************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 36 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 11, 2010
Belgic Confession Article 36
"Church and State"
"The United States is God's country." "As Christians, we must join the crusade to bring America back to the Christian political philosophy of the Founding Fathers." Or, speaking of the United States, "We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God" (cf 1 Pet 2:9).
Do you agree with these statements? I hope not! Why? Because they confuse the kingdoms of this world with the Kingdom of God, the United States with the theocracy of Israel, and the Old Testament order with that of the New Testament. Furthermore, we are no more "God's country" than is any other part of this sin-filled world. Finally, we need to realize that the most influential of our Founding Fathers were either outright deists or religious liberals who denied the full humanity and divinity of Christ; therefore, to return to their philosophy is a return to heresy.
Now having said this, I am not going to deny the role of the Christian faith and church in the development of our nation. There is no doubt that religion played a role in why the Puritans, Pilgrims, and Scottish Presbyterians settled in the new world. Moreover, the "natural rights" theory underlying the Declaration of Independence was rooted in the "natural law" teaching of the medieval church.
Before we look at what Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith has to say about the state, let us admit that Article 36 is deeply flawed. First of all, what it says about Anabaptists is deeply embarrassing, inaccurate, and un-Christlike.
Second, Article 36 speaks to us from a perspective that nearly everyone including Reformed believers now reject. It speaks to us from the perspective of a "sacral society." A sacral society is a society held together by a religion to which all members of that society are committed. In a sacral society, there is no separation of church and state, like we have in America. In a sacral society, the sword of the state is used to back up the work of the church. So, for instance, if someone is wrong in doctrine or life, if someone misses worship, the police are sent to arrest them.
Consider, for a moment, the following examples of sacral societies.
In February 1692, the people of Salem, Massachusetts began searching for witches. The result: 150 people were arrested; 20 were hanged. This is an example of a sacral society.None of us, I dare say, would ever want to live in a society in which the state is controlled by the religion. But neither would we want to live in a society in which religion is controlled by the state. Rather, we prefer to keep religion and state separate. Which is why American is a pluralistic and multicultural society allowing any faith and any religion even those with whom we disagree.
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, all women were forced to wear the chador, girls were pulled out of school, and Muslim fanatics enforced Muslim law on everyone walking the streets. This is another example of a sacral society.
You may wonder why there is an article about the state or about government in the midst of a confessional statement. You need to be aware of the context in which Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith was written. At that time and place, the Roman Catholic authorities continually reproached the Reformed for being revolutionaries who feared neither God nor king. So, one of the reasons Article 36 of the Confession was written was to assure King Philip of Spain that the Reformed are good and loyal subjects who honor and pray for those in authority, obey them, and pay taxes to them.
Finally, let me remind you of where we are in the Confession. We've looked at the Doctrine of God (Articles 1-13), the Doctrine of Man (Articles 14-15), the Doctrine of Christ (Articles 16-19), and the Doctrine of Salvation (Articles 20-26). Today, we continue our study of the Doctrine of the Church (Articles 27-36). Did you hear that? Our discussion about the state or about government falls under our discussion of the church. Telling us what? Telling us that there are two kingdoms at work in this world. There is a spiritual kingdom and there is an earthly kingdom.
I The Source of Government
A Article 36 begins its discussion of civil authority at the same place Scripture begins its discussion: that the governing authorities have been instituted by God. In Romans 13 the Apostle Paul can say,
(Rom 13:1) Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.Three times the apostle says the governing authorities are "God's servant" (vs 4,6). In other words, God uses kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, dictators, premiers, cabinets, magistrates, judges, generals, police officers, and others to speak and act on His behalf in the area of civil authority. These men and women have power and authority from God.
(Rom 13:2) Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
We hear the same kind of language in the wisdom literature of Proverbs:
(Prov 8:15-16) By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; (16) by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth.
Later in redemptive history, Daniel dramatically impressed the same fact on King Nebuchadnezzar:
(Dan 2:37-38) You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; (38) in your hands he has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all.
Article 36 follows Scripture here. It is not we but "our good God Who has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers."
Think of what this means. Government does not spring from the sinful domination of the strong over the weak. Nor is it the fruit of a long evolutionary process which roots in man's attempt to establish order. We also have to reject the theory that government derives its place and authority from the consent of the governed. Here we disagree with the American Constitution which implies that government and civil authority arise from "we the people." Government comes from God, is instituted by God, and is given authority by God.
B The original English translation of the Confession speaks of government as coming from "our gracious God" (if you have one, look this up in the blue Psalter Hymnal). In fact, the Latin text speaks of government coming from "our good God." Civil government is grounded in God's goodness, not His grace. It is rooted in creation, not redemption.
God rules over all things, but in two different ways. God rules the civil realm as Creator and Sustainer. God rules the spiritual realm as Redeemer and Savior. God does not rule the church in the same way or with the same methods as He rules the rest of Creation.
C We should also ask why God established the state and civil authority? According to Article 36, government has been established "because of the depravity of the human race." Because man is conceived and born in sin there needs to be civil government and authority. If man had not fallen into sin there would be no need for governments in Washington, Moscow, Ottawa, and Sacramento. The United Nations, the World Court, and all Supreme Courts would be unnecessary if sin had not entered this world. Because of sin, God has established a certain order in the universe of God at the top, then the rulers through which He rules us, then we the people.
II The Duties of Government
A What are the duties of the governing authorities? According to the Belgic Confession of Faith, the first duty is that God wants laws and policies set up so that "human lawlessness may be restrained." Here we see that government is called to uphold the second table of the law. It is to recognize the authority of parents over their children, it is to preserve life and prevent murder, it is to uphold the marriage relationship, it is to protect property, and it is to require truth at all times. We have to be thankful our government stands opposed to theft, false advertisement, and most murder. At the same time, however, we are dismayed that our government does allow abortion and condones adultery and homosexuality as well as the break-up of the marriage relationship.
B According to the Belgic Confession of Faith, the second duty of the civil authorities is to make sure everything is "conducted in good order among human beings." You see, God wants His world to reflect Himself. God is a God of order. At the time of Creation He brought order out of disorder and organization out of chaos. He has established civil authority so that man and society are orderly. Believers as well as unbelievers needs this supervisory, regulatory, and disciplinary power of the civil authorities for without government and authority everything would be chaos and madness everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. Paul's lofty goal is "that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Tim 2:2) because of the order God has established: God, rulers, and we the people.
C According to the Belgic Confession of Faith, the third duty of government is "to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God." It is the job of government to promote justice. I think here of the words of the psalmist addressed to those who are rulers:
(Ps 82:2-4) How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? (3) Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. (4) Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.One of the biggest blessings of our land is the middle class have you ever thought of that? In most countries there are the very rich and the very poor with very few in between. Yes, we have the very rich and the very poor but most people are middle class. That is because our policies and laws are set up to redistribute wealth and to form a middle class.
D According to the Belgic Confession of Faith, the fourth duty is to remove "every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship." The language may sound somewhat one-sided, that it seems to favor the Christian church. Remember, though, this is a Christian confession so, of course, the church is in mind. This does not mean, however, that all other religions are excluded; rather, it means the church needs to be allowed to worship and preach according to the Word. When the civil authorities properly do their God-appointed job, the Christian church can worship and the Gospel can be proclaimed. That is all that is in mind here.
An example of a governing authority who failed in this is Pharaoh. Moses approached Pharaoh so that Israel could go and worship her Lord. Pharaoh not only refused this request, but forbade it, and persecuted Israel more harshly because of this. Any governing authority today who forbids the worship of the one only true God and Jesus falls short in what God demands. Any governing authority who stands in the way of the proclamation of the Gospel is not doing what God commands.
The Belgic Confession of Faith has Ephesians 1:28 in mind here.
(Eph 1:22) And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church ...Did you hear that? God, in Christ, rules over everything for the sake of the church. God, in Christ, has established the order of God, rulers, and we the people so that the church may worship and so the Gospel may be proclaimed.
E In order for the civil authorities to accomplish these duties and responsibilities they must have authority and power. For this reason Article 36, based upon Romans 13, says that God "has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good."
The governing authorities have the right and even the duty to punish criminals with a punishment that fits their crime. They have the right to maintain a police force, prisons, and the crime labs that are the focus of half a dozen TV shows.
III Citizen's Duties
A Article 36 of the Belgic Confession deals not only with the duties of the governing authorities but also with the duties of citizens. Quoting from the Apostle Paul, Article 36 makes a most amazing statement. It tells believers their most general duty as citizens is to "be subject to the government."
Let me remind you, again, of the historical circumstances leading to the writing of the Belgic Confession of Faith. It was written in 1561 by Guido de Brès, a preacher of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, who died a martyr to the faith in 1567. At the time the Confession was being written the Protestants of the Netherlands were exposed to the most terrible persecution by the Roman Catholic government. The Belgic Confession of Faith was written to protest this cruel oppression, and to prove to the Roman Catholic government that the Reformers were not rebels. In fact, in 1562 a copy of the Confession was sent to King Philip II of Spain together with a cover letter in which the Reformers declared that they were ready to obey the government in all lawful things. Imagine that: the Reformers were willing to be subject to a government that persecuted and even killed them.
B So, it is the duty of citizens to subject themselves to the governing authorities. We are called upon to be subject to the order of God, rulers, and we the people. Specifically, this means four things.
First, in subjecting ourselves to the governing authorities, it is our duty to "pay taxes." In our Scripture reading the Apostle Paul says,
(Rom 13:7) Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.We all pay approximately 50% of our total income to the government in various kinds of taxes. Yet, we shouldn't complain about this. And, we shouldn't lie and cheat when it comes to taxes either especially as we see April 15 approaching. Don't forget that government needs money to do the work God has called it to do. It costs money to restrain human lawlessness. It costs money to enforce laws and policies. It costs money to promote justice.
Many people think we shouldn't pay our taxes because the government wastes so many of our tax dollars. In spite of that, we still need to pay our taxes as Christian citizens.
Second, in subjecting ourselves to the governing authorities, it is our duty to show them "honor and respect." As the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 13:
(Rom 13:7) Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.Respect and honor are due the civil authorities because they represent God's rule on earth and are appointed by God to their office. Even if a ruler is greedy, lazy, and dumb he is still deserving of honor and respect for the sake of his office. Even if we disagree even vehemently with the policies of a ruler we are to still show honor and respect for the sake of his office. Remember, we are to observe the established order: God, ruler, we the people.
Third, in subjecting ourselves to the governing authorities, it is our duty to "obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God's Word." We are to obey our rulers, even if their laws and regulations seem to us to be dumb or silly. The only exception to this is if there is a conflict between the demand of our heavenly Ruler and the demand of our earthly rulers. Do you remember when Peter and the other apostles were commanded not to teach and preach in the name of Jesus? They rightly responded with, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Because of this exception, Christians refuse to fight in an unjust war, pastors participated in plots to kill Hitler, priests and ministers in the former U.S.S.R. conducted illegal worship services, and whites and blacks in South Africa openly broke racial laws before apartheid was ended.
Fourth, more than one person has asked me why I pray for the governing authorities every single Sunday night. Because we are commanded to. We are to pray for the governing authorities, "that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways." Says the Apostle Paul:
(1Tim 2:1-2) I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone-- (2) for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.Pray for your rulers, even if they persecute you, even if you disagree with their policies.
We've been speaking of God's rule, God's created order. Which means, God is King, God is Ruler. He rules the state. He rules the church (remember, we are still dealing with the doctrine of the church). But, I want you to notice, God rules both state and church through His appointed representatives. God rules the state through Presidents, Prime Ministers, Premiers, Members of Congress, Members of Parliament. God rules the church through elders and pastors.
And, don't ever forget, God's rule over Creation is for the sake of His church.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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