Petitioning the Magistrate

A Response to T. David Gordon’s Protest of the PCA Transgender Surgery Petition

T. David Gordon wrote an article for the Aquila Report on April 10, 2024, in which he criticized the Presbyterian Church in America’s petition to the civil magistrate against gender reassignment interventions, including transgender surgeries on minors. This started as Overture 12 to the 2023 PCA General Assembly, which led to a letter being sent to the federal government. The presbyteries could then adjust the letter to send it to their state magistrates, and Gordon’s Ascension Presbytery did just that. Gordon filed a protest, and his article seeks to defend his objection to the petition.

Gordon gives several reasons for his opposition to the PCA petition, but as a way of summary, his position relies on the following three arguments. First, the doctrine of the spirituality of the church forbids a joint church assembly (such as a session, presbytery, or assembly) from speaking to the civil magistrate, even when touching on moral issues. Second, the only exceptions to this prohibition are when the magistrate makes a request of the church and humble petitions in “cases extraordinary” (WCF 31.4), which Gordon argues refers to when the civil magistrate directly interferes with the church (or as A. A. Hodge says, “where the interests of the Church are immediately concerned”). Third, such petitions to the magistrate are not a good use of time and resources.

The third argument is somewhat subjective, and I will not give it focused attention. Gordon may be correct here that a large number of individual statements against government action are more effective than a denominational statement. I will only note that a joint assembly statement may add to the effectiveness of individual statements, as well as embolden individual Christians, including pastors, to speak on a topic (in this case, speak against the practice of transgender surgeries). While many federal magistrates may ignore the PCA statement, future magistrates might very well heed the call. The future effectiveness of such a petition is unknown, and it is too early to pronounce it as a poor use of time and resources.

Therefore, I would like to focus on Gordon’s first two arguments concerning the spirituality of the church and Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4. I believe there are at least six problems with Gordon’s article opposing the PCA petition to the civil magistrate. 

First, Gordon’s conclusion—that the church cannot speak against the monstrosity of transgender surgeries on minors—is absurd on its face and must be rejected. 

The medical establishment and doctors are mutilating humans—cutting off genitalia and women’s breasts—upon request. Yet just because something is voluntary does not mean it should be permitted by civil government. Moreover, these procedures are even being performed on minor children, who cannot possibly understand the significance of what is being done to their bodies. Future prospects of marriage and the potential for reproduction are being destroyed. This “choice” is being made by those who cannot legally vote on political candidates or purchase a beer, and at least in the case of minors, it certainly involves duress and pressure. Instead of prosecuting the perpetrators, American magistrates are permitting this monstrosity. T. David Gordon agrees this is awful, but he is arguing that the church—the only institution that might speak up—is not to correct the magistrate in such a situation. The conclusion is absurd, and therefore Gordon’s reasoning must be in error.

Second, Gordon leaves joint church assemblies no room to correct the state when it gets out of line, removing a proper check on the state. 

This is tied with the previous point, but it gets to the broader principle. God has instituted the family, church, and state as the three major institutions of this world. Only the church and state are large-scale institutions. So what happens if either of those institutions gets out of line? As a proponent of the “Reformed two kingdoms” (others call it “radical” or “modern” two kingdoms), Gordon does not seem to think the state can correct the church or outlaw heresy. However, he also returns the favor by holding that the church (as an assembly) cannot correct the state. Of course, we are not speaking about force. We are simply speaking of the church’s prophetic witness against the evils of the state. Now to be fair, Gordon thinks individual Christians may speak to the state, and he even leaves room for preachers to speak to transgender surgeries from the pulpit. This at least accounts for the practice of Old Testament prophets and the Apostle Paul correcting magistrates in the book of Acts. However, Gordon seems inconsistent here. For if preachers in their capacity as ministers may speak to the state, why may not ministers in joint assemblies do the same? To affirm the permissibility of such joint assemblies to speak to the state is not to sanction all statements as wise or prudential. We are simply saying such statements are permissible before God.

Third, Gordon leaves joint church assemblies no room to speak to moral issues if they relate to civil government (apart from request), which unjustifiably limits the church’s application of the Word.

Following the language of the Westminster Confession, Gordon rightly says that the church in its joint assemblies should only speak to “ecclesiastical” issues, not “civil affairs”— “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical” (WCF 31.4). Gordon recognizes there are two exceptions here: (1) synods and councils may “intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth…by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary,” (2) and synods and councils may intermeddle with civil affairs “by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (WCF 31.4). 

One problem is that Gordon argues that the exception for humble petition in “cases extraordinary” (WCF 31.4) only refers to cases that immediately concern the interests of the church (see below). However, the other problem is that Gordon tends to place moral issues under the category of “civil affairs” and then define “ecclesiastical” as only referring to issues directly within the church. Yet moral issues often affect both church and state, and the church is not prohibited from speaking to issues simply because they have some relation to the state. In other words, there are many things that are moral and thus “ecclesiastical” and not purely political issues (or what WCF 31.4 calls “civil affairs”). 

In the case of transgender surgeries, apart from the question of legality, the church may certainly condemn transgender surgeries as immoral and offensive to God. That is a proper application of natural law, as well as the Word of God—“A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 22:5, NASB 1995). Gordon does not say whether he thinks such a statement merely against transgenderism as a moral issue would be permissible. However, if we grant that the church may make such a statement, there is no obvious reason why the church may not also inform the state of its position. One could argue the punishment for performing transgender surgeries is purely political and thus the church should not speak to this question. However, the question of the morality of transgender surgeries is in fact a moral question. And moving from morality to legality is not a huge step. If the church can establish that a particular practice is of great wickedness and harm to the community, then it almost certainly follows that the state should seek to prevent such a practice for the good of all. Thus, the issue of transgender surgeries is “ecclesiastical” and not purely a “civil affair.”

Fourth, Gordon’s focus on the 1861 Spring Resolutions leads to a misunderstanding of Charles Hodge’s position on the spirituality of the church.

In 1861, many of the Southern states seceded from the United States, and then at the General Assembly (Old School), Presbyterian pastor Gardiner Spring of New York introduced resolutions calling for “unabated loyalty” by the Assembly to the “federal government.” Known as the “Spring Resolutions,” these were opposed by the Southern Presbyterians who left to form a Southern Church, but they were also opposed by Northerners like Charles Hodge because they sought to decide a purely political question—whether Christians owed loyalty first to their state or to the federal government. There was disagreement on this question. And since the Bible does not tell Christians what to do in such a situation, the church as an institution should not speak to it. The Spring Resolutions effectively condemned secession as sinful. Thus, Hodge’s protest stated, “we deny the right of the General Assembly to decide the political question, to what government the allegiance of Presbyterians as citizens is due, and its rights to make that decision a condition of membership in our Church.” 

Gordon and I agree this was a bad move by the General Assembly. However, he ties it with future theological liberalism, saying, “In American Presbyterian history, intermeddling with civil affairs that concern the commonwealth (aka political activism) has always led to theological liberalism.” I do not think this conclusion can be substantiated, as the Presbyterian Church also intermeddled with civil affairs in the early 19th century, when the church was largely orthodox (see below). The later theological liberalism that arose in the Northern Church was in part due to the New School’s broader subscription practice, which Hodge warned against.

Gordon seems to think the Spring Resolutions, which were purely political, are comparable to church statements on moral issues like transgender surgeries. Moreover, Gordon thinks Charles Hodge’s opposition to the Spring Resolutions informed his son A. A. Hodge’s interpretation of “cases extraordinary” (WCF 31.4). A. A. Hodge commented that this referred to cases “where the interests of the Church are immediately concerned.” Gordon clearly makes this connection, as he cites Charles Hodge after the Spring Resolutions as saying that the church “has no right to interfere with the state, or give ecclesiastical judgment in matters pertaining to state policy,” and then Gordon claims that A. A. Hodge was “surely informed by his father’s protest of the Spring Resolutions of 1861.” Gordon says, “For our purposes, it is primarily important to understand both the intensity of Hodge’s protest against the Spring Resolutions, and the likelihood that his view influenced the view of his son, Archibald Alexander Hodge.” Again, Gordon says, “A. A. Hodge’s narrow/jurisdictional/ecclesiastical interpretation of ‘cases extraordinary’ in WCF 31:4 is illuminated, in part, by his father’s strong protest against the Assembly’s 1861 adoption of the Spring Resolutions.”

However, Gordon does not accurately grasp Charles Hodge’s view, as Hodge also wrote in July 1861 that “the state has no authority in matters purely spiritual, and the church no authority in matters purely secular or civil. That their provinces in some cases overlie each other; that civil rights and religious duties may be involved in the same question, is indeed true.” Hodge concluded, “It may therefore often be a difficult question to decide where the power of the state ends, and where that of the church begins. Nevertheless, the two institutions are distinct, and their respective duties are different.” Hodge followed this with the citation of WCF 31.4. The next year, in 1862, Hodge said the church “may” speak to “Any question which is to be decided by the teachings of the word of God.” Hodge contrasted this to the view of “some among us” (presumably Stuart Robinson) that “the church is so purely spiritual, it cannot pronounce judgment, or in any way rightfully interfere, either in the pulpit or church courts, in reference to any political question.” Hodge went on to say such a view said the church “is so spiritual that she cannot recommend the colonization society, and cannot condemn the slave trade.” Hodge responded with this question—“But are not these matters, the right or wrong of which may be determined by the word of God?”

Accordingly, Alan Strange summarizes Charles Hodge’s view that “only church action that is ‘purely political’—not merely an action that has some political consequences—violates the spirituality of the church.”1 Thus, it does not seem that Charles Hodge shared his son A. A. Hodge’s understanding of “cases extraordinary” in WCF 31.4 as limiting the church’s intermeddling with civil affairs only to things that “immediately concern” the church’s interests. Rather, Charles Hodge seemed to think WCF 31.4 gave the church discretion to speak even to civil affairs in extraordinary cases, so long as such issues are not “purely political.” If we follow Charles Hodge’s understanding of the spirituality of the church, then the issue of transgender surgeries is not purely political and church courts may apply the Word of God to the issue.

Fifth, the American Presbyterian Church did not follow Gordon’s interpretation of WCF 31.4. 

This is where Gordon’s argument runs into serious trouble. His theological distinction between pulpits and joint assemblies speaking to an issue is weak, so he is heavily reliant on his interpretation of “cases extraordinary” in WCF 31.4. He appeals to A. A. Hodge, who said that such cases are those “where the interests of the Church are immediately concerned.” Gordon admits Hodge could be wrong here, and I think that is the case. But what is indisputable is that the American Presbyterian Church did not follow A. A. Hodge’s interpretation in 1869 of the Confession on this point. Throughout the 19th century—even before the introduction of theological liberalism in the church—American Presbyterian joint assemblies made statements on issues that touched on “civil affairs” and things that did not “immediately concern” the interests of the church. Let me provide three examples. 

First, in 1812, the Presbyterian General Assembly adopted a petition to the U.S. Congress to stop carrying the mail on Sunday, part of what is known as the “Sabbath mails controversy” (yes, they used the plural “mails”). The Assembly stated, “your petitioners view, with deep regret, the infractions of the Lord’s day occasioned by the opening of the mail on that day, and the circumstances accompanying such opening.” The petition did argue there was an immediate effect on the church, as mail delivery disturbed Christians trying to keep the Sabbath. However, the petition also appealed to moral violations of those outside the church, stating that those carrying the mail on Sunday were neglecting public worship, that the government was encouraging work on the Lord’s Day, and that such Sabbath breaking undermined “true morality and social happiness.” A similar petition was also adopted by the 1814 Assembly, calling on the state to uphold the Sabbath on the basis that transporting and opening mail on the Lord’s Day “is injurious to the morals and civil welfare of this Nation.” The 1815 Assembly adopted a similar petition, calling on Congress to “enact such laws as you, in your wisdom, may deem necessary, for the removal of this evil.”

Second, the 1818 Presbyterian General Assembly issued a statement on slavery, which was a moderate position that opposed abolitionism but also called for an end to slavery. In what seems to be an intermeddling in civil affairs, the 1818 Assembly stated that slavery was “utterly inconsistent with the law of God” and called on all Christians to “as speedily as possible to efface this blot on our holy religion, and to obtain the complete abolition of slavery throughout Christendom.” Certainly the Assembly went beyond strictly ecclesiastical matters by recommending the support of the American Colonization Society. However, the 1818 statement also dealt with ecclesiastical matters by calling on sessions and presbyteries to prevent “the cruelty of separating husband and wife, parents and children,” as well as calling for church discipline upon a Christian who sold a slave in communion in the church “contrary to his or her will.” It also called on members “to facilitate and encourage the instruction of their slaves, in the principles and duties of the Christian religion.”2

Third, the Presbyterian General Assembly advocated temperance. Some statements only called for moderation in alcohol use, but other statements went beyond strictly ecclesiastical issues and even touched on civil affairs. The 1829 General Assembly approved the formation of temperance societies “on the principle of entire abstinence from the use of ardent spirits,” and the 1834 Assembly declared “That the traffic in ardent spirits, to be used as a drink by any people, is, in our judgment, morally wrong, and ought to be viewed as such, by the churches of Jesus Christ universally.”3

In all these cases, the Presbyterian Church adopted joint assembly statements that addressed issues that did not immediately concern the interests of the church. Rather, the Presbyterian Church spoke to moral issues that were not directly ecclesiastical and even petitioned the civil magistrate with an appeal to uphold God’s law for the good of society. While it is possible that the Presbyterian Church’s practice violated WCF 31.4, this is still precedent for the PCA’s statement against transgender surgeries. Gordon appears to be unaware of such actions by the General Assembly in the 19th century, as he referenced the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and then said, “Within the Presbyterian church at the time, strong opinions were held by individuals who were abolitionist or not, but the peace of the Presbyterian church was maintained, largely because WCF 31.4 prohibited its synods and councils from intermeddling with civil affairs that concern the commonwealth.” Of course, the 1818 Assembly spoke very directly to an issue that concerned the commonwealth, namely slavery. Thus, in order to defend his position, Gordon must argue that the American Presbyterian Church consistently violated the Confession. Yet if our choice is between A. A. Hodge’s brief statement on WCF 31.4 and the witness of the American Presbyterian Church, we should go with the latter.

Sixth, Gordon erroneously describes the Westminster Assembly as Erastian. 

Gordon says that “At the time our Confession of Faith was written, the Assembly was, at a minimum, theocratic, and many concur that it was Erastian. After all, the Assembly was called into existence by an act of Parliament to ‘vindicate’ and clarify the doctrines of the Church of England, so its very existence and whatever it did was the result of an act of Parliament, an act of the civil magistrate.” Gordon cites the original Confession that the magistrate “hath power to call synods” and “it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church” (WCF 23.3 [1647]). Gordon then says, “It is evident (and, to my knowledge, undisputed) that the American Presbyterians desired to remove the last vestiges of theocracy and Erastianism, and to separate the civil and ecclesiastical authorities.” 

This is one of the more blatant errors in Gordon’s argument, and for this point, he seems to rely on the claims of Erastianism by the American Presbyterian theologian Stuart Robinson (1814–1881). We should first note that even with the removal of WCF 23.3, the American Presbyterians still left the Larger Catechism to speak of “the church furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate” (WLC 191). Some charge this as an inconsistency in the American version, but if this is Erastianism, then it is still there.

However, we should also state that this is not Erastianism. Though there were some Erastians at the Westminster Assembly, the divines rejected the Erastian view that the civil government has ultimate authority in all matters both civil and ecclesiastical. The 1647 Confession affirmed that “magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion” (WCF 31.2 [1647]), and the magistrate may be present at such synods “to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God” (WCF 23.3 [1647]). Yet in affirming that the magistrate should preserve peace “in the Church,” suppress blasphemy and heresy, and prevent “all corruptions and abuses in worship,” the Confession also clearly stated that “The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (WCF 23.3 [1647]). This is a rejection of Erastianism, as the Westminster Assembly denied the magistrate’s authority over the church “in sacred things” (in sacris), only affirming his authority “concerning sacred things” (circa sacra). One may disagree with Westminster’s teaching on the relationship between church and state, but Westminster establishmentarianism should not be confused with Erastianism. It is not clear why Gordon raises this issue, but it is symptomatic of his misunderstanding of the proper relationship between church and state.


Gordon’s argument against the PCA’s petition to the civil magistrate to end transgender surgeries does not properly account for the church’s duty to correct the magistrate when it does not fulfill its duty. Gordon rightly holds that the church should correct the magistrate when it does not protect the church (WCF 23.3). But that is not the magistrate’s only duty. The magistrate is also to “maintain piety” (WCF 23.2), and as a superior in the commonwealth, the magistrate is to “protect” and “provide” for those under his authority in “all things necessary for soul and body” (WLC 124, 129). 

When the magistrate does not fulfill his duty, the church may intermeddle with civil affairs by way of humble petition (WCF 31.4). This is to be done in “cases extraordinary,” meaning it is not to be the ordinary practice. But the magistrate failing to outlaw bodily mutilation, including upon minors, is also not ordinary. And thus the church may exercise wisdom in petitioning the magistrate. The PCA did just that—and it has strong precedent for its actions.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 3 footnotes
  1. Alan D. Strange, Empowered Witness: Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024), 93.
  2. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America from its Organization, 1789–1820 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1847), 692–94.
  3. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church , from A. D. 1821 to A. D. 1835 Inclusive (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication), 262, 445.
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Zachary Garris

Zachary Garris serves as pastor of Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in White Rock, New Mexico. He is the author of Masculine Christianity, Honor Thy-Fathers: Recovering the Anti-Feminist Theology of the Reformers (New Christendom Press), and a forthcoming book on the Southern Presbyterians (coauthored with Sean McGowan). He writes at

2 thoughts on “Petitioning the Magistrate

  1. if Gordon’s position is correct, then no part of the Church had any business participating in the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements in the 1960s. Of course, the conservative parts of the Church by and large followed Gordon’s approach. And it seems that that would hold for today too because the conservative parts of the Church by and large want a small government when it comes to regulating businesses and large government when it comes to regulating people’s personal sexual morals. And based on the writings here, some of people’s religious practices will be regulated as well.

    The last two sentences point out the problem that the many of the conservative parts of the Church are leaping toward before looking. Large parts of the conservative Church are looking to intrude into people’s personal lives.

    Also, when it comes transgender issues, large parts of the conservative Church seem to be getting hungry for government power because they can’t tolerate living or working with people who embrace some of today’s morals. In reality, those parts of the conservative Church that are speaking out on transgender issues are doing so without being fully informed. As a result, they are putting out some misinformation or perhaps disinformation.

  2. I understand and commend this effort to address the erroneous Petition, though I call the Petition “erroneous” on account of its glorification of science.

    However , rather then spend much time on the Petition, it would be better to acknowledge the gross sinnof the PCA, lament and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for having already handed over every man, woman, and child over to the state by affirming the state’s right to decide “what is ceasar’s.”

    Pastors are “mandatory reporters” for child abuse and neglect, as the state defines the terms.

    The DASA report adopted by the PCA directs any woman to the state to be her Lord Protector if she suffers abuse, as the state defines it, or as she is convinced of it, and tells church officers to accept and apply the recommendations of the Report as it is supposedly a faithful ethical outworking of the Westminster Standards. Never mind that the Westminster Standards and their pan-generational adoption by clergy and leity in observance of the 5th commandment is precisely designed to prevent us “confessing too much” or confessing wrongly while under duress from the magistrate.

    When the CDC suggests people stay home, the church calls off the weekly holy convocation.

    And, the upcoming GA will take up the issue of whether church officer candidates will be required to undergo or pass a background check prior to or as a condition of, installation as leaders of Christ’s church.

    Is the church even a church if she pretty much always acts like the state is bigger than God?

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