It used to be that the left had a monopoly on talk of revolution. You could count on leftists to wear their Che Guevara t-shirts and spout off about overthrowing the government. However, increasingly today I hear socially conservative Christians around the world calling for a revolution. They believe their governments have become tyrannical and democracy is not up to the task of overhauling the system. So now we have this bizarre world where folks on both the left and the right want a coup, an insurrection. The only difference being the slogans they bear: BLM on the left, MAGA on the right.
Confessionally Reformed Christians shouldn’t have a bar of it. If we’re historically self-conscious, we’ll know that Reformed churches have always regarded the revolutionary impulse as sinful. In fact, we have a Confession to prove it.
There are several factors behind the writing of the 1561 Belgic Confession. In For the Cause of the Son of God, I argued that one key factor was a desire to spread the true gospel. Sadly, that missionary factor has often been ignored. One factor that has never been ignored, however, is the intention to demonstrate to the government of the Low Countries that the Reformed churches were not political revolutionaries.
There are two important pieces of historical context behind that. First, there were some Anabaptist groups who were revolutionaries. In 1534-35, one of these groups took over the city of Munster. The Melchiorites, under the leadership of John Mathijs and John Beukels, overthrew the local government and seized control of the city. After a lengthy and bloody siege, the city was eventually freed again in June of 1535. After this, Anabaptists were typically regarded as seditious and revolutionary. Moreover, all Protestants were often tarred with the same brush.
The second important piece of context is the political situation in the Low Countries. What we today call the Netherlands and Belgium were under the control of the Spanish. This was a brutal and intolerant regime. While Protestants were occasionally given the freedom to worship, most of the Reformation years saw much bloodshed and persecution. King Philip II, to whom the Belgic Confession was addressed, was far more of a tyrant than Justin Trudeau, Joe Biden, or Scott Morrison.
In the face of that, Guy de Brès wrote the Belgic Confession on behalf of the Reformed churches. One of his express purposes, as laid out in the preface to the King, was to demonstrate that the Reformed believers were law-abiding peaceful people. In other words, they were not to be confused with revolutionary Anabaptists like the Melchiorites in Munster. Read carefully what de Brès wrote in the original preface to the Confession:
…those who hold office and pass sentence and judgment in legal proceedings would be good witnesses that they never observed anything in us that leaned towards disobedience, nor did they discover in us the resolve in any way to militate against your Majesty, nor did they find anything that would disturb the common peace. Rather, they found that in our communal assemblies we pray for the kings and princes of the earth and in particular for you, O most gracious Lord, and for those whom you have authorized in the regime and ruling offices of the regions and countries of your domain. For we have been taught not only by God’s Word but also through the constant instruction of our preachers that the kings, princes, and authorities are appointed by the ordinance of God.
Besides, we have been taught that he that resists the magistrates resists the ordinance of God and will receive damnation. We acknowledge and maintain that by the eternal wisdom of God the kings rule and the princes determine justice.Briefly stated, we believe that they have their office not through injustice or despotism, but by God’s own appointment. In order to demonstrate that this is not merely the word of our lips but that it is a conviction most deeply impressed and imprinted upon our hearts, we ask: who has ever been found among us who has refused you, most gracious Lord, the tribute or tax required of him? On the contrary, obedience to pay was as quickly granted as the command was given. What cache of weapons, what conspiracy was ever uncovered, even when we had been subjected to such cruel pains and torment by those who have clothed themselves in your name and power to commit every cruelty against us?
Even though King Philip II was a tyrant, the Reformed churches showed him the utmost deference. There wasn’t a hint of a revolutionary spirit.
This continues into the body of the Belgic Confession. Article 36 is about the civil government. There Reformed believers confess from the Scriptures that government has been instituted by God as a fruit of his grace. The Confession lays out the responsibilities of government, but then also speaks of the calling of the governed:
Moreover, everyone – no matter of what quality, condition, or rank – ought to be subject to the civil officers, pay taxes, hold them in honour and respect, and obey them in all things which do not disagree with the Word of God. We ought to pray for them, that God may direct them in all their ways and that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim. 2:1,2).
Again, remember that this was originally in the context of Spanish tyranny in the Low Countries. If that was true under those circumstances, how much more shouldn’t it hold true in ours?
The last paragraph of article 36 has been controversial in some Reformed churches. It reads:
For that reason we condemn the Anabaptists and other rebellious people, and in general all those who reject the authorities and civil officers, subvert justice, introduce a communion of goods, and overturn the decency that God has established among men.
The reason for the controversy is what appears to be a blanket condemnation of Anabaptists. However, the historical context reminds us that what’s in view here are the revolutionary Anabaptists. Guy de Brès knew that not all Anabaptists were like the Melchiorites. For our purposes, we can take note that Reformed churches not only distance themselves from revolutionary ideologies (whether from left or right), they condemn them and those who hold them. Revolution isn’t the Reformed way.
Eventually the Dutch successfully rose up against the Spanish and achieved their freedom. However, it’s important to note that the Dutch Revolt was not a revolution in the conventional sense. It was led by government. There was authority involved – that of the so-called lesser magistrates. That was in keeping with standard Reformed political theory. If tyranny is to be overthrown, then it must be done by lawful government.
The Dutch in the 16th century didn’t live in a parliamentary democracy like we do in Canada or Australia. If we believe political change is necessary, there are lawful means available to us to pursue that. When an election is called, we can put in the hard work of trying to persuade family, friends, and neighbours to vote a particular way. We’re even free ourselves to put our name on the ballot and try to effect change that way. We still have options apart from the dramatic type of regime change that took place with the Dutch Revolt.
Revolutionary insurrection is not the Reformed way to pursue meaningful political change. It’s not Reformed because it’s not biblical. No where do we find the Bible encouraging Christians to rise up against their government. Instead, the Holy Spirit teaches us:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)
If you want a revolution, you’re not being biblical and therefore you’re not being Reformed.