Claiming State Protection

Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

“The consistory shall take care that the churches, for the possession of their property and the peace and order of their meetings, can claim the protection of the authorities; it should be well understood, however, that for the sake of peace and material possession they may never suffer the royal government of Christ over His church to be in the least infringed upon.”

A Radical Revision

Our present Article 28 represents a radical revision of the original article. The original Article 28 as drafted by the Synod of Dordt, 1618- ’19, reads:

Since the office of Christian authorities is to promote church services in every way, to recommend the same to their subjects, and to assist the ministers, elders, and deacons in all cases of existing need or emergency, and to protect them in the execution of their tasks as governors of the churches, so also the ministers, elders, and deacons are in duty bound diligently and sincerely to impress upon the whole congregation the obedience, love, and respect they owe the magistrates; they shall, moreover, make themselves good examples to the congregation in this matter, and by proper respect and the establishment of correspondence with the civil authorities, they shall endeavor to secure and maintain the good-will of the government toward the churches; to the end that, each doing his duty in the fear of the Lord, all suspicion and distrust may be prevented and that thus due cooperation may be maintained for the welfare of the churches.

Our present article is the result of the revision of the Church Order by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914. Apparently it was felt that the article adopted by the Synod of Dordt applied more to the situation of the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands, where a much closer relationship existed between church and state than in our country. Undoubtedly it was also felt that the original article went too far in its call for cooperation between church and state. It called upon the magistrate “…to promote church services in every way. . . .” It called upon the churches to establish “. . . correspondence with the civil authorities. . . .” And it called for the civil authorities “. . . to assist the ministers, elders, and deacons. . . .”

Although the original Article 28 went too far in calling for cooperation between church and state, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church of 1914 went too far in their revision of Article 28. Whatever may be said of the original article, it did set down, in the main, the Reformed view of the proper relationship between church and state. It also did a good job of delineating their respective rights and responsibilities. To a great extent this is lost in our present article. For example, there is nothing in our present article pointing the officebearers to their calling “. . . to impress upon the whole congregation the obedience, love, and respect they owe to the magistrates . . . .” Neither are the officebearers called to “. . . make themselves good examples to the congregation in this matter . . . .”

Much more faithful to the original article is the revision adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches.

Article 28. Civil Authorities. As it is the office of the civil authorities to promote in every way the holy ministry, so all officebearers are in duty bound to impress diligently and sincerely upon the whole congregation the obedience, love, and respect which are due to the civil authorities; they shall set a good example to the whole congregation in this matter, and endeavor by due respect and communication to secure and retain the favor of the authorities towards the Church, so that the Church of Christ may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.

The Distinctively Reformed View of the Relationship Between Church and State

Article 28 is intended to set forth the distinctively Reformed view of the relationship between church and state. The Synod of Dordt was concerned to do this, first of all, over against the Arminians who had resurrected the Erastian view, namely, that the government should be in authority over the churches. For some time they had been promoting this view in order to avoid being judged for their false teachings by the church. The Synod also intended to distinguish the Reformed view from the Roman Catholic position-in a way the opposite of the Erastian view – that the state is subject to the church. In addition, the Synod was also distinguishing the Reformed view from that of the Anabaptists, who refused even to recognize the legitimacy of the state.

Article 28 gives expression to the unique Reformed view that the church and state occupy two distinct, God-ordained spheres of authority. These two spheres are to remain separate; there is to be no intrusion of the one into the domain of the other. At the same time, although church and state occupy separate spheres of authority, there are mutual responsibilities. The church is to obey the magistrate in all things lawful, and instruct her members to be in submission to every law of man that does not require violation of the law of God. On its part the state is obligated to provide for peaceful Sabbath worship – the right of public assembly – and to protect the possessions and property of the church.

Consistories are to secure proper recognition by the government: “The consistory shall take care that the churches, for the possession of their property and the peace and order of their meetings, can claim the protection of the authorities . . . .”

The church has a duty that it owes to the state. That duty is submission to the state inasmuch as the church is an earthly organization. The church must obey the laws of the land regarding such things as sanitation, fire code, building code, property use, and so forth.

At the same time, the church has certain rights. According to Article 28; the church’s rights include possession of property, public assembly for the worship of God, and protection by the authorities.

The duty of the consistory, now, is to “claim” these rights. The consistory is to secure official government recognition (legal standing) for the congregation with the state. The consistory is to do what is necessary to see to it that the lawful rights of the congregation are honored.

Incorporation

The main way in which the church obtains recognition by the state is incorporation. Although Article 28 does not specifically mention incorporation, this is evidently intended. The phrase “for the possession of their property” clearly implies incorporation. The “Questions For Church Visitation” make specific reference to this: “. . . is the congregation properly incorporated with the State?” The most recent revision of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church requires such incorporation: “Each assembly shall provide for the safeguarding of its property through proper incorporation” (Art. 32b).

The main purpose of incorporation is to secure the rightful protection of the church by the state. Just as with the individual Christian, the church is to be a wise steward of the material possessions entrusted to her by God. Proper incorporation secures the protection of the church especially against wrongful infringement of her property rights in the case of a schism. The history of our own churches in the split of 1953-’54 emphasizes the practical importance of this.

Every state provides for the incorporation of non-profit, religious organizations. Incorporation papers are usually required to be filed with the Secretary of State through the County Clerk’s office. After the approval of the request for incorporation, the congregation is duly registered and has official, legal standing. As a corporate entity, it may transact its material affairs and claim the protection of the state, if need be in the courts of the land.

A Timely Warning

Article 28, however, concludes with a stern warning to the churches: “. . . it should be well understood, however, that for the sake of peace and material possession they may never suffer the royal government of Christ over His church to be in the least infringed upon.”

State domination over the church may never be tolerated. The state does not have, and may not be permitted to exercise, ecclesiastical authority. The church may never tolerate state interference in the spiritual and internal affairs of the church. The state has no right of supervision of the official work of the officebearers. The state is not to regulate the faith and life of the church. The state is not to involve itself in the exercise of Christian discipline. The state is not to become entangled in the official labors of the consistory, the classis, or the synod.

On more than one occasion the state has usurped this authority in the past. We expect that this will happen once again in the future. But the church’s calling is to resist every effort by the state that would result in “. . . the royal government of Christ over His church to be in the least infringed upon.” What this means practically is that whenever incorporation entails for the church that she acquiesce to state domination, when the cost of state protection is state control, she must refrain from being incorporated.