The Relationship of the Civil Government to the Church

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Wilhelmus à Brakel

The Christian’s Reasonable Service

Vol. 2, pp. 168-180

The Relationship of the Civil Government to the Church

This generates another question: Does the civil government have any authority at all with regard to the church? If yes, what does or does this not consist of?

We wish to preface our answer to this question by stating that first, all members of the clergy—ministers, elders, and deacons—are subject to the civil government as individuals, and thus are in one and the same category as other people. I repeat, as individuals. This is not true, however, as far as their ecclesiastical standing is concerned, for as such, they are subject to consistories, Classes, and Synods, and thus are subject to the only King of the church, Jesus Christ.

Secondly, if members of the clergy conduct themselves contrary to civil laws pertaining to all citizens, they, just as other citizens, may and must be punished according to the magnitude of their crime.

Thirdly, since members of the clergy are not servants of the civil government, but as individuals are in the same category as all other citizens, they have the same right to legal defense. Therefore, in the event of an indictment, legal procedures must be initiated against them the same as against other citizens.

Fourthly, members of the clergy and the entire congregation, each in their own position, are obligated to honor and obey the civil government conscientiously—with heart and in deeds. They are to do so not by way of compulsion, but in an affectionate manner, out of love for God, whose supremacy and majesty are reflected in the office of civil government. No one is released from the duty of rendering honor and obedience simply because he is a member of the clergy or of the church. This is true even if the civil government is either pagan, Islamic, heretical or Christian, good or evil, godly or ungodly, compassionate or severe. It is the duty of elders to stir everyone up to render such honor and obedience. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (Rom 13:1).

Question: Does the civil government exercise any authority at all with regard to the church?

Answer: It has no authority whatsoever in the church, but it does have authority with regard to the church.

We thus most strenuously oppose the Erastians and Arminians who posit all authority and government with the civil government, subordinating all ecclesiastical authority and government to the civil government, from which it is in turn delegated to the church. We have contradicted this notion in the foregoing and shall shortly do so again. We are likewise opposed to the view of the papists who remove all who belong to the church from governmental jurisdiction. At the same time, they maintain that the civil government may not render judgment at all in the realm of religion, and that the civil government must merely follow blindly and execute whatever the church has deemed and judged to be correct. We are also opposed to the view of the Libertines who insist that the government may not be involved with religion at all, but must permit every religion in its territory to proclaim whatever it wishes. We declare that the civil government does indeed have authority with regard to the church and is obligated to make use of this, which is a matter we subsequently shall demonstrate to be so.

Question: What authority does the civil government not have?

Answer: It has no authority whatsoever in the church and may not rule over the church as lords and masters. Government officials may not act as if they are servants sent of Christ—in Christ’s Name preaching, administering the sacraments, using the keys of the kingdom of heaven, commissioning ministers, appointing elders in the church, and decreeing what or what will not be preached concerning divine truths, and what are or are not the fundamental points of the Christian religion. They also have no right to depose and expel ministers who are godly and blameless in doctrine and life, and who have been lawfully called as the ministers of given churches. They may not, as lord and master over the church, reject such men, declare the calling to be null and void, efface it, etc. The government has no authority relative to such ecclesiastical matters, for in doing so she would reach for the crown and scepter of the Lord Jesus, whose prerogative this is. Those governments who are not refrained by the many examples of divine judgment will pay a bitter price for such a practice.

The Lord Jesus Christ: The Only and Sovereign King of His Church

From the following it is evident that the civil government has no authority to rule as lord and master over the church and, by reason of its authority, to decree and govern everything according to its pleasure.

First, the Lord Jesus is the only and sovereign King over His church, and is her sole Ruler; He alone legislates (Gal 6:16). He alone gives order as to how His laws are to be made known: by the preaching of the Word (Matt 28:20), by the administration of the sacraments (Matt 28:19; 26:26), and by the use of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 16:19). He alone appoints and sends forth His own servants (Eph 4:11; Acts 20:28), and it is His will that whatever is done in the church be done in His Name (Matt 16:18-19). Consequently, the civil government has no authority to rule over the church, to impose laws upon her, to issue forth directives as to how these are to be carried out to appoint ministers and elders, or to execute or cause anything to be executed in her name. Let everyone therefore be fearful of infringing upon Christ’s jurisdiction and government, lest the same judgment come upon them as rests upon the pope.

Secondly, Christ has delegated the authority to govern His church only to the church and to none other. This we have shown in the foregoing by way of five proofs. Thus, the civil government neither has authority over nor in the church, for it is not the church, nor is it a member of the church as a governmental body. Its dominion over the church would therefore be of a foreign and tyrannical nature, which this King will not tolerate.

Thirdly, the servants, whom the Lord Jesus desires to have in His church and to be chosen and sent forth by her, are expressly named in Eph 4:11 and 1 Cor 12:28. This we have confirmed in chapter 27 with three proofs. These servants are apostles, evangelists, prophets, shepherds and teachers, elders, and deacons. However, not one word is mentioned about the civil government. Let the civil government, if it wishes to rule over the church, demonstrate that it has received such a charge from the Lord Jesus, and we shall be satisfied. It is, however, not able to do this. Therefore, if it wishes to dominate and control without a charge from the King of the church, this is nothing less than tyranny for which it will pay a bitter price.

The Differences Between Civil and Ecclesiastical Governments

Civil government and ecclesiastical government are so essentially different from each other that it is impossible for one government to rule over both jurisdictions. This is evident from the following reasons:

(1) Civil government has its origin in God as Creator and Preserver. The government of the church originates in and has been established by Christ as Mediator.

(2) Civil government is an authoritative government. In the church, however, there may not be the least lording over the other (1 Pet 5:3). All government in the church is characterized by service and is entirely executed on behalf of another, that is, Christ. In order for the church to belong under the jurisdiction of the civil government, civil government should not be authoritative in nature, but rather would be characterized by ministering in the name of Christ. The government will have to admit, however, that its rule is neither characterized by service nor executed on behalf of Christ, but rather consists of authoritative rulership. Its manner of government can therefore not function within the church.

(3) Civil government pertains to the exercise of worldly power. Its jurisdiction pertains to this world and is executed toward people as people. Its laws and punishments pertain only to the physical realm. On the contrary, the government of the church is of heavenly origin, and those who are governed belong to a kingdom which is not of this world (John 18:36). The laws are of heavenly origin and punishments are spiritual judgments. That which is of the world can neither be applicable nor pertain to that which is heavenly, for it falls far short of the heavenly and is of an entirely different nature, having entirely different subjects. Thus, as far as the form of government is concerned there is no comparison in degree nor is there any commonality. How then can worldly authority and the use of the sword (which only pertain to the physical realm) have any place in the church?

(4) Civil governments rule by the sword. The church, however, rules by means of the keys of God’s kingdom; that is, by proclaiming the gospel, administering the sacraments, forgiving or not forgiving sin, disciplining those who give offense, rebuking, refusing admittance to the sacraments, refusing church fellowship, reinstating those who repent, and commissioning and calling the elders of the church. These things are all interrelated, and the church which does the one, does the others also. Any person who is not devoid of intelligence, or who is not deliberately wicked and ungodly, but yields to reason and the Word of God will have to conclude by all this that civil government has nothing in common with the manner in which the church must be governed. If it wishes to use its authority to control one area, it must of necessity also have control over all other areas, be it immediately or by way of subordinates, which, however, the elders are not. For instead of speaking on behalf of Christ, they would then have to say: On behalf of the government I declare unto you the forgiveness of sins, etc. Such an idea would be repulsive to everyone. If such an idea is repulsive to the civil government, the government likewise ought to be repulsed by the idea of ruling over the church, or allowing such tyranny.

Fifthly, during the time of the apostles and the subsequent rule of the pagan emperors, the church had her own government which at that time functioned at its very best. Consequently the church possesses an authority which is inherently perfect and not subject to any influence from the civil government. Since the church at that time was not dependent upon the civil government, this is also true today, as both the nature and the authority of the church remain the same.

Evasive Argument: The civil governments at that time were either Jewish or pagan and thus were hostile toward the church. Our present governments are Christian and lovers of the church.

Answer (1) I declare that those who wish to dominate over the church are enemies rather than lovers of the church, for they rob the church of that which Christ the King has given to her for her well-being. (2) Irrespective of whether the civil government is pagan or Christian, or has either a friendly or hostile disposition toward the church, the distinction between the office of civil government and the church does not change. Both Christian and pagan governments have the same rights. Whatever is the duty of a pagan government is likewise the duty of a Christian government. Upon becoming a Christian, a government official will then join the church and submit himself as a Christian to the government of Christ in His church. The church, however, remains the same and is thereby neither annexed to the civil government nor included in its jurisdiction. If a specific individual belongs to the East Indies Company and attains to a governmental office, the company remains the same. He neither rules the company nor assumes a leadership role any more than he did before. The company is no more subject to the civil government than was true prior to this and is true presently. Such is also true for a father, whether he is pagan or Christian. This neither increases nor diminishes his paternal authority. A man’s authority over his wife and a master’s authority over his servant do not increase, neither are of a new sort than was true prior to being in government. Such is also the case here. Religion neither increases nor decreases the authority and jurisdiction of the civil government.

From all this it is very evident that the church has received her own administrative authority from Christ and she administers the same on His behalf. The civil government does not have the least authority in, nor power over, the church to thus rule her. This applies to the doctrine, the sacraments, the use of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the calling and sending forth of ministers and elders of the church.

Objections Answered Pertaining to the Unique Jurisdiction of Civil and Ecclesiastical Governments

Let us now consider the futility of the arguments which could be produced against this, so that the truth may be all the more evident.

Objection #1: Civil government must extend to whatever is located within its jurisdiction; that is, from the greatest entity to the least. Since the church is included in its domain, the civil government must then of necessity control all things and govern everything according to its pleasure.

Answer (1) The jurisdiction of civil government would then also extend to one’s wallet and all personal belongings of the citizen.

This would also pertain to the food that would be served at every mealtime in each home, to the rooms where each member of the family will sleep, to the moment when each will enter or leave his home, and the hour certain things are to be done. Then the conscience, the religion of each man, and whatever else an atheist could think of, would also be subject to the civil government. These absurdities make it very evident that the authority of the government does not extend to everything (whether great or small) within its jurisdiction.

(2) The civil government has jurisdiction over whatever promotes a good social interaction between citizens as such. In that sense all members of the church as people, including ministers and elders, are subject to the government. This we admit, but neither God nor the people have vested it with authority beyond that. Thus the proof is invalid in both its first and second proposition. Even if its jurisdiction extends to the entire physical realm of society, it does not follow that therefore it extends to the church as well, for that kingdom is not of this world—this kingdom has no other king than the Lord Jesus. Whatever she performs is executed on behalf of the Lord Jesus who is her all-sufficient King, in spite of those who regret this fact.

Objection #2: If the government of the church were of such a nature, that is, not subject to the civil government, there would be two governments in one country or city. This cannot be true if a country or city is to continue its existence.

Answer: This would be true if both governments were essentially of the same nature, having the same subjects and the same objective in view. This is, however, not the case. In the one case authority is of a ministerial nature and is exercised on behalf of the Lord Jesus. Those who do not wish Him to rule in their land as King would obstruct Him if they could. The other authority is of a ruling nature, which God, as Creator and Preserver, has given to civil government. The one pertains to the spiritual, and the other to the physical realm. The one relates to spiritual life and salvation, and the other to physical life and a harmonious societal life among people. Since these two forms of government are so distinct from each other, they cannot interfere with each other, nor be a hindrance to the other. If they each function within their boundaries, however, they will promote each other’s welfare. Since the management of families and of the various organizations within a republic can coexist with the management of the civil government, this is much more true in regard to the function of the government of the church and the civil government, which are essentially different and thus uphold each other.

Objection #3: Many God-fearing kings in Israel ruled in and over the church. Therefore, the civil government also has a rightful claim to rule over the church.

Answer (1) The deeds of some persons may not be used as the basis for a rightful claim. (2) Some of the rulers or kings of Israel were also prophets, who received immediate declarations and commands from God. We may not make a logical deduction from these examples as far as others are concerned. (3) Nowhere is it written that God-fearing kings ruled over the church. We do read, however, that they protected her and actively promoted her improvement after she had been corrupted by ungodly kings. There are several examples of ungodly kings, however, who according to their pleasure, wanted to control the practice of religion and rule over the servants of the Lord. Such was true of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin by erecting the golden calves at Dan and Bethel. Ahaz caused an altar to be built which resembled the altar of Damascus, and he himself sacrificed upon it. Uzziah, “when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the Lord his God, and went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense upon the altar of incense. … And they (the priests) withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the Lord … go out of the sanctuary … then Uzziah was wroth … and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of the Lord, … and they thrust him out from thence; yea, himself hasted also to go out, because the Lord had smitten him” (2 Chron 26:16-20).

Objection #4: Solomon deposed one high priest and appointed another. “So Solomon thrust out Abiathar from being priest unto the Lord; and Zadok the priest did the king put in the room of Abiathar” (1 Kings 2:27, 35). The civil government therefore has power to rule over the church.

Answer (1) Except for this one singular example, there are none to be found of a similar nature. You cannot deduce someone’s rightful claim from one act committed by one person. This is furthermore true upon considering that Solomon committed many sinful deeds which are not worthy of imitation, but are rather to be avoided.

(2) Abiathar had committed a crimen laesae majestatis; that is, the sin of offending royal majesty. Together with Adonijah, who exalted himself as king, he had rebelled and made himself worthy of death. Solomon had mitigated his punishment and changed his death sentence to exile; consequently, Solomon did not remove his priestly dignity from him. Due to exile, however, he was not permitted to minister in the priestly office, which could only occur in Jerusalem. Therefore his not being a priest was not the punishment itself, but the consequence of the punishment. This exile did not pertain to the office itself, but to the administration of the office. He is therefore expressly acknowledged as a priest after he had been sent into exile. “And Zadok and Abiathar were the priests” (1 Kings 4:4).

(3) The appointment of Zadok in the place Abiathar was only intended to protect the divinely established priestly order wherein Zadok, not being designated to this office by his birth, had to succeed Abiathar. In view of this rightful claim, Solomon appointed him and protected him as such. There is therefore here no semblance of evidence that the civil government is permitted to rule over the church and her ministers.

Objection #5: Kings as well as civil governments are the nursing fathers of the church, and thus are authorized to rule over the church. “And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers” (Isa 49:23).

Answer (1) Kings and their wives, that is, their queens, are here placed on the same level. We know, however, that the right to govern belongs to the kings and not to their wives, from which it is evident that the reference here is not to rulership, but to an act of benevolence. Cyrus, although he was a heathen, was thus a nursing father of the church; this was likewise true for Ahasuerus. This is also applicable to Constantine the Great, Theodosius, Queen Elizabeth, Count Frederick III (also called Frederick the Pious), etc.

(2) These kings and queens are presented here as being in utmost subjection to the church while humbling themselves before her. We read in the same verse, “They shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet” (Isa 49:23). It is therefore far from the truth that they would rule over her. Let him who does not reverently wish to bow before the church, as being the bride of King Jesus, refrain from ruling over her in the presence of her Bridegroom.

(3) The word “nurse” (for “fathers” is not to be found in the original text) does not imply supremacy, but is indicative of the labors of a servant. The nurse of a royal child—this being applicable to the church—is less than the child who is being nursed. A nurse must not treat and direct the child according to her will, but only according to the express orders of the father: “This you will do, and this you will not do.” A nurse may not refuse to accept the servants whom the father appoints for this child. She may not drive them away and accept others according to her will. A nurse is not permitted to diminish or modify the privileges which the father has given to the child, but it is her duty to protect the child and his privileges, and to prevent any harm from being done to the child. Thus, the idea of dominion is not implied in the word “nurse,” but is expressly excluded.

(4) Civil governments are not the nurses of the church simply because they are governmental bodies. The word “government” has nothing to do with the matter, for civil governments are generally enemies and persecutors of the church. The text in question, however, is a promise that the Lord would stir up the heart of certain great, reputable, and mighty men and women, who with all their might would be benevolent to the church. This is the duty of all who are appointed to high places. We have thus observed that the civil government has no authority whatsoever in the church and may also not rule over her. Nevertheless, all members of the clergy, without exception, must be subject to the civil government as much as other men.

Objection #6: Moses is said to be “instead of God” to Aaron (Exod 4:16). Moses represented the civil government and Aaron represented the church. The civil government thus ruled over the church.

Answer (1) Why does one not conclude the civil government to be the God of the church, since this word is used in reference to Moses? I do not deem it possible that anyone in civil government would dare to give himself the title, “God of the church.”

(2) When God said this to Moses, Aaron was but a simple and ordinary person. He had not been called to the high priestly office as yet; moreover, when he was high priest, he did not constitute the church, and thus this argument has no validity whatsoever.

(3) Israel, at that time, did not constitute a republic, but was in bondage to Pharaoh, king of Egypt. God sent Moses to Pharaoh to demand their release. Moses excused himself due to lack of eloquence and God gave to him the eloquent Aaron for the purpose of proclaiming to Pharaoh and the people the prophetic revelations which Moses, the prophet of the Lord, had received. Baruch was likewise the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah. Moses is thus not presented here as a ruler or a king, but as a prophet. This title therefore does not pertain to governments, for they are no prophets.

(4) The word “God” does not mean “ruler” here, since Moses was appointed to be a god unto Pharaoh. “I have made thee a god to Pharaoh” (Exod 7:1). It is a certain fact, however, that Moses was neither a king over Pharaoh nor was Pharaoh a subject of Moses. Moses stood above Pharaoh as far as his prophetical ministry and majesty was concerned. God had called him to this for the execution of his mission to deliver Israel from Pharaoh’s hand. We have thus demonstrated what authority governments do not have.

The Responsibility of the Civil Government with Regard to the Church

We must now consider also what authority the civil government has with regard to the church. Such use of its authority we wholeheartedly uphold. 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. We have thus shown what authority the civil government has with regard to the church, and what authority the elders have in the congregation.


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