© June 9, 2019 (KSYC 103.9FM Yreka, CA)
In the last several months, we have studied the Belgic Confession of Faith, a confession of faith written by Dutch Reformer Guido de Brés in 1561. Today, we will study Article 36, The Civil Government, the second to the last article of this confession.
To more fully understand this article, it must be considered in light of the historical background of that time. During the 16th century Protestant Reformation, a radical group called the Anabaptists emerged. They were “radical” in their doctrines and practices, because they rejected most of the doctrines and practices of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Protestant Reformers. They rejected predestination, man’s total sinfulness, assurance of salvation, and infant baptism. But the most radical of their doctrines concerned the relationship between church and state. At first, they were committed to complete pacifism by refusing to have any part in politics, including refusal to take oaths and being part of the military. But later, they made an about-face and became radically politicized.
So in 1534-35, the Anabaptists violently overthrew the city government of Münster and instituted what is now known as the “Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster.” Oppressive laws were put in place. Crimes punishable by death were expanded to include blasphemy, attempts to flee, impurity, theft, fraud, lying, idle conversation, disputes, anger, and disobedience to the elders. Polygamy was also instituted. This violent kingdom came to an end when both Roman Catholic and Protestant armies invaded the city and executed its leaders.
Therefore, Article 36 must be studied in light of these events. This article can be divided into four parts: The Origin of Civil Government, The Purpose of Civil Government, The Relationship Between Civil Government and the Church, and The Duties of Christian Citizens to the Civil Government.
First, the article states the origin of civil government, “We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers.” Several texts from the Bible affirm that God has ordained civil authorities to govern nations. Proverbs 8:15–16: “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly.” Daniel 2:21: “He removes kings and sets up kings.” In John 19:11, Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” God is sovereign over all nations and all those who rule them. The Apostle Paul affirms this in Romans 13:1–2, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” When Paul wrote this, who was the king? It was the evil Roman emperor. Therefore, whether a civil government is good or evil, it is ordained by God. He then warns Christians, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
Second, the article explains the Biblical purpose of civil government, “[God] wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings. For that purpose, he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.” What is the purpose of civil government? To restrain lawlessness, because all mankind is sinful. If there is no government, there will be no peace and order, no punishment of evil people, and the good will not be protected. We see this throughout world history: When a government is overthrown by violence, what follows is unmitigated violence, looting, disorder. For example, the 1789 French Revolution was followed by years of the Reign of Terror where over 17,000 people were executed and thousands of others died in prison without trial.
In recent years, there has arisen in our nation a movement called the Antifa Movement, short for anti-fascist. This movement began in Europe in the early 20th century as a reaction against Hitler’s fascist Nazi party. It resurfaced in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the United States during the Occupy movement. In recent years, Antifa has the name TheResistance against President Trump who they condemn as a fascist. This movement is opposed to every sort of civil government, making them anarchists. They oppose capitalism in favor of socialism and communism and advocate open borders. Their tactics include social media activism, fake news, harassment of those who disagree with them, and violence against persons and property. Therefore, the Antifa Movement is opposed to every kind of Biblical teaching on God’s ordination of civil government to promote peace and order in society.
Third, the article explains the relationship between civil government and the Church. As we have mentioned earlier, the 16th century Anabaptists got this relationship absolutely wrong. Like the medieval church, they wanted a theocracy, which means a government ruled by a religion, much like the Islamic republics in the Middle East. So, during the medieval age, the Pope and the kings were always in a power struggle.
Therefore the article continues, “And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God’s law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.” Here, Article 36 distinguishes between the role of the civil government and the church. They rule separate spheres. All civil governments are secular institutions which should enforce the Fifth through the Tenth Commandments, which concern the orderly and lawful relationships between human beings. God revealed these laws to all mankind to maintain the value and dignity of human life, the sanctity of the family, and the preservation of truth and private property. They are for the kingdom of man.
In contrast, God never assigns to the civil government the enforcement of the First through Fourth Commandments, which concerns man’s relationship to God the Creator. These laws concern the kingdom of God. Jesus gives us the basis distinguishing the laws governing these two kingdoms in Matthew 22:21, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Therefore, there are distinct roles for both church and state, and every Christian has dual citizenship: a citizen of both the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God.
This brings us to our fourth and last point, the Duties of Christian Citizens to the Civil Government. Article 36 says, “Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.”
All Christians are bound to obey the laws of the nation of which they are citizens. They must pay taxes, even if these taxes are abusive, because when Jesus commanded this, the Roman government abused its power of taxation. The article quotes 2 Timothy 2:1-2, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone–for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior.”
Therefore, in our church and in many others, we devote part of the pastoral prayer to our President, Congress, justices and judges, state and local officials, and the military, police and emergency responders for the continuance of peace, quiet and prosperity of our nation. We ask God to protect our nation and we give thanks for our freedom and prosperity through his appointed leaders. As American citizens who enjoy freedom and prosperity that no other nation on earth enjoys, we are to be doubly thankful to God for giving us a civil government that cares for its citizens. And those of us who are Christians should also be doubly grateful that God has given us a Constitution that protects the freedoms of speech and religion.
This is why Article 36 states that the civil government must rule in such a way “that the Word of God may have free course; the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress.” Not that the civil government must promote Christianity as the state religion, but that every citizen must be given freedom to exercise their own religion. The article therefore warns the civil government, “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” So then, God overthrew the evil kings of Israel, the radical Anabaptists in Münster, and the Communists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. God appointed rulers and governments to restrain evil and not to wield absolute power over their own people.
However, although we as Christians are commanded in the Bible to be lawful citizens of our nation, we cease our obedience to our nation’s law if the law forbids us to assemble together for worship and preach the gospel in our church. For the Bible says, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This is why throughout church history, many Christians throughout the world were willing to offer their necks to be cut off and their bodies burned for the sake of the preaching of the gospel of their Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. May those days never come upon us again.