Church History Snippet – St. John of Damascus

This post is not meant to be a complete summary of all that St. John of Damascus wrote and did. It is simply looking at his contribution to the 8th century controversy surrounding iconoclasm, or the destruction of images of God in any persons of the Trinity. Last Church History Snippet looked at Leo III who initiated the formal controversy around these kinds of images in Byzantium, though previous informal disagreements and discussions on this subject certainly existed.

John of Damascus was born in 675 and did not reside in the Byzantine empire. Instead he was a subject of a Muslim Caliph in Damascus. He became a monk in 706 and moved to Jerusalem. In response to Leo’s policy of iconoclasm,  John writes three treatises on divine images. The first one is published in 726, almost immediately after the developments in Constantinople become known. The second, written around 730, and the third written before 750, copy extensively from his first treatise. In his three works, John argues for the proper use of images from eight basic groupings. Their critique is included:

    1. Because Christ took on human flesh, He may be depicted. Objection: Borrowing from the argument David VanDrunen makes in his article “Pictures of Jesus and the Sovereignty of Divine Revelation“,  it is certainly within God’s right to depict himself according to His own perfect wisdom. However, God revealing Himself, and man making a representation of His from his own imagination are two very different things.
    2. The word “veneration” has multiple applications, and can be given to a variety of objects. Objection: Is it possible John of Damascus is the first person to promote nuance? That is not a serious question, but beware of those who adjust definitions and make clear meanings of words confusing to justify their practice.
    3. Veneration given to an image is actually offered to the person or object it represents. Objection: Even if this statement is true, the Bible commands God’s people not to worship Him in the ways of the pagans who worship their gods through images (Cf. Deuteronomy 12:4).
    4. Objecting to icons and images is to adopt the error of the Manichees. Objection: Although it is a clever strategy to associate your theological opponents with heretical views, John of Damascus does not accurately represent the view of the iconoclasts who did not hold that the material is bad but the spiritual is good.
    5. The church has used images in the past, and this tradition justifies their continued use. Objection: Leo III appealed to the second commandment for his iconoclastic policy. The Word of God is the standard of right theology and practice and cannot be overridden by appeals to previous practice. This statement does not even acknowledge that church tradition could be incorrect. Using this logic, there could never have been a Protestant Reformation.
    6. It is inevitable to form a picture of Christ in your mind so you can make images. Objection: Just because it is difficult to resist sin, or even if sin is inevitable, that does not justify continuing to walk in it.
    7. Old Testament Israel was prone to idolatry through graven images, but that is not the cases in the New Testament Church. Objection: I hardly think this needs comment. Man is just as prone to make idols today as he was 3,000 years ago. It is simply wishfully naive to suggest otherwise.
    8. Since God commanded representations of the world to be made in the construction of the Tabernacle, therefore representations of the Son while He is in that same world are acceptable too. Objection: That is true in so far as the question is about making representations of objects that are not the human nature of the 2nd person of the Trinity. However, as soon as you introduce the divine person, the question is different, because God was not represented in the artwork of the tabernacle.

The objections which are included notwithstanding, John of Damascus continues to be a force in the discussion of the proriety of images of Jesus. His arguments, or parts of them, have more or less been adopted by proponents of images of Jesus from the time he made them even until today.

Sending Out Your Young Men

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands,  for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
(2 Timothy 1:5-7)

As much as a father like to fix his son’s behavior, the most important thing he can leave him with is the very thing that gives meaning and structure to life. And that thing is not found in good behavior. To only instill good behavior in our sons is to give them a fish, but not a fishing pole. There is tremendous benefit for life in learning social graces, courtesies and so on. In a Christian home, specific commandments and their applications as derived from God’s word will help sons know how holiness is rightly expressed. And a good father will teach these things. Yet, a father cannot be satisfied sending his son out of his home, knowing that he is a “fine young man.” He must show to his son an abiding focal point that will motivate and direct a young man to consider why he does what he does no matter what circumstances he may face in life. And this focal point is only found in the gospel.

In using the word “gospel” what is in view is the good news of salvation for sinners through the blood of Christ received by faith. And though it may seem like it is abstract and intangible, in reality it is quite different. A right understanding of the gospel will touch every part of life. It will effect what is done in marriage, as a father, in prayer and study of God’s word, what church is attended and served, how money is managed, sexual faithfulness, and even how a man prepares for death. If those issues are not pressing into a young man’s “present”, he will face them one day or another. This gospel must be known, understood, and received by faith. So what is this gospel, specifically?

The gospel cannot be reduced to a slick phrase, a slogan, or a bumper sticker. These kinds of catchy sayings are all around us, thanks in no small part to the advertising industry. Tag lines are remembered, jingles can be sung long after they have been heard, and yet life cannot be ordered around them. There is, in a sense, a simple gospel message, but the reality and the full weight of the gospel is understood when the context within which this good news is given is felt. The message itself and the context of it are given in the Bible, God’s story of the way He saves sinful man by the blood of His Son.

The summary statement talks of forgiveness by the gracious application of the blood of Christ by the Holy Spirit to the heart of sinful men through faith in His  perfect obedience and sacrifice. But around that simple statement is the larger context of that message of hope. That context includes God as creator making all things visible and invisible. God who rules and reigns over this creation, who sets the rules, and determines consequences and punishments. It includes man as sinner, eternally indebted to the creator for his many sins against Him. It includes Christ as redeemer, shedding His precious blood to satisfy the debt owed by men. These things must be known, and when they are they serve as a foundation for a grateful life.

Church History Snippet – Leo III

In church history there are two significant Leo IIIs. One was the pope who crowned Charlamagne emperor in 800 AD. The other was emperor in Constantinople from 717-741AD. It is the second Leo that is in view in this church history snippet.

The iconoclast controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries are unique in that they are not driven primarily by churchmen or theologians. These certainly participate, but they are not the catalysts that would force the Church to deal with a controversy that had been brewing for some time. It was the iconoclastic policies of emperor Leo III, also known as Leo the Issaurian, that forced a formal treatment of this subject by the church.

Leo III came to the throne during a time of upheaval in the Byzantine empire. That turmoil can even be seen in how he ascended to the throne. Leo III was not a natural heir of the throne, but a military commander who usurped the throne from another. And in the midst of that political chaos, Leo adds theological controversy by articulating and implementing a policy of iconoclasm within the Byzantine empire. Iconoclasm, for the sake of this subject, is the destruction of religious images. Leo, as the catalyst of bringing this disagreement in the church into focus, is a significant man in church history, especially when it comes to the development of the church’s understanding of whether images of Jesus are permitted.

Relatively little is preserved of Leo III’s arguments in favor of the destruction and/or removal of such images from churches. Understanding his views has to come from looking at the response of his opponents. However, it is known that he began his assault on images in 726. Though the motivations for doing so are far from clear, it was likely partly religious, but not purely so. Certainly there was a religious component to his iconoclasm, however, it seems to have been tinged with pragmatism and superstition. According to some, his religious actions were influenced by a desire for political stability in a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Wherever he found himself on the spectrum from pragmatism to principle, it is not fair to discount Leo’s religious impulses entirely. Though perhaps motivated in part by the social condition of his empire, Leo III did make a theological argument as well.

Leo III’s iconoclastic policy was pretty straightforward. He believed images of Jesus and/or the saints were idolatrous and should not be allowed in his empire. The biblical foundation for his argument was based on the second commandment:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6).

The initial line of argumentation from those seeking to forbid images of Jesus is a fairly simple appeal to the second commandment. Leo III seems to have made a basic connection between an image of Jesus and the prohibition in Exodus 20:4. The position articulated by Leo III is the opening salvo of a controversy that would continue intermittently into the Protestant Reformation and even into today.

 

Avoid Such People

Some Christians naively assume that love requires us to maintain personal relationships with all sorts of people without any kind of discrimination. It is often pointed out that Jesus was “a friend of sinners” who spent time building relationships with the tax collectors and prostitutes.

While this is undoubtedly true of the Lord Jesus, it is often conveniently omitted that Jesus was seeking to call such people to repentance (Luke 5:32). Nevertheless, the idea prevails that Christian love demands indiscriminate relationships with all kinds of sinners.

I want to submit to you that this is a completely unbiblical idea.

The Bible unequivocally teaches us to avoid certain kinds of people. For starters, take the situation of an excommunicated church member in 1 Corinthians 5. We are told “not to associate” with such a person (1 Cor. 5:9, 11). The avoidance called for in these verses includes not even eating with such a person (1 Cor. 5:11). This would surely be denounced as unloving by many in the church today and contrary to the spirit of Jesus. Attempts would be made to explain away the force of the words. But there really is no way to discount the plain teaching of Scripture in this regard. We are commanded by the Lord: do not associate with the professing Christian who stubbornly refuses to repent of sin.

Another example can be found in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 which speaks about the wickedness that abounds in the last days.

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”

This description of ungodly times sounds all too familiar. And notice how Paul tells us to relate to these kinds of people. He says, “Avoid such people” (2 Tim. 3:5). Notice that there is nothing here to indicate that he is referring to excommunicated persons which was the case in 1 Corinthians 5. Here he is speaking in general about people who are wholly given over to wickedness. We need to remember that total depravity does not mean that every single human on the planet is equally depraved. There are degrees of sin, and there are degrees of being given over to sin. We need wisdom therefore to discern the kinds of people we must avoid.

We are given one primary reason for avoiding such people. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: Bad company ruins good morals.” Spending time with ungodly people shapes our thoughts, beliefs, actions, and general character. Personal relationships are highly influential on one’s life. Bad friendships and associations can be cancer to the soul. This was the general reason to avoid wicked people in the Old Testament. The Psalter opens with these words:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.”

Here there is a clear summons to avoid ungodly company. How foolish it is to appeal to the example of Jesus to overturn this clear scriptural teaching! Jesus is the blessed man par excellence. Our Lord affirms and upholds the wisdom of separation from ungodly society.

The book of Proverbs is full of warnings about entertaining relationships with those who would corrupt our character. Consider the example of Proverbs 22:24: “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man.” It is supremely unwise to think that we can befriend every man. While we should seek to do good to all men and should not harbor bitter feelings toward any person, we are not called to maintain personal relationships with those who are destroying themselves and are likely to bring us down with them.

We also have exhortations to disassociate with false teachers and those who bring division into the church. When Paul wrote to the Romans, he said,

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom. 16:17).

And when writing to Titus, he said,

“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10).

There is an interesting account from church history that illustrates this point. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna and was a disciple of the Apostle John. He relates the following story about how the beloved apostle interacted when he encountered a false teacher:

“John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerenthus within, rushed out of the bathhouse without bathing, exclaiming, ‘Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down, because Cerenthus, the enemy of the truth is, within.’”

We may object to John making a scene, but his attempt to flee from a false teacher is in keeping with the spirit of the biblical theology of avoidance. It does not reveal a lack of love or harsh bigotry.

Our personal relationships call for great wisdom. We should not be guilted into thinking that we are bound to maintain relationships with all sorts of people. There are people to be avoided like the plague. This is not unloving or contrary to the spirit of Christianity. In fact, holiness demands it! What is unreasonable, unwise, and unbiblical is to teach Christians that they should associate with ungodly people because it is the loving thing to do. The Holy Spirit says,

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:6-7).

 

Part 7 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: Conclusion

“God has promoted kings, that they may promote justice. As they have a sword in their hand, to signify their power; so they have a scepter, an emblem of justice.” (Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, p. 123)

Last installment summarized the reformed, confessional stances on obedience to the civil magistrate. And I want to focus in, by way of conclusion, on a concept that all the confessions had, although they describe it in various ways.

The Heidelberg Catechism calls Christian to honor the “good instruction” of the magistrate. The Second Helvetic confession demands obedience to “just and fair commands”. The Westminster Larger Catechism says the magistrate sins when it uses its authority in an “unlawful” and “unjust” way. The point of all of them is that there are limits to the authority of the magistrate. Therefore, it is not necessary to obey the magistrate when he strays outside of his lane.

This statement is not controversial when it comes to others in authority. If I seek, because I am a father to my children, think I can command all children it should come as no surprise that those outside my family will not listen to me in the same way. If an elder from a Presbyterian Church in America congregation asserts himself at an Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s meeting, he will be ruled out of order. If the president of the United States issues orders for the Prime Minister of England, he will be ignored. And so it is for citizens. When a government takes authority that does not belong to it, Christians are right to ignore it. The civil magistrate is not god and does not have limitless powers.

There have been some examples of a public reprimand for government officials taking more authority than they have. President Biden’s administration ordered that all businesses with more than 100 employees require COVID vaccination or regular testing. The Supreme Court ruled that “Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly.”[1] In other words, the government took for itself power that had not been delegated to them. It is neither a “good instruction,” “just and fair” command, or lawful. A company would have been wrong to submit to such an order from the civil magistrate. Herein is the summary of this series.

The Christian is not called to a blind submission to all decrees from the civil magistrate. There are obvious exceptions. When the government commands a sin, the Christian is not to obey. But in the same way, the Christian is not required to yield obedience to unlawful commands. That is not an endorsement of violence and uprisings. It is simply saying that in the face of rapidly expanding unlawful powers being seized by the government, the Christian may quietly refuse an unlawful command and must be willing to suffer the consequences if they do.

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2022/01/13/supreme-court-ruling-biden-covid-vaccine-mandates.html

Part 6 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: The Confessions and Catechisms

“To exercise authority, without recognizing and accepting the corresponding responsibility, is to act irresponsibly and is always sinful.”[1]

The last installment (Dec., 2021) dealt with the 5 limitations to the powers of the civil magistrate. And then COVID happened (to me), life got busy, and now it’s May. That certainly is not how I meant to end. At this point it feels kind of anti-climactic to continue with this examination. But before I can leave it alone, I still want to resolve two things. First, a summary of a variety of Reformed confessions and catechism to gain insight into what the church of 400 years ago thought of the Christian’s response to a magistrate who oversteps his bounds. Second, how the Christian should respond to instances of government overreach. This article will handle the first of these.

The first catechism to examine is the Heidelberg Catechism. In Q/A 104 it teaches that obedience to the fifth commandment requires, “that I show all honor, love and fidelity, to my father and mother, and all in authority over me, and submit myself to their good instruction and correction with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weakness and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us with their hand.” Here the Christian is called to obedience to all the “good instruction” the government may give. Ursinus, who is the primary author of this catechism, in his commentary on this question and answer, explains that the magistrate undermines this responsibility through tyranny. Ursinus describes tyranny as “demanding from their subjects what is unjust.”[2]

In Chapter 30 of the Second Helvetic Confession, it describes the duties of subjects of kings: “Therefore let them honor and reverence the magistrate as the minister of God; let them love him, favor him, and pray for him as their father; and let them obey all his just and fair commands.” The Second Helvetic essentially repeats the Heidelberg’s assertions, namely that the limits of the civil magistrate’s instruction are more than simply their national borders, but also justice and fairness. If the Christian is to obey all just and fair commands, the logical implication follows from these documents is that he is not obligated to obey unjust and unfair commands.

The Westminster Standards also address this issue in the Westminster Larger Catechism. As part of its Larger Catechism’s treatment on the fifth commandment, Q/A 130 notes that the sins of one in authority includes “commanding things unlawful…or anyway dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior.” In his commentary on the Larger Catechism, Johannes Vos primarily focuses on commands from people in authority that require sin on the part of its subjects. He cites the examples of Nebuchadnezzar’s command that all people worship the statue he set up, Darius’ command forbidding prayer, Amos being forbidden from prophesying by king Amaziah, and so on.[3] But it also lists Nabal as an example of an unjust authority. And though these examples may reinforce for us the limits of government, they do not aid us in determining a right Christian response.

More on that next time. Hopefully not five months from now.

[1] Johannes Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing), 353.

[2] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1852), 578.

[3] Johannes Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism, 354.

Part 5 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: The Limits of Power (Part II)

Conflict

“A power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power, and is no more from God, but from sinful nature, and the old serpent.”
Samuel Rutherford, A Christian Manifesto

Last installment looked at the limits of different authorities, all of which God has instituted to serve Him in the world He created. Before moving on to the confessional statements about authority, specifically laid out in the fifth commandment, I want to revisit these three limitations by way of quick review, and add two additional thoughts.

In the limitations drawn out so far, this series outlined three specific ways the government’s authority is naturally limited. The civil government is limited first by its national borders. That seems fairly obvious. Second, they may not treat their citizens as their own property. Tyranny is men with a derived authority, acting as if they hold that authority as their possession. Tyranny itself is usually rejected, but the response is where the waters get muddy. More on that later. Third, governments must themselves be subject to the laws of their own nation.

In this article I want to add two more limits to lawful authority, specifically as it applies to the civil government. The fourth limit is that government is to act honestly with its citizens. It may not prosecute based on bearing false witness, neither may they use false pretenses to justify powers they would not usually hold. The state must prosecute and legislate honestly. Just to address the elephant in the room here, the next paragraph is not going to be that COVID is a hoax. But I am willing to say that a 2-year state of emergency based on an illness with a less than 1% mortality rate is not honest. These claims no longer serve as a justification for sweeping powers that certain governments want to appropriate for themselves: powers that control private business, medical rights, and even ecclesiastical matters. And when an authority uses dishonesty to expand its powers, they are working outside of the limits of the authority which has been entrusted to them.

The fifth limit is that government may not assume authority entrusted to others. That means the civil magistrate has no authority over the business of the church or family. Applying that principle in church and/or family is often easier and clearer. For example, the church is only free to proclaim what God’s word has plainly said, or what can be derived from it by good and necessary consequence. It may not enter into formal discipline for matters of conscience, but only clear, unrepentant violations of God’s commandments. When the church does either of these things it exceeds the limits of the authority entrusted to it. In the same way, fathers may not administer the sacraments to their families in their homes or excommunicate their children from the church. Ironically, within the Christian community when church and father exceeds the limits of their authority, there is a large outcry in the church. Justifiably so. Why not when the same thing is done by the civil magistrate?

Some may object to this and point to cases where the civil magistrate has rightly addressed fraud in the church or abuse in the home. But to think carefully through those examples, it is plain that when a church commits fraud, it is operating unlawfully in its ecclesiastical authority. Or when a husband abuses his wife or children, he is acting unlawfully, which moves beyond the boundaries of his authority as God has given it. Returning to the realm of the civil magistrate, that means the government is in no way to interfere with anything that rightly falls under the authority of the church and/or family. That means no control over any part of religious worship as was recently seen in COVID measures in several states in our Union, most notable California. That means no right to mandatory government education as is the case in several European nations. That means a respect for bodily autonomy. The authority of the civil magistrate has limits, and these should be respected.

By way of summary, let me just enumerate the five limits described above. The government is limited in its use of power in the following ways:

    1. The authority of any civil magistrate does not extend beyond its national borders. That would be a violation of the 8th commandment;
    2. Tyranny is not within the proper purview of government authority. Its citizens are not its property. To treat them as such would be a violation of the 1st and 8th commandments;
    3. Government must themselves operate under the rules and laws of their nation. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment;
    4. Falsehood and propaganda cannot be used as a means to justify authority that would otherwise be unlawful. That would be a violation of the 9th commandment;
    5. The magistrate may not encroach on authority given by God to another institution. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment.

The main point is that, as a servant of God appointed for the good of its citizens (Rom. 13:4), the Moral Law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments also applies to the government. Its authority is exercised within the limits prescribed by God and the good laws of the commonwealth it governs.

Everything up to this point is to establish that the civil magistrate may overstep its rightful bounds. When other authorities like church and family do so, there is a reasonable expectation of response. And that should not be different in the case of the government either. The question that is so challenging is, what is that response? How does a Christian respond in a Christlike manner when the civil magistrate exceeds the limits of its powers. These questions will be addressed in our next installment.

Walking In Gratitude

As a nation, we celebrated Thanksgiving this past November 25. For many, the significance of this day has turned from an opportunity to praise God to a generic sentimentality about gratitude for family and comfort. However beneficial it is for a nation to have a day of giving thanks, it is meaningless void of an acknowledgement of God. As His people, we should remember to give Him thanks every day. His word calls us to this daily celebration in these ways: 

His covenant promises. The foundation for Christian thankfulness runs throughout the Bible. The record of God’s covenant relationship with His people reminds us daily that it is God’s grace only that allows us to be in relationship with Him.

His law. The commandments of God point us to Him in two ways. First, in showing that we are incapable of keeping them He gives us daily motivation to find salvation in Christ. Second, once living in the reality of salvation, we have daily reasons for praising Him because we have been delivered from sin’s dominion.

His works. God’s record of His providential work in this world plainly shows us His power, patience, and strength. Where we fail and fall, He is powerful to pick us up and to carry us to eventual glory.

I love Thanksgiving. I love the chance to acknowledge that the blessings we enjoy come to us from God’s hand. And yet I wish my heart was more grateful on a day-to-day basis for the eternal blessings God provides.

A Friendly Rebuttal on “An Appeal on Race in the Presbyterian Church in America”

Reed DePace, who is a fellow pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, contacted me with some push back on my 5 part series on race in the PCA. I wanted to give him the opportunity express himself here. I may respond in the future, if time allows. His thoughts appear below the line.


I think your observations in your series “An Appeal on Race in the Presbyterian Church in America” express some sufficiency, but more at the macro level than the personal level. At the personal level, I’d suggest adding a couple of diagnostic questions: 1) Parish Degree, and 2) Brotherly Sympathy.

Parish Degree

By parish degree, I’m asking the question: how broadly does the concern apply? Your suggestions appear adequate at the broadest level, e.g., say at the denominational level. With you, I agree we’ve taken quite a few “denomination-wide” actions, more than enough to address any systemic concerns. What I think remains is addressing such concerns more closer to home, as it were. Anecdotally here (not throwing any accusations out, just generally observing), we might observe that there a number of local congregations that maybe should look into some sort of response to address present (or even previous) concerns. There are two examples from out congregation.

First, we needed to address an historical pattern of the sin of partialism in our ministry. We did so, not for any intentions related to reaching out to any other groups in our community (e.g., African Americans). Instead, we did so to follow the pattern of corporate repentance seen in the ministries of Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Our actions were more of an owning our history for the sake of our witness to the integrity of God’s glory in His Son, rather than some application of secular theories.

The second example relates to the planting of a sister Korean PCA congregation. Given local considerations, we saw this as a relevant application of our Acts 1:8 imperative. Conversely, for different reasons, this imperative did not apply to African American nor Hispanic communities in this area. Yet with a recent re-location, these considerations flipped. We’re no longer in an area where ministry to/with Koreans is relevant. Conversely, reaching out to the Hispanic community now is. (for a number of socio-cultural reasons, reaching out to the African Americans in our community still faces some hurdles we’re not able to surmount.)

In both these examples, it is the parish degree diagnostic that helped us determine ministry imperatives. Following the pattern of the first Jerusalem NT church, reaching out to all the communities in their parish, we examined the degree to which Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts were in our parish. Then, prayerfully seeking God’s favor, we sought to minister to them. It seems to me that it is entirely possible to we might put to rest the denominational concerns (as your post suggests), and still need an awful lot of local parish attention. Asking a diagnostic “to what degree” will help us in determining if and where local concerns may still be prevalent.

Brotherly Sympathy

 The second, additional diagnostic question that I think might be added is the brotherly sympathy one. This is simply the examining of how my brother responds to these issues, and then adjusting my response to minister the gospel’s grace and mercy to him. For example, consider our denominational response to our Asian brothers’ concerns at this GA. On the one hand, the use of a “Korean prayer” imprecation that is gossip at best to support the argument for addressing their concerns is manipulative and beneath the integrity with which we are called to behave as elders in Christ’s church. On the other hand, I think our response was ham-fisted at best. We would have been much wiser to pause any response and ask for further clarification from Asian elders.

This brotherly sympathy diagnostic is based on passages like Acts 15 and Col 3:11. In the first, note that the prohibition against eating meat with its blood is based on brotherly sympathy. The Mosaic dietary provisions no longer applied, in toto. Thus, the “restriction” here was relative to Jewish believer sensitivities. It was a temporary restriction put in place due to Romans 14-15 weaker brother considerations. It was an expression of brotherly sympathy for the Jewish believers. Similarly, in Col 3:1, imagine the slave and Scythian responses to Paul’s teaching to the church in Colossae. The slave subject to socioeconomic prejudice, and the Scythians subject to the socioethnic prejudice variety, these words must have been a wondrous glory of the gospel to their ears. To be sure, the local congregation then had to work to put into practice this gospel truth. Nevertheless, the brotherly sympathy just from the mere expression was huge.

Going back to the Asian overtures this past GA, this is why I’d have preferred a pause and re-consider response. To be sure, there was some degree of younger Asian brothers responding out of a progressive informed hermeneutic. Yet the vast majority of the Asian elders (I did some checking) were respectfully disappointed in how we handled it. Yes, the problems being faced are more secular culture than sacred (e.g., the “Wuhan” virus effect). Yes, to the degree there are “systemic” problems in treatment of Koreans in our culture, it is more African, then Hispanic, before it is Anglo. And yet, what harm would it have been to take the time to show brotherly sympathy that the majority of our Asian elders would have appreciated? I expect had we done so, even though it would have taken more time, and we might have arrived at the same application, the time spent would have ministered to our Korean brothers in a manner that yielded increasing gospel dividends.

Again, as with my previous example under the parish degree discussion, my purpose here is not to persuade you of my opinion on this particular example. Instead, I bring it up only to demonstrate the necessary relevance of the brotherly sympathy diagnostic. Like the parish degree diagnostic, it forces us to bring into consideration other biblical; imperatives that are not necessarily surfaced by the three you’ve promulgated.

Thank you for the grateful reception of my ideas. Where I’m unclear I’ll be grateful attempt tidy up the mud. Where you disagree, I’ll be grateful to learn how I might think better on these things.


Reed DePace is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Montgommery, Alabama.

Part 4 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: the Limits of Its Power

“Whenever obedience to man is inconsistent with obedience to God,
then disobedience becomes a duty.”[1]

At the start of this series, the mission statement was made: to help the Christian navigate an exercise of government power not previously experienced in my life-time. The virus that has troubled the world since the beginning of 2020 has subjected western society to a variety of mandates and restrictions, including businesses and churches. Christians everywhere have experienced these things, but there is disagreement about a proper response. There those who advocate for complete compliance, and those who have taken up what sounds like a Christian activism. This series represents an attempt to help Christians think clearly about this subject. Whatever our gut response may be, these articles are asking whether they are biblical. And to begin that critical assessment, this series began with a biblical study and the source and purpose for the power of the government.

First, we have seen from Romans 13 that all authority is given by God. That would include the authority that the civil magistrate has, even if behaving in an ungodly manner. Clearly, the biblical position of authority is that it is God-given. Second, we have also seen that the government exists as a servant of God. It is to carry out God’s vengeance on the wrongdoer and protect those who do good. The words “wrongdoer” and “good” are theological words, which must be biblically defined. A government will apply its power well, or poorly, and the report card is based on the biblical definitions of these words. And it is in this last observation that the problem arises. What does the Christian do when the government does not match up well to the biblical definitions of wrongdoing and goodness? Is there a point when the government’s authority is to be disobeyed because of its disregard for its function as God’s servant? What are the limits to this power?

To further complicate matters, there are other authorities in the world as well. That means there may be times when different authorities (all of whom God has provided) come into conflict with each other. For example, consider parental authority or church authority. This authority is also God-given, with its own set of responsibilities. These different authority structures further add to the difficulty of what may happen. For example, Colossians 3:20 says, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” What happens if the demands of the civil authority conflict with those of parents? Which is to be obeyed? As an example, what should happen when the government mandates that a child in kindergarten participate in an explicit “educational” presentation on human sexuality. Even if it is only factual, without any propaganda about the perversion of human sexuality, does the government have the implicit right to overturn the parents’ authority over the child, simply because they have God-given authority? The bring some clarity, consider these possible limits to government authority.

Man’s authority is always delegated. God provides authority for specific reasons. Parents are provided to train up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Elders are given to protect the church from false doctrine and encourage it toward love and good works. The civil magistrate is empowered to provide necessary order in society. For each of these positions of authority there are limits. That is because a father is not the owner of his children and the elder is not the master of the congregants. These things are easily seen. For example, most would agree that parents are not free to force their children to marry against their will. Or elders are not free to require all congregants to wear a yellow suit to church each Lord’s Day. And these are recognized limitations. There is much talk about hyper patriarchy in the family or toxic leadership in the church. If limits are readily recognized in these two realms, it is right to examine if the civil government’s authority can be wielded unlawfully as well. In doing so, several limits are discovered.

There is one obvious limit, which is also described in the quote at the top of the article. If a magistrate would require sin, he has clearly exercising authority unlawfully. I have not heard any Christian leader object to this principle in the last two years. The oft-quoted biblical instruction comes in Acts 4. Peter and John are ordered not to speak of Christ anymore. Their response is instructive for all authority relationships: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20, ESV). When any human authority requires sin, whether family or church or civil, the giver of all authority, God, is to be obeyed instead. But there are other limits on government authority as well.

First, each nation’s government is limited by its geographical bounds. The people of Germany do not obey the laws on the books in Canada. If you live in the United States you do not obey the mandates of Australia. That is because the authority of each nation state is limited to its own citizens. All nations live in such a way, and this limit is universally respected.

Second, a government may not exercise authority over its people as a tyrant. The government’s relationship with its citizens is not one of master and slave. The king is to carry out the good laws of the land with justice and equity.[2] For example, a government may not enter a citizen’s home and confiscate private property without process and just cause. A government may not force families to separate, requiring the wife to move to Miami, while ordering the man to live in Seattle. A government may not, at a random check point, confiscate your vehicle and take possession of it. Unless you live under a communist government, that is. The examples of these abuses could possibly all be obeyed without the citizen sinning in obeying it. And yet the government is not justified in acting as a tyrant because it denies its delegated authority. The government does not own all, and cannot behave as if it does. When government behaves this way, says Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex, they are acting as if their authority belongs to them as a right, not as a delegated power. Yet the men and women that make up government are not gods, but part of God’s creation, just as their citizens are. That means that since God is the giver of authority, government is to wield it as His servant.

Third, a government is bound by the laws of the land. These limits that are being ignored these days. In Acts 22, Paul has been rescued by the Roman cohort of soldiers from a violent Jewish mob. Paul was brought into the Roman barracks to examine him by flogging. Before this atrocious, unjust, and violent act could be committed against him, Paul reminds the tribune that he as civil magistrate is breaking the laws of the land which he may not do. “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). It is, of course, a rhetorical question. It is not lawful for them to do so, and Paul reminds them of that. The tribune and his fellow examiners immediately reverse course. They are in positions of authority, but still under authority. They, as civil magistrate, do not live above the laws of the land, but must follow the rules of their country. It is at this point that many government abuses have taken place, at least in the United States.

Here is the point. All authority has limits because it is a derived authority. That does not mean there is a place where the civil magistrate behaves perfectly.  Since the fall, all authority is abused because it is exercised by sinful men. Today, governments are acting as a master over its people by assuming responsibility over its citizens’ consciences. Some will agree with what it is demanding and imposing, others not. The point is not agreement with policy, but limit of authority. Today, governments are failing to live under the laws of their own nations. In effect the government has become a law breaker. Again, some will agree with what it is demanding and imposing, and others not. The point is not agreement with policy, but limit of authority.

The reality for the Christian is that the government is assuming authority over people’s private businesses, their movements, their worship, and even their employment. For several members of the congregation I serve, this topic is not theoretical. It is a pressing matter that must be examined on the basis of principle, not preference. But what does the Christian do when a government behaves badly, even sinfully?

To help with that, it is always good to look at the reformed confessional statements for their understanding of what Scripture teaches on this matter. After that investigation is complete, perhaps we will be ready to consider what a proper response may be.

[1] Charles Hodge, Romans, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 406

[2] Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince, (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1982), 64-68.