Chapter 23

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i. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers.

ii. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.

iii. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

iv. It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted, much less hath the pope any power and jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and, least of all, to deprive them of their dominions, or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretense whatsoever.

Chapter twenty-three of the Westminster Confession of Faith is entitled "Of the Civil Magistrates." This chapter addresses the important relation between God, Christians, and civil governments and rulers. The first paragraph begins with the bold statement that God is "the supreme Lord and King of all the world." Our world today is filled with diverse political structures, which are often in competition and even conflict. There are Democracies, dictators, Communist states, Muslim nations, etc., yet the Confession teaches us that God is Lord over the entire world and in fact is the one who has ordained civil rulers to govern over us. God also has given certain responsibilities to these rulers. They are to encourage good and punish evil (23:1) and maintain piety, justice, and peace (23:2). 

Chapter 23:3, however, demonstrates a significant historical difference between Presbyterianism in seventeenth-century Britain, and American Presbyterian in the twenty-first century. The Confession was written during a time when mostly monarchs ruled over Europe under the broad canopy of Christendom. These monarchs, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, believed that God had appointed them and given them authority to rule over the nations entrusted to them.  Part of their responsibility was to insure that Christianity was protected and promulgated within their borders; and other false religions were refuted and driven out. Reflecting this, the original seventeen-century version of WCF 23:3 reads:
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: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.
In the course of history, Presbyterianism formally began in the new world (North America) in 1706 with the establishment of the first presbytery in Philadelphia. By the end of the century America was formed as a new nation and various denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, separated from the ecclesiastical authorities in Europe. In 1789 the first General Assembly convened in Philadelphia and formed the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. At this assembly chapter twenty-three of the Westminster Confession of Faith was revised, reflecting now the new religious politics that intended to keep distinct the role of the state and the church. WCF 23:3 was revised to read:
Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.
This revision reflects the principles of an early American nation established without an official state church, like the Church of England. Instead, this paragraph charges the civil magistrates to not give any preference to any Christian denomination. Furthermore, the responsibility of the civil magistrate is to protect all their citizens regardless of their religious affiliation. This is quite different then the seventeenth-century version that instructs civil magistrates to suppress all blasphemies, heresies, abuses, and corruptions against Christianity. While monumental historical events no doubt contributed to this revision, there are sound Biblical reasons as well, which space does not allow us to explore in this space.

Finally, 23:4 instructs us to pray for and submit to our civil magistrates. This is necessary for our society's well being. Again, God ordains our civil magistrates and we are to obey them as they carry out the responsibilities given to them. 

Dr. Jeffrey Jue is Associate Professor of Church History and the Stephen Tong Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.
Posted June 17, 2013 @ 8:50 PM by Jeffrey Jue
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