by Drake Shelton
What is the relationship of a man to his government by nature? What are the similarities between the authority of a man’s parents and the authority of a man’s government? These are the questions that I have asked myself when discussing the subject of civil government with my peers. Though many other questions arise when discussing this subject, these two are perhaps the most difficult and yet intriguing to pursue. Samuel Rutherford took this task upon himself in the seventeenth century when he wrote Lex Rex, which is a rebuttal of the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Sadly, many Reformed Protestants today hold to this doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings and defend it by equating the authority of a father to the authority of government. In some sense there is similarity between the two, but there are grave differences that need to be understood to avoid error. As the great divine Samuel Rutherford said, “Every man by nature is a freeman born, that is, by nature no man cometh out of the womb under any civil subjection to king, prince, or judge, to master, captain, conqueror, teacher…because freedom is natural to all, except freedom from subjection to parents.”
II. The Nature of Paternal Authority Over a Man
Even if Adam had never been beguiled by the serpent in the beginning, man would by nature be subject to his parents. By nature, from the very innocence of creation God has established order and rank. Paul speaks of God being the head of Christ, Christ being the head of man and man being the head of woman, who by nature was born under matrimonial subjection. Admittedly, woman was made for man and under his authority because she originates from him (1 Corinthians 11:8-12). In our ordinary generation we originate from our parents and therefore by nature are subject to them. Though Christ is God blessed forever and never created, he is eternally begotten of the Father and has the Father as his head. Man was made lower than the angels in rank (Hebrews 2, Psalm 8) and have these beings as superiors though not directly under their authority. So it is clear that by nature, there is order and authority given by nature outside of sin. However, is this the case with civil government? What is the difference between the office of father in a family and the office of a king when Isaiah calls him “a nursing father (Isaiah 49:23)?” The answer is given by Samuel Rutherford: “As a man cometh into the world a member of a politic society, he is, by consequence, born subject to the laws of that society; but this maketh him not, from the womb and by nature, subject to a king, as by nature he is subject to his father who begat him, no more than by nature a lion is born subject to another king-lion; for it is by accident that he is born of parents under subjection to a monarch, or to either democratical or aristocratical governors, for Cain and Abel were born under none of these forms of government properly.” The distinction being made by Rutherford is the difference between natural law and positive law. This distinction is defined by Webster’s Dictionary: “In laws, that which is natural, bindeth universally; that which is positive, not so. Although no laws but positive are mutable, yet all are not mutable which are positive.” Therefore, it is clear that paternal authority is different from civil in that paternal authority is universal and therefore natural, while civil authority is regional and temporal in its forms and legislation and therefore positive, mutable and has its origin from the consequences of sin.
III. The Nature of Civil Authority Over a Man
The nature of civil authority is given in Romans 13. The Divine Right of Kings doctrine interprets this passage as descriptive. This view is incorrect due to the key terms that regularly describe government for most are not “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Romans 13 is prescribing the authority in much the same way the constitution of the United States is described as “an express powers document.” This method of delegation is a “regulative principle” and the only authority that it has is that which has been expressly stated by God. To this statement some will object that government has authority in the same way a father does when he tells his son to take his feet off the coffee table. They will argue that there is no command or prohibition in the Word contrary to one’s foot on the table, but the father has authority to forbid such. This objector fails to see the distinction between paternal and civil authority. Rutherford pointed out that kings are called fathers metaphorically in the scriptures and tyrannous leaders are metaphorically called leopards and lions in Ezekiel 22:27, and Zephaniah 3:3; “If then, tyrannous judges be not essentially and formally leopards and lions, but only metaphorically, neither can kings be formally fathers.” Civil power and fatherly power are not of the same essence as this objection implies and “It is answered,- that the argument presupposeth that royal power and fatherly power is one and the same in nature, whereas they differ in nature, and are only one by analogy and proportion; for so pastors of the Word are called fathers, 1 Cor. iv. 15, it will not follow, that once a pastor, evermore a pastor; and that if therefore pastors turn wolves, and by heretical doctrine corrupt the flock, they cannot be cast out of the church.”
Therefore, by the clear exposition of the nature of paternal authority contrasted with civil authority, man is born under paternal authority, yet man is free from all civil authority that is not given clear authorization in the Word of God. However, this does not mean that it will be always expedient to resist without exception.