Can Reformation take place without the involvement
the Civil Government?
If the word reformation is just shorthand for compliance with the revealed will of God, then I don't suppose that there are too many people reading this magazine who would deny the need for reformation of Church and society in New Zealand. We hardly need to catalogue the doctrinal aberrations of the wider church or the moral debauchery of wider society do we?
But a question arises for us, as it did for former Christians zealous for God's glory. Can we hope for reformation in church and society without the involvement of the civil Government in some way?
Of course, to the modern mind, such a thought seems abhorrent.
In particular, the idea that the State should have a role in the
reformation of religion is repugnant to many. Surely there should
be a complete separation of Church and State shouldn't there?
Well John Calvin and John Knox never thought so in the 16th century,
and neither did the Westminster Divines in the 17th Century. They
saw in their Bibles that the civil magistrate (The name they gave
the Government) indeed had a responsibility to exercise when it
came to reformation. The Westminster Divines, in their Larger
Catechism, describing the requirement of the second petition in
the Lord's Prayer includes the following, (we are praying for
the church to be) "furnished with all gospel officers
and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained
by the civil magistrate.."
Reformation countenanced and maintained by the Government
When they said countenanced and maintained, they had in mind more than just a benign tolerance. They saw a positive role for the State creating an environment where true religion would flourish.
It is my contention that not only were they correct in their view of the role of civil Government, but that it is a part of our task in 20th Century New Zealand to work for the same involvement of our civil Government in the task of reformation of Church and society.
Radical as this may seem, it only appears so because we are unfamiliar with what the Bible teaches on this subject. There has over ensuing centuries been a conscious suppression of the Bible's teaching on this great subject. This mentality has largely won the day; so that many Christians believe that it is wrong for Governments to legislate for private morality; let alone legislate with Biblical presuppositions.
Historically this new view that rejects one of the fundamental insights of all reformations of religion, has been somewhat inaccurately called voluntaryism. William Cunningham explores this view in his Historical Theology Vol. 1 (P.390ff). He says, voluntaryism "amounts in substance to this, - that the only relation that ought to subsist between the State and the Church - between civil Government and religion - is that of entire separation; or in other words, its advocates maintain that nations, as such, and civil rulers in their official capacity, not only are not bound, but are not at liberty, to interfere in any religious matters, or to seek to promote the welfare of the church of Christ as such."
Cunningham, quite rightly, rejects that view and upholds the view of the classical Reformers. And when you think about it, you have to acknowledge the impossibility of reformation of religion under such a voluntary system, where civil law is not brought to bear in some way upon the interests of the Creator and Redeemer, whose servants or ministers, Paul says in Romans 13 the Government in fact are.
Before we look briefly at some of the Biblical data we need to
refute the false charges that have been brought against the idea
of the official establishment of the true religion with the assistance
of the Civil Government. This does not need to imply that the
State burns books, idols and heretics. 19th Century Scottish theologian
Thomas M'Crie, speaks for the Reformed position when he says in
his treatise, Statement of the difference between the profession
of the Reformed Church of Scotland, as adopted by the Seceders
and the profession contained in the New Testimony and other Acts,
lately adopted by the General Associate Synod;
"The care of religion, is in the general view of it (in
which respect the consideration of it is previous to that of the
form which it assumes in consequences of supernatural revelation
and the erection of a church state), belongs to the magistrate's
(civil Government) office; and it is his duty to watch over its
external interests, and to exert himself in his station to preserve
upon the minds of his subjects and impression of its obligations
and sanctions and to suppress irreligion, impiety, profanity and
blasphemy. It is also the duty of civil rulers, and must be their
interest, to exert themselves to introduce the gospel into their
dominions when it may be but partially enjoyed; and by salutary
laws and encouragements to provide them with the means of instruction,
and settled dispensation of ordinances; especially in poor and
desolate or in ignorant and irreligious parts of the country;-
all which they may do without propagating Christianity by the
sword, or forcing a profession of religion on their subjects by
penal laws. (page 82)"
What were some of the arguments that the proponents of this idea
The light of nature
The light of nature, itself teaches that the maintenance of the
true religion is a responsibility of the civil Government. If
we accept that we live in a moral universe where all are accountable
to the creator, then it is inconceivable that a human Government
should not so order society in away that honoured the Moral Governor
of the universe. After all, none is without excuse. All men everywhere
are accountable to God and owe Him worship and will be judged
by their response to the knowledge of the true God that they
all have (Rom. 1:18).
Scripture demands it
The Word of God demands that the civil Government promote the reformation of religion and Christian social ethics. In Ephesians 1:22, speaking of our Lord's mediatorial reign, He is said to be "head over all things to the church." Nations are included in these "all things."
In view of this it seems totally improper that a Government should govern without reference to the honour of Christ and His church. William Symington, an important Reformed theologian says of this verse, "To us it appears that , although there were not another passage on the subject in the whole Bible, that which we have now in view should be sufficient to prevent us from giving our assent to the proposition that the nations have nothing to do with religion (Messiah the Prince, p.266)."
In Romans 13:17, we have the teaching on the civil Ruler that
requires him to be a minister (servant) of God for good and to
be a terror not to good works, but to evil. The scope of this
surely requires a positive endorsement and encouragement of true
morality and religion. In view of the claim of Christ upon all
men and over nations, this is a most reasonable conclusion.
Old Testament predictions
Many passages in the Old Testament can be appealed to in this regard. Psalm 2 is well known, "Now therefore be wise, O kings; Be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, And rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son lest he be angry and you perish in the way..(verses 10-12)."
They are to submit to Christ, The Son, in their public capacity as kings and not merely as private persons. Psalm 72, prophesies that what is required of rulers in the New Testament will come to pass; "Yes all kings shall fall down before Him; all nations shall serve Him (v.11)."
We have a graphic and irrefutable exposition of this idea in
Isaiah 49:23. Speaking of the New Testament Church, Isaiah prophesies,
"Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens
your nursing mothers; they shall bow down to you with their faces
to the earth; And lick up the dust of your feet. Then you will
know that I am the Lord, for they shall not be ashamed who wait
on me." Calvin's commentary on this verse would seem
radical to many in our day.
"This took place when the Lord revealed Himself to the whole world by the gospel; for mighty Kings and princes not only submitted to the yoke of Christ, but likewise contributed their riches to raise up and maintain the Church of Christ so as to be her guardians and defenders." He goes onto show what is said here, is " about removing superstitions and putting an end to all wicked idolatry, about advancing the kingdom of Christ and maintaining purity of doctrine, about purging scandals and cleansing from the filth that corrupts piety and impairs the lustre of the Divine majesty." This raises eyebrows in our own day does it not? But he further adds, "undoubtedly, while kings bestow careful attention on these things, they at the same time supply the pastors and ministers of the Word with all that is necessary for food and maintenance, provide for the poor and guard the Church against the disgrace of pauperism; erect schools; and appoint salaries for the teachers and board for the students; build poor-houses and hospitals and make every other arrangement that belongs to the protection and defence of the Church." (Chapter 23:3 of the Westminster Confession, revised by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the USA and adopted by our churches, alludes to this passage also).
Much more could be said from the Old Testament, but M'Crie (p.140)
summarises much of the data for us. " We might have urged
here that the whole tenor of the declarations, promises and predictions
of the Old Testament, lead to the conclusion that Christianity
should be owned, countenanced, and supported, in a national
way. God addresses the nations in a collective capacity, reproves
them for their idolatry, and calls them to his worship, Isa. 34:1,
40:1,21-29. He proposes Christ, as His anointed servant, to them,
Ch.42:1; declares that He has given Him the nations for His inheritance,
and that he shall direct them all. Ps,2:8; 82:8, Is. 52:15; 55:5.
Christ addresses Himself not only to individuals, but to whole
Islands, Isa. 49:1; nations join themselves to Him own and worship
Him, Isa. 2:2, Mic. 4:1,2, Zech.2:11, 8:20-22, bless themselves
and glory in Him, Jer 4:2; all nations and dominions serve Him,
Dan.7:14,27. They consecrate all things in them and employ them
in His service, Isa. 60:6-12, Zech. 14:20,21. He owns these nations
as His and blesses them, while He breaks in pieces and wastes
others, Psa. 33:12; 145:15, Isa.19:25, Psa. 2:9,12; Isa. 60:12....(page
I am well aware of the many and varied objections to this standard
Reformed understanding of the role of Civil Government in religion,
but each objection raised has long ago been adequately answered.
And as we have already seen from M'Crie, this does not mean the
establishment of true religion by the sword or coercion of the
conscience. Calvin, Knox and the Westminster Divines strenuously
opposed the intrusion of the State or its interference in Church
matters. Our own confessional statements, revised as they are
from the original correctly set the boundaries or limitations
of the State in matters of religion. Article 35 of the Belgic
confession, for example, gives the Government the task of protecting,
"..the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may
be thus promoted." When the Westminster Divines addressed
this issue, they had in mind that these things were only possible
if the Government was indeed Christian - on other words that the
Ruler was born again. And a part of their task was "to
maintain piety, justice and peace, according to the wholesome
laws of each commonwealth. (Chapter 23:2)" Piety,
justice and peace are terms that the Divines could not divorce
from their source, the revealed will of God. The maintenance of
public piety was enhanced by the imposition of appropriate laws
- for example laws against blasphemy or the third commandment.
They had not doubt that the Government, in its responsibility,
was to be concerned with both tables of the law and not just the
final six. I doubt whether it could be maintained that they understood
the "wholesome laws of each commonwealth" in
terms modern Theonomic ideas, particularly when it came to the
punishment of crime, but it would be equally difficult to maintain
that they understood these wholesome laws to be based on a standard
other than the Word of God.
What then are the implications for New Zealand, in this view? Firstly we will not see true and thorough reformation of church and society without the involvement of the civil Government taking up its responsibilities. Where we stand at the present time, it seems inconceivable that we would ever have a Government in the foreseeable future who would even accept some of what the Scripture implies about their role in reformation. But this is to limit God. In His wonderful grace He has wrought reformation with the civil Government playing its proper role in past history. He may do so again at any time and ultimately will do so, according to the prophecies of Scripture.
But is He likely to do so when His church is agnostic on this
issue and has willingly handed over the civil Government to the
authority of the Devil himself? We doubt it. Surely then we have
a great responsibility to do two things at the very least. Firstly
we must pray, as Nehemiah prayed, that the civil powers that be
will see this great truth also and comply as they did in Calvin's
Geneva and Knox's Scotland. Secondly we have an obligation, we
who possess the oracles of God, to declare to our Government their
responsibility in this. Yes we would be fools in men's eyes, but
we would be fools for Christ. And who knows what God may do with
a people in our own time who take Him at His Word and who lay
the responsibility for reformation with all those to whom it belongs;
the church, the civil Government and the individual believers.
Modern writers in this area have pointed out that, properly speaking,
the kings of Psalm 2 include the general voting public in a democratic
nation. Ultimate power rests with them, in our scheme of Government.
We have, then, an educative responsibility for the whole of our
society. It is also our understanding that these glorious days
of gospel victory will only come about in the context of widespread
revival, where the majority come to receive Christ. Evangelism
is then a pre-requisite to any hope of reformation. What keeps
us from this glorious kingdom task? God hasten the day that kings
will be nursing fathers to the Church.
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / firstname.lastname@example.org / revised March 96 / Copyright 1996