John Brown: The Extent of Magistrates’ Rule in Religious Affairs

John Brown: The Extent of Magistrates’ Rule in Religious Affairs

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


Christian magistrates must govern by the Law of God


Beside their power, as men, to try all things by the Law of God manifested to them, and their power of Christian discretion (if they are Christians) to judge by the Word of God what is for their own spiritual and eternal advantage, magistrates, as such, have a power of politically judging and determining, what and how principles and practices of the true religion are to be connected with political rewards or encouragements; or, what ought to be professed and practised by persons, as members of their political society, in order to promote the real welfare of it, in subordination to the glory of God, as King of nations.

  1. Magistrates should use good and necessary consequences from the Word of God to address both first and second table commandments in their area of governance

If they may enact laws in the matters of God, as has been proven, and may judge in what is fundamental in religion (or in that which is contained in express words of scripture, or in matters of the second table of the moral law), then they must [of necessity] have power to judge of that which is plainly deducible from the express words of Scripture, by necessary consequence, and in those matters of the first table of the moral law, which as much belong to the law of nature as any in the second, have power politically to judge why and how such a religious profession and practice is to be encouraged by the civil authority, and how and why that which is notoriously opposite to the true religion is to be discouraged.

  1. If magistrates judge rightly in such matters, they shall obtain God’s favour. Conversely, if they do not judge in accordance with God’s laws, they will be judged by God

Without this political judging of them, magistrates could never determine whether the decisions of ecclesiastical courts ought to be ratified by their civil authority or not, 1 Thess 5:21, Acts 17:11. If in judging of those things, magistrates improve the Word, the Spirit, and the faithful ministers of God, for their counsellors, they bid fair to have a divine sentence in their lips, and not to err in judgment, Deut 17:18-20, Psa 119:97-105, Prov 16:10, & Isa 32:1. If, neglecting to consult these, magistrates give a corrupt sentence, they lie open to the judgment of God, to the restraint and correction of the collective body of the subjects, or their representatives, and also to ecclesiastical censure, if they be church members.

  1. Magistrates are to be nursing fathers to the Christian church

If magistrates be nursing fathers to the Christian church, Isa 49:23, they ought to prevent her being poisoned with corrupt food, and hence must have a power politically to judge what is corrupt and what is not.

  1. Magistrates are to judge in matters of church schism

If the magistrate be the keeper of the peace of the kingdom, then, if a party in the church, complaining of the gross errors of the other [i.e., some other faction], have formed a furious schism, he [the magistrate] must have power politically to judge who is in the right or in the wrong: who adheres to the truths established by law, and who do not, and to shew favour accordingly, 1 Thess 5:21.

  1. Magistrates may overrule church officers, in their civil realm, where men issue blasphemous or idolatrous decrees

If magistrates may restrain and punish evil doers, they may exercise this power over church officers.  [For example] if, in their Synods, they make blasphemous or idolatrous decrees which tend to disturb the commonwealth and dishonour God, the King of nations, they must politically judge of their [i.e., the evil doers’] conduct by the laws of God and the land. No covenanted subjection to church judicatures, as a member of the church, can deprive them of this political judgment any more than of their right of cognition and discretion as men and Christians. Magistrates’ political judgment, how principles or practices are to be connected with civil encouragements or discouragements, is no infallible rule of church courts judging how principles and practices ought to be connected with ecclesiastical encouragements or censures; nor are the decisions of ecclesiastical courts any infallible rule to direct magistrates.  The Law of God is [rather] the only infallible and supreme rule to both. Nor is the decision of the one subordinate to that of the other, but both [church courts & civil authorities] are subject to one another.

As well, every man has a right to judge for himself according to the Law of God, [as to] what he is to believe and practise.  This is for his own peace and comfort.  His joyful answering in the final judgment of God is supreme in his respective department, subordinated only to the judgment of God Himself.