10 Dec 2020 God’s Commission to the Civil Government and the Church (FT Pt. 1)
Part #1 of 4 in an adaptation of the ARPA Canada Fall Tour 2020, Defending our Christian Legacy of Liberty.
by Mark Penninga
Freedoms are often tested in the crucible of national turmoil: war and terrorism, plague and natural disaster. During the COVID crisis of 2020, we have seen unprecedented limits on our fundamental freedoms: freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association. So, it was fitting that we could address these issues during Fall Tour 2020 – Defending Our Christian Legacy of Liberty.
We are thankful that God allowed this fall tour to proceed, albeit with smaller crowds and fewer locations than usual. We’re pleased to share our presentations now also through this blog series, and hope you will be encouraged and equipped through them, and use them to share with others as well. We’ll be giving an overview of what Scripture tells us about the topic of civil government and our duty to submit to those in authority over us. That will serve as a backdrop to a discussion about our role in keeping Canada glorious and free.
Setting the Stage with Scripture
We begin our analysis of our duty to submit to those in authority over us by turning our attention to the Great Commission, from Matthew 28:16-20:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In this text, Jesus Christ makes it very clear who has ultimate authority over Canada, and over our lives. In verse 18 He says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He is king of kings, the Prime Minister of the universe. His authority is intrinsic – it belongs to Him because He is sovereign God. He doesn’t need consent from people to govern, and there is no limit or term on His authority. Contrast this with the authority that we see on earth, which is not intrinsic, but delegated by Jesus Christ. The Prime Minister, judges, elders and deacons, and parents are all agents of Jesus Christ. That is why our first loyalty must always be to our heavenly king.
Many of the issues ARPA has covered, from prostitution to abortion to human trafficking, to euthanasia or gender identity, may feel somewhat removed or distant from us. But that is not in the case with COVID-19.
What follows is just one example that hits close to home for me. This is a true story about one of my friends named Arthur. Arthur had fetal alcohol syndrome, resulting from alcohol exposure during his mother’s pregnancy. By God’s grace, he found life in Jesus Christ and has been a faithful member in a Reformed home church for a couple of decades. The stability and blessing of church has been instrumental in helping him abide by the Great Commission and observe what Christ commanded him, including saying no to many of the negative influences that surround him, especially alcohol abuse.
Then COVID hit.
Arthur’s reliable Sunday schedule went out the window instantly. For many of us, we could still stay connected through email, online services, and other means. That wasn’t so simple for Arthur. When asked what the church could do to try ensure he would be prioritized for church attendance, the response was that it was a challenge for Arthur, as he has trouble understanding what it means to social distance.
Arthur’s reliable Sunday schedule went out the window instantly.
Sadly, it didn’t take long before Arthur was being surrounded by the wrong kind of people who were happy to not be distant from him. He started drinking again and it wasn’t long before he was hospitalized. He lost his two front teeth, some of his sweetness, and patience. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t come back to church regularly.
We all know what happens to us when a log is removed from the fire. It is very difficult to keep it burning. That is exactly what was happening to Arthur, and to so many others kept from church by COVID restrictions.
This would be a sad story if it ended there. Thankfully it didn’t. Arthur’s church community went out of its way to increase the number of people who could assemble for worship, by allowing multiple groups in multiple locations. And his elder and other friends from church did their best to help him attend in more recent months. This took courage, discernment, and love. It gave me so much joy to see him worshipping with us the Sunday before I left for this tour. A couple days earlier I asked for, and received his permission to share his story. In return Arthur asked me to share 1 John 4:7: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”
In God’s sovereign wisdom, around the same time that I shared Arthur’s story for the very last presentation on the tour, He took home my friend Arthur on Saturday, October 24 after he had suffered a serious fall while going down a staircase. It is hard to understand, yet we’re grateful for him that he knew the Lord as his Saviour and is free from the brokenness of this life.
Arthur is a living example of the impact of our society’s reaction to COVID. And no doubt many readers have experienced the pain and hurt personally, in their families, and in their churches. When fundamental freedoms are curtailed or minimized, the cost is real and personal. We care so deeply about what is going on with all of the COVID restrictions, and do our best to guard our freedoms, because we love God and love our neighbours! It would have been so much more difficult to hear of Arthur’s death if we were not able to join together in fellowship in recent months. It would have been far easier to maintain the status-quo by not expanding worship services and telling everyone, including Arthur, to just be patient. I thank God that Arthur had brothers and sisters who loved him enough to surround him in fellowship, though I confess that I and others could have done much more in this regard.
Arthur is a living example of the impact of our society’s reaction to COVID.
One reason why this year has been particularly difficult for many of us is because we feel a constant tension. It is a tension between the need, on the one hand, to protect and defend freedom so that our families and people like Arthur can live as we ought to live and, on the other hand, our calling to obey and submit to our civil authorities – our governments. This is especially the case when our governments are justifying their actions on really important grounds – the protection of human life. We need to better understand how these can function alongside each other in harmony, even though it isn’t always easy.
We first need to look at what the Bible says about submission. We’re going to rely on a faithful summary of scripture, the Belgic Confession. For those who aren’t familiar with this document, the Belgic Confession is one of a number of historic confessions which we believe is a faithful account of God’s Word. It was written in the mid-1500s when the church faced intense persecution from the government. Article 36 of this confession is devoted to the Civil Government. It is just as applicable to us in 2020 as it was 450 years ago.
God’s Commission to Civil Government
Let’s begin at the top of Article 36. There it states: “We believe that, because of the depravity of mankind, our gracious God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers.” This jives with the famous passage from Romans 13, and what we read from the Great Commission. Christ, as the ultimate authority, delegates earthly authority.
The opening line of Article 36 also makes it clear that our civil authorities are necessary in this world because of human depravity. COVID-19 is just one of many symptoms of a broken creation and sinful world. In many respects, 2020 is nothing new. The main difference between COVID-19 and health challenges of prior years is not the seriousness of the virus, but our human pride – the belief that with enough technology and restrictions we really can control the latest virus. It the same pride that tries to convince us we can control the weather. How far will we go before we are humble enough to admit that we are not God? There is a direct correlation between our pride and the isolation, depression, anxiety, drug addictions, overdoses, and despair that we are witnessing around us. Yet we press on.
COVID-19 is just one of many symptoms of a broken creation and sinful world.
The Belgic Confession goes straight to the civil government’s task: “He [God] wants the world to be governed by laws and statutes, in order that the lawlessness of men be restrained and that everything be conducted among them in good order.” In Scripture we see that the State has two primary purposes: to restrain lawlessness and to promote order. Although this is a huge task, it is also specific and limited. Simply because the civil authorities may want to address something doesn’t mean they have been given authority by God to do so. The United Reformed Churches and Christian Reformed Churches have an updated version of Article 36 which includes the following line that we can really appreciate: “They [the civil government] should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.”
The confession then is careful to connect this task of the civil government to the church. “Their task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order, but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.” Again, this jives with what we read in the Great Commission, and Christ’s command that we obey all that He has required. The implication in Canada today is immense. The state is obligated to do what it can to ensure that churches are open and Christians have the freedom to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
Note carefully that we are not saying that it is the state’s task to force the Christian faith on its citizens. No, it is the church’s task to preach the gospel, and it uses a very different sword – the sword of the Spirit. But the State is obligated to give the freedom for the church to do its central task.
Our Calling to Submit
What follows in Article 36 is a description of our duty towards our civil governments: “Moreover, everyone—no matter of what quality, condition, or rank—ought to be subject to the civil officers, pay taxes, hold them in honour and respect, and obey them in all things which do not disagree with the Word of God.” We hold our leaders in honour not because they live honourable lives, but because their authority comes directly from God.
With all of our access to information the temptation is to not honour our civil authorities because their actions seem foolish to us, or out of touch with reality. But although we may disagree with our leader’s judgment, we are still called to be subject, to honour, and to obey them. God has given this position of authority to them, not you or me. This is their office, not ours. If we disrespect them, we’re disrespecting God, who put them there to rule over us.
Not only are we called to submit, the Heidelberg Catechism also reminds us that we need to “have patience with [our civil government’s] weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.”
We need to “have patience with [our civil government’s] weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.”
If we compare this to the authority of parents, there are many of us who have no problem admitting that we don’t have everything figured out. We try to parent faithfully, but many times we simply don’t. That doesn’t give our children the right to disobey us. Just as we want them to be patient with us, so we too need to be patient with our government leaders.
Although all of this is should not be forgotten, it is crucial that we remember that there are two very important qualifiers to our duty to submit. First, as Article 36 makes explicit, this is limited to things which do not disagree with the Word of God. As Daniel and his three friends exemplified, and as the apostles said so clearly when they were charged not to teach about Jesus, “We must obey God rather than man.” If we are asked to deny God in word or deed, we should be prepared to disobey, even to the point of facing a fiery furnace. That is what we call civil disobedience. As R.C. Sproul has said, refusing to disobey our leaders when they demand that we disobey God means that we have taken part in treason! Think about that. Refusing to disobey our leaders when they demand that we disobey God means that we have taken part in treason. We have used earthly authority to undermine God, who is ruler over all.
Many of our supporters are looking to ARPA Canada to tell them when a line is crossed – when we should refuse to obey the state when it comes to things like restrictions on worship services. Although we will do our best to be a help in understanding government directives and responding faithfully, including some practical suggestions, we need to understand that the calling to be obedient to Christ is not one that can be delegated to ARPA, or any other third party. God is looking to each of us – as individuals, as parents, as elders and deacons, and as citizens – to faithfully exercise the authority He has given us in our respective offices. Every one of us has an office from God. Through the past half year ARPA has been very careful to respect the role that God has given elders, parents, and each of you as citizens to make decisions about matters like singing in worship, limits on church attendance, and mandatory masks.
Again, there are two qualifiers to our duty to submit. The first is that we must not submit if a command is contrary to the Word of God. The second qualifier to submitting to the civil government is that we live in a system of government which requires the participation of us as citizens. Our system of governance has been carefully crafted so that when one branch of government gets out of line, there are other branches tasked with reining them in. To be clear, taking part in democracy and making use of the courts is not a violation of our call to submit – it is part of it. My colleague André Schutten has explained this very well in the adjoining article. It is critical to consider his points alongside the points I shared so far.
Belgic Confession Article 36 concludes: “We ought to pray for them [our governing authorities], that God may direct them in all their ways and that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim 2:1-2).”
Belgic Confession Article 36 concludes: “We ought to pray for them [our governing authorities], that God may direct them in all their ways and that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim 2:1-2).” For many of us, if we are frustrated by what we see being done in society we want to respond with action. But this confession, drawn appropriately from scripture, reminds us that our first calling is not to speak or act, but to pray. So, pray. Pray unceasingly for all levels of government. And do so with the sure knowledge that Jesus is Lord. “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
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