The House of Commons and the Church of God
Recently the Canadian House of Commons passed Bill C-33 which amended the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to include a clause which forbids discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation.” The Prime Minister earlier had suggested that this would not happen because the term “sexual orientation” was too ill defined. Yet, because of enormous pressure from the homosexual lobby in Canada the Minister of Justice introduced a bill amending the Charter and the Liberal majority in the House moved it through the mandatory three readings in less than two weeks. At the time this is being written the bill is before the Canadian Senate for approval and then when passed it will go to the Governor-General for Royal assent and so will become the law of the land.
As Reformed Confessors, we believe this to be an abomination before the Lord God. There is an increasing tendency to treat or regard homosexuals as a special class of human beings entitled to special consideration with respect to their “orientation” or “inclination.” This has happened over the past decades. As our society has fallen away from the truth of God’s Word the norms and standards of Scripture are heard less and less in daily life.
What role if any does the church have to play in all this? In the past decades among the Canadian Reformed churches in Canada various political action groups have formed (ARPA). The Christian Heritage Party has been formed. Many church members have addressed governments and political parties and election candidates about issues and presented policy ideas based on Scriptural principles. But does the church have a role as church? Should the church as consistory address governments on issues that affect the moral fabric of the nation or must it be silent and leave this work to the members of the church?
Calvin on Government
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he urges Timothy and us to pray for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions. When Calvin writes about the magistrates in the Institutes of the Christian Religion he says that the magistrates should be faithful as God’s deputies.1 The civil government is placed in authority by God and the magistrates are to exercise their rule to His honour. The condition of the church is entrusted to the magistrate’s protection and care. 2Calvin points us to Psalm 2:12 where David urges all kings and rulers to kiss the Son of God. They are to “submit to Christ the power with which they have been invested, that He alone may tower over all.” 3 Calvin argues that the magistrates are the “protectors and vindicators of public innocence, modesty, decency and tranquility...” 4 This teaching of John Calvin is reflected in the Belgic Confession, Article 36. The Reformer also wrote that though a nation was free to make such laws as it saw fit, he denied that “those barbarous and savage laws such as gave honour to thieves, permitted promiscuous intercourse, and others more filthy and more absurd, are to be regarded as laws. For they are abhorrent not only to all justice, but also to humanity and gentleness.” 5 Calvin, however, granted the state freedom to legislate punishments according to need. There might be times when certain vices need the special attention of the magistrates lest everything go to ruin. 6
Sermon on the Mount
The Lord Jesus teaches His disciples that they were to be the salt of the earth, a light on a lampstand, and a city on a hill top. Salt is a preservative that when liberally applied will prevent decay in meat and other foods. In and of itself it has little value. You cannot eat only salt. A lit lamp has no value when hid. Light is not hoarded and kept in a bushel or trapped under a bed. Salt and light give benefit only when applied to their surroundings. 7 The Lord Jesus also taught that a city on a hilltop cannot be hidden. The church must not think that it exists for and of itself, as if it has intrinsic importance. 8 It is to be preserving salt. It is to be a bright light. It is to be a visible city. Only one thing is important. The spreading of the light of God and reflecting the glory of His Son. What counts is the glory of God.
The Ten Commandments
The law of God must have an impact on the world. J. Douma points out that since the time of the Reformation a threefold distinction has been made in the function of the Law. 9 The first concerns the meaning of the law for public and political life. The second uncovers the guilt of sin. The third use is as a rule of thankfulness. The third use is as a norm, the second as a mirror, the first as a safeguard. Calvin says that this first use of the law restrains men from sin.
This is especially true for those who are not yet believers. He points us to Paul who writes in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 that “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, sodomites, kidnappers, liars, perjurers...(RSV).” This shows that “the law is like a halter to check the raging and otherwise limitlessly ranging lusts of the flesh.” 10
The church order of Dort as revised and adopted in the Canadian and American Reformed churches addresses these matters. Article 28 says that the office-bearers are to encourage and teach the congregation that they are to show obedience, love and respect to the civil authorities. They are also to endeavour, also by communication, to secure and retain the favour of the authorities toward the church so that the church of Christ may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectable in every way. We see here then that it is the duty of the office-bearers to communicate with the civil authorities. W.W.J. Van Oene suggests that beyond church, family and personal prayers letters could be sent to newly elected officials assuring them that prayers and intercessions will be raised to God for them. 11 In the past Dutch synods, for example, have sent communications to their monarch to assure the love and the respect of the churches represented at synod.
Article 30 of the Church Order also has bearing on this matter. There it says that the assemblies of the church shall only deal with ecclesiastical matters. This might seem to preclude the church speaking to the government at all and so contradict article 28 but this is not so. H. Spaan in his discussion of the matter suggests that “political, social and economical questions are ecclesiastical matters when doctrinal and ethical issues of sufficient moment and magnitude are involved according to the Word of God...” 12 Not everything that a government does falls under this rule but there are times that the church should not be silent. It should speak up when issues of sufficient moment and magnitude are involved.
The church is not to take on the role of the state and begin to legislate and to punish with fines and imprisonment. Nor is the state to interfere with the authority of the church in exercising spiritual discipline and censure. Each has its role and function under God as office bearers endowed with authority in their own place. The weapon of the church is the Word of God. But it should then also use that weapon by addressing those in authority. Though the church must pray for those in civil authority it must not then think that it need not proclaim the truth to those very magistrates for whom it prays.
Van Dellen and Monsma, in their Church Order commentary, write that when article 30 states that only ecclesiastical matters are to be dealt with we should not think this means that the “instituted church as such has no message for and interest in things governmental, social, economic, educational. It assuredly has.” 13 This is not a license, however, for the church to engage in all sorts of political action and lobbying. Nor should it be seen as a directive to set up all sorts of consistorial, classical or synodical committees to examine every kind of social and political problem in the land. The church’s task is to remain a beacon of truth in a dark world. But part of that task is to speak out on ethical issues of sufficient gravity.
There is no law regulating abortion in this country. Should the church not speak to this issue? Shall we not bear the burden of guilt with our fellow citizens for our silence? Throughout the western world, the “right to die” groups promote euthanasia. The “gay rights” lobby badgers governments into removing the bridle of laws against promiscuity, adultery and sodomy. Shall we be silent? We must speak out as individuals but should we not communicate to the magistrates that the church which prays for them according to the direction of Scripture also abhors these things because of the teaching of that same Scripture?
As J. Douma writes, “we must not pull the church and the world apart, but we must differentiate them.”14 The first use of the law must not be isolated from the gospel for then we will quickly fall into humanism. But neither should we negate it by leaving it to function only in the church, for then we fall into Anabaptism. We must “not close our eyes to this world, with which God, in His long suffering, still wants to concern himself. And if God also gives His law in order to make possible a bearable society for Gentiles and non-believers, then we cannot remove our hands from the world.”15
May the church then continue to be a light in this world, even as our nation abandons the direction given by God in His Word. Let the church also speak out on matters that affect the moral and ethical framework of our nation and so be a preserving salt. The church must raise a prophetic voice and point legislators and magistrates (for whom we pray) to the Word of God, lest the Lord turn in anger and come in judgment against our nation.