Analysis of Samuel Rutherford’s Position on Biblical Civil Duty

Samuel Rutherford was a man resolutely committed to Christ in every element of life. His knowledge of the Word helped him inform the Christian mind so that it could live more effectively and boldly for the Lord. Rutherford was a Presbyterian pastor and theologian in the 1600’s. Rutherford was descended from the Scottish historian and novelist, Sir Walter Scott. He was devoutly devoted to God, driven in everything to uphold the Lord’s name. He was also a prolific writer and, at only 21 years of age, had already achieved his M.A. from the University of Edinburgh.

His most well-known work is his Letters, a collection of over 800 pages of his written correspondence with life acquaintances and loved ones. His Letters offer a raw and intimate look into his life, and provide insight into his faith in God, even in the face of trials. 

In one of these letters, Rutherford wrote about the illness of his wife, Euphame Hamilton, saying, “I hope that all shall end in God’s mercy. I know that an afflicted life looks very like the way that leads to the kingdom; for the Apostle hath drawn the line and the King’s market-way, ‘through much tribulation, to the kingdom’ (Acts xiv. 22; 1 Thess. iii. 4). The Lord grant us the whole armour of God” (Rutherford 19). She passed away only four years after their marriage; however, Rutherford continued on, relying on God for strength.

While his Letters deal with the everyday trials of this life, Rutherford’s other well-known work, Lex, Rex offers help on a more social scale with its in-depth scrutiny of Romans 13. It offers invaluable instruction on how to address the injustices of abusive government Biblically. Canon Press released a timely printing of  Lex, Rex in 2020 when COVID-19 rocked the world. The book covers a plethora of questions concerning abusive governments as well as godly ones. 

From his teachings, Rutherford shows us our ultimate civil duty as Christians is to hold obedience to God higher in our minds than obedience to civil government. As Christians, we ought to be mindful that the law’s purpose is to ensure righteousness is established and that wickedness is brought to ruin. Romans 13 describes governmental authority as “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4, NIV).

Analyzing Rutherford’s insight, we understand that Romans 13 doesn’t actually say the government only ever holds up good things. In stating that “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong,” the passage makes no inference whatsoever that whatever a government does is good just because it is a government (Romans 13:3, NIV). 

It states in quite simple terms that magistrates who do good are a terror to wrong. It doesn’t say that whatever a ruler does is right just because they are a ruler. Rutherford clarifies “rulers… [being servants of God]… for good” doesn’t mean that whatever a ruler does is therefore good but that the ruler must do that which is good and that any time a ruler abuses his given duty for evil, then government must be enacted on him and he must be “[avenged] for wrath” as he is an evildoer himself (Romans 13:4, ESV). 

This also does not mean that anyone the government punishes is a wrongdoer. There are plenty of people suffering punishment that have done nothing to deserve it. As we can see in today’s world, though the powers that be are raised up by God, they are certainly not God’s servants, “[bringing] punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4, NIV).

We must discern that though governments are ordained by God, governments are not God Himself. God – not the government – is the Supreme Lawgiver. Hence, Christians must not blindly obey whatever government is over them just because they are the government. Christians must not blindly adhere to whatever language their government deems acceptable. Righteousness is the ultimate goal for Christians, not blind obedience to a government that creates immoral laws.

What can we learn today from Rutherford as Christians facing a world becoming increasingly hostile to God? 

In today’s world, we often focus on ourselves and how much we’re enjoying life’s blessings or enduring life’s trials. However, reading Rutherford’s work on the Christian’s concern about civil government can help us grow in the knowledge of how we are to live in today’s world, and how to interact with the government Biblically.

While we may think the Christian way is to let ourselves be trampled for the sake of being kind to everyone, we must remember that Christ desires we “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19, NIV). To be filled with the fullness of God means to strive to be like Him in every aspect. Yes, we must be loving, but we must also be just and righteous. 

We must be “strengthen[ed] with power through his Spirit in [our] inner being” (Ephesians 3:16, NIV). We are to “fearlessly make known the mystery of the Gospel” (Ephesians 6:19, NIV). To be filled with the fullness of God does not result in inaction or passiveness. To be filled with God’s fullness results in boldness and resilience in faithful obedience to God and rejection of the fear-mongering ways of man.

By studying Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex, we can expand our minds for the glory of God so that we may more effectively stand for the Lord in today’s world that parades humanism on every corner.