The Rise of the Lesser Magistrates
Many of the men and women honored at IFA’s Champions for Life banquet on Nov. 30, represent a bold breed of public figure. Among them, Sam Brownback stood for religious freedom as U.S. Ambassador-At-Large under President Trump and for life as governor of Kansas. Mississippi State Representative Becky Currie drafted the legislation debated before the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. Pastor Mark Lee Dickson founded the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn movement.
Each official illustrates a type of leadership explained in The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates: A Proper Resistance to Tyranny and a Repudiation of Unlimited Obedience to Civil Government by Matt Trewhella. He began studying this concept while contending for the pre-born. “This book was born of desperate prayer before the Lord in 2007,” Trewhella told IFA.
“The lesser magistrate doctrine declares that when the superior or higher civil authority makes unjust/immoral laws or decrees, the lesser or lower ranking civil authority has both a right and duty to refuse obedience to that superior authority. If necessary, the lesser authorities even have the right and obligation to actively resist the superior authority,” writes Trewhella. In relation to the doctrine, the lesser magistrates’ duties include opposing and resisting laws or edicts of higher authorities that contravene the law or the Word of God; protecting the persons, liberty, and property of those who reside within their jurisdiction from such unjust or immoral laws or actions; and blocking implementation of laws or decrees made by higher authorities that violate the Constitution.
Standing in the Gap
Intercessors will recognize a key action in operation: Standing in the gap. An intercessor often stands between the people for whom he is praying and the Lord’s righteous judgment. In the case of unjust laws or edicts coming from a higher authority, the lesser magistrate stands between the oppressor and the intended victim. Trewhella calls this action of the lesser magistrate interposition.
Trewhella writes, “A magistrate is a person clothed with power as a public civil officer — whether executive, legislative, or judicial. As the title implies, a lesser magistrate is one who possesses less power than a higher magistrate.”
All authority is delegated from the Lord (Ps. 22:28). Inherent in this delegation is the assumption those who govern on earth do so in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). Biblically, authority is to be exercised in line with the Lord’s law, ways, and heart. But many earthly authorities go awry. William J. Olson, one of the authors of IFA’s amicus brief to the Dobbs case, told IFA, “It’s not uncommon that the higher officials become less responsive to the people, become more abusive and at that point, either the people have to resist or better yet, the governors, mayors, city councilmen do that.”
But confusion about resisting ungodly authority abounds — much stemming from misunderstandings of Romans 13, according to Trewhella. Many Christians believe Paul argues for unlimited obedience to civil authorities, but Trewhella disagrees. He argues the text doesn’t call for such obedience and the full testimony of Scripture presents situations in which disobedience to ungodly laws is commended by God. Further, Trewhella writes, Romans 13: 3-4 itself assumes the ruler is governing according to God’s law and bringing God’s justice.
Olson agrees, “We’ve allowed horrible people to come into government. A lot of bad theology has led to that, in part, including people who think Romans 13 means we’re supposed to obey the government no matter what they say. And if you believe that, you’re really toast.”
Because disobeying authority is a serious matter, any choice to do so must be based on objective standards. For 1,500 years, that has been the Word of God. The Bible and writings of William Blackstone — greatly influenced by Scripture — undergird America’s founding documents. The Declaration of Independence, for example, explicitly recognizes God, asserting humans ”are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As America has moved from biblical foundations, standards have blurred. “Tyrants flourish in a subjective environment,” Trewhella said. Biblically and historically, when laws clash, as Peter declared (Acts 5:29), men and women are to obey God rather than humans. Similarly, when a higher authority makes an unjust decree, the lesser magistrate either joins in rebellion against God or stands with God against the immoral decree. In doing the latter, the lesser magistrate interposes himself between the oppressor and the oppressed.
Biblical & Historical Examples
Biblical examples of such interposition include the Hebrew midwives Puah and Shifrah who disobeyed the Pharaoh’s orders to murder male Hebrews at birth (Ex. 1: 1-21); Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego — more highly placed in Babylon than most Hebrew captives — who refused to bow down to an image of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (Dan. 3); and Daniel — the third ranking official in Babylon — who openly flouted the king’s prohibition on prayer to any other than himself (Dan. 6).
Historical examples also abound. In 39 A.D., Roman Emperor Caligula ordered Publius Petronius, Roman governor of Syria and Palestine, to erect a statue of the Emperor in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. This so horrified the Jewish people that they repeatedly pleaded with Petronius against the desecration. Their entreaties moved Petronius to support the Jewish cause. When the governor advised Caligula of his decision, the Emperor was so angry he ordered Petronius to kill himself. Happily for Petronius and the Jewish people, the ship carrying that order was delayed. The ship reporting Caligula’s assassination arrived first so the temple was unmolested by a statue of Caligula.
A lesser magistrate — Prince Frederick the Wise — may be responsible for preserving the Reformation. Emperor Charles V, determined to return his empire to Roman Catholicism, sought to execute Martin Luther. Frederick protected the monk by feigning his abduction and hiding him from the Emperor.
Charles V also figured in a later showdown with lesser magistrates. In May 1548, he issued a decree to undo the Reformation and re-establish Roman Catholicism. The leaders of the town of Magdeburg defied the order. Pastors wrote a defense of their position using Scripture, while assuring the Crown that, in all other matters, they were loyal subjects. Charles V was not persuaded; his troops surrounded the city in a year-long siege. By the end, the weary Emperor ceded to the Magdeburg pastors.
Taking on Today’s Tyrants
Because the highest court in America nationalized abortion, the legal fight against it has been waged almost entirely by lesser magistrates. Former Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, also honored at the banquet, told IFA earlier in November, “The number one issue — the first thing we all do as governors or anyone in public life is public safety. To protect the lives of our citizens. [The unborn children] are citizens. And they deserve the due process. They deserve the constitutional rights of every citizen of the United States. They are [children] of God and we must lay down our lives, if necessary, to protect them.”
Many battles — vaccine mandates, election integrity, religious freedom, education reform — call for lesser magistrates willing to tackle the power of the White House, mainstream media, Big Tech, Big Pharma, federal health and law enforcement agencies. While intimidating, the work of these officials goes beyond protecting the oppressed to protecting the entire nation. Pointing to Ezekiel 22:30-31, Trewhella said, “The interposition of lesser magistrates abates the just judgment of God on a nation that impugned His law.”
Lord, raise up lesser magistrates to stand in the gap so You do not need to pour out Your wrath on America. Thank you for the ones You have raised up. Prosper their efforts to oppose and resist with all at their disposal ungodly laws and edicts. Use them to protect the innocent — especially the pre-born — and children sacrificed to evil agendas to control sexuality, identity, racism and health. Give the lesser magistrates courage, protection and effectiveness to stand through the process of seeking justice — not abandoning the fight if a court ruling goes the wrong way. Give them the best, most godly and powerful ways to reverse evil edicts and tear down tyranny. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Post your prayer to encourage and strengthen lesser magistrates fighting tyranny.
Author Joyce Swingle is an intercessor and contributing writer for Intercessors for America. With her husband Drama Evangelist Rich, Joyce shares the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the world through theatre and speaking. Joyce also has performed on screen. Prior to going into full-time ministry, Joyce worked for about 20 major magazines and now works in pastoral ministry and Christian counseling. She and Rich live in New York City.
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