My Dad was a pilot in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and, as a boy, I was so proud of him. In his job, he flew some famous (and infamous) people. Probably the most famous of all was the Prime Minister of Canada. This happened around 1980. Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau took a vacation touring around the Arctic. We were living in Inuvik, NWT. My Dad was tasked with flying Prime Minister Trudeau on from Yellowknife to several other spots in the Arctic. I thought that was pretty cool.
A couple of years later I was trying to impress some friends at my new school in Alberta. I told them my Dad had flown Prime Minister Trudeau. I didn’t really pay too much attention to politics at that time. Just new in town, I had no idea the PM was enormously unpopular in Alberta. So I was taken aback when my friends responded, “Well, why didn’t your Dad do us all a favour and kick him out of the airplane while he was flying?”
Perhaps you can forgive those sorts of sentiments coming from 9 year old redneck wannabes. As I grew older, I developed a similar level of animosity towards the PM, especially for his friendship with Fidel Castro, his introduction of official bilingualism, and the National Energy Program. Today Canada has Justin Trudeau (son of Pierre) as Prime Minister. The hostility towards him amongst some is equal to if not greater than that which existed towards his father. But also here in Australia, there’s a lot of resentment, anger, and even hatred towards government, especially on the state level.
It’s regrettable that these attitudes are taking root amongst Reformed Christians. These attitudes are unbiblical and they have no place in the lives of disciples of Jesus. Frustration is understandable, but disrespect isn’t justifiable. In the past two years, I’ve seen expressions of disrespect ranging from name-calling to calling for outright revolutionary overthrow of the government. There’s a rebellious, revolutionary spirit about in society and I’m afraid that many Reformed Christians have fallen prey to it.
It’s good to go back to our history and learn from how Reformed believers in the past lived under frustrating and even dangerous governments. Let’s take Guido de Brès, the author of the Belgic Confession, as an example. He lived under the tyranny of King Philip II of Spain. King Philip saw it as his calling to promote the Roman Catholic faith by eradicating Protestantism. Areas under his rule, especially in what we today call the Netherlands and Belgium, had the highest numbers of martyrdoms in the sixteenth century. As an influential Reformed pastor, Guido de Brès was on their “most-wanted list” and they eventually arrested him and had him hanged.
Guido de Brès wrote more than just the Belgic Confession. He wrote two major books, one against the Roman Catholics, and another against the Anabaptists. The latter was entitled La racine, source et fondement des Anabaptistes (The Root, Source, and Foundation of the Anabaptists). Unfortunately, only a small part of it has been translated into English and that was published in 1668. In this book, de Brès takes on the errors of various Anabaptists in six areas. One of those areas had to do with government.
The chapter on the Magistrate deals specifically with one problematic teaching of Menno Simons (the founder of the Mennonites): his rejection of capital punishment. Simons argued that if a criminal were to repent and turn to the Lord before his execution, how could another Christian put him to death? How would that reflect the compassionate example of Christ, “the meek Lamb”? And if an unrepentant criminal were to have his life ended by capital punishment, his repentance and faith would be thus precluded. This chapter in La racine is primarily a polemic against that position, arguing that governments indeed have the right and responsibility to use the sword to uphold justice, regardless of the repentance of the criminal.
As interesting as that is, I looked at this chapter in terms of what de Brès writes about the proper Christian attitude towards government. I found this section particularly interesting:
Now we must diligently note that Saint Paul calls the Magistrate “servant of God” and “ordained by God” seven times. For the Holy Spirit wanted to speak thus, because he knew that there would come contradictors in later times, who by their pride wanted to abolish and entirely annihilate the authorities that God had established for the good of men. And when he says that the Magistrates are ordained by God, it is because they have been already ordained by God through his word in the church of the Patriarchs and Israelites. Thus we are led to understand clearly that this ordinance which God previously made concerning the Magistrate over his people holds fast today in the Church of Christ. I am speaking about the political government in this place.
Writing to Titus, he similarly commands him saying: “Admonish them that they be subject to the principalities and powers, that they obey the governors, that they be always ready for every good work, that they do not speak evil of anyone” (Tit. 3:1-2). Saint Peter also teaches the same, saying: “Be subject to all human order for the love of God, to the King as superior, to the Governors as those sent by him to punish evildoers and to praise those who are good; for this is the will of God” (1 Pet. 2:13-15). In the same place: “Bring honour to all, love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the King” (1 Pet. 2:17). All these apostolic sentences must be carefully considered, for by them we see that the apostles acknowledge the primary authority and power of the Magistrates. In these they have been constituted by God to have power to put to death the evildoers who resist them. For this reason, Paul says here to those of the Church: “If you do wrong, be afraid. For the Prince does not bear the sword in vain. He is the servant of God to bring justice and wrath to those who do evil” (Rom. 13:4). By “the sword” the Apostle understands the power of the sword to draw the blood of those who deserve it.
Contrary to some of the Anabaptists who were revolutionary and seditious, de Brès upheld a positive view of civil government. This view was not unique to de Brès, but simply echoed standard Reformed teaching both in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
There are a few things to note in connection with that quote from La racine.
In the first place, observe how it’s well-grounded in Scripture. This is typical for de Brès in La racine and in his other writings, including the Belgic Confession.
Second, what he writes here is consistent with what appeared earlier in article 36 of the Confession. La racine was published in 1565; the Belgic Confession in 1561. There was no change in de Brès’ positive approach to civil magistrates. De Brès in 1565 would have still agreed with his Confession of 1561, “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.”
The immutability of his position ties into the third consideration: between 1561 and 1565, things didn’t improve under King Philip II. In fact, they became much worse. During this time period, de Brès was living in self-imposed exile in France; it was too dangerous for him in his native Low Countries. The tyranny of King Philip II and his underlings had only grown stronger and their persecution more intense. But, in this final writing of de Brès about civil government, he maintains the same positive attitude of honour and respect that he did in the Belgic Confession. A year later he would be martyred.
De Brès lived and died under real tyranny. What we’re experiencing today doesn’t even come close and to suggest that it does betrays a lack of historical awareness. Even if one is convinced that we’re living under a tyrannical government, we ought to take a note from de Brès’ La racine and his Belgic Confession. Being revolutionary-minded and anti-government has nothing to do with the Bible. If you want to be Reformed (which is to say ‘biblical’) then be anti-revolutionary. Be counter-cultural – respect your government and pray for them, just like Scripture teaches us to do.