On Civil Government (Blogging the Belgic: Article 36)
We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.
We are told to avoid the topics of religion and politics at dinner parties and social gatherings because of the way these topics can erupt emotions and lead to fighting. If these two topics make people uncomfortable separately, how much more uncomfortable do people get when they are discussed in connection with each other! People often say that you shouldn’t mix religion and politics, but yet, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession discusses the topic of the civil (state) government, offering the perspective of a Reformed Christian. This topic was important in the historical context, 16th century Europe, as we must remember that the writer of the Belgic Confession and his community were being persecuted by their government, with Guido de Bres actually being put to death for being a Reformed Christian. The document was sent to a king as a way to try to show that Reformed Christians were not rebellious people but ones who supported the government and also believed things that were in accordance with longstanding Christian beliefs. Therefore, this statement is a very important one within the Confession, and also one that Reformed Christians should understand as we live in a very polarized culture in which Christians can be afraid of thinking about politics for a variety of reasons.
The article begins by highlighting the reason for the existence of civil government, noting that the Scriptures (such as Romans 13:1-7) teach that government is God’s way of ensuring order and offering protecting of people: “We believe that because of the depravity of the human race, our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. 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 God has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.” Government exists because we live in a sinful world in which people will do evil things, with government officials seeking to protect good and punish evil people to help make sure that evil things don’t happen. Government is not a necessary evil but rather necessary because of evil. In fact, it is not evil but is given to us by God.
It is the next paragraph where I think things get a bit more controversial: “And the government's task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.” What does this statement mean? Is it saying that the state should establish the church and be punishing people who promote other religions? That is certainly one way to read this statement (some have interpreted it this way, which has led to some Reformed groups revising it), but I wonder if this is only one possible interpretation of this responsibility, and one that might not be the best when viewed historically. As I mentioned earlier, many countries in Europe had state religions. This is where the United States differs with the First Amendment guaranteeing a freedom of religion, that is the free exercise of religion (meaning we can practice whatever our beliefs are) and the lack of mandate of citizens to have a particular religion. What has been interesting is that Christianity in America has flourished in ways not seen in other countries, as Christianity has been declining in places where there is a state church but remained strong in America. (Even if there is a rise in people not affiliated with churches, there still is a higher number of people who have Christian faith and involvement than in other countries.) I would argue that not forcing or adopting a religion, and not doing anything to prevent its practice, is actually a way that the government fulfills this statement, as it sets up the conditions so that citizens can believe (this is essentially what the Christian Reformed Church’s revision of this article says, as it talks about removing obstacles and allowing the gospel to have free course). The way to promote Christianity is not necessarily to enact laws that require “Christian” behavior (as you remember, we are not saved by our works) but by ensuring religious liberty and protection, which only happen if there is liberty for all.
While the previous paragraph speaks about what the state should do (and one about which there might be some dispute), the next paragraph speaks about the responsibility of Christians as citizens. This one is likely to have fewer objections (though that does not mean it is easy!), as it draws on passages like Romans 13:1-7 ,1 Peter 2:13-17, and 1 Timothy 2:1-2: “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.” We are called to pray for and respect those in power, regardless of their beliefs or moral status, and we are called to pay taxes to these officials, regardless of whether we think the tax rate is fair or the government is efficient in its use of our monies.
The last section of this statement is once again a spot in which are reminded of the historical context of the Confession. These concluding words name and discuss the Anabaptists, as the Reformed Church was trying to make sure that the governing officials recognized there was a difference between Reformed Christians and those groups of Anabaptists who rejected the state government and set up their own communities. “And on this matter we reject the Anabaptists, anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.” Reformed Christians are good citizens, supporting the government and, as they have done historically, even getting involved in the government.
Although these words about the civil government were written long ago (before our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, even before the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock), I think they have relevance for us for a couple of different reasons. First, while people don’t like to mix religion and politics, as Christians we believe that our faith affects everything in life and thus our religion will affect how we view things politically. Christians might disagree on policies and how to enact things, but they agree that what we believe leads to choices in life. Secondly, these words of a minority religious group might help us think about our own context. While there have been all sorts of “culture wars” and attempts to take power, the biggest issue that Christians should long for is the ability to practice and proclaim their religion -- we need a government that allows for the free exercise of our religion. In doing this, we are not just “fighting for our rights” but also helping others have true choices, believing that when the gospel is presented in the marketplace of ideas, it will be seen as both true and the thing that we most need in our world. We don’t need or want a government that forces people be Christians, we want a church that in word and deed shows the world the truth of the gospel and is allowed to do so.
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