Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The State's Obligations Regarding the Church (Wilhelmus à Brakel)

The Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) writes the following on the state's obligations with regard to the church:

The duties of the government with regard to the church are threefold. It has 1) the power of protection, 2) the power to legislate concerning external circumstances, and 3) the power to subdue evil influences.

First, the civil government is empowered to protect the church. It must protect the church from all oppression from without and within, so that no one will disturb or prevent either the exercise of religion or the meetings of consistories, Classes, and Synods. It must preserve the freedoms and the spiritual privileges which Christ has given to the church, so that she may use and exercise them without impediment. It must remove all external obstacles which either could be detrimental to religion or impede the growth and well-being of the church. It must do everything possible to promote religion so that the church may flourish under its protection and “may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:2). Such was the practice of the godly kings David, Solomon, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah—a fact which can generally be observed in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

Secondly, the civil government has power to legislate concerning external circumstances. As such it can maintain order as far as the external circumstances of public worship are concerned—such as the most suitable time for and place of worship, as well as that the welfare of the civil state be not impeded. It must also call ecclesiastical synods together, and see to it that other ecclesiastical assemblies are held, so that they in turn may promote the internal well–being of the church.

Thirdly, the civil government has the power of control with regard to ecclesiastical matters. It must see to it that members of the clergy—ministers, elders, and deacons—discharge their duties and not be negligent in this regard, as well as that they adhere to the established church order which is according to God's Word. It must publicly oppose those who by false doctrine and immorality trouble the church, or who by evil philosophies and opinions disturb the civil state as far as political matters are concerned. It must also prevent the continuation of such practices. It must exterminate false religions. It must promote the reformation of the church if she becomes entirely degenerate in doctrine and morals, and by the use of all political means imaginable restrain opponents and compel those who forsake religion to observe their duty, etc. In this manner Moses (Exod 32), Asa (2 Chron 14), Jehoshaphat (2 Chron 17), Hezekiah (2 Chron 29, 30), Josiah (2 Chron 34), and Nehemiah (Neh 13:30-31) were engaged in the work of reformation. How blessed is the church and the civil state which functions in this way, and where the church and the civil government, each within their own sphere of influence, are faithful in the discharge of their tasks!

We thus observe that none ought to be of the opinion that the government is not to be involved in the church at all, ought not to be concerned about her, and ought merely to be the blind executor of whatever the church wishes her to carry out. There is a certain Jus majestatis circa sacra; that is, a rightful claim, power, or duty of civil governments with regard to that which is holy. The Belgic Confession speaks of this in Article 36: 
And 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 worshipped by everyone, as He commands in His Word.
It is the duty of civil government to uphold not only the second table of the law, but also the first. It must see to it that God is honored. It may not tolerate any idolatry, worship of images, or any false religion within her jurisdiction, but must rather eradicate these. It must prevent the vain use of God’s Name practiced by cursing, swearing, and blasphemy. It must prevent the desecration of the Sabbath, punish violators of this commandment, and see to it that the gospel is proclaimed everywhere within its jurisdiction. It must see to it that the church, as the darling of the Lord Jesus, is protected and preserved; and that neither internal dissension nor any external oppression disturb or destroy the church, but that instead she be safely preserved in the use of the privileges and liberties which her King Jesus has given her.

The government must be engaged with regard to all these things, but not formaliter; that is, by intruding into the very essence of the matter at hand. It must do so objectively; that is, deeming her (the church) to be the object of its activity. Therefore we say that the civil government has authority with regard to the church, rather than in the church. Neither civil governments nor any other individual may exercise power in or over the church, for Jesus is her only King. The civil government has, however, an obligation with regard to the church. There is a significant difference between “in” and “with regard to.” A civil government has authority with regard to marriage, but no authority in the marriage; with regard to a household, but not within the household. It likewise has authority with regard to the church, but not in the church. 

"The Responsibility of the Civil Government with Regard to the Church," in Wilhelmus A. Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service: Volume Two. , trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (1992), 178-180. Retrieved February 18, 2014 from http://biblicalspirituality.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/reasonableservicevol2-indexed.pdf

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