The Baptist Confession on the Civil Magistrate

I mentioned in my previous post that the Baptist confessional tradition should be weighted more heavily than individual authors when we are making generalizations about the historic Baptist view on the civil magistrate. I also mentioned that the Second London Confession has a particular pride of place in this regard. The 1689 Confession influenced, in one way or another, most of the other major Baptist confessions in an English-speaking context. So, paying careful attention to what the confession says–and most tellingly, what it doesn’t say–about the civil magistrate is especially important.

You can find a tabular comparison of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 Confession here. Below is a screenshot of the articles “Of the Civil Magistrate.” Again, this comparison and contrast is especially important to considering how Baptists have historically positioned themselves in relation to the broader Reformed movement, and magisterial Protestantism more generally.

The portions in red indicate divergences between the two confessions. But note that the portions in black indicate continuity with the great Reformed confession. The seventeenth-century Particular Baptists were trying to strike a balance here: to express their solidarity with other Protestants as far as possible and to defend unashamedly their Baptist distinctives. They were aiming for, we might say, a Baptist Catholicity.

The first paragraph here is pristinely carried over from the WCF. God ordains civil government for his own glory and the public good. But the power of the sword is carefully delimited: to defend and encourage those who do good and to punish those who do evil (cf. Romans 13:1-7).

From there, the omissions tell the real story. These early Baptists believed, contrary to the Anabaptists, that Christians can rightly participate in the civil government. But the duties of the magistrate are limited to the maintenance of civil justice and peace. The WCF’s mention of “piety” as one of the aims of the magistrate is conspicuously absent. The church, not the civil authority, has within its jurisdiction the maintenance of piety. The jurisdiction of the civil government is limited to civil, not religious, matters. As Baptist historian Thomas Nettles has put it, “The Baptists would not have the magistrate insert any of his power into the divine prerogative of creating and maintaining piety in his people. That is the function of the Holy Spirt by the word of God under the faithful labors of God-called ministers of the word in the context of the church.”

Likewise, the WCF’s third and fourth paragraphs are omitted entirely and replaced with an original paragraph arguing for submission to and prayer for the magistrate. Gone are the magistrate’s duties related to the ministry of the church. The Baptists intentionally omitted any reference to the government preserving the unity of the church, keeping the truth pure, suppressing blasphemies and heresies, preventing abuses in worship, calling synods, and so on. Even the American revision of the WCF, which made space for the magistrate’s protection of all Protestant denominations, still affirmed the magistrate as the “nursing father” who has charge to “protect the church of our common Lord.” Regardless of what any individual Baptist thinker may have thought or written elsewhere, the Baptist confessional tradition knows nothing of a civil government with such explicitly religious responsibilities.

The difference between the establishmentarianism of the WCF and the separation of the civil and religious spheres in the SLBCF is rooted in the two groups’ distinct views on biblical theology. As Nettles notes, the position of the WCF, “assumes a direct continuity between Israel and political entities subsequent to the coming of Christ. It assumes that earthly kings have the same authority and duties of the king in that covenanted society. It does not embrace the distinction between Israel as an elect nation and the church as the ‘chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.’ These people are not all of any nation but are to be looked upon as ‘sojourners and exiles’ who once were ‘not a people, but now the people of God’ (1 Peter 2:9-11).”

In sum, the 1689 Confession intentionally and deliberately distanced itself from the the WCF on the matter of the civil magistrate. At least as far as our confessional tradition would bind us, the Baptist view on the separation of church and state seems clearly inconsistent with any kind of specifically religious authority being given to the civil powers. The magistrate is God’s servant for God’s glory and the public good but only within its limited jurisdiction: maintaining civil justice and civil peace.

Addendum: Note well that the Baptist belief in the separation of church and state does not entail a separation of church and society nor even a separation of morality and state. Civil justice demands, for example, the protection of the unborn from the evil of abortion and the protection of children and adolescents (and adults, for that matter) from the irreversible harm of so-called “gender affirming care.” I hasten to add this because so many people today seem to set up a false dichotomy: it’s either Christian Nationalism or radical progressivism. But Baptists have long been engaged in promoting moral legislation. Think of William Carey’s opposition of sati, or Andrew Fuller’s support of the abolitionist movement, or Charles Spurgeon’s opposition to slavery, or the SBC’s opposition to “racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.” (BF&M 2000). Baptists in America today can push for just laws right now, without blowing the whole system up and seeking to retrieve something more “magisterially” Protestant.

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