How do Reformed Christians understand the role of the civil government and the calling of the Christian citizen?
Belgic Confession, Article 36; Day 1: Magistrates Appointed Because of Man’s Depravity
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 13:4: “ … But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain …”
Belgic Confession Article 36 deals with the subject of the civil magistrate or the state. This subject is immensely practical for all Christians because all of us live as citizens under an earthly government of one kind or another. The Bible has a lot to say on the role of the civil government and even more to say on the Christian’s obligation to government. God is a God of order, and He has ordained authorities in various spheres: the family, the church and the civil government.
This article begins by explaining the reason—indeed the necessity—of civil government. There are, and always have been, anarchists, who desire to overthrow all civil government. They desire liberty from all forms of human government because they fear tyranny. Nevertheless, the Bible does not support an absolutely libertarian view of government. In fact, the Bible does not even mandate what form government should take—whether absolute dictatorship, totalitarian and despotic states, kingdoms, empires or the various forms of democracy known to many of us today. Democracy, as such, was unheard of in the days in which the Bible was written. In the Old Testament there was either the theocratic state of Israel—God was king in Israel and He ruled through His officebearers the kings, especially the Davidic kings—or various forms of tyrannical government, such as Pharaoh’s Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon or Cyrus’s Persia. In the New Testament the dominant form of government was the Roman empire. Believers in the Old and New Testaments recognized and honoured the leaders placed over them. Paul summarises this in Romans 13:1, “… the powers that be [that is, the powers which exist] are ordained of God.”
The reason God has ordained government (“kings, princes and magistrates,” as the Belgic Confession explains it) is “because of the depravity of mankind” and “to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained.” Dissoluteness is unbridled wickedness. The French word used in the original version of the Belgic Confession means “overflowing,” the idea being that man’s sin will flow unchecked without civil government.
Those who advocate the overthrow of government (such as the Anabaptists) often have a poor understanding of sin. Without civil government man’s sin will not be restrained. Imagine how many more murders, thefts and other crimes there would be if there was no police force; if there were no prisons; and if—in some cases—there was no death penalty inflicted upon offenders! A corrupt government is better than civil unrest and anarchy. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that civil government restrains man in such a way that he becomes better morally. Civil government does not improve man—he is still totally depraved. Civil government restrains a man the way a muzzle restrains a violent dog.
“Our gracious God … hath appointed kings.” He has done so for the good of His church which is called to live in the midst of a sinful world. This, too, is part of His care for us.
Belgic Confession, Article 36; Day 2: The Sword Power of the Magistracy
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Peter 2:14: “… for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”
There are many theories about the role of the state. Political opinions vary between the “left” and the “right,” between “limited government” and “totalitarianism.” Some men favour capitalism and others socialism or even communism. The Bible does not contain detailed instructions on the role of the government. In fact, the government really has one function and this can be summed up in one short phrase: “sword power.”
God “hath invested the magistracy with the sword,” says the Belgic Confession, following Paul’s instruction in Romans 13. “He [the civil power] beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (v. 4). The sword in Scripture is symbolic of the power and authority to coerce, force and punish the wicked and to promote virtue in society so that the wickedness of man might be restrained and good order maintained. Modern governments do not use the steel sword. They use a well trained army with modern weaponry, a police force with various government agencies, a justice department and a network of prisons. Some still inflict the death penalty, but death by beheading by the sword is extremely rare. Modern governments also concern themselves with other aspects of the lives of her citizens—education, employment, social welfare, finance, etc.—but these are not the state’s function according to Scripture.
We noticed in Articles 30-32 that the church does not have sword power. She has a much greater power—the power to open and close the kingdom of heaven with the keys; the power of spiritual weapons; the power of the sword of the Spirit (Matt. 16:18, 18:18-19; II Cor. 10:3-5; Eph. 6:17). In fact, the church may not use the sword. The magistrate, however, whose kingdom is not spiritual, must use the sword. God wills it! The magistrate who allows criminals to escape unpunished and the magistrate who punishes the innocent will be judged by God.
How must we view the power of the sword? First, we must not envy it. The church has a greater spiritual power than the magistrate could ever dream about! Second, we must fear it. Writing to Christians Paul warns, “If thou do that which is evil, be afraid” (Rom. 13:4). Christians are not exempt from arrest, prosecution and punishment if—and may God graciously forbid—they transgress the civil law. Peter, again writing to Christians, warns, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or an evildoer …” (I Peter 2:15). A Christian who commits a crime will go to prison, let’s say, even if he is repentant and is forgiven by the church. Third, we must be thankful for it. Let us be thankful that God has ordained that there be prisons for thieves who might break in and steal our property; that there be the death penalty for murderers, rapists and other violent offenders. Let us be thankful for the police, the judges and the soldiers whose job it is to protect us and to maintain law and order.
No government is perfect. Many governments are overly intrusive, rapacious in their taxation, wasteful in their spending of taxpayers’ money. Many governments are tyrannical—increasingly so as the end approaches—and corrupt, failing to punish the wicked and refusing to reward the good. That was the case in Paul’s day also. Paul wrote Romans 13 in the context of the Caesars of Rome, hardly a power friendly to the Christian church!
But for all that Paul wrote, “The powers that be—whether a Roman Emperor such as Nero or the president, prime minister or king of your country—are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God …” (Rom. 13:1-2).
Belgic Confession, Article 36; Day 3: The Relationship Between Church and State
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Timothy 3:16: “… the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
Belgic Confession Article 36 is the only one with an explanatory footnote. This is because the Reformed churches have debated the relationship between the church and state, and have concluded that the Belgic Confession—while reflecting what the Reformers believed and taught—is not in line with Scripture, and needs to be corrected. No church may take the revision of her creeds lightly, but at the same time no creed is infallible.
The article in its original form mandated the magistrate to promote the true church and to suppress heresy with the power of the sword. That this was the prevalent view throughout the Middle Ages and in Reformation days, no scholar denies. The Reformers, especially Calvin, as well as the Roman Catholics, believed that the magistrate had the role to enforce the law of God. A Latin phrase, cuius regio eius religio, sums up the principle. It means, “Whose the realm, his the religion.” In Europe there were Reformed areas, Lutheran areas and Roman Catholic areas, and this could change with the change of leadership. In England, for example, the rule swung from Protestant to Roman Catholic and back to Protestant again, depending on who occupied the throne. There were also varying degrees of religious freedom as well examples of intolerance and persecution. In some European countries, even today, there are “Established Churches,” churches officially recognized by the state. This recognition comes at a high price—interference by the state into the affairs of the church. Often the state would determine the officebearers of the church, call or forbid ecclesiastical assemblies, determine worship practices and pay for the upkeep of property and pay the salaries of ministers. He who pays the piper calls the tune!
The Reformers, who argued that the role of the magistracy was to “protect the sacred ministry and thus [to] remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship,” appealed to the Old Testament examples of godly, reformatory kings such as Josiah and Hezekiah. These men did put idolaters to death, did purge the temple and did promote the worship of the true God. However, upon reflection we have come to understand that this appeal was mistaken. The Old Testament Israel was a “state religion,” but in the New Testament the church (and not the state) is the spiritual, “holy nation” of God (I Peter 2:9) but without an earthly king. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world—it is not a political power. It is wholly separate and distinct from the civil state (John 18:36-37).
The civil government has neither the calling nor the competency to “remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship.” How could the civil government determine what is true and false worship? And, besides this, the civil government does not have the calling to enforce the Ten Commandments of God’s Law. The Law of God is not an external moral code, but “holy, just and good” (Rom. 7:12), a law which governs the sinner’s heart. The civil magistrate can punish murderers, but can it mandate love for the neighbor from the heart? The civil government can punish theft, but can it forbid and punish envy, discontentment and covetousness?
We—with the footnote to our beloved Belgic Confession—reject the Establishment Principle and teach a separation of church and state. The state must promote true religion only in this sense: the state must preserve order so that the church can worship in peace; and the state must not persecute or interfere with the true church as she does her work of preaching the Gospel. When the state oversteps her bounds, the state sins. But the church does not rebel, but suffers patiently, waiting for the coming of her Lord.
Belgic Confession, Article 36; Day 4: Our Duty to Submit to Magistrates
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Titus 3:1: “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work.”
The calling of the Christian with respect to the civil government is to submit. Submission is the deliberate, conscious placing of oneself under the authority of another. Submission is not exactly the same as obedience, although in most instances a submissive person is also an obedient person.
A submissive Christian recognizes several truths. First, he understands that God is sovereign and that He in His providence has given power to rulers. This is the case whether the person occupying the office—whether of king, queen, judge, police officer, president, prime minister, senator, congressman, etc.—is good or evil, a believer or an unbeliever. God’s word is clear: “the powers that be—and not the powers as we would like them to be, or as they are according to some idealistic, political ideology—are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1). This truth is everywhere taught. To despotic King Nebuchadnezzar Daniel declares, “Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, strength and glory” (Dan. 2:37). Later he adds, “… the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will, and setteth up over it the basest of men” (Dan. 4:17). The same is true in the New Testament: God ordained that Nero be emperor when Paul was writing the book of Romans. God ordained your civil leaders, whether you like them or not. And a righteous civil ruler is rare in this world. Second, the Christian understands the Fifth Commandment. He interprets this Commandment in an all comprehensive way: it includes the command to obey parents, the civil magistrate, one’s employer and ecclesiastical officebearers. Peter writes, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by Him …” (I Peter 2:14). We obey our parents in the Lord; we obey our masters as to the Lord; and we submit to rulers for the Lord’s sake (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:22-23; I Peter 2:14). Third, the Christian understands that this requirement is valid even when the leaders are ungodly, as they often are. A Christian wife’s submission is not conditional on his love for her; a Christian employer’s submission is not conditional on his equitable treatment of him; and a Christian citizen’s submission is not conditional on the government’s righteous treatment of him or on the government’s establishment of godly laws and ordinances (I Peter 2:18, 3:1). The calling of the government is to “not [to be] a terror to good works, but to the evil” (Rom. 13:3), but its legitimacy does not depend on its doing this.
Some Christians object that we are not required to submit to an unjust government, but this objection does not fit with Scripture. If we are not required to pay taxes to, obey the laws of, and recognize the legitimacy of a wicked government today, how could the apostles have required these things of Christians in their day? (Rom. 13:6-7; I Peter 2:13-15).
Our calling is clear—and difficult for the flesh. We must submit to the government, obey her laws, pay our taxes and suffer wrong if that becomes necessary. If we have legitimate avenues of appeal, we may use them, but in all things we must be loyal, obedient citizens, indeed the best citizens of the nation in which we sojourn.
And all to the glory of God.
Belgic Confession, Article 36; Day 5: We Must Obey Except …
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Acts 5:29: “ … we ought to obey God rather than men.”
Earlier we underlined the truth that the Christian must be submissive to the government, no matter what kind of government it is, and even when it fails to do what God calls it to do, namely to punish evildoers and to reward the good. However, this does not mean that the Christian obeys the government at all times.
Submission is to place oneself under the authority of another. Obedience is to do what a superior says. Even when a Christian may not, in good conscience, obey, he must be submissive. We might say that he must disobey submissively. A wonderful example of this is found in Daniel’s three friends. Notice how they address the king—respectfully, politely, humbly and submissively. “O, Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter … be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods …” (Dan. 3:16, 18). But, for all that, they disobey! Paul is respectful and submissive to authorities, even to authorities which mistreat him (Acts 21:37, 23:5, 24:10, 26:2, 25). We must, therefore, not speak evil of our leaders, slander them, make fun of them or teach our children to disrespect them.
Nevertheless, we do not obey our leaders when they command us to disobey God. Then we follow the principle of Acts 5:29, “… we ought to obey God rather than men.” Those occasions, where we are called to disobey God, are rare. Is it disobedience to God to pay taxes to a government which uses those taxes to fund immoral practices? No. We are called to pay our taxes (Rom. 13:7). Did Rome’s taxes not fund her military, her oppression of the people of God, her gladiatorial shows, her idolatry and the emperor’s excesses? Paul did not exempt Christians from paying tax for those reasons. Is it disobedience to God to curb one’s speed on the highway or to comply with the multiplicity of regulations imposed by politicians today? No. Peter says we must “submit [ourselves] to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (I Peter 2:13). You might find man’s ordinances illogical, foolish and inconvenient, but unless obeying man means that you disobey God, you must obey. The example given in Acts is when the apostles, who were commanded to preach Christ Jesus, were told not to do so by the Sanhedrin. The apostles rightly answered that they must obey God rather than men. But in everything else the apostles obeyed the laws of the magistrates as submissive citizens of the state.
In modern democracies, of course, the Christian has more options. The Christian can criticize the government. John the Baptist did this. The Christian can appeal to or petition the government to change its laws for the better. The Christian can even run for public office—this is an avenue open to the individual believer, although politics are not the calling of the church institute.
But, what the Christian may never do, is to rebel against the government. That is sin.
Belgic Confession, Article 36; Day 6: Detesting the Sedition of the Anabaptists
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
John 3:6-7: “ ... They that resist shall receive to themselves damnation”
The Belgic Confession was written against the backdrop of severe persecution of the Reformed churches by the civil magistrate, Philip II of Spain, who at that time ruled the Netherlands. This violent persecution occurred at the behest of the Roman Catholic church, which viewed the Reformed as heretics to be exterminated. But, despite the injustice of the state, the Reformed did not advocate rebellion. In fact, when in church history, the Reformed have rebelled, the end has always been disastrous.
Part of the justification which the Roman Catholics gave for the persecution of the Reformed was that they were seditious. This was slander. There were seditious persons at the time of the Reformation. There were men and women who sought to overthrow rightful, God-ordained authority. There were men and women who rejected civil magistrates and who said that the church must establish a godly kingdom of earth by overturning existing rulers. These were the Anabaptists. Their teachings are condemned more than once in the Belgic Confession. The most radical Anabaptist leader was Thomas Müntzer, who was put to death in 1525 for his part in the Peasants’ Revolt. Not all Anabaptists were radical. Some, like Menno Simons, were strict pacifists. The Belgic Confession was written to distance the Reformed from the Anabaptists. The authorities found it convenient to lump all heretics together, but this was unjust. In 1562, a copy of the Belgic Confession was sent to Philip II. In it the Reformed declared themselves ready to obey the government in all lawful things, although they would “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to fire, rather than deny the truth of God’s Word.” Thousands of godly, Reformed Christians were put to death by the authorities, a fate they patiently endured for the sake of Christ.
Godly Christians throughout history have been loyal citizens, ready and willing to submit to God-ordained authority. It has been the radicals and the fanatics who have sought to overthrow law and order. “We detest the Anabaptists, declares our Confession, and other seditious persons, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates.” Jesus gives this principle, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt. 26:52). He that takes up arms against the government will perish, and deservedly so. “They that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Rom. 13:2). Consider the Jewish zealots of the first century AD. They were fanatical Jews who sought to overthrow the Roman oppressor by force. One of Jesus’ disciples had been a zealot (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13) and Barabbas and the thieves crucified with Jesus were undoubtedly zealots (Luke 23:18-19, 32-33, 40-41). The Roman government was illegitimate in their view; its laws were ungodly; its taxes were unfair and oppressive; it did not reward the good and punish the evil. But none of that justified rebellion.
The calling of the Christian is to suffer patiently when he is unjustly treated. No Christian or instituted church may ever rebel against the government. All such rebellion is sin.
Belgic Confession, Article 36; Day 7: Praying for Civil Rulers
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Timothy 2:1-2: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks, be made for all men, for kings, and for all that are in authority …”
How often do you pray for the civil magistrate? Do you pray for the government as much or as often as you complain about it? Do you imagine that praying for the government would be a waste of your time? Perhaps those thoughts crossed Timothy’s mind when he received Paul’s epistle. In I Timothy 2 Paul begins to give instructions on public worship and “how [he ought] to behave [himself] in the house of God, which is the church of the living God (3:15). The first thing Paul mentions is the need to pray for all men. The context shows us that Paul does not mean all men head for head—how could anyone ever do that?—but all kinds of men. Timothy might imagine that it would be fitting to pray for old and young, rich and poor, male and female. But then Paul adds, “for kings, and for all that are in authority” (v. 2).
Does that surprise you? It may have surprised Timothy. Pray for “kings”—for men like Herod, Nero—and for “all that are in authority”—for men like Felix, Festus, Pilate! Perhaps you can think of rulers today you would rather not mention in your prayers—unscrupulous politicians, corrupt judges, arrogant and ungodly men and women. Perhaps the church in Ephesus could think of persecutors of the church. Should we pray for them? Jesus commanded, “pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
The Belgic Confession reminds us of this calling too. “It is the bounden duty of every one … to supplicate for them in their prayers, that God may rule and guide them.”
Scripture gives several reasons for this. First, God will answer our prayers in such a way that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Tim. 2:2). God guides civil rulers so that the right atmosphere will prevail in which the church can worship and live as Christians. If anarchy prevails in society, public worship becomes impossible. If society is in a state of chaos, the work of the church in preaching the gospel is greatly hindered. Second, God wills that we pray for civil rulers—as part of the “all men” of v. 1—because God wills the salvation of all men, and has sent Christ to be a ransom for all men. This does not mean that God desires the salvation of every human person without exception. The context demands that “all men” in vv. 1, 4 and 6 be understood as “all kinds of men.” This is also how the words are used in everyday speech. If I greet a group of people with, “Good evening all” nobody understands that to mean that I am greeting anyone but the immediate group to whom I am speaking. If I say, “Everyone needs to be finished by 3 o’clock” it is obvious that I have all of a specific number in mind. The extent of “all” must always be determined by the context.
God wills even the salvation of some kings and other civil rulers. Although “not many mighty, not many noble, are called” (I Cor. 1:26), God is pleased to save some such. Remember Elector Frederick, who commissioned the Heidelberg Catechism, King Edward VI of England, who was called the English Josiah by his grateful subjects, and, of course, the godly kings in the Old Testament (David, Josiah, Hezekiah, etc).
Let us, then, pray for, and be thankful for our civil rulers under whose hand our gracious God is pleased to govern us.