Editor’s Note: As pastors and church leaders continue to struggle through questions of how best to minister to their congregations under unprecedented and indefinite lockdowns, we have seen how faithful and sincere leaders – even from the same church or denomination – can arrive at different conclusions. In recent weeks, a significant article by Professor Jason Van Vliet of Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary has been circulating amongst some of the historic Dutch Reformed congregations and has garnered a thoughtful response from other ministers and professors. Dr. Van Vliet’s article can be read here. The full response, drafted by Professor David Engelsma, Dr. Antoine Theron, and Rev. Benjamin Hicks, can be read here.
The Ezra Institute is a confessionally evangelical think-tank, cultural apologetics and worldview training organization not formally connected to any denomination; however our emphases on reformational philosophy, Christian worldview and sphere sovereignty are informed by several thinkers from the Dutch Reformed tradition. This article is an excerpt from Engelsma, Theron and Hicks’ reply to Dr. Van Vliet. It is a thoughtful and relevant application of the principles of sphere sovereignty to the current debate regarding the relationship of church and state.
The Fifth Commandment and Submission to the Government
It is, in fact, the fear of God that makes the question whether “to obey or not to obey” the governing authorities a burning one. This is the question that Christian martyrs throughout history could not avoid. To give one example: In the sixteenth century, many believers in the Netherlands disobeyed the law to continue to assemble in (forbidden) churches under the preaching of Guido de Bres, the author of the Belgic Confession. One family in whose house such a secret church regularly assembled were arrested and interrogated in 1555. The father, Robert Oguier, confessed that they had broken the law: “I knew that the emperor had forbidden it, but what then? I also knew that Jesus Christ had commanded it. I could not obey the one without disobeying the other. I desired to obey my God rather than a human.” Robert and his son Beaudoin were burned at the stake while singing Psalm 16. Eight days later his wife Johanna and younger son Maarten were likewise burned alive.
In Prof. Van Vliet’s section “Our Actions and Their Wider Effects” there are further problems. A principle is distilled from 1 Tim. 2:2, 1 Peter 2:15, and Matt. 5:16: “In other words, the Lord requires us to interact with the government in such a way that, to the best of our ability, we are at peace with them and they with us.” We can know how well we are performing this duty, Prof. Van Vliet explains, by whether people ignorant of the Bible have good things to say about us. Now this is a fine enough maxim, provided that all that is meant is that we should avoid offending unbelievers or those in authority. However, we hope that no Christian will conclude from this argument that passivity towards injustice or cowering in the face of abusive government officials is anywhere countenanced by the Word of God. John the Baptizer is an excellent example of someone who submitted to officials in authority in a godly way, but who nevertheless angered the king by rightly rebuking him for transgressing the law of God (Matthew 14:4).
Prof. Van Vliet then continues:
All this to say that we may not simply say, “We must contradict the government orders and resume in-person worship, and so far as what the government, or our neighbours, or the media thinks or says about this, we just have to let the chips fall where they may!” True, we cannot control what other people think and say, especially biased media channels. It is also true that we must not be driven by what others may think of us. Then the world would be turning the steering wheel of the church. But we do need to take the wider effects of our action into consideration and do the best that we can, also in this respect. This is not pragmatism; it is also obedience to the Word of God. Along these lines, Art 36 of the Belgic Confession and Art 28 of the Reformed Church Order encourage us strongly to maintain good relations with governing officials: All office-bearers are in duty bound to impress diligently and sincerely upon the whole congregation the obedience, love, and respect which are due to the civil authorities; they shall set a good example to the whole congregation in this matter, and endeavour by due respect and communication to secure and retain the favour of the authorities towards the church, so that the church of Christ may lead a quiet and peaceful life, godly and respectful in every way.
The first sentence in the above paragraph is obviously the position Prof. Van Vliet wants to establish. But has he actually supported it with cogent reasoning? We do not believe he has. Again, as long as these principles are understood in ways that carefully harmonize with the other teachings in the Word of God, we can agree with them. However, the paragraph quoted above leaves unclear how implementing these principles faithfully in a context of state abuse of authority will actually look like. In the book of Acts we observe that the Apostles were frequently reviled, insulted, persecuted, mocked, punished, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, arrested, and killed — often by the civil authorities themselves. Why should we expect anything different in our own day?
Remember that the principles that steer our action in the present case of government restrictions may soon face the test of additional laws. If the government makes a law forbidding Christian ministers to condemn homosexuality as a sin against God, for example, it is conceivable that the only way for preachers to avoid the wrath of rulers and the hatred of the broader population will be to betray Jesus Christ by muting their declaration of the whole counsel of God. As ever, to avoid causing offense would be a tempting short-term way to avoid persecution by a state opposed to Biblical truth. We are not satisfied that Prof. Van Vliet’s article does enough to seriously and straightforwardly warn against such temptation.
Prof. Van Vliet’s quotation of Article 28 in his denomination’s version of the Church Order gives important parameters for the behaviour of office bearers. But this article cannot possibly suggest absolute obedience to any human government, or the Church Order would be contrary to Scripture. We also commend for consideration the version of this article adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914. This version is retained to the present day by the Protestant Reformed Church and other Reformed denominations:
The consistory shall take care that the churches, for the possession of their property and the peace and order of their meetings, can claim the protection of the authorities; it should be well understood, however, that for the sake of peace and material possession they may never suffer the royal government of Christ over his church to be in the least infringed upon.
Surely all Reformed churches will agree that the principle cited above is sound and biblical. The question then confronts us: Does a state’s prohibiting public worship infringe upon the royal government of Christ over his church?
In the section “The Unjust Governors” Prof. Van Vliet circles back to Rom. 13, again without a careful exposition of the passage. He points out the very biblical principle that, “The authority of human governors is not absolute. We also confess in BC [Belgic Confession] 36 that we ‘obey them in all things which do not disagree with the Word of God.’” Unfortunately, his explanation of the implications of this principle is overly narrow:
Douma also makes a helpful comment when he defines authority as “the authorization for the (appropriate) use of power” (p. 185). As he explains, the parentheses in his definition are significant. God authorizes officials to use the power he gives them appropriately. Due to their sinfulness, they do not always do that. However, inappropriate action on their part does not immediately negate their authorization. They are still authorized, and therefore they must still be honoured and obeyed. However, if their inappropriate action persists then, with due process, their actions may be corrected, or ultimately, their authorization may be removed. In the church, for example, inappropriate action by an office bearer leads to verbal censure and perhaps even suspension and deposition. But until such a point, the elder remains worthy of the respect due his office.
This example of the church office bearer conveys a sub-biblical understanding of authority. It is not true that every command of a ruling elder or pastor must be obeyed in order to honour their God-given office. If a ruling elder capriciously commanded a church member to stand on one leg and sing the song “Old McDonald had a Farm,” this would obviously be an abuse of his God-given authority. It would certainly be appropriate for the church member to make use of official ecclesiastical channels to have this ruling elder censured or disciplined. However, it must also be said that this church member may and should flatly refuse to comply with his elder’s command because he is obviously acting outside the parameters of his office’s God given authority and acting on merely human authority. In short, this church member should obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).
The more careful understanding about what the Bible teaches about authority (including the authority of the civil magistrate) is certainly not new. The great Presbyterian divine Samuel Rutherford sets this forth in his magisterial work of Reformed political theory Lex Rex, written in 1644:
I lay down this maxim of divinity: Tyranny being a work of Satan, is not from God, because sin, either habitual or actual, is not from God; the power that is, must be from God; the magistrate, as magistrate, is good in nature of office, and the intrinsic end of his office, (Rom. 13:4) for he is the minister of God for thy good; and, therefore, a power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power; and is no more from God, but from sinful nature and the old serpent, than a license to sin.
In the section “Sphere Sovereignty” Prof. Van Vliet then attempts to apply the political theology of Abraham Kuyper to the present crisis. He writes:
At present the government is not regulating in general terms how the church should worship. It is not making proclamations about how the gospel should, or should not, be preached or what should, or should not, be included in the order of liturgy. Rather, for the most part, due to public health concern, the government is regulating matters of “building capacity” during worship services. Here in Ontario we have gone from 100% capacity in church buildings (pre-COVID), to five in total, to 30% of building capacity, to ten in total (the present regulation at the time of writing). To be sure, these fluctuating building capacity numbers have had a great impact on our manner of worship, so far as online or in person worship is concerned. But to be precise, the government is regulating in the sphere of “building capacity with a view to public health and safety,” not worship in general.
Prof. Van Vliet acknowledges that the effect of the government regulations is to change “our manner of worship.” Yet somehow this “is not regulating in general terms how the church should worship”? To take recourse to such subtle distinctions seem expedient and desperate.
Using the language of “the sphere of building capacity with a view to public health and safety” creates further problems. This seems to be a curiously comprehensive “sphere.” Can we, following this logic, give a Kuyperian legitimation of any legislation governing “the sphere of outdoor spaces” or even “the sphere of all habitable space on planet earth”? Would Prof. Van Vliet please clarify how this view of “sphere sovereignty” leaves the church or the individual believer with anything more than the hidden realm of the heart and the inner thoughts? If this is authentic Kuyperianism, one would have to conclude that Kuyperianism is a theological legitimation of state totalitarianism. However, it is more likely that the pious man who said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” would not recognize his thought in this modern interpretation.
“Children of God and COVID-19” continues:
Building capacity with a view to public safety is the proper jurisdiction of the civil government. We recognize this, for example, with adherence to fire codes. If a church auditorium has been approved for a capacity of 300 in the fire code, and a congregation regularly puts 350 people in the building Sunday after Sunday, the fire department, with the backing of the state, may say: “Something has to change here with your worship services because you cannot pack 350 in the building every Sunday; it’s not safe.” That is not a case of a confusion of sphere sovereignty, or the state telling the church how to worship. It is the state exercising its God-given jurisdiction. True enough, and this cannot be ignored, limiting the number of people in a church building due to the fire code can have a significant impact on worship and the congregation has some (hard) decisions to make. But it is not a transgression of sphere sovereignty.
Granted, comparing a local fire code to a severe, lockdown-style COVID regulation may feel like a stretch. Indeed, there are differences. From a number of different angles, the consequences of COVID regulations are so much more challenging to deal with, but in principle there is an overlap with the situation of the local fire codes. So, the comparison is meant to illustrate a point: there are certain areas within the life of a congregation over which the government does properly have jurisdiction.
But in this argument Prof. Van Vliet assumes about “the proper jurisdiction of the civil government” what he first needs to prove. To the contrary, nowhere does the Bible give authority over “public safety” to the civil government to the exclusion of the government of the church, the government of the family, and the government of the individual in their respective God-appointed roles and responsibilities. Rom. 13:4 says concerning the civil magistrate “he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” There is nothing in Rom. 13 about public safety per se, only the punishment of evildoers and the protection of those who do good. In other words: the enforcement of public justice according to the standard of God’s moral law is all the official responsibility that is given by God to the civil government.
There are times when God’s moral law entails enacting and enforcing laws that preserve the lives of others through the regulation of buildings (Deut. 22:8) and quarantining of individuals who are demonstrably sick (Lev. 13). Obviously, laws that place sensible limits on building capacity such as a fire code do not impede but ultimately protect and preserve the continued public worship of God in our nations. Growing churches may simply find another place to worship, choose to plant a daughter church, or renovate their building to ensure the safety of all. Even civil laws that prevent demonstrably sick people from attending public gatherings might be required in extreme cases by the moral law.
However, nowhere in God’s moral law is there any prohibition on healthy people gathering in safe buildings to publicly worship God. In fact, since for most congregations a ten-person limit on worship services has the effect of abolishing public worship services for the majority of the congregation, this is in clear defiance of the first table of the law requiring regular corporate worship. And, therefore, since whatever is contrary to the moral law and Word of God does not bind the conscience, unjust health regulations do not bind the conscience and need not be complied with. To suggest otherwise would have dreadful implications for the persecuted church in all countries that are hostile to the gospel, since public worship can be permanently banned simply by changing health and safety regulations.