On Arbitrary Laws & Commands

“Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed, to turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people…”

Isa. 10:1-2

“For the Lord is our Judge; the Lord is our Lawgiver;
the Lord is our King; He will save us.”

Isa. 33:22




On Implicit, or Blind Faith & Obedience



Order of Contents

In General
In the Church
.      On Arbitrary Ordinances in the Church
.      On Arbitrary Rites in Worship
In the Civil Government
Does the Mere Pleasure of an Authority Oblige?



On Arbitrary Laws & Commands in General


William Bucanus

Institutes, p. 892

“What politic laws are to be allowed?

Those which are agreeable to the law of nature (whereof the Decalogue is an abridgment) and composed for the safety of the people: or those which do not swerve from the eternal rule of the honoring of God and loving our neighbor, and are made by a lawful magistrate.  Those that are made after any other manner, they are no better then tyrannical bonds, Isa. 10:1.”


Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646)

To the Reader

“An arbitrary power in any, whether in prince or prelates, is intolerable.  Now to cast our domination in one and to take it in in another, is not to put away the evil of our doings, but to barter and exchange one sin with another, and mockingly to expiate the obligation of one Arrear[?] to God by contracting new debt.

Again, how glorious is it, that Shields of the Earth lay all their royalty and power level with the dust before him that sits on the Throne, and to make their highness but a scaffold to heighten the Throne of the Son of God?”


Ch. 2, Question 2, p. 208

“…for rulers in making laws, and creating by their sole pleasure goodness-moral, in particular matters without the Word of God, are not God’s servants, nor is human authority as human, the nearest cause of obligation of conscience, instamped in these laws, nor is it the cause at all, and therefore to resist them, is not to resist God.

They be God’s instruments and ministers in:

1.  Propounding and expounding God’s laws.

2.  In executing them and defending them from the violence of men.

3.  In making positive and directory civil laws for civil government that are laws improperly so called, which bind the conscience as above is said, insofar as they have dependence upon God’s Law;

For James says, ‘There is but one Lawgiver’ [James 4:12].  As for Church-canons, all, except physical circumstances in them, are to be warranted by the Word.”


p. 648

“6.  Hence follows that all actions and circumstances of their nature indifferent, must lose that indifferency and receive from God some goodness and aptness to edify before they can be the reasonable and nearest matter of any civil or ecclesiastical constitution;

Because what rulers can in law and reason command, that they must will as good and apt to edify before they can bind others to will it.  But neither the will of a ruler, nor the will of any other can lawfully will a thing indifferent, as it is such: For a thing indifferent, as it is such, is neither good nor evil, and the object of the will is always good.

3.  Rulers command as God’s ministers for our good, Rom. 13:4.  Ergo [Therefore], the means and actions enjoined for the compassing of this end must be good; for if the end be good, the means as the means must be good; Ergo, they cannot be indifferent.”


p. 655

“2.  Rulers may not make laws of things having no necessity of goodness, decency and aptness to edify, and [they are] only [deemed] good because they will, when they see, of necessity, these laws shall inevitably ruin many souls; for that is to have more regard to their own will than to the salvation of people’s souls, whereas even Christ pleased not Himself.”


Appendix, p. 84

“The Jesuits, and Popish doctors, as they are of a large conscience in many things: so in the doctrine of scandal, to extol obedience to men so high as we may do things in themselves not necessary, yea [in things] that have no necessity but from the will of commanders; and Formalists in this conspire with them, even though from this do flow the ruin of many souls: and though the sinful scandalizing and ruin of these souls flow from sinful corruption of either ignorance or frailty, or willfulness or malice, yet the scandal ceases not to flow kindly [in kind] from the pretended obedience to an unlawful command, for the thing commanded, having no necessity but the will of man, is unlawful…”


A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist…  (1648), pt. 2, ch. 64, p. 121

1. As an arbitrary command is not properly a command, but rather a will-counsel and free advice that one friend gives to another, so that the friend refusing the counsel, sins against no Law…”



On Arbitrary Laws & Commands in the Church


John Calvin

Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 10, section

“…still I deny that they have been set over believers as legislators to prescribe a rule of life at their own hands, or bind the people committed to them to their decrees.  When I say this, I mean that they are not at all entitled to insist that whatever they devise without authority from the Word of God shall be observed by the Church as matter of necessity.

Since such power was unknown to the apostles, and was so often denied to the ministers of the Church by our Lord himself, I wonder how any have dared to usurp, and dare in the present day to defend it, without any precedent from the apostles, and against the manifest prohibition of God.”


Commentary on Acts 5:28

“In the second member [of the verse] he betrays an evil conscience, or, at least, he shows that he handled rather a private business than any public cause, for he complains that the apostles will cause the priests and the scribes to be hated for the death of Christ.

Notwithstanding this is the principal point of the accusation, that they did not obey the commandment of the priests…  But the chief priest does not consider what is his duty towards God and the Church; he abuses his authority tyrannously, as if the same were not under any laws, as the Pope deals with us at this day; for seeing that he takes to himself an unbridled authority and government, he fears not to condemn us for schismatics, so soon as he sees us refuse his decrees; for he catches at these sentences: “He which despiseth you despiseth me,” (Luke 10:16;) and thereupon he concludes that we will rebel against God.  But if he will be heard as the ambassador of Christ, he must speak out of the mouth of Christ.

Now, forasmuch as he does manifestly play the minister of Satan, he borrows authority, without shame and color, of the name of Christ; yea, the very form of speech which the chief priest uses doth prove how carelessly spiritual tyrants who usurp such authority and lordship as is not subject to the Word of God, dare grant liberty to themselves to attempt whatsoever pleases them.  With a commandment (says he) have we commanded.  Whence comes such strait rigor, save only because they think that all that must be received without exception which they shall command?”



George Gillespie

A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies...  ([Leiden] 1637), pt. 4, ch. 3, pp. 10-11

“Moreover, as we may not use any indifferent thing at our own pleasure; so neither may the Church at her will and pleasure command the use of it: but as our practice, so the Church’s injunction must be determined and squared according to the former [three] rules [of using indifferent things (1) to the glory of God, (2)according to the law of charity and (3) purity of conscience].  And if any man think, that in the use of things indifferent he may be led and ruled by the Church’s determination without examining any further, let him understand that the Church’s determination is but a subordinate rule, or a rule ruled by higher rules.

He [Dr. Forbes] has been speaking of the rules which God’s Word gives us concerning the use of things indifferent, and all of them he comprehends under this rule, that we should hear the Church and obey them who are set over us, as if God’s rules were subordinate to men’s rules and not theirs to his.  We say not that every man may use things indifferent suo arbitratu [according to his judgment]: but we say withal that neither may the Church command the use of things indifferent, suo arbitratu.  Both, she in commanding and we in obeying, must be guided by the rules of Scripture.

They who are set over us in the Church have no power given them of Christ which is not for edifying, Eph. 4:12.  The council of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem (which is a lively pattern of a lawful synod to the world’s end) professed they would lay no other burden upon the disciples except such things as the law of charity made necessary for shunning of scandal: and so that which they decreed had force and strength to bind, a Charitate propter Scandalum [from charity due to scandal], says Sanctius.  But suo arbitratu [by their (mere) judgment] they enjoined nothing.  It appears by this place (says [Thomas] Cartwright) that there may be no abridgment of liberty simply decreed, but in regard of circumstance, according to the rule of edification.  And if the Church’s decrees and canons be not according to the rules of the Word, yet forasmuch as everyone of us shall give account of himself and his own deed, we must look that whatsoever the Church decree, yet our practice in the use or omission of a thing indifferent, be according to the foresaid rules.

We may not for the commandment of men transgress the rule of piety by doing anything which is not for God’s glory and ordered according to his will; neither ought any of us to obey men, except for the Lord’s sake and as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God; which teaches us the manner how we ought to obey men, namely, propter Christum et sicut Christus praecipit [for Christ, as Christ commands].  For if we should know no more but the will of man for that which we do, then we should be the servants of men, not the servants of Christ.

Neither yet may we for any human ordinance break the rule of charity: but whatsoever either would weaken or not edify our brother, be it never so lawful, never so profitable to ourselves, never so powerfully by earthly authority enjoined, Christians, who are not born unto themselves, but unto Christ, unto his Church and unto the fellow members, must not dare to meddle with it.

Nor lastly may we obey men so as to break the Law of Purity, and perform any action with a doubtful conscience, that is, whereof either the Word has not, or we out of it have no warrant: in which case tender consciences must be tendered, rather than be racked by authority: for be the things in themselves never so lawful, etc., they are utterly unlawful to me without such information.

Whereas therefore some say that in the use of matters indifferent, the laws of those who are set over us ought to rule us; we still answer that our practice may not be ruled by any law of man except it be according to the rules of the Word; whereof one is this: Tantum oportere esse obedientiae studium in Christianis, ut nihil agant, quod non existiment vel potius certi sint placere Deo (Calvin on Rom. 14:5).”


An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland…  (Edinburgh, 1641)

pp. 127-8

7.  We must distinguish betwixt a dependance absolute, and, in some respect; a congregation does absolutely depend upon the Holy Scriptures alone, as the perfect rule of faith and manners, of worship and of Church-government; for we accurse the tyranny of prelates, who claimed to themselves an autocratoric power over congregations, to whom they gave their naked will for a law.

One of themselves told a whole synod that they ought to esteem that best which seems so to superiors, and that this is a sufficient ground to the conscience for obeying, though the thing be inconvenient.  We say, that congregations ought indeed to be subject to presbyteries and synods, yet not absolutely, but in the Lord, and in things lawful; and to this purpose the constitutions of presbyteries and synods are to be examined by the judgement of Christian discretion, for a synod is Judex Judicandus [a judge to be judged], and Regula regulata [a rule to be regulated], so that it ought not to be blindly obeyed, whether the ordinance be convenient or inconvenient.”


pp. 150-1

“By the Diataktic [Teaching] power [of the Church,] a synod may institute, restore or change, according to the condition and exigence of the Church, the external circumstances in the worship of God and ecclesiastical discipline: I mean those circumstances which are common both to civil and sacred societies, the conveniency whereof is determinable by the light of Nature, always observing the general rules of the Word, which commands that all be done to the glory of God, that all be done to edifying, that all be done in order and decency, that we give none offence, that we support the weak, that we give no place to the enemies of the truth, nor symbolize with idolaters, etc.

Now for avoiding disorder and disconformity in a nation professing one religion [such as Scotland], it is fit that national synods give certain directions and rules even concerning these rites and circumstances, not having therein an arbitrary or autocratoric power, but being always tied to follow the rules foresaid.”


p. 83 of Ch. 15, ‘Of Uniformity in Religion, Worship of God and Church Government’  in Miscellaneous Questions  (no date)

“The Prelatical conformity…  Their way was destructive to true Christian liberty both of conscience and practice, compelling the practice, and conscience itself, by the mere will and authority of the law-makers.  Obedite praepositis [obey in those things having been put forth] was the great argument with them to satisfy consciences: Sic volo, sit jubeo, sic pro ratione voluntas [Thus I will; I may so command; thus the will for the reason].  We say that no canons nor constitutions of the church can bind the conscience nisi per et propter verbum Dei, i.e. except insofar as they are grounded upon and warrantable by the Word of God, at least by consequence, and by the general rules thereof…”


English-Popish Ceremonies  (1637), Pt. 3, Ch. 7, Sections 7, pp. 131-3

“If the Church prescribe anything lawfully, so that she prescribe no more than she has power given her to prescribe, her ordinance must be accompanied with some good reason and warrant given for the satisfaction of tender consciences…  It becomes not the spouse of Christ, endued with the spirit of meekness, to command anything imperiously, and without a reason given…

Tertullian’s testimony is known (in Apologet.): Nulla lex, etc.  ‘No law (says he) owes to itself alone the conscience of its equity, but to those from whom it expects obedience.  Moreover, it is a suspected law which will not have itself to be proved, but a wicked law, which not being proved, yet bears rule.’…

Neither can the Church prescribe anything lawfully which she shows not to have been convenient, even before her determination.

If the ceremonies be lawful to us because the law and ordinance of the Church prescribes them, then either the bare and naked prescription of the Church, having no other warrant than the Church’s own authority, make them to be thus lawful; or else the law of the Church, as grounded upon and warranted by the law of God and nature…

If they take them (as needs they must) to the latter part, then let them either say that the ceremonies are lawful unto us, because the Church judges them to be agreeable to the law of God and nature, or because the Church proves unto us, by evident reasons, that they are indeed agreeable unto these laws.  If they yield us the latter, then it is not the Church’s law, but the Church’s reasons given for her law, which can warrant the lawfulness of them unto us; which does elude and elide all that which they allege for the lawfulness of them from the power and authority of the Church.

And further, if any such reasons be to be give forth for the ceremonies, why are they so long kept up from us?…

It will be answered (I know), that if they Church command anything repugnant to God’s Word we are not bound to do it, nor to receive it as lawful, though the Church judge so of it; but otherwise, if that which the Church judges to be agreeable to the law of God and nature (and in that respect prescribes) be not repugnant to the Word of God, but in itself indifferent, then are we to embrace it as convenient, and consonant to the law of God and nature, neither ought we to call in question the lawfulness of it.

But I reply, that [in this case] either we must judge a thing to be repugnant or not repugnant to the Word, to be indifferent or not indifferent in itself, [merely] because the Church judges so of it [which is insufficient to conscience], or else because the Church proves unto us by an evident reason that it is so…  the argument is still set afoot [incomplete]; then we must receive everything (be it ever so bad) as indifferent, if only the Church happen so to judge of it; for quod competit alicui qua tale, etc.  So that if we receive anything as indifferent, for this respect, because the Church judges it to be so, then shall we receive everything for indifferent which the Church shall so judge of [which is absurd].”


Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government…  (1646)

Intro, Section 2, pp. 17-18

“Now the King Himself, the Lord who reigns in this external policy [of the Church], must be the only Lawgiver, James 4:12; Isa. 33:22.  There can be no rabbis or doctors on earth who as little kings can make laws under Him, Mt. 23:8-10.  Yea, not apostles, who can teach how the worship should externally be ordered, but what they receive of the King of the Church, 1 Cor. 11:23; Acts 15:13-18, how the house should be governed, Heb. 3:1-2; 4:5.  Yea, nothing [is] more reasonable than that whatsoever is commanded by the God of Heaven, should be done in and for the house of the God of Heaven under the pain of his wrath, Ezra 7:23;

1. That there should be officers in a Kingdom, and laws to govern the subjects, beside the will of the prince or judges of the Land, or that the members of a family, or soldiers in an army should be governed by any rule, custom or law, beside[s] or without the will of the Master of the House, and of the general and commanders, is all one, as if subjects, families and soldiers should be ruled and governed by their own will and wisdom, and not by their king, judges, masters and commanders;

For the question is upon this undeniable supposition, that Christ is the only Head and King of his Church, and so the Head and King of Prelates (if they be of the body) and of the rulers, guides and pastors of the Church, which are to be governed and ruled by certain laws, no less than the people, whether or no this representative Church of rulers, being subjects and members of the Head and King of the Church, are to be ruled by the wisdom, laws and commandments of this King, the Lord Jesus; or if they have granted to them a vast arbitrary power to govern both themselves and the people, by adding positive mandates of arbitrary commanders, such as Prelates are (in the mind of those who think they have no patent of any divine-right) and of surplice, crossing, kneeling for reverence to wood, to bread and wine.”


p. 30

“It is without all warrant to expound Christian Liberty of a power of devising a mutable Church-policy, and laws not warranted in God’s Word, seeing Christian Liberty expressly exempts us altogether from obedience to men’s laws not warranted by Christ’s Word, Gal. 5:1; Col. 2:20, etc.”


p. 652

“3.  It is strange divinity, ‘That that which is no sin, of itself, cannot be omitted without sin for the sole will and pleasure of men.’ [As the prelates argued]  Human authority then may make it sin not to rub our beards, not to claw our heads, when we come to the Church to hear God’s Word.

If human authority can make an indifferent act lawful, and the omission of it, sinful, [then] they may make all the indifferent acts in the world lawful acts; they might then make piping, leaping, laughing, acts of divine worship, and might make a Decalogue of their own:

And if they may make an indifferent act to be sin, if it be omitted, they may by as good reason make sinful acts, as adultery, incest, murder, robbery, to be lawful acts; For if man’s inhibiting will be the formal reason of sin, then his commanding will must be the formal reason of obedience: And so rulers might command murder, robbery, incest, blasphemy.”



Free Church of Scotland

Catechism on the Principles and Constitution of the Free Church of Scotland Issued by Authority of the General Assembly…  New Edition  (Edinburgh, 1882), pp. 24 & 44

“Q. 63.  If you found Church judicatories passing Acts irrespective of the laws of Christ in the Bible, and introducing, at their own discretion, rites and institutions for which there is no Scripture warrant, what would you say?

A.  That these judicatories were arrogating to themselves Christ’s prerogative as the Lawgiver of his Church.

Q. 144.  Who are they that violate the crown-rights of Christ as the Head of authority to the Church?

A.  They are such as seek to subject the Church to human laws, in place of, or in addition to, his laws in the Scriptures; and such as allow either more or less authority and power to Church office-bearers than He has given them.”


James Bannerman

The Church of Christ, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1868), pp. 241-2, 248

“First, the power claimed by the governors of the Christian
Church is not an arbitrary or capricious authority, to be wielded at will by them, in disregard of the rights or consciences of the members.

There are certain limitations of a most important nature affixed to that power, and certain principles of a definite kind laid down for the use and administration of it, which set bounds round about it, and bring it into harmony with the liberty of conscience, rightfully belonging to every private individual of the Christian society.

3rd.  Church power is limited by the rule prescribed for its exercise, or by the Word of God.  This third limitation ties down the administration of Church power to certain fixed principles and a certain definite law, and excludes the possibility of its becoming a wayward and arbitrary authority, to be wielded at the will or caprice of man.  It forbids the unauthorized addition or subtraction of anything in the constitution, doctrine, worship, or discipline of the Church, such as Christ has not sanctioned in His Word.”



On Arbitrary Ordinances in the Church

Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government…  (1646), Introduction, Section 2, pp. 15-16

“For the Church does bind and loose in the external court, either by a commission from Him who as head of the Church, and who as King gave to her the keys of the Kingdom, or by a general arbitrary power given to the magistrate and Church, to do in these things as they please, so they do nothing contrary to the Word, though not according to the Word, as they are to do in doctrinals;

If the former be said, then must the external government be upon the shoulder of Christ as King, which is that which we teach: If the latter be said, then might the magistrate & Church appoint such an ordinance as excommunication, and so they may by their arbitrary power make a Gospel promise of ratifying an ordinance in heaven and of pardoning sins in heaven; for he that can make the ordinance can make also the Gospel-promise, and he that can by an arbitrary power make one promise or part of the Gospel, may make all.  And if either magistrate or Church can appoint such an ordinance as has a promise of binding and loosing made good in heaven, they may also take away such ordinances and Gospel-promises; for it is the same power to make and add, to unmake and destroy ordinances.

Hence also I argue for the immutability of a Scriptural Platform, that the Church cannot alter at her will…  I infer that the whole Platform of Law and Gospel is of divine institution, and the particulars of obedience and faith are not arbitrary to the Church; just so in discipline, I say the like, there is no more reason for one part written by God than for another.”



On Arbitrary Rites in Worship


Rutherford, Samuel – Ch. 1, Question 2, ‘Whether Scripture be such a Perfect Rule of All our Moral Actions; and that the Distinction of Essential and Necessary, and of Accidental and Arbitrary Worship Cannot Stand?’  in The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), pp. 101-128.  See especially pp. 118-124.



In the Civil Government


George Gillespie

Aaron’s Rod Blossoming...  (London, 1646), bk. 2, ch. 8, ‘Of the Power and Privilege of the Magistrate in things and causes Ecclesiastical…’, p. 266

“As we do not deny to the magistrate anything which the Word of God does allow him, so we dare not approve his going beyond the bounds and limits which God has set him.  And I pray God that this be not found to be the bottom of the controversy [as it is too unqualified, even for Gillespie’s adversaries], Whether magistracy shall be an arbitrary government; if not in civil, yet in ecclesiastical things?”


Samuel Rutherford

Lex Rex...  (1644)

p. 25

“3.  [As Rutherford’s adversary said,] There is no government where sovereignty is not kept inviolable.  [Rutherford:] It is true; where there is a king, sovereignty must be inviolable; What then?  Arbitrary government is not sovereignty…

3.  Arbitrary governing has no alliance with God;”


p. 60

“…nor is there any arbitrary power in the people, or in any mortal man;”


p. 62

“4.  The [civil] community’s law is the law of nature, not their arbitrary lust.”


p. 228

“Question 6.  Whether absolute and unlimited power of royalty be a ray and beam of divine majesty immediately derived from God?

Answer.  Not at all.  Such a creature is not in the world of God’s creation.  Royalists and flatterers of kings are parents to this
prodigious birth.  There is no shadow of power to do ill in God.  An absolute power is essentially a power to do without or above law, and a power to do ill, to destroy; and so it cannot come from God as a moral power by institution, though it come from God by a flux of permissive providence; but so things unlawful and sinful come from God.”



Does the Mere Pleasure of an Authority Oblige?

George Gillespie

Aaron’s Rod Blossoming…  (1646), Bk. 2, ch. 1, ‘Of the Rise, Growth, Decay & Reviving of Erastianism’, p. 163  Gillespie is giving the history of Erastianism since the Reformation by way of allegory.

“After that this unlucky child [Erastianism] had been nursed upon so bad milk, it came at last to eat strong food, and that was Arbitrary Government, under the name of Royal Prerogative.”


Samuel Rutherford

Lex Rex…  (1644), p. 150.  Rutherford is responding to the royalist, Symmons.

“Answer…  It is blasphemy to seek this distinction of person and office in the King of kings, because by person in a mortal lung, we understand a man that can sin.

1.  I am not obliged to obey his [the king’s] personal commandment, except I were his domestic [servant], nor his unlawful personal commandments, because they are sinful.

2.  It is false that you obey the king’s law because you obey the king; for then you say but this: ‘I obey the king because I obey the king.’  The truth is, obedience is not formally terminated on the person of the king.  Obedience is relative to a precept, and it is men-service to obey a law, not because it is good and just, but upon this formal motive, because it is the will of a mortal man to command it.

And reverence, love, fear, being acts of the affection, are not terminated on a law, but properly on the person of the judge; and they are modifications, or laudable qualifications of acts of obedience, not motives, not the formal reason why I obey, but the manner how I obey.  And the apostle makes expressly fear of punishment a motive of obedience (Rom. 13:4), while he says, “He beareth not the sword in vain,” therefore be subject to the king; and this hinders not personal resistance to unjust commandments.


1.  To obey the king’s personal will when it is sinful (as we now suppose), against his legal will, is a sin and a disobedience to God and the king also, seeing the law is the king’s will as king; but to obey his legal will against his sinful personal will (as it must be sinful if contrary to a just law) is obedience to the king as king, and so obedience to God.

2.  You take the king’s person to be himself, but you take quid pro quo [this for that]; for his ‘person’ here, you must not take physically for his suppost [agent] of soul and body, but morally: it is the king as a sinful man, doing his worst will against the law, which is his just and best will and the rule of the subjects.  And the king’s personal will is so far just and to regulate the subjects insofar as it agrees with his legal will or his law, and this [personal] will can sin, and therefore may be crossed without breach of the Fifth Commandment; but his legal will cannot be crossed without disobedience both to God and the king.

Answer…  We are to obey the king’s personal will when the thing commanded is not sin; but his subjects, as subjects, have little to do with his personal will in that notion.  It concerns his domestic servant, and is the king’s will as he is the master of servants, not as he is king in relation to subjects;

But we speak of the king’s personal will as repugnant to law and contrary to the king’s will as king, and so contrary to the Fifth Commandment; and this [personal will] is attended often not only with passion, but also with prejudice; and we owe no subjection to prejudice and passions, or to actions commanded by these disordered powers, because they are not from God, nor his ordinances, but from men and the flesh, and we owe no subjection to the flesh.”




Related Pages

How Far the Laws & Commands of Human Authorities Bind the Conscience

On Implicit Faith & Obedience

On Positive Laws & Ordinances

On the Ordinances, Order & Policy of the Church

On Passive Obedience

Resistance to Tyranny

Civil Government


The Authority of Fathers in Giving their Daughters Away in Marriage