A Quick Word on the Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates

I was given a book by a friend at our church entitled The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates by Matthew J. Trewhella. If that is not a subject that is familiar to you, the “doctrine of the lesser magistrates” refers to some form of lesser ruler who serves under a greater ruler (like a prince serving a king) and that “lesser magistrate’s” right to rebel against that greater ruler.

Many have rightly looked at Martin Luther’s stand against Charles V and the Roman Catholic Church as a prime example of this “doctrine of the lesser magistrates.” This is a doctrine that John Calvin has written about in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

There are examples in Scripture of this form of rebellion or protest where Christians sought to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29) – where they sought to stand for godly principles in the face of evil rulers.

  • There was Moses challenging the Pharaoh of Egypt to release the Hebrews from captivity (Exod 3-12).
  • There was Rahab who refused a command from Jericho’s King to give up the Hebrew spies (Josh 2).
  • There was Daniel refusing not to pray after the decree of King Nebuchadnezzar outlawed prayer to God (Dan 6).
  • There was Peter and John refusing to stop preaching after the Captain of the Temple and the Sadducees commanded them to remain silent (Acts 4).

There comes a time when Christians must part ways with law and follow the Word of God’s clear teaching. But it must be clear teaching in Scripture that leads a Christian to disobey. Otherwise, every believer has a responsibility to obey the governing laws of the law (Rom 13:1-7; I Pet 2:13-17). It is important to keep in mind that when that Scripture was revealed to Paul and Peter in Romans and I Peter that the Roman Empire was an evil and corrupt Empire under Nero. And yet, Paul and Peter express the need for the church to submit to their governing authorities, unless those authorities command them to violate Scripture.

In short, if your government commands you to sin, you have biblical justification to obey God rather than the government.



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