Should The Visible Church, As An Institution, Form And Express An Opinion On Political Violence?

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:

  1. The PCA has spoken to other “pressing moral issues” e.g., abortion
  2. The civil magistrate is ordained to keep order
  3. Peacemakers are blessed, Christians are called to do good and to live in peace with all
  4. WLC 135 interprets the sixth commandment to require gentleness etc.
  5. Christ’s kingdom is spiritual in nature
  6. There is an increase in political violence in the USA
  7. Christian symbols have been involved in some of that violence
  8. Some members of the PCA serve in the military and police forces and are called to keep the peace
  9. The 49th PCA General Assembly has spoken to these issues

Therefore:

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:

  1. preach the gospel purely
  2. administer the sacraments purely
  3. 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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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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18 comments

  1. As noted, this presbytery includes the DC area and in my view it’s obvious why they did this. RSC has made a clear case why this statement is wrong so I won’t repeat it.

    I will say that another negative effect of such a statement is the binding of the consciences of individual Christians who might want to attend political events whether on the left or right. I can imagine a Christian taking such a statement as “law” and concluding he or she should not be politically active due to the danger of “political violence” associated with it or he or she being associated with violence.

    Finally, what about the PCAs statement on abortion? Should it have been made? Does it fall into the Should we always avoid “statements?” I’m truly interested in hearing opinions.

  2. You’ve laid out the comprehensive and air-tight case against this overture. Since the overture is just the NP following the agenda of the cultural Left regardless of the truth of the matter, here are some helpful tactical suggestions for those opposed:
    https://twitter.com/ChristopherDrew/status/1519688050632237057
    https://twitter.com/ChristopherDrew/status/1519754645215850496
    https://twitter.com/guillermosenor1/status/1519495568413937665

    I especially like the idea of an overture against ecclesiastical violence.

    Silence is violence, gentlemen. Prepare those counter-overtures and amendments.

  3. From The Presbyterian Journal, September 28, 1977 (page 4):

    “SMYNA, Ga — Breaking precedent with what many expected would be a long standing policy of the Presbyterian Church in America, the Church’s Fifth General Assembly here directed a carefully worded request to President Carter to maintain U. S. armed forces in Korea.

    “The action came at the end of the Assembly’s second long day of business. producing the most emotional debate of the entire week and the most surprising redirection of policy
    by the young Church.

    “Set aside through the action was the Church’s prior disinclination to instruct government on civil and social affairs. Such a refusal had become a trademark of the PCA in its
    four earlier Assemblies, many of whose participants saw the steady stream of social and political pronouncements by the predecessor Presbyterian Church US as one of
    that denominations primary evils.”
    . . . .
    “Although almost all commissioners seemed to agree with the Rev. Charles Dunahoo who told a local reporter that “this action is not something that will characterize the PCA on a regular basis,” the Assembly waited only two days before voting again to communicate another position to the President.

    “Having taken a strong stand in opposition to abortion earlier in the week, the Assembly routinely approved a motion during its last session to inform the President of that
    action, this time by way of a personal messenger.”

    • Greg,

      I concede that the PCA has done this sort of thing before. The question remains, however, do these things pass the tests set by WCF 31.4?

      Where does the PCA draw the line? How does the PCA not end up like the PCUSA, with 120 or more such statements?

    • Hi Scott,

      I was in full agreement with your post, so “no,” I don’t think these things pass the test of WCF 31.4. In the quote I was trying to show it didn’t take long for the PCA to begin to return to the meddling they had found so objectionable in the PCUSA. Where the PCA should draw the line clearly varies by an individual’s subscription and interpretation of the WS.

      Under PCA “good faith” subscription wherein the standard for the acceptability of an exception is whether or not the exception strikes at the vitals of religion. With that said, I’ve never witnessed a PCA pastoral ordination or transfer candidate taking an exception to WCF 31.4.

      Another question: Why does the PCA maintain membership in the NAE, which for practical purposes functions as a kind of PAC? Clearly, it desires influence in high places. And how does this pass the test of WCF 31.4? It doesn’t.

  4. It’s really baffling how myopic humans-especially Christians can be with regards to history. Attaching one’s church to the wagon of a political movement does not bode well at all for an ecclesiastical body. Christendom showed that. And as illustrated here, the NT church did nothing like this. And we live in a time increasingly more analogous to the NT era than Christendom.

    Also, nice picture!

  5. A masterful analysis. The details are helpful. I find we in the PCA are not well-taught on how to actually apply our confessional standards to real-world intellectual challenges. Of course, that only matters to us few remaining strict confessionalists in the PCA. We likely won’t trouble the PCA in the longer term.

  6. Thank you for this analysis. And you are correct that the PC(USA) “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.” Forget the number of statements, all one must do is look at a sample of the more recent statements its GA and its Stared Clerk, who is authorized to speak on behalf of the GA, to know that this is true.

    I pray that the PCA will carefully consider the appropriateness of whether or not a statement is within its realm of being a responsibilities as a denomination.

  7. <<<>>>

    Zoomed out: much of what used to be called cultural or moral disagreement is now seen as political violence. Think about how definitions of (and consequences for) hate speech have expanded.

    You could think of this concept as a negative image by contrasting it with the positive “creating safe spaces.”

    Different perspectives on this language can be found in Carl Trueman’s work and in Still Time to Care. But reading the overture I didn’t notice any reason to assume a traditional definition of politics or violence. Even with a traditional definition made explicit, don’t we need an Acts 5:29 exception clause?

    • Some of the readers might have read the overture as leaning left. I read it through the lens of pastors marching in the BLM protests in 2020.

      Protests and marches that block highways are political violence in that they use physical power to hurt something (the economy, mostly?)

      The overture condemns private violent resistance. We teach Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as one of our core Sunday school classes.

      The overture refers to private violent resistance, but political violence includes public violence – war.

      The overture refers to members of the PCA in the military who are called to peace, but some in the military are called to war.

      All this to say, I don’t know how to read the overture.

      But I was thinking of your May 3 2020 post, “Is this an Acts 5:29 moment?”

      The concept that I remembered was that earthly authority is not only given but also limited: “When our loyalties conflict we prioritize our heavenly citizenship over our earthly citizenship.”

      Would this overture condemn the abolitionist movement and the American revolution?

      • Joe,

        The question here is the authority of the church, as an institution, to speak to political violence.

        I don’t see how Acts 5:29 relates here.

        Individuals and groups are free to advocate peacefully for various views, within the confines of the moral.

  8. The statement vs. political violence is wrong for a church, for all the reasons given. It’s also silly because nobody is paying any attention (or even should pay attention). But it would be another matter for the PCA or any other church to state that ITS MEMBERS ought not to engage in political violence, perhaps even making it a matter of church discipline.

  9. I totally agree with the analysis presented here, but I will offer up just a couple of things to add to the discussion.

    First, a correction: the resolution passed Potomac Presbytery’s Mission to North America (MNA) Committee unanimously. It did not pass Presbytery unanimously. I know because I’m an RE in Potomac Presbytery and I voted against it and I know that I was not alone.

    Second, I opposed it because it was unclear, unnecessary, and unhelpful (to use the same language which proponents of that resolution used to justify shooting down the BCO amendments in Overtures 23 and 37 that came out of the last General Assembly). It was unclear in defining what was actually meant by “political violence.” It did try to differentiate political violence from the legitimate use of force by the magistrate, but the language was ambiguous at best. If the denomination is going to go on the record about anything, then one should not be left with the sense of “I think I sorta get maybe what you mean.” It is unnecessary in that if the purpose was to establish that the church should not make itself party to political activism advocating violence, then it should have simply reaffirmed the spirituality doctrine of the church. Such a reaffirmation would have been consistent with our theology, our confessional standards, and, indeed, our history. But within today’s PCA, I fear that the spirituality doctrine is anathema, especially to those invested in cultural transformation. And it was unhelpful because at the end of the day, it gives no guidance whatsoever on what churches or the denomination should actually do. It is just a statement effectively saying, “Political violence is bad,” and, as you pointed out, no one was clamoring for the PCA to make it.

    Thank you for the arguments you have laid out here. I very much appreciate them.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this analysis. Just three brief comments. First, just as a matter of accuracy, you left out the first of the four resolutions. Second, many who support this overture are deeply committed to preserving the Spirituality of the Church, which is part of the motivation behind this. I won’t argue that further here, but if we see politics entering the pews to such a degree that violence is entertained (where there is no cause for Just War), should we say nothing? (Or leave to the local Session level for discipline?) Third, here is an article by the primary author with some FAQ that may be helpful for your PCA readers to consider:

    https://theaquilareport.com/overture-26-to-pca-general-assembly-a-statement-on-political-violence/

    Blessings, Chris H.

    • Chris,

      I appreciate the correction. I intended but failed to comment on that. I intended to observe the incongruity of affirming the spirituality of the church and then contradicting it (as it seems to me) in the substance and recommendation of the overture.

      Doesn’t this overture contribute to the politicization of the PCA?

      As to saying something/nothing, isn’t it the office of the minister to preach God’s Word, including Romans 13 and 1 Tim 2:1–6? These and other passages speak to ungodly desires and passions which drive political violence. Phil 3:20 and John 18:36 both help us to reorient our affections and attentions, which gets the root of the cause of political violence. Obviously, there is the 5th commandment. In short, there are many opportunities in the pulpit and in catechism classes to address both political violence (by Christians and others) and the vices that lead to political violence.

  11. Scott,

    I hope it does not lead to further politicization. Note that it does not take sides (i.e. like the PCUSA siding with Palestinians, etc.). I would oppose, e.g., a motion calling for support of any wars the US entered into, for all the reasons you mention.

    I absolutely love your third paragraph. If this overture helps leads to those kinds of discussions and makes pastors more keen to preach these themes and passages (and James 4:1-10!) then I would see that as a win, even if the overture fails. I think a legit argument could be made that this should be handled at the local level with the resources (Scripture & WCF) we already have. I am not convinced that it is, but that gets into anecdotes and weeds. Blessings, Chris

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