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God’s Minister: The Civil Magistrate

Christian leaders and political conservatives have sounded the call back to a constitutional republic. But unless this republicanism is built firmly on the Christian civil order defined by Holy Scripture, it will fail.

  • Thomas Ertl,
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As we look back over two millennia of Western history, a picture emerges of the struggles, triumphs, and defeats of the church. The early church was marked by a great faith overcoming insurmountable odds, triumphing over paganism and the despotic Roman Empire.

That victory gave Europe a thousand years of Christendom, ending human sacrifice and producing unimagined liberty, limited and representative government, the dignity of labor, respect for women, and manifold human advancements. The church, though far from perfect, created a civilization of life the world had never before seen.

It was a time when, as Otto Scott said, "God reigned and men administered." It was an era when civil magistrates more clearly understood their calling under God and governed accordingly. From Christendom a developed Christian order civilized Europe, creating an environment of civil liberty that generated tremendous progress and wealth. The West grew rich, a reward that often comes with its own challenges.

Over the last two centuries a new religion and civil rule has appeared, an order of atheistic and autonomous man, a rejection of the previous Christian order, whose modern roots drew their inspiration from the French Revolution. No modern political movement has equaled the alluring rhetoric of the Revolution, with its seductive promise of freedom from the restraints of Christianity, its heralding of the golden era of man, a new birth of liberty, and a people's paradise, all of which still captivates hearts.

Contrary to its promises, this 200-year experiment has produced a bloodletting inconceivable to all previous eras, a crippling moral debauchery, and worldwide financial slavery. Nonetheless, the present disciples of this revolution against God have realized the dream of their founders, a total secular state in which God has been made irrelevant and illegal. Men, having lost their religious faith, now govern without restraints, seeking to usurp the powers of God and dominate others. In the new atheistic order the magistrate has become the politician, having abandoned his God-ordained purpose and calling.

This article will briefly focus on one realm of Christian political theory: the role and responsibility of the civil magistrate as understood Biblically by the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, particularly the French-Swiss Reformer, Pierre Viret.

The Magistrates as Guardians of the Faith

Georges Bavaud, in his book Le Réformateur Pierre Viret, states:

Within the context of Christianity, the charge of the magistrate is clearly distinguished from that of the ministers of the Church, who alone bear the responsibility of proclaiming the Word of God. The ultimate concern of the civil servants, however, is the same as that of the ecclesiastical pastors: to lead Christians to the Kingdom of Heaven.1

The magistrate is, Viret writes, the defender of the two tables of the Decalogue: "The title which Aristotle gave the magistrates ... agrees well with what Moses wrote in [Genesis 3:24, 4:14, 9:1-7, Exodus 18:12-16,] Deuteronomy 1:9-18, and St. Paul in the epistle of Romans (13:1-7). What is this title? He calls them Keepers of the Law."2

Viret continues: "We must understand that they also have the care of the souls of their subjects, that the keeping and preservation of the entire Law and of both tables is committed to them, and that they serve for the salvation of men by using their power and authority to uphold holy doctrine, the true service of God."3

Robert D. Linder in his book, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret, states:

[Viret] paint[s] a picture of the ideal relationship between state and church. Christian magistrates were better equipped to understand and co-operate with the program of the true Church and, as Viret observed: "The best magistrates are Christian magistrates."4

Perhaps the best statement of Viret's concept of an ideal magistrate is found in the text of a sermon he preached on March 12, 1559, at Geneva. Viret told his hearers that the office of those princes and magistrates who bore the name Christian was not to persecute the gospel but "to sustain the truth of God and to be foster-fathers [literally ‘nursing fathers'] of his Church." He went on to explain that Christian magistrates would "occupy themselves diligently with maintaining the honor and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, pure doctrine in his Church and the true discipline."5

The role of the true Christian prince and the true Christian magistrate as a "guardian" or "foster-father" of the church was a dominant theme in Viret's political ideology. Twice in his Instruction chrétienne of 1564 he uses the term to describe the office of the prince and magistrate, and in the Dialogues du desordre he writes that "the kings and queens, princes and princesses will nourish and be nourished by the Church." The same idea was developed in a portion of his Traittez divers of 1559 and in his L'Interim of 1565.6

Yet, despite all of his insistence on the role of "true princes" and "true magistrates" as "guardians" and "foster-fathers" of the true church of God, Viret was not in favor of either a state church or a church state. His writings frequently state or imply a strict separation of the functions of church and state.

Henri Vuilleumier, in his book Notre Pierre Viret, states:

No more than the other Reformers did Viret dream of a "free Church" in the modern sense of the word. He never conceived of a Church separated from the State anymore than he dreamed of a State neutral or indifferent to religion. In his eyes, as a rule, no antagonism existed between civil society and its powers on the one hand, and religious society and authority on the other ...
God, in order to govern people, in order to establish His reign among men, instituted two types of ministers. He gave "particular charge" of souls to one; to the other, the body and goods. Ministers of the Word and ministers wielding the Sword, pastors and magistrates, must lend each other mutual aid. Both, each in its own particular sphere, had as its mission to lead all people under the obedience of their Head in all.7

Magistrate as Civil Pastor

Bavaud, describing Viret's understanding of magistrates and pastors, states:

To better reveal both the distinction of their functions and their profound unity, Viret employs an analogy of the body and soul. Just as man, in both his body and soul, is wholly subject to the lordship of the Creator, so also the magistrate and the ecclesiastical minister both merit the title pastor, and are both in the service of the one and only Jesus Christ, Head of the People of God. Viret wrote:
"Thus just as man is composed of both body and soul, so also God has ordained that there be two types of pastors ... [B]ecause it is exceedingly difficult-indeed, impossible-for man to attend to one thing without also looking after the other, God has limited to each one his office and calling, and has given to one the very particular charge of souls; to the other that of the body and goods. And just as within a body there are many members, yet nevertheless but one head and heart, thus also the Christian people must not be a body in which all are members, without possessing a head and heart-that is, Jesus Christ-who alone is the true Head, who has raised up the evangelical pastors and civil magistrates who must be as the eyes of all poor people-to direct and lead them under their Head, Jesus Christ."8

The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers are of the same mind as Viret. Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), leading pastor of Zurich and friend of Viret and Calvin, writes concerning the magistrate in his Second Helvetic Confession (1566):

[H]e shall, after the example of the most holy kings and princes of the people of the Lord, advance the preaching of the truth, and the pure and sincere faith, and shall root out lies and all superstition, with all impiety and idolatry, and shall defend the Church of God. For indeed we teach that the care of religion does chiefly appertain to holy magistrates.9

Guido de Bres, student of Viret, and author of the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561), writes of the civil government:

Their task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the Church and its ministry in order that the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honored and served by everyone, as He requires in His Word.10

Viret and the Reformers envisioned a church and state functioning within their own jurisdictions, but walking together, serving God, and having the same goal: a Christian society.

Magistrates to Employ the Word of God

In the Lausanne Disputation of 1536 Viret declares:

[C]ivil magistrates, because their office pertains more to civil affairs-those which concern the body and goods rather than the soul and conscience-employ ... [also] the Word to admonish, exhort, rebuke, and correct, as the ministers of the Gospel.11

Linder adds:

Viret was bold to point out that although secular laws were part of God's plan for the race, these laws should be based upon and be subordinate to the Holy Scriptures. In discussing this problem in his book De l'estat, he summed it up this way:
"For the Devil is not able to reign or govern, except through tyranny, and by tyranny. But when the Law reigns and commands, it is God who reigns and governs, and not man, who is nothing except the minister of God, which is a title more honorable than the greatest kings and princes of the world are able to have."12
Viret believed that the state rested directly upon the laws of God and that the prince was bound to rule by those laws. "A good prince," said Viret, "should observe those laws which God has given him and govern his people according to the same, for he is ordained of God to be a prince for no other purpose."13

Bullinger concurs, writing in his Confession:

Let him, therefore, hold the Word of God in his hands, and look that nothing be taught contrary thereunto. In like manner, let him govern the people committed to him of God with good laws made according to the Word of God in his hands, and look that nothing be taught contrary thereunto.14

Bullinger's language paints a vivid picture of the magistrate as a man under God's authority contemplating Holy Scripture as he considers how to govern his people.

Two Rival Religious Systems

The world is in a philosophical conflict, a battle of ideas, worldviews, and more so a battle of religions. The conflicting question is who will rule, or first, who is divine, God or man?

History has left us with two choices: two religions and two orders. It is a choice between the infallibility of God and the "infallibility" of man.

Given the clear historical accounts of these two rival systems, men still choose the consequences of moral degeneracy and civil tyranny rather than be ruled by God. Unmoved, they add to their rebellion by stirring the public fear of the superior Christian civil order.

Atheistic philosophers from Rousseau to Sartre have given the world a flood of confused and self-contradictory explanations of truth and philosophies of life. Gone are all the vain hopes and empty dreams of their promised messianic age of man. Of their genius and mountains of writings, all that remains is a philosophy of the pragmatism of raw political power. This power-religion has in time debased the God-ordained office of the civil magistrate.

In contrast to secularism, the Christian religion and its Bible gives men the knowledge of a comprehensive order of life from a transcendent God. In God's Word men receive a true understanding of the calling and responsibility of the civil magistrate.

The Christian order establishes two critical foundations of the duty of the magistracy. First, the Biblical understanding of human sin and man's depravity is the clear limitation of his power and jurisdiction within his administration of justice. Second, as a minister of God he must aid the church in its work and declaration of the gospel. For the magisterial office is an indispensable aid to public morality.


So effective was the French Revolution with its new civil order and captivating gospel of democracy, that today there is virtually no contrary thought within the intellectual and ruling classes of the West. Sadly, this deception of the Revolution has also captured much of the modern church-a church which, though enslaved to a contrary worldview and surrounded by tyranny, boasts of its "freedom" while ignorant of its own history and true liberty.

Christian leaders and political conservatives have sounded the call back to a constitutional republic. But unless this republicanism is built firmly on the Christian civil order defined by Holy Scripture, it will fail. The skilled politician of the Revolution, appealing to the corrupt nature of man, with his compelling defense of the virtues of majority rule, can nullify any constitution. Any civil rule void of the Christian order will produce a governance that will negate the best of constitutions.

The order of the Revolution seems to be running its course, and like never before its end is visible. Its passing will be common to all of man's rebellion, the total judgment of God. The question remains: when this present revolutionary order expires, will the church have the courage to identify the answers and provide the leadership to bring God's creation into a new age of faith, superior to the old Christendom?

If Christianity is to be believed again, the people of God must envision a day when they determine culture and begin to labor for a new age when God again reforms His church, redeems the lost, and when the proper role of the civil magistrate is restored. This restoration would not be a state church, but one in which neither church nor state seeks to rule each other, both walking side by side with the holy desire to extend Christ's glorious Kingdom upon the earth.

No matter how visionary or inconceivable this may seem in our post-Christian age, the church cannot believe otherwise. Does not all authority in heaven and earth belong to Jesus Christ? And are not both magistrate and pastor ministers of God? Will not Christ's last command to the church be fulfilled, when all the nations are discipled and freely come to bow their knee to Christ the King?

1. Georges Bavaud, Le Réformateur Pierre Viret (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1986), 333.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Robert D. Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret (Geneva: Droz, 1964), 118.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 119.
7. Henri Vuilleumier, Notre Pierre Viret (Lausanne, 1911), 116-117.
8. Bavaud, Le Réformateur, 334.
9. Heinrich Bullinger, Second Helvetic Confession of Faith (1566), Chapter 30, Of the Magistracy.
10. Guido de Bres, The Belgic Confession of Faith (1561), Article 36, The Civil Government.
11. Pierre Viret (Lausanne Disputation, 1536), Eighth Conclusion.
12. Linder, Political Ideas, 86.
13. Ibid., 85.
14. Bullinger, Second Helvetic Confession of Faith (1566), Chapter 30, Of the Magistracy.

  • Thomas Ertl

Thomas Ertl is a residential builder in Tallahassee, Florida, and president of the Pierre Viret Association, (USA).

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