Properly Defining the Role of Civil Rulers

A Continuing Series on Resisting Injustice

Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2.

“Hear the word of the LORD, O house of David! Thus says the LORD: ‘Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed, lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of your evil deeds.’” – Jeremiah 21:11-12.

In this series, we have already examined how taking a covenantal approach to our relationship with God and each other would help address the church’s failure to engage the widespread government injustice we see in America today. Today we’ll examine a second principle to improve the church’s response to injustice: defining the role of civil rulers using all of scripture.

Perhaps the most infamous actions by many churches in recent years was their response to the COVID-19 lockdowns. When the lockdowns were ordered in Texas, I was glad that our church was shut down for about as short a time as any other church in town. But I was disappointed that there was little public discussion about what limits there might be on our Romans 13 obligation to honor and obey the government’s order to shut down gathered worship. Fortunately, in Texas the duration of the lockdowns was relatively short-lived. Such was not the case in California, where many churches stayed locked down for months, but John MacArthur made national headlines by placing the authority of Christ over that of civil rulers and reopening Grace Church.

The question all Christians had to deal with during this time was how we were to obey God’s commandments on authority contained primarily in two passages: Romans 13:1ff (Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God …) and 1 Peter 2:13ff (Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution …). 

Like most other churches, Grace Church originally stopped gathering for worship, citing Romans 13. But as time went on, they began to recognize the injustice of lock-downs based on questionable medical rationale and decisions by rulers to declare as “essential” and thus allowed to stay open entities such as big box retailers, liquor stores, and abortion clinics, but not churches, hair salons, and many other small businesses. As a result, Grace Church’s elders delved into scripture and determined “we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings.” In justifying this, they wrote:

while civil government is invested with divine authority to rule the state, neither of those texts (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the church. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. … God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.

The conclusions that they and others came to on the authority of civil government during the lockdowns are nothing new. Martin Luther was confronted with many similar questions when Protestant German princes approached him, seeking his blessing for a defensive alliance should the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V attack any of them because of their Protestant faith. Initially, Luther refused, citing Romans 13. But the princes argued that they too were governing authorities, and under Romans 13 they, as lesser magistrates, had the responsibility to protect their subjects if the emperor, a greater magistrate, violated the law or his duty to his subjects. Luther was persuaded, and thus was born the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates, a key tenant of what now might be called Protestant Resistance Theory (see Glenn Sunshine, Slaying Leviathan).

The church seems to have lost sight of resistance theory over the years, but it is being revived today in the face of the rapid increase of the state’s usurpation of God’s sovereignty and persecution of Christians.

MacArthur’s church grasped an important insight of resistance theory, God’s establishment of three different institutions that have been delegated authority to rule in human society: family government, church government, and civil government. The responsibilities of these three governments might be described this way: the family is the ministry of welfare, education, and commerce, the civil government is the ministry of justice, and the church is the ministry of Word and sacrament. Additionally, God has also given to individuals the authority and responsibility to govern their lives under the authority of these institutions.

While the spheres of authority of these governments overlap and require cooperation, they are also separate in many areas and the boundaries must be respected, which in turn limits the authority of each government. Determining those boundaries through a survey of scripture should be one of the great tasks of the church today, yet only a few seem to be doing this. One result of this is that the civil government has not only overrun the boundaries of the other two spheres of institutional government, but also the biblical (and constitutional) sphere of self-government. Yet one does not have to look too hard in the Bible to find the roles of these governments and limitations on them. 

Since our concern is about the injustice of civil government, we will focus here on what the Bible tells us about civil rulers. They “are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” They are “God’s servant for []our good. And are to “carr[y] out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13). In other words, they are to protect law-abiding citizens “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” (U.S. Oath of Office). Luther explains these duties in this way, “A prince should carry out his work in four ways 1) faithfully and prayerful towards God 2) towards his people in love and with Christian subservience 3) towards his council and lords with personal reflection and independent judgements and 4) against criminals with cautious, but firm strictness.” Similarly, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin says that civil rulers are “assigned, so long as we live among men, to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church, to adapt our conduct to human society, to form our manners to civil justice, to conciliate us to each other, to cherish common peace and tranquility.” Many, including some in the church, would recoil at these job descriptions of civil rulers as violations of the concept of separation of church and state. But given that a civil ruler is God’s servant who is required to “read [scripture] all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 17:19), it is difficult to understand why rulers should not be expected to perform these duties. After all, there is no separation of God and the state He created.

Finally, there are also things civil rulers are not to do. A civil ruler “must not acquire many horses for himself, [or] many wives for himself, … nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold” (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). Neither shall he “oppress [his] neighbor or rob him,” do “injustice in court,” or “be partial to the poor or defer to the great” (Lev. 19:13-15). It does not take a great imagination for one to recognize the injustice being done by our civil rulers today in violation of these standards of office.

However, many in the church miss the fact that in many instances the civil ruler has become an oppressor rather than a deliverer (Jeremiah 21:12) because they hang too much of their theology of civil government on Romans 13:1, failing to dig deep into scripture, particularly back into the Old Testament. 2 Timothy 3:16–17 tell us that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Certainly a nation filled with civil rulers trained and reproved under Paul’s guidance to Timothy would be a nation of greater justice than is the United States today.

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Bill Peacock

Bill Peacock has worked in and around Texas government for more than 30 years combining his passions for theology, economics, and public policy. He writes on these issues at

6 thoughts on “Properly Defining the Role of Civil Rulers

  1. Perhaps the above article is too reflective of the orientation that religiously conservative American Christianity has today.. When it talks about injustices, the above article’s primary concern is whether the government is requiring from the Church. In the good old days of the 1960s, when the Church was concerned about social injustices, it was concerned about what was happening to a much wider audience. It was concerned about racial injustice, economic injustice, war, and so forth. In other words, the Church was concerned with the injustices suffered by far more than some of its own members.

    Like it or not, the government is to hold the Church accountable for practices that harm or endanger people just as the government is to do the same with parents. The government will not be infallible in carrying out its job. But note that the government is concerned about much more than the Church is and that reflects poorly on the Gospel.

    Perhaps with the push for the reestablishment of Christendom, a certain narcissism has infected the Church. I guess paranoia isn’t the only thing that strikes deep.

    1. Two paragraphs of overly general unsupported assertions followed by a paragraph of ad hominem.

      1. Gordon,
        Actually, the assertions in the first paragraph are based on the statements made in the above article. In addition, you need to understand the definition of ad hominem. What I wrote is not even close to that.

        The second paragraph is simple recounting the responsibilities of the government toward any religious faith, including Christianity. The government is responsible for protecting people from both domestic and foreign threats and those threats are defined by the laws that the government has passed. That idea is hardly unsubstantiated. Nor is restating that idea an ad hominem attack. If a religious faith or institution threatens people as stated in laws of our nation, then it is the government’s legal duty in step in.

        Finally, my comments about the good old days refers to the 1960s. While some churches, particularly conservative ones in the South, defended Jim Crow, others participated in activism that challenged racism, war, and other injustices. Not too long ago, both the PCA and the SBC officially apologized for its support of racism and its resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. I can provide documentation for that claim if you want.

        1. I never claimed your comments about the government were an ad hominem. I claimed your last paragraph in which you call people who you disagree with narcissists is an ad hominem. Not sure how you don’t get that.

          As for the rest of your claims, they continue to be overly generalized assertions that inform us how you feel about things but otherwise don’t really add much to the discussion.

          1. Gordon,
            I didn’t say that those who disagreed with me were narcissists. I did say, based on the first paragraph where the injustices focused were those “suffered” by the Church. In contrast to that, we had churches in the 1960s which opposed social injustices that violated more than just those in the Church, it also violated the equal rights of unbelievers. The scope of the injustices being challenged by parts of the Church back then was much wider than the scope of the injustices listed in the above article. That is why I wrote that with a renewed interest in Christendom, narcissism has infected the Church.

            That statement, in and of itself, does not accuse everyone who favors Christendom of being narcissistic. Nor does it accuse those who disagree with me as narcissistic. What it does say is that the focus of talking about injustices only in terms of how those in the Church are being affected while not mentioning the injustices that those outside the Church suffer from indicates narcissism. It indicates a kind of awareness about oneself or group with no awareness of the plight of others.

            It seems that you focused on the statement about narcissism and overlooked or forgot the context in which it was mentioned.

            BTW, I never meant to say or imply that you claimed that comments about the government were ad hominem attacks. You understood it that way because I wasn’t clear in what I wrote.

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