Article 36 - The Civil Government
THE CIVIL GOVERNMENT
We believe that, because of the depravity of mankind, our gracious God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies, in order that the licentiousness of men be restrained and that everything be conducted among them in good order. For that purpose He has placed the sword in the hand of the government to punish wrongdoers and to protect those who do what is good (Romans 13:4). Their task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that *the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as He requires in His Word.
Moreover, everyone - no matter of what quality, condition, or rank - ought to be subject to the civil officers, pay taxes, hold them in honour and respect, and obey them in all things which do not disagree with the Word of God. We ought to pray for them, that God may direct them in all their ways and that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way (1 Timothy 2:1,2).
For that reason we condemn the Anabaptists and other rebellious people, and in general all those who reject the authorities and civil officers, subvert justice, introduce a communion of goods, and confound the decency that God has established among men.
*The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.
Guido deBres did his work in a context of persecution. Official government policy was that all members of the community were to be obedient adherents to the Roman Catholic faith, if not willingly then by force. This government policy was built on the Roman Catholic understanding of how authority in a society came about. God in Christ as supreme Ruler has invested earthly authority, it was said, in the church. The church in turn sets the standards for public authorities; the governments of the world must listen to and submit to the authority of the church. In practice this meant that Protestants –those who protested against the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church– were to be brought to heel through the force of the government’s sword. As a result, deBres and his congregation lived in uncertainty; at every moment their freedom, their property or their persons were endangered.
In that environment, the temptation was real for deBres and his fellow believers to develop feelings of disrespect and disdain towards the persecuting authorities. That temptation was the more real because there were people around them who actually embraced such feelings of disdain. These were the Anabaptists, who considered the regenerated to be citizens of the heavenly kingdom of Jesus Christ, and therefore no longer subject to the kings and kingdoms of this earth. They considered earthly governments as worldly and beneath the attention of the heaven-bound Christian, and so declined to participate in governmental affairs, resisted paying taxes, refused to join an army, and disavowed the oath (see Lord’s Day 37 of the Heidelberg Catechism). To their way of thinking, they ought to listen strictly and only to King Jesus. Figure 36.2 reflects their understanding. This mindset resulted in acts of rebellion against earthly authorities, as the revolt of Munster (1534) illustrates.
One can understand that persecuted Protestants, rejecting as they would the Roman Catholic authority scheme, would be tempted to write off earthly authorities and find the position of the Anabaptists attractive. In fact, Roman Catholic authorities painted all Protestants with one brush, and considered them all Anabaptists – and therefore radical revolutionaries worthy of oppression.
In the face of this two-fold danger, deBres included in his Confession an article on Civil Government. In this article he sought to
1. teach his people what the Lord God actually reveals about earthly authorities (neither the Roman Catholic nor the Anabaptist view is correct), and
2. show the earthly authorities that the Reformed were not to be grouped with the Anabaptists as seditious and untrustworthy citizens of the public community.
Though popular thinking on authority is today vastly different than it was in deBres’ day, and the circumstance of Christians in the western world is greatly different too, the revelation of God concerning authority remains important for today’s Christian – be he in government or a member of the community. If Christ is King in all of life, His authority extends to the world’s presidents and prime ministers too, and the Christian readily acknowledges that and acts accordingly.
SCRIPTURE ON GOVERNMENT
The Old Testament pictures the world’s Creator as the world’s King. The psalmist exalts, “The LORD reigns, He is clothed with majesty…. Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved. Your throne is established from of old; You are from everlasting” (Psalm 93:1,2). In another place he declares, “…the LORD is the great God, And the great King above all gods. In His hands are the deep places of the earth; The heights of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it; And His hands formed the dry land” (Psalm 95:3-5). And again, “The LORD reigns; Let the peoples tremble” (Psalm 99:1).
The prophet Isaiah points up the sovereignty of Israel’s God over all government. The news of the day was about wicked Sennecherib of Assyria marching on Jerusalem, and his reputation was evil indeed – for his army pillaged and raped and killed at will. Isaiah speaks God’s word to Israel concerning Assyria: “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger And the staff in whose hand is My indignation. I will send him against an ungodly nation, And against the people of My wrath I will give him charge, To seize the spoil, to take the prey, And to tread them down like the mire of the streets” (Isaiah 10:5,6). Notice how the Lord describes mighty Assyria as “the rod of My anger”. So great is the Lord’s kingship that this superpower is but a stick in the Lord’s hand. In other words, this government was a servant of God to do His bidding.
The New Testament shows us how the Lord Jesus Christ conquered sin and Satan on the cross of Calvary. As a result, God “raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:20-23). The terms “principality and power and might and dominion” are a reference to the powers of darkness, the forces of evil (the demons) that seek to overthrow the Lord’s dominion. The forces of evil seek to use governments to carry out their hellish plans (see Daniel 10:13; Isaiah 24:21). Yet the Holy Spirit assures the people of God that the Lord Jesus Christ has received authority even over such powers of darkness, and therefore also over any and every earthly government that might do the bidding of such forces of evil. As Paul writes to the Romans: “there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1). DeBres echoed this Scriptural instruction in Article 36, “We believe that … our gracious God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers.” The Biblical picture concerning authority, then, can be schematized.
That the world knows of offices as kings, princes, presidents, prime ministers, etc, is God’s work, and that particular persons fill the office of a king or a president or a prime minister is equally God’s work. This confession leaves no room for the understanding that authority arises from a decision of the people to appoint rulers over themselves from their own midst, who in turn are responsible to the people alone (John Locke’s social contract theory). Scripture teaches that rulers receive authority from God, and not from the people. So rulers are to carry out the will of God, and not necessarily the will of (sinful) people. Equally, rulers are responsible to God, and not, ultimately, to the people. This is where the democratic model of government so typical of the free western world does not do full justice to God’s revelation. I should hasten to add, though, that in our broken world the democratic model may well be the most preferable model of government.
Given that the Lord Jesus Christ stands behind the authorities of a given land, it follows that all who honor Christ will honor the authorities He gave. Paul is emphatic on the point: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1). Similarly, Peter gave instruction to his readers to “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by Him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13,14). Peter’s statement is remarkable since the king at the time Peter wrote his letter was none other than Nero, that thoroughly godless, pleasure loving, self-seeking emperor in Rome who did not hesitate to tar living Christians and use them as candles in his garden parties. Yet Peter believed that this emperor received his office from his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and it was not for Peter to criticize the man to whom Christ had entrusted the Roman Empire and to dishonor him. Emphatically Peter adds, “Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). David’s attitude in relation to King Saul is instructive; “do not destroy him,” he said to those who would kill the king, “for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’s anointed, and be guiltless?” (1 Samuel 26:9).
There is, of course, a limit to the obedience a child of God can give to the authorities. The final authority in any land rests with the King of that land, the Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, when a ruler-under-Christ demands conduct that flies in the face of God’s instruction in Holy Scripture, no citizen is permitted to obey those demands. Jesus put it this way, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). In his answer to the chief priests Peter recast the thought in his own words, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
DeBres repeated after God what he heard God say in Scripture. The rule is easy: “everyone –no matter of what quality, condition, or rank– ought to be subject to the civil officers, pay taxes, hold them in honor and respect, and obey them in all things which do not disagree with the Word of God.” As long as Christ is King on earth, this rule is applicable for all men everywhere. Christians, of course, need to set the example.
WHY GOD GAVE AUTHORITIES
God gave authorities for a reason. DeBres catches Scripture’s instruction, “We believe that, because of the depravity of mankind, our gracious God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers.” The point is not that there would not have been authority had we not fallen into sin. Even in heaven there is authority, with God having countless angels at His command (Matthew 26:53), and the angels even having a hierarchy amongst them (Jude 9; Revelation 12:7). The point is rather that the mandate God has given to earthly governments in this fallen world focuses particularly on man’s inclination to do evil. Governments are to make laws that uphold the public order, are to enforce those laws, and are to punish those who disobey such laws. The point is illustrated in what Paul wrote in Romans 13.
This well known passage about the need to “be subject to the governing authorities” (vs 1) follows Paul’s instruction in chapter 12 about Christian behavior. In a fallen world there are those who will take advantage of you, even persecute you. Predictable responsive behavior would include anger, bitterness, vengeance, and bullying the other in turn. Paul’s instruction, though, is to “bless and do not curse” (vs 14) and to “repay no one evil for evil” (vs 17). In fact, “do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (vs 20). Just how, though, does the Lord repay those who harm His people? God, of course, is mighty to repay the evildoer through sickness or natural disaster, etc, and may at His time do so. The apostle, though, answers the question with reference to “the governing authorities” (13:1). “He is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (vs 4). Instead, then, of a citizen using own initiative to exact reprisal on a fellow citizen who has hurt him, the Lord God has given “governing authorities” (vs 1) so that they, as “God’s ministers” (vss 4, 6) may punish the wrongdoer and protect the victim.
Correctly, then, did deBres see government as a gift from “our gracious God”. In His care for people in a society marred by the effects of the fall into sin, God from heaven has given “kings, princes, and civil officers,” presidents, prime ministers and parliaments, “in order that the licentiousness of men be restrained and that everything be conducted among them in good order. For that purpose He has placed the sword in the hand of the government to punish wrongdoers and to protect those who do what is good.”
What, then, is left of the Anabaptist notion that earthly government is something of ‘this world’, while the Christian belongs to the kingdom of heaven – and therefore ought to have as little as possible to do with the government? DeBres confesses –and teaches his congregation– that such a view on government is unscriptural. The governments of this world received their mandate and task from the Christ who rules over this world – for there is not a square inch of life in this world that falls outside of Christ’s jurisdiction. Behind the governments of our age are ultimately not the powers of hell, but the mighty hand of the ascended and sovereign Victor over sin and Satan. On account of what he learned from Scripture, deBres’ view on the government is distinctly positive. How remarkable, given that the government of deBres’ day made a point of persecuting the Protestants on account of their beliefs. Here is truly the language of faith!
PROTECTION OF THE CHURCH AND ITS MINISTRY
The mandate God gave to authorities is not limited to making laws that restrain the licentiousness of men and punishing those who transgress the law. The Holy Spirit has Paul pass on this instruction to Timothy: “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle –I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying– a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-7). Notice the flow of the argument. Prayers for “kings and all who are in authority” are of prime importance in order that Christians “may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” Yet why are Christians to lead a quiet and peaceable life? Is it so that Christians can relax and enjoy life? The apostle gives a different reason. Paul’s next sentence is not a change of topic, but an explanation for the quiet and peaceable life: “this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved,” and one can be saved only through the redemptive work of the “one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” Christians, then, are to pray that governments promote an environment of peace and quiet in the land so that the church can safely and openly preach the gospel in the nation, for the salvation of many.
This is the notion deBres echoes in his confession. In a context in which the authorities were persecuting a segment of the population on account of their faith, deBres insisted that God would have earthly governments protect “the Church and its sacred ministry in order that the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honored and served by everyone, as He requires in His Word.” In practical terms this means that the authorities are (for example) to discourage Sunday labor, are to protect public worship, are to make possible the building of churches and mission work, are to penalize public blasphemy, are to protect the family, etc. Such a task is the direct consequence of the fact that Christ is King of our land. His kingship is to be acknowledged by parliament and population alike. “Now, therefore, be wise, O kings; Be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, And rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, And you perish in the way” (Psalm 2:10,11).
SOME WORDS REMOVED
The version of the Belgic Confession printed at the head of this chapter does not contain the full text of what deBres wrote. An asterisk toward the end of the first paragraph directs the readers’ attention to an endnote after the article, indicating that a number of words were deleted from the article by a Synod some 100 years ago. If one slips the removed words back into the paragraph at the point of the asterisk, one could conclude that deBres would have the authorities do to others what they were doing to deBres, ie, force conversions to the true Christian faith so that “all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented” so that in turn “the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.” In fact, though, deBres never intended that authorities compel people to renounce their faith in favor of the truth of Scripture. DeBres’ point with the removed words was that when the government gives the church space to preach the gospel, idolatry and false worship in fact are being removed from the community – for the only way to break an evil heart and work the true faith is through the preaching of the gospel. When read sympathetically, deBres’ words are fully Scriptural. This should be said for the sake of deBres’ reputation.
CHURCH AND STATE
Many in today’s western world insist on a complete separation between Church and State. Religion, we are told, may not affect actions or decisions on the part of government officials. Politicians should stand above religion, should be religiously neutral in making policy, and treat all religions alike.
The notion could perhaps be defensible if there were no God in heaven (as in fact many in our culture insist). In that case, no religion would be true anyway. As it is, though, there is a God in heaven, and He has given the throne of the universe to the Lord Jesus Christ. This King of the world governs all nations through the medium of “governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). That is why all government officials are obligated before God to acknowledge Christ’s kingship, and that is equally why all citizens of a land need to honor the government. Yet this King of kings is busy in the world He governs not only through government officials; through the preaching He is also busy gathering, defending and preserving His church. As a result, people come to faith – including, perhaps, persons to whom Christ has entrusted high office in a land. These persons, be they kings or presidents or cabinet ministers, are called to join the church Sunday by Sunday to hear God’s instruction and receive encouragement and admonition through the preaching. These persons, irrespective of high office, need reassurance through the use of the sacraments that their sins are forgiven through Jesus’ blood – the very One who is now King over kings and presidents and cabinet ministers. These persons (just as any other child of God) also need the pastoral care of the office bearers God gives to a congregation, and so must expect home visits from the elders. As such brothers and sisters carry out the very high and responsible office Jesus Christ has given to them, they need repeatedly and deliberately to seek the will of God for them, and to pass and uphold laws that conform to God’s revelation in Holy Scripture.
At the same time it should be noted that the Lord Jesus Christ during His earthly sojourn did not instruct the governors of Galilee and Judea in public policy, and the apostles did not dictate to the authorities of their day how to run the land. Office bearers of the church do not have a mandate from God to meddle in the official running of the country. Church leaders in the past who took upon themselves the role of advising civil authorities have acted beneath their high calling to be preachers of the gospel.
To insist on a separation of Church (religion) and State (government) is to pretend that there is a part of life (government) over which Christ is not sovereign. Christ is lord over all of life; there is not a square inch of life of which Christ does not say ‘Mine’. As citizens who recognize Christ’s sovereignty over all of life, we need to insist that our politicians recognize that they are responsible to the King of kings. More, we need to insist that the nation recognizes Jesus Christ in the public square. Since Christians know the King of kings, it ought to be Christians first of all who volunteer for public office. Government, after all, is not a ‘worldly’ entity, but a gift of “our gracious God”.
DeBres added Article 36 in his confession in order to teach his people what the Lord God revealed about the civil government. He added it also to show the persecuting authorities of his day that Reformed believers were not seditious and rebellious people; on the contrary. Though deBres ensured that a copy of his confession found its way into the hands of the government of the day, their persecution did not stop and the government did not repent of its sins. That, however, was no reason for the believers to give up on Paul’s command to pray. DeBres echoed this command in his confession, “We ought to pray for them, that God may direct them in all their ways…” It’s clear: believers alone will beseech the King of kings on behalf of His governing servants; unbelievers will not do it.
Points for Discussion:
- Explain the climate in which Article 36 was written.
- What impact does the doctrine of Christ’s ascension have on the believer’s appreciation of governments? What attitude to authorities ought the Christian to have?
- How can deBres say that authorities are a gift of God’s grace?
- Is it ever permissible for a Christian to rebel against the powers governing one’s country? Explain your answer.
- Society as a whole does not mind belittling the authorities. Can the Christian participate in this? Why or why not?
- Why ought we to pray for the authorities?
- Should a government promote pluralism in religion within a land? Why or why not?
- Ought religion to be kept out of the government of a nation? Explain.
- Profession of Faith implies that one takes responsibility of one’s own actions. In the 5th commandment God commands us to “honor your father and your mother.” How do you, at your age, actually obey the 5th commandment with regards to your parents?