(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 23)
Surely all Christians are familiar with the evangelical mission instituted by Jesus Christ? Surely every Christian worth his salt wilfully engages in – and delights in – what has become known as the “Great Commission.” The Great Commission, among other things, has a great deal to do with Christians being the “salt of the earth and the light of the world”, which is to say that the Great Commission has to do with bringing the Gospel to bear upon all nations. At the heart of the Great Commission is the message of redemption through Christ’s cross. It is this message of salvation that is for the healing or transformation of the nations.
When considered in terms of ‘salt’ and ‘light’, and ‘healing of the nations’, it is easy to see that the Great Commission degenerates into an exercise in the promotion of an otherworldy pietism if it is separated from the Cultural Mandate of Genesis. There is nothing wrong with being pious, for being pious is simply being Godly. However, being pietistic is another matter – don’t confuse pietism with godliness. For Pietism regards the earth and its inhabitants as the realm of the devil. If you detach the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20 from the Cultural Mandate, given by God to man in Genesis 1:26-28, you end up with Pietism. But the Great Commission is about the redemption of all the nations. However the pietist reduces that redemption to individual souls; and may even go as far as to exclude the physical bodies of these individuals.
Pietism sees the Kingdom of Heaven as something that retreats and withdraws itself from the world, rather than the power that heals, renews and transforms the world. Think about it, God gave the Cultural Mandate to mankind before the Fall. In the Cultural Mandate mankind was commissioned to have dominion over all earthly creatures and subdue the earth to the glory of God. In other words, the Cultural Mandate was God’s command to man to spread His Kingdom of Heaven throughout all the earth.
The Garden of Eden was the Kingdom of Heaven’s geographic and spiritual centre. When man fell the Cultural Mandate wasn’t revoked – it still remained. However, God added a new aspect to it when the household of Noah with the birds and animals exited the ark after the global flood. It’s important that you see this. Otherwise you may end up with a Pietistic view of the world. You may end up thinking of governments as evil institutions. To be sure, like everything else in a fallen world, governments will have their share of corruption. However, their right to rule, as we’ll see shortly, has been divinely instituted.
Reason for Civil Government
Civil government has been divinely instituted. For God, the supreme Lord and King of the whole world, has appointed civil rulers or authorities to be under Him over the people for His own glory and the public good. It’s important that you see that civil government is much more that just some necessary evil that we must bear with in a fallen world.
Keep in mind that Adam before the fall was commissioned by God to tend and to keep the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew word translated ‘keep’ has to do with guarding or policing. Therefore Adam was commissioned by God to protect God’s creation, which included also his wife, Eve, and his children when they arrived.
Now, it’s not hard to see that order would need to be kept when mankind began to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth while subduing it. Therefore civil government is part of the natural growth of humanity. Families would naturally form into states and nations. And, just as families have the ruling structure of parents, so civil governments would be needed to rule in states and nations. Therefore the Cultural Mandate has a definable order to it. It’s not every man for himself!
God, being the God of order, all things, including being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth and subduing it and having dominion, must be done decently and in order. When Noah came out of the ark, which was, of course, after the fall, the same Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1: 26-28 was reissued.
We see in Genesis 9:5-7 civil government being given the “power of the sword”. For the LORD says, “Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man. And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth and multiply in it.’”
So we see then that God seeks to protect the public good by having murderers punished. The punishment as laid out in Genesis 9:5 & 6 is death, i.e., capital punishment. The authority for meting out capital punishment is not given to the family or the church. Rather it is given only to the civil government of the State. And, just as we have noted the connection between the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 and repeated with the capital punishment amendment in Genesis 9:1-7,so we need to see the connection between Genesis 9:1-7 and Romans 13:1-7. For in Romans 13:1-7 we see that the civil government or the civil authority is God’s minister. Romans 13:1b says that, ‘…the authorities that exist are appointed by God.’ And then in Romans 13:4 we are told, ‘For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.’
Pre-Fall the Cultural Mandate was issued under the terms of the Covenant of Works, whereby unfallen man would ‘surely die’ (Gen. 2:17) by the hand of God should he sin (Rom. 6:23a). After the Fall, and under the Covenant of Grace, should man be guilty of a capital offence, “…by man his blood shall be shed…” Thus the civil authority “…is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” The death-penalty threatened pre-Fall has become a present reality.
So we see then that civil governments are divinely appointed. They have a divine purpose. They are to promote good works and prohibit and punish evil deeds. In a word, the civil government is to be about the business of serving God by promoting and rewarding public good while it protects the public from evil-doers. Thus the civil government is about guarding or policing, i.e., protecting the innocent.
We hear an echo of the task of pre-Fall civil government in Romans 13:3, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.” So, the civil magistrate or civil government is to praise good. Therefore civil government is not only about punishing evil-doers. It is also about giving praise to doers of good – just as would have been the case in an unfallen world. So we see in light of this that Christians may lawfully accept and carry out the functions of civil rulers. There is nothing unlawful about the office of civil government. Indeed, as we’ve seen, civil government has been instituted by God for the good of the public. Therefore we ought to keep in mind that the general public would benefit greatly from having Godly Christians in government when called to it.
Now, the spread of the Kingdom of Heaven is greatly enhanced when the Great Commission is viewed atop the pedestal of the Cultural Mandate. Nay, both are part of the same sculpture of God. For Civil Government plays a key role in spreading the teachings of Christ amongst the municipality, state or nation under its lawful authority.
As Jesus says in the Great Commission passage: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them [i.e., all the nations] in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them [i.e, all the nations] to observe all things that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
So we see clearly then that the civil government has been given its authority by Jesus Christ who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. And we see clearly that the reason the civil government exists is to assist in teaching the nations to observe or obey all those things Jesus has commanded. The civil government has been given authority to also use the sword to teach the nations.
Rights of Civil Government
Civil government has certain God-given rights. As we’ve seen, it has the right to promote good deeds and it has the right to punish evildoers. Indeed, civil governments have the right to wage war on lawful and just occasions. For not only does the civil government have the right to punish evildoers who commit capital offences with capital force within its nation, but it also has the right to repel with force other nations attempting to invade. If Adolf Hitler and his nation are trying to invade your island-state, then you must bear arms to repel him. For a war to be just and lawful it needs to be a defensive war. It needs to be a war of protection, rather than aggression. To be sure when the bullets start flying it all can become a bit of a grey area!
Now, the civil government doesn’t have the right to interfere in every aspect of society. For instance the civil government is overstepping its authority and jurisdiction if it tries to take to itself the power of God’s Word and Sacraments. For this authority has been given only to the Lord’s Church. The civil government has the power of the sword. But the church has the power of the keys – i.e., the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
The church doesn’t have the authority to administer capital punishment. And the civil government doesn’t have the authority to administer church discipline or the Sacraments. Civil government must not interfere in the spiritual government of the church. However, because the civil government is to promote public good and deter public evil, it does have authority and is obliged to ensure that unity and peace are preserved in the church.
And the civil government is to ensure that the truth of God is kept pure and complete. In the Bible there is no hint that any civil government is supposed to be or to remain secular, i.e., non religious. To be sure the civil government at the time of Christ and the Apostle Paul was pagan. However, who would conclude that because the civil government at the time of Christ was pagan, that we today ought to ensure that all civil government be or remain non-Christian? And yet the Pietists today believe in secular government!
The Pietist confuses the separation of state and church with separation between state and religion. Therefore it’s far better to speak of the distinction between church and state, rather than any separation. However, the Pietist is guilty of compartmentalizing life into sacred and secular. He sees church activities as sacred, and every other activity outside the church as secular. Thus the Pietist has given the realm outside the church to the devil. He’s forgotten that the Cultural Mandate is as spiritual as the Great Commission! Indeed the Great Commission is the Cultural Mandate obeyed in the power of the Spirit! For, it is the Holy Spirit who appoints civil authority as well as ecclesiastical authority. And because the civil ruler is God’s minister, the work he does is a spiritual work.
Therefore both state and church are spiritual institutions ordained by God. And as such, the church ought to assist the state to promote the spiritual wellbeing of its citizens. And likewise the State ought to assist the church to promote the spiritual wellbeing of its members. However, this is a far cry from saying that each has the right to interfere in the jurisdiction of the other.
But the state ought to promote unity and peace in the church and seek to ensure that the truth of God is kept pure and entire. For how else is the Civil Government supposed to lawfully keep order in society if people in the church are able to murder each other without the civil government punishing the evildoers? Yet the pietist believes that the church is to remain separate form the state, i.e., out of the jurisdiction of civil government. It reeks of pagan and Romish ‘Sanctuary’!
It is the truth of God that gives the civil government its authority. Therefore it would do well to ensure that the truth of God is kept pure and complete. Therefore the civil government ought to involve itself in the suppression of blasphemy and heresy. Just think of the blasphemy on the street, on TV and in the movies today. Do you think there ought to be a law deterring and even preventing the blasphemy of God? Well, if you do, and so you ought, how do you think this kind of thing should be policed? Is public censorship the realm of the church or the civil government?
It’s the same with all public obscenity, isn’t it? The civil government has the authority to promote good and deter evil. Heresy is teaching things contrary to the truth of God. To be sure, the civil government would do well to promote the truth of God. For that way its citizens would know more exactly what is good and what is evil.
Now, perhaps the idea of the civil government trying to suppress heresy conjures up a picture in your mind of Gestapo-like police bursting down doors to enter private residences. Perhaps you think that this encroaches on the citizen’s rights of freedom of speech. Well, how is the civil government’s attempting to suppress blasphemy any different to its attempting to suppress heresy? If civil government can pass laws against blasphemy then it can pass laws to stem heresy.
Now, what exactly do we mean by heresy? A Scottish Christian in the early 1800’s by the affectionate nickname of ‘Rabbi’ Duncan poured oil on the troubled waters of heresy when he reportedly said, “It is a monstrous thing that that horrible word ‘heresy’ is now used on all occasions so freely and applied so recklessly to all error. All error is not heresy… Heresy is a work of the flesh and no man can be charged with it, even on a fundamental, till, after faithful admonishment, he persists in it, knowing that he does so.” (Endnote 21 in ’Heroes & Heretics’ by Iain D Campbell)
The church doesn’t run around disciplining every person holding erroneous views of Scriptural doctrines. Neither does the civil government. It’s only when the unity and peace of the church is in a turmoil by a known heretic persisting after faithful church admonition that the civil government should consider acting. And when and if the civil government does decide to act on a case of heresy, it must always remember justice tempered with mercy – lest it inflame the situation.
So, not only does the civil government have authority to promote unity and peace in the church, which includes suppressing blasphemy and heresy, but it also ought to try to ensure that all corruptions and abuses of worship and discipline are prevented and reformed.
And not only that, the civil government has authority to ensure that all services or ordinances of God are duly established, administered and celebrated. In a word, the civil government has the authority to promote the well being of the church. It is to try to ensure that the church functions as the church.
To be sure the civil government may not usurp the authority of the church. However, as Rowland Ward says, “In a somewhat similar way, the state encourages the arts and sciences, but does not presume to determine authoritatively matters discussed by these disciplines.” (The Westminster Confession of Faith For The Church Today, p. 165).
In order to carry out its duty the civil government has the authority to call and be present at church meetings. This, of course, would seem like the obvious thing for the civil government to do were the church extremely disorganised and corrupt. But it is the duty of God’s civil ministers to strive to see that whatever is transacted at these meetings (should they be called) is in accordance with the truth of God.
We see an example of a civil ruler call a meeting with the church authorities in 2 Chronicles 19:8f. “Moreover in Jerusalem, for the judgment of the LORD and for controversies, Jehoshaphat appointed some of the Levites and priests, and some of the chief fathers of Israel, when they returned to Jerusalem.” And we see King Herod do likewise in Matthew 2:4, “And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” To be sure, Herod had evil in mind when he called that meeting. But nevertheless, Herod was God’s appointed authority.
Respect for Civil Government
The Apostle Paul, by the Holy Spirit, teaches us to pray for all who are in authority. For he says in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.”
Notice the reasons Paul gives for praying for all who are in authority: “…that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life…” We pray for the civil government so that we can live quiet or tranquil and peaceable or undisturbed lives. But notice what kind of quiet and peaceable life we are to lead. “…that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.”
The word ‘godliness’ speaks of piety – not to be confused with pietism. Piety has to do with right thinking and right living. And the word ‘reverence’ speaks of honesty. So, we are to pray that we will be able to live tranquil, undisturbed, pious, and honest lives. And we see clearly that the civil government has a major role in ensuring that we live this kind of life. Therefore we need to respect the civil government, which is to say that we mustn’t view the civil government as a necessary evil. Nor ought we to view the civil government as belonging to the realm of the devil. No, they are ministers of God – they wield the sword of justice!
The Pietist views the civil government as belonging to the devil. Therefore he views the civil authorities with contempt. But the Apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 2:13&14, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.”
So, we are to pray for the civil government. We are to honour it. We are to pay it taxes and other dues because they are God’s ministers, (Romans 13:6&7). We are to obey their lawful commands for the sake of a clear conscience, (Romans 13:5).
Now, we need to keep in mind that the civil authority is not made void because the person is not a Christian. Jesus taught that we are to render unto Caesar the things that are (even pagan) Caesar’s. Therefore even if the whole government comprises of unbelievers we are to obey all its lawful commands.“[N]othing that is contrary to the Law of God can be lawful, nor may it be so regarded by those that fear God.” (Johannes G Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, p. 349).
Therefore we mustn’t pietistically think we are exempt from obeying the civil authorities just because we are Christians. No religious leaders are exempt from this. Church ministers and elders need to pay their speeding fines like everyone else! All of us must respect the authorities God has put in place.
Having noted that Civil Government exists by divine appointment, and does not therefore belong to the devil, but rather God, we are now able to see where the State fits into the Great Commission. The Church and the Civil Government are two distinct entities operating in one nation. Both are to operate according to God’s Moral Law as it applies to each of these distinct spheres.
Now, even were the civil government not to acknowledge that it is God’s minister for good, doesn’t change the fact that it is God’s minister. Therefore because the civil government is God’s minister we can see that God has placed it there for a very good reason. The reason in terms of the Cultural Mandate is to assist the nation to be obedient to God’s command to spread the Kingdom of Heaven. On account of sin, the Kingdom of Heaven this side of the Fall, is spread by the nation becoming obedient to everything Christ has commanded. Thus the Cultural Mandate has become empowered by the Holy Spirit who has been poured out on all nations.
This is what the Great Commission is all about. It’s not about rescuing people from nations about to be destroyed because they belong to the devil. Rather it’s about healing – healing the nations from the misery of sin and death. The Great Commission is about Jesus Christ setting the nations free from their bondage to sin. We’ve seen that the Civil Government has a very important role to play in this healing.
Psalm 67 is a helpful prayer and summary of what we’ve looked at: “God be merciful to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us, that Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations. Let the people praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. O let the nations be glad and sing for joy! For You shall judge the people righteously, and govern the nations on earth. Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. Then the earth shall yield her increase; God, our own God, shall bless us, and all the ends of the earth shall fear Him.”