Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Lawful Power and its Exercise

The framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith highlighted the important distinction between lawful power and the lawful exercise of that power. They write:

They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God (XX.4).
Moreover, in the chapter entitled Of the Civil Magistrate they write:

It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates... to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake (XXIII.4).
These statements invite a couple important questions. First, what would be an example of a "lawful power" exercising its power "unlawfully"? Secondly, does the divines' insistence that we obey the civil magistrate's "lawful commands" mean, by implication, that we are free to disobey its unlawful commands? And if so, what is the standard by which the state's laws are to be measured?

In cases like Paul's, where he expected to receive the treatment to which his Roman citizenship entitled him, it was legitimate to question the abuse of the civil magistrate's power. Likewise for us today, our Declaration of Independence clearly distinguishes between the country and the government, seeing the latter as legitimate only insofar as it receives the consent of the former:
Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [securing the people's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it....

So if a state itself invites us to challenge its own abuse of power, shouldn't we be free to do so without "pretence of Christian liberty" or "disobeying lawful commands," but rather, in the words of the Confession, purely "for conscience' sake"?