Prophetic Resistance as the Calling of the Church
All who live by the sword perish by the sword. The warning of Matthew’s Gospel is our lesson for today.
While in prison (ca. 1575), one of my Baptist forebears, Hendrick Terwoort, wrote a confession of faith. It rejected infant baptism and held that a Christian should not make an oath or bear arms. Anabaptists, said Terwoort, “believe and confess that magistrates are set and ordained of God, to punish the evil and protect the good,” that they pray for them and are subject to them in every good work, and that they revere the “gracious queen” as a sovereign. He sent a copy of his confession to Elizabeth, but she was not inclined to listen to him. At the ripe old age of 25, Terwoort was put to death because he would not make his conscience Elizabeth’s footstool.
According to J. D. Cramp, it was the unpardonable sin of Baptists that they condemned the interference of the civil power with religion. They were remarkably clear on that subject. They taught that “the civil magistrate hath no authority in ecclesiastical matters, and that he ought not to meddle in causes of religion and faith,” that “no man ought to be compelled to faith and religion,” and that “Christians ought to punish faults, not with imprisonment, not with the sword, or corporal punishment, but only with excommunication.”
These scriptural truths were suppressed by the bishops because their own beliefs were inconsistent with them. After Terwoort and his friends were arrested, they were required to subscribe to four articles, condemning their own principles.
“They proposed to us four questions,” says one of the prisoners, “telling us to say yea or nay—”
“‘Whether Christ had not taken His flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary?’”
“We answered: ‘He is the Son of the living God.’”
“‘Ought not little children to be baptized ?’”
“We answered: ‘Not so; we find it not written in Holy Scripture.’”
“‘May a Christian serve the office of a magistrate?’”
“We answered: ‘That it did not oblige our consciences; but, as we read, we esteemed it an ordinance of God.’”
“‘Whether a Christian, if needs be, may not swear?’”
“We answered: ‘That it also obliged not our consciences; for Christ has said, in Matthew, Let your words be yea, yea; nay, nay.’”
“Then we were silent.”
Prophetic resistance to the state is always related to the affirmation of government as a God-given institution for the common good of society. As in the sixteenth century, so today there is a profound need for a “prophetic theology” as the authentic mind and voice of the church in calling itself and the state to account and in taking responsibility for bringing justice and power together for the freedom, peace, and good of all.
Nowhere is this situation of conflict more intense and urgent than in the church in America. Its task here is no different from what it has been throughout history. It is to be the church in obedience to Jesus Christ, and by so being it will enable the state to be the state. This is the most loyal service the church can render the state, to a particular government, and to itself—to protect the government from itself, and to strive to ensure that civil authority fulfills its office as instituted by God. But the price for this service can be high.
Modern-day Terwoorts (like Roy Moore) know this all too well.
November 13, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. He is currently finishing his latest book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon.