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“We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, hath appointed kings, princes and magistrates, willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that tithe dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose he hath invested the magistry with the sword, for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the protection of them that do well. And their office is, 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. Moreover, it is the bounden duty of every one of what state, quality or condition soever he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God; to supplicate for them in their prayers, that God may rule and guide them in all their ways, and that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. Wherefore we detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers, and magistrates, and would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God bath established among men.”

Article XXXVI, The Belgic Confession

It might seem strange that the Church in its confession of faith dealing with the doctrines of God and His revelation, man and his fall into sin, Christ and His cross, salvation, the church, and the last things, would include a statement of belief concerning the state and its relationship to the church. That’s not so strange, however, when one considers the historical context in which ourConfession was born. In those times, Reformation times, the issue of the relationship of the church to the state was a burning issue. Specifically this was one of the issues at which Reformed believers parted company with the Anabaptists against whom this article was penned. The Anabaptists refused to recognize the temporal power of the magistrate. Government, the state, according to their conception was inherently evil. The state belonged to the realm of Anti-Christ. The Anabaptists attempted, therefore, to establish their own kingdom, the kingdom of Christ, here on this earth in which they had all things in common (the “community of goods” to which the Confession refers). In this connection it must not be forgotten that the Confession was written during times of fierce persecution. The Reformed believers were charged among other things of being seditious along with the Anabaptists. This article was written as a defense of their position, as an explanation of the Bible’s teaching on the place of the state relative to that of the church. The article was also intended to prove that Reformed believers were not rebels against the state. This explains the emphasis on the fact that it is the “bounden duty” of all men everywhere to be obedient to the magistrate. And it is remarkable that even though persecuted severely by the state, the fathers still insist that the Bible calls all men to live in obedience to that state. This explains the presence of Article XXXVI in our Confession. It was intended as a kind ofapologia to the state on this question. We might add at this point that if this were a burning issue in Reformation times, it remains a thorny one today. This is obvious from the-rather lengthy footnote the Dutch Church felt compelled to append to this article with which the Christian Reformed Church expressed “full accord” in 1910. 

There may be some misunderstanding of the Article on the question of the origin of the state. The Article might be interpreted to mean that the state originated with the entrance of sin into the world. This, however, is not the case. Apparently the Confession speaks of the magistrates only as they function now on account of the fact of the depravity and sin of mankind. In this connection the Confession speaks of the fact that our “gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, hath-appointed kings. . . .” God did that in His grace. Not His “common grace to depraved mankind.” There is no such grace for the ungodly, for God is angry with the wicked every day. Nor did God do this in His grace to the ungodly. But God did this in His graciousness to His Church and people in Jesus Christ. In order that His Church might be born, gathered and defended and preserved out of the nations God hath appointed kings. 

The state, according to the grace of God, exists for the sake of God’s church. The state originated in Paradise. Adam was the head of his wife and the king of creation and the head and father of the entire human race. Adam had the command to “dress and keep” the garden. He was appointed of God to rule his wife and posterity and to rule over the entire creation. His calling and task was to bless the entire creation into the service of God. Hence God ordained from the very beginning that His sovereign rule and control over all things and all men in every sphere of life should be represented here upon earth by vice-regents whom He appointed. Thus the state really developed along the line of the development of the ,organism of the human race. The father of a family was its head. He became the ruler of the clan and eventually the king of the people. The appearance of sin into the world became the necessity of the sword. This the Bible states emphatically. We read in Genesis 9:5, 6: “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” This is part of the Word of God and the revelation of the Covenant of God to Noah after the flood. We might add it is a Word of God which is applicable for all times and cultures. Because man is created in the image of God, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” Capital punishment is required by Scripture, and the state which rejects this only reaps to itself a veritable harvest of murder and bloodshed! This means that the magistrate receives his authority from God Himself. This also means that the magistrate must give an account of all his rule and government, of his use of that authority conferred upon him to God. He must give answer to God of his wielding of the sword which God puts in his hand. 

The purpose or calling of the magistrate is equally plain from the Scriptures. Their calling is to punish those who do evil and praise those who do well. In Romans 13:1-5 God commands; “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God, Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” Similarly we read in I Peter 2:13-17: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of .God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” Both of these passages clearly teach that government is ordained by God and therefore must be obeyed for God’s sake. It is true that man; times the magistrates are unfaithful in their calling. Sometimes they even punish the well doer and praise the evil doer. This is a terrible, crime for which they shall be held accountable by the sovereign Judge of heaven and earth. To accomplish their God-ordained purpose the magistrates must seek the welfare of the civil state, restrain the dissoluteness of men, and maintain good order and decency. 

The Confession speaks of the calling of the state as including the duty “to protect the sacred ministry; and thus remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist 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 everyone, as he commands in his Word. An objection was brought against this phrasing by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands which was sustained and resulted in the addition of the footnote which was also adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1910. This footnote has to do with the relation between the church and the state and the question of a “State Church.” To put the question another way, does the state have the duty to enforce the first table of the decalogue as well as the second? Does the state have the calling to prevent and punish desecration of the Sabbath, blasphemy, idolatry, etc.? This is not such an easy question. There are many complex factors entering in. In general, however, it would seem to be in harmony with Scripture to take the position that the state does have the calling to enforce the first table of the law as well as the second. Surely nowhere is there a distinction made in the Bible. Nevertheless this enforcement of the first table of the law by the magistrates must be limited to the sphere of the state and may not be made to infringe upon either the sphere of the church, the home, or the shop. In the social and civil relationships of men to men the first table of the law must be enforced. This precludes the establishment of a state church, denies the right of the church to assume power in the state as Roman Catholicism teaches, denies the right of the state to enforce the promotion of true religion at the point of the sword, but still maintains that the Church and State are not independent of each other. The State has the duty to protect the Church from evil men, yet has no authority over the doctrine of the Church. It may not punish heretics with excommunication and banishment. 

Finally it is the duty of all men to obey the government. They must show them honor and respect, pay tribute to them, and pray for them that the Church may lead a quiet and peaceable life in godliness and honesty. The only qualification to this is when the state requires that which is contrary to the Word of God. Then the believer must obey God rather than men. Even then he may not rebel, but must with patience suffer if need be for well doing.