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Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Article 36 of our Belgic Confession has been a source of considerable controversy in the church, especially in the last century or so. This article deals with the subject of magistrates and discusses, among other things, the “office” of magistrates which is defined as being,

not only to have regard unto, and watch for the welfare of the civil state; but also that they protect the sacred ministry; and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of anti-Christ may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by every one, as he commands in his Word.

It is very clear from this statement that the Belgic Confession supports the idea that the magistrate is called, not only to enforce the second table of the law (punish those who commit, murder, adultery, theft, slander, and their related sins), but the magistrate must also enforce observance of the first table of the law (punish those guilty of idolatry, false worship, Sabbath desecration, and public blasphemy).

That the Reformers held to this position is clear enough from history. John Calvin supported this position in Geneva; John Knox did the same in Scotland; the Anglican Church in England was established on the same principle; the Reformed Church in Netherlands was founded on the basis of this same view. In fact, it was not until 1834 (the year of the Secession under De Cock) that a Reformed Church was established in the Netherlands which was completely free from state control; and this freedom from state control came about only after a period of struggle, strife, and persecution of the Seceders. In the early history of our own country, although the First Amendment forbad the intrusion of the government into religious matters, the various states passed laws against taking God’s name in vain, and a man could be imprisoned for opening his store on the Lord’s Day.

In more recent years the First Amendment has been applied more broadly with the result that all laws which give to either state or local governments any kind of right to enforce the observance of the first table of the law of God have been struck down by Supreme Court rulings. One may now publicly blaspheme without penalty of the law; he may desecrate the Sabbath either by opening his store or going to the beach and not worry about offending the police officer. He may, as a matter of fact, spout in any public place any heresy he wishes and be guaranteed freedom of speech. The government is “neutral” in all matters of religion—so “neutral” that no religion (except the religion of evolutionism) may be taught in the public schools; no prayers may be offered in the classrooms; and no public building may contain any reference to any religion at all—not even a copy of the ten commandments hanging on the wall.

But this same principle has even been extended now to the second table of the law. To oppose the murder of unborn babies is a matter of religion and not, therefore, a matter of the state—so it is said. To oppose adultery, homosexuality, pornography, etc. is to be religious, and to insist that the state enforce laws against these sins is said to be the intrusion of religion into affairs of state, and, therefore, a violation of the Constitution. So our country is fast going in the direction of holding that the magistrate must not enforce either the first or the second table of the law of God.

So, at least in this country—and in most countries in the world—Article 36 of The Belgic Confession is said to be hopelessly out of date.

Another problem with Article 36 is that the state is almost always in the hands of unbelievers. If, therefore, the state would take it upon itself to enforce and promote what in its judgment was the true religion, the true church of Christ would be persecuted. To understand this we need only ask ourselves the question: How often has it happened in the history of the world that a government anywhere was genuinely Christian and favored that church which held to the truth of Gods Word? Or we could ask the question: What would happen to all those who are Reformed and Calvinistic in our own land if our present government would decide to defend, promote, and enforce only one religion which it considered to be the true religion? We would have to go to prison, see our churches shut down, and attempt to escape to some other country. So, you see, Article 36 seems so abstract, so far removed from the practical realities of life, so filled with incipient dangers that it is reason to be grateful to God that no one believes this article anymore.

At any rate, the position that the magistrate must enforce the first table of the law as well as the second led to the idea that it was the duty of the magistrate to establish a state-church, “one denomination of Christians within the land which would enjoy governmental approval and support” (P.Y. DeJong, “The Church’s Witness to the World,” p. 407). In fact, in some instances the idea of a state-church went beyond this to include the notion that all people within a given land, by virtue of birth alone, belonged to that one state-church, to be baptized and confirmed in it, married by its ministers, and buried under its auspices. Or, if this idea of all within a country actually belonging to a church was too stringent, at least the church was in some way responsible for every single person which lived within its boundaries—the boundaries of the church being the same as the boundaries of the state.

Because of these objections to the article, Reformed churches have done things about the article and to it that tried to avoid these problems.

In 1896 in the Netherlands certain objections were brought to the Synod of the Reformed Church against these statements of Article 36. The Synod, after careful study, deleted from the Confession this entire section of Article 36 which we quoted above. In 1910 the Christian Reformed Church in this country considered the same problem. It seems, however, that, rather than delete the section of Article 36 which seemed so offensive and out of date, the Christian Reformed Church simply adopted a footnote to the article. The footnote is worth reading here.

This phrase, touching the office of the magistracy in its relation to the Church, proceeds on the principle of the Established Church, which was first applied by Constantine and afterwards also in many Protestant countries. History, however, does not support the principle of State domination over the Church, but rather the separation of Church and State. Moreover, it is contrary to the New Dispensation that authority be vested in the State to arbitrarily reform the Church, and to deny the Church the right of independently conducting its own affairs as a distinct territory alongside the State. The New Testament does not subject the Christian Church to the authority of the State that it should be governed and extended by political measures, but to our Lord and King only as an independent territory alongside and altogether independent of the State, that it may be governed and edified by its officebearers and with spiritual weapons only. Practically all Reformed churches have repudiated the idea of the Established Church, and are advocating the autonomy of the churches and personal liberty of conscience in matters pertaining to the service of God. 

The Christian Reformed Church in America, being in full accord with this view, feels constrained to declare that it does not conceive of the office of the magistracy in this sense, that it be in duty bound to also exercise political authority in the sphere of religion, by establishing and maintaining a State Church, advancing and supporting the same as the only true Church, and to oppose, to persecute and to destroy by means of the sword all the other churches as being false religions; and to also declare that it does positively hold that, within its own secular sphere, the magistracy has a divine duty towards the first table of the Law as well as towards the second; and furthermore that both State and Church as institutions of God and Christ have mutual rights and duties appointed them from on high, and therefore have a very sacred reciprocal obligation to meet through the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from Father and Son, They may not, however, encroach upon each other’s territory. The Church has rights of sovereignty in its own sphere as well as the State.

The Christian Reformed Church was, however, not satisfied with this statement either. When objections were raised against this “footnote” to the article, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1958 adopted a revision which deleted the controversial part (which we quoted at the beginning of this article) and inserted instead:

And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, while completely refraining from every tendency towards exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them and with the means belonging to them to remove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship, 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. (All this historical material is found primarily in P. Y. De Jong’s “The Church’s Witness to the World.”)

A couple of general remarks about all this. In the first place, the revision adopted by the C.R.C. in 1958 really leaves the matter somewhat in doubt. What is left for the state to do is “contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God” and “remove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.” It can be argued that for the state to do this would require that the state enforce the first table of the law. But if this was the intended meaning, then the original footnote was sufficient and there was no need to tamper with the article itself. The Synod apparently had something less than enforcement of the first table of the law in mind when it defined the duty of magistrates.

In the second place, as far as our own Protestant Reformed Churches are concerned, we are not bound by the decisions of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 1896, nor the decisions of the Christian Reformed Church in 1958. But the decisions of 1910 are our decisions. This is evident from the fact that the Synod of our Churches in 1946 published “The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches.” This “Church Order” was, according to the “Preface,” the same (with a couple of changes which are enumerated in the Preface) as the “Church Order” adopted by the Combined Consistories at the very beginning of the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches. And the “Church Order” adopted by the Combined Consistories was the edition of “Keegstra and Van Dellen of 1915, adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914” (Preface to the 1946 edition of the Church Order). With the references in the Church Order to the creeds (see Article 53 as well as the “Formula of Subscription” adopted at the same time), the obvious implication is that the footnote to Article 36 of the Belgic Confession was also adopted. (It is a point worth making because repeatedly questions have come up concerning this matter, i.e., whether the “footnote” to Article 36 is indeed binding upon our Protestant Reformed Churches. It is my conviction that it is.)

The result is that the official position of our churches contains Article 36 as it originally read and the footnote adopted by the CRC in 1910. For this I am thankful, for I agree not only with the original article of the Belgic Confession, but I agree also with the footnote. And I agree with the footnote, not as arevision of Article 36—which it is not; but as the correct explanation of Article 36.

(to be continued)