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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

by
Francis R. Beattie


CHAPTER XXXI.

LAWFUL OATHS; THE CIVIL MAGISTRATE; MARRIAGE.

SHORTER CATECHISM, 70-72; LARGER CATECHISM, 137-139; CONFESSION OF FAITH, XXII., XXIII., XXIV.

Three important topics are grouped together for explanation in this chapter. Of these topics, the Catechisms have little or nothing to say, but the Confession devotes a separate chapter to each one of them. Two of these, marriage and the civil magistrate, are of greater importance, while the third is of lesser moment. They are now taken up and expounded in the order in which they are stated in the Confession.

I. Lawful Oaths and Vows.
Here, then, are two closely-related topics, which also resemble each other in various respects. The oath is made between man and man, as the parties, with God called on as witness in the case. The vow is by man alone making a solemn promise to God, so that God and man are the parties in the case. Each of these topics requires a few words of explanation, following the Confession quite closely throughout.

1. Lawful oaths are to be first explained. The language here used implies that there are unlawful oaths. The reference here is doubtless to profane swearing, and a light and trivial appeal to God in the ordinary converse of life. This is a violation of the third command, as has already been seen. But the Standards teach that there is also a proper way in which men may make a solemn appeal to God to attest the truth of any utterance they make. Several points are to be noted here.

First, The nature of a lawful oath is to be considered. At the outset, it is to be remembered that such an oath is a part of religious worship. This is evident from the fact that God is solemnly acknowledged, and invoked to attest the truth of what is asserted. It is an act of adoration and of homage, with confession of God's right over us. The lawful oath thus regarded is an act of worship, whereby, on just occasion, the person swearing or making oath solemnly calls God to witness what he testifies or promises, and at the same time invokes God to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he swears. The usual circumstances which afford the just occasion for the use of lawful oaths are found in a court of justice, when strong assurance of truth and certainty is desired. In such cases the oath does two things: First, It binds with a fresh obligation the person swearing, who, by the natural law of truthfulness, is bound to tell the truth, or to assert only what is in accordance with truth and fact. And, Secondly, The oath calls upon God to judge and condemn him should he fail to speak in accordance with the truth in any evidence which he may be called to give in any way. By the obligation of natural morality every man is bound to speak the truth at all times, so that he is not free to be false when he is not under oath. But the oath lays upon him a double obligation to have respect unto the truth in what is spoken of or testified to.

Secondly, The name in which oaths are to be made is to be next explained. The Confession says that the only name by which men ought to swear is that of God. Hence, oaths are not to be made to false gods or idols. From this it is clear that neither an atheist nor an idolater can make oath with any meaning or propriety. There can be no meaning in a man calling upon God to witness to the truth of what he says if he does not believe that there is a God; and if a man call on gods that are not true gods, then he swears in vain. It is evident that when the name of God is used it should be with all holy reverence and fear. Hence it is a grievous sin to be abhorred, to swear vainly or rashly by the glorious and dreadful name of God. To dare to make oath by any other name or thing is equally sinful. At the same time, the Confession adds that, in matters of great moment, an oath is warranted by the word of God; and this is the case under the New Testament as well as under the Old. Hence, a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority in matters of great weight, ought to be taken. The proper authority to impose an oath must be some lawfully-constituted authority in the church or in the state. Usually it is imposed by the proper civil officer in the civil sphere, and in connection with testimony in a court of law.

Thirdly, The effect or result of lawful oaths is to be considered. The first result indicated is that the person who takes an oath is to seriously consider the nature and import of so solemn an act, and in connection therewith to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth. In addition to the natural obligation to tell the truth, there is the self-imposed obligation which the taking of the oath implies. In this connection the Confession tells us that there are certain limitations to the things concerning which we may swear. No man ought to bind himself by an oath to anything but what is good and just, or what he honestly believes to be so. Nor ought he to make oath to do what he is unable or does not intend to perform. Inability indicates the limit of duty in the matter of making an oath, and a lack of intention to do what the oath implies is profane and hypocritical. The Confession adds that it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, if it be imposed by lawful authority. Some persons, like the Quakers, refuse, on conscientious grounds, to make oath at all; yet even in their case, in the declaration to speak the truth which they make, the substance of what the oath implies is to be found.

Fourthly, An oath is to be taken in the plain and common-sense use of the words employed. No equivocation nor any mental reservation can be allowed. This teaching is pointedlawful oaths ; civil magistrate ; marriage against the doctrine of intention, held by Romanists, and condemns it utterly. The ordinary meaning of the words employed is to express what it is intended to be uttered ; and in all the asseverations of men nothing is to be kept back secretly in the mind of the person making the oath. As to the mode in which the oath ought to be administered, nothing definite is said in the Confession, so that no particular mode is prescribed. Those who administer it are, in a measure, left to their own discretion in this matter. The use of the Bible, and the raising of the right hand prevail. Kissing the book is not necessary, so far as the Confessional teaching is concerned, and there are not a few serious practical objections to this practice in making oath. It ought, therefore, to be abolished everywhere.

Fifthly, It is added that no oath can oblige a man to sin. But in anything not sinful, the oath being once taken binds to its performance, even though it be to a man's personal injury in various respects; nor, further, is an oath to be violated, although made to heretics or infidels. Here, again, the Romish doctrine is rejected. Rome teaches that oaths need not be respected if made with those whom she regards as infidels. On this ground an attempt is made to justify many of the evil deeds of deception and cruelty of which Rome has been guilty; but it is vain to make this attempt to justify these things, and the teaching of the Confession clearly is, that when an oath is made in a lawful way regarding things just and good, whether to a heretic or an infidel, the oath must be performed. Such is the teaching of the Confession regarding lawful oaths.

2. Lawful vows remain for brief explanation. The relation of the vow to the oath has been explained. The vow might almost be called a promissory oath. It ought to be made with the same religious care, and performed with like faithfulness as the oath.

First, Like the oath, it is to be made to God alone, and not to any creature nor to a false god. In the vow God is the party to whom the promise is made; in the oath he is merely a witness. As to its nature, further, a vow, to have any value, must be made voluntarily. It must also be made out of faith and with a conscience of duty. It may be made for a twofold reason: either as an evidence of thankfulness for past mercies, or as an earnest for obtaining what we desire. By making the vow we do not create the duty, but rather bind ourselves to the performance of necessary duties, or to other things, so long as they may fitly conduce to our necessary duties.

Secondly, The things which men may vow are to be named. No man has any right to vow anything forbidden in the word of God. This is perfectly plain. If he did so vow, his vow would itself be sin, and his fulfilment of it would also be sin. Nor may any man vow anything which would hinder him in the discharge of any duty commanded in the word of God. Further, a man should not vow what it is not in his power to do, or for the performance of which God has not given him any promise or ability to the doing thereof. In this connection, the Confession formally condemns popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, of professed poverty, and of regular obedience to a superior. These are not higher degrees of perfection in the Christian life. They are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian should entangle himself. The wisdom of the teaching of the Confession upon this point is evident; for, not only is the Romish doctrine and practice without any support from Scripture, but it is also opposed to reason and common sense, as well as condemned by the practical results which so often flow from it in the lives of those who make these vows. Such is the teaching concerning lawful vows.

II. The Civil Magistrate.
The chapter in the Confession which treats of this subject is a very important one, as has been already seen in other connections. The nature and functions of civil government, and the relation of that government to the church or kingdom of Christ, are questions of great moment and much difficulty. The various points touched on in the Confession are to be taken up in order and briefly explained.

1. Civil government, as well as ecclesiastical, is an ordinance of God. This the Confession plainly emphasizes, and it should never be forgotten by civil rulers. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained the civil magistrates to be under him over the people, for his own glory and the public good. This plainly teaches that the origin of civil government is not to be found merely in some primitive social compact, or voluntary association of individuals, but that it owes its origin to the ordination of God, who is the supreme moral ruler of all men. The fact that God has given to man a moral nature, and placed him in moral relations to himself, lays the foundation for this divine ordination of civil government. This means that God's moral government over men forms the basis of civil government as God's ordinance among men. The Standards do not teach that any particular form of civil government, as, for example, a monarchy or a republic, is divinely ordained. They simply teach that the powers that be are ordained of God, and that the special form of the government in any community is to be determined by the circumstances and conditions of the people from time to time.

The end or purpose of civil government is also to be stated here. It is twofold: First, It is for the glory of God. This means that God as King of kings ordains the institutions of civil government in order that thereby his name may be honored among men. This is, indeed, a noble conception of civil government, which princes and rulers will do well to remember. Secondly, It is for the public good of the commonwealth. It is intended to secure order and the exercise of the liberty of the individual, in harmony with that measure of restraint upon that liberty which the general good requires. The great principles of the divine government, as unfolded in the Scriptures, if regarded by nations in the conduct of their civil affairs, will attain both of these ends. The glory of God and the good of the people will thereby be permanently secured.

The Confession adds, that in order to render the civil government effective for these ends, God has armed the civil magistrate with the power of the sword. The purpose of this is to defend and encourage those that are good, and to restrain and punish evil-doers. The power of the sword is the power to inflict civil pains and penalties, such as the church is not entitled to inflict. Hence, civil government is entitled to make proper laws, to institute those agencies necessary for the execution of these laws, and to inflict such punishments as may be just upon offenders. Thus the church has the power of the keys, and the state has the power of the sword. Neither has the right to exercise the power of the other. The state has the right, not by mere arbitrary assumption, nor as the result of a social compact, but by the ordination of God, to inflict such penalties as the violation of the laws of the civil magistrate may incur. This is the true foundation, not only of civil government, but also of the punishment of offenders under it.

2. The Confession next says that it is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called thereunto. This wisely guards against an extreme inference from the doctrine of the separation of church and state which the Standards teach. That inference is to the effect that Christians should take no part at all in the affairs of state. They should not hold office, nor should they even vote at elections, especially if the government does not formally recognize God and the headship of Christ over the nations. But the Standards recognize that a man, while a Christian and a member of the church, is also a citizen and a member of the commonwealth. This being the case, he has a standing in both church and state, and he may hold office and exercise rule in both, as well as be a subject of both.

In discharging their duty as rulers, Christian magistrates ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth. A truly Christian magistrate, enacting and applying righteous laws, will surely secure the very highest type of civil government. It is added that even such magistrates may lawfully, even under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions. This raises the perplexing question of the justice of war; and the answer, given with caution, is to the effect that upon certain occasions just and necessary war may be entered on. As to what constitutes a just and necessary occasion, it is not easy to give a definite answer. Assuming the righteousness of the law of self-defence in the individual, it may be justly concluded that defensive war, when the life and security of the nation are in danger, is legitimate; and this is, doubtless, the meaning of the Standards at this point. In most wars there is probably some blame on both sides; and wars for the mere acquisition of territory, for personal fame, or for national glory cannot be justified from the position of the Standards or the teaching of Scripture. One of the happy results of the advance of Christian civilization is that war is becoming less frequent, and that many disputes between nations are now settled by arbitration which in past ages would have been settled by an appeal to the sword.

3. In relation to the church and her ordinances the Confession asserts that the civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments.

Footnote: The original text of the passage in the Confession upon which this paragraph is based was revised and changed in 1789 A. D., in connection with the formation of the first General Assembly in the United States. The original text of the Confession prior to this change read as follows: ''The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the church; that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted at them be according to the mind of God." It will be seen at a glance how very important this revision of the Confession is.
This means that the state has not the right to appoint or control those who are to be the religious or spiritual leaders and guides of the people, nor to interfere in public worship nor with the administration of the sacraments. These functions belong only to the spiritual officers of the church. And, further, the civil magistrate is not to exercise the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, or in the least to interfere in matters of faith. Here the spheres of the church and of the state are again expressed. The civil magistrate has no power to admit members into the church nor to apply religious tests; nor can he administer discipline and shut people out of the church. He dare not carry the power of the sword into the church, and inflict temporal penalties upon its members. The neglect to regard this in the past has led to many a bloody and shameful persecution.

Then follows a statement in the Confession which has been often misapplied, especially by those who are in favor of some close relation between church and state. The statement referred to is that civil magistrates as nursing fathers ought to protect the church of our common Lord without giving preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest. This statement has been taken by some to mean that the state as a nursing father should, out of her gifts, support the church in the nation. But this is not the meaning of the passage quoted. It evidently means simply that the state should protect all Christians, irrespective of their denomination, in the enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights and privileges. That this is the true view is evident from what the Confession further says upon this subject as to the manner in which the civil magistrate should discharge his duty. It should be in such a way that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions without violence or danger. This is, indeed, the Magna Charta of religious liberty for all men, under any form of civil government whatever.

To make all mistakes impossible in regard to this matter the Confession adds, that as Jesus Christ has appointed a regular government in the church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder the due exercise thereof among the members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty, therefore, of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner, as that no person be suffered, either upon pretence of religion or infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse or injury to any person whatsoever; and, further, it is the duty of the civil magistrate to take order that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies shall be held without molestation or disturbance. Thus, according to the doctrine of the Standards, the state has no right to interfere in the matters which the government and discipline of the church cover, yet, at the same time, the state is bound to protect all classes of her citizens in the enjoyment of their rights and privileges. It is not to be wondered that those who drew up the excellent statement of the Confession upon this topic should have resisted, as they did, all attempts of the civil arm to introduce the power of the sword into the church; and that they were, willing to suffer and die for the crown rights of their spiritual king, Jesus Christ, and to resist unto blood all attempts to coerce them in matters of religion.

4. The last point noted in the Confession has reference to the duties of the people towards the civil magistrate. Four things are to be set down here : First, The people are to pray for their rulers. The position which civil rulers hold is a difficult one, and their duties are often perplexing. They need divine guidance, so that we should pray God to bless and guide them in all things. Secondly, The people are to honor the persons of their rulers. They deserve to have respect shown them, especially on account of the position they hold, and they should be held in high esteem for their official status. Thirdly, Men are to pay tribute and other dues. This means that all just dues and taxes necessary for the expenses of the government are to be cheerfully paid by the people who enjoy the protection of the civil magistrate. Fourthly, Obedience is to be rendered to the civil magistrate for conscience' sake. This teaches that citizens should be good, loyal subjects of the government under which they live. For conscience' sake, even when the laws may not have the entire approval of the citizens, they ought, nevertheless, to obey, at least up to a certain point.

But a serious difficulty arises in this connection. The Standards, in speaking of these duties of citizens, evidently assume that the civil magistrate, even if not a Christian, is yet just, and has regard to the rights and liberties of the people. But cases may arise where the civil magistrate, either on civil or religious grounds, acts in an unjust manner, and even oppresses the people. In such a case, when every other means to secure relief has been exhausted, and when the civil magistrate, being very corrupt, commands what is contrary to the will and authority of God, resistance by arms on the part of the people may be just. In such a case the civil magistrate has really forfeited the end for which civil government is instituted; and so, when the people are not able to mend the government, they may virtually end it. This affords the ground, and the only ground, upon which the right of revolution may be justified in certain cases, in harmony with the teaching of the Standards. This doctrine also destroys the supposed divine right of kings, as it was taught and acted on in Britain years ago, to the great injury of both religious and national life. The ordination by God of the powers that be does not justify the doctrine of the divine right of kings and rulers, without any regard to the welfare of the people under their authority.

The Confession adds, so that nothing may be left out, that infidelity or difference in religion does not make void the just and legal authority of the magistrate, nor free the people from their obedience to him. Hence, Christian subjects are not justified in rebelling against infidel rulers, unless the conditions stated in the previous paragraph arise ; so that ecclesiastical persons are not exempted from obedience even in such a case. Still less has the pope any power or jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people. Least of all has the pope power to deprive any of their people of their dominions or lives, if he shall judge them as heretics, or upon any other pretence whatever. This is a very valuable statement. The pope claims over the people of his church an authority which is above that of the civil magistrate in that land. The Confession plainly rejects this, and refuses the pope any such authority. His followers in any land are simply entitled to the same protection at the hand of the civil magistrate as any other class of the citizens. The aggression of the Romish hierarchy in several respects in this country needs to be carefully regarded. To allow it to dominate is to pay the price for religious liberty.

III. Marriage and Divorce.
This is the third topic for this chapter, and it has already been directly alluded to under the seventh command. It is now to be considered in the light of the chapter in the Confession which formally treats of it.

1. The nature of marriage is first stated. It is the union for life between one man and one woman, according to God's ordinance. Therefore it is not lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time. Thus polygamy and polyandry are condemned.

2. The purpose or end of marriage is next explained. In the Confession four important ends are said to be served by the marriage relation : First, Thereby husband and wife are made mutually helpful to each other. Each has certain duties to perform, and in their performance husband and wife, by reason of their union in the married state, may be of much help and service to each other. Secondly, Marriage perpetuates the race of mankind by legitimate issue. This was the divine command given to the race at first in Eden, and the marriage of one man and one woman best serves this important end. Thirdly, By means of marriage the church is provided with a holy seed. This is in harmony with what was seen to be the teaching of the Standards concerning baptism, and the place and privilege of the children of believers in the visible church. The children of parents who are in covenant with the Lord are born within the covenant, and are federally holy or set apart as the Lord's, and are to be trained up accordingly. Fourthly, Marriage serves to prevent uncleanness. Delay in marriage or neglect of it tends to vice in this respect, and suitable marriage is the proper preventative.

3. The question of what persons should marry is next answered by the Confession. It is lawful for all persons to marry who are able, with good judgment, to give their consent. At the same time, it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. Therefore, such as profess the true reformed religion are not to marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters ; nor should such as are godly marry those who are notoriously wicked in their lives or maintain damnable heresies. This is scriptural and wise teaching. The marriages here condemned, if contracted, are sure to bring discomfort, perhaps misery, upon the persons themselves, certainly evil upon the families. Still, if husband or wife is converted after marriage, that is not a good reason for separation, for the unbelieving partner may still be sanctified by the believing one ; but, as a rule, to marry a rake or a rascal to reform him is like playing with fire or trifling with dynamite.

4. Another important question here is the degrees of relationship within which marriage should be contracted. The Confession speaks at length regarding this question, and its teaching has been much debated and variously understood. The general position of the Confession is, that what is forbidden by the word of God is unlawful in regard to the lawfulness of marriage between those related to each other. Then there are two sets of relationships to be considered here : First, Those which are based on blood relation or consanguity ; and, Secondly, those that are the result of marriage or affinity. The chief topic of debate here has arisen in regard to the question of the lawfulness of the marriage of a man with the sister of his former wife, deceased. Those who argue against the lawfulness of such marriages say that a man ought not to marry any of his wife's kin who are by affinity related to him in the same degree as those of his own kin who are related to him by consanguity, whom he ought not to marry. Thus it is argued that since a man may not marry his own sister, so he ought not to marry his wife's sister. This seems an easy way of settling the debate if the basis upon which it is settled can be made good. Those who argue in favor of the lawfulness of such marriages deny the soundness of the analogy between the degrees of affinity and consanguinity, and are content to take the cases that are forbidden in the Scriptures and the cases similar thereto in the line of consanguinity. On this basis, in recent years, many branches of the Presbyterian family have amended or annulled this passage in the Confession, so far as it relates to the marriage of a man with the sister of his deceased wife. By those who take this view such marriages are no longer regarded as incestuous; but all marriages between persons who are related in degrees forbidden in Scripture are incestuous, and can never be made lawful, either by civil enactment or by the consent of the parties to live together as husband and wife. This is an important practical matter at the present day.

5. The only grounds of divorce are set down very clearly in the Confession. Adultery or fornication committed after promise of marriage, and detected before marriage, gives good ground for the innocent party to dissolve the contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and after the divorce has been obtained, to marry another, just as if the offending party were dead. It is not stated that the guilty party may marry again lawfully, and the civil law in not a few countries forbids the guilty party from contracting another marriage during the lifetime of the one who had been sinned against.

In addition to adultery and fornication, such wilful desertion as can in no way be remedied by church or civil magistrate is also held to be sufficient cause for dissolving the marriage bond. But even in such cases an orderly legal course ought to be pursued, and parties are not to act at their own discretion in the matter. For no other causes or reasons is divorce to be allowed, according to the teaching of the Standards.

There is much need of teaching at the present day upon this practical matter, and a warning voice ought to be lifted up in Christian lands in connection with the alarming rate at which divorces are increasing in number, and in regard to the trivial grounds upon which they are often granted. The result of easy and frequent divorces will doubtless be ruinous to domestic, social and national prosperity. The marriage state is the foundation of the home, and the home is alike the shrine and the citadel of the nation. If the home life is to be held secure, divorce, for other than scriptural reasons, must be forever denied.

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