The parable of the tares is objected against the coercive power of the Magistrate in matters of religion: Christ will not have the tares to be plucked up, but to grow together with the wheat until the harvest (Matt. 13:29-30). The tares are taken to be meant neither of hypocrites in the Church, whether discovered or undiscovered; nor yet of those who are scandalous offenders in their life and behavior, but only of Antichristian idolaters and false worshippers, which is a most false interpretation. Christ himself expounds it generally (Matt. 13:38). “The good seed are the children of the kingdom: but the tares are the children of the wicked one.” And (Matt. 13:41), the tares are expounded to be “all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness.” This being the clear meaning, it must follow that if the Magistrate must spare those who are meant by the tares in the parable, then he must spare and let alone all scandalous offenders, murderers, adulterers, drunkards, thieves, etc., when any such are discovered in the visible Church. If one responds that this cannot be the meaning of the tares in the parable that the wicked, as opposed to the children of God, should be understood; for then, when Christ says, “Let the tares alone,” he should contradict other ordinances for the punishment of evil doers by the Magistrate. But this objection begs the question; for they well know that those against whom they dispute hold that this interpretation of the parable contradicts the ordinance of God for punishing idolaters and heretics, the question being whether or not this is a rule against the punishment of those who live in open scandal. Besides, if the tares are Antichristian idolaters, and they must not be plucked up, but suffered to grow till the harvest, this contradicts other Scriptures, which say that the sword must be drawn against Antichristian idolaters, and they thereby cut off (Rev. 13:10;17:16).
Second, if by tares is meant idolaters, heretics, and false worshippers (which is an interpretation contrary to the text, as I have demonstrated), their argument will not allow the toleration or sparing of such, except only in such cases, and so far as the true worshippers of God cannot be certainly and infallibly distinguished from the false worshippers, as the wheat from the tares: as Jehu would not destroy the worshippers of Baal, till he was sure that none of the servants of the Lord were among them (2 Ki. 10:23). The reason why the tares are not to be plucked up, is, “while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them” (Matt. 13:29). Now when a man is sure that he plucks up nothing but tares, or rather thorns, without the least danger to the wheat, how does the parable strike against his so doing?
Thirdly, this command (“Let them alone” [Matt. 13:30]) was expressly spoken to the messengers or ministers of the gospel, who have not civil power or authority in their hand, and therefore not to the civil Magistrate, King, or Governor. Therefore one cannot reason from this parable to opposition to the coercive power of the magistrate in matters of religion. If there must be a restraint of any severity, we must restrain Church censures and excommunications as a way of rooting out the tares. The parable therefore suggest unto us that when the Magistrate has done all his duty in exercising his coercive power, yet to the world’s end there will be in the Church a mixture of good and bad. So that it is the universal and perfect purging of the Church, which is put off to the last judgment, not the punishment of particular persons. Neither do the servants in the parables ask whether they should pluck up this or that visible tare, but whether they should go and make the whole field rid of them; which field is the general visible Church sowed with the seed of the gospel.
Fourthly, and if the utter extermination of heretics by capital punishments, should be understood to be forbidden in the parable (as it is not), yet the stopping of their mouths, the scattering and suppressing of them, or some other coercive way, is not forbidden.
- George Gillespie, Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberty (1644), at http://www.naphtali.com/articles/george-gillespie/wholesome-severity/