The Four-Fold Foundation of National Confessionalism
W. H. Chellis
Jesus Christ is King over all. This is a biblical truth in need of an application. How do we, citizens of a twenty-first century America far removed from first century Palestine, apply the truth of Christâ€™s reign, not only over the Church, but also over such institutions as the family and the state? The confessional answer of the Reformed Presbyterian Church is found in chapter 23 of her testimony:
Every nation ought to recognize the Divine institution of civil government, the sovereignty of God exercised by Jesus Christ, and its duty to rule the civil affairs of men in accordance with the will of God. It should enter into covenant with Christ and serve to advance His Kingdom on earth. The negligence of civil government in any of these particulars is sinful, makes the nation liable to the wrath of God, and threatens the continued existence of the government and nation (RP Testimony, Chapter 23: 4).
Scandalous as this breach of public orthodoxy may be to the modern American ear, the
Reformed Presbyterian Church refuses to accept the premises of secular politics, that public affairs should have nothing to do with God and His Word. Rather, RPâ€™s continue to embrace the social Kingship of Jesus Christ over all peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations. We refer to our particular position on politics as National Confessionalism. This month we will take an introductory look at the basic outlines of the National Confessional position.
Covenantal Confession of Christ
The Great Commission causes confusion for modern American Christians. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus proclaims to His Apostles:
All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and disciple the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
At first blush, the passage does not seem problematic. The confusion is not based on textual ambiguity but rather upon cultural prejudices. American Christians, trained to think of life as the chaotic interaction of autonomous individuals, find it difficult to grasp the social and covenantal implications of Jesusâ€™ words. Notice, Jesus Christ did not say, â€œGo therefore and make individual disciples from out of all nationsâ€¦.â€. Rather, Jesus declares that it is the duty of His ordained ministry to â€œdiscipleâ€ the nations themselves. Both the nations and the individuals within those nations are called upon to make covenantal confession of King Jesus.
This raises the important question of application. How do nations make a covenantal confession of Christ? Psalm two describes Christâ€™s enthronement at the right hand of the Father in vivid language. We are made privy to the voice of the Father declaring to the victorious Son, â€œask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possessionâ€ (Psalm 2: 8). In response to Christâ€™s heavenly coronation, the psalmist gives practical advise to civil authorities declaring, â€œNow therefore, O Kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, let He be angry, and you perish in the wayâ€¦â€ (Psalm 2:10-12).
What does the Psalmist mean when he calls upon rulers and kings to â€œkiss the Sonâ€? To â€œkiss the Sonâ€ is to publicly honor His royal authority (1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Kings 19:19). Therefore, National Confessionalism asserts the duty of families, villages, counties, states, nations, and empires to â€œKiss the Sonâ€ by declaring their fundamental allegiance to Christâ€™s Kingship. Such public confessions are most appropriately asserted through organic constitutional and legal declarations. Such confessions, the most primary application of the social Kingship of Jesus Christ, stood as the common foundation of Western order and liberty from Emperor Constantine (313 A.D.) until the French Revolution (1789 AD).
Defending the Moral Law
Of course, Christ receives no honor from empty words or hollow professions. Rather, Jesus declares, â€œif you love me, keep my commandments (John 14:15).â€ This is true on the individual as well as the corporate basis. As individual believers who confess the name of Christ are called upon to adorn their profession by conforming their thoughts, words, and deeds to the moral law of God, so must families, towns, counties, states, nations and empires to do the same.
While it seems obvious to declare that men and nations are to be conformed to the moral law of God, it is more difficult to define that law precisely. Historically, the vast majority of Christendom was committed to the belief that the Ten Commandments represented a summary of the moral law. Yet a summary is not the same as a transcription. The robust ethical requirements of the commandments must be given flesh through insightful modern legislative and judicial application. The process of doing so is not a simple one and calls for great wisdom to be displayed by legislators and judges. Civil authorities must call upon their knowledge of historical precedent, wisdom literature, Old Testament case law, and the common law of nations to apply the law of God in a helpful and consistent way.
It is important to note that the universality of Christâ€™s mediatorial Kingship does not destroy the legitimate distinction between Church and State. Rather, a biblical view of Christâ€™s Kingship strengthens the distinction by reminding us that the Church is the special object of Christâ€™s loving care and concern. Paul declares, â€œAnd he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the churchâ€¦â€(Eph. 1:22). The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes this truth stating, â€œChrist executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to Himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemiesâ€(WSC Q&A 26). The point is clear: Christ reigns over all things in order that He might infallibly build and protect His Church. Therefore, we rightly recognize that Christâ€™s rule over His holy kingdom the Church is to be distinguished from His rule over His common kingdom among the nations. Christâ€™s holy kingdom is founded upon His saving grace and love and is administered in Word, sacrament, and discipline by Ministers and Ruling Elders. Christâ€™s common kingdom over the nations is founded upon the standard of Divine justice tempered by common grace and administered through the sword by civil magistrates. Christâ€™s holy kingdom offers gospel mercy while His common kingdom provides justice and stability. Thus, National Confessionalism affirms the need distinguish Christâ€™s holy Kingdom the Church from His common kingdom inclusive of the nations.
Defending Christâ€™s Church
If properly distinguishing the two kingdoms demands a biblical separation of Church and State, we must consider the proper relationship between these important institutions. The prophet Isaiah spoke of their relationship in the new covenant era, â€œKings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers; they shall bow down to you with their faces to the earth, And lick up the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD, For they shall not be ashamed who wait for Me” (Isaiah 49:23). Such a vision is a far cry from the modernist â€œfreedom from religionâ€ mantra.
What duty does a Christ-honoring civil authority owe to the Church? Should the Church (or a denominational branch of her) be â€œestablishedâ€ by law? Should the Church be financially supported by tax dollars? Should the Churchâ€™s confessions and creeds be legally enshrined as public orthodoxy? To these questions, National Confessionalism answers with an ambiguous maybe (depending on historical context and practical realty).
On the other hand, if we ask whether the Church should be free to worship Christ according to His own command, whether the Church has the sole right to interpret the Scriptures and define doctrinal truth, or whether the Church should be free to speak boldly in application of Godâ€™s holy law and merciful gospel, then the answer of National Confessionalism is an absolute, universal, and unqualified Yes!
The Last Best Hope
Abraham Lincoln once described America as the â€œlast best hope for mankind.â€ He was wrong. Christ alone offers hope. He is, indeed, the â€œdesire of the nationsâ€ (Haggai 2:7). In His name the nations are offered a true and lasting hope (Isaiah 2:2; Rev. 21:24-27). The National Confessional approach to the Kingship of Christ offers this hope to a world desperately in need of its message.