John Brown: Magistrates Should Enact Laws Concerning Religion

John Brown: Magistrates Should Enact Laws Concerning Religion

From On the Absurdity of Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy or Idolatry

The scriptures represent magistrates as having power to make civil laws relative to the external concerns of religion, subordinated to the law of God, and answerable to their own department [i.e., area of responsibility].

  1. They have in charge the keeping of the whole law of God, Deut 17:19, 1st Kings 2:3, Josh 1:7-8, 2nd Chr 23:11, Job 29:25, Rom 13:1-4. It is never hinted that they have no charge with respect to religion, but the contrary.
    • God chose Moses the magistrate, not Aaron the High-priest, to publish his laws relative to religion.
    • Abijah avers [asserts with confidence], that in maintaining the true worship of God, he had kept the charge of the Lord, which Jeroboam, the introducer of a false religion, had not, 2 Chr 13:10-11.
  2. God promised to the Jews good magistrates, in order to root out abusive practices and monuments of false religion, Isa 1:25-26. Now, if they had power to root these out, they had certainly power to make laws for that effect.
  3. They ought to repeal wicked and persecuting laws, and free their subjects from being bound over to punishment by them, for their faithful service of God, Psa 94:20, Isa 10:11, Mic 6:16, Hos 5:11. If they can repeal wicked laws, they must have the power to establish what is contrary to them, Dan 3 and Dan 6.
  4. If magistrates can make laws encouraging the true religion and church of Christ, by annexation of civil favours to the profession or practice of gospel-truth, they can also, by law, annex civil punishment to the contempt of, or rebellion against, these laws. For these laws would be for the terror and punishment of evil doers, as well as for the praise of them that do well, Rom 13:3-4, 1st Pet 2:13-14, Dan 6:16, Dan 3:29, Ezra 1:1-5, Ezra 6:3-12, Ezra 7:23-27.
  5. By enacting such laws, magistrates neither invade the office of ecclesiastical rulers, who have no power to connect civil rewards or punishments with anything religious, nor do they transgress any law of God. What then can hinder their having power to make them?
  6. If all sorts of men (church members and officers, as well as others) be subject to civil magistrates, they [legislators] must have power, and ought to make civil laws calculated to promote their advantage in all these stations, Rom 13:1-4, 1st Pet 2:13-14, 1st Tim 2:1-2.
  7. Unless magistrates have a power to make good laws relative to the external profession and practice of religion, clergymen, if generally corrupt, will have it in their power, by Synodical constitutions or otherwise, to devour and poison their subjects, with the seeds of confusion, profaneness, and every evil work, without any possibility of any legal restraint. For to allow magistrates to act without law is to introduce tyranny and arbitrary government.


Some prerequisites to law-making

But, in magistrates making laws respecting religion, it is necessary, that they [do the following]:

  1. Carefully acquaint themselves with the law of God, that they may form all their laws in agreeableness and subordination to it (they having no power against the truth, but for it), Deut 17:18-20, Josh 1:7- 8, Psa 119:97-104, 2 Cor 13:8.
  2. Consult with faithful ministers of the church, either as met in Synods or otherwise, as it may be expected [that] they [should] know the laws of God relative to religion, Deut 17:9-12, Mal 2:7, 2nd Chr 15:1-15. Thus, in making these laws, church-rulers help magistrates with their direction, while magistrates help them with their civil encouragements, 2 Chr 19:10-11; Ezek 44:23-24.
  3. Require ministers, who are in their dominions, faithfully to instruct their subjects in the whole counsel of God, contained in His word, relative to those points of religion, about which they intend to make laws, that they may be thus prepared, to willingly receive and obey them. Thus Jehoshaphat first sent teachers and then judges throughout his dominions, 2 Chr 17, 2nd Chr 19.
  4. Take great care, in all matters of religion, to establish the laws with and by the consent of the subjects or their rep This will strengthen these laws, through their binding men who are willing to obey them, for the principle end of such laws will be lost unless men willingly obey them, 2 Chr 15:9, 13, 2nd Chr 20:21, Jonah 3:4, 7.
  5. Have a special regard, in these laws, to persons of a weak and tender conscience. Political shepherds ought never to over-drive their flock, but should carry the lambs in their bosom. And, that the very weakest of their subjects may be qualified to obey their laws, they ought never to establish any thing in religion but what is plainly as well as really established by God in his law, so that nothing may be contrary to their law but what is plainly contrary to God’s law, Ezek 34:4.