The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate in the 21st Century West


It’s a truism at this point to note that the relationship in the western world between religious doctrine and political theory has become quite tense and uncertain. This is particularly true when we consider the past 3-5 years. As more and more nations have adopted same-sex marriage as the law of the land, this has had the knockdown effect of creating all sorts of questions about religious liberty, the legal status of churches, the legal status of other Christian institutions, etc.

One of the consequences of this is that some Christians are beginning to ask more basic questions about Christian political thought as they try to identify ideas that might replace those which have been ascendant for the past 35 years. Young Catholics are beginning to talk more seriously about integralism while older Catholic writers are attacking classical liberalism as the source of our contemporary woes.

Historic Protestant thought has resources of its own to help us navigate these issues. One of these ideas, which is particularly concerned with how Christians should respond to unjust laws or the unjust use of power, is known as the doctrine of the lesser magistrate. Davenant Fellow Alex Mason, a PhD candidate in theological ethics at the University of Aberdeen, explains it well:

(The doctrine of the lesser magistrate) is a unique Christian theory of resistance to authority which was first detailed in Magdeburg Confession of 1550. This doctrine teaches that when a ruler has become an incorrigible tyrant (within a very limited set of criteria), he has abdicated his claim to legitimacy. Consequently, those magistrates with lesser authority under him may defy and resist the illegitimate magistrate (and his unjust laws) for the sake of protecting others. For the embattled Protestant Reformation, the Magdeburg Confession became the embodiment of a theology of resistance allowing not only for a right to resist in certain circumstances, but a duty.

Alex Mason, a recipient  of the 2017 Davenant Fellowship, has spent much of his time as a graduate student studying this particular doctrine and trying to discern how it might be applied in our contemporary context.

My goal is for this work to be a service and an aid to the Church as we navigate a political era fraught with numerous theological pitfalls on either side. As long as post-modern secularism continues to gain strength in the West, the grave errors of the Enlightenment will continue to color the spectrum of our political discourse.

Even though little of our fractious political dynamic would’ve shocked Christians at various times throughout history, it is largely unfamiliar to modern Western Christians, many of whom have a sub-Christian understanding of submission and resistance. I do not believe the political upheavals of the West will subside anytime soon, which means the Christian witness on this subject is increasingly needed.

We must initiate a resourcement of Scripturally-attuned political theology and ethics, drawn from the deep, rich well of the Reformation. My project seeks to look back into a time when our Christian forebears wrestled with similar problems but developed unfamiliar theo-political answers. We would do well to understand and heed their example. Wherever the Church’s understanding of submission and resistance has conformed to a pattern of unbiblical thinking, we must strive to renew and reorient in light of Scripture’s teachings. I would count it a success if the work I am doing here in Aberdeen is in some small way helpful to that task, and I will always be grateful to the Davenant Institute for its gracious support of my efforts over the past year.

Though we are not offering the Davenant Fellowship at this time, we’re pleased to see Mason working on this important doctrine in Protestant political thought. This is the sort of work that is desperately needed in the western church as we enter a time of political uncertainty.

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