Should Christians Seek to Be Magistrates?

Peter Ditzel

It is not often questioned now whether a Christian should be a magistrate, hold a political office, or work for the government in some capacity. In fact, in recent years, the question in the United States has rather been whether it is right to vote for someone who is not a Christian. But this was not always the case. In past centuries, the question of whether Christians should be magistrates was one that many took seriously. In this article, I want to show how I came to this question, give a little historical background to the question, and point out some Scriptures that I believe answer it very clearly.

How I Came to this Question

I have often found a pattern repeated in my life that God will keep bringing a subject to my attention until I study into it in the Bible and come to a conclusion. Some time ago, while doing research on other topics, I began coming across information about how many believers from ancient times opposed Constantine's union of church and state and through the centuries continued to oppose state churches and Christian participation in the state. They always stressed the connection between believer's baptism and the separation of church and state. The two things went hand-in-hand. In many ways, these people could be called the spiritual ancestors of today's Baptists, yet most Baptists have now forgotten part of the mark that distinguished them from the worldly, Constantinian Christians: the need for the Christian's separation from the state and that idea's biblical and logical connection to the doctrine of believer's baptism.

During the time of the Reformation, those who took this stand were called Radical Reformers and Anabaptists. Among the information I came across was a movie called The Radicals. It is about the Anabaptists of the 16th century. It sounded interesting so I bought it. The movie stressed that the Anabaptists stood for two things: believer's baptism and the separation of church and state.

Soon after this, I had the opportunity to read a thesis written by a Christian brother about Anabaptist opposition to infant baptism during the Reformation. Again, this paper showed that Anabaptists stood for and were persecuted for and sometimes died for their advocacy of believer's baptism and the separation of church and state. They saw the church as the assembly, a peculiar people, and a holy nation into which God placed those whom He called out of the world. They saw the state as an institution of this world that God established to keep law and order. I also came across and read three books by Leonard Verduin (The Anatomy of a Hybrid, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, and That First Amendment and the Remnant). They are about the history of church-state relations, and again they document the connection between opposition to infant baptism and the stand for the separation of church and state.

And so, having come across these things, I had these things in my mind but had not come to any definite conclusions.

Then, more than three years ago, in a Sunday School, the question was raised, "Is it lawful (acceptable or right) for a Christian to be a civil officer or magistrate?" Everyone in the class, with the exception of Mary (my wife) and I, took the position that it is. Because of the things we had come across earlier, Mary and I questioned the majority opinion. After all, even the title of the lesson being studied was "Put Not Your Trust in Princes." This is taken from Psalm 146:3: "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man [meaning humans in general, not Jesus Christ as the Son of man], in whom there is no help." The Scripture is not saying to make sure we get our man in office so we can go to him for help. It is saying to put our trust in God, not human rulers.

During the week that followed, Mary and I studied the Scriptures on the subject. We tried to be as objective and neutral as possible. Nevertheless, we found two Scriptures that might be used to support the idea that Christians can run for public office, two that are probably neutral (obey the magistrate), and fourteen that seem to be against Christians serving as government officials. I can now think of five more on the "for" side and one more on the "against" side. So that makes it seven "for" and fifteen "against." Of those on the "for" side, four are examples of godly people whom God called to serve in Old Testament non-Israelitish governments (Joseph, Daniel, Daniel's friends, and Esther), and three are mentions of Christians in the New Testament who seemed to be serving the government in some way (Cornelius, Erastus the chamberlain of Corinth, and the eunuch who served Candace queen of the Ethiopians). We did not consider that the godly rulers of Israel count in the "for" category because Israel was something unique—a theocracy ruled by God. No nation today, including the United States, is a theocracy ruled by God under the Old Covenant. But, as I explain in many articles on this website, the Old Covenant has now ended, and with it ended the theocracy. Christians are under the New Covenant. Israel was a type and shadow of the New Covenant ekklēsia or called-out assembly. Therefore, God's blessing of Israel when godly rulers rose to power is a type of God's blessing His New Covenant people under the rule of Christ.

Scriptures "For"

The Old Testament examples of people other than the rulers of the nation of Israel serving in government are accounts of God calling people who were not seeking office to serve in times of unusual circumstances. Two were specifically used to save God's Old Covenant people (Joseph and Esther). The others—Daniel and Daniel's friends—were used to witness God's power to Gentile rulers (of course, Joseph and Esther also did this). This also would seem to be typical of what today is done by the church, not the state. God calls people who are not seeking Him to witness to the Gentiles and spread a message of salvation to His people.

There are no New Testament examples of Christians seeking a public office or service in the government. There are three examples only of people who were employed by the government at the time they became Christians. They were Cornelius, Erastus, and the Ethiopian eunuch. Cornelius was a centurion (a military captain over 100 men), but we do not know exactly what he did or whether he stayed in the military after becoming a Christian. Certainly, he might have faced some tough choices between serving God and serving the Roman rulers: would he have followed orders to arrest Christians? Would he have participated in the sacking of Jerusalem? It seems likely that remaining a centurion would eventually have put him at odds with his Christians beliefs. Tradition (of course, not necessarily reliable) says that he became a bishop in either Caesarea or Scepsis in Mysia.

The King James Version calls Erastus "the chamberlain of the city." The Greek word translated "chamberlain" is oikonomos, the word from which we get the English word economist. This means Erastus was a city manager or treasurer (it is not clear exactly what his job entailed) before he became a Christian. 1 Corinthians 7:20-21 indicates a person should remain in the calling wherein he was called, whether free or slave or whatever. The principle can apply to occupations. God called Erastus while he was the city manager/treasurer. The principle is that he should stay in that occupation unless there arose a conflict of interest. Apparently, no conflict had arisen in Erastus's case, at least up until the time Paul wrote. This does not mean that someone who is already a Christian should seek such a position, however. We do not know whether Erastus's duties included making official decisions, but history may answer what happened to him as it says he was killed shortly after Paul (Ada R. Habershon, The Bible and the British Museum, p. 4).

As far as the Ethiopian eunuch is concerned, he also was already serving his queen before he became a Christian. We do not know what happened to him after he was baptized in Acts 8 and returned to Ethiopia.

Later, I will give some of the Scriptures against Christians becoming magistrates.

Baptist Confessions

In examining this question, I looked at Baptist confessions. I found as many Baptist and Anabaptist confessions of faith as I could to see what they might say. The first confession of faith that scholars readily admit as being Baptist or Anabaptist is the Schleitheim Confession of Faith of 1527. This is what it says concerning whether Christians should hold the office of magistrate:

Shall one be a magistrate if one should be chosen as such? The answer is as follows: They wished to make Christ king, but He fled and did not view it as the arrangement of His Father. Thus shall we do as He did, and follow Him, and so shall we not walk in darkness. For He Himself says, He who wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. Also, He Himself forbids the (employment of) the force of the sword saying, The worldly princes lord it over them, etc., but not so shall it be with you. Further, Paul says, Whom God did foreknow He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, etc. Also Peter says, Christ has suffered (not ruled) and left us an example, that ye should follow His steps.

Finally it will be observed that it is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate because of these points: The government magistracy is according to the flesh, but the Christian's is according to the Spirit; their houses and dwelling remain in this world, but the Christian's are in heaven; their citizenship is in this world, but the Christian's citizenship is in heaven; the weapons of their conflict and war are carnal and against the flesh only, but the Christian's weapons are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldlings are armed with steel and iron, but the Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. In brief, as in the mind of God toward us, so shall the mind of the members of the body of Christ be through Him in all things, that there may be no schism in the body through which it would be destroyed. For every kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed. Now since Christ is as it is written of Him, His members must also be the same, that His body may remain complete and united to its own advancement and upbuilding.

Starting with that confession, of those that mention the subject at all, every Baptist confession I could find (five) from 1527 to 1614, state that Christians should not hold worldly authority or the office of magistrate. The 1644 London Baptist Confession of Faith says nothing about it. But the 1646 revision of that confession adds an article that states that it is lawful for a Christian to be a magistrate or civil officer. So, a change occurs at this point in time. I think it is not a coincidence that in 1645 the Royalist army of King Charles I was crushed by the Parliamentarian New Model Army at the Battle of Naseby. And in 1646, King Charles I surrendered to the Scots who turned him over to Parliament. Charles's surrender effectively ended the First English Civil War. Many Parliamentarians, including Oliver Cromwell, were very tolerant—even encouraging—towards various independents, including Baptists.

Could it be that the Baptists, seeing now which way the wind was blowing and that the country was now to be run by the Puritan-dominated Parliament (many of whom, as I have said, were tolerant of Baptists), were now tempted to join in with the Parliamentarians and get a piece of the pie? In other words, did the Baptists lose sight of the fact that it was the Bible that they had said prevented them as Christians from seeking worldly power? Did they come to think that now that the repressive monarchy was gone, they were now free to seek worldly power? Additionally, did they deem that to not participate in politics would place them so far on the fringe that they would be inviting Puritan persecution? (After all, in the American colonies, the Puritans did persecute Baptists.) I personally believe that this could very well have been the case. But whatever the case, it is at this point that the belief that Christians must not become magistrates that was held for centuries by Baptists, Anabaptists, and other believers-only-church Christians (as documented in the publications I have mentioned, and many others) was overturned by the English Baptists.

The next Baptist confession to speak on the subject is the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Again, it states that it is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate. The 1689 Confession has come under much criticism, with many Baptists calling it a dipped Presbyterian confession, and I agree. Again, history may shed some light on this confession. The monarchy had been restored in 1660 under Charles II. This led to renewed persecution. The English Baptists then drew up a confession that was nearly identical to the Westminster Confession of Faith that was used by the Anglican Puritans and Presbyterians and, modified as the Savoy Declaration, by the English Congregationalists. In this time of persecution, the Baptists may have wanted to be part of a larger group with more political clout. But it was because of persecution that the Baptist confession that was drawn up in 1677 was not officially signed until 1689, thus coming to be called the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. What change occurred that enabled them to sign the confession? It was in 1688 that James II abdicated the throne and fled to France. In 1689, William and Mary became joint monarchs. They extended toleration to all dissenters who believed in the Trinity, the divine inspiration of the Bible, and who rejected the authority of Rome. This included the Baptists, who, by now, seemed to have forgotten their historical stand against being magistrates. Once again, it seems that the Baptists may have signed a confession that was nearly identical to the popular Westminster Confession so they would be freed from persecution and allowed to share power in the state with people from the other churches.

With the exception of the Philadelphia Confession of 1742, which is really just a repeat of the 1689 Confession, after the 1689 Confession, the subject is not again mentioned in any of the major Baptist confessions I could find. It might be mentioned in some local church confessions, but, of course, I could not look at all of these. So, of seven Baptist confessions that mention the subject, five are "against" and two (I am not counting the Philadelphia Confession as a separate confession) are "for." Those that are against are the older ones.

Scriptures "Against"

As I said, my wife and I found fifteen Scriptures that teach principles that run contrary to Christians serving as government officials.

1. Luke 12:13-14: "And one of the company said unto him, Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me. And he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?" These were civil offices, and Jesus' obvious implication is that He does not desire this civil power. The Apostolic Bible Polyglot renders verse 14: "And he said to him, Man, who ordained me magistrate or apportioner for you?"

2. John 6:15: "When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone." Jesus specifically avoided being made a king of this world.

3. John 18:36: "Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence."

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Copyright © 2011 Peter Ditzel