Summary of the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates

Magna Carta: 800 Years Old in 2015
With each passing day there is a desperate need for lesser magistrates to stand up to higher governments, in particular the federal government.  We have for too long adopted the stance that if the higher authorities say it then we must obey. I would encourage all men to read The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates by Matthew Trewhella and to give it to their sons. I wish the book had been longer, included more examples from history and Scripture, and had more practical examples. Nonetheless it is a great introduction to a doctrine most of us did not even know existed. Since times are hard and money is short, here are some quotes summarizing the doctrine from the last chapter in the book. 

The lesser magistrate doctrine declares that when the superior or higher civil authority makes unjust/immoral laws or decrees, the lesser or lower ranking civil authority has both a right and a duty to refuse obedience to that superior authority. If necessary, the lesser authorities even have the right and obligation to actively resist the superior authority. 

Earlier in the book the author writes, “when the State commands that which God forbids or forbids that which God commands, men have a duty to obey God rather than man.”

Interposition is that calling of God which causes one to step into the gap willingly placing oneself between the oppressor and his intended victim. Interposition takes place when someone or some group interposes or positions themselves between an oppressor and the intended victim…When it comes to the interposition of the lesser magistrate, he interposes for the people-placing himself between the unjust laws or decrees of the higher authority and the people.

The lesser magistrate doctrine reminds the higher authority that their authority is limited. No one who holds authority in civil government rules with autonomy. The authority they possess is delegated to them by God. Hence, all those in positions of authority stand accountable to God, and are to govern according to His rule.

The lesser magistrates have three duties:

First, they are to oppose and resist any laws or edicts from the higher authority that contravene the law or Word of God. Second, they are to protect the person, liberty, and property of those who reside within their jurisdiction from any unjust or immoral actions by the higher authority. Third, they are not to implement any laws or decrees made by the higher authorities that violate the Constitution, and if necessary, resist them.

Finally, the author states there are two rules which guide the lesser magistrate in determining rather or not to resist.

The law of God is the  objective standard so that men know when governments are making unjust or immoral law. The disobedience of the lesser magistrate is not subjective. He is only justified in defying the higher authority when the higher authority clearly contravenes the law of God.

The second rule is the U.S. Constitution. God’s law  takes precedence, but that does not eliminate the right for a lesser magistrate to appeal to US law when it is being violated or flagrantly abused.

There are several Biblical presuppositions which hold up this doctrine.

All men are sinners. No man or group of men whether king, president, congress, governor, mayor, or any other civil official is going to be perfect.

No authority is absolute. Tyrants assume that because they are in office their word is law. But they are actually under a higher law.

God’s Word rules all areas of life. It is the final law we appeal to. That does not eliminate hard questions, but it does give us an objective standard outside of ourselves by which we can judge men and governments. For example, when we think about civil disobedience in the Scriptures it was not over petty things. The murder of children (Exodus 1), idol worship (Daniel 3), denial of the right to pray to God (Daniel 6), and punishment for preaching the Gospel (Acts 4-5) are the examples that come to mind. In other words, resistance must be rooted in clear violations of God’s laws.

Finally, all laws contrary to Scripture are tyrannical and oppressive. We cannot say this often enough. Men are taught that the Scriptures put us in chains while disobeying Scripture will set us free. But the opposite is the truth. Christ and his Word set us free. In order for lesser magistrates to have the courage to resist they must understand that laws contrary to God’s Word will put men in bondage.

Concluding Thoughts
First, it is amazing how simple this doctrine is. In practice, it can be complicated due to the various circumstances that arise and because we do not always know where the proper lines of resistance are. But overall it is easy to understand and makes Biblical sense.

Second, Romans 13:1-7 does not just apply to kings and presidents. It applies to all governing authorities.When we read these verses we assume federal government. But why? What if the state government is actually God’s servant and the federal government is the Devil’s? In other words, we are under multiple jurisdictions, federal, state, county, and local.  We can be obeying one jurisdiction while disobeying another.

Third, one hundred years ago it may been hard to find the line of resistance. That is not the case anymore. Abortion, same sex marriage and other sexual deviancy, perversion of our children through lies, the promotion of evolution, excessive taxation, and restrictions on preaching and living the Gospel should be actively opposed by all lawful means available in every state, county, and community. God’s law is so flagrantly discarded in our country that lesser magistrates have easy targets. Pick one and start resisting.

Fourth, we need to think carefully about active resistance. By this I mean, state use of military power against the federal government in order to protect its people. What if the federal government decides to draft our daughters into the military? What if they come to take them away? Should your state take up arms to resist? When is it right for a lesser magistrate to take up arms against a greater one?

Fifth, we need to think carefully about taxation and theft. At what point does the paying of taxes become theft? At what point can a lesser magistrate declare federal taxes unjust and order his people to not pay them or to pay less?

Sixth, we need men with courage. Unfortunately, they are few and far between these days.  Most of our politicians at every level are filled with love of money and power instead of love of God. Their ability to resist is low because they are already slaves to their lusts. We need men who will burn federal laws in the streets, make speeches naming names, and push through laws that say, “We will not do what they tell us do.”  Just a few men like this around the country could make an impact. Pastors and citizens need to encourage their lesser magistrates to resist.

Seventh, we should not expect the higher magistrates to view the resistance of lesser magistrates as legitimate. Higher magistrates will call lesser magistrates who resist traitors, liars, disturbers of the peace, lawless rebels, and so on. The first battle will be over definitions and words.

Finally, we must be ready to shed blood. Government operates by the sword. Therefore resistance to government necessarily involves physical danger. We cannot expect the higher magistrates to simply bow out. They will fight. It will be laws and fines first. But eventually there will be imprisonment and possibly physical violence. This is why courage is the order of the day.