According to the PCA’s denominational magazine, By Faith, the Potomac Presbytery (PCA), on March 19, approved an overture that makes what Presbyterians call “in thesi” statements (which the Dutch Reformed call doctrinal deliverances) against political violence. It is as “Overture 26.” It articulates 17 reasons why the PCA should go on record as officially, as a denomination, opposing political violence. Among them:
- The PCA has spoken to other “pressing moral issues” e.g., abortion
- The civil magistrate is ordained to keep order
- Peacemakers are blessed, Christians are called to do good and to live in peace with all
- WLC 135 interprets the sixth commandment to require gentleness etc.
- Christ’s kingdom is spiritual in nature
- There is an increase in political violence in the USA
- Christian symbols have been involved in some of that violence
- Some members of the PCA serve in the military and police forces and are called to keep the peace
- The 49th PCA General Assembly has spoken to these issues
Be it further resolved, that the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America condemn political violence and intimidation in unlawful expressions, especially that which is illicitly done in the name of Christ; and
Be it further resolved, that the Moderator of the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America appoint a commissioner to pray for peace in our nation and that the Church of Jesus Christ would be instruments of that peace; and
Be it finally resolved, that the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America encourage her members to “seek peace and pursue it” in the public square (Psalm 34:14); to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1); and to pray for peace and for “all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (I Timothy 2:2).
Analysis and Response
Ecclesiastical actions like this one raise a serious question about the nature, vocation, and mission of the visible, institutional church: Has Jesus Christ, as the only head of the church, authorized his church to make such statements? The traditional Reformed view and the official view of the PCA is articulated in Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4
Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.
Overture 26 cites this section of chapter 31 and applies it generally to the spirituality nature of the Kingdom of God and it is certainly true that the Kingdom is essentially spiritual. Our Lord Jesus said this in John 18:36, “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (ESV). There Jesus explicitly repudiated the use of violence to advance the interests of his kingdom.
The overture, however, does not directly address the specific intent of WCF 31.4 nor does it address the limitations placed on the visible church in this section. The Potomac Presbytery is an ecclesiastical assembly and thus falls under the rubric “synods and councils.” According to the confession, what sort of business is the church, as an institution, authorized to address? The divines answered this question: “nothing but that which is ecclesiastical.” It is not immediately obvious how political violence is an “ecclesiastical” matter. Further, because the divines knew how often the visible church has been tempted to inject herself into what are essentially secular and civil matters, they specifically prohibited the church, as an institution, from meddling “in civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.” The divines used the word “intermeddling.” Overture 26 does not answer the obvious question here: how is it that, in Overture 26, Potomac Presbytery is not “intermeddling” in the affairs of the commonwealth? Political violence is manifestly a civil affair that concerns the commonwealth. Muslims, Jews, and pagans have as much interest in opposing political violence as does the Potomac Presbytery. Thus, it is not evident what special interest the presbytery has here or what special expertise the presbytery brings to this question.
The divines were invoking what, for most modern Presbyterian and Reformed Christians, seems to have become lost distinctions, namely that between nature and grace or between the sacred and the secular. The divines were assuming and invoking these distinctions by using the word “ecclesiastical” as distinct from “civil” and “commonwealth.” The latter two belong to the secular realm or to nature and the church, as an institution, belongs to the sacred or to grace. Because the church, as an institution, the divine institution intended to administer the covenant of grace, it may not pursue its ends by force or violence. This was perhaps the great contradiction of Christendom: As the visible church became established by the state, she became effectively an arm of the state or the state became an arm of the church. Religious orthodoxy was enforced by secular, civil coercion. Thus, Protestant and Roman authorities thought nothing about putting to death about 3,000 Anabaptist heretics between c. 1523 and 1623 (according to the research of Claus Peter Classen). There are those today, whom we call theocrats, who would like to take us back to that world. They imagine that, although it tended to discredit the church and led to seemingly (though not literally) interminable religio-civil wars (e.g., the Eighty Years War), like the Marxists, the right people have not tried it yet and that they are the ones to get it right this time. Apparently a millennium-long trial is not sufficient evidence to convince them that the church-state complex was an error.
The divines (and by extension the Presbyterian Church in America, which has adopted the Westminster Confession as a constitutional document), gave to the church the right to address the magistrate in three instances: 1) an “extraordinary” case (e.g., the civil magistrate shutting down churches while leaving open casinos during a pandemic); 2) to “satisfy conscience;” 3) to answer questions by the magistrate.
We have seen two outstanding cases of political violence in the last three years: 1) the Antifa-BLM riots in major cities (e.g., Seattle, Portland, and Minneapolis) wherein parts of the cities have been taken over and civil institutions and officers violently assaulted; 2) the January 6 riot and incursion into the US capitol. Because the presbytery did not call on the church to speak to political violence after the Antifa-BLM violence but only after the January 6 riot and because the Potomac Presbytery is proximate to the US Capitol we may surmise that the latter moved them more than the former to speak to political violence.
Whatever one thinks of the January 6 riot—what one thinks of any such episode is a matter of Christian liberty—the question remains: has Christ authorized his church, to speak on his behalf, to the January 6 riot? For the sake of discussion, let us grant that all the grounds of the overture are correct and that all the premises on which the grounds are based are correct, does the church, as an institution, have authority to pronounce on the issue of political violence or are such questions better addressed by Christians acting as citizens in groups or as individuals?
The Apostolic church suffered grievously at the hands of the Roman empire. In the mid-60s members of the church in Rome were martyred by Emperor. Christians suffered later in the first century too. Did the Apostolic church hold a synod and adopt a statement against anti-Christian violence and bigotry? The second century church suffered even more grievously and the third century even more so right up to the recognition by the empire, in the early 4th century, of the right of Christians to practice their religion. The early church had many significant and reasonable grounds for speaking to the magistrate. Wholesale slaughter would seem to be a an “extraordinary” case and a reason to “satisfy” conscience. To be sure Christian writers did speak to the magistrate but did any assembly do so on behalf of the entire church, as Christ’s authorized representative on the earth?
Has the magistrate, e.g., the Federal Government or the District of Columbia, requested the opinion of the Presbytery of the Potomac or the PCA General Assembly on the question of political violence? Is the PCA or the presbytery directly or specially implicated in the January 6 riots such that it rises to the level of an “extraordinary” case? It would seem not. Does conscience require the presbytery to speak? It is not clear how or why that would be. All Americans should be concerned about the sorts of political violence we have witnessed recently just as they should have been concerned about the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, any other act of political violence or domestic terrorism. Was the institutional church authorized by Christ to speak to those episodes or to the 1954 attack by Puerto Rican terrorists on the US Capitol or the 1983 bombing of the capitol by the Weatherman? Was the church authorized to address the various acts of political violence that marked the late 1960s and early 70s in the USA? It seems not.
There are good reasons why the Reformed limited the authority of the institutional church: the number of potential cases to which the church as church might speak are easily multiplied. As noted here previously, the mainline (liberal) PCUSA has adopted more than 120 positions on a bewildering variety of issues and has become the religious arm of one of the two major political parties in the USA. Her position statements follow a certain political platform very closely indeed. The temptation to use the visible church to achieve one’s desired social goals is almost irresistible. Therefore, in the confession, the church has wisely and strictly limited those things to which the church may speak.
According to Belgic Confession art. 29 the church as institution has a clear threefold vocation:
- preach the gospel purely
- administer the sacraments purely
- administer church discipline
History tells us that the church has not been very good at fulfilling even these three basic functions. As an institution she is hardly qualified to speak to climate change, political violence, monetary policy, or any of the myriad issues that always plague secular, civil, society. The resolution of these issues is not a matter of grace but of nature. Christians, who are members of the covenant of grace, and citizens of a twofold kingdom (Calvin) have duties in both spheres of God’s kingdom, the sacred and the secular, to nature and grace but they are distinct responsibilities. Presbyteries, as an institution of the covenant of grace, do well to remember the limits of their competence and authority and to remember the Christian liberty of their members to disagree with the cultural, poltical, social, and economic opinions of her ministers and ruling elders.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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