Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Liberty of the Church

It is important for the well being of a nation for its civil government to protect and bless the church of Jesus Christ. The church of Christ is a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:2-3, Matt. 5:13-16, Acts 13:47), and Jesus takes the treatment of his church personally (Acts 9:4, Matt. 25:40, Zech. 2:8). 

In Genesis 12:2-3, God told Abraham, "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Some people use this today to argue that the civil government should support the modern state of Israel. There might be political reasons to support Israel, but this passage does not apply to it. It applies to Jesus Christ and his church. 

In Galatians 3 we learn that Jesus is the offspring of Abraham and heir of these promises, the one who brings blessing to the nations (Gal. 3:14-16). Blessed are the nations and rulers who submit to the Lord Jesus. We also learn that those who are in Christ are the offspring of Abraham and heirs of these promises (Gal. 3:29). Abraham is the father of those, Jew or Gentile, who walk in the footsteps of his faith (Rom. 4:11-12). Christ's church can claim the promises made to Abraham. The church of Christ, Jew and Gentile, is a continuation of Israel (Rom. 11). 

Isaiah contains prophecies of the restoration of God's people, particularly with the coming of the Messiah. This restoration and expansion includes an inclusion of the Gentiles and the support of the nations' civil rulers. These prophecies began to be fulfilled when the rulers of Persia supported the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. But combined as they are with the coming of the Messiah, they continue to speak to the present new covenant age. 

God tells his people that "Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers" (Is. 49:23). He promises the church that "Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you" (Is. 60:10). God tells his people, "You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall nurse at the breast of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob" (Is. 60:16). Not only is this a prediction, but this is also his will and desire, for God also gives a warning concerning those who do not support his church, "For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste" (Is. 60:12). 

Our Presbyterian doctrinal standards reflect this point. It its exposition of the Lord's Prayer, our larger catechism teaches us to pray that the church be "countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate." The confession of faith also address this in its chapter "Of the Civil Magistrate." In short, it says that while civil magistrates may not take over the church's functions, yet it is their duty to protect the church as "nursing fathers" (a reference to Isaiah 49:23 and 60:16), such that "ecclesiastical persons" (church officers) are free to discharge "every part of their sacred functions." Here's the full statement:

"Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance." (23.3). 

Fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies have been seen throughout much of church history. Historically our country has sought to protect the freedom of religion and to be supportive of the church through policies like tax-exemption and sabbath laws. But over the last century there has been a growing hostility to any special favor and protection to Christianity, the church, and the practice of religion. Many Christians themselves have grown skeptical or lukewarm about the church and organized religion. In some cases, this zeal for Christ's church has been replaced with a religious zeal for the modern state of Israel. Sometimes America itself replaces the church as the object of religious zeal and hope. Often the church is neglected due to a conception of the faith centered on the individual and subjective experience, the church serving as an optional boost to a person's spirituality. We should not expect society to value the church and take religion seriously if Christians treat it lightly. I hope that the trials of this year may awaken American Christians to the importance of the visible church and its ministry, community, and public worship. May God grant us good rulers who value the church and promote its freedom, and may he direct us to use this freedom well. 

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