Volume 13, Issue 2: Magistralis
Nursing Fathers Pt. 2
Gregory C Dickison
And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers...
The fact that we break out in hives when we stare at this verse too long shows how effectively we have been indoctrinated by our government approved history classes. We think that any breach of the Jeffersonian wall separating the church from the state will lead inevitable to a gulag-like existence, as if Mosesí Israel was headquartered in Stalingrad rather than Jerusalem. This is in stark contrast to what the Scriptures teach. We need to think like Christians and not like People for the American Way.
In the last issue, we saw that in Godís scheme the civil government is an affirmative blessing for the church. This is more than just a tolerance of the state as a necessary evil; the reformational view of the magistrate should make us downright giddy.
In A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (London, 1649), Samuel Rutherford, in responding to Roger Williamsí view of the civil magistrate as neutral regarding religion, made some helpful comments on Isaiah 49:23 and the doctrine of the nursing father. He emphasized the "paternal and fatherly power" of the magistrate. A magistrate must have more than mere "approbation and reverend esteem" for the church. To use modern political jargon, it is not enough that the civil government give Christianity a place at the table, even if it is the most honored place. A president who puts Christians in his cabinet simply to better reflect the diversity of the country in domestic policy is not being a nursing father. To acknowledge Christianity, while at the same time acknowledging non-Christian religions, is to manifest your belief that Christianity is false.
Nor is it sufficient that the magistrate render "personal submission to the spiritual government" of the church. While our rulers should be members of Christís covenant household, this entails no more than the obligations of covenant membership owed by "any tradesman or son." A Christian who is also an executive, legislator, or judge owes a duty of submission different than that of the ordinary layman. He is a member of the spiritual covenant as a representative of the civil covenant, and he worships accordingly. At the same time, he has an obligation to nurture the church different than that of laymen, or even elders and deacons.
The magistrate owes more than a general duty to protect the church and her subjects from violence. We certainly want the civil governor to keep the peace, so that we are free to worship, so that we may live quiet and peaceable lives, and so that the gospel may spread. But this is a duty that Nero was just as capable of rendering as Constantine. A well-fenced garden might grow fine tomatoes, but it is just as likely to grow a fine crop of thistles. We would not call a man who has such a plot a good gardener. Likewise, a civil government which simply keeps the religious market free so that any old religion can make it if it has the gumption is not fulfilling the ideal of a nursing father.
Isaiah uses a familial image to describe Christian kings. Just as a father recognizes his own children and brings them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, so the Christian magistrate acknowledges there is such a thing as a true church, and that he has a responsibility to nurture that church so that it thrives and to protect it against those things that threaten to do it harm. Obviously, this excludes the idea of pluralism. What father would allow anything antagonistic to his children to spring up, take root and flourish?
Again, we have been taught for years by unbelievers that church and state donít mix and that when they do it is necessarily bad. But Isaiah 49 describes a prospering church in a time of great blessing and prosperity. We need to take our vision of the future from Scripture and not from the unbelieving prophets of doom. A biblical civil government, exercising its dominion in submission to the Word, need have no fear of a church getting too big for its britches and "going Roman." At the same time, the church need not fear that the magistrate will interfere in the provinces of the church or that the church will grow weak and complacent. The idea of a nursing father encompasses the goal of encouraging the church to maturity and decreasing dependence, and allowing it to defend and protect itself in the manner God has provided.
Finally, warnings never hurt. We are fallen men in a fallen world, and as we seek to be obedient it should be our most fervent prayer that we donít screw up. We must always seek reformation, not revolution; we should move as quickly as God will allow, with much care and circumspection. When we tinker with the government, we are in danger of creating a monster simply because monsters are all we ever see. But the Lord promises a work of beauty, a city on a hill, into which the kings of the earth bring their glory.