"Notes" to the Belgic Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman

Back to the "Notes" Table Of Contents
ARTICLE 36
Back to the "Notes" Table Of Contents

THE CIVIL GOVERNMENT

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

    Before the time of the Reformation, the only common religion was Roman Catholicism. As a result of the Reformation people were divided into three basic groups. People either remained Roman Catholic, chose to return to Scripture and so joined the Reformation, or they joined the Reformation but developed into a radical faction known as the Anabaptists.

    With respect to civil authorities, the Roman Catholics held on to the errors they had been taught over the years. The Pope, they insisted, in fact had authority over the kings and rulers of the earth. Those who joined the Reformation confessed that Christ ascended to God's throne in Heaven from where He rules the world today through the kings and rulers of His choosing. The Anabaptists, though they joined the Reformation, developed an extremist, even fanatical stance on the subject of Christ's lordship over this present world. They reasoned that 'since we belong to Christ we do not belong to this world' (for the world was opposed to Christ, was 'worldly'), and consequently they distanced themselves from things pertaining to this world. Since Christians belong to another world, and the Government is something that belongs to this world, they rejected the Government, and refused to obey civil authorities. They refused to pay taxes, refrained from swearing civil oaths and abstained from involvement in politics. Their attitude to the Government was one of rebellion and it opened the way to anarchy. Roman Catholic authorities tended to lump the Reformed and the Anabaptists together as all being opposed to government.

    The confession deBres recorded concerning the civil government was written in the context of suspicion by Roman Catholic authorities to himself and his people. DeBres lived under the rule of a Government which was staunchly Roman Catholic, and so suspected him (and his congregation members) of being subversive and rebellious (ie, deBres and his congregation were branded as Anabaptists). To make clear that he soundly condemned as unScriptural the Anabaptists heresies regarding authority, deBres included in his Confession an article about Civil Government. Both his own people and the authorities should be very aware that a Christian could not be a political revolutionary. Hence his bold statement: "For this reason we condemn the Anabaptists and other rebellious people, and in general all those who reject the authorities and civil officers, subvert justice, introduce a communion of goods, and confound the decency that God has established among men."

    This confession too was a confession deBres made in the obedience of faith. One appreciates this all the more when one considers that in deBres' day he and his congregation in Doornik were being persecuted for their faith by the staunchly Roman Catholic Government, despite the fact that in general life they were law abiding citizens. DeBres and his congregation could not meet together on Sundays for fear of being arrested and put to death; instead, deBres travelled from house to house to encourage the members of his flock with the Word of God. Always the lives of the congregation members were characterised by so much uncertainty and fear. Yet in that situation deBres makes the confession contained in Article 36 concerning the civil authorities. Though the temptation was great to rise in rebellion against the government, deBres taught his congregation what he learned from Scripture. This confession, we can understand, did not come easily across the lips of a persecuted believer. To make this confession in such circumstances is the obedience of faith.

A SCRIPTURAL CONFESSION

    "We believe that, because of the depravity of mankind, our gracious God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers." This is a very biblical statement. Says Paul in Romans 13:1-2, "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves." Here Paul states very emphatically that authorities have not arisen of their own accord, nor do authorities exist because of wishes of the people. Our society embraces the principle that governments come from the people; democracy is the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But Paul taught differently, and deBres, in his situation of persecution, believed and confessed what the apostle taught: all governments come from God. That is why he dares to write, despite his situation, that the authorities of his day were ordained by "our … God."

    To confess that Christ is Lord over all, and to confess that He is seated at God's right hand governing this world, means too that He is Lord over all authorities on earth. Said Jesus to His disciples, "All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18). Peter also testified of Christ's Lordship in Acts 2:36 where we read, "... let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." In the midst of the oppressive circumstances of his day, deBres confesses that all governments come from God, including the government responsible for the persecution he and his congregation had to endure.

    In his opening sentence deBres confessed that it is God who ordains "kings, princes and civil officers" to their offices. By this deBres meant all kings and rules, including the king of his day, King Phillip II of Spain who authorised persecution against deBres and his congregation. To confess that King Phillip II was appointed by God was no small confession for deBres to make.

"BECAUSE OF THE DEPRAVITY OF MANKIND"

    "(God) wants the world to be governed by laws and policies, in order that the licentiousness of men be restrained and that everything be conducted among them in good order." Did deBres have any particular people in mind when he wrote about "the licentiousness of men"? Was he thinking, for example, of the seditious Anabaptists or perhaps the evil Roman Catholics? No. DeBres did not write this concerning some specific people, but concerning all people. That is: this statement applied to deBres himself and his congregation members, and it applies equally to me. It applies to both regenerated and unregenerated people. DeBres had in mind the weaknesses, shortcomings and sinfulness of all people. Because sin remains in this broken world, there remains need for authorities. This is, then, a humble confession, based on the reality of abiding general depravity (see Lord's Days 2 and 3). As Romans 13:3,4 states, the government exists on account of man's evil works. "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practises evil." These words from Paul were written to the "saints" of Rome (Romans 1:7).

    In the face of the licentiousness remaining in the hearts of people, authorities are very much a gift of God's grace. By means of authorities, the Lord God would restrain this licentiousness, so that in turn life together may be possible, yes, and His church may be gathered (cf I Timothy 2:1f). DeBres captured this notion of authorities being God's gift with his use of the word 'gracious'; deBres speaks in the opening line of the article of "our gracious God".

A COMMAND TO ACCEPT AND SUBMIT

    What deBres confessed in the midst of his specific situation is a demonstration of how the 5th commandment must be put into concrete practice. We are to live according to the instruction we receive in 1 Peter 2:13-17, namely, "... submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by Him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men - as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king." Here is a command for submission to the authorities set over us. Submission does not necessarily mean that we agree with all government policies, nor does it mean that we must obey the Government should that require us to act contrary to any of God's commandments (see Acts 5:29). Here is rather a command that we adopt an attitude of acceptance and humility towards the Government. We are to refrain from complaining or protesting. Our Prime Minister today has been appointed to his position by God, my Saviour. God is Sovereign and the Prime Minister is God's servant. My acceptance of the Prime Minister is not dependent upon whether or not I like his policies; it is dependent rather on the fact that my Saviour has entrusted the office to him. This rules out any feelings of bitterness towards the Government on my part.

    In the face of mistreatment from the authorities, it is for God's people to take this treatment patiently (cf I Peter 2:20ff). Certainly it is not for us to rise up in opposition to the authorities in an effort to overthrow them. Instead, as did Christ, it is for us to entrust ourselves and our circumstances to God, believing that He sovereignly rules as He judges best.

    What must our attitude be towards movements such as 'Green Peace'? Their environmental concerns are, to large degree, acceptable. However, the movement as a whole certainly does not display an attitude of respect or submission to authorities. Rather, they display a spirit that has much in common with that of the Anabaptists of deBres' day; they are largely revolutionaries, and stoop to any means to achieve their goals. That reality rules out any Christian sympathy for Green Peace.

    Their revolutionary attitude to government is prevalent in society at large today. The people of our land in general do not want to know of any accountability to God, and hence do not want to acknowledge either that Governments are appointed by Him. This is where we are to show that we are different. If the Government's policies are bad policies in our view, then we do not show this by way of demonstrations, protests, rebellion or revolt, but we quietly and humbly inform the Government of this and point out where there is room for change according to God's Word. Meanwhile we obey, publicly and privately, whatever laws the Governments enact.

PRAYER FOR THE GOVERNMENT

    Since the authorities are placed over us by none else than God, and are His ministers for our good, it is fitting and proper that Christians pray for those in to whom God has entrusted a position of authority. This is the express command of God through Paul to Christians of every time and place. "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2:1-4). In a time of decreased respect and appreciation for authorities, it is for God's people to be diligent in remembering God's servants before the throne of grace. Nobody else will do it.

    May the Lord bless the authorities of our land, to the salvation of many.



    Back to the "Notes" Table Of Contents