I am currently teaching an adult Sunday School series on the 5th Commandment, using the WLC and Thomas Watson’s The Ten Commandments as a starting point, and I have been slowly working through all types of relationships between superiors and inferiors. Now we have come to the civil magistrate, and in light of COVID policies and many other things going on in our society, I wonder what is the biblical limit to the authority of the civil magistrate? What I have in mind are not limits imposed by the laws, constitution, or customs of a nation, but limits imposed by Scripture (and good and necessary consequence). Obviously, the civil magistrate does not have authority to command people to sin, but is there any limit short of that?
Here is one view I recently encountered. I had a conversation with a man who argued that the government did not have authority to require people to wear masks because it was out of the sphere of sovereignty of the civil magistrate. When I pointed out the rationale of public health, my interlocutor responded with a belief that public health was merely a prextext and the government was instead testing for compliance. Following up on the spheres of sovereignty line of reasoning, he engaged in what he thought were reductio ad absurdum arguments and asked me if the government had authority to order citizens to wear clothes of a certain color on a stated day of the month or, in an analogy, if a husband had authority to order his wife to get down on all fours and bark like a dog. When I asked him who determines what is abuse of authority and pointed out the danger of making a private judgement, he seemed unfamiliar with the latter term and believed that he was only going with the truths that God so clearly revealed in the Bible. In fact, my interlocutor advanced the argument that if the government commanded him to do something that was not sin but was outside the sphere of sovereignty of the government, he would not comply for the sake of conscience because it would go against his conscience to cooperate with the sin of the government in issuing a command without having authority from God to do so. This man seemed to be familiar with many books and referred to Abraham Kuyper and Rutherford’s Lex Rex, neither of which I have read, but nonetheless it seemed to me that he was channeling a peculiarly American view of authority and not the spirit of the magisterial Reformers.
The question yet remains: what is the limit of the authority of the civil government? For example. does the civil magistrate have the authority to require the use of masks, to require vaccination (let’s assume the vaccines have no connection to abortion to avoid mixing in that issue), to require wearing a certain color on a stated day of the month, or to require getting down on all fours and barking like a dog (I find TSA checkpoints almost as humiliating)? Note that I am not asking whether these commands would be lawful under the system of governance in the U.S., or whether we might wish to contrive a moral way to avoid submitting to such commands, but whether the Bible puts such commands outside the authority of the civil magistrate. However much I might dislike it, I find it difficult to reason that the Bible does so, and I certainly see no permission for inferiors, on their own initiative, to disregard any commands from superiors that the inferiors view as stupid or abusive (if so, how could I ever exercise fatherly discipline on my children?).
While sympathetic to the concerns of my interlocutor, I think his mistake was believing that he could neatly parcel out authority to different spheres of life and avoid the challenge of dealing with stupid and abusive authority by unilaterally declaring that it was no authority at all. A different approach is now forming in my mind. There’s no easy way to delimit a priori what is inside and outside the scope of the authority of the civil magistrate, but a limit is closer to being reached when the command of the civil magistrate more greatly interferes with a Christian’s service to other authorities and obligations. So it is not freedom from authority, but freedom to serve the most fitting authority, depending on the circumstances of life. And rather than unilaterally absolving oneself of the need to submit to unedifying or abusive orders, a Christian ought to appeal to an appropriate higher authority, or work within the system to change things, or contrive through moral means to escape the requirement, or do only the minimum to obey the letter of the law, or as a last resort, engage in humble civil disobedience.
Any thoughts or comments?