Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.—Rom. 8.33


Of the Principles of the

Reformed Presbyterian Synod

In Ireland

On the Subject of

Civil Government.

Adopted as an Overture, at its Adjourned Meeting, in Cullybackey, October 12th, 1837.

TrueCovenanter.com Editor’s Introduction.

The following declaration on the subject of civil government, and the proper functioning of a Christian government in a Christian nation, was adopted by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland during a time when many Reformed Presbyterians still held to historic Covenanter principles on this topic.  There were, however, some in this Church, whose principles were not such, and who were pressing for changes to conform to the world’s beliefs in opposition to the responsibility of civil rulers to impose God’s law in their land.  In less than three years from the publication of this document, there would even be a rupture, consisting of five ministers and several elders who would give in a declinature to Synod, and depart from her fellowship in July, 1840.  Possibly their presence in 1837 bore some influence on a few of the expressions below, for which the present editor provides footnotes due to their disharmony either with former principles, or with other parts of the document.

Many generations have since come and gone, and various statements have been published by Reformed Presbyterians on this topic.  As the general course since that time has been one of declining and straying, the above declaration is presented with hopes that some will be pleased to trace their path back to this time, or earlier times, and consider again which principles were most conform to Holy Scripture, and most consistent in themselves.  To that end, the present edition has been provided with several scripture references in support of the various propositions asserted.  Most were supplied by the present editor, but others were either suggested by his oldest daughter or taken from those included with the Westminster Confession of Faith.



GOD, the Supreme Governor, the fountain of all authority and power, has declared his will, in the constitution of human nature, and clearly revealed it in the Scriptures, that mankind should voluntarily associate together, in civil society, for their mutual help and protection, in subserviency to godliness and honesty. [1 Tim. 2.2.]  Civil Society, which is thus an institution of God, is under law to him, as are all the individuals of whom it is composed,—bound to observe the law of nature, or moral law, to form definite civil laws in accordance with it, and to commit the administration of these to qualified rulers, for the preservation of order, liberty, and religion.  Civil Government is the moral ordinance of God, to promote his glory and man’s welfare,—to be regulated by the moral law, and commanding obedience, for conscience’ sake, only when erected and administered accordingly. [Rom. 13.1-7.]


The law of nature, which defines the rights and duties of men, in their individual and collective capacities, is fully ascertained in the revealed moral law; and its re-publication in the Scriptures is accompanied with seals of its Divine authority, imposing an indispensable obligation upon the individuals and communities to whom it is made known, to acknowledge and obey it; while the Christian system does not affect this obligation, otherwise than more clearly to reveal, and more powerfully to enforce it.  As the Scriptures reveal the will of God, in regard to civil government, which is an ordinance of the law of nature, it is the duty of all communities, enjoying Divine revelation, to {2} frame their constitutions, and enact their laws, according to the certain moral dictates of this infallible standard; and to promote to legislative, judicial, and executive power, none but those who possess a due measure of the qualifications which it prescribes. [Rom. 2.14,15; Deut. 4.6-8; Ezek. 5.5-6; Lev. 18.24-30; Exod. 18.21.]


The Scriptures, moreover, declare, that Jesus Christ, as Mediator, is exalted to the highest dignity, and invested with universal authority, not only ruling in and over all the members of his mystical body, as their living Head and Lawgiver, but governing all creatures, without exception, and all their actions, for his own glory, and the salvation of his elect, as Head over all things to the Church, [Heb. 1.2,3; Eph. 1.22]; that He is King of kings and of nations, as well as King of saints; that men, in every possible relation and condition, are under obligation to subserve his gracious purposes, according to his law; and that all civil institutions are put under Him, who is Head of all principality and power. [Rev. 17.14; Col. 2.10.]  Civil Rulers in a Christian land, whether supreme or subordinate, whether in the legislative, judicial, or executive department, (or, which is the same thing, the nation, as such, exercising its authority through them,)—should acknowledge the Divine origin and character of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the perpetual obligation of the moral law, and the universal Headship of Jesus Christ.  They should recognize the Word of God as the supreme standard of government, submit to the sceptre of Emmanuel, and legislate and administer in subserviency to the interests of his kingdom, in order to secure the unity, liberty, peace, and comfort of the nation. [Deut. 17.18-20; Psalm 2.12; Psalm 33.12; Dan. 6.25-26.]


The Civil Ruler is to regard the religion of Jesus Christ as the most powerful of those means by which good morals in general, genuine loyalty in particular, and individual and social welfare may be promoted, [Dan. 6.4-5]; and he is, also, to view the Church of God as having a legitimate and strong claim upon his official care and influence;—being under obligation to extend to it legal protection and support, preserving its liberties and powers, ordinances and laws, and providing, by Scriptural means, for its purity and extension. [Ezra 6.1-12; Luke 7.1-5.]  Nor is he under less obligation to withhold legal protection, and all favour whatsoever, from the mysteries of paganism, the rites of Mohammed, the idolatry of Antichrist, and every other system of false worship. [1 Kings 12, 13.]  As a minister of God for good, and a nursing-father to the Church, he is invested with authority, and it is his duty to ratify, with civil sanctions, subordinate standards {3} of Church-fellowship, that are agreeable to the Word of God, the distinct and independent jurisdiction of Church-officers, and their faithful administration; and in his own province to excite, encourage, and co-operate with them, in theirs, for the attainment of ends common to both.  He is, personally, to profess and exemplify Christianity, and, officially, to give his power and strength to the Prince of the kings of the earth. [Isa. 49.22,23; Rev. 1.5.]


It is, also, his province and duty to exercise his authority and influence in reforming the Church, when more or less corrupt, after the example of the godly princes of Judah, by removing all external impediments, and encouraging all lawful efforts towards reformation; by giving decided countenance to those who are zealous for the honour of God, and the Church’s purity; by interesting himself in the encouragement and support of a pious and faithful ministry; and by holding ineligible to places of power and trust, infidel, heretical, and immoral persons; and placing under civil restraints and disabilities, all who are, at once, the enemies of the religion, fundamental laws, and liberties of the commonwealth. [2 Kings 18.1-7; 2 Chron. 29-31; 2 Kings 22, 23; Neh. 13; Num. 16.]


Important as is the province of the Christian magistrate, or of the nation, as such, in relation to the doctrines, ordinances, and laws of Jesus Christ,—no less important are the obligations which bind the members of the Church to profess, support, and adorn the Gospel; and while nations, by their representatives, are voluntarily, wisely, and liberally to apply the principle of a civil establishment to the true religion, and results highly advantageous may be expected to accrue,—no less beneficial effects may be anticipated from the operation of the principle of private Christian benevolence, on the part of a well-instructed and religious people. [Titus 2.9-15; Isa. 2.2-4; Micah 4.1-4; 2 Cor. 9.]


Notwithstanding what has been stated concerning the exercise of civil authority, in regard to ecclesiastical persons, and matters of religion, the civil ruler has no spiritual or ecclesiastical supremacy, relative to doctrine or worship, discipline or government; has no authority to administer any Gospel ordinance, or direct, or control its administration; and no power, whatever, over the officers, or private members of the Church, except in a civil respect, and as they are his subjects. [2 Chron. 19.11; 2 Chron. 26.16-21.]  And as Christians are not to attempt effecting a moral change in the state of the nations with the sword, and {4} are not to endeavour to promote reformation by any but the moral means competent to them; so civil rulers may not propagate the truth by carnal weapons, nor enforce religious uniformity by civil pains and penalties: nor are penal laws to be enacted and executed against any class of professors of religion, except as a necessary and just provision for the defence of true religion, and genuine liberty, for the protection of the rights of the Church of Christ, and the interests of a Christian, or Reformed State, from those whose creed and whose conduct are essentially hostile to both.[1]


Scripturally qualified rulers do not bear the sword in vain, being not only for the praise of them that do well, but also for the punishment of evil doers. [Rom. 13.4; 1 Pet. 2.14.]  They are authorized guardians of the first, as well as the second table of the moral law, to sustain its authority and faithfully apply its precepts, in distinguishing what is morally right from what is morally wrong, chiefly in overt acts, which have immediate reference either to the Almighty Ruler, or to civil society. [Rom. 13.3; Job 31.26-28; 1 Tim. 2.2.]  But they are not to regard the judicial code, contained in the Old Testament, as formally binding them or their subjects; because some of its laws were exclusively adapted to the local circumstances and peculiar relations of the nation of Israel, and others sanctioned ceremonial institutions; and, consequently, those laws expired with such circumstances, relations, and institutions.  Those judicial laws, however, which guarded the moral law, so far as they are essentially moral, proceed upon general equity, are susceptible of application to all nations, in all ages; being thus always necessary, proper, and advantageous, are obligatory, and are to be wisely and faithfully administered. [Exod. 21; Exod. 22.1-29; Gen. 49.10 with 1 Pet. 2.13-14; Matt. 5.17, 38, 39; 1 Cor. 9.8-10.]


The obligation and warrant to restrain and punish gross breaches of the moral law, and the ends to be served thereby, are common to both tables, and are even more intimately connected with the first table, as it is the foundation of the second, and as morality and peace will not flourish where piety is not maintained. [Rom. 1.21-25; Matt. 22.36-40.]  It is, therefore, the duty of the civil ruler to see that the violation of the moral law, in the open contempt of the being of God, in gross and public idolatry, in open blasphemy of the name of God, or in open profanation of the Sabbath, as well as by injustice, licentiousness, and violence, be duly restrained, as scandalizing to religion, and the Church of God, as hurtful to the peace and good order of society, and as provoking the displeasure and rebukes of the Almighty against the nation. [Lev. 24.11-16; Deut. 13; Neh. 13.19-22; Psalm 82.2-4; Isa. 60.12.] {5}


The law of nature binds the civil ruler to guard the honour of the Divine Being, and to check all open disregard of religious as well as moral obligation; and as a Christian magistrate, ruling over a nation that has embraced revealed religion, and embodied in its constitution the laws of God, in both tables, as in duty bound, and solemnly dedicated itself to God, and engaged to maintain the doctrines and ordinances of Christianity,—he is further obliged, by the revealed will of God, his own religious profession, his solemn covenant and oath of office, to employ his power and influence, for the suppression of ungodliness and vice, and the advancement of truth, piety, and virtue. [2 Sam. 23.3; Exod. 18.21; 2 Chron. 19.5-9.]


As the principles laid down are opposed to Erastian supremacy, they are also repugnant to sectarian licence and Romish intolerance.  Persecuting or intolerant principles ought to be utterly condemned; and for ourselves, our reforming fathers, and subordinate standards, [such principles] are distinctly, solemnly, and indignantly disclaimed. [2 Kings 23.24-25; Rom. 12.18.]  True it is, that intolerance and sanguinary principles have been indiscriminately imputed to those who powerfully contended, and valiantly laid down their lives, for those very liberties which are abused to revile their memories.  But all exercise of civil authority about religion is not to be condemned; just provision for the defence of the Protestant religion and liberty, especially in critical circumstances, and dangerous emergencies, must not be stigmatized as intolerance and persecution; nor are the standards to be left,—and no sincere adherent to them would leave them,—under a vague, injurious allegation, which every enemy may turn against them as it pleases him. [Esther 8 & 9.1-17; Exod. 20.16; Exod. 20.12; Deut. 19.18-21; Exod. 21.17; Prov. 20.20; Exod. 22.28.]


Civil rulers, or nations as such, are to refrain from, and totally prevent persecution, which may consist in punishing persons whose guilt has not been proved, or in punishing the guilty with undue severity, [Deut. 17.2-6; Deut. 16.18-20]: but persecution chiefly consists in injuring men in their person, privileges, property, or character, for their adherence to the doctrines, ordinances, and commandments of God. [Matt. 5.11; Matt. 10.16-26.]  The exclusion of men of evil principles from places of power and trust, is ordinarily all the length to which civil power should go; simple forbearance should be extended to such persons, who are otherwise inoffensive members of society,[2] as also the protection of those rights that are common to men, while they do not, in the propagation of their principles, offend openly against the laws of {6} God and of society, and thus threaten the subversion of the one and the other. [Neh. 13.7-13; Deut. 13.]  The civil restraint of those who, in propagating their erroneous sentiments, openly transgress the law of God, and the laws of society founded upon it, is not intolerance; the just authoritative restraint of an obstinate and contemptuous blasphemer, is not contrary to any right which conscience really possesses, or has derived from God; and it is an error to maintain that the repression of gross outward public acts of idolatry is persecution. [2 Chron. 34.1-7.]


The rights of a good conscience are not to be confounded with the claims of an evil one; nor are the pleas of conscience and private judgment to be admitted to the injury of any divinely instituted and constituted authority.  To resist the lawful exercise of lawful authority, under the pretence of liberty of conscience, is to set the authority of God in opposition to itself.  For all the rights of man are derived from God, are, of course, subject to his law, and are to be defined and regulated by it; and God does not and cannot give, nor is it competent to any power to impart and sanction, a right which is in opposition to the Divine law.  It is no more a man’s right to worship an idol, or to blaspheme the name of God, than to kill or to steal, although he may judge it proper to do all these things. [Titus 1.15; Rom. 13.1-2; 2 Chron. 32.12, and Isa. 36.7; 1 Pet. 4.1-3; Rev. 9.20-21.]


Sentiments declared in opposition to the righteous terms on which a society is founded, it is well known, exclude from its privileges; and this principle admits of obvious application to the exercise of civil authority in restraining overt transgressions of the law of God.  An open immorality in direct violation of the law of God, as embodied in the civil constitution, the magistrate may restrain or punish as a crime, not only for the sake of society, but on the ground of that subjection which civil society, as such, owes to God.  The honour of God and the good of society require that principles and practices should be restrained, which are injurious to society and subversive of it; and such are those principles which are plainly in opposition to the moral law, and subversive of the moral government of God.  The interests of man, and the Divine glory, are essentially connected with one another; and the latter has, in all cases, a necessary precedency.  Civil society owes it both to God and to itself, to define the rights of individuals, and of the community, in agreeableness to the Divine law, and to defend the rights of both from gross invasion, under whatever imposing pretence it may be made. [Ezra 6.3-12; 2 Chron. 19.2; 1 Tim. 4.8; Zech. 14.9-11; Rev. 21.] {7}


Authoritative restraint of the open violation of the first, second, or any other commandment of God, is not persecution; for, as no man has a right to violate the Divine law, no right is invaded; and there can be no valid objection to the Judge, who is first the Divine Lawgiver himself, and, secondly, the nation recognizing his law, embodying it in the civil constitution, and empowering the representatives to carry [it] into effect. [Exod. 20.3; Exod. 20.4-6; Acts 17.30; Ezek. 5.5-9.]


In parts of the world enjoying revelation, when a people, in framing their civil constitutions, and appointing their magistrates, overlook, reject, or relinquish the Scriptures, as the supreme standard, enact laws inimical to the kingdom of Christ, and favour the interests of Antichrist, the constitutions and authorities becoming thus immoral and antichristian, cannot be innocently recognized. [Luke 13.32; 2 Kings 3.13-14.]  In this case the Christian, having entered his protest, and continuing to testify against authority so constituted and administered, still regarding the ordinance of God, as it is delivered in the Scriptures, will conscientiously perform things moral and just, and promote the peace and good order of society. [Jer. 29.4-7; 2 Kings 6.18-23; 1 Kings 18.17-18.]  To imposts even of an oppressive nature, if not exacted expressly for an immoral purpose, nor required as a pledge of subjection to authority, Christians may submit for wrath’s sake.  But they cannot swear allegiance to, nor recognize as the moral ordinance of God for good, authority that is immoral and antichristian. [Rom. 13.3,4; 1 Pet. 2.14; Isa. 5.20; Rev. 13.]


Christians living in peace, and, in their private capacity, furthering the ends of civil government and good order, while they do not incorporate with the national society, and are submitting to certain disabilities and privations on this account, are, nevertheless, entitled to protection in their lives, property, and liberty, having contributed their proportion of the common taxations.[3]  They may live within the limits of the soil, and enjoy the protection of strangers within the gates, without being incorporated with the national society, or involved in the guilt that may attach to its constitution or administration. [Exod 12.49; Lev. 24.19-22; Num. 15.29-30.]


The Scripture doctrine of magistracy belongs to the Christian’s daily duty, and is necessary to furnish the mind with proper principles and ends, in the discharge of it.  It is intimately {8} connected with the Divine glory, the administration of Messiah, the good of Zion, and the happiness of man.  Some parts of it, too, have to faithful martyrs been grounds of suffering, and have been sealed with their blood.  In conclusion, it is not for any particular form, according to which civil government may be modelled, that we contend, but for the moral and Scriptural principles upon which it should be based. [2 Tim. 3.16-17; 1 Tim. 2.1-2; 1 Pet. 2.13; Acts 17.5-7.]


1. Here it is needful to take exception to what is said against enforcing religious uniformity “by civil pains and penalties,” as well as the limitations which are proposed in restriction of the executing of penal laws against “any class of professors of religion.”

Although it is possible that our authors, by their qualifying expressions about what is needful for “the defence of true religion,” and “for the protection of the the rights of the Church of Christ,” and for “the interests of a Christian, or Reformed State,” intend more than many readers in our time would consider necessary and proper to these things, yet it remains clear that an attempt is being made to establish the use of civil restraints in matters of religion upon a basis, and with a limitation, that is neither what our reforming fore-fathers observed, nor the Holy Scriptures impose.  Referring to the laws adopted in Scotland during the Reformation to punish witchcraft, blasphemy, and the worshipping of false gods, will sufficiently illustrate this point.  Those acquainted with Holy Scripture are well aware that both the Old Testament and New Testament bear testimony to the justice and propriety of such laws.  How much the authors of section 7 above were inclined to depart from such order is uncertain, seeing that section 8 tends rather to reinforce Biblical and Reformation principles on this subject, and seems to contradict the language of section 7.

“Civil pains and penalties” in the form of “exclusion of men of evil principles from places of power and trust,” will be mentioned with approval in section 12.  The term “civil pains” itself, as used in this discussion, is taken directly from the Act of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Ratification of Parliament, by which the National Covenant was enjoined, so it may be fairly concluded that a Covenanter holding Covenanter principles can object to neither the term nor the thing.  Instead, he will be obliged to reject the language above, because though he is well aware that “carnal weapons” are not to be used in the propagation of the truth, nor “civil pains” accounted a useful tool for filling church pews, yet “civil pains” do have a place in enforcing religious uniformity in a Christian nation, just as they have a place in enforcing civil righteousness and political order in a civilized nation, where some of its citizens, following bad principles with deceived consciences, may very well need this restraint.  Indeed, it was one of the principle promoters of the Covenanted Reformation, George Gillespie, who reasoned in favour of enforcing uniformity in religion and requiring the swearing of the Solemn League and Covenant “under a considerable penalty,” as may be seen in the 15th and 16th sections of his Miscellany Questions.  The reader may also consult the Introduction to the Auchensaugh Renovation published by Thomas Henderson, in which he takes time to explain and defend this very expression.

On the whole, it is to be noted that while the Scriptures do express regard for “genuine liberty” and the “protection of the rights of the Church of Christ,” yet they are more God-centered than to limit the purpose of penal laws to such interests.  The honour of the name of God, the abolishing of all idolatry, and the preservation of the Good Shepherd’s sheep from those who seek to turn them away from the Lord, are all sufficient reasons for the application of penal laws to infidels and religious deviants in the context of a Christian nation.  In other contexts, Christians need not look for such things, and have every desire to see idolatry subdued and sin restrained by the spiritual weapons of the preaching of the Gospel and declaration of the Divine Law.  They are called to, “follow peace with all men,” (Heb. 12.14,) and are thankful for opportunities to live harmlessly among those who have not yet been discipled in the Gospel of Jesus Christ nor brought under the blessed yoke of their Redeemer. (Matt. 10.16, Phil. 2.15, Matt. 28.19-20, Matt. 11.28-30.)—JTK.

2. As in section 7, some of the language presented here appears to have the intention of qualifying and limiting civil penalties imposed on the adherents of false religions, perhaps in view of the concerns of those outside the Reformed Presbyterian Church, or possibly in view of the concerns of some within the Church, who had become discontent with her Biblical principles.  Taking the expression about extending “simple forbearance” to those who “are otherwise inoffensive members of society” in the immediate context does not provide a preceding definition of what offence or defect in these persons is going to actually receive “simple forbearance.”  Taking the expression in the context of the entire section, however, it is clear that such offences as blasphemy and public acts of idolatry are accounted worthy of punishment, so as not to receive forbearance.  On the other hand, these authors qualify the said public idolatry with the additional terms, “gross” and “outward.”  This suggests a question or two: Are there lesser “outward public acts of idolatry” which ought to receive forbearance?  Would it be persecution to repress these by way of punishments?  Do we find the Holy Scriptures to draw such a line of distinction for us?  The student of Holy Scripture will find guidance in Deut. 13, and Deut. 17, when it comes to acts of a “gross” sort.  We see a lesser offence assigned lesser punishment in Exod. 32.20.  But even for offences less than this, we do not see “forbearance” prescribed by the Lord.  Non-forbearance is commended: 2 Kings 18.4, John 2.15-16.—JTK.

3. This language is almost word-for-word identical to that used by the American R.P. Church in 1806.  See Reformation Principles Exhibited, chapter 29, section 3.  The idea that men are entitled to protection in their lives, property, and liberty because they pay their taxes is erroneous, as it is the duty of civil rulers to provide this protection even to the strangers that dwell or travel among them, regardless of compensation.  Justice is always right, and due to all men, and rulers are always obliged to repress and restrain injustice.  But beyond this, the idea that men are entitled to protection in their lives, property, and liberty, because they pay taxes to an unlawful government which has no right to collect taxes, and with which the Christian cannot “incorporate with the national society,” is yet more erroneous.  Covenanters of the 1700’s left the matter plain and consistent: paying taxes to such a system “for conscience sake, as unto the ordinance of God,” is a sin to be testified against.  They did account a man free to pay many taxes for wrath’s sake.  But viewing this as a monetary transaction by which an individual purchases the right of personal protection, etc. is not a lesson learned from either the Bible nor from the Reformation.—JTK.