Civil Authority and Belgic Confession Article 36 Part1

Dear members of PRCW and readers of this post: “Liars, cheats, power-hungry and full of corruption”. This is often the way that our society labels politicians and anyone who is in authority. Because of this, there is a temptation for us in the Church to be bitter towards those over us, and to be disrespectful. We may very easily go along with the trends of the day, join the world’s jeers in our church foyers (or Zoom chats) or in our council rooms or out at the Tim Horton’s parking lot with others.

How does God’s Word address these matters? What does it say about the government and their responsibilities before God? What is the government called to do? Where do they get their authority? How are we to respond to those in authority? The Word of God addresses both governments and their people.

Reflect on how our Belgic Confession of Faith Article 36 summarizes God’s Word on the goverment:

“We believe that
because of the depravity of the human race
our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers.
He 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.
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.
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.
They should do it in order that
the Word of God may have free course;
the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress;
and every anti-Christian power may be resisted….. (note: this is not the whole article)”

Romans chapter 13 speaks to this as well — primarily about how we are to be subject to governing authorities. The Apostle Paul urged the Christians in Rome to submit to them and honour them. We see this in the outset of verse 1: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.” However, you can already see in the next line in verse 1 the reason for this submission. Why must we be subject to those in authority? “For there is no authority except from God and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” It is important to note how often Scriptures speaks of rulers as those who are appointed by God. They are not placed their in their own power. They are put there by the Lord’s own doing. Notice for example how often Paul uses the phrase, “God’s minister” to describe governing authorities. This designation is used three times in our text. First in v. 4, “For he is God’s minister to you for good.” Again in v. 4, “for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” And again in v. 6, “For because of this you also must pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers.”

In other words, God uses kings, prime ministers, premiers, cabinets, judges, police officers, and others to speak and act on His behalf. Those who have civil power and authority have it because there is only one authority, and that authority is God. There is only one authority in the universe: God.

The government does not spring up out of nothing. Dictators don’t just arise by accident. They are used by God to rise to power as quickly as the come to fall. They are ministers accountable to him. Nebuchadnezzar was a ruthless king. But according to Scripture he was raised to power and fell from it because God put placed him there. It is the same for us today. We live in a democracy. Our society embraces the principle that governments come from the people. Democracy is the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But Paul taught differently: “For there is no authority except from God.” We have to reject the idea that the government derives its authority from the consent of those governed. The Lord Jesus Christ has been appointed as Ruler and Judge. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” Jesus said. Therefore all prime ministers, members of parliament, premiers, members of provincial parliament, all mayors and city councilors derive their authority from Him. For all authority belongs to Him. Even monarchs have their place from God. For when Paul wrote these words to those in Rome, the Roman emperor was in power….

Why did God establish the state & civil authorities? What can we expect from them? Scripture answers this too. They are His ministers appointed to punish evil by the sword. If we didn’t have rule and order, then society would wipe itself out. We may not always agree with every decision that is made. We may not always like every politician who is placed in power. However, bad government is better than no government at all. Human government has been ordained by God to keep evil in check.

According to Article 36 and the Word of God, governing authorities have been established because of the depravity of man. Because the heart of man is so wicked, God gave His authority to rulers in order to restrain evildoers. God wants a world to be governed by policies in order that the licentiousness “of men might be restrained, and all things carried among them with good order and decency.”

So how then should the government view themselves?

Reflect further on these five points of J. C. Ryle, an Anglican pastor, 1816-1900:
“1. Every Government is responsible to God, and no Government can expect to prosper without God’s blessing. Every Government therefore is bound to do all that lies in its power to obtain God’s favour and blessing. The Government that does not strive to promote true religion, has no right to expect God’s blessing.
2 Every good Government should endeavour to promote truth, charity, temperance, honesty, diligence, industry, chastity among its subjects. True religion is the only root from which these things can grow. The Government that does not labour to promote true religion cannot be called either wise or good.
3. To tell us that a Government must leave religion alone, because it cannot promote it without favouring one Church more than another, is simply absurd. It is equivalent to saying that, as we cannot do good to everybody, we are to sit still and do no good at all.
4. To tell us that no Government can find out what true religion is, and that consequently a Government should regard all religions with equal indifference, is an argument only fit for an infidel. In England at any rate a belief that the Bible is true is a part of the Constitution; an insult to the Bible is a punishable offence, and the testimony of an avowed atheist goes for nothing in a court of law.
5. It is undoubtedly true that Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom independent of the rulers of this world, and one which they can neither begin, increase, nor overthrow. But it is utterly false that the rulers of this world have nothing to do with Christ’s kingdom, may safely leave religion entirely alone, and may govern their subjects as if they were beasts and had no souls at all.”

There still is more to be said about this (I hope to say more tomorrow), especially our calling as Christians under the government.

But, for now, consider the reason why our Belgic Confession of Faith, especially Article 36, was written.

The temptation to be bitter or impatient toward those in authority was no different for God’s people during the Reformation. Let me remind you of the historical background leading to the writing of this article. The Reformers believed that Christ ascended to God’s throne, and rules the world today through kings & rulers of His choosing. The Reformers taught that those in authority are subject and accountable to Him. They emphasized the sovereignty of Christ.

But the Roman Catholic government considered Guido deBres & his congregation to be trouble-makers, and that they were not submissive. For example, because DeBres & his congregation were Protestants and protested against the Church of Rome, they could not meet on Sunday for fear of being arrested and put to death, even though they were law-abiding citizens. You can imagine the fear & uncertainty they must have had.

Yet, in that situation deBres made this confession. This confession did not come easily from the pen of a persecuted minister of the Gospel. But, deBres showed his obedience to God and His Word. By the time the copy of this confession came to King Philip of Spain, a cover letter came with stating that the Reformers were ready to obey the government in all things lawful according to the Word of God. Something to think about!

In Christ,
Pastor Rich Anjema