Magistrates Must Be Well-Governed, To Govern Well

“Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD. Then Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his home” (1 Samuel 10:25).

In keeping with the stipulations set forth in the books of Moses, Samuel the Levite, makes available to the new king a copy of the law.

“And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:18–20). 

Israel’s king is not a king like the other nations, from the very beginning. Israel’s king is a vice-regent, under the law of Yahweh, Israel’s true King. Royal submission to God’s law should protect Israel from tyranny and abuse. The Law establishes the longevity of the throne. Saul is under a law, that governs the kingship, not to destroy his kingship but to allow it to function properly.

A constitutional Monarchy was the form of government in Israel from the beginning. This understanding of law and authority was expressed in a theological work called, Lex Rex – The Law is King – by theologian Samuel Rutherford, who helped shape the Christian conception of republican government as a protection against sinful men, who seek absolute authority over their fellow men. Men are sinners and must be governed well by law, to govern well. What kind of tyrant is a father or husband or pastor or boss or government official, if there is not some law to govern their actions?

Men must be governed well to govern well.  

The belief that the magistrate, the person, is the law, is not an uncommon belief throughout history and is the common political view of many evangelicals.  But it is false. Law establishes the authority of men and acts as a final appeal. This is the biblical understanding of government. A man’s government of his home is not above God’s law or state law. Neither is a pastor’s, president’s, governor’s, County Sherriff, etc. The Law of God and the Law of the land establish authority. Like the scriptures amongst Christians, the law is the final arbiter. 

Twice the disciples, under the pagan roman rule and Israelite religious leadership, demonstrated that the laws were above men, no matter the office of the man. Passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 exist within a context in which no authority is absolute. 

“And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27–29).

The apostles owed obedience to God over men, when the magistrate’s orders were contrary to God’s law.

Furthermore, Paul appealed to the Roman Law as a Citizen of Rome. “But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). The centurion’s authority was not absolute. It was subject to Roman law. Paul had a right to due process. No roman magistrate was above the Corpus Juris Civilis, or the twelve tables.  Paul did not say, “well you’re the magistrate so have at my back with that whip.” He appealed beyond the man to the law of the land. 

Texts like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 cannot be isolated from the rest of the Old and New Testament, which teach that no human institution is absolute. Everyone is governed by Law, Christian or Pagan. Israel was a kingdom of laws, not men. The reason for this, is that magistrates must be well-governed to govern well.  

Author: Michael Kloss

There is a Sunday conscience, as well as a Sunday coat; and those who make religion a secondary concern put the coat and conscience carefully by to put on only once a week. - Charles Dickens

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