What Lies Beneath! | (Part 2 of 4) A Few Observations on Civil Government Enforcing the 1st Table of the Law and the Dangers in the Original Westminster Confession and Its View of Church and State

by | May 12, 2020 | Civil Government, Ecclesiology, Law

What Lies Beneath!

Most people are not experts on the history of Presbyterianism. This means that they might not realize that the mild and mannerly Presbyterianism with which we are familiar in the USA is not necessarily representative of the views of the original Reformed and Presbyterian views of church and state. The dear man of God which voiced those views in the webinar may not want all the practical implications of his confession. His confession—the original Westminster—still says what it says and practically implies what it implies.  If he confesses it, then he must live with it and promote it. The fact is that the original Westminster is no friend to the religious liberty that Reformed Baptists and other Baptists hold dear.

Let us look then at what the original Westminster actually says. Take special note of the parts I have placed in bold italics.

In chapter 23 and paragraph 3 the privilege of interfering in the affairs of the church is plainly asserted.  There it states: “The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.  For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

In Chapter 20 and paragraph 4 of the original Westminster a similar provision is made for the persecution of those contradicting the state religions.  Of them it says: “for their publishing such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the Church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the Church, and by the power of the civil magistrate.”

How can the state do such things without seriously compromising the church’s sovereignty under God–without making the church a slave of men?  It cannot! If a state is to dictate religious belief or worship, this inevitably requires the State to rule the church or the church to rule the state.  Since the Bible teaches the sphere-sovereignty of both the state and the church under God, to require the state to restrain violations of the first table of the law necessarily violates the teaching of Scripture. Furthermore, and of course, such a union of church and state inevitably destroys freedom of religion and the religious and soul liberty of Christians.

American Presbyterians, to their credit, saw these problems. Therefore, they became committed to a more biblical view of the separation of church and state. For this reason, they revised these statements of the original Westminster. Here is that revision. It is held by most Presbyterians in the USA.  It may be found at http://www.opc.org/documents/WCF_text.html. There it is described as the WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH incorporating the American Revisions as adopted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

First, let us notice the significant change which takes place in Chapter 20, paragraph 4. Here is the revision of 20:4: “for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church.” Notice the deletion of any reference to their being proceeded against by the power of the magistrate.

Here is the parallel section of 23:3. Take special note of the sections I have placed in bold italics: “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.

Clearly, American Presbyterians recognized and revised the dangerous statements of the original Westminster. What lies beneath the fine-sounding phrases of the original Westminster and the original Presbyterian view of church and state is a view and practice hostile to religious liberty. And it is not just Baptists who think so. So also did American Presbyterians themselves.

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