A Letter of Humble Petition

A Letter of Humble Petition

I and another minister on the session have signed a letter of humble petition that was sent to the governor of Virginia, Hon. Ralph S. Northam. I should note that we have signed this letter as Christians who happen to be ministers of the Gospel, not on behalf of Reformation Presbyterian Church, the Presbytery of the Southeast, or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. However, such letters of humble petition are part of the history and tradition of the OPC, and are a means of respectfully addressing civil government and calling government leaders to remember that they are accountable to God for their words and actions, and that they have a duty to serve as “nursing fathers” to the church, protecting her “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 and danger” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 23.3).

In Presbyterianism, there is a sharp distinction between the government of the civil magistrate and the government of the church. These are two distinct spheres of authority and responsibility. The civil magistrate has responsibility for maintaining the order and welfare of civil society, a sphere of government that, like the church, is under the sovereign government and lordship of Jesus Christ. The symbol of the civil government’s authority is the sword (Rom. 13:4). The civil magistrate, through the exercise of the power of the sword, has authority to “execute wrath on him who practices evil.” The church does not have the power of the sword. Rather, the government of the church is a spiritual government, with the responsibility for the pastoral care and discipline of the church. The symbol of the church’s authority is the keys of the kingdom of Christ, representing the way that the door of the kingdom is open and shut to sinners, by Jesus Christ Himself, through the lawful exercise of authority entrusted to the elders of the church (Matt. 16:18-19; 18:15-20).

Practically, what this means is that the church and the state are responsible for two distinct, but often overlapping, spheres of authority. The elders of the church are responsible for the government of the kingdom of Christ in this world, the church. Civil authorities are responsible for the government of the civil realm, the state. Ideally, these governments are respectful toward and supportive of one another, but each has clearly delineated spheres of authority and responsibility, Nevertheless, both church and state are accountable to God as He has revealed Himself to humanity, both in the ordinances of creation, and in the revealed will of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. This is expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 23,* which clearly and carefully articulates the distinct, but overlapping, spheres of authority of church and state:

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…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 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 and disturbance.

It is worth noting that our Confession does not suggest that the separation between church and state is such that these distinct  governments owe nothing whatsoever to one another. Quite the opposite is true. The church owes the state all proper and lawful submission to its God-ordained authority. The church is to pray for civil magistrates, to give them the honor they are due, and to obey every lawful ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake (1 Tim. 2:1-3; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). Even when the state is led by wicked and ungodly magistrates, the church is called to obey every lawful ordinance and to do so with respect and great deference for those who hold public office as ministers of God. They may not acknowledge themselves to be servants of God, but the church must remember that they are God’s servants and that they minister on God’s behalf for the good of the church and society as a whole.

The church, then, is a distinct kingdom in the world, which also shares much in common with and in connection to the world. The church has an interest in what happens in civil society, especially as it relates to the worship of God and the maintenance of the affairs of the kingdom of Christ. The elders of the church must fulfill the vows they have made before God to ensure that the ministry of Word and sacrament are upheld and maintained, for the good of the church, but also so that the church might be a blessing to the whole world, through the proclamation of the Gospel, both in word and deed.

There are times when, for the good of both church and the state, ministers and elders feel compelled to address the civil authorities by way of a humble petition for redress. For an example of this in recent OPC history, see here. (The 60th General Assembly of the OPC in 1993 urged President Bill Clinton not to lift the ban on self-identifying homosexuals serving in the armed forces. Sadly, the president did not follow the counsel given to him by the minsters and elders of our church.) While letters of humble petition are usually written and sent by churches, and not by individual ministers and elders, it would seem that there are times and circumstances in which elders may wish to join with others in the wider body of Christ in communicating their pastoral and ministerial concern that the wider body of Christ be protected and countenanced by the civil magistrate.

The letter I signed simply requests that Governor Northam exempt churches from the restrictions imposed by Executive Orders 53 and 55. While churches have respectfully agreed to abide by these orders for the good of the Commonwealth, many pastors and elders believe the time has come for the public worship of God to be restored. This is not an expression of contempt for the government, or for those who have been affected by the outbreak of COVID-19. Our hearts are grieved for those who have been sick with this disease and for those who have lost loved ones. We also have been praying fervently that the Lord would use this time of plague to bring our nation to repentance and that He might graciously pour out the Spirit of revival and reformation. We believe, however, that the greatest need the Commonwealth of Virginia has right now is the regathering of the church–insofar as this can be done without unnecessary risk to human life–for the worship and glory of God!

* The version of the Confession I reference is that approved by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which includes the so-called “American Revisions” regarding the relationship between church and state.


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