Church Discipline, the Civil Government, and Christian Nationalism

14 November 2023

By Dr Adi Schlebusch

The marks, by which the true Church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.

- Article 29 of the Belgic Confession

 For this purpose God hath invested the magistacy with the sword: for the punishment of evildoers, and for the protection of them that do well.


 - Article 36 of the Belgic Confession

The Belgic Confession ascribes the same raison d’etre to both ecclesiastical and civil governments, namely to punish sin so that God may be glorified and worshipped aright. The logical implication thereof, namely that the two forms of government should in some manner co-operate, was clearly seen by John Calvin, who writes in his Institutes 4.20.4:

When those who bear the office of magistrate are called gods, let no one suppose that there is little weight in that appellation. It is thereby indicated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority ... This Paul also plainly teaches when he enumerates officers of rule among the gifts of God, which distributed variously, according to he measure of grace, ought to be employed by the servants of Christ for the edification of the Church [Romans 12:8]. In that place, however, he specifically refers to the senate of grave men who were appointed in the primitive Church to take charge of public discipline. This office, in the Epistle of the Corinthians he calls “kubernetes,” governments [1 Corinthians 12:28]. Still, as we see that civil power has the same end in view, there can be no doubt that he is recommending every kind of government.1

Calvin and the Belgic Confession (which Calvin himself expressly approved of) therefore teach that both civil and ecclesiastical governments have the same end: exercising public discipline and justice. This has radical implications for understanding of the relationship between the church and the state. There can be no separation of church and state as if these belong to two “kingdoms” or “domains.” The governments of both were ordained by God for the exact same purpose. While I don’t believe that this necessitates the establishment principle per se, it does necessitate some kind of “volkskerk(e)” or national church(es) principle. In pluralist societies what tends to happen is that people excommunicated by a church simply either become secular or find a new church that will accept them. This defies the very purpose for which church discipline was instituted in the first place. Of course, the first goal of church discipline is repentance, but eventually it is to “put away the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:5). In commenting on this particular passage, Calvin again notes:

There are some men, otherwise not ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the Gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law; not only because the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of his Kingdom should be aided by the sword. But when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s Kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed ... Christ, indeed as he is meek, would also, I confess, have us be immitators of his gentleness, but that does not prevent pious magistrates from providing for the tranquility and safety of the Church by their defence of godliness; since to neglect that part of their duty would be the greatest perfidy and cruelty ... We gather from it that none are to be given over to punishment, except those who shall have been convicted by the plain Word of God, lest men should judge them arbitrarily. Whence it also appears that zeal will err in drawing the sword, unless a lawful examination shall have been previously instituted.

The classical Reformed position is therefore clearly that both civil and ecclesiastical governments are bound to the same standard: the Word of God. As such, Christian Nationalism would entail that they recognize the legitimacy of each others' rulings and in particular that the civil government should support the church government in that those excommunicated by the church should not simply be indefinitely allowed to continue to enjoy all the rights and privileges of citizens who are members of Christian Churches in good standing. Eventually, if after lawful examination there are no signs of remorse or repentance, the civil government would have to use its authority to altogether remove from the midst of the people those excommunicated by the church.

1. Quod Dii nuncupatur quicunque magistratu gerunt ne in ea appellatione leve inesse momentum quis putet. Ea enim significatur, mandatum a Deo habere, divina authoritate praeditos esse ... Paulos aperte docet, du praefecturas inter Dei dona enumerat, quae secundum gratiae diversitatem varie distributa, a ferius Christi aedificationem Ecclesiae conferri debeant. Tamersi enim illic proprie de senatu loquitur gravium virorum, qui in primitiva Ecclesia constituebantur ut conformandae publicae dissiplinae praessent (quod minus in Epistola ad Corinthios vocat κυβερνήτης vocat) quia tamen vidimus eodem recidere fine civilias potestas, nun dubium quin omne iustae praefecturae genus nobis commendet.

2. Sunt nonnulli viri, alioqui non male dispositi, quibus videtur nostram conditionem sub Evangelio differre ab antiquo populo sub lege; non solum quia Regnum Christi non est huius mundi, sed quia Christus noluit initia regni sui gladio adiuvari. Sed cum iudices humani opus suum consecrant ad promotionem regni Christi, nego propterea eius naturam mutari ... Christus quidem ut est mitis, vult nos etiam, fateor, imitatores esse lenitatis suae, sed id non impedit pios magistratus providere tranquillitati et securitati Ecclesiae per defensionem pietatis; cum negligere illam partem officii sui esset maxima perfidia et crudelitas ... Ex hoc colligimus neminem puniendum esse, nisi qui convictus fuerit per verbum Dei manifestum, ne homines eos arbitrario iudicio condemnet. Unde apparet etiam zelum errare in gladio educendo, nisi prius iusta inquisitio instituta fuerit.