Long live the Ephor!

Some of our correspondents seem to depart from the legacy of Christendom on the subject of the magistrate. They think the magistrate is beyond criticism by men.

However, it was Enlightenment humanists like Hobbes that came up with the idea of the unimpeachable divine right of kings, not Christians. Rome, of course, had a continual battle with Emperors, though unfortunately, often bundled up with church/state confusions of her own. But let us hear from the two arch-Protestants.


According to Roland Bainton, Luther’s prohibition of rebellion by the common man was tempered by his granting of the right of appeal (Here I Stand, p. 244). And in the system inherited from the Middle Ages, the possibility of appeal was everywhere present due to the interlocking layers of civil authorities.

Moreover, Luther granted that civil disobedience was not only a right but a duty in two circumstances:

1. Where the magistrate transgresses the first table of the Ten Commandments. Note well – the first table! So much for the radical two-kingdom dualism often imputed to Luther.

2. When the prince requires service in a war that is manifestly unjust. “Joachim of Brandenburg enlisted soldiers, ostensibly against the Turk but really against the Lutherans. They deserted with Luther’s hearty approval. ‘Since God will have us leave father and mother for his sake, certainly he will have us leave lords for his sake’” (ibid.).

In addition, Luther was emphatic that the preachers as a class had the duty to correct and admonish the civil magistrates:

We should wash the fur of the magistrate and clean out his mouth whether he laughs or rages. Christ has instructed us preachers not to withhold the truth from the lords but to exhort and chide them in their injustice. Christ did not say to Pilate, “You have no power over me.” He said that Pilate did have power, but he said, “You do not have this power from yourself. It is given to you from God.” Therefore he upbraided Pilate. We do the same. We recognize the authority, but we must rebuke our Pilates in their crime and self-confidence. Then they say to us, “You are reviling the majesty of God,” to which we answer, “We will suffer what you do to us, but to keep still and let it appear that you do right when you do wrong, that we cannot and will not do.”

It is not possible to chide for doing wrong if the possibility of examining and weighing actions cannot be performed.


Now consider Calvin:

But we must, in the meantime, be very careful not to despise or violate that authority of magistrates, full of venerable majesty, which God has established by the weightiest decrees, even though it may reside with the most unworthy men, who defile it as much as they can with their own wickedness. For, if the correction of unbridled despotism is the Lord’s to avenge, let us not at once think that it is entrusted to us, to whom no command has been given except to obey and suffer.

Inst IV.20.31 Eng. tr. Ford Lewis Battles. (Phil:Westminster Press 1960)

Here, Calvin emphasizes the private individual’s duty of submission to the magistrate.

Note however, that he is able to identify that some magistrates are “most unworthy men, who defile it as much as they can with their own wickedness.”

If the biblical teaching were “see no evil, hear no evil” with respect to the civil magistrate — indeed, not to even allow thought to proceed down that hypothetical path –, how could Calvin ever conclude that there might be among the magistrates, “most unworthy men, who defile it as much as they can with their own wickedness”?

Obviously he couldn’t. But he does.

He continues:

I am speaking all the while of private individuals. For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (as in ancient times the ephors were set against the Spartan kings, or the tribunes of the people against the Roman consuls, or the demarchs against the senate of the Athenians; and perhaps, as things now are, such power as the three estates exercise in every realm when they hold their chief assemblies), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. (ibid)

Here, Calvin explains the place of the “lower” magistrate.

It is not just his right to oppose the evil incursions of the “higher” magistrate. It is his bounden duty.

It is not just a minor duty: neglecting to do so is nefarious perfidy.

Note that none of the lower magistrates Calvin cites are specifically set up in Scripture; they are all providential circumstances.

The estates were already exercising the kind of rights and duties that Calvin outlines hundreds of years before Calvin. They were doing so in the context of Christendom, not pagan licentiousness.

It is not merely Luther and Calvin speaking; they are rearticulating in succinct form a principle of western Christendom.

1. The right to resist implies a public standard. Otherwise, there would be no call for correction, no protest, no petition, appeal. It would simply be one strong man rising up, for no apparent reason, against another strong man.

Providentially, for us, as Americans, this can be unpacked further in various concrete principles.

2. The American right of free speech was at the outset established as a political right, and specifically in the context of such speech being directed in challenge to the regime. The same document that gives the President his powers gives us this right.

3. The right to elect our representatives implies the right to examine them on policy; or if a candidate should refuse, there is nothing to prevent us from voting for another on that grounds alone.

4. Our providential Constitution does not set the President up as a “higher magistrate” in respect to Congress. A fortiori, he too can be called into account. Thus, as citizens of a constitutional republic, we have the right to challenge both president and representative; or to attempt to do so, and take action in opposition when the response is inadequate.

4 thoughts on “Long live the Ephor!

  1. How the reformed church has produced such soft-minded and timid men in our generation is worth exploring. We live in an era in which even the most basic doctrines need articulation and defense. It is too bad many of our readers must learn the elementals from us rather than the past masters.

  2. I’m not sure I follow; are you saying Sproul is part of the problem or part of the solution.

  3. He’s not theologically sound, though not so obviously askew that he’s avoided by “the faithful”–and the other part of the problem is that people want to tune in to this or that personality. If only people spent more time in the Word of God itself, we would not need all the mass of books tell us how to live, what to do. The “secret” to right living is, and has been for 2,000 in the Bible. Of course, what would Christian booksellers do? There’s a place to hear how the Holy Spirit has helped others understand the Bible, but need we the plethora of “ministries” out there? Can a minister just teach the Word in his pulpit without succumbing to the temptation of name recognition and popularity by having a “ministry”?

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