As it is the office of the civil authorities to promote in every way the holy ministry, so 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 peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.
It has been stated that this article does not belong in our Church Order. No one has been able to find out precisely what the reason is why it was inserted. Most articles can be traced back to the Convent of Wesel; Article 28 was inserted by the Synod of Dordrecht 1618/1619.
When we ask why it was inserted, the answers we receive rest only on guesswork. “Perhaps synod inserted it for two reasons: 1. to obtain from the authorities the so fervently desired approbation of the Church Order… and 2. to correctly delineate the mutual relationship and to cut off beforehand the Arminian idea that the magistrates are above the church as well as the Romish idea that the authorities are under the church.” As we see, there is only a “perhaps.”
One who made a special study of the Acts of the Synod of Dort wrote: “I cannot tell how this decision — that has been inserted in the Church Order as Article 28 — has come into the world.” Indeed, when reading Article 28, we discover that it is of a somewhat different nature than the other articles. Yet it would be a loss if we eliminated it. In this article we remind ourselves not only of the task of the authorities but also of our own proper attitude towards the civil authorities.
From what the churches have agreed upon in this article it is clear that a practice as found with many apostate churches around us, namely the practice of interfering in all sorts of political matters by public statements and actions or by the support of revolutionary groups is contrary to the church and in conflict with the behaviour that is proper according to the Word of God.
The moment may even come that we are thankful that this article is in our Church Order; when it will be a blessing and advantage that we can show that the Reformed Churches are basically different from those religious bodies that have become unfaithful to the true character of the church and have degenerated into political and social organizations under the cover of the name of the church.
A Grain of Truth
The assumption that the attitude of the civil authorities had something to do with the insertion of this article may well be correct. Many of the civil authorities were on the side of the Arminians, and the Arminians were of the opinion that the civil authorities were above the church. It was they who prevented the convening of a general synod, and it was not until Prince Maurice put his weight behind the churches that a general synod was convened, thirty-two years after the previous one. It is quite understandable when under such circumstances it is stressed that the civil authorities are to promote the holy ministry in every way.
The Synod of Dort did not thereby introduce anything new. The churches had in their confession already declared that the task of the civil authorities is not limited to the public order, but includes the protection of the church and its ministry, Art. 36 B.C.
One thing should be noted right away: we do not speak here of “the Church” and of “the State,” but we speak of persons: “the civil authorities” and “the office-bearers.” We do not speak of impersonal entities but of living and responsible persons. Both the civil authorities and the office-bearers have their office from Christ and it is their obligation to recognize Him and to execute their office for the promotion of His kingdom.
Promote the Holy Ministry
It is the duty of the civil authorities “to promote in every way the holy ministry.” Our Belgic Confession speaks more extensively about the task of the civil authorities. In our Church Order we only state that it is their office, their task, their obligation to promote the holy ministry “in every way.”
It will be understood that it is not the intention that the civil authorities, for example, must enact laws that compel everyone to go to church. Promoting the holy ministry is something else than exercising spiritual or physical coercion. We are to think here of what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 13, that the one in authority is the servant of God for the good of God’s children.
Another passage which comes to mind is 1 Tim. 2, where the apostle urges that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.
It is not the duty of the civil authorities to compel their subjects to serve God or to believe, but it is their obligation to enable the church to fulfil its task as much as is in their power. They are to extend help to the office-bearers where needed and to protect them whenever this is necessary. We cannot, nor should we try to describe and formulate each and every “way” in which the civil authorities are to promote the holy ministry. A few examples may suffice.
When members serve in the armed forces or in the police forces, the shifts should be arranged so that it is possible for these members to attend church at least once a Sunday. The civil authorities should also ban and bar everything by which the ministry of the gospel would be impeded on
Sundays. Noisy parades and other events which would interfere with the worship services should be forbidden or re-routed, so that no inconvenience is experienced. If members are in prison, the opportunity should be given to office-bearers to visit them regularly, also outside of regular visiting hours.
After the Second World War gasoline was strictly rationed in the Netherlands and special permits were required for Sunday driving. Ministers of the gospel were among the first ones to receive such permits. Thereby the holy ministry was promoted.
Institution of chaplain services in armed forces and prisons is another way in which the progress of the Gospel is advanced.
Promotion “in every way” does not mean that the civil authorities take up and assume the task of the office-bearers, but that they do everything possible to enable the office-bearers to fulfil their task unhindered. This applies, fundamentally, not only to the work of the office-bearers; it covers the whole service of the Lord, the whole life of God's children with all that is therein. Thus it includes the freedom of the parents to have their Christian schools, their youth organizations and their societies for old and young.
As said above, we gave only a few examples. What we formulated in this article as the task of the civil authorities does not imply that the civil authorities have the right to interfere in the affairs of the church with the “good intention” of wanting to promote the holy ministry. We state that it is their obligation to remove all obstacles which might prevent the office-bearers from doing their work unhindered, and to render it possible for all God’s children to serve the Lord without impediment in all of life.
On the other hand, we also describe what the office-bearers should do towards the civil authorities. They are to show that they are office-bearers of Christ. And the Lord Jesus Himself showed due respect to those who were in authority over Him. He commanded His own to give to Caesar that which was Caesar’s, and acknowledged Pilate’s authority as authority the Roman governor had received from God. In obedience to their Master both Peter and Paul impressed upon their addressees the obligation to honour those to whom honour is due, and to make intercession for all who are in authority.
It is, therefore, in full accordance with God’s Word that the provision has been inserted that “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.” This precludes any action whereby, in the name of the church, office-bearers support revolutionary actions and movements, by whatever name they are called. For example: acts of civil disobedience would be a violation not only of what we confess in Article 36 B.C., but also of the provision found in Article 28 C.O.
The love and respect due to all who are in authority are impressed upon the congregation not only when this obligation is mentioned and stressed in the sermons but also when in the public prayers these authorities are remembered regularly. A good opportunity is offered by family visits when the
members could be asked how they regard the authorities and whether these authorities are remembered in the family prayers as well.
It goes without saying that the office-bearers are to show in word and deed that they themselves are obedient to the Lord’s command in this regard too.
Secure and Retain
How could the favour of the authorities be obtained and retained? Personal respect is the first means by which this could be achieved. Further, there may be various occasions for letting the authorities know that they are being remembered in the prayers of Christ’s church. This applies specifically to the “lower authorites,” those in our own town or city. The higher the authorities are, the less likely it is that they see written communications, although this should not prevent us from sending these communications.
When persons have been elected and installed in office, this provides an excellent opportunity for contacting them and assuring them that the Lord will be asked to grant them wisdom and guidance so that their rule and government may be such “that the church of Christ may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.” Those who wish to show respect and are eager to secure and retain the favour of the authorities will be able to find various ways and means to achieve this.
This writer recalls that in his youth it was customary to have a worship service on the Queen’s birthday to thank the Lord especially for having spared her for another year. It was also customary that, when a general synod was held, this synod sent a telegram to Her Majesty to assure her of the love and respect of the churches represented by this synod. These are only a few of the ways and means by which favour and goodwill may be secured and retained.
One point we can deal with best in this connection is the question whether office-bearers can claim professional privilege when summoned to be a witness before a court of law. Do they have to tell all they know or are they legally permitted to refuse answering certain questions when they have learned something in their capacity as an office-bearer? In various countries the right to secrecy has been recognized.
It is not completely clear in how far this right would be acknowledged in the case of an elder or a deacon. Much will depend on how the court would evaluate their position in the church. As for ministers, the Consolidated Statutes of Newfoundland 1916, stipulate: “A clergyman or priest shall not be compelled to give evidence as to any confession made to him in his professional character.” In Quebec the rule has applied since 1886 that “A witness cannot be compelled to declare what has been revealed to him confidentially in his professional character as a religious or legal adviser.”
Although apparently an office-bearer cannot be compelled to reveal any confession, he will have to promote justice and equity also by his testimony.
Thus it may be necessary to reveal such a confession if by keeping silent the course of justice should be impeded and iniquity should result from such silence. The ninth commandment overrides whatever human laws and provisions there may be.