"Making my vote Biblical"



In the recent election there was much discussion with respect to how a Christian should (or not) vote. The discussion that has ensued has been enlightening in many respects, but has, unfortunately, often generated more heat than light.

For a number of reasons - mainly the lack of time - I have avoided getting personally involved in the discussion. But as the dust is settling somewhat, I would like to offer a few reflections.

The concern stems from the fact that the candidates for the two main parties are both reprehensible, and in order to vote for either a Christian would have to hold his nose, or in the eyes of some, violate his conscience. Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, created quite a stir when he went on record saying that he would not cast a vote for either.

"The 2016 presidential election presents conservative Christians with an excruciating decision that is testing our character. This predicament is also causing both debate and division within our own churches, denominations and organizations - and even in some extended families. This predicament has a name: Donald J. Trump."

The cause of that predicament:

"He is, in terms of character, the personification of what evangelicals have preached (and voted) against. Under normal circumstances, he would be the realization of evangelical nightmares, not the carrier of evangelical hopes."

But lest anyone conclude that he fails to see the threat posed by a Clinton presidency, he went on to add . . .

"To be clear, I find Clinton's character morally disqualifying for the office. Conservative Christians are not wrong to see the future of the Supreme Court in the balance. They are not wrong to see a restoration of the Clinton dynasty as a grave danger to unborn life and to values we believe to be essential to America's cultural health and influence in the world. "

But to vote for Trump as a means of preventing a Clinton election is not an option, he contended. "I could never vote for Clinton," he confesses, but "nor can I vote against my conscience just to prevent her from reaching the Oval Office." Conscience, he insists, is the central issue in the present crisis. Having condemned Bill Clinton for his violation of the office, with the insistence that moral character ("the essential minimum of moral fiber") is "absolutely necessary" for leadership, Mohler feels that it would be inconsistent to endorse Trump for similar behavior.

"At this most difficult moment for evangelical Christians, the world is watching to see if we believe what we have been preaching about morality and character. At the very least, conservative Christians must acknowledge the moral issues at stake and avoid becoming apologists for politics devoid of character. Something even more important than a presidential election is at stake: our moral credibility."

There can be no doubt but that Mohler speaks for many Evangelical Christians. In addition to the "no shows" who stayed home from the polls, there were those who voted for a third party candidate for many of the same reasons he cited. However, I question the wisdom of either of these positions, and the arguments on which they are based.

It seems to me that there are several dimensions involved in the discussion. There is, first of all, the purely political. The question here is whether a vote for anyone other than Trump (or a no-vote) is, in fact, a vote for Hillary. Strictly speaking, it is not. However, inasmuch as it does not contribute to the success of the one providing the greatest challenge to her, the presumed frontrunner, it at the very least makes a victory for her all the more likely simply in the fact that the primary challenge to her is diminished. Along the same lines, it could be argued that voting for anyone other than a viable candidate is - apart from whatever symbolism is attached to it - a wasted vote. In one of the exchanges I encountered among the discussions carried on during the course of the election [1] the author posed the question: "Why does Calvert hold that there is no possible option to choose a biblically qualified candidate? The very existence of third party candidates, and the option to freely write in a godly candidate provide prima facie evidence that Christians are not being compelled to vote for only a Democrat or Republican!" Yes, there were nine candidates, but in our system at this particular time in history, there were only two viable candidates. To suggest that one of the other seven names on the ballot were 'viable' would require conceding that all seven were, a point I do not think anyone would concede.

But beyond the political are considerations of a moral and ethical nature, theological, as well as historical. It is these that I am most concern to address.

There is the question of conscience, and the 'right' thing to do in light of Biblical teaching. Al Mohler insists that he cannot in conscience vote for someone whose character is as disreputable as the candidates in question. If that is his conviction, he must not vote for them; to act against conscience is sin.

But much of the discussion suggests that others, having adopted a more pragmatic approach, have simply disregarded conscience and are thereby morally compromised.[2] Where clear-cut principles are involved, one can bring an indictment against the actions of others who violate them, but in the failure to persuade others that such principles come into play, it becomes a matter of personal conviction, requiring tolerance for the opposing view.

Some of the discussion seems to confuse pragmatism (an ideology) with being pragmatic (an outlook that allows for flexibility within the confines of moral boundaries). [3] Pragmatism is grounded in the relativistic worldview of men like C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. But the theistic outlook of the book of Proverbs allowed for considerable weight to be given the practical consequences of one's actions: "Avoid this behavior because if you don't, this will happen . . . ." The statements of Jesus with respect to the unjust steward come to mind here, that his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; "for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light." As Calvin comments: "By this comparison he charges us with highly criminal indifference, in not providing for the future." While the future in view in the parable is eternity, the point remains. It is shrewdness in getting the most profitable results that is commended.

The question before us is whether there are biblical principles that compel us to vote for a believer, or at the very least an individual that is 'above reproach', or that precludes us from voting for someone of 'questionable' character? But before addressing that question directly, there are a couple of peripheral matters that come to mind.

1 - To insists that one cannot vote in conscience for someone of questionable character means that for all practical intents and purposes, one would NEVER vote.

While, yes, there are from time to time good and / or Godly folk running for public office, they are the exception and not the rule. In a fallen world we typically have to content ourselves with the lesser of the evils, and that a is a reality we simply cannot get around.

The bottom line - and no system of eschatology or social theory can get around it - is that Biblically speaking, the office of the civil magistrate is an institution of common grace, established in the context of creation and the fall - not redemption; with the most fundamental task being simply to restrain sin, protect the rights of the individual, and preserve order in the body politic. It is typically occupied by unbelievers, the subjects of God's common grace. (That they may promote the cause of Christ more openly can only occur when the Gospel has had its sanctifying influence on a culture through the conversion of the masses. And even where it has had such an impact, there is an ebb and flow in the spiritual state of a nation that at times renders Christian influence minimal - apart from sheer coercion, which is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Even the most ardent Theonomist will deny that the Law of God can be legislated apart from such a movement of the Spirit of God!)

In writing of the qualification for holding public office, Southern Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney would assert:

"The authority of the magistrate is not due to his Christianity, but to his official character. . . . If we were citizens of a Mohammedan or pagan country, we should owe obedience to their civil rulers in things temporal. And this shows that the authority is not dependent on the magistrate's Christianity, even where he happens to be a Christian . . . the civil authority of the magistrate is no more due to his Christianity than that of the Grand Turk in Turkey, who has no Christianity"[4]


2 - The purpose for voting is to accomplish specific results; the very act is pragmatic in nature.

First, there is no inherent 'right' to vote, and corresponding to that there is no principle set forth in Scripture that demands that those serving in public office acquire it by popular election. People having a voice in who will govern them is a rarity historically speaking. That may be the most desirable form of government, and there may be Biblical precedent (in the election of deacons) for it, but there is no clear Biblical precept requiring it. That we would have any say at all means that we are given an opportunity that must be perceived as a privilege and as a stewardship.[5]

In a previous election I heard people speaking of making a 'statement' with their vote, essentially the exercise of free speech. But voting is not about making a statement; it is about getting results. If I want to make a 'statement' I might stand on the street with a banner! In our system, where the people who will represent us acquire that privilege by the actions we take at the poll, it is the result, not the action itself, that matters. The fact that I vote may be symbolic, but what I do with my vote is a matter of stewardship, for which I will be account-able to God, and the results of which I will have to live with. Perhaps more importantly, it is a result my posterity will have to live with.

It is at this point that the question of conscience arises in my thinking. Voting for an unbeliever - when God does not require belief of the one holding the office, in no way violates my conscience. Submitting to an unbeliever - when Paul's injunction to submit to the authorities was penned under the rule of Nero, in no way violates my conscience. But my conscience will not allow me (a) to fail to vote for the most qualified (electable) candidate, or (b) fail to prevent the most menacing candidate from getting into office. If we are to pray (I Tim. 2) for order that we may live dignified lives, then my vote should be perceived as my working toward the means by which that prayer will be answered.

But the question remains, is there a principle at stake? Are we obliged to vote only for a believer, or one who vows to advance the cause of Christ? Some would look beyond the Creation Mandates previously cited with respect to the establishment of the office of the civil magistrate, and cite the redemptive motif in Scripture that follows . . . a motif that depicts that office as having been brought under the lordship of Christ, and consequently subservient to Him. In so doing appeal has been made to Isaiah 49 as pointing to a state of affairs in which the civil magistrate serves the interests of the church, with the implication that he should be a believer (or at least very sympathetic to the Christian cause):

"Behold, I will lift up My hand to the nations
and set up My standard to the peoples;
And they will bring your sons in their bosom,
and your daughters will be carried on their shoulders.
Kings will be your guardians,
and their princesses your nurses.
They will bow down to you with their faces to the earth
and lick the dust of your feet;
and you will know that I am the Lord;
Those who hopefully wait for Me will not be put to shame."

Calvin's commentary on this passage has also been cited as supporting this point of view. We cite it at length:

"'kings' and 'queens' shall supply everything that is necessary for nourishing the offspring of the Church. Having formerly driven out Christ from their dominions, they shall henceforth acknowledge him to be the supreme King: and shall render to him all honor, obedience, and worship. This took place when the Lord revealed himself to the whole world by the Gospel; for mighty kings and princes not only submitted to the yoke of Christ, but likewise contributed their riches to raise up and maintain the Church of Christ, so as to be her guardians and defenders.

Hence it ought to be observed that something remarkable is here demanded from princes, besides an ordinary profession of faith; for the Lord has bestowed on them authority and power to defend the Church and to promote the glory of God. . . . removing superstitions and putting an end to all wicked idolatry, about advancing the kingdom of Christ and maintaining purity of doctrine, about purging scandals and cleansing from the filth that corrupts piety and impairs the lustre of the Divine majesty. . . . they at the same time supply the pastors and ministers of the Word with all that is necessary for food and maintenance . . .

But yet, after this frightfully ruinous condition, we ought to hope for a restoration of the Church, and such a conversion of kings that they shall shew themselves to be 'nursing-fathers' and protectors of believers, and shall bravely defend the doctrine of the Word."

But what exactly does this passage teach?

First, it is one of the 'Servant Songs' in which the work of Messiah is prophesied. The redemp-tion of the nation is central to this work. But verse 14f. reflects the despondency of the people, who feel as though they had been betrayed or abandoned, that the promises of God had been forgotten.

"But Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me,

the Lord has forgotten me.'"

To this the prophet responds that it is inconceivable that God would do this - and in fact has not. God's love for His people is unabated, and He is committed to their wellbeing. He will, in fact, come to their rescue, and it is within His power to do so.

But in answer to the question,

"It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel."

He announces that he would also make Him to be a light of the nations, "so that His salvation would reach to the end of the earth," not merely Israel. However, not only will He restore the nation to their inheritance, and not only would He include the Gentiles in His redemptive dealings, He would utilize their enemies to bring this about.

"They will bring your sons in their bosom,
and your daughters will be carried on their shoulders.
Kings will be your guardians,
and their princesses your nurses."

The initial fulfillment was the return of the Jews from Babylon to their homeland. But it was not exhausted in that event. Matthew Henry brings this out in his commentary:


"This promise was in part fulfilled to the Jews after their return out of captivity. Several of the kings of Persia were very tender of their interests, countenanced and encouraged them, as Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes. Esther the queen was a nursing mother to the Jews that remained in their captivity, putting her life in her hand to snatch the child out of the flames. The Christian church, after a long captivity, was happy in some such kings and queens as Constantine and his mother Helena, and afterwards Theodosius, and others, who nursed the church with all possible care and tenderness. Whenever the sceptre of government is put into the hands of religious princes, then this promise is fulfilled."

In the words of Franz Delitzsch, in these words we see "the state becoming serviceable to the church," in which "there is realized a prelude of the perfected kingdom of God, in which the dualism of the state and the church is entirely abolished." [6]

This, however, represents the ideal state, and one which comes about by the power of the Spirit through the proclamation of the Gospel, and which is manifest only occasionally and partially in the present age. As the author of Hebrews says that we have but 'tasted' of the powers of the age to come, we have only, and will only 'taste' of the fulfillment of this promise in the present age. If, for the sake of argument, one were to insist that the reign of Christ will be manifested outwardly among the nations prior to His return (presumably more than it has thus far), my response would be that for the present - until it does - the question is largely moot for the simple reason that service to Christ cannot be coerced: "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal . . . ."

With Matthew Henry, Albert Barnes notes that this has been already fulfilled to a considerable extent, "though doubtless it is destined to a more ample fulfillment still in the brighter days of this world's history, when the gospel shall spread everywhere." It goes without saying that one's eschatology will color his understanding of this matter, and the question of the nature of the millennium is open as far as I am concerned. While I probably lean more toward an Amillennial understanding, I am open to the alternative - the post-millennial position. But again, even if there is to be a time when the nations will bow before Christ, and Kings will be 'guardians' to the church, such is not the case in the present phase of history.

Spurgeon would add an important disclaimer, when he proclaimed . . .

"I have heard this passage quoted as a reason why there should be a State Church, - that kings should nourish the Church, - Henry VIII., for instance, and George IV. It was poor milk, I am sure, that they ever gave the Church of God. Yet I have no objection whatever to this text being carried out to the full, - ay, to the very letter, - only mind where the kings are to be put. What place does the verse say that they are to occupy? 'They shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet.' There is no headship of the Church here, nothing of that sort; the kings are to be at the feet of the Church, and that is what the State ought to do, submit itself to God, and obey his commands, and give full liberty to the preaching of the gospel. This is all that the true Church of Christ asks, and all she can ever fairly take if she is loyal to her Lord."

The concept of Corpus Christianum - the Christian society as indistinguishable from the body of Christ - as manifest during the Middle Ages, had relevance because of the pervasive influence of Christianity. Europe was perceived (presumed) to be 'Christian', and the boundaries between Church and State were blurred, to say the least. The question was typically over who would have the upper hand, the civil or ecclesiastical power. As Leo Pfeffer observes, "During temporary periods of history and in scattered areas, the church has dominated the state; but overwhelm-ingly in time and place, state has dominated church and used it for its own purposes."[7] As Kenneth Scott Latourette relates,

"The struggle between church and state had been chronic, and some of the outstanding saints, including Anselm, Becket, and Hildebrand, were famous for resistance to what they deemed encroachments of the state. After 1500 however, the state had seemingly triumphed."[8]

And "in England," writes Pfeffer, "perhaps more than any other country, Erastianism achieved its greatest triumph." [9] The Act of Supremacy was passed by Parliament in 1534. This was done on November 23. Immediately prior to this the clergy were humbled before King Henry VIII, being forced to implore his pardon for offences they had committed. In their petition Henry was referred to, in obedience to his own dictation, as 'The Protector and Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England.'

It was in this milieu that the Protestant Reformation occurred, and against such a backdrop that the thinking and documents of the period should be understood.[10] The Scotts Confession,[11] cited in recent discussions, asserts the following:

"Moreover, to kings, princes, rulers, and magistrates, we affirm that chiefly and most principally the conservation and purgation of the religion appertains; so that not only they are appointed for civil policy, but also for maintenance of the true religion, and for suppressing of idolatry and superstition whatsoever: as in David, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah, and others, highly commended for their zeal in that case, may be espied."

The Westminster Confession,[12] in its original reading, was as follows:

"The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God."

Reference has also been made to the Belgic Confession, which asserts:

"God, because of the depravity of mankind, has appointed kings, princes, and magistrates . . . to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. . . . Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the Gospel every-where, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as He commands in His Word."[13]

The first point that should be made is that (and my focus is on the Westminster Confession) there is at least the appearance of Erastianism [14] present in this statement. In addressing it, G. I. Williamson states that "We come, in this part of the Confession of Faith, to what can only be called an acute difficulty."[15] "On the one hand," he writes,

"we read that 'the civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments' ... and on the other, that 'he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church.' ... In chapter XXX we read that 'Jesus Christ ... hath therein appointed a government distinct from the civil magistrate.' But here we read that independent action is envisioned only 'if magistrates be open enemies to the Church,' in which event 'the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their churches, may meet together in such assemblies.'"

To all of which he concludes: "What is this if it is not a direct contradiction?" Due to the problematic nature of the original wording, the majority of Churches that have adopted the Westminster Confession have made modifications at this point.[16] Citing the error of the Scottish church of receiving endowment from the state, T. E. Peck writes:

"The Confession of the Westminster Assembly being composed under the influence of the Scotch commissioners and of Englishmen brought up in the Erastian establishment, could not of course be expected to teach the truth more purely, on this subject, than the Scotch. Hence it was changed before it was adopted by the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (1788)."[17]

Robert Lathan likewise, in reflecting the views of the Seceder Church, concurs with Peck's assessment that the view first expressed in the Confession was Erastian; "It renders to Caesar the things that are God's." What is surprising, he suggests, is not that there are traces of Erastianism found there, but that there are so few! [18] They were men of their times, and thought and wrote against the backdrop of Medieval Europe, with its presumed Corpus Christianum, in which church and society - in a culture that had come under the sway of the Gospel - were indistinguishable.[19] Dabney would write that . . .

"The separation and independence of Church and State was not only not the doctrine of the Reformation, no Christian nation holds it to this day, except ours. The doctrine of religious liberty was not evolved at the Reformation; Protestants held it a right and duty to persecute heretics. Rome's guilt was that she persecuted those nearer right than herself, and did it cruelly and unjustly."[20]

That the original doctrine, as expressed in the Confession of 1647, was at the very least influenced by Erastianism cannot be doubted. The question of church and state was of immense importance for this gathering, and as William Hetherington observes, the leaven of Erastianism was evident in the fact that "the very calling of the assembly was solely the deed of the civil power, and that their deliberations were limited to such matters as should be proposed to them by the Parliament."[21] However, not only was the Erastian influence felt in the calling of the assembly by the civil authorities, but through attempts to influence its proceedings and conclusions, and in the presence of Erastians among the delegates. As Robert Baillie, one of the Scottish commissioners, noted, "Most of the lawyers are strong Erastians, and would have all the church government depend absolutely upon the Parliament." Only two of the clergy who participated identified themselves as such.

The question of Erastianism was prominent at Westminster. William Hetherington, in his excellent history of the Westminster Assembly, points out that hints of the controversy emerged at an early stage of the Assembly's deliberations, but the main debate occurred after issues with the Independents was basically resolved. Further, the debate extended beyond the walls of the Assembly, to those of the Parliament itself. On October 20, 1645 a measure passed both houses that was titled, "An Ordinance of the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament about Suspension from the Lord's Supper." In it was a provision that if an individual was censured by the church, he had the right of appeal, not only through the various courts of the church, but ultimately to the Parliament. That is, the last word in discipline lay with the civil power. This was reinforced by a subsequent ordinance passed in March of the following year. [22]

At the heart of the controversy, as intimated in the above-mentioned ordinance, was the question of church discipline, the insistence of the Erastians being that it was within the scope of the civil authority to administer it. In response to the majority view, that it was to the church that authority for discipline had been conferred, one commissioner would respond: "Where the temporal sword (the magistracy) is sufficient for punishment of offences, there will be little need for this new (ecclesiastical) discipline."[23]

The Erastians in the Assembly differed among themselves as to the justification for the position they held. The lawyers did so on the basis of expediency; for the state not to control the church would result in an imperium in imperio (a government within a government). The 'divines' (clergy) argued that the theocratic arrangement found within the Old Testament provided a precedent for us to follow. They further argued that in Israel there was a blended polity involving a mixed jurisdiction in which the king was the supreme head under, and in which civil and ecclesiastical elements were not clearly distinguished. [24] But as Dabney insists, "a theocratic State is no rule for a State not theocratic." [25]

But the charge of Erastianism has not gone unchallenged.[26] Hetherington is insistent that such charges are unwarranted.[27]

"Proceeding upon the sacred rule, to render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's, they willingly ascribe to the civil magistrate a supreme power in the State, - all that belongs to his province, not merely with regard to his due authority over the persons and property of men, but also with regard to what pertains to his own official mode of rendering homage to the King of kings. It is in this latter department of magisterial duty that what is called the power of the civil magistrate circa sacra - about religious matters - consists. But there his province ends, and he has no power in sacris - in religious matters. This is most carefully guarded in the leading proposition of chapter xxx - 'THE LORD JESUS, AS KING AND HEAD OF HIS CHURCH, HATH THEREIN APPOINTED A GOVERNMENT IN THE HAND OF CHURCH OFFICERS, DISTINCT FROM THE CIVIL MAGISTRATE.' The leading Erastians of that period, learned and subtle as they were, felt it impossible to evade the force of that proposition, and could but refuse to give to it the sanction of the Legislature. They could not, however, prevail upon the Assembly either to modify or suppress it; and there it remains, and must remain, as the unanswered and unanswerable refutation of the Erastian heresy by the Westminster Assembly of Divines."

Similarly, nineteenth century churchman James Bannerman argues that the Confession was not Erastian. He concedes that the words "do sound at first as if they ascribed to the civil magistrate a larger share of power circa sacra than we should now concede to him." But, he insists, consideration of the context "and to the real meaning of the language used," will dispel concerns to this effect.[28]

In defending the original wording he argues that the questionable statements have to be read in light of others which "expressly and undeniably exclude the proper jurisdiction of the civil magistrate in spiritual matters," adding that "this passage must be understood in accordance with, and not in contradiction to, them." He cites XXX.1 as providing a baseline from which this passage is to be understood:

"The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate."

He then goes on to cite the text in question:

"The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven,"

to which he adds, "it is plain that this first clause is intended to limit what follows in the section."

"The uniform and undeniable doctrine of the Confession of Faith, then, is a denial of the proper jurisdiction of the civil magistrate in spiritual and ecclesiastical maters. ... and unless the Confession of Faith is to be interpreted as contradicting itself . . . it is impossible that the charge of Erastianism can be well founded." [29]

But this begs the question. It assumes that the Confession is consistent at all points, and that it cannot or does not contradict itself; i.e. is infallible - a proposition the Confession itself explicitly denies (XXXI.4). With Dr. Williamson, when, after denying jurisdiction of the civil magistrate in spiritual and ecclesiastical matters, it goes on to assert that it has the right, authority, and responsibility to maintain the unity and purity of the church, suppress heresy, police the worship of the church, and convene and preside over ecclesiastical assemblies, seeing to it that "whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God," I am compelled to ask, "What is this if it is not a direct contradiction!"

Dr. Bannerman goes on to make a distinction between civil authority about the church as opposed to civil power manifested in the church (see Hetherington above). The objective to be accomplished in the involvement of the civil authorities, he notes, is expressed in terms of:

1) preserving the peace and unity of the Church,

2) preserving the purity of the truth,

3) suppressing heresy and blasphemy,

4) preventing or reforming corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline, and

5) the administration of the ordinances of God.

The means by which these objectives are to be accomplished include convening ecclesiastical assemblies, being present at them, and seeing to it that "whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God." But even Bannerman noted that even this was qualified by the Kirk in 1647 when the Confession was ratified, limiting it to "churches not duly constituted or settled."

While we may be able to accept the distinction between about and in the church, I would contend that the function of the state 'about' the church consists primarily of maintaining an environment conducive to the peaceful operations of the church acting on its own accord,[30] not involvement to the extent Bannerman would be pleased to allow.


With this in mind. the changes made in the Confessions were important and necessary, and for two reasons.

The first is simply that they were unbiblical. Composed at the time they were, they reflected the mindset (presumptions) of that day, but subsequent historical developments led to further Biblical reflection, and refinement in the church's understanding about the proper relationship of church and state. Notably, the perspective of R. L. Dabney, who was not only thoroughly familiar with the times and teachings of the Reformers, and who not only appreciated and shared their convictions on 99% of their teaching, but who had also witnessed the changes brought about by the Age of Reason, the Revolution in France, as well as developments in the New World, represents an advancement in Christian thinking. The same could be said of Abraham Kuyper, and his doctrine of Sphere Sovereignty.

In addition to the doctrine of sphere sovereignty, the doctrine of human depravity (rendering secular rulers incompetent to judge in spiritual matters), as well as the nature of the rule of Christ (ambiguous in Scripture and controversial among its interpreters), should cause us to give pause to such an allowance. In short, I have to reject the doctrine set forth in the 1647 Confession on exegetical grounds.[31]

Secondly, the changes were necessary due to the dangers posed by the powers granted the civil authority as originally set forth. Once again, I cite Dr. Dabney, who spoke passionately and unambiguously about the matter at hand. The issue before him was state endowment of an established church.

"This union, on this theory, between Church and State, necessitates the surrender of the Church's spiritual independence. . . .In other words, the preachers of this State Church are, in their ministerial functions; State officials, and, of course, should be subordinate, as to those functions, to the State. Responsibility must bind back to the source whence the office comes. But now where is this minster's allegiance to Christ?"[32]

In defense of his thesis he cites the experience of the Church of Scotland, where "the faithful men of the Free Church found that the only way to retain their allegiance to Christ was to relinquish their connection with the State," leading the Secession Churches to exclaim, "Here is an illustration of the incompatibility of spiritual independence and Church establishments!"

In the absence of anything even approximating an 'ideal' state of affairs at this point in history, Dabney concludes:

"When a State can be shown; where there is but one denomination to choose, and that immediately organized by God Himself just then; where there is an assurance of a succession of inspired prophets to keep this denomination on the right track; where the king who is to be at the head of this State Church is supernaturally nominated by God, and guided in his action by an oracle, then we will admit the application of the case."


In conclusion, in the present age, and under the present set of circumstances, there is no warrant to insist that the one holding public office be a Christian. Further, given the nature of the office - an institution of Common Grace, and having as its basic function to serve as a restraint against evil (in preserving order in the body politic, and in the protection of individual rights) - my conscience allows me, distasteful though it may be, to cast my vote for even the most disreputable person, provided he/she is the 'lesser of the evils'. On the contrary, as previously stated, my conscience will not allow me (a) to fail to vote for the most qualified (electable) candidate, or (b) fail to prevent the most menacing candidate from getting into office. If I am to pray that we might lead "tranquil and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity," I need also to work to that end. And my vote is a crucial part of that work.


Soli Deo Gloria



The Westminster Confession of Faith


the Office of the Civil Magistrate


The Westminster Confession of Faith was approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on August 27, 1647, and has served as the primary doctrinal standard for Presbyterian churches since that time. It's authority in American Presbyterianism was first established by the Adopting Act of 1729, in which the Synod of Philadelphia required ministers to agree with the 'essential and necessary Articles' of the Confession. This was "a compromise between Scots-Irish ministers, who preferred strict subscription to confessional standards in order to maintain orthodoxy, and the New Englanders, who preferred less hierarchical church government and believed the individual conscience could not be bound by others but only by the Bible."[33]

On May 28, 1787 (while the Constitutional Congress was wrapping up its work), the Synod of Philadelphia and New York, meeting in Philadelphia, proposed amendments to the Confession in light of the new relationship between church and state in the new world. These were formally adopted in 1788. As Lee Irons observes, in comparing the revised with the original document, it is "more than apparent that the position held by the original Westminster divines was formally and intentionally repudiated by the American Presbyterian church." He goes on to note that the "radical nature of the changes" become all the more apparent when one considers that not only the text of the Confession was changed, but the proof texts cited were changed as well. Although they did not have binding constitutional authority, "they illuminate the intent of both the Westminster divines and the Synod of Philadelphia and New York with respect to their doctrine of the civil magistrate." [34]

G. I. Williamson calls attention to the fact that this action was not altogether unique. He cites the Belgic Confession of Faith, adding that "practically every Presbyterian and reformed church has addressed itself in one way or another to the difficulty presented by this contradiction."[35] The Reformed Presbyterian Church, which has retained the original language, he notes, has nonetheless issued a special declaration on the subject:

"No ecclesiastical authority is lodged in the hands of private citizens or civil Magistrates; Church judicatories are subordinate only to Christ Jesus. They appoint, by an exclusive right, their own times and places of meeting and adjournment . . . ."

But he goes on to conclude, "It is difficult to see how this statement can be reconciled with the Confession."

Robert Latham provides details about the manner in which the Associate Reformed Church dealt with the issue.[36] We note first that the synod did not exist at the time of the original Adoption act, its formation coming in 1782 with the merger of the Associate and Reformed bodies. In the original negotiations a basis of union were drawn up in 1778, consisting of eight propositions. In May of the following year five of the eight were adopted unanimously, but the last three were rejected, with modifications offered in their place. Latham writes as follows:[37]

Since the union which formed the Associate Reformed Church cannot be clearly under-stood unless the basis upon which that union was founded is known, all the propositions contained in that basis will now be stated in the order in which they were finally agreed upon and adopted:

1. That Jesus Christ died for the elect only.

2. That there is an appropriation in the nature of faith.

3. That the gospel is indiscriminately addressed to sinners of mankind.

4. That the righteousness of Christ is the alone proper condition of the covenant of grace.

5. That civil power originates from God the Creator, and not from Christ the Mediator.

6. That the administration of the Kingdom of Providence is committed to Jesus Christ the Mediator; and magistracy, the ordinance appointed by the moral Governor of the world to be the pillar or prop of civil order among men, as well as other things, is rendered subservient by the Mediator to the welfare of His spiritual kingdom, the Church, and beside the Church has the sanctified use of that and every common benefit, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

7. That the law of nature and the moral law revealed in Scripture are substantially the same, although the latter expresses the will of God more evidently and clearly than the former; and therefore magistrates among Christians ought to be regulated by the general directory of the Word as to the execution of their offices in faithfulness and righteousness.

8. That the qualifications of justice, veracity, &c., required in the law of nature for the being of a magistrate, are also more explicitly and clearly revealedas necessary in Scripture. But a religious test any farther than an oath of fidelity can never be essentially necessary to the being of a magistrate, except when the people make it a condition of government; then it may be among that people necessary by their own voluntary deed.

9. That both parties, when united, shall adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith (etc.)

10. that they shall claim the full exercise of church discipline without dependence on foreign judicatories.

At its first meeting, in 1782, the Associate Reformed Synod, "after serious deliberation and solemn prayer," unanimously adopted the following articles:

I. It is the resolution of this Synod to persevere in adhering to the system of truth contained in the Holy Scriptures, exhibited in the Confession of Faith, Catechisms-Larger and Shorter-and to the fundamental principles of gospel worship and ecclesiastical government agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, with the assistance of commissioners from the Church of Scotland. This Declaration, however, does not extend to the following sections of the Confession of Faith which define the power of civil government in relation to religion: Chapter xx, Section 4; Chapter XXIII, Section 3; Chapter XXXI, Section 2. These Sections are reserved for a candid discussion on some future occasion, as God shall be pleased to direct. Etc. etc.

At the meeting of Synod in May of 1799 the following was adopted:

The Westminster Confession of Faith, with the Catechisms Larger and Shorter, having been formerly received by this Synod, with a reservation for future discussion of the doctrine respecting the power of the civil magistrate in matters of religion; and the said doctrine being now modified in a manner more agree-able to the word of God, to the nature of the Christian Church, and to the principles of civil society, the Synod do explicitly receive the aforesaid Confession and Catechisms, with the doctrine concerning the civil magistrate, as now stated in the twentieth, twenty-third, and thirty-first chapters of the Confession, as the system of doctrine which is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, JESUS CHRIST himself being the chief corner-stone. And the Synod do hereby declare, that the aforesaid Confession and Catechisms, as herein received, contain the true and genuine doctrine of the Associate Reformed Church; and that no tenet contrary thereto, or to any part thereof, shall be countenanced in this church.

By order of Synod.

JOHN RIDDLE, Moderator,

EBENEZER DICKEY, Clerk pro tem.


Associate Reformed Synod at Greencastle, May 31st, 1799.

The Synod having judicially ratified the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms larger and Shorter, with a modification of the doctrine concerning the power of the civil magistrate in matters of religion . . . do hereby declare . . . as their FIXED TESTIMONY . . . to be the Constitution and Standards of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, etc. etc. etc.[38]

Latham's summation of the actions of the assembly was along the following lines:

"The founders of the Associate Reformed Church endeavored to avoid some of the grave errors into which both Associates and Covenanters, both in America and Europe, had fallen. . . . The Church of Scotland, the mother of all the Presbyterian Churches in the world, was a National Church, and in some of its features anti-Presbyterian. This is not to be thought strange. The wonder is that so great attainments were made by the Church of Scotland, and that she retained so little of papal corruptions. In the First Book of Discipline, prepared in 1560, by the justly celebrated John Knox, there is something that savors of Erastianism in almost every paragraph. . . . It certainly was adapted to the time at which it was formulated, but is totally unfit for a people far advanced in scriptural knowledge."

The Confession as originally composed "was the effort of men just emerging from the darkness of popery and living under a monarchial government." It was far superior to those documents which preceded it, "a monument of wisdom and piety, and in the main is without an objection," but was nonetheless defective at this point. These three Sections of the Confession of Faith, Latham notes, were not adopted by the Associate Reformed Church "because they are clearly anti-Presbyterian." They were considered, "not hastily, but calmly and dispassionately," for a period extending over sixteen years, amended, and finally, on May 31, 1799, adopted as the Confession of Faith of the Associate Reformed Church.[39]

[1] Donny Soles: "A Rejoinder to Adam Calvert: Why Christians are not Justified in Voting Pragmatically" 10/28/16 "Mr. Soles writes that "Calvert and Christian pragmatists do not consider perhaps that the two-party system could be deconstructed if the majority of Christians would adhere to Dt. 1:13 by voting for faithful third-party candidates. Such an outcome is completely within the realm of plausibility." Really!

[2] Mr. Soles later writes that "There are more than two options available to the voting American, and I maintain that it is not a sin to live under a wicked ruler. Rather, it is a sin to appoint these rulers to power when God has instructed us to appoint only faithful magistrates."

[3] In the above cited discussion, the author asserted that the position of the individual he was challenging (Adam Calvert, who identifies himself as a Reconstructionist) was "a form of baptized pragmatism," and that he "exudes pragmatism throughout his entire argument."

[4] Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, p. 875/6 Regarding the suggestion that the civil magistrate, where an established church exists, has any power relative to the affairs of the church (as reflected in the original reading of the Westminster Confession), he points out that more often than not he will be an un-believer, and is compelled to write:

"Now what an absurdity is it, for that which is not Christian at all to choose my Christianity for me? To see this, only suppose a case where the magistrate is actually infidel. The Greeks and Protestants in Constantinople struggle with each other. The Turk, more sensible than intolerant Christians, merely stands by and derides both. But suppose one of them should manage to get him on their side, and use his temporal power to persecute their brethren? Can a Turkish infidel, who has nothing to do with Christianity, confer on one sect a power to persecute another? Confer what he has not? Outrageous. But the reason of the thing is the same in any other country; because the civil authority of the magistrate is no more due to his Christianity than that of the Grand Turk in Turkey, who has no Christianity."

[5] John Jay, the first Chief Justice has been cited in the course of discussion as follows: "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."

[6] The language of this passage is incorporated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, as revised, in the chapter on the Civil magistrate:

Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.

[7] Leo Pfeffer, in Church, State, and Freedom p.72

[8] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol II, p. 974

[9] Pfeffer, p. 27

[10] Robert Lathan, writing in 1882, observes that the history of the Westminster Confession "is intimately and inseparably connected with nearly every great national event which has transpired in Christendom during the last 230 years." Robert Lathan, History of the Associate Reformed Synod of the South: 1882,p. 316

[11] The Scots Confession was written in 1560 by six leaders of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. It was the first subordinate standard for the Protestant church in Scotland, and remained the Confession of the Church of Scotland until it was superseded by the Westminster Confession in 1647. In light of this, Dr. New poses the question: "If this is the Reformed doctrine of the civil magistrate, how can Christians justify voting for non-believers?"

[12] WCF Chap. XXIII "Of the Civil Magistrate" Note: an addendum detailing changes with respect to the Confession follows at the end of the paper.

[13] The original wording spoke of removing and preventing "all idolatry and false worship, that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted." In 1958 the synod of the Christian Reformed Church submitted for consideration for churches adhering to the Belgic Confession a substitution to these words that spoke of magistrates as being called

"to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, (in which) the civil rulers have the task, in subjection to the law of God, while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority , and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them and with the means belonging to them, to remove every obstacle to the preaching of the Gospel and to every aspect of divine worship, in order that the Word of God may have free course, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress, and every anti-Christian power may be resisted." Ecumenical Creeds & Reformed Confessions, Board o Publications CRC, p.83

[14] The term Erastian/ism comes from the Swiss Zwinglian, Thomas Erastus (d. 1583), a prominent physician, and professor at the University of Heidleberg. Controversy arose in 1568 over a thesis on church discipline presented for a doctorate by the English Puritan George Wither. Erastus' work, in response to Wither, was titled Seventy-five Theses on Excommunication. In it he advocated leaving discipline in the hands of the civil government. Erastus merely held magistrates responsible for discipline, but Erastianism came to refer to supremacy of the civil authority in all ecclesiastical matters. The position was developed in Holland during the Arminian controversy, especially in the writings of Hugo Grotius and in writings of the period that followed.

[15] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, p. 244

[16] An addendum detailing changes with respect to the Confession follows at the end of the paper.

[17] T. E . Peck, Notes on Ecclesiology, p. 141/2

[18] Lathan, p. 324 He notes that "in the First Book of Discipline, prepared in 1560, by the justly celebrated John Knox, there is something that savors of Erastianism in almost every paragraph." P. 196

[19] Some who held or were sympathetic to the Erastian doctrine did so as a matter of self-preservation. Luther is a case in point:

"Luther had some glimpses of the grand truth that the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ is some-thing separate from and independent of the civil government; but driven to shelter himself under the protection of the monarch who was ambitious to rid himself of the authority of the pope . . . Luther was obliged, as he thought, to sacrifice a part of the spiritual prerogatives of the church for protection against the power of the pope."T. E. Peck, Ecclesiology, p. 140

Others, similarly, held the doctrine in reaction to the abuse of ecclesiastical power. William Hetherington would observe:

"Nor was it strange, that men who had so recently suffered so much from prelatic tyranny should regard with alarm all ecclesiastical power whatever, and by the strength of a violent revulsion and rebound, should spring to the opposite conclusion, that there ought to be no power or jurisdiction, except that of the civil magistrate. Such appears to have been the predominant state of mind and feeling among the members of the Long Parliament in general, together with the peculiar opinions held by individuals, and caused by their diversities of studies or professional pursuits." [p. 233]

"A protracted struggle ensued between the imperial and royal powers and the Bishop of Rome, the issue of which was, not merely an exemption of ecclesiastical matters, even persons, from civil authority, but the establishment of supremacy over civil rulers and civil matters wielded by the Romish hierarchy, and forming a complete spiritual and civil despotism. This fearful and degrading despotism was overthrown by the Reformation; and although the great and Christian divines and patriots by whose instrumentality Reformation was effected, were unable entirely to perfect their work, yet they all, more or less clearly, indicated their judgment that the two jurisdictions, civil and ecclesiastical, ought to be, and to remain co-ordinate and distinct, mutually supporting and supported, but each abstaining from interference with the other's intrinsic and inherent rights, privileges, and powers. "William Hetherington, History of the Wesminster Assembly of Divines: 1843, p. 286

[20] Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, p. 879/80Going on, he would write that . . .

"in 17th and 18th centuries some Independents and others in England, and Seceders in Scotland, advocated such separation, but were branded as outrageous radicals. All the Reformation Churches, Lutheran and Reformed, held it as an axiom, that the State had, under God, the supreme care of religion. 'Cujus Regio, ejus Religio.' Dissenters of England now usually hold our views (as well as Seceders in Scotland), called there voluntaryism. The Free Church, at the head of whom was Dr. Chalmers, held to establishments. Ours is the first fair trial."

[21] Hetherington notes that due to the fact that the church had essentially been disestablished in England nine months prior, leaving no ecclesiastical organization, "it was impossible that the assembly meet in any ordinary form, either as a convocation - according to the Prelatic system; or by the votes of the ministers - according to the Presbyterian system; but it was of necessity called by the parliament. . . . (which) led to the infusion of an Erastian taint into the very calling of the Assembly, and the framing of the regulations limiting and directing its deliberations." p. 99-101

[22] Hetherington, p. 254, 258

[23] Hetherington, p. 251, 266

[24] Hetherington Ibid. p. 288/9

"Selden, Whitelocke, Lightfoot, and Coleman, took up the subject on other grounds, which, though difficult, we not equally unassailable by reason. Their chief argument was one of analogy, although, as they used it, the appearance which It bore was that of identity. They held that Christian system ought to resemble, or rather to be identical with, the system of the Mosaic Dispensation . . . The arguments on which they most relied were drawn from rabbinical lore, rather than from the bible itself, although they were very willing to obtain the appearance of its support by ingenious versions, or perversions of particular passages of Scripture."

[25] Dabney, p. 887

"In the incipiency of the English Establishment, the grand appeal of its advocates was to the example of the Israelitish kingdom where State and Church were united so intimately. Hence were drawn all the arguments, nearly, for the King's headship over the Church. Hence Calvin's idea of State and Church. Nor is the argument yet given up. But the answer is, that a theocratic State is no rule for a State not theocratic."

[26] Lathan calls attention to this, adding:

"This opinion, however, seems to be indefensible. The fathers of the Associate Reformed Church thought that these three sectionsgranted the civil magistrate rights and prerogatives, on account of his office, which the King and Head of the Church does not grant him. For this reason they changed these sections, and thus made, as they thought, and none deny, the church free form all dependence upon the state in all matters pertaining to government and discipline." P. 325

[27] p. 354

[28] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: 1869, p. 173

[29] p. 176

[30] Cf. the above cited material re. modifications to the Belgic Confession to the effect that magistrates are called ". . . while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them and with the means belonging to them, to remove every obstacle to the preaching of the Gospel and to every aspect of divine worship, in order that the Word of God may have free course, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress, and every anti-Christian power may be resisted."

[31] One might take note of the discussions that have ensued since the election with regard to the inter-pretation of various passages of Scripture, as well as various doctrines - the question of the nature of the Mediatorial rule of Christ being one - to see how complex the issue actually is!

[32] p. 886

[33]Michael Bauman, cited in Wikipedia

[35]G. I. Williamson, ibid.

[36] Robert Latham, History of the ARP Church, p. 174f.

[37] P. 177

[38] The Confession of Faith of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, p. 3

[39] P. 198



Providence Reformed Home Page