Disciple Hour: The Lesser (LOWER) Magistrate

Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates by Matthew Trewhella 

(Summary and Teaching Notes Developed From the Book and Other Sources)

“Those who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.”
-William Penn

It is better to trust in the Lord
Than to put confidence in princes
-Psalm 118.9

To Him who divided the Red Sea in two, For His mercy endures forever; 14 And made Israel pass through the midst of it, For His mercy endures forever; 15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, For His mercy endures forever; 16 To Him who led His people through the wilderness, For His mercy endures forever;17 To Him who struck down great kings, For His mercy endures forever; 18 And slew famous kings, For His mercy endures forever—
-Psalm 136 13-18

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The kings of the earth set themselves, And the rulers take counsel together, Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,“Let us break Their bonds in pieces And cast away Their cords from us.”
-Psalm 2 2-3

“If there is no final place for civil disobedience, then the government has been made autonomous, and as such, it has been put in the place of the Living God.” – Francis Schaeffer[1]

Chapter 1 Summary

We live in a fallen world.  This has been the case from the very beginning.

Romans 5:12 (ESV) 

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 

Throughout human history there has been an untold number of accounts of sinful people acting sinfully.  From the very beginning this has been the case.

Lets look at an account that took place in AD39…

The Roman Governor over the area of Palestine (Jerusalem) named Petronius was given a command by Caligula the Emperor of Rome to place a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple.  Caligula was convinced that he was a god, so no better place to have his statue than in the temple where God is worshipped.

What do you think the Jews did?

What were some options?

1. They could have said, well we are comfortable here in Jerusalem and for the most part Rome leaves us alone.  What’s one statue going to hurt?

2.  They could have resisted.

They resisted and sent a delegate to speak with their Governor.

Gov. Petronius was so deeply moved by the reasoning of their protests that he wrote the Emperor that he would not enforce his order, and called the Emperor to annul it.

Needless to say, it didn’t go over very well with the Emperor who wrote back telling Petronius to commit suicide.

The letter calling Petronius to commit suicide in God’s providence arrived after a letter that said the Emperor had been assassinated by his own guards.  The statue was never placed in the temple.

The Governor may not have known but he was practicing the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate…

*It’s called a Doctrine because it is a Christian Doctrine first formalized by the pastors of Magdeburg Germany.

*Magistrate- is an old term that means any civil government official with authority either elected or appointed.  

*The Lesser Magistrate Doctrine declares that when the superior or higher civil authority makes an unjust/immoral laws or decrees, the lesser or lower ranking civil authority has both a right and duty to refuse obedience to that superior authority.

This functions as a safeguard against unrighteous laws.

In our day the president, Congress or the Supreme Court could pass an unjust or unrighteous law.  The lesser magistrates such as Governors, Mayors, Police, and Sheriffs could stand up to it and refuse to enforce the unjust law.

It was reported the Emperor Trajan while appointing a subordinate authority gave him a sword and said, if I pass righteous laws use this sword on our enemies.  If, however, I pass unrighteous laws use it on me.

Historically, this doctrine has been practiced by Christians who have come up against evil authority.  The teaching by Christians about the lesser magistrate, God’s sovereignty, covenant, the nature of man, and the church government shaped the views of Western Civilization that birthed constitutional governments like ours.  

The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates had a huge impact in the founding of our own republic.  If ever a nation needs to understand this principle it is our nation right now.  The attacks upon the Law of God are relentless.  The preborn human beings are murdered in the womb and the State endorses these murderous acts.  Sodomy is celebrated and endorsed by the State.  Same sex marriages, transgender sin are endorsed by the State.  Immoral and unjust edicts and laws are everywhere.  The assault upon our freedoms and liberties seem to be the daily undertaking of those who are in higher office.  One thing has not changed: the lesser magistrate has the duty before God to uphold good regardless of the new Laws created by the State.

How do we determine whether a law is just or unjust?

God’s Law is the standard by which manmade laws are to be judged either righteous or unrighteous. Historically, the Church has stood on the principle When the State commands what God forbids or forbids that which God commands, we have the duty to obey God rather than man. 

Acts 5:27–29 (ESV) 

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 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.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 

Exodus 1:15–21 (ESV) 

15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 

Daniel 3:1–30 (ESV) 

King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 

The Fiery Furnace 

Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews. They declared to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! 10 You, O king, have made a decree, that every man who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image. 11 And whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace. 12 There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” 

13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” 

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” 

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. 20 And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21 Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. 22 Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. 

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” 25 He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” 

26 Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. 28 Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. 

The three Hebrews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were lesser magistrates and refused to bow down and worship the golden image.  What’s the big deal here?  Why not worship the image?  God’s Law supersedes man’s law.

Exodus 20:1–6 (ESV) 

20 And God spoke all these words, saying, 

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 

“You shall have no other gods before me. 

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

Notice, God promises great blessings to His people who keep His commandments…not man’s commandments.
So, the Law of God is to be obeyed and when King Nebuchadnezzar made a new law that contradicted God’s law, God’s people had to obey God and disobey the King.
Our goal is not to disobey the State but to obey God.  When the State charts a new course away from the standards of God then in obeying God we are by default disobeying the State.  We must do this without wavering and without apology.
When a law contradicts God’s Word then the lesser magistrate has the obligation and the duty to obey God and disobey man’s law.  Will the lesser authority obey God or obey man?
Our nation continues to sink deeper and deeper into sin and rebellion.  The lesser magistrate doctrine needs to be explained to those in our government and the people of our nation.

[1] Schaeffer, Francis “A Christian Manifesto” Crossway. 2005. Pg. 130

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