand by and it burn on and on and consume everything that could burn, for the sole reason that nobody had the authority of the burgomaster…? if the enemy attacks a city, he who first rouses the others deserves honor and thanks; why then should he not deserve honor who makes known the presence of the enemy from hell, awakens the Christians, and calls them together?[15]

Magistrates have the duty to intervene. To guard against spiritual abuse is not limited to the case of emergency. Protection and provision of a people also implies the magistrate’s duty to head off calamity by opposing idolatry. The magistrate is not consigned to be a bystander in religious idolatry when those matters threaten the well-being of the civil realm, according to Vermigli:

Farther, it cannot be denied, but that it is the duty of magistrates to defend those cities and public wealths over which they are governors, and to provide that no hurt happen unto them: wherefore for as much as idolatry is the cause of captivity, pestilence, famine, and overthrowing of public wealths, shall it not pertain unto the magistrate to repress it, and to keep the true sound religion?[16]

The strict separation of church and state as institutions in the modern world has not altered reality and created a strict separation between the spiritual and physical world. Since the former has consequences that are borne out in the latter, the magistrate has a duty to guard his people against divine judgment for national idolatry or apostasy.

The two functions of the magistrate discussed thus far are largely negative in their aim. The state’s use of coercive power to punish crime and wickedness and to protect the interests and well-being of its people are generally uncontroversial and accepted by Christians who hold to a classical liberal philosophy of government. The following characteristics of a magistrate will be the hardest for the moderns to embrace. They are at odds with the classical liberal mind that operates on the belief that the government that governs best is that which governs least, and they are opposed to the progressive liberal mind that rejects natural patriarchy and hierarchy.

A Duty to Praise Honorable Men

The Reformers would argue that the magistrate’s duty goes beyond merely preserving negative rights. First, Scripture teaches that in addition to punishing the wicked, the magistrate is to praise and honor good men. The Apostle Paul says in Romans that those who do right would be commended by the civil magistrate.[17] The Apostle Peter is more explicit when he says that governors are sent by God for the dual purposes of punishing evildoers and praising good men.[18] This biblical teaching is consistent with ancient pagan philosophers, who also saw a positive role for government in honoring those in society who best embodied and demonstrated their cultural ideals. The philosopher Xenophon, for example, says that an alternative to the use of government coercion is a demonstration of wise leadership. People are moved to conform and obey when they perceive that those who make the laws are wise and when good behavior is praised and rewarded. Every society needs heroes to follow and emulate. The public praise of honorable men serves to inculcate the morals and standards of conduct within a society as well as to foster a genuine affection for those standards as they are demonstrated by honorable heroes. Thus, the magistrate is under no obligation to honor all people equally. Good magistrates foster a healthy sense of honor and shame in their nations from which future generations may learn what constitutes proper behavior. Calvin writes:

For good princes are useful not only to their own age, but also to posterity, to whom they leave good laws, salutary regulations, and the traces of good government; so that their successors, even though they be wicked men, are ashamed to give themselves up all at once to abandoned wickedness, and, even against their will, are compelled through shame to retain something that is good.[19]

Throughout Scripture, examples of such public praise and honor abound. The one who would dare to risk his life to take on the giant Goliath of Gath would be able to join the royal family and would be excluded from taxation. Mordecai is clothed in royal garments and paraded on the king’s horse for his act of service in preventing the assassination attempt on King Ahasuerus’ life. Both Joseph and Daniel are elevated in their respective kingdoms, not only for their competence and ability to interpret dreams, but also that they may be publicly honored. By consistently and publicly honoring good men, the standards and mores of a culture may be regulated without drawing a sword. Unacceptable behaviors may be halted by a disapproving glance or the withdrawal of financial support of a family member without involving a civil magistrate. In contrast, the first sign of a dying society is one in which there is a proliferation of laws and statutes to regulate every social interaction because a sense of what is honorable has been entirely lost.

A Duty to Preserve Monuments

Another application of the duty to praise honorable men in a society would include the magistrate’s duty to protect public structures and monuments that have been erected in their remembrance rather than giving way to the demands of the mob who feel ashamed when reminded of greatness. If you witnessed the defacing and destruction of public monuments and statues of historical figures throughout the United States in recent years and felt profoundly disturbed, there is a reason why. This is not a matter on which Christians should be obligated to remain neutral. Luther denounced the iconoclasm of the radical reformation in his day occurring within ecclesiastical structures. How much more would Luther oppose the mob destroying the secular iconography in the public square!

“Fathers” to their People

In addition to praising good men, the Protestant Reformers believed that godly civil magistrates are to serve as fathers to their people. In his commentary on Isaiah 22:21, Calvin states, “Those who wish to be regarded as lawful princes, and to prove that they are God’s servants, must therefore shew that they are fathers to their people.”[20] Vermigli also affirms that “princes owe unto their subjects a fatherly love.”[21] Luther, in his commentary on Psalm 82, writes, “By…the administration of just laws, he supports all his subjects, as a father supports his children.”[22] Such statements do not represent a conflation of the household and the state. The state and the family are two of three distinct estates, according to Luther, which maintain unique roles, rights, and sanctions. A state does not have the right to infringe upon the private affairs of the households in its realm and is not to be run like a household, nor a household like a state. Yet, says Calvin, “royal authority cannot be separated from the feelings of a father.”[23] Magistrates are worthy of the respect and honor that is owed to fathers. This is affirmed by the Westminster Larger Catechism, which states that the duty in the fifth commandment to honor father and mother is owed to “not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.”[24]

For the magistrate to have the feelings of a father for his country, there needs to be a sense that the people he governs are his people. Just as the ownership of private property incentivizes an individual to exercise personal responsibility and care, taking ownership of the nation or civil realm incentivizes the magistrate to exercise responsibility and evokes a sense of fatherly duty to the people whom he has been entrusted to lead. The first requirement for kings in the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy 17:15 is that they be chosen from among their own people. Foreigners were disqualified from serving in that office. How can a foreigner perform his duty as a father over a people that are not his own? Furthermore, a magistrate that is merely considered a temporary public servant whose office exists solely to enact the whims of the people into law cannot display this fatherly affection or judgment. Instead, he is incentivized to consider what is most politically profitable at a given moment rather than what is in the long-term interests of the nation.

Moreover, a magistrate cannot be a father to his people unless he is in some way superior to them. Vermigli writes:

[T]hey ought always to remember, that they are not rulers over beastes but over men, and that themselves also are men, who yet ought to be far better and more excellent than those whom they govern, otherwise they are not apt to govern them. For we make not a sheep a head over a sheep, but…the shepherd, and even as a shephered excelleth the sheep, so ought they to whom the office of a magistrate is committed, to excel the people.[25]

The Duties of Excellence

The magistrate is not supposed to be the most popular sheep, but to exercise judgment on behalf of the sheep. However, the superiority of the magistrate and the honor that is to be given to him as a father brings with it a corresponding duty to be “far better and more excellent” than the people. Once he takes on this role, he cannot hide and pretend merely to be one of the people. He is not to appeal to the lowest common denominator or seek to be the most relatable to the people. Rather, his position should carry with it a level of dignity and reverence and the people should show respect for the office.

Being a father to the people is not all about being personally honored and glorified. It also requires sacrifice. The magistrate’s nearness to God does not separate him from his people, but rather reinforces his duty to his people. Thus, William Tyndale writes:

Though that the king, in the temporal regiment, be in the room of God, and representeth God himself, and is without all comparison better than his subjects; yet let him put off that, and become a brother, doing and leaving undone all things in respect of the common wealth, that all men may see that he seeketh nothing by the profit of his subjects.[26]

Sacrificial Service

In Genesis, Judah demonstrated his right to rule the nation of Israel by sacrificing his life as a prisoner in Egypt to fulfill the vow he made to his father, Israel, that the youngest brother, Benjamin, would return home safely. Likewise, the godly magistrate demonstrates his superiority by making himself an inferior and sacrificing his rights for the people’s gain. As the representative of Christ’s rule in the world, the civil magistrate has a duty to protect his people even to the point of death. Samuel Rutherford in Lex Rex states that kings are called to emulate the good Shepherd:

And the good Shepherd (John 10,) gives his life for his sheep; so both Saul and David were made kings to fight the Lord’s battles, and to expose their lives to hazard for the safety of the church and people of God. But the king, by office, is obliged to expend his life for the safety of the people of God; he is obliged to fight the Lord’s battles for them; to go between the flock and death, as Paul was willing to be spent for the church.[27]

Fathers have the greatest authority within the household and for that reason are called to be the first to die. Likewise, the godly magistrate tasked with protecting his people must be willing to lead his people into battle and die, if necessary, in their defense. Modern wars may not necessarily lend themselves to a President leading from the front in a pitched battle, but any president advocating for war and calling on his people to sacrifice must be willing to bear the burdens of war and show himself willing to make the necessary sacrifices he is calling on the people to make. Presidents who go to war to enrich themselves or to enhance their reputations by spreading democracy and egalitarianism at the expense of their people fail in their role as fathers of their nations.

Promote the True Religion

Related to the magistrate’s role as a father, he also has a duty to protect and promote the teaching of the true religion in the nation. After the death of Henry VIII in 1547 in England, his son, Edward VI, came to the throne. Edward was raised by Protestant tutors and throughout the six years of his reign, England would move beyond Henry’s ambivalent stance on reform and steer the Church of England in a truly Protestant direction. John Calvin dedicated his commentary on Isaiah to young Edward VI and charged him with this address in his preface to the work:

And here I expressly call upon you, most excellent King, or rather, God himself addresses you by the mouth of his servant Isaiah, charging you to proceed, to the utmost of your ability and power, in carrying forward the restoration of the Church, which has been so successfully begun in your kingdom. First, you daily read and hear that this duty is enjoined on you in the kingdom over which you rule. More especially Isaiah, as I have said, calls Kings the nursing-fathers of the Church, (Isaiah 49:23,) and does not permit them to withhold that assistance which her afflicted condition demands. Nor ought your mind to be slightly affected by the consideration, that the Prophet pronounces a woe on all kings and nations who refuse to give her their support. Next, your Majesty sees plainly what is urgently demanded by the times. Though you may not have great success in your labors, yet, knowing that this worship is acceptable to God, and is a sacrifice of most delightful savor, you ought not to be turned aside from your purpose by any event, however calamitous. Seeing, therefore, that God exhorts you to be courageous, and at the same time promises success, why should you not cheerfully obey him when he calls?[28]

To carry out this role of nursing father to the church, magistrates need the grace of God. This is not something they can achieve on their own. In commenting on David’s prayer for his son Solomon in Psalm 72:1, Calvin writes:

[N]o government in the world can be rightly managed but under the conduct of God, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If kings possessed in themselves resources sufficiently ample, it would have been to no purpose for David to have sought by prayer from another, that with which they were of themselves already provided. But in requesting that the righteousness and judgment of God may be given to kings, he reminds them that none are fit for occupying that exalted station, except in so far as they are formed for it by the hand of God.[29]

Not only does the magistrate require the grace of God to rule well, but he also has a greater duty to devote himself to the study of God’s word:

Hence it ought to be observed that something remarkable is here demanded from princes, besides an ordinary profession of faith; for the Lord has bestowed on them authority and power to defend the Church and to promote the glory of God. This is indeed the duty of all; but kings, in proportion as their power is greater, ought to devote themselves to it more earnestly, and to labor in it more diligently. And this is the reason why David expressly addresses and exhorts them to “be wise, and serve the Lord, and kiss his Son.[30]

Not As Ruler Over the Church

Despite these duties, the Reformers did not teach that the magistrate was to rule the church directly, nor was he tasked with determining matters of doctrine or wielding the keys of the kingdom. Even in the Church of England where the monarch was given the title “Supreme Governor of the Church,” this was not to be interpreted as assuming the role of vicar of Christ. Bishop George Carleton, an Anglican representative to the Council of Dordt in 1618, defined the term this way:

When we call the King the ‘Supreme Governor of the Church,’ our meaning is that he is appointed by God to be a Father and a preserver of religion, a keeper of ecclesiastical discipline, and as the prophet Isaiah calleth him, a nursing father of the Church. He is the sovereign in all affairs of coactive jurisdiction. Likewise, this word, ‘church,’ is not taken in the same sense by them [Rome] and us. For our adversaries, saying that the Pope is the ‘Head of the Church,’ understand thereby the catholic church spread over the whole world, but we understand a particular church, yielding the King to be the Governor next and immediately under God of his own dominions and consequently of persons and causes within his own dominions, so that there is much difference between their meaning and ours.[31]

In sum, the king’s role as supreme governor meant that he had the duty to protect the church and promote the true religion within his jurisdiction, not to serve as the head of the universal church determining matters of doctrine.

Not Without Limits

The 16th-century Reformers speak of civil rulers in elevated terms that strike the modern western ear accustomed to the language of government being merely a necessary evil or the protector of the individual’s pursuit of happiness (regardless of what that happiness might be) as being overly idealist or naive. The Reformers generally interpret the characterization of government in Romans 13:17 as being descriptive of all governments and the command to submit as binding upon Christians in all times and circumstances and without qualification. Even tyrants are worthy of honor and obedience, according to the Reformers, and the worst government imaginable is believed to be superior to anarchy. The history of the 20th century would certainly challenge this notion. Perhaps their positive vision of the state can be attributed, in some degree, to an overreaction against the abuses and tyranny of Rome. Yet, in their defense, the Reformers were not agnostic on the question of how magistrates ought to govern and were also willing to condemn magistrates for wrongful actions. For example, consider Calvin’s admonition to rulers in his commentary on Daniel:

But it will always be deserving of condemnation, when we find men selfishly pursuing their own advantage without any regard for the public good. Whoever aspires to power and self-advancement, without regarding the welfare of others, must necessarily be avaricious and rapacious, cruel and perfidious, as well as forgetful of his duties. Since, then, the nobles of the realm envied Daniel, they betrayed their malice, for they had no regard for the public good, but desired to seize upon all things for their own interests.[32]

Modernity’s Alternative

As we have seen thus far, the Reformers expected civil rulers to govern in a way that promoted the good of their people and this included the task of promoting and protecting true religion and virtue. Yet, if modern Christians should object to this role of the civil magistrate, perhaps they should contrast this with the secular alternatives of the reformers’ day and the succeeding century. Machiavelli, considered to be the first modern philosopher, sought to bring down the aim of politics from the pursuit of noble or spiritual goods to the securing of power and physical pleasures. Thomas Hobbes, writing in the 17th century, reduced the role of the magistrate to maintaining public order in a chaotic world where the pursuit of natural rights led inevitably to endless conflict in a war of all against all. Since for Hobbes, good and evil were merely the positive determinations of the sovereign and had no basis in natural law, the faith and character of the civil magistrate were completely irrelevant to the question of his fitness to rule. There was no “ought” to which rulers must submit as their power ultimately did not proceed from God, but from the natural rights of the people living in the pre-historical state of nature. In commenting on David’s confession of sin in Psalm 51, Thomas Hobbes articulates his view that since the sovereign’s power comes from the natural rights of the people, he could do no wrong to the subject:

[N]othing the sovereign representative can do to a subject, on what pretence soever, can properly be called injustice, or injury; because every subject is author of every act the sovereign doth; so that he never wanteth right to anything, otherwise, than as he himself is the subject of God, and bound thereby to observe the laws of nature. And therefore it may, and doth often happen in commonwealths, that a subject may be put to death, by the command of the sovereign power; and yet neither do the other wrong… And the same holdeth also in a sovereign prince, that putteth to death an innocent subject. For though the action be against the law of nature, as being contrary to equity, as was the killing of Uriah, by David; yet it was not an injury to Uriah, but to God. Not to Uriah, because the right to do what he pleased was given him by Uriah himself: and yet to God, because David was God’s subject, and prohibited all iniquity by the law of nature: which distinction, David himself, when he repented the fact, evidently confirmed, saying, To thee only have I sinned.[33]

If Christians heavily influenced by classical liberalism object to the language of the Reformers in speaking of civil magistrates as fathers of their people who stand over them in the place of God and seek their good, the Hobbesian basis for the modern state is much worse. It may not care about your religion (provided you pinch a little incense to the modern gods), but it doesn’t have any desire to seek the good of the people, nor does it recognize an imperative to do so. Our society has seen the perennial effects of fatherlessness in the home. Fatherless nations are likewise rudderless and in need of direction.

Some Are Appointed For Our Judgement

Though the Reformers would affirm that both godly and wicked magistrates are appointed by God to rule, they do not serve God’s purposes in the same way. Godly magistrates are instruments of God’s direct rule over his people while tyrants represent God’s giving over of a people to their own desires:

Wicked magistrates are indeed appointed by God, but it is in his anger, and because we do not deserve to be placed under his government. He gives a loose rein to tyrants and wicked men, in order to punish our ingratitude, as if he had forsaken or ceased to govern us. But when good magistrates rule, we see God, as it were, near us, and governing us by means of those whom he hath appointed.[34]

In commenting on Isaiah 49:23, Calvin states that when rulers fail to act as nursing-fathers to the church, this should be understood as God’s punishment on a society and cause people to pray for reformation in the church, that wicked rulers may be converted, or godly rulers may be restored:

When we see that matters are now very different, and that “kings” are not the “nursing-fathers,” but the executioners of the Church; when, in consequence of taking away the doctrine of piety and banishing its true ministers, idle bellies, insatiable whirlpools, and messengers of Satan, are fattened, (for such are the persons to whom the princes cheerfully distribute their wealth, that is, the moisture and blood which they have sucked out of the people;) when even princes otherwise godly have less strength and firmness for defending the Word and upholding the Church; let us acknowledge that this is the reward due to our sins, and let us confess that we do not deserve to have good “nursing-fathers.” But yet, after this frightfully ruinous condition, we ought to hope for a restoration of the Church, and such a conversion of kings that they shall shew themselves to be “nursing-fathers” and protectors of believers, and shall bravely defend the doctrine of the Word.[35]

This should put to rest the studied political agnosticism of modern “Two Kingdoms” theorists who claim that since God is sovereign and all magistrates are ultimately appointed by His will, all magistrates, therefore, serve as God’s ministers. On the contrary, politically conservative evangelicals are on solid theological ground to affirm that the election of certain magistrates represents God’s nearness to his people while the election of other magistrates represents God’s rejection or judgment. If Christians should be working and praying for the peace and prosperity of the city in which they reside, political agnosticism in the face of a stark choice of civil magistrates would constitute a failure to promote the common good.

Christian Resistance Theory

The Reformers continued to develop their theology on the proper role of the civil magistrate. If we were to grant that the magisterial Reformers overreacted to the abuses of Rome by unduly elevating the state, subsequent generations would moderate this position by developing a theory for Christian resistance. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 carried out in Paris by order of the king of France resulting in the deaths of up to ten thousand Huguenots caused Protestant theologians to reevaluate the hesitancy of their predecessors to defy civil authorities. The restoration of the civil magistrate to the position of a minister under God in his own right provided a standard by which the state could be held accountable. According to Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, civil rulers had a telos that justified their existence. Failure to live up to that end allowed for lesser magistrates to call civil rulers to account on behalf of the people.[36] While affirming that God appoints even wicked rulers for the chastisement of the people, as Calvin had, Beza argued that God’s appointment did not nullify the right of the people to lawfully resist under the authority of the lesser magistrate. Therefore, resistance to tyranny in the Protestant tradition grew out of the understanding that a magistrate had a duty before God to administer his justice and promote the true religion. Should the magistrate begin to punish the good and praise the wicked, he would not be able to hide behind the claim of divine right, nor claim he was doing God’s will simply because he had the approval of the pope. For a minister of God’s justice to protect the guilty and persecute the righteous would make a mockery of the term and expose such magistrates for who they really are: “forged intruders and bastard kings and judges, in so far as they give out the sentences of men, and are not the very mouths of the King of kings to pronounce such a sentence as the Almighty himself would do, if he were sitting on the throne or bench.”[37]

The State Desacralized (not Secularized)

In freeing the civil magistrate from the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the Protestant Reformers served to desacralize rather than secularize the state. In contrast to Thomas Hobbes, Beza did not recognize unlimited natural rights existing in a state of nature, nor the ability of the people to completely renounce them to a sovereign. If individuals do not have a natural right to all things for their survival, this right cannot be surrendered to the state upon entering society. For the Reformers, the power of the magistrate was limited, not by abstract rights creating a zone around the individual to pursue his or her own pleasures, but by the magistrate’s concrete duties as a minister of God.

Out of a well-intentioned desire to protect religious freedom and the rights of conscience delineated in the First Amendment of the Constitution, American Christians have generally been averse to the idea of the civil magistrate enforcing any kind of religious system in the country. The revivalist tradition, which was formative for American evangelicalism, further promoted an individualist and subjective approach to Christianity, which reinforced an absolute separation between church and state. Yet, when confronted with rapid cultural changes in society where homosexual marriage is recognized as a constitutional right, drag queen story hour at the library is a “blessing of liberty,” and womanhood is defined by how someone feels, conservative evangelical Christians are left to wonder if the liberal paradigm has gone off the rails. Are these simply the tradeoffs that come with living in a free society? Are evangelical Christians obligated to support a more gracious magistrate and surrender the enjoyment of peace and property under the law? Must they be committed to a neutral secular state which serves only to protect every individual’s pursuit of happiness without qualification? Must the state be committed to the removal of distinctions between people to ensure greater equality?

A Proper Desire of God’s People

Evangelical Christians who desire to hold up the civil magistrate as a minister of God’s justice that is duty-bound to both punish lawlessness as well as to praise good men and promote the true religion as a father to his people do not have an unbiblical or improper desire. To think this way does not make them ignorant or reactionary fundamentalists kicking against the pricks of liberalism’s advance. Rather, it makes them typical Protestants going back centuries and in line with the Protestant Reformers. A magistrate does not have the duty to protect the right to groom children in the name of freedom of speech and expression. The state is not limited by the individual’s right “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”[38] The state is limited by its God-given duties and the lawful resistance of lesser magistrates and vigilant citizens when it fails to perform those duties.

Evangelical conservatives have long demonstrated a desire to honor civil authorities and those who wield the sword such as military personnel and police forces. It is natural and good for Christians to follow and revere a civil magistrate who works to maintain law and order, to protect and promote the true religion, and who shares a common bond with the people of the nation which he serves. While the church must guard against co-option by the state, it need not be committed to political agnosticism. If Scripture refers to civil magistrates as gods, Christians should not feel guilty in honoring them as such and for committing themselves to ensure that their actions are befitting the minister of justice for the King of kings.


  1. Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary on Judges, (Reformed Retrieval, 2021), 701.
  2. Martin Luther, Commentary on the Psalms,
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. II (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1489.
  4. George Carleton, Jurisdiction Regal, Episcopal, Papal, ed. Andre Gazal (Landrum, South Carolina: The Davenant Press, 2021), 41, 43.
  5. John Calvin, Institutes, 1497.
  6. Ibid, 1498.
  7. Martin Luther.
  8. Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, 156.
  9. John Calvin, Institutes, 1497.
  10. Ibid, 1490.
  11. Martin Luther, “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants,” trans. Charles M. Jacobs, accessed April 28, 2022,
  12. William Tyndale, The Works of William Tyndale, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010) 203.
  13. Ibid, 207.
  14. Ibid, 202.
  15. Martin Luther, “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520),” trans. C. M. Jacobs, On the Wing (Project Wittenberg), accessed April 28, 2022,
  16. Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary on Judges, 732.
  17. Romans 13:3
  18. I Peter 2:14
  19. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, trans. William Pringle, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books: A Division of Baker Book House Co., 2009), 140 [on Isaiah 22:24].
  20. Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. II, 136, [on Isaiah 22:21].
  21. Vermigli, Commentary on Judges, 702.
  22. Luther, Commentary on Psalm 82.
  23. Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. II, 136, [on Isaiah 22:21].
  24. Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 124
  25. Vermigli, 702.
  26. Tyndale, Works, 202203.
  27. Rutherford, Lex Rex.
  28. John Calvin, Dedicatory Preface of Isaiah to Edward Sixth, King of England, xxiv.
  29. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, vol. III (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books: A Division of Baker Book House Co., 2009), 102 [on Psalm 72:1].
  30. Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. IV, 40 [on Isaiah 49:23].
  31. George Carleton, Jurisdiction Regal, Episcopal, Papal, 18.
  32. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, trans. Thomas Myers, vol. I (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books: A Division of Baker Book House Co., 2009), 352 [on Daniel 6:4].
  33. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Revised Student ed., (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 140.
  34. Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. II, 135 [on Isaiah 22:21].
  35. Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. IV, 41 [on Isaiah 49:23].
  36. Theodore Beza, “De Jure Magistratum (On the Rights of Magistrates) 1574,” ed. Patrick S. Poole, trans. Henry-Louis Gonin, Constitution Society, Question 6, accessed April 28, 2022,
  37. Rutherford, Lex Rex, Question XXIII.
  38. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).


Jared Lovell

Jared Lovell is a deacon in the Reformed Episcopal Church serving Grace RE Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jared is a classical educator, teaching European and American history at Memoria Press Online Academy, and is a teaching fellow at the Wayside School.

'The Reformers on Civil Government' have 2 comments

  1. February 22, 2023 @ 11:24 pm Noa Napoleon

    Absolutely Brilliant Essay! Thank you so much!


  2. September 26, 2023 @ 9:14 am Daniel Taylor

    What about Toryism?


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