Biblical Standards for Choosing Civil Magistrates
The conscientious Christian desires to glorify God and obey His Word in all that he thinks and does. This desire extends to his actions as a Christian citizen. Perhaps one of his more important actions as a citizen is that of voting for the men who will serve as magistrates over him. So as each election draws near he seeks to determine which candidate he should endorse with his vote. Throughout the process of deciding he receives much advice, such as: vote Republican; vote for the conservative; vote for the one who is pro-life; vote for the one who stands closest to you on the issues; vote for “x” even though he is less than desirable because if he doesn’t win, then we will have “y” who is even worse; and so on.
However helpful this kind of advice may be, the Christian who believes that the Word of God is able to instruct him in righteousness and equip for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17), including the work of voting, will necessarily turn to the Scripture for guidance. The Bible contains explicit instructions concerning the qualifications for civil officers, and to these the Christian ought to look as he determines who he will support with his time, money, and vote. There are two primary texts that set forth the standards for choosing civil magistrates: Exodus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 1:13.
In Exodus 18, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, advises Moses to appoint men to help him in governing and judging the nation, lest he wear out both himself and the people (18:17-19). An important aspect of Jethro’s counsel to Moses is in regard to the kind of men that he should appoint as rulers. The character of the men chosen must be according to the following standards:
“Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating coveteousness...” (Ex. 18:21).
Men who are able
Civil leaders must be men of strength. The strength that is required here is not primarily physical, but moral and spiritual. It refers to men of valor and of virtue; men of courage and of character. A man who is a coward will not fulfill his duty to uphold God’s law if doing so would be unpopular with the people. A man who is of an evil character cannot govern justly. Only those who have proven that they have the ability, courage, and integrity necessary to lead should be chosen as civil rulers.
Men who fear God
Magistrates should be men who honor and reverence God and His Word. This qualification indicates that only those who are believers, i.e., stand in covenant with God through faith, should be considered for the office of magistrate (cf. Deut. 17:15). If a people are to have wise and understanding leaders, they must choose those who fear God, for the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). Men who do not fear God are, according to Scripture, “fools” who hate true wisdom.
Men committed to truth
Civil rulers need to be men who stand firmly and faithfully for the truth. Men of truth are men who do not lie, but speak the truth even to their own hurt. They love the truth and hate all that is false. It is absolutely essential that civil leaders be men who can be trusted to speak the truth. Liars and lovers of falsehood are a scourge to those they lead.
Men who hate covetousness
A man who is raised to the position of civil magistrate must be one who seeks no unjust gain from his position. He must “hate” (not simply dislike, but hate) the thought of using his office to enrich himself through violence, fraud, bribes, etc. A coveteous magistrate will try to use the power of his office to unjustly seize for himself the wealth of those he governs. A magistrate must also hate covetousness in others, and not allow any citizen to use the power of civil government to seize the wealth of his neighbor through unjust legislation or confiscatory taxation.
In Deuteronomy chapter one, Moses recounts the events that took place forty years earlier at Mount Sinai. One of these events was the appointment of rulers to serve with him in governing the nation in accord with the advice of Jethro (Ex. 18:13-26). In speaking of the appointment of rulers he does not mention Jethro, for Moses knew that God was using Jethro to direct him in that circumstance. The account of the appointing of rulers to assist Moses in judging the people given here provides further insight on the biblical standards for the choosing of rulers.
First, Moses indicates that although he did the appointing, it was the people who actually chose their own rulers. Moses charges the people to “take you wise men....” The word “take” means to provide or choose, while the word “you” means for yourselves. Therefore, Moses gives the people the responsibility of selecting their own leaders. Moses then appointed (installed into office) those chosen by the people.
Second, Moses provided the people with specific standards for determining which men were qualified for the office of civil judge and ruler. The citizens have the responsibility of choosing their own rulers, but they are not free to choose whomsoever they will. Rather, they are charged by Moses to choose only those who meet certain qualifications. Moses states:
“Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you.” (Deut. 1:13).
These qualifications summarize those stated previously in Exodus 18:21 and provide additional commentary on the standards God has established for choosing rulers.
The Hebrew word translated “men” in this text refers to males as opposed to females. The generic term for mankind, which would include women, is not used here, but rather, the gender specific word for men. If the choice of words means anything, then it is necessary to conclude that God intended that only men be chosen for the office of civil ruler. In Exodus 18:21 the same Hebrew word is used; in fact, in every other passage dealing with the civil magistrate, his duties, and his qualifications, men are in view (cf. Deut. 17:14-20; 2 Sam. 23:3; Neh. 7:2; Prov. 16:10; 20:8, 28; 29:14; 31:4-5; Rom. 13:1-6). The order of male headship established at creation applies to each of the three “governments” established by God: the family, the church, and the state.
Men who are wise
The Hebrew word for “wise” means to be skilful, prudent, intelligent, or able. It denotes both natural ability and wisdom attained through experience. But wisdom in the biblical sense is never just prudence and skill gained through experience. According to Scripture, wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord and proceeds to a knowledge of God and His precepts. True wisdom comes from God as a man searches for it in the Word of God as he would search for hidden treasure (Prov. 2:1-8). Such a man will come to “understand righteousness, and judgment, and equity, and every good path” (Prov. 2:9). Thus, a magistrate should be a man of ability and intelligence who is skilled in judgment because of his fear of the Lord and his knowledge of God’s Word.
Men who are understanding
To be “understanding” is to be discerning, to have the ability to make a proper judgment. It refers primarily to moral insight and ethical discernment. A man of “understanding” is able to discern the right course of action based on the moral law of God. In terms of civil law, a man of understanding knows what is just and is able to judge righteously in disputes or criminal cases because he understands God’s law.
Men who are known
These are men who have proven themselves to be wise and understanding. Their character, ability, and wisdom have been demonstrated by their service in other spheres. A man who would be a ruler must first prove himself in family life, business, community service, church service, etc.
The biblical standards for magistrates given in Exodus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 1:13 give citizens a sure guide for determining which men among them are truly fit to serve as their civil rulers. The qualifications given in these texts indicate three areas of concern:
The demands of being a magistrate require men who are intelligent and have the skills necessary to lead others.
Magistrates must be men of the highest personal character. They must be men of truth and virtue. Their lives should be an example of righteous living. As those charged with enforcing God’s law in the civil sphere, they should keep all aspects of God’s moral law. They must be men who are there to serve God and man, and are not there to enrich or promote themselves.
Magistrates, as ministers of God, should be men of spiritual attainment (a knowledge and fear of God) and biblical wisdom. It is vital that a ruler knows that he is accountable to God and has a healthy fear of the day that he will give account to God. A ruler must also be knowledgeable of God’s law as it is revealed in Scripture so that he can carry out his duty of establishing justice in the gates (i.e., in the courts and legislatures of the land).
Other Relevant Scriptures
The standards for choosing magistrates as established in the law of God are carried out, amplified, and upheld throughout the rest of Scripture.
After Israel has taken possession of the land it will be their duty under God’s law to select judges and officers to carry out judgment in the gates. These rulers are charged to “judge the people with just judgment.” Hence, it follows that the people should choose “wise” and “understanding” men who will be able to do just that. It is right to assume that the standards Moses taught them in Deuteronomy 1:13 should be applied to the choosing of local magistrates since no new or different standards are given here.
This text addresses the circumstance of Israel seeking a king to rule over them. It further establishes the responsibility of the people to choose their rulers, in this case, their king. However, they are not at liberty to choose whomsoever they will, but only the man approved and chosen by God. Furthermore, the man they choose must be a “brother,” i.e., a man who stands in covenant with God through faith; he must not be an unbeliever, but one who fears God as stated in Exodus 18:17.
In this text it is plainly stated that “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” Righteous men who govern according to God’s law as God’s ministers is always the biblical standard.
These verses contain the instructions of King Jehoshaphat for the judges that he appointed in the land, city by city:
Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in judgment. Wherefore now let the fear of the Lord be upon you: take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts.
The charge given by the king reflects the standards for choosing magistrates given in the law of Moses. Only men who “fear God,” who are “able,” “wise,” “understanding,” and “hate covetousness” could possibly fulfill the duties spoken of by Jehoshaphat.
After the walls had been rebuilt and the Levites appointed to serve in the Temple, Nehemiah continued to restore the integrity of Jerusalem by establishing Hanani and Hananiah as civil rulers in the city. Nehemiah specifically stated that he chose Hananiah because “he was a faithful man who feared God above many.” Nehemiah followed the standards of the law of God in appointing the leaders of Jerusalem. As a “faithful” man, Hananiah is firm in his stand for truth; he is a man who is known for his faithfulness to truth; thus, he meets the qualification “men of truth.” Hananiah is also a man who fears God “among many.” He has proven himself as a man of spiritual maturity who is qualified to lead others.
The biblical standards for choosing magistrates instruct citizens to select righteous men. This verse emphasizes the great importance of selecting righteous men by stating: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” This proverb teaches that it is great folly to elevate wicked men to civil leadership, but great wisdom to follow God’s law and elect only men who fear God and obey His Word.
The nature and purpose of the magistrate’s role is defined by Paul in this classic text on civil government. Paul explains that the authority of the civil ruler comes from God, and that the ruler serves as God’s minister to exercise God’s vengeance against evildoers. This description of the nature and purpose of the office of civil ruler applies to all rulers in all nations at all times; no exceptions are given by Paul. Thus, the same role that was assigned to magistrates in the Old Testament is assigned to magistrates in the New Testament (cf. Deut. 1:16-17; 16:18-20; 2 Chron. 19:6-7; Prov. 16:10, 12; 31:8-9). If the role is the same, then it must be that the qualifications are the same.
The biblical standards for choosing civil magistrates needs to be applied today in the following manner:
The only men who are truly qualified for civil office are those who meet the standards set down in the Word of God. God is sovereign over civil government, and the sole prerogative to establish what kind of men can and ought to serve as magistrates belongs to Him. Men who do not meet the biblical standards are not fully fit to serve as rulers.
These standards instruct citizens who have the liberty of choosing their civil magistrates on how to carry out their duty in accord with the will of God. It is God’s revealed will that His ministers in the civil sphere be men who fear Him. God’s blessings are on the people who choose men of ability, character, and spiritual maturity.
Christians should support with their time, money, and vote those men who meet the biblical qualifications. In all that he does the Christian is to seek to glorify God and promote the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. When the Christian gives his full support to men who meet the biblical standards for civil magistrates, he is doing these very things. If we are to have righteous civil government, then we must have righteous men as rulers. If we are to have a civil government that honors Christ, then we must have men who honor Jesus Christ as civil leaders.
Voting for a biblically qualified candidate who appears to have no chance of winning is not the waste of a vote, it is obedience to God. Obedience to God is never a waste of time or effort, but the compromise of biblical truth always is. Compromise sacrifices victory in the long run for the sake of immediate “success” or “peace,” while godly obedience sacrifices immediate gratification for the sake of ultimate victory. Christians often complain that there are no godly men to vote for, but when one does appear, they don’t vote for him anyway because, they reason, “he can’t win.” Can we expect the Lord to give us qualified men as candidates for civil office if Christians are not committed in principle to supporting them in obedience to biblical law?
The church must labor to raise up men who will meet the biblical standards for magistrates. Where will men come from who are qualified for civil office if not from the covenant people? If there are no men qualified for a particular office, it is because the church has failed; it is not because the biblical standards are unworkable in the present context. The goal of the church should be to have a biblically qualified man running for every civil office in the land. We are a long way from reaching this goal. But the church must begin by equipping men to serve as magistrates and challenging them to glorify God as His minister in the civil sphere. Race by race, office by office, the church needs to take dominion over politics by raising up biblically qualified men.
The biblical standards for choosing magistrates apply even in non-covenanted nations. This would seem evident when Christians have a biblically qualified candidate to vote for, i.e., God’s law commands them to vote for the man who meets the biblical standards even though they are in a nation not formally in covenant with God. But how does the biblical teaching on choosing magistrates apply in instances where there are no candidates who meet the biblical standards? This is debated among Christians. Some advocate strict compliance with the biblical standards at all times and all places. Others argue that strict compliance is only fully possible in a covenant nation (which is the goal); in the meantime, we should use our vote to support men of ability and integrity who are generally in agreement with biblical standards of law and justice.
In a true Christian nation, the biblical standards for choosing magistrates will be part of constitutional law. A nation that is in covenant with God through Christ will express this by means of a national confession of submission to God and His law, and by a religious test for office that is based on the biblical qualifications for civil rulers.
The biblical standards for choosing civil magistrates also provides a benchmark for men already in office and for men seeking the office. Every Christian in political office should evaluate himself in light of these standards; this is the kind of man he is to be. For those Christian men who are contemplating political office here are the standards that they should aspire to.
This article was originally published on July 7, 2004.