Magistrates in History and in Historic Confessions of Faith

The term ‘justice of the peace’ first appeared in the English language during the fourteenth century, though the office of ‘custos pacis’ can be traced back to 1264, when these ‘keepers of the peace’ were originally appointed by Simon de Montfort. The Justices of the Peace Act of 1361 allowed a few of ‘… the most worthy in each county’ to arrest suspects, investigate offences and dispense justice locally. The term ‘magistrate’ became synonymous and more popular later.

In Scripture, the magistrate is a general description for a civil officer, who is invested with authority. For example, in Deuteronomy 1:16-17, the Hebrew ‘shophetim’, or judges, were magistrates having authority in the land. In Judges 18:7, the word ‘magistrate’ is one ‘possessing authority and restraint’. At the time of Ezra (Ezra 9:2) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:16; 4:14; 13:11) the Jewish magistrates were called ‘seganim’, which means ‘nobles’.

In the New Testament, the Greek word ‘archon’, is rendered as ‘magistrate’ (Luke 12:58; Titus 3:1) with a meaning of one first in power, and therefore a prince, as in Matthew 20:25 and I Corinthians 2:6-8. This term is even used, in Revelation 1:5, of the Messiah, as the ‘Prince of the kings of the earth’.

Elsewhere, in Acts 16:20, 22, 35, 36, 38, the Greek term ‘strategos’, is used of the magistrate and signifies one having leadership and authority. The ‘strategoi’ were the duumviri, the two praetors, appointed to preside over the administration of justice throughout the colonies of the Roman Empire.

Nowadays, the office and tasks of the magistrate are appreciably different. Nevertheless, justices of the peace have played a significant role in the history of England and Wales, as well as the day-to-day lives of their citizens. The magistracy is a legal system that has been copied, and modified, all over the world. And the importance of civil magistrates has long been recognised by the Christian church, as the following extracts from some of the great Confessions of Faith demonstrate.


Article XXXVII.  Of the Civil Magistrates

The Queen’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other her Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the Queen’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.

The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.



Chapter 23.  Of The Civil Magistrate

1. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers.

2. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.

3. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of the civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretence of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

4. It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’s sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates’ just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted, much less hath the pope any power and jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and, least of all, to deprive them of their dominions, or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretence whatsoever.



Article XVI.  Of Civil Government

We believe that civil government is of divine appointment, for the interests and good order of human society; and that magistrates are to be prayed for, conscientiously honoured and obeyed; except only things opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only Lord of the conscience, and the Prince of the kings of the earth.

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