Against Separation from Impure Civil Governments

“Now have I given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant… and all nations shall serve him, and his son, and his son’s son… And it shall come to pass that the nation and kingdom which will not serve the same Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, that nation will I punish, says the Lord… therefore bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live.”

Jer. 27:5-8,12

“Thou, O king [Nebuchadnezzar] art a king of kings: for the God of heaven has given thee a kingdom, power and strength and glory.  And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath He given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler of them all.”

Dan. 2:37-38




Difference of Religion does Not Void the Magistrate’s Authority



Order of Contents


Early Church
Scottish Covenanters
.      Rutherford: Nero
English Puritans

Unlawful Origins of Civil Governments?
Magistrate does Not Swear the SL&C?




The question that this page addresses is not:

Whether we are to give unlimited obedience to the civil government (which is unBiblical),

or whether we may lawfully dissent and resist specific unlawful and ungodly laws or practices of a legitimate government (which is a Biblical duty, see Resistance to Tyrrany),

or that there are such instances of both legitimate and illegitimate civil revolutions and take-overs through history and the Bible,

or that the civil government is accountable to, and is to enforce, God’s Moral Law, confess the true religion in its administration and establish it in its civil province (this is the Westminster doctrine of the Establishment Principle, which to some extent was the case in many of the State constitutions in early America),

or that a specific nation can become so corrupt, illegal and habitually tyrannical that it becomes an enemy of God and forfeits all the God-given authority it once had and can be thrown off by the common consent of the people (as Samuel Rutherford argued in Lex Rex);

Rather, the  question at hand is whether non-Christian civil governments, or civil governments not fully Christian and Reformed, or not socially covenanted to God, or otherwise, have legitimate authority from God that must be obeyed in their lawful injunctions (whether the gospel be in the land or not; whether the people be Christian, or not)?

Is this so, or may the authority of any impure civil government be wholly cast off altogether as no legitimate government at all (though one may choose to keep in-line with its laws for pragmatic reasons)?

If the latter is affirmed, that non-Christian civil governments do not have legitimate authority, then there are virtually no legitimate civil governments in the world today.

On the other hand, the Biblical, Westminster, and majority, historic reformed viewpoint, that impure, non-Christian civil governments and governors bear legitimate authority and are to be obeyed unto God in their lawful injunctions, is argued fully from Scripture and Reformed history by Adam Gib (1774, 56 pp.), a Scottish Secession minister, below.

For a shorter, easier to read introduction to some of the historical and theological questions, see the contemporary article by Mark Hausam.  To see a demonstration that impure civil governments do have legitiamte rule according to the view and practice of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish covenanters up through the mid-1600’s, before the onset of Cameronianism in the 1680’s, see the lengthy quote by Thomas Boston at the bottom of the page.

Please enjoy the rest of the articles and quotes as well, and pray that the Lord would give us, and his people throughout the world, a spirit of understanding.



The Westminster Confession of Faith  23.4

“It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates,[1]  to honor their persons,[2] to pay them tribute and other dues,[3] to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority for conscience’ sake.[4]  Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to him:[5] from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted [6]…

[1] 1 Tim. 2:1,2; [2] 1 Pet. 2:17; [3] Rom. 13:6,7; [4] Rom. 13:5; Tit. 3:1; [5] 1 Pet. 2:13,14,16; [6] Rom. 13:1; 1 Kings 2:35Acts 25:9-11; 2 Pet. 2:1,10,11; Jude 8-11.”





Rouse, Francis – The Bounds and Bonds of Public Obedience, or, A Vindication of our Lawful Submission to the Present Government, or to a government supposed unlawful, but commanding lawful things likewise how such an obedience is consistent with our Solemn League and Covenant: in all which a reply is made to the three answers of the two demurrers, and to the author of The Grand Case of Conscience, who profess themselves impassionate Presbyterians  (1649)  67 pp.

Rouse was a Westminster divine.



Gib, Adam – ‘Concerning the Authority of, & Subjection to the present Civil Government’  being Step 5, Part 2 of vol. 1 of The Present Truth: a Display of the Secession Testimony (1774), pp. 289-345

Gib was a leading minister of the Scottish Secession Church, who here argues at length against the civil separatists of his day from both Scripture and from ‘the principles of all the Reformed Churches’.

Part 1 (vol. 1, pp. 278-289), coming immediately before the recommended section, spells out at length the numerous impurities, sins and evils that the Scottish civil government of his day partook of, yet this was no cause for separation from it.

Note that Gib fully upholds the principles and actions of the covenanters during the Killing Times of 1660-1688, while recognizing that Biblical principles apply differently to different, peaceful, historical circumstances.

Note that this section puts forward the Bible’s teaching on this subject.  For the Seceders’ arguments regarding constitutional law in Scotland, contra the Reformed Presbyterians, see pp. 274-278 of the same volume, which comes immediately before this section.


Table of Contents

Part 2 – Concerning the Authority of, and subjection to, the Present Civil Government, vol. 1, p. 289

Section 1 – The True State of the Question, p. 290

Section 2 – A Defense of the Presbytery’s Judgment Concerning the Present Civil Government, p. 292

Article 1 – The Agreeableness of the Presbytery’s Judgment to the Plain Tenor of Scripture, p. 292

Proof 1 – From Scripture Precepts, Prov. 24:24; Eccl. 10:4; Lk. 20:25; Rom. 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; From the Conformity of the Precepts Insisted on, with other Scriptures, p. 293

Proof 2 – From Scripture Example, p. 325

Proof 3 – From the Perpetual Obligation and Imitableness of the Precepts and Examples Insisted on, p. 332

Article 2 – The Agreeableness of the Presbytery’s Judgment to the Principles of all the Reformed Churches, p. 335

Proof 1 – From the Principles of the Foreign Reformed Churches, p. 336

Proof 2 – From the Principles of the Church of Scotland, p. 337

Argument 1 – From the Reformation from Popery [1560], p. 337

Argument 2 – From the Reformation from Prelacy [1638], p. 338

Argument 3 – From the Late Period of Persecution [1660-1688], p. 340

Section 3 – The Conclusion of the Whole, p. 342


Bruce, Archibald – A Brief Statement & Declaration of the Genuine Principles of Seceders, respecting Civil Government, the Duty of Subjects, & National Reformation  (1799)  105 pp.

“…defends the Secession Church’s advocacy of parliamentary reform as consistent with subjection to lawful civil authority.” – Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology



Fletcher, William

The Scripture-Loyalist: Containing a Vindication of Obedience to the Present [Scottish] Civil Government, in things Lawful…  a postscript: containing Twelve Queries proposed to the serious consideration of the Reformed Presbytery  (1806)  80 pp.

Fletcher was a minister in the Secession Church of Scotland.

The Scripture-Loyalist Defended… in a Letter to William Steven  (1795)  107 pp.

Steven, a minister in the Reformed Presbytery, had responded to the Scripture-Loyalist’s 12 questions with Answers to 12 Queries.  Here is Fletcher’s reply to those Answers.



Hausam, Mark – Against Cameronianism, pt. 1, 2  (2012)  28 & 18 paragraphs

Cameronianism teaches that if a civil government is not fully Christian then it does not have lawful authority from God.  The Solemn League and Covenant, which rightly advocates for the Christian reform of civil government, is sometimes used as a pretence for this view.  Cameronianism came from the covenanter Richard Cameron in Scotland in the 1680’s and is currently held by Still Waters Revival as well as some other Reformed Presbyterians.

Be aware that Hausam wrote this article when he was a Protestant; he is currently a Roman Catholic.



Early Church Fathers

As related by George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, ch. 7, p. 114

“Read to this purpose Augustine, The City of God, Book 5, ch. 21, where he says that the same God gave a kingdom and authority both to the Romans, Assyrians, Persians, Hebrews; and that He who gave the kingdom to the best emperors, gave it also to the worst emperors; yea, he that gave it to Constantine, a Christian, did also give it, says he, to Julian the apostate.

Turtullian, Apology, ch. 30, speaking of the heathen emperors of that time, says, that they were from God, a quo sunt secundi, post quem primi ante omnes: that He who had made them men, did also make them emperors, and give them their power.  Ibid., ch. 33, Ut merito dixerim noster est magis Caesar, ut a nostra Deo constitutus: So that I may justly say, Caesar is rather ours, as being placed by our God, says he, speaking to the pagans in the behalf of Christians.”



The Reformers  (in chronological order)

Ulrich Zwingli  1525

Zwingli is important as he was the first reformer from the reformed wing of the Reformation, and including the Lutherans, was the 3rd after Luther and Melancthon (who both upheld that non-Christian magistrates have lawful authority).  Zwingli’s systematic theology, Commentary on True and False Religion, was the most influential reformed systematic theology up until Calvin’s Institutes (last edition: 1564).  Zwingli’s chapter on ‘Magisterial Office’, argues against the anabaptists that Christians can be civil magistrates.  This, of course, assumes, as is more than clear from the chapter, that the non-Christian rulers of the day were lawful magistrates.  

Commentary on True and False Religion, pp. 313

Rulers are set over us for the good of all.  Therefore let those who rule to the ill of all see what right they have to boast in the name of Christ, seeing that they not only, like thieves and robbers, plunder the goods of all, but, like plagues, also waste their bodies.  But they are ministers of God all the same, just as Satan is a minister of God, who everywhere opposes, deceives, and destroys.


Henry Bullinger  

Bullinger followed Zwingli at Zurich, Switzerland.  According to the puritan scholar Edmund Morgan, ‘The following passages from this work, concerning the functions of government, were probably acceptable to most English Protestants, Puritan and Anglican alike.’

The Decades, 1570’s-1580’s, as quoted in, ed. Edmund Morgan, Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794pp. 18-19

And hereupon the question is wont to be demanded:  Whether an evil, that is, a tyrannical magistrate be of God or no?  To this I answer, that God is the author of good and not of evil.  For God by nature is good, and all his purposes are good, being directed to the health and preservation, not to the destruction, of us men.  Therefore the good and healthful ordaining of the magistrate, without all doubt, is of God Himself, who is the author of all goodness.

But here it is requisite, that we make a difference between the office which is the good ordinance of God, and the evil person that does not rightly execute that good office.  If therefore in the magistrate evil be found, and not the good for which he was ordained, that comes of other causes, and the fault thereof is in the men and persons, which neglect God and corrupt the ordinance of God, and not in God, nor in his ordinance: for either the evil prince, seduced by the devil, corrupts the ways of God, and by his own fault and naughtiness transgresses God’s ordinance, so far, that he does worthily deserve the name of devilish power, and not divine authority;-(we have an example hereof in the magistrate of Jerusalem: for although he were able to refer the beginning of his power by degrees unto Moses, and so unto God Himself who did ordain it; yet, for because he takes the Savior in the garden and binds Him, to his servants it is said, ‘Ye are come out as it were to a thief with swords and staves; when I was daily with you in the temple, ye stretched not forth your hands against me; but this is even your hour, and the power of darkness.’  Lo, here he calls the ordinary magistrate the power of the devil, when he abuses his power.  What could be more evidently spoken?  But here ye must mark, that the reproach was in the person, and not in the office.

Likewise also the Roman empire was ordained by God, as by the visions of Daniel it is clearly evident: and yet, when Nero, not without God’s ordinance, bare the sway in the empire, whatsoever he did as king and emperor, contrary to the office of a good king, that did he not of God, but of the devil…


John Calvin  1536

Prefatory Letter before the Institutes of the Christian Religion, to the Roman Catholic King of France, 1536, trans. by Henry Beveridge


‘Prefatory Address to his Most Christian Majesty, the Most Mighty and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French, his Sovereign;

John Calvin prays peace and salvation in Christ…’



Most illustrious King, may the Lord, the King of kings, establish your throne in righteousness, and your sceptre in equity.


The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Ch. 20

“24.  But as we have hitherto described the magistrate who truly is what he is called-viz. the father of his country, and (as the Poet speaks) the pastor of the people, the guardian of peace, the president of justice, the vindicator of innocence, he is justly to be deemed a madman who disapproves of such authority.  And since in almost all ages we see that some princes, careless about all their duties on which they ought to have been intent, live, without solicitude, in luxurious sloth; others, bent on their own interest, venally prostitute all rights, privileges, judgments, and enactments; others pillage poor people of their money, and afterwards squander it in insane largesses; others act as mere robbers, pillaging houses, violating matrons, and slaying the innocent; many cannot be persuaded to recognize such persons for princes, whose command, as far as lawful, they are bound to obey.  

For while in this unworthy conduct, and among atrocities so alien, not only from the duty of the magistrate, but also of the man, they behold no appearance of the image of God, which ought to be conspicuous in the magistrate, while they see not a vestige of that minister of God, who was appointed to be a praise to the good and a terror to the bad, they cannot recognize the ruler whose dignity and authority Scripture recommends to us.  And, undoubtedly, the natural feeling of the human mind has always been not less to assail tyrants with hatred and execration, than to look up to just kings with love and veneration.

25.  But if we have respect to the Word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes.  For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, He at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but Him.  Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity.  Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power.  I will not proceed further without subjoining some distinct passages to this effect (Job 34:30; Hos. 13:11; Isa. 3:4; 10:5; Deut. 28:29).  

We need not labor to prove that an impious king is a mark of the Lord’s anger, since I presume no one will deny it, and that this is not less true of a king than of a robber who plunders your goods, an adulterer who defiles your bed, and an assassin who aims at your life, since all such calamities are classed by Scripture among the curses of God.  But let us insist at greater length in proving what does not so easily fall in with the views of men, that even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honor, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord by his Word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgment, and that, accordingly, in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honor and reverence as the best of kings.

27.  …If we constantly keep before our eyes and minds the fact, that even the most iniquitous kings are appointed by the same decree which establishes all regal authority, we will never entertain the seditious thought, that a king is to be treated according to this deserts, and that we are not bound to act the part of good subjects to him who does not in his turn act the part of a king to us.

29.  This feeling of reverence, and even of piety, we owe to the utmost to all our rulers, be their characters what they may.  This I repeat the oftener, that we may learn not to consider the individuals themselves, but hold it to be enough that by the will of the Lord they sustain a character on which he has impressed and engraven inviolable majesty.  But rulers, you will say, owe mutual duties to those under them.  This I have already confessed.  But if from this you conclude that obedience is to be returned to none but just governors, you reason absurdly.”


The French Confession  1559

Synodicon in Gallia Reformata, vol. 1, p. xv

Article XL

“Therefore we affirm that obedience must be yielded unto their laws and statutes, that tribute must be paid them, taxes and all other duties, and that we must bear the yoke of subjection with a free and willing mind, although the magistrates by infidels, so that the sovereign government of God be preserved entire.  Wherefore we detest all those who do reject the higher powers…”



The Scottish Covenanters

John Knox & the Church of Scotland, circa 1560

As quoted and related by Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, p. 146

12.  The congregation [of the ministers of Scotland during the Reformation, circa 1560], in a letter to the nobility, ([John] Knox, History of Scotland, l. 2) say, ‘There is great difference between the authority, which is God’s ordinance, and the persons of those who are placed in authority.  The authority and God’s ordinance can never do wrong, for it commands that vice and wicked men be punished, and virtue, with virtuous men and just, be maintained; but the corrupt person placed in this authority may offend, and most commonly do contrary to this authority.  And is then the corruption of man to be followed, by reason that it is clothed with the name of authority?’  And they [Knox and the ministers of Scotland, circa 1560] give instance in Pharoah [a pagan] and Saul, who were lawful kings and yet corrupt men.  And certainly the man and the divine authority differ, as the subject and the accident,-as that which is under a law and can offend God, and that which is neither capable of law nor sin.


The Scottish Confession of Faith, 1560

Ch. 24

We confess and acknowledge empires, kingdoms, dominions, and cities to be distinguished and ordained by God: the powers and authorities in the same (be it of emperors in their empires, of kings in their realms, dukes and princes in their dominions, or of other magistrates in free cities) to be God’s holy ordinance, ordained for manifestation of his own glory, and for the singular profit and commodity of mankind. (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-14)  So that whosoever goes about to take away or to confound the whole state of civil policies, now long established; we affirm the same men not only to be enemies to mankind, but also wickedly to fight against God’s expressed will. (Rom. 13:2)

We further confess and acknowledge, that such persons as are placed in authority are to be loved, honoured, feared, and held in most reverent estimation (Rom. 13:7; 1 Pet. 2:17) because they are the lieutenants of God, in whose sessions God Himself does sit and judge (Ps. 82:1) (yea even the judges and princes themselves), to whom by God is given the sword, to the praise and defense of good men, and to revenge and punish all open malefactors. (1 Pet. 2:14)… 

And therefore we confess and avow, that such as resist the supreme power (doing that thing which appertains to his charge), do resist God’s ordinance, and therefore cannot be guiltless.  And further, we affirm that whosoever denies unto them their aid, counsel and comfort, while the princes and rulers vigilantly travail in the execution of their office, that the same men deny their help, support and counsel to God, who, by the presence of his lieutenant, craves it of them



Samuel Rutherford  1644

Lex Rex [The Law is King]

Question 29, p. 145

5.  …therefore, this reason in the text [Rom. 13] will prove that the man who is king, in so far as he does those things that are against his office [sinful], may be resisted; and that in these we are not to be subject, but only are we to be subject to his power and royal authority, in abstracto [in office], in so far as, according to his office, he is not a terror to good works, but evil.


p. 146

12.  The congregation [of the ministers of Scotland during the Reformation, circa 1560], in a letter to the nobility, ([John] Knox, History of Scotland, l. 2) say, ‘There is great difference between the authority, which is God’s ordinance, and the persons of those who are placed in authority.  The authority and God’s ordinance can never do wrong, for it commands that vice and wicked men be punished, and virtue, with virtuous men and just, be maintained; but the corrupt person placed in this authority may offend, and most commonly do contrary to this authority.  And is then the corruption of man to be followed, by reason that it is clothed with the name of authority?’  And they [Knox and the ministers of Scotland, circa 1560] give instance in Pharoah [a pagan] and Saul, who were lawful kings and yet corrupt men.  And certainly the man and the divine authority differ, as the subject and the accident,-as that which is under a law and can offend God, and that which is neither capable of law nor sin.


p. 148

5.  ‘The persons are proposed (Rom. 13) to be the object of our obedience,’ says Dr. Ferne [an erastian royalist].  This is very true: but he is ignorant of our mind in expounding the word ‘person’.  We never meant that fear, honor, royalty, tribute, must be due to the abstracted accident of kingly authority [a righteous rule that a bad king may not be exercising], and not to the man who is king; nor is it our meaning that royalty, in abstracto is crowned king [the office apart from the particular king], and is anointed, but that the person is crowned and anointed.

But, again, by a ‘person’  we mean nothing less than the man Nero wasting Rome, burning, crucifying Paul and torturing Christians; and that we owe subjection to Nero and to his person in concreto [materially as a specific man], as [distinguished from and compared] to God’s ordinance, God’s minister, God’s sword-bearer, in that notion of a ‘person’, is that only that we deny.

Nay, in that Nero, in concreto [as a man, and that sinful], to us is no power ordained of God, no minister of God, but a minister of the devil, and Satan’s armour-bearer, and therefore we owe not fear, honor, subjection, or tribute to the person of Nero.  But the person thus far is the object of our obedience, that fear, honor, subjection and tribute must be due to the man in concreto [in particular], to his person who is prince, but not because he is a man, or a person simply, or a sword-bearer of papists, but for his office,- for that eminent place of royal dignity that God has conferred on his personso here we honor and submit to the man who is king, not because he is a man, that were treason; not because he uses his sword against the church, that were impiety; but because of his royal dignity, and because he uses it for the Lord.

Subjection is due to Nero as an emperor, but not any subjection is due to him in the burning of Rome, and torturing of Christians…  Because some believed Christians were free from the yoke of magistracy, and that the dignity itself was unlawful; and because (ch. 12) he had set down the lawful church rulers, and in this and the following chapter, the duties of brotherly love of one toward another; so here ([Rom.] ch. 13) he teaches that all magistrates, suppose [they be] heathen, are to be obeyed and submitted unto in all things, so far as they are ministers of God.


George Gillespie  1646

Gillespie was a Westminster divine.  Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 2nd Book, ch. 7, pp. 107-8

My arguments against the derivation of magistracy from Jesus Christ as Mediator, and against the magistrate’s holding of his office of and under Christ as Mediator, are these:

First, this doctrine does evacuate and nullify the civil authority and government of all heathen or pagan magistrates; for which way was the authority of government derived from Christ, and from Him as Mediator, to a pagan magistrate or emperor?   If he has not his power from Christ, as Mediator, then He is but a usurper, and has no just title to reign, according to their principles,  who hold that all government, even civil, is given to Christ, and to Him as Mediator.  Mr. Hussey, forsooth, does learnedly yield the argument, and answers, p. 20, that not only it is a sin to be a heathen, but the government of a heathen is sinful and unlawful; for which he gives this reason, ‘Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.’  He might as well conclude, in that sense, that the best virtues of the heathen were sin, because not of faith; that is, accidentally sin, in respect of the end, or manner of doing, not materially, or in their own nature.  Upon the same reason he must conclude, that the government of a heathen magistrate per se [in of itself], simpliciter [essentially], et ex natura sua [out of its nature], unlawful and sinful?  Whether has he any just right or title to government and magistracy?  If his title to civil magistracy be just, and if his government be in itself materially and substantially lawful, then he must have a commission from Christ, and from him as Mediator.  This I suppose cannot be Mr. Hussey’s sense, for he has not answered one syllable to the argument, tending that way.  

But if the government of a heathen magistrate be in itself materially, substantially, and in the nature of the tenure, sinful and unlawful, so that, as long as he remains a heathen, he has no real right or true title to government, but only a pretended and usurped title (which must needs be Mr. Hussey’s sense, if he has answered anything at all to my argument), then he goes cross not only to the holy men of God in the Old Testament, who honored heathen princes, and were subject to them as to lawful magistrates, but also to the doctrine of Jesus Christ, who taught his disciples to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; and of the apostles, who in their time, exhorted the churches to be subject even to the heathen magistrates (for they had no other at that time), to obey them, to pray for them, Rom. 13; Titus 3:1; 1 Tim. 2:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-17.  

It is justly condemned as one of the errors of the Anabaptists, that a heathen magistrate is not to be acknowledged as a lawful magistrate, or as being from God.  See Gerhard, Loc. Com., tom. 6, p. 498-9; P. Hinkelmannus, de Anabaptismo, disp. 13, cap. 1  The Scriptures now cited are so clear, that when Mr. Hussey says of the heathen magistrate, ‘Let Baal plead for himself,’ he might as well have said, that Christ and his apostles pleaded for Baal.  They that plead for the authority of a heathen magistrate do not plead for Baal, but for God, and for his ordinance; ‘For the powers that be are ordained of God,’ says Paul, speaking even of the heathen magistrates, Rom. 13:1.  But what will Mr. Hussey say, if his great master Erastus be found a pleader for Baal as much as I am?  Confirm. Thes., lib. 3, cap. 2, p. 184, speaking of the heathen and unbelieving magistrates, before whom the Corinthians went to law one against another, he says, [contains Latin], Is not the ungodly magistrate also preferred by God, that he may defend any of his subjects from injury and violence.  Yea, the Scriptures afore touched are so clear in this point, that Gamachaeus, in Primam Secundae, quest. 4-5, cap. 33, though he hold that by human and ecclesiastical right, pagan princes lose their dominion and authority over their subjects when their subjects turn Christians, yet he acknowledges that they still retain their former jurisdiction over those subjects by the law of God and nature.  Surely one might as well say, that heathen parents are unlawful, and heathen husbands are unlawful (all which were contrary to the Word of God), as to say that heathen magistrates are unlawful.  Take the instance in parents; for all lawful magistrates are fathers by the fifth commandment: Does the paternity of a heathen father differre specie [differ in kind] from the paternity of a Christian father?  are they not both lawful parents, being made such by God and nature?  are not their children bound to honor them, and be subject to them, and obey them in things lawful?  The paternity is the same in se [in principle], but different modaliter [in way], that I may borrow a distinction from Mr. Hussey.  The Christian father is sanctified, and qualified to do service to Jesus Christ, as a father, in educating his children Christianly, which a heathen father cannot do. 

The heathen magistrate and the Christian magistrate are both lawful magistrates, being made such by God and nature, or by election of people.  They are both of them to be honored, submitted unto, and obeyed; they are both of them the ministers of God for the good to their people; their power is the same in actu signato [the intent of power], though not in actu exercito [in how the power is actually exercised in specific acts].  The heathen magistrate may do, and ought to do, what the Christian magistrate does; but the Christian magistrate is fitted, qualified, enabled, and sanctified to glorify and serve Jesus Christ as a magistrate, which the heathen magistrate is not.


Alexander Nisbet  1658

An Exposition of 1st and 2nd Peter, on 1 Pet. 2:13-14, p. 90-1  Banner of truth edition

Hence learn,  (1.) the Lord is graciously pleased to call for respect at the hands of His people, toward those who carry no respect to Him, that thereby He may either gain such to his obedience or heap coals of fire upon their heads: for He is here calling for submission and obedience unto heathen magistrates at the hands of his people, Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man.

(4.)  This dutiful and submissive carriage of Christians towards wicked magistrates is a special means of commending religion to the profane, and gaining of them to glorify God, who use most unjustly to represent Christ’s subjects as enemies to civil magistrates, Acts 24:5; for this exhortation may be conceived to be pressed as a special means of attaining to that honest conversation among the Gentiles, who spoke against Christians as evil doers, especially in the matter of their loyalty, whereunto the apostle did exhort in the former verse; Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man.


David Dickson    1662, 1684

This work is important as it was the first commentary on the Westminster Confession, and from its same generation.  When it was printed is significant.  Dickson died in 1662, when the anti-presbyterian Charles II was king.  The work was first printed (in a pirated form) in 1684, in the midst of the Killing Times.  While not seeking to draw too much from this, yet it does give support that the generation of Westminster divines did not understand their Confession’s teaching on upholding the validity of the rule of non-Christians, or those of different religions, as only applicable to non-Christian, non-covenanted nations, but rather that it applied to their own Christian and covenanted nations of their time (England and Scotland).

Truth’s Victory Over Error: a Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, Banner of Truth edition, p. 175-6

Ch. 23, ‘Of the Civil Magistrate’, Question 7

Does infidelity or difference of religion make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority?  No.

Does it free the people from their due obedience to him?  No (1 Pet. 2:13-15; Rom. 13:1-4; Titus 3:1).

Well then, do not the Papists, Anabaptists and others err who maintain that subjects ought not to suffer a king that’s an infidel, or obey that king in his just commands that differs from them in religion?  Yes.

By what reasons are they confuted?

1.  Because we are commanded to submit ourselves to every ordinance of man (1 Pet. 2:13).  Namely, in all that they command us, if it be not contrary to God and his command.  Otherwise (according to Acts 4:19) it is better to obey God than man.  And it is said ‘for the Lord’s sake’, that is, because it is God’s will to govern us by them.

2.  Because the Christians which were at Rome were commanded by the apostle to subject themselves to the higher powers, and that without exception of religion and piety, and even to that heathen, the Roman emperor (Rom. 13:1).

3.  Because the same apostle, writing to Titus, bids him exhort the Cretians, his hearers, to obey magistrates, what manner of ones soever they be, not only believing ones but also those that are unbelieving, as then they were yet, most of them (Titus 3:1).

4.  Because when the apostle Paul was pursued for his life and charged with matters criminal, he appealed unto Caesar (Acts 25:10-11).

5.  Because the Prophet Jeremiah did own the power of Zedekiah who had turned aside to a false worship and had despised the oath which he had made to the king of Babylon (Eze. 17:16-17).  ‘Now hear I pray thee (says the prophet), O my lord the king: let my supplication, I pray thee, be accepted before thee’ (Jer. 37:20).

6.  Because Christ Himself paid tribute to Caesar, though he was free, being both the Son of God by nature and son of David by birth (Matt 22:21; Rom. 13:7).

7.  Because Paul did own and acknowledge the power of King Agrippa (Acts 26:2).


John Brown of Wamphray  1610-1679

Wamphray was a very influential and leading Scottish covenanter.  An Exposition of Romans, Ch. 13, p. 505

XVII.  The consideration of this, that magistracy is an ordinance of the only wise God, and that such as are in authority are warranted of Him, and have commission from Him, should move Christians to carry themselves under them in the exercise of their power, as loyal, dutiful subjects, whatever their persons be, tho’ heathens and strangers to Christ, and enemies to his kingdom; for He would have the Christian Romans live in subjection unto their heathen magistrates, emperors, consul or senate, upon this motive, that there is no power but of God; and the powers that be, are ordained of God [Rom. 13].


Thomas Boston  1708

See more particularly the lengthy quote by Boston regarding the Scottish covenanters and the Church of Scotland, under the subheading, ‘What if the Magistrate does not Swear to the Solemn League and Covenant?’

Boston was a covenanter in the Church of Scotland: he held to the eternally binding nature of the spiritual principles of the covenants for Scotland and believed (rightly) that they bound him to the civil government and and Church of Scotland.

‘The Evil, Nature and Danger of Schism: a Sermon’  1708

Another notable schism was that made by the ten tribes, 1 Kings 12, where two things are very remarkable: 1st, the rise of it, their dissatisfaction with the civil government whereupon they refused to own Rehoboam as their king, and also separated from the church of Jerusalem, who owned his authority, though he was very far degenerate from the piety and wisdom of David and Solomon.



The English Puritans

Nicholas Byfield  d. 1622

A Commentary upon the Three First Chapters of the First Epistle Generall of St. Peter, 1637, on 1 Tim. 2:13

‘Whether to the King.’  It may be questioned, whom the apostle means by the word King?  Such as understand the epistle to be written to the Jews, may perhaps conceive that the kings that ruled by deputation in Judea should be meant, such as were Herod and Agrippa.  But in as much as the Jews were scattered through the provinces, and those provincial Jews were most in quiet: and in as much as for the reasons afore given, it is likely that the epistle was written to all Christians, both Jews and Gentiles; therefore by the King he meant Caesar.  


John Rogers  d. 1636

A Godly and Fruitful Exposition upon all the First Epistle of Peter, 1650,

On 1 Pet. 2:13, pp. 318-9

2.  This [God’s injunction to obey civil magistrates] condemns the clergy of Rome, that exempt themselves from all princes’ authority, whereas God has said, ‘Let every soul be subject to the higher powers’ [Rom. 13:1]: If they have souls they must be sub∣ject.  But how do they exempt themselves?

2. By the Donation of Constantine; but its not in the power of princes so to do: They [princes] may exempt them [clergy] from tribute [taxes], if they will, as Pharoah took not the priests’ lands to gage for Corn; but to exempt them from subjection: they cannot.  This were to make themselves wiser then God, who has put them under their authority, yea, the too much indulgence and favor of emperors, has been the bane of the Church, and helped up the Pope into his stirrup; Therefore its wisdom in them to hold their authority which God has given them.


On 1 Tim. 2:17

For the words themselves, ‘Honor the King’, I have already spoken at large of the duty contained herein: Know we only, that by the King here, is meant Caesar, who was a heathen emperor, one that intruded himself, ruled tyrannously, and was an idolater

Under this honor is understood, the inward reverence in heart to be declared outwardly by obedience to all their godly commandments, cheerfulness in payments, prayer and thanksgiving, etc.

Now if all this be due to a wicked King, as here, and now to be performed of us, if we had a wicked king, what then is to be done of us to such a king as God has bestowed on us?


Matthew Poole

English Annotations on the Holy Bible

1 Pet. 2:13  ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme…’

…But this creature, or ordinance, here is to be understood of the magistrate; (as appears by the following words), which is called human, not as if magistracy were not an ordinance of God, (for, Romans 13:1, ‘the powers that are are said to be ordained of God’) but either because it is only among men, and proper to them; or because it is of man secondarily and instrumentally, though of God primarily and originally, God making use of the ministry of men in bringing them into the magistracy… 

‘For the Lord’s sake’; for God’s sake, who commands this obedience; and gave them the authority, and is represented by them, and honored by that obedience which is yielded to them in all things agreeable to his will. The phrase seems to be of the same import with that of being obedient in the Lord, Ephesians 6:1.

‘To the king’; to Caesar, the then supreme magistrate, under whose jurisdiction the Jewish Christians were; and this being a general command extending to all Christians, it follows, that obedience is due from them to those chief magistrates whose subjects respectively they are.



What about Unlawful Origins of Civil Governments? 

Sometimes the pretext for not recognizing the authority of the civil government is because the government initially came into power by conquest or in an unlawful way, though the general populace for decades or centuries has implicitly consented to their rule and treated them as their lawful superiors.  Such a reason for not recognizing the authority of a government effectively invalidates the government of almost every nation on earth and in world history.  Here is Samuel Rutherford on the question:  

Samuel Rutherford

Lex RexQuestion 12:  Whether or not a Kingdom may Lawfully be Purchased by the Sole Title of Conquest?  p. 47

“Assertion 2 – This title by conquest, through the people’s after consent, may be turned into a just title, as in the case of the Jews in Caesar’s time, for which cause our Savior commanded to obey Caesar, and to pay tribute unto him, as Dr. Ferne [a royalist] confesses, (sec. vii, p. 30)…

…2.  Though the consent be some way over-awed [by intimidation], yet is it a sort of contract and covenant of loyal subjection made to the conqueror, and therefore sufficient to make the title just; otherwise, if the people never give their consent, the conqueror, domineering over them by violence, has no just title to the crown.”



What if the Magistrate does not swear the Solemn League & Covenant?

Thomas Boston  1708

Boston was a covenanting minister in the Church of Scotland, and a citizen of Scotland: he held to the eternally binding nature of the spiritual principles of the covenants for Scotland and believed (rightly) that they bound him to be in the Church of Scotland and to give obedience to the king (albeit not a covenanted-king).

Boston argues against the civil separatists of his day that pretensed their principles on social covenanting and Scottish history.  Boston annihilates, humbly and peaceably, their revisionist history and contradictory principles.  From ‘The Evil, Nature and Danger of Schism: a Sermon’  1708

I find, that at the first taking of the covenant [in Scotland, ‘The King’s Covenant’, 1581], they swear to maintain the king’s authority: as also, when, with additions, it was renewed in the year 1638 [in the ‘National Covenant’], they swear to stand to the defense of his majesty’s person and authority. How agrees our dissenters’ principle, rejecting the authority of the queen [in 1708], with this part of the [National] covenant?  O, say they, “she is not a covenanted queen, and therefore cannot be queen of a covenanted land.”  Strange prejudices!  Was not Scotland a covenanted land long ere the solemn League and Covenant [1643] was heard tell of?  Was not king Charles I king of a covenanted land at that time when the covenant was renewed, and his authority sworn to be defended?  But was he a covenanted king?  Did he own their covenant?  No, no; upon the contrary; he obliged some of their nobles at London to abjure it, declared the covenanters rebels, and brought down an army against them to force them from it.

[The separatists’ claim was that in a covenanted nation only a covenanted king’s authority could be lawfully recognized.  Boston is (rightly) saying that Scotland was a covenanted nation since 1581 and still recognized the lawful authority of magistrates that were contrary to the covenants, such as King Charles I who reigned during the time of the Solemn League and Covenant.]

As for the solemn League and Covenant [1643], we find them guilty the same way.  It binds us expressly against schism, as well as Prelacy, superstition, and heresy.  And that they are guilty of schism has been proven before.  It also bound to the maintaining of the king’s authority, it being far from the mind of the covenanters to cast off the authority of the magistrate, though it was entered into without the king’s consent.  Was it ever the mind of the covenanters that they would own no king, but one that had taken this covenant?  I am sure the Parliament of Scotland thought not so, when in the year 1649 they proclaimed and declared to all the world, that Charles II was king of Great Britain, etc., their sovereign lord and king; and this was a full year before he took the covenant: for which see the Apologetical Relation, pp. 64, 65 [by John Brown of Wamphray, 1660, a prominent Scottish covenanter of the strictest sort].  

Nor did the General Assembly [of the Church of Scotland] 1649 think so, when in their letter to the king’s majesty (to be found amongst the printed Acts of the Assembly, in their last session), before he was come home, or had taken the covenant, they call him most gracious sovereign; and subscribe the letter thus, Your majesty’s most loyal subjects, and humble servants, the ministers and elders convened in this national Assembly of the kirk of Scotland: while in the meantime they tell him in the same letter, That he had settled a peace with the Irish Papists, the murderers of so many thousands of his Protestant subjects, and granted to them (contrary to the standing laws of his royal progenitors) a full liberty of their abominable idolatry; which, say they, cannot be otherwise judged, but a giving of your royal power to the Beast [of Rome, the Antichrist]; and they exhort him to lay aside the service-book.  And several other things may be there found, that may make men blush to talk of their agreeing with the Church of Scotland in her principles in these times, and yet rejecting the authority of the present queen [in 1708].  

And, which is most lamentable, even those worthies that laid down their lives for the covenants, whose testimonies are recorded in Naphtali, having owned the king’s authority, and prayed for him on the scaffolds, must by this new doctrine be reputed to die as fools, who understood not the covenants they were laying down their precious lives for.  

As to the [Westminster] Confession of Faith,

1.  How does their refusing to pray for the queen, to pay her cess [tax], and to own her authority, because she is not a covenanted queen, agree with the Confession of Faith, chap. 23, § 4,

“It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to pay them tribute and other dues, and to be subject to their authority for conscience sake: infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority?” 

I know they will say, that article is meant of lands not covenanted: there had been some shadow of force in this perhaps, if this Confession of Faith had been framed before the covenant [of 1581]: but upon the contrary it was long after [in 1646], and was the product of the solemn League and Covenant [1643], as appears from the first article of the [Solemn League and] Covenant, in these words,

“And shall endeavor to bring the churches of God in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith,” etc.

The solemn League and Covenant was sworn in the year 1643, the Confession of Faith was sent hither and approven by the Assembly not till the year 1647, for which see the Act of assembly, printed before the Confession. And can we think, that those who, in pursuance of the [Solemn League and] covenant, framed this Confession of Faith, to declare to the world the faith of covenanters, would so juggle, as to put in articles of faith which would bind others, but not themselves?

[Boston’s argument is that the WCF clearly upholds the authority of ungodly magistrates after Scotland was a covenanted nation.  Thus the separatists position is not reflective of the Westminster period, and if it claims to be, then it is contradictory.  Also, as Scotland was a covenanted nation, by working toward unity in the three kingdoms with England and Ireland, were they excepting themselves from this paragraph of the Westminster Confession while imposing submission to ungodly magistrates on other nations who were not covenanted?  Such a thought is absurd and therefore not true.  Scotland, as a covenanted nation confessed the doctrinal position of obedience to ungodly and uncovenanted magistrates.]




“…the powers that be are ordained of God…”

Rom. 13:1

“Behold, this day thine eyes have seen how that the Lord had delivered thee [King Saul] today into mine hand in the cave: and some bade me [David] kill thee: Mine eyes spare thee; and I said, I will not put forth mine hand against my lord; for he is the Lord’s anointed.”

1 Sam. 24:10




Related Pages

Against Separation from Impure Churches

Civil Government

Civil Law

Church Unity

Social Covenanting

Church-State Relations

The Establishment Principle


Resistance to Tyrrany

The Westminster Divines on Armed Resistance to Tyrrany