What kind of government do we want anyway?
George Gillespie (1613 – 1648) ministered in Fife and Edinburgh and was one of the main Scottish theologians at the Westminster Assembly. He wrote several important publications in support of Presbyterian church government.
20 Jun, 2024

As the country prepares to go to the polls, it is worth reflecting on what exactly we are entitled to expect from the government. What is the basis of secular government and what is it supposed to achieve in the nation? Does it matter if people holding office in our country are Christians or not? During the Second Reformation, much thought was given to the nature of civil authority, mainly in terms of how it was related to and contradistinguished from churchly authority. George Gillespie set out a series of propositions which differentiated civil from ecclesiastical power. The following abridged piece extracts his descriptions of civil power.

The civil power and the ecclesiastical ought not by any means to be confounded or mixed together.

Both powers are indeed from God and ordained for His glory, and both are to be guided by His Word, and both are included under the precept, “Honour thy father and thy mother.” So that we ought to obey both civil magistrates and church office-bearers in the Lord.

But notwithstanding the many things in which they agree, yet they are distinguished from each other by marvellously vast differences. Here are eight ways of distinguishing them.

Civil power is founded on the law of nature

First of all, they are distinguished in respect of their very foundation and institution. Civil or political power is grounded on the law of nature itself, and for that cause it is common to infidels along with Christians. Ecclesiastical power depends immediately on the positive law of Christ alone.

Civil power belongs to the universal dominion of God the Creator over all nations, whereas ecclesiastical power belongs to the special kingdom of Christ the Mediator, which He exercises in the church alone, and which is not of this world.

Civil power is occupied about earthly things

The second differences in the objects about which they are concerned. The civil power is occupied about the outward man, and civil or earthly things — about war, peace, upholding justice and good order in the commonwealth.

Its objects also include the outward business or external things of the church. These are things which are indeed necessary to the church, or profitable, as touching the outward man, the external state and condition of the ministers and members of the church. Yet they are not properly and purely spiritual, for they do not reach to the soul.

As far as ministers and members of the church are citizens, subjects, or members of the commonwealth, it is in the power of the magistrate to judge, determine and give sentence concerning the disposing of their bodies or goods. The same applies to the maintenance of the poor, the sick, the banished, and others who are afflicted in the church.

It is also within the magistrate’s powers to regulate (as far as it concerns civil order) marriages, burials, and other circumstances which are common both to holy and to civil societies; and to afford places fit for holy assemblies, and other external helps by which the sacred matters of the Lord may more safely, commodiously, and more easily be performed in the church.

It is also within the magistrate’s powers to remove the external impediments to divine worship or ecclesiastical peace, and to repress those who exalt themselves against the true church and her ministers, and raise up trouble against them.

In such external matters of the church, although all magistrates will not, yet all (even heathen magistrates) may and ought to aid and help the church. By the command of God, prayers are to be made even for heathen magistrate, that the faithful under them may live a quiet life with all godliness and honesty (1 Tim. 2:1–2).

However, the object of ecclesiastical power is very different. It says nothing about people’s bodies, goods, dignities, civil rights, etc., but takes to do only with the soul, the inward man. Ecclesiastical power is merely and purely spiritual. It is exercised therefore about the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, public prayer and thanksgiving, the catechising and instructing of children and ignorant persons, the examination of those who are to come to the holy communion, church discipline, the ordination and deposition of ministers, the settling of controversies around faith and cases of conscience, canonical constitutions concerning the treasury of the church and collections of the faithful, as also concerning ecclesiastical rites, or indifferent things, to do with keeping decency and order in the church, according to the general rules of Christian love and prudence contained in the Word of God.

Civil power is lordly

Then, these powers are distinguished in respect of their forms.

Civil power is lordly and magisterial. Ecclesiastical power is indeed furnished with authority, yet that authority is more fatherly than kingly, and it is also purely ministerial (it is not lawful to ministers of the church to have dominion over the flock). Emperors, kings, and other magistrates are indeed appointed fathers of the country, but they are at the same time lords of their people. Not that they are permitted to issue commands at their own will (for they are the ministers of God for the good of their subjects), yet it belongs to their power truly and properly to exercise dominion, to hold principality, to proceed imperiously.

Civil power is endued with authority to compel. But it does not belong to the church to compel the disobedient. Compulsion is not in the nature of ecclesiastical power. The very most which the church can do with the most shameless or malicious person is to excommunicate them. But the magistrate has on standby a jurisdiction of compulsion and external force, whereby stubborn, rebellious and undaunted pride may be externally repressed.

The power of the magistrate works only politically, or civilly. According to the nature of the sceptre or sword, he makes and enforces civil laws, which sometimes also he changes or repeals, and other things of that kind.

The same sin therefore in the same person may be punished one way by the civil power, and another way by the ecclesiastical power. Someone may be punished by the civil power under the formality of a crime, with corporal or pecuniary punishment (such as death, banishment, forfeiture of goods, imprisonment), and also by the ecclesiastical power, under the notion and nature of “scandal” [i.e., hindering people’s spiritual wellbeing and bringing dishonour on Christ’s church], with a spiritual censure.

Civil power aims at the good of the nation

The immediate nearest end of civil power is that the good of the commonwealth may be provided for and procured, whether it be in time of peace, according to the rules of law and counsel of judges, or in time of war, according to the rules of military prudence, so as to procure the temporal safety of the subjects, and preserve or restore external peace and civil liberty.

But the chief and ultimate end of civil government is the glory of God the Creator, so that when those who do evil are restrained or punished, and those which do good get praise, the people may all the more shun impiety and injustice, and so that virtue, justice and the moral law of God (as touching the eternal duties of both tables, which are obligatory on all of Adam’s posterity) may remain in strength and flourish.

So, whereas a Christian magistrate will wholly devote himself to promoting the gospel and kingdom of Christ, and direct and bend all the might and strength of his authority to that end, this does not proceed from the nature of his office or function (which is common to him with an infidel magistrate), but from the influence of his ordinary Christian calling on his particular vocation.

For every member of the church (including the faithful and godly magistrate) ought to order his or her particular vocation, faculty, ability, power and honour to the end of promoting the kingdom of Christ, and cherishing and defending the true religion. So the advancement of the gospel and all its ordinances is indeed the end of the godly magistrate, yet not of a magistrate simply; or (if you prefer) it is not the end of the office itself, but of him who executes the office piously.

By contrast, the end of ecclesiastical power, and indeed of the ministry itself, is that the kingdom of Christ would be set forward.

Civil power brings about safety and liberty in the nation

The proper effect of the civil power is the temporal safety of the commonwealth, external tranquillity, the fruition of civil liberty, and of all things which are necessary to human civil society. As a by-product, it also brings about the good of the church, i.e., in so far as by executing justice and good laws, some of the impediments that usually hinder and disturb the course of the gospel are avoided or taken away. By consequence it comes about by God’s blessing that the church is defiled with fewer scandals, and has more freedom and peace.

But the proper effect of the ecclesiastical power, or keys of the kingdom of heaven, is wholly spiritual. The act of binding and loosing, of retaining and remitting sins, reaches to the soul and conscience itself (which cannot be said of the act of the civil power). And as unjust excommunication is void, so ecclesiastical censures applied according to Christ’s will are ratified in heaven (Matt. 18:18), and therefore ought to be esteemed and acknowledged as applied by Christ Himself.

Civil power can be held by a wide variety of persons

Civil power is committed sometimes to one, sometimes to many, sometimes by right of election, sometimes by right of succession. But under the New Testament, ecclesiastical power is competent to none by the right of succession — the one who has it must be called to it by God and the church to it. Neither was it given by Christ to one single pastor or elder (far less to a prelate), but to the church, hence ecclesiastical censures ought not to be inflicted by one but by many (2 Cor. 2:6).

Civil power reaches to everyone in its territory

God has commanded that every soul should be subject to the civil power, i.e., all members of the commonwealth, of whatever condition and estate. Not even the clergy are free from the yoke of the civil magistrate. However, ecclesiastical power extends itself only to those who are called brethren, i.e., members of the church.

Civil power can operate where church power fails, and vice versa

If either power fails to do its duty, that does not prejudice the exercise of the other power. If the magistrate neglects to punish with secular punishment some malefactors who are church members by profession, it remains in the power of the church to curb those people by the bridle of ecclesiastical discipline (indeed, by virtue of their office they are bound to do so). Equally, the magistrate may and ought to punish in life and limb, honours or goods, even if the offender has repented or been reconciled with the church.

Neither power is obliged to cast out or receive those who the other casts out or receives. The ecclesiastical ministry is chiefly to do with repentance to salvation, and gaining the sinner’s soul. It therefore embraces all kinds of wicked people repenting, and receives them into the bosom of the church. The magistrate has another and very different remit, for he is to punish even repenting offenders, both to satisfy justice and the law, and also as a deterrent to others. Absolution from church censures does not at all free a delinquent from civil judgement and the external sword.



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