What is the biblical limit to the authority of the civil magistrate?

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?

1 Like

1 Timothy 1:7 comes to mind, “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” It appears, though I hope for better with the man you’ve been teaching, that he’s unteachable. He’s so confident in his understanding yet he appears to be pretty ignorant of all that is involved in the issue. When others see things SO CLEARLY when they are not, and when they can’t be reasoned with at all, the issue is no longer the truth but pride. He seems to be very proud in his opinion. He’d much prefer to be the teacher than to be willing to submit to your teaching.

How did you deal with believing versus unbelieving superiors in all of the other relationships? I know the Bible deals directly with a few cases: husbands, kings, …

When the king or government disobeys God, it doesn’t grant us an automatic out. I wonder if that’s true in all relationships.

Like was concluded in another recent post, where a third party was asking how can God be God when he allows/wills evil…the tables need to be turned to focus on our sin, our obedience, our duty, our pride.

It’s good to know what a government ought to do, but I suspect we are generally only allowed to disobey when there’s no viable alternative to disobeying God.

We very well ought to resist, to fight for change, etc. But to do it while obeying is the hard part.

I don’t have more to say regarding specific spheres.

Have you read the Evangel statement regarding COVID? It certainly puts your question squarely in the contexts you mentioned.

He is young, and I was much like him at that age – confident in a nice and tidy system. Nonetheless, he is very respectful towards me on account of my greater life experience and office. He is not a member of my church or denomination, but I hope I can encourage him towards what I think is a more biblical view.

I almost posted my comment under this post, which I think goes in the same direction as mine, but I wanted my question to be broader and go beyond COVID issues.

Yes. If he quoted Rutherford or Kuyper in support, he’s clueless. Guys who pick up their doctrine online will buy copies of such books, but have no idea the context of the author and the battle he was fighting, so their misinterpretations are constant. But throwing around the names is impressive. Trust your instincts having read the magisterial reformers, as I’m guessing you have.

Dear brothers,

Not sure about this. On the one hand, we have Daniel asking “permission not to defile himself” and the Apostles refusing to be gagged preaching the Gospel. “We must obey God rather than man” is the mother loadstone of this side of the truth. On the other hand, we have Naaman asking, "In this matter may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter.” This is only the explicit one, but we can extrapolate many such conflicts of conscience in the service of any number of men in the courts of their king.

Yes, there are notable examples of their faith leading them to disobey him. Still, it’s quite a distance from keeping our habit of praying in the window for all the world to see, to never sinning in any slightest way because of our submission to our king. And this not only with pagan kings, but also the kings of Israel and Judah. Do we really think Joseph never sinned as a function of obeying Pharaoh? Vice President Pence in obeying President Trump? Mrs. Pence in obeying Mr. Pence?

There’s where I keep asking the belligerators to focus their attention. Are they really capable of thinking or saying that their wife should never allow herself to sin due to her honoring the authority of her husband? Then the opposite: do we really think we should teach our daughters never to follow their husband’s wishes or commands if doing so would cause them to sin—or to participate in his sin? I mean, really?

Say he has high blood pressure and asks his dear wife to keep salt on the dinner table? Say he asks her to go on a walk with him Saturday evening when he needs to finish writing his sermon, and it’s become a habit for him to put it off until early Sunday morning? Say she has promised to help clean the house of a new mother coming home from the hospital tomorrow, and she is scheduled to meet those women at the new mom’s house at 4:30 that afternoon. Then, at the last minute, her dear husband (who tends to do these things) calls her and says he would like to go to their son’s soccer game. He is able to get off work early after all, and he wants her to come with him. But of course, she herself in her own personhood and commitments, knowing full well how the others are depending on her keeping her word (and she most certainly is a woman known for always and in every way keeping her word) tells him “no,” explaining it would be sin for her to do as he asks.

But who knows? Maybe her husband understands because he refuses to use the interstate highway system given that it’s a clear violation of the Tenth Amendment and he absolutely will not participate in any slightest way with the unconstitutional federal government, even to the point of benefitting in any tiniest part in its illegal and immoral and unethical lawlessness.

Being clean machines of a reformed type who have high expectations of a clean toilet and shower and garage and doctrine and reputation at church and work, we expect authority and submission to be doable such that we are able to reassure ourselves that our conscience toward our civil authority, his conscience toward us, our conscience toward our wife and children, their conscience toward us, our conscience toward our sheep, their conscience toward us, will all be as clean as our toilet and shower. No drips. No hairs. Certainly no scum buildup. But is this really how sanctification works? When God commands us to “be perfect,” is He commanding us to know and do what is completely right every time with a completely right motivation, also?

Of course He is, and yet how and when and why, particularly in relationship to our authorities/subordinates?

Once had a subordinate who kept a notepad on which each day he carefully wrote down each smallest task of the day he was to accomplish, drawing a check-box next to each item out in the margin of the page. Then, meticulously, he checked boxes all day. He came right at the stroke of nine and left every single day precisely at the stroke of five. But you know what? Despite doing precisely what he was asked and coming and leaving precisely when he was supposed to, we felt the lack of his commitment and initiative. He was busying fulfilling his obligations, and thus left unfulfilled our needs and desires.

Years ago, had a friend who was a fellow presbyterian pastor in the same presbytery whose wife was baptist and would get up and stalk out of the sanctuary, showing her great superiority in matters Biblical and theological, each time her husband started the liturgy for a infant baptism. She didn’t allow her husband to force her to participate in sin. Oh no! Certainly not!

Such high principles, except that she was a censorious shrew who, in time, utterly destroyed her home. But she herself was a belligerator who demonstrated for all to see what were the limits of proper authority under the clear commands of Scripture. Oh yes.

When men disrespect civil authority, you can bet a couple things. First, they are bad husbands and fathers, whether that failure is passivity or being overbearing. Second, they are bad at honoring and submitting to their elders, also. Third, and usually, they aren’t nearly as speckless in their relationship to their boss at work as they are to the civil authority or their elders, and this because they love security and money, and they’re fully aware of the ever-present possibility that their boss will fire them.

One final thing: it wouldn’t be so awful that these men are in bondage to their own perfect knowledge and understanding if they just kept quiet and didn’t try to condemn fellow Christians on the basis of their own perfect knowledge and understanding. Their disrespect for, and rebellion against, civil authority is bad enough, but add in their demand that every Christian submit to them in their judgments makes them intolerable. Now maybe this young man is not of that sort, and is perfectly willing to keep his private judgments private, but if so, he is unlike his heroes and almost any other of their acolytes. I might ask him if he thinks it’s sin for other Christians to obey the civil and public health authorities where they overstep their proper bounds of authority, Biblically and constitutionally? Press him to say he does not think it’s sin for others to do what he’s decided is sin, and I’m guessing he will hem and haw and, in the end, not be able to leave others’ consciences free of his own judgments. He’ll keep wanting to say it’s sin for others to submit to what he deems unlawful exercise of civil authority, but he’ll know you’re laying a trap and do his best to hem and haw his way out of it.

Which he better do because what right does he have to judge a fellow Christian in these matters? Has God given him authority over fellow believers, particularly given that he’s not even an elder? Is he not violating his proper bounds of authority? Is he not binding other men’s consciences? Does he not know that other men and women answer to their own master, and not to him? Etc.

All for now. Love,


I read parts of Lex Rex and the only way I could construe a way he’d argue against masks if you start with the assumptions that masks are idolatry. But that isn’t the idolatry that was in mind of Rutherford in that book, nor do I think masks are idolatry. Perhaps they could be for a small few who wear masks in their cars while driving by themselves.

It was interesting that these books were thrown out as supporting the belligerators cause but I never saw quotes from the books. When I began to look for myself I was astonished how they were/are twisted the details.

A good quote I found from Pierre Viret a while back:

“But if his tyranny seeks to extend itself beyond the body and goods, and he seeks to compel us to commit idolatry and transgress the commands of God, in such case we must hate him-that is, Love God more than him, and obey Him, the supreme Ruler, more readily than men, who are no more than dust and ashes, just as the apostles, who feared Him who can kill the body and soul more than those who killed Jesus Christ (Acts 5:29)”


An interesting wrinkle here that I’d like to get the thoughts of others on:

I spoke with a man making similar arguments who said his Lutheran tradition doesn’t speak of three spheres of authority but four. The fourth being the “personal” sphere of authority.

I’m not familiar with enough writings to know whether he is right, but the implications for your argument would seem to be that telling us what to wear is pretty far inside another sphere of authority.

The further inside that sphere, the higher the need would have to be to justify it, I think, rather than a hard line. I think you’re right on that, and interestingly our laws are written acknowledging that fact as well. There are various levels from strict scrutiny all the way down to rational basis.


This is what I had in mind.

My garage is in terrible shape. What does that say about me? I try to keep on top of the most critical tasks, but there has always been a general pattern of disorganization in my life. I finally disciplined myself to the point where everything was under control, but then I got married and had kids (and more kids, and then teenagers), and I’ve never been able to catch up since.

We didn’t specifically discuss this, but when I mentioned that I followed my employer’s mask mandate even though I thought masks were annoying and ineffectual, he mistakenly assumed it was only to avoid getting in trouble rather than my sincere submission to a superior’s requirement

I think this is a good way to put it.

Alright, Joel; clean environment for you, and clean science. The point I was making had to do with our expectation of clean consciences and thinking we can reduce moral choices to clarity. Also, I would not oppose submission to fear in talking abt the nature of obedience to any authority. Inextricably tied to God and those He puts over us. Idea that obedience is somehow less worthy when motivated by fear or reward is prevalent today, but unsupported by actual preaching of Jesus, to take just One Example. Love,

1 Like

Fortunately, I do not do science in my garage.

I don’t disagree, but I do think there is something incongruous about speaking strongly on the rights of conscience and then readily folding when consequences are imminent.

1 Like