Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.
The church of Jesus Christ, as she honors her Head as the Lord of lords and King of kings, is very conscious of the fact that she lives and witnesses in the midst of a world which contains governments of many different kinds and at many levels. Her attitude towards the magistracy in her official labors, as well as in the life of her members, is very definitely set forth in Holy Scripture; it is set forth as binding and for all time. Since this is part of God’s Word, it becomes part of the preaching; as part of the preaching, it belongs to the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Rather than adopting an attitude of superiority on the part of believers towards the magistracy, or encouraging ignorance in them regarding the purpose, source, and function of civil government, or engendering disobedience against the law of the land, the church in her preaching calls the people of God to submission and obedience, with understanding and joy. That the church must do this periodically in the preaching is clear from the powerful Word of God found in such passages as Matthew 22, Romans 13, I Peter 2, and Titus 3. Further, this is plainly demonstrated by the examples of David, Daniel, the apostles, and Jesus Christ Himself.
The Gospel’s call to submission unto the civil magistrates is a matter of thankfulness to God. For this reason those Reformed churches that still carefully preach the Heidelberg Catechism hear this call under the third part of the Catechism, “Of Thankfulness,” when the fifth commandment of the Law of God is expounded and when the requirement to “show all honor, love, and fidelity to my father and mother, and all in authority over me” is set forth (Lord’s Day 39). That thankfulness enters in here, rather than fear or merit, ought to be seen from two points of view. First, we testify by this submissive conduct gratitude toward God for providing Jesus Christ as the perfect Keeper of the law in our place, as the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes. In the knowledge of that, the believer, with the law as his guide, shows his love to God. But more, he finds in the keeping of the fifth commandment an opportunity to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, because he understands that the powers that be are ordained of God, and are ordained of God to function as the means through which the exalted Christ rules! He submits always, and obeys unless for conscience sake he cannot, as unto the Lord.
The Gospel’s call to submission carries with it the call to the church to be witnesses of God. When the apostle Peter exhorts us to “submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake,” he does so under the heading of “an honest conversation among the Gentiles.” When the unconverted see the good works of the saints, they shall under God’s grace “glorify God in the day of visitation.” This truth the Catechism includes in Lord’s Day 32: “. . . and that, by our godly conversation, others may be gained to Christ.”
Without controversy, the church preaches the Word of God as that Word of God describes civil government and calls the believer to honor that government. Thus sermons on the paying of taxes, the honoring of authority, the lawful work of government, and the end of earthly governments, are perfectly in order in the church.
What is not so clear is how the church prays in respect to the government God has instituted in this world in general or in a particular part of the world specifically. Here there is some controversy. Pastors hear from members of their flocks, from time to time, that they are not praying for the government. At a recent office-bearers conference in the West, the complaint was sounded that our ministers don’t pray for government officials nearly enough. Are these well-meant criticisms justified? Scripture makes clear that prayers must be made for kings and others in eminent places by the church. Nowhere is this more clearly stated than in I Timothy 2:1-7, part of which reads:
“I exhort therefore, that, first of an, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”
Before we face the questions, how are earthly rulers to be mentioned in our prayers? and, what is the purposeof these prayers for them? let us get two points firmly in mind, The purpose of Paul’s first letter to Timothy is that he and the church may know how to behave in the house of God (I Tim. 3:15). Therefore the apostle is giving instruction regarding the public prayers of the people of God during the worship services; we would say, during the congregational prayer offered by the minister. So, too, the exhortations regarding the dress of women and the silence of women pertain to their behavior and their silence in the church. Secondly, the word “all” in this passage (I Tim. 2:1, 4, 6) does not mean “every.” The word “every” counts noses, refers to each individual in a group; it is distributive in nature. The word “all” is collective; it looks at people as groups, without saying anything about every member within the group. Unless this is appreciated the only alternative is the Arminian notion that God wills every man to be saved and Christ gave Himself a ransom for every individual in the world. And then we are to pray for every person in the world (I Tim. 2:1) without distinction. Indeed, a Reformed commentator claims, “the church must remember that she is the intercessor for the world. The world cannot pray. The church is to bring the needs of the world before the throne of God. Herein too she is the salt of the earth. The world will not last long if the salt has lost its savor. When the church is gathered for worship, she is to bring the world’s needs to God’s mercy seat.” With this we cannot agree. See Jesus’ prayer in John 17:9.
Prayer must be made for all men, that is, for all kinds or classes of men. This is borne out by Titus 2 andGalatians 3 where we read of these various classes of people: Jews and Greeks, bond and free, male and female, young and old. Paul must have noticed that in Ephesus a certain class or group of people was being neglected in the congregational prayers: the kings and princes. How surprised Timothy and the saints at Ephesus must have been to receive this instruction! Nero was the Roman emperor; the governors, proconsuls, and town clerks for the most part were decidedly against the Christian faith and were ready to do the Jews a favor. But it is wrong to exclude any class of people from our prayers.
The reason that prayers are made also for government officials is that God wills to save His elect also from this group, have them come to the knowledge bf the truth, and enjoy the ransom that Christ paid for them. The church is to pray for the salvation of kings and princes! This does not require, as a matter of fact, that a certain segment of the congregational prayers be given over to petitions on behalf of these officials, at length and by name! But they are to be included as the church prays for the salvation of the people of God, known unto Him before the foundations of the world!
There is another aspect to all this. After all, God does not will to save many from the class of the powerful, rich, and mighty (I Cor. 1:27-28). But these rulers do have a great influence upon the life of the church and the labors of the church. If there is a believing ruler over a certain domain, it certainly is easier for the believers there to live a “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” We think of laws concerning the Sabbath, concerning the right to work, and the right to assemble. On the contrary, unbelieving magistrates, ruling according to opinion polls, taking bribes, lusting for power, can cause hardship for the church—perhaps no right of assembly, sermons to be approved by the secretary of religion, no religious programs on radio or television, no mission work allowed in the country! And since God wills to gather His church from all classes of people and from every nation of the world, prayers are to be made that Christ may so rule that the work of the preaching of the Gospel be not hindered. Finally, let us who live in lands of religious freedom, such as the United States and Canada, be sure to express thanksgiving to God for these liberties that we presently enjoy! How easily we take for granted these wonderful freedoms which many people of God do not presently enjoy and which will be taken from us before Jesus returns.
Briefly we wish to consider yet the duty of the church in respect to the actions or proposed actions of various governmental bodies—the whole matter of the church writing position papers on certain issues which are then presented to the government with the purpose of influencing legislation. Many church bodies are engaged in such activity. Synods and other assemblies of the church formulate positions on nuclear bodies, abortion, the righteousness of a certain war, pollution of the environment, admission of Red China to the UN, apartheid in South Africa, and the like. Here we must make a clear distinction between the activity of the church as an institute on the one hand, and the individual member of the church who is a citizen of a certain country on the other hand. Elsewhere in this issue the calling of the child of God toward his government and the issues that face his government will be discussed. Here we are concerned only with the proper involvement of the church in these things. How ought the church to behave?
We find nothing in Scripture to suggest, much less demand, that the church concern herself with matters of civil legislation. The church by her very marks is busy with the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the application of Christian discipline to unrepentant sinners within her membership. The church is not called by God or directed by Scripture to discipline the world. The church is not the salt of the earth in the sense of getting out into that world to preserve it; Scripture never speaks of salt as a preservative. Salt is that which renders something savory or tasty! And the presence of the faithful church on the earth makes the entire earth tasty unto God! Let the church be busy in preaching all the truth, and applying that truth to the problems and trials that believers face in this world. Thus armed, the child of God can go forth to battle as a saint who is a citizen of some earthly kingdom for a time. Thus informed, he votes according to the dictates of his conscience, signs petitions as he sees fit, trains his children to honor the king.
That this is the Reformed view of the duty of the church regarding the things of the state is clear from Article 30 of our Church Order where we find that in Consistory, Classis, and Synod “ecclesiastical matters only shall be transacted.” This maintains the separation of church and state. This helps to insure that the church does not mistake her mission in this world. And this shows that the church becomes involved only when one of her membership breaks a civil law, or when the state so intrudes into the sphere of the church, that under oppression the church addresses the State for relief and points it to her God-given duty.