Petitioning the Magistrate

Petitioning the Magistrate

The 1647 Confession affirmed that “magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion” (WCF 31.2 [1647]), and the magistrate may be present at such synods “to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God” (WCF 23.3 [1647]). Yet in affirming that the magistrate should preserve peace “in the Church,” suppress blasphemy and heresy, and prevent “all corruptions and abuses in worship,” the Confession also clearly stated that “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” (WCF 23.3 [1647]). This is a rejection of Erastianism, as the Westminster Assembly denied the magistrate’s authority over the church “in sacred things” (in sacris), only affirming his authority “concerning sacred things” (circa sacra). 

T. David Gordon wrote an article for the Aquila Report on April 10, 2024, in which he criticized the Presbyterian Church in America’s petition to the civil magistrate against gender reassignment interventions, including transgender surgeries on minors. This started as Overture 12 to the 2023 PCA General Assembly, which led to a letter being sent to the federal government. The presbyteries could then adjust the letter to send it to their state magistrates, and Gordon’s Ascension Presbytery did just that. Gordon filed a protest, and his article seeks to defend his objection to the petition.

Gordon gives several reasons for his opposition to the PCA petition, but as a way of summary, his position relies on the following three arguments. First, the doctrine of the spirituality of the church forbids a joint church assembly (such as a session, presbytery, or assembly) from speaking to the civil magistrate, even when touching on moral issues. Second, the only exceptions to this prohibition are when the magistrate makes a request of the church and humble petitions in “cases extraordinary” (WCF 31.4), which Gordon argues refers to when the civil magistrate directly interferes with the church (or as A. A. Hodge says, “where the interests of the Church are immediately concerned”). Third, such petitions to the magistrate are not a good use of time and resources.

The third argument is somewhat subjective, and I will not give it focused attention. Gordon may be correct here that a large number of individual statements against government action are more effective than a denominational statement. I will only note that a joint assembly statement may add to the effectiveness of individual statements, as well as embolden individual Christians, including pastors, to speak on a topic (in this case, speak against the practice of transgender surgeries). While many federal magistrates may ignore the PCA statement, future magistrates might very well heed the call. The future effectiveness of such a petition is unknown, and it is too early to pronounce it as a poor use of time and resources.

Therefore, I would like to focus on Gordon’s first two arguments concerning the spirituality of the church and Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4. I believe there are at least six problems with Gordon’s article opposing the PCA petition to the civil magistrate. 

First, Gordon’s Conclusion—That the Church Cannot Speak against the Monstrosity of Transgender Surgeries on Minors—Is Absurd on Its Face and Must Be Rejected.

The medical establishment and doctors are mutilating humans—cutting off genitalia and women’s breasts—upon request. Yet just because something is voluntary does not mean it should be permitted by civil government. Moreover, these procedures are even being performed on minor children, who cannot possibly understand the significance of what is being done to their bodies. Future prospects of marriage and the potential for reproduction are being destroyed. This “choice” is being made by those who cannot legally vote on political candidates or purchase a beer, and at least in the case of minors, it certainly involves duress and pressure. Instead of prosecuting the perpetrators, American magistrates are permitting this monstrosity. T. David Gordon agrees this is awful, but he is arguing that the church—the only institution that might speak up—is not to correct the magistrate in such a situation. The conclusion is absurd, and therefore Gordon’s reasoning must be in error.

Second, Gordon Leaves Joint Church Assemblies No Room to Correct the State When It Gets Out of Line, Removing a Proper Check on the State.

This is tied with the previous point, but it gets to the broader principle. God has instituted the family, church, and state as the three major institutions of this world. Only the church and state are large-scale institutions. So what happens if either of those institutions gets out of line? As a proponent of the “Reformed two kingdoms” (others call it “radical” or “modern” two kingdoms), Gordon does not seem to think the state can correct the church or outlaw heresy. However, he also returns the favor by holding that the church (as an assembly) cannot correct the state. Of course, we are not speaking about force. We are simply speaking of the church’s prophetic witness against the evils of the state. Now to be fair, Gordon thinks individual Christians may speak to the state, and he even leaves room for preachers to speak to transgender surgeries from the pulpit. This at least accounts for the practice of Old Testament prophets and the Apostle Paul correcting magistrates in the book of Acts. However, Gordon seems inconsistent here. For if preachers in their capacity as ministers may speak to the state, why may not ministers in joint assemblies do the same? To affirm the permissibility of such joint assemblies to speak to the state is not to sanction all statements as wise or prudential. We are simply saying such statements are permissible before God.

Third, Gordon Leaves Joint Church Assemblies No Room to Speak to Moral Issues If They Relate to Civil Government (Apart from Request), Which Unjustifiably Limits the Church’s Application of the Word.

Following the language of the Westminster Confession, Gordon rightly says that the church in its joint assemblies should only speak to “ecclesiastical” issues, not “civil affairs”— “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical” (WCF 31.4). Gordon recognizes there are two exceptions here: (1) synods and councils may “intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth…by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary,” (2) and synods and councils may intermeddle with civil affairs “by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (WCF 31.4). 

One problem is that Gordon argues that the exception for humble petition in “cases extraordinary” (WCF 31.4) only refers to cases that immediately concern the interests of the church (see below). However, the other problem is that Gordon tends to place moral issues under the category of “civil affairs” and then define “ecclesiastical” as only referring to issues directly within the church. Yet moral issues often affect both church and state, and the church is not prohibited from speaking to issues simply because they have some relation to the state. In other words, there are many things that are moral and thus “ecclesiastical” and not purely political issues (or what WCF 31.4 calls “civil affairs”). 

In the case of transgender surgeries, apart from the question of legality, the church may certainly condemn transgender surgeries as immoral and offensive to God. That is a proper application of natural law, as well as the Word of God—“A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 22:5, NASB 1995). Gordon does not say whether he thinks such a statement merely against transgenderism as a moral issue would be permissible. However, if we grant that the church may make such a statement, there is no obvious reason why the church may not also inform the state of its position. One could argue the punishment for performing transgender surgeries is purely political and thus the church should not speak to this question. However, the question of the morality of transgender surgeries is in fact a moral question. And moving from morality to legality is not a huge step. If the church can establish that a particular practice is of great wickedness and harm to the community, then it almost certainly follows that the state should seek to prevent such a practice for the good of all. Thus, the issue of transgender surgeries is “ecclesiastical” and not purely a “civil affair.”

Fourth, Gordon’s Focus on the 1861 Spring Resolutions Leads to a Misunderstanding of Charles Hodge’s Position on the Spirituality of the Church.

In 1861, many of the Southern states seceded from the United States, and then at the General Assembly (Old School), Presbyterian pastor Gardiner Spring of New York introduced resolutions calling for “unabated loyalty” by the Assembly to the “federal government.” Known as the “Spring Resolutions,” these were opposed by the Southern Presbyterians who left to form a Southern Church, but they were also opposed by Northerners like Charles Hodge because they sought to decide a purely political question—whether Christians owed loyalty first to their state or to the federal government. There was disagreement on this question. And since the Bible does not tell Christians what to do in such a situation, the church as an institution should not speak to it. The Spring Resolutions effectively condemned secession as sinful.

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