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The Role of the Ruler and Magistrate

Author: Georges Bavaud

Excerpt from Le Réformateur Pierre Viret (Labor et Fides, Geneva, 1986), pp. 333-340


Within the context of Christianity, the charge of the magistrates is clearly distinguished from that of the ministers of the Church, who alone bear the responsibility of proclaiming the Word of God. The ultimate concern of the civil servants, however, is the same as that of the ecclesiastical pastors: to lead Christians to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The magistrate is, in fact, the defender of the two tables of the Decalogue: “The title which Aristotle gave the magistrates . . . agrees well with what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy (1:9-18) and St. Paul in the epistle to the Romans (13:1-7). What is this title? He calls them Keepers of the Law.”1 Viret continues: “We must understand that they also have the care of the souls of their subjects, that the keeping and preservation of the entire Law and of both tables is committed to them, and that they serve for the salvation of men by using their power and authority to uphold the holy doctrine, the true service of God.”2

Thus the Reformer calls rulers and magistrates the “guardians and custodians of the Church and her well-being.”3

In this Christian society, the Lord has established two swords: that of the magistrate is equipped with coercive power, that of the minister can do no more than appeal to the conviction proceeding from the power of the Word: “The one [office] is civil and temporal and holds the physical sword, to support and defend itself; the other is ecclesiastical and spiritual and possesses for its conservation the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”4

To better reveal both the distinction of their functions and their profound unity, Viret employs an analogy of the body and soul. Just as man—in both his body and soul—is wholly subjected to the lordship of the Creator, so also the magistrate and the ecclesiastical minister both merit the title pastor, and are both in the service of the one and only Jesus Christ, Head of the People of God:

Thus just as man is composed of both body and soul, so also God has ordained that there be two types of pastors . . . Because it is exceedingly difficult—indeed, impossible—for man to attend to one thing, without also looking after the other, God has limited to each one his office and calling and has given to one the very particular charge of souls, to the other that of the body and goods. And just as within a body there are many members, yet nevertheless but one head and heart, thus also the Christian people must not be a body in which all are members, without possessing a head and heart, that is, Jesus Christ, who alone is the true Head, who has raised up the evangelical pastors and civil magistrates who must be as the eyes of all poor people, to direct and conduct them under their Head, Jesus Christ.5

Viret reproached the Anabaptists who refused to recognize “the difference between the political and spiritual, the civil and ecclesiastical, order. For the one cannot abolish the other, nor are they opposed, but rather aid one another.”6

Within the Reformation era these principles were common to Catholics and Reformed alike. However, Viret saw an important difference separating the Protestants and Papists. The latter exempted clerics from secular jurisdiction. The Reform, by contrast, restored to rulers their prerogative to judge all citizens who might infringe upon the laws, ministers included.

The text of Matthew 22:21, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” is interpreted by Viret in this manner: “Just as He did not wish to loose the yoke of rulers and lords under the title of service to God and Christian liberty, thus also He did not under the guise of service to earthly kings and princes relinquish the service of God.”7

Even more, the Pope, according to Viret, sought to keep both swords within his own hands. Alluding to the Emperors who had been humiliated by the Bishop of Rome, the Reformer wrote: “This Antichrist showed no horror in so wickedly insulting the sovereign power ordained by God in the man who is the representation of God.”8

In addressing himself to the rulers, Viret entreated them to cast down the power which had abducted their office: “They ought rather to turn their weapons against the Antichrist and his accomplices, who have disarmed and stripped them of the power which God gave them for all time, and again confirmed by His Son Jesus Christ.”9


The role of the magistrate is to support the Church in her work of evangelization, not to restrain the liberty of the ministers in their own mission: the preaching of the Word and the exercise of discipline. Thus, according to Viret, the Reformed magistrates revealed the same appetite of power as the Pope, to the detriment of the Church of God.

“They desire to make of the minister of the Church the same as the Pope and his own wish to make of them, and often seek above all to subjugate the Church and conduct and govern it by their statutes, laws, force, and ordinances, as if it were a republic and a civil administration.”10

Again, according to Viret, this produced confusion of the two swords:

It seems that they . . . commit the same error of which they accuse the Pope [and] the bishops . . . for they accuse them of having usurped the power of the swords, both temporal and spiritual. Yet what they themselves practice is scarcely different, for they complain that the Pope and other men of the Church have stolen the temporal sword from the magistrates, while they themselves likewise seek to steal the spiritual sword from the Church and her ministers.11

Viret appears to be alluding to the Bernese magistrates—the authorities who had dismissed him from his charge as pastor of the Cathedral of Lausanne—when he wrote: “The difference is this, that instead of a Pope with a long robe, they wish to replace him with another in a short robe, . . .”12

The situation becomes even graver, for the magistrate alone possesses the physical sword, that is, coercive power: “If all the power of the Church is within the hands of the magistrates, they can rip it apart and sew it back together as they please. They have no need to borrow the sword which already resides among them”13 (an allusion to the fact that the Pope was required to appeal to the secular arm).

Thus Viret saw the dawning of a new “deformation” of the Church. “Satan will raise a new papacy under another mask, but it will unceasingly return to the same point, though it take another path.”14


St. Paul’s doctrine in Romans 13:1-7 on the divine origin of political power plays a large role in the doctrine of Viret. According to the apostle, civil authority is “the minister of God to thee for good.” The Reformer spoke of the work of “judgment” accomplished by the magistrate: “Magistrates were established to work [judgment] according to the law and according to its commandment, not by envy, hatred, wrath, and vengeance, but by righteous indignation proceeding from love and a true zeal for justice.”15 . . .

Viret speaks severely against the magistrates who so easily offer mercy to the guilty: “As if God were honored in bestowing mercy and life against His commandment, to those for whom He commands death.”16

Certainly the Reformer is conscious of the inherent dangers of power; thus he declares: “there is no superiority nor lordship, nor mastery among men . . . which exempts us from the humanity and love which is required of us toward our inferiors.”17

Viret nevertheless stresses the obedience subjects owe their masters: “It is an exceedingly wicked government and regime when those who should obey and be commanded, instead command and reign.”18

Thus the Reformer reveals but little sympathy for the democratic form of government: “Instead of a few lords who oppress the public liberty, there are oftentimes far too many in the popular state, so that each seeks to be master and live without restraint.”19

. . .

Viret considered wars as ofttimes inevitable: “When a good ruler enters upon a righteous war to punish the wicked and defend the good whom God has committed to his defense, he sins no more than an officer who executes the righteous sentence of his ruler.”20

. . .

The Reformer expressed a profound concern to turn Christians back from all shedding of blood:

I desire it to be well considered . . . that every war is so exceedingly dangerous and full of hazard that there is nothing of which Christians must have a greater horror than of taking up arms; I mean not solely against Christians, but against all men of the earth; there is nothing which Christians should be more wary to employ, nor which is less suited to their profession. I desire also above all that Christians always remember that the Church of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom is not a temporal or earthly Kingdom, but spiritual, and that Jesus Christ gave no physical weapons to His Church, neither to advance nor augment it . . . and that He always enjoys a greater triumph over His enemies under the cross and persecutions than in prosperity.21

Within this context Viret’s reaction when faced with the invention of artillery can be better understood: “The invention of artillery came not from them [the Turks] to us, but from us to them. If ever a skill for the destruction of mankind has been invented, this is the most excellent of all . . . and more worthy of being called diabolical than human.”22

We also note that Viret was well aware of the dangers of the practice of torture, even if he did not combat it in an absolute manner: “If there be a danger that men be burdened by false witness in civil cases, it is much greater in criminal cases, and above all when torture is employed. For it is simple indeed to compel an innocent man to witness falsely against his own life, or even against the life of others, by use of torments.”23

Thus the Reformer called for prudence: “It is well required that judges and magistrates carefully take heed to not easily judge men, without legitimate cause, and not lightly arrest them on testimony forced from them, if they have no clear proof or evidence, that they be not counted guilty of innocent blood.”24

Viret entreated the magistrate not to show too much indulgence toward the guilty, but to display a high sense of justice. To him, the condemnation of an innocent man was a crime which perverted the magistrate’s role.


In the countries ruled by rulers hostile to the Reformation, the Protestants posed this question: Is it lawful to revolt and appoint leaders favorable to the Gospel?

Viret quite clearly gave a negative response: “The crime of mutiny and sedition has always been greatly odious among men, and not without just cause. For nothing is more contrary to the public peace and human society.”25

The cause of the Gospel does not in the least permit revolt: “For if we desire that idolatry be abolished and God be honored, . . . we do not however wish to trouble the public order. We in no way touch the civility and force of the Republics, nor the magistrates, but render them the honor and obedience we owe them.”26

Viret did not desire to inspire men by the example of the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews: “We are not in the same state that the people of Israel were in the land of Canaan. We have not the commandment, nor the leaders and magistrates ordained by God, to drive out and kill the papists and our enemies.”27

The Reformer forcefully blamed those reckless Christians who provoked the Catholics by untimely initiatives:

Those who thus madly or recklessly, and without order or good form, destroy idols, or post scandalous placards, or do some other such thing which they ought not, only to stir up some great persecution and scandalize those who are not instructed, are not to be praised, but are rather worthy of reprehension.28

Certainly Viret also recognized the case of people who “have great liberties and freedoms and who are as lords themselves, save some small allegiance they give to some ruler.”29 In the case where this ruler “seeks by tyranny, force, and violence, to destroy the Gospel,”30 the Reformer clarifies that armed resistance is not only legitimate, but also necessary.

Translator’s note:

On resisting tyrants, Viret declares, “But if there is a people who had their laws, liberties, and Magistrates, and who keep their duty towards those who claim some rule over them and yet, in spite of this, some tyrant comes who, instead of watching over them, which he had promised and vowed to them, and instead of doing his duty as his office required, he wished to tyrannize those to whom he should give salvation, this is another matter. For such a people have an honest means by which they can resist the tyranny of such tyrants, by their legitimate Magistrates, and can by this means avoid servitude; they can follow the counsel of St. Paul, of whom we have already spoken before, who said: ‘Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.’”

He continues, “If it happens thus, that a ruler of whom by right they be not his subjects, converts into a tyrant, and does not content himself with that which is his due and rightful pay, but desires by tyranny, force, and violence to ruin the Gospel, religion, and liberty of the country, and seeks to destroy, as a Turk, those whom he should protect as his children; they must then seek to defend themselves against his tyranny by the best means which God has given. There is no doubt that in such a case the rulers and magistrates must not be faint in defending their people and the country which God gave into their charge against such tyranny and violence. And if they do not, they are traitors and unfaithful to God, their country, and the people who have been committed to them.” Remonstrances aux Fidèles, pp. 334, 337.

Author Bio:

Georges Bavaud was a Swiss Roman-Catholic Priest and theologian. He was a professor of dogma at the University of Freiburg (Switzerland). His excellent work on Viret is entitled, Le Reformateur Pierre Viret, 1511 – 1571.


[1] Pierre Viret, Instruction Chrestienne en la Doctrine de la Loy et de l’Évangile, Tome I (Geneva, 1564), p.450
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., p. 604
[4] Pierre Viret, Exposition Familière sur le Symbole des Apostres. . . (Geneva, 1560), p. 318
[5] Pierre Viret, Dialogues de Désordre qui est à Présent au Monde . . . (Geneva, 1545), p. 63
[6] Viret, Instruction Chrestienne, Tome I, p. 505
[7] Pierre Viret, L’Interim fait par Dialogues (Lyon, 1565), p. 98
[8] Pierre Viret, Des Actes de Vrais Successeurs de Jésus-Christ . . . (Geneva, 1554), pp. 404-405
[9] Pierre Viret, Remonstrances aux Fidèles qui conversent entre les Papistes . . . (Geneva, 1547), p. 133
[10] Pierre Viret, Exposition Familière de l’Oraison de Nostre Seigneur . . . (Geneva, 1548), p. 297
[11] Pierre Viret, Le Monde à l’Empire et le Monde Démoniacle . . . (Geneva, 1580), p. 421
[12] Ibid., p. 422
[13] Ibid., p. 432
[14] Ibid.
[15] Viret, Instruction Chrestienne, Tome II, p. 601
[16] Viret, Des Actes de Vrais Successeurs, p. 331
[17] Viret, Instruction Chrestienne, Tome I, p. 437
[18] Ibid., Tome II, p. 292
[19] Viret, Le Monde à l’Empire, p. 112
[20] Pierre Viret, Familière et Ample Instruction en la Doctrine Chrestienne et Principalement Touchant la Divine Providence . . . (Geneva, 1559), p. 536
[21] Viret, Remonstrances aux Fidèles, pp. 342-343
[22] Viret, Dialogues de Désordre, p. 169
[23] Viret, Instruction Chrestienne, Tome I, p. 621
[24] Ibid., p. 621
[25] Pierre Viret, Épistre aus Fidèles pour les Instruire . . . (Geneva, 1559), p. 206
[26] Viret, Remonstrances aux Fidèles, pp. 243
[27] Ibid., p. 239
[28] Ibid., p. 32
[29] Ibid., p. 337
[30] Ibid.

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