To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear? behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken.—Jer. 6.10

Civil Government


Excerpted from

The Reformed Presbyterian Catechism

By William Roberts.


Civil Government the Moral Ordinance of God.

Q. What is civil government?

A. It is a divine institution for the government of mankind in their outward secular relations, in subserviency to their spiritual and eternal welfare.  Rom. 13.3,4, “For rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil.  Wilt thou not be afraid of the power—do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same—for he is the minister of God to thee for good.”

Q. Is not civil government a matter merely of human {54} expediency, originating in the necessities and convenience of the human race?

A. No.  It grows out of the relation that naturally and necessarily exists between God and intellectual moral creatures, and the relations existing between those creatures towards one another.

Q. How is this manifest?

A. In the fact that the essence of all civil power resided in Adam, upon whom God, at his creation, conferred the authority necessary for the exercise of civil government over subordinate moral agents, and over all earthly property.  Psalm 8.5-8, “For thou hast made him (man) a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet; all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passes through the paths of the seas.”

Q. Is civil magistracy founded in grace?

A. Civil magistracy is not founded in grace, but proceeds from God, not as the God of grace, but as the God of nature.  It springs from him as the supreme moral governor of the universe, having its foundation, as we have stated in substance, in natural principles, which belong to the constitution of man, and not in the mediatorial system;—at the same time (as we have proved in general, and as will be shown in the next section in relation to civil government in particular) God has placed the management of the whole affairs of the moral universe in the hands of his Son as Mediator.

Q. Is God, indeed, the supreme moral governor of the human race?

A. Yes.  Although man has by apostasy thrown off his allegiance to the Creator, yet God is the Lord of man, and claims his subjection.  Psalm 47.7, “For God is the king of all the earth.”  Dan. 4.34, “I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honoured Him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation.”  Psalm 29.10, “The Lord sitteth king forever.”  Jer. 10.10, “The Lord is the true God, {55} he is the living God, and an everlasting king.”  Isa. 43.15, “I am the Lord, your holy one, the Creator of Israel your king.”

Q. Is civil magistracy, as a legitimate authority, the ordinance of God?

A. Yes.  Rom. 13.1, 2. “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers, for there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.”

Q. Does not this passage teach, that any government which has a being in Providence, however immoral its constitution and administration, is the ordinance of God?

A. By no means, but [it] describes a government possessed of moral attributes, consistent with the nature of an ordinance of God.

Q. How do you make this evident?

A. It is evident,  1. From the radical meaning of the term power, εξουσια, derived from εξεστι, and signifying rightful, lawful authority, that which is licensed of God as agreeable to his own moral nature, from whom all our rights are derived.  2. From the legitimate meaning of the phrase higher powers.  By comparing the text with Phil. 2.3, we find the word higher translated better, and thus learn the power to which obedience is demanded, is a moral, or more excellent power, excelling in moral character.  3. The moral character of the power, as the ordinance of God, appears from the characteristics of the ruler.  He is entitled the “Minister of God,” a representative of the Most High in his rule, a “terror to evil doers,” a “praise to them that do well.”  It is as possessed of these attributes only that He can claim to be the ordinance of God.  The reverse exhibits the ordinance of the devil.  4. God cannot, without denying himself, ordain (in the sense of the text, as an institution that meets his approbation,) an immoral power.  5. The submission required is for conscience sake; conscience can never be bound by an immoral obligation.  “It is under the law to Christ.” [1 Cor. 9.21.]

Q. Do not many professed Christians interpret the passage as demanding allegiance, for conscience sake, to “the powers that then were?” {56}

A. Yes.  A number do; because it is agreeable to their worldly interests, and is correspondent with their false theory of civil government.  But, says an eminent Seceder, “In this text we have obviously a general statement laid down of what magistrates ought to be.”

Q. Is there not abundant evidence in the passage itself, that the apostle speaks generally of the character and duties of magistracy, and not with particular reference to the tyrannical and wicked rulers, who, at that time, swayed the sceptre of Rome?

A. Yes.  The apostle says, “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.”  Did Nero answer this character?  The apostle says, “Do that which is good and thou shalt have praise of the same.”  Had the Christians this?  They were the best subjects in the Roman Empire. But had they “praise” for being so?  Why, the merest tyro in ecclesiastical history knows that in spite of all the loveliness of their conduct, and their distinguished benevolence towards their very enemies, on the simple ground of their being Christians, they were deprived of their civil rights, and persecuted even to imprisonment and death.  Was this, on the part of the magistrates, to be “the minister of God” to them “for good?

Q. Is not the phrase ordained of God susceptible of a twofold interpretation?

A. Yes.  Things are ordained either by the order of his council or providential will, or they are ordained by the order of His word, or preceptive will.

Q. Which of these is our rule?

A. The former is God’s rule, the latter is ours.  Deut. 29.29, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed unto us and to our children forever,” that we may do all the words of this law.

Q. According to which of these is civil government “ordained of God?”

A. According to the latter, civil government is “the ordinance of God to men for good.”  “Ordained signifies that the powers are of God ordained; that is, are circumscribed by certain rules of right and honesty, within which {57} rules, unless they contain themselves, they degenerate from the ordinance of God.[David] Pareus.  “The powers here (Rom. 13,) are said to be ordained of God, and verse 2nd, to be the ordinance of God.  The apostle speaks in the general, without application to the Roman or any other, but on the contrary, it is stood upon that he intends his precept of a lawfully called magistrate.[Charles] Herle.

Q. Can you give any scriptural examples or illustrations of this interpretation?

A. Yes.  1. According to God’s providential will Israel rejected Samuel, whilst according to God’s preceptive will, they should have continued Samuel’s government and not sought a king.  Hosea 8.4, “They have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes and I knew it not,” Did not approve of the deed.  2. By the former Athaliah usurped the government, by the latter she should have resigned the government, and yielded obedience to the posterity of Ahaziah.  3. Adonijah the usurper, though he had the pretence of hereditary right, and also possession by providence, was, according to God’s preceptive will, forced to yield the government to Solomon.  1 Kings 2.13, “Thou knowest,’ says Adonijah, “that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel set their faces on me, that I should reign; howbeit the kingdom is turned about, and is become my brother’s; for it was his from the Lord.”

Q. Have tyrants and usurpers no other right to rule than the fact of their elevation in God’s sovereign providence, who sends them as he does the tempest and plague, to chastise the guilty nations?

A. They have no other claim, as the scriptures abundantly testify.  Zech. 11.6, “I will no more pity the inhabitants of the land, saith the Lord: but lo, I will deliver the men every one into his neighbour’s hand, and into the hand of his king; and they shall smite the land, and out of their hand I will not deliver them.”  Isa. 42.24, “Who gave Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers? did not the Lord, he against whom we have sinned.”  Also Isa. 10.5, 6; Job 12.6.  Hence called by the holy spirit by the names of the most unclean ravenous beasts.  1st. Lions: Prov. 28.15; 2 Tim. 4.17; Zeph. {58} 3.3.  2nd. Bears: Prov. 28.15; Dan. 7.5-17.  3rd. Bulls: Psalm 22.; Amos 4.1.  4th. Dragons: Isa. 51.9.  5th. Serpents: Isa. 27.1.  Yea, leopards, wolves, foxes, dogs, fishers and hunters, &c., &c.  See Concordance.

Q. Is civil government, then, a moral institution as it is the ordinance of God?

A. Yes: It is designed of God to be a representation of his own moral authority and rule.

Q. How do you make this appear?

A. In addition to what is stated above, it is evident, in the first place, that civil government is instituted for the preservation of moral order among the human race. Rom. 13.3. According to this text, rulers are ordained to promote “good works,” by the exhibition of the rewards which follow them, and the pains which ensue upon the practice of the contrary.

Q. What is the second evidence?

A. The great object of this ordinance of God is to promote the glory of God, inasmuch as the magistrate in the administration of this ordinance is the minister of God, and as his minister must give a representation in his rule of God’s moral nature; and of course have in charge the honour of God, and should suffer no encroachment upon the glory of His throne.  Every species of immorality is dishonouring to God, and cannot be countenanced by his minister.  2 Samuel 23.3, “The God of Israel said, The Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men MUST BE JUST, RULING IN THE FEAR OF THE LORD.”

Q. How is it further evident?

A. In that magistracy is instituted of God to promote the happiness of mankind, for the ruler is not only the minister of God, but THE MINISTER OF GOD TO MEN FOR GOOD.  God has ordained him to be the instrument in diffusing enjoyment among his subjects, by securing their obedience to the moral law, decreed by eternal wisdom.  “Whose ways are pleasantness, and all her paths peace.”

Q. What is the fourth evidence that civil government is a moral ordinance?

A. Inasmuch as it is ordained to preserve the rights of God among the human family.  The rights of God are expressed {59} in the first table of the Decalogue, as will appear more fully in another section of this work.  “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”

Q. Wherein does it further appear?

A. Its morality appears, moreover, in this, that in order to render it effectual in securing glory to God, and happiness to man, the magistrate is armed with rewards and punishments, to be dispensed with justice according to the law of God, of which he is the minister.  1. Rewards: Rom. 13.3, “Do that which is good, and thou shalt have PRAISE of the same.”  The magistrate is the encourager of practical morality and piety.  2. Punishments: verse 4, “But if thou do that which is evil be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”  His power as a revenger appealing to the principle of fear, tends to prevent crime; and he doth not bear the sword in vain—he must actually take revenge on him that doeth evil.  The object of this revenge is not merely the reformation of the criminal, nor the influence of terror to prevent crime.  He is a revenger ordained as the minister of God to show the righteous indignation of Jehovah in punishing the guilty.  In the capital punishment of the murderer, its object evidently cannot be his reformation; and whatever modern visionaries may dream, every Bible believer must admit that the judge of all the earth did once arm the civil power with the sword to take away life.  He was, at least then an avenger; but Paul says he is so still.  The word avenger admits of no other interpretation.  Could we say of a father who chastises his child that he is a revenger?  Might we say of our redeemer, when he chastises those whom he loveth, that he is a revenger?  The magistrate then is authorized to take vengeance, to execute wrath upon criminals; and thus in a righteous, but awful manner, illustrates the moral nature of civil government as it is the ordinance of God.

Q. Does not the principle upon which capital punishment is justified prove the morality of the ordinance of civil government?

A. Yes.  Capital punishment is inflicted to sustain the {60} divine justice, which he exercises by the hand of the magistrate who acts as his minister; nothing is done here by the temerity of men, but everything by the authority of God who commands it; for we can find no valid objection to the infliction of public vengeance, unless the justice of God be restrained from the punishment of crimes, and who can lay restraints upon the Judge of all the earth, who will do right? [Gen. 18.25.]  Paul says of the magistrate, “That he beareth not the sword in vain, for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” [Rom. 13.4.]

Q. Does not the dignity of the title with which God honours magistrates show the morality of the ordinance?

A. Yes.  They are called “Gods.” Psalm 82.1-6. This is not an appellation of trivial importance, for it implies that they have their command from God, that they are invested with his authority, and are altogether his representatives, and act as his vicegerents; and that their commission has been given to them by God, to serve him in that office, and, as Moses and Jehoshaphat said to the judges whom they appointed, to “judge not for men but for the Lord.”  If magistrates then are the vicegerents of God, it “behoves them to watch with all care, earnestness, and diligence, that in their administration they may exhibit to men an image, as it were, of the providence, care, goodness, benevolence, and justice of God,” and in this manner beautifully illustrate the moral excellence of this ordinance of the Deity. [Calvin, Institutes 4.20.6. tr. Allen.]

Q. Does not its moral nature further appear from the design of civil government as God’s ordinance?

A. Yes.  This design is thus forcibly stated by Calvin: “It is designed as long as we live in this world to cherish and support the external worship of God, to preserve the pure doctrine of religion, to defend the constitution of the Church, to regulate our lives in a manner requisite for the society of man, to form our manners to civil justice, to promote our concord with each other, and to establish general peace and tranquillity.” [Institutes 4.20.2.]

Q. Is not its moral nature finally evident, inasmuch as it is ordained to preserve and foster the rights and liberties of mankind? {61}

A. “To this object,” says Calvin, “the magistrates ought to apply their greatest diligence, that they suffer not the liberty, of which they are constituted guardians, to be in any respect diminished, much less to be violated.  If they are inactive and unconcerned about this, they are perfidious to their office and traitors to their country.” [4.20.8.]

Q. To what kind of submission is this ordinance of God entitled?

A. It is entitled to conscientious submission.  Rom. 13.5, “Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake:” from a love to God’s ordinance, and respect for his authority, exercised by his vicegerent according to his law.

Q. It is not true, then, that every power that is set up by the majority of the people, and exists by the providence of God, is to be acknowledged and obeyed for conscience sake?

A. It is not true.  For the will of the people is not the law in regard to the nature of magistracy, but the will of God; and as the will of the majority often sets up an immoral constitution of government, in violation of the moral character of magistracy, as it is the ordinance of God, hence a distinction must ever be kept up, in respect of obligation, between magistrates set up by the preceptive will of God, and such as exist by his providential will only; and the slavish dogma, “That all providential magistrates are also preceptive,” is forever to be exploded.  Hosea 8.4, “They have set up kings, but not by me. They have made princes, and I knew it not.”

Q. Which among the various forms of government approaches nearest the Scripture model, as to its outward constitution?

A. The Republican form—such as was possessed by the Israelites before they wickedly and rebelliously “set up a king.”[1]

Q. Will this be the form in the millennium?

A. There are many arguments in favour of this opinion.  1. The gracious promise, Isa. 1.26, “I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterwards thou shalt be the city of righteousness, the faithful {62} city.”  2. From its adaptation to fulfill another prophecy—Jer. 3.17, “At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall be gathered to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem.”  This can easily be verified by representation.  3. The Scriptural principle, that the people have a voice in the election of their rulers: and though a monarchy may be elective, yet such a form will not so fully as a republic preserve the liberty of the subject.  4. The title king, in Scripture, does not signify a king in the vulgar sense, but any one possessed of the supreme power, and is applicable to the President of a Republic.

Q. Is not civil government, in one point of view, the ordinance of man?

A. Yes.  It is in one view the ordinance of man, a human creation.  1 Pet. 2.13, Forms of magistracy, or the laws for the regulation of the commonwealth, are the “ordinance of man.”  It is lawful for men to model their constitutions of government in such a manner as may appear most suitable to them, provided such constitutions, in their principles and distribution of power, be in nothing contrary to the divine law.  Deut. 17.14-17, 20, “When thou art come unto the land, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me——; Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee whom the Lord thy God shall choose.  Thou shalt not set a stranger over thee.  But he shall not multiply horses to himself: neither shall he multiply wives: neither silver and gold.——: That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment.”

Q. Is this view of civil government, as being the moral ordinance of God, a peculiar doctrine of the Reformed Presbyterian Church?

A. It is.  The prevailing sentiment [among other churches] is, that civil government is merely a matter of human expediency, to be regulated entirely by the will of the majority, and consequently, that every system which the majority sets up is to be sustained as a lawful power, even though in its principles and distribution of power it tramples underfoot the rights of God, and robs the subject of civil liberty. {63}


1. It may be worth noting here, in relation to this question and those which follow, that Reformed Presbyterians in general have never adopted the platform of a particular political system or form of government as a part of their testimony.  Although a republican form is what Scripture itself most clearly approves, and what appeals to the generality of Covenanters as most conducive to civil order and the welfare of the Church, yet they do not deny that civil authority may reside in governments of other forms.  In such cases they believe conscientious subjection and patriotic loyalty remain their Christian duty, if the government in other regards bears the character of an ordinance of God.  And on this account, (and in this sense,) the apostle commands us to “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors,” &c.  While there were some Covenanters who declared their opposition to Monarchy during the times of persecution, with a resolution to set up a new government without placing authority in the hands of “any one single person, or lineal successor,” in a document known as the Queensferry Paper; yet the Covenanters of the following century, equally disowning the monarchs then reigning, express their mind very differently, defending an inclination to Monarchy, and seeing Democracy as a system to be condemned.—JTKer.