The Confession on Church/State Relationship

Anyone reading through the confessional standards of the Protestant Reformed Churches will quickly discover that Article 36 of the Belgic Confession is controversial. In fact, one does not even have to readthe standards, but only look at them to see that Article 36 stands out. It is the only article in the Three Forms of Unity that has a footnote appended to correct a supposed error. About the hundreds of other doctrinal statements in the Three Forms of Unity, the Protestant Reformed Churches say, “These accurately reflect the truth of Scripture.” But about a certain statement in Article 36, the PRC say, “We believe this to be in error.”

The controversy that surrounds this article is not unique to the Belgic Confession. Article 36 addresses the relationship between the church and state, and this relationship had been debated for centuries before the Confession was ever written. However, Article 36 brings that controversy home to Reformed churches. Countless hours at Reformed synods have been devoted to the debate over whether Article 36 properly describes the relationship between church and state. Article 36 has been amended, footnoted, revised, and parts have even been dropped by various Reformed denominations. And still the controversy lives on.

In spite of the controversy, Article 36 remains something of a masterpiece. The considerably broad current of Reformed thought on the whole matter of the magistrates is captured in one clear and succinct article. The article shows a conscious reliance on Scripture for its teachings, bringing together in one summary the entire body of biblical instruction regarding civil authority. Article 36 is not an article to be ashamed of, as if it were the dirty laundry of the Reformed church. Rather, it is one of the jewels in the Confession that, despite all of the controversy surrounding it, still shines with a beautiful luster.

What does this gem have to say about the relationship between church and state? The relationship goes two ways, and the Confession addresses both of them. First, the state has a certain responsibility toward the church; second, the church has a certain responsibility toward the state.

About the state’s responsibility toward the church, the Confession says that God has given the magistrates a very specific work:

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 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 worshiped by every one, as He commands in His Word.

Herein lies the controversy. The question is whether this article allows the intrusion of the state into the affairs of the church. The question arises especially from the statement that the magistrates’ duty is to “protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship….” Some Reformed churches became convinced that the Confession was advocating some form of the established church. An established church is a church that the state officially recognizes as the church of the realm. The state uses its wealth, political means, and even military power to maintain and extend the church. The result is a State Church, such as the Anglican Church in England or the former Hervormde Kerk in the Netherlands.

In 1910, the Christian Reformed Church added a lengthy footnote to Article 36 opposing the idea of the established church. When the Protestant Reformed Churches were organized in 1925, they adopted the version of the Confession that includes this 1910 footnote. Although the CRC would later rescind the footnote and revise the entire paragraph of the Confession, the PRC retain the original wording of the Confession, along with the explanatory footnote.

Although the footnote is too long to quote in its entirety here, a few excerpts will serve to illustrate the point. The footnote follows the Confession’s statement that the magistrates must “protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship.”

This phrase, touching the office of the magistracy in its relation to the church, proceeds on the principle of the established church…. History, however, does not support the principle of state domination over the church, but rather the separation of church and state…. 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….

The footnote’s opposition to an established church and to the idea of a State Church is good. Nowhere in the New Testament is there any indication that the state has the authority, or even the ability, to establish and maintain the church by political means. Rather, God establishes His church by His Word. Therefore, with the main content of the footnote, the PRC agree.

It is questionable, however, whether Article 36 of the Belgic Confession actually teaches the principle of the established church. The article identifies one main responsibility of the state toward the church: “protect the sacred ministry.” It reiterates that responsibility later: “[Magistrates] must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere.” Protecting the ministry and countenancing the preaching of the Word are not the same as officially recognizing one church as the church of the state.

What about the other, more controversial responsibilities: “and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship”? Even here, the Confession is not necessarily promoting an established church. These responsibilities are not given as responsibilities over and above that of protecting and countenancing the preaching of the Word. Rather, the connecting word “thus” indicates that they stand in the service of protecting the sacred ministry. If the ministry of the Word is physically threatened by idolatry and false worship, that idolatry and false worship must be removed by the state. This aspect of the state’s responsibility is crucial in our own day with the rapid spread of Islam. The religion of Islam declares physical warfare on its enemies, whether those enemies are political or spiritual. If there were a mosque in town where Muslim men were urged to fight a jihad against the church, and those men burned down a Christian church, the state would have a calling not only to arrest those Muslim men, but to shut down the idolatrous, false worship of the mosque that indoctrinated them. Not because that particular Christian church happened to be the official church of the state, but because the protection of the sacred ministry demands it.

So, while the footnote to Article 36 provides a biblical defense against the principle of the established church, it does not need to make this defense against Article 36. The article could stand on its own without the footnote, and not be in error.

The second part of the relationship between church and state has to do with the church’s responsibilities toward the state. Article 36 deals with this relationship by looking at the duties the individual members of the church owe the state.

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 a community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God hath established among men.

This part of the Confession is remarkable. Guido de Bres wrote this during one of the most vicious persecutions the church has ever known. Philip II of Spain, following the lead of Rome, brought cruelty and death to the Reformed believers in the Lowlands. It would have been understandable if Guido de Bres had lashed out against the unjust tyranny of civil rulers and exhorted the people to rebellion and insurrection. Instead, he insisted in the Confession that “it is the bounden duty of every one…to subject himself to the magistrates.”

There were those in the days of de Bres who rejected the authority of the civil government: the Anabaptists. Most of the Anabaptists believed that the magistrates had authority only over the unbelievers, but that believers were exempt from their rule. Some of the Anabaptists went so far as to establish separate communities that ended up being rivals to the authority of the magistrates. These Anabaptists were a significant problem for the Reformed church, because they gave the Reformed church a bad reputation with the king. The crown did not distinguish between Anabaptists and Reformed. As far as Philip and others were concerned, all who were not Romish were merely Protestant. If one Protestant group rebelled, then the whole lot were considered rebels. Although the Reformed people were generally law-abiding, they were often arrested and persecuted on charges of rebellion because of the Anabaptists.

It is no wonder, then, that the Confession so vigorously distanced itself from the Anabaptists. “We detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates….” A copy of this Confession was sent to the king, along with a letter reminding him that the Reformed people were law-abiding citizens, and asking for relief from their persecution. But the king paid no heed.

It is especially here that Article 36 has still a noble role to play in the life of Reformed believers. Not only are we required by God to live a law-abiding life, but that kind of life is a powerful witness to the civil magistrates when they abandon their duty. There is a persecution coming for the church greater even than that of the Lowlands in the time of Guido de Bres. The Bible calls it “the great tribulation” during the days of Antichrist. In those days, the Reformed church will be able to stand up and show the godless rulers that we continue to be subject to the magistrates. We pray for them; we pay our taxes; we detest all of those who rebel. It will not change the minds of the rulers, but it will be to them a witness of the power of God’s grace to preserve in His people proper honor for authority even in the darkest of days.

And perhaps, just as the Reformed church long ago sent the Spanish king a copy of the Confession, so the Reformed church will someday again send an anti-Christian king the Confession. And if it does, just as the Confession’s author was called to seal his confession with his blood, so God will again call His faithful saints to give all for Him.