The Establishment Principle is one that has generated much debate and controversy in the past and, in view of the introduction of the European Convention of Human Rights into Scottish law and the possibility that this will lead to the renewal of the conflict between Church and state, it may well continue to do so into the future. At the outset, we may well ask: What is this principle and what is it that makes the upholding of it so vitally important a matter that the eminent Dr Kennedy of Dingwall, a man who measured his words before giving utterance to them, was moved to declare that it was not only a principle “worth living for, but a principle worth dying for”? In plain terms, “the Establishment Principle, or the Principle of the National Recognition of Religion, maintains the scriptural view of the universal supremacy of Christ as King of Nations as well as King of saints, with the consequent duty of nations as such, and civil rulers in their official capacity, to honour and serve Him by recognising His truth and promoting His cause.” (2)
It has been maintained by men competent to judge that in none of the Reformation symbols has the doctrine of the Headship of Christ been so fully set forth as in The Westminster Confession of Faith and The Form of Church Government. The statement in The Form of Church Government has been called “that glorious paragraph”. (3) It has also been said of it that “a grander declaration of the supreme kingship of our Lord, both in heaven and on earth, eternal in origin, glorious in administration and everlasting in results, can hardly be found elsewhere in religious literature.” (4) It reads as follows: “Jesus Christ, upon whose shoulder the government is, whose name is called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace; of the increase of whose government and peace there shall be no end; who sits upon the throne of David, and upon his Kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgement and justice, from henceforth, even for ever; having all power given to Him in heaven and on earth by the Father, who raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand, far above all principalities and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all: He being ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things, received gifts for His Church and gave officers necessary for the edification of His Church, and perfecting of His saints”. We append the Rev Donald Beaton’s comment: “The very scripturalness of it, made up as it is of some of the grandest texts of Scripture, gives it a noble dignity higher than the words of men”. (5)
Since Christ’s Headship is supreme – “over all things” – this necessarily embraces supremacy over the civil magistrate, or the state, and this mastery as Sovereign and Ruler among the nations is not delegated, but that authority which belongs to Him of right as the eternal Son who is “over all, God blessed for ever”. It is then accepted that the ordinance of civil government carries with it the authority and sanction of a Divine appointment wherever human society is found. “As an appointment of God, in His character of universal Sovereign,” Bannerman points out, “the authority of the state, and the duty of subjects in regard to it, are entirely independent of the Christianity of rulers or subjects; and the rights and responsibilities of the two parties are as valid and as binding in heathen as in Christian lands.” (6) On this particular point it has been noted that it has been a common feature among all nations, throughout history, that rulers invested with power and authority regarded it as a most important duty that the interests of the religion practised within that nation be given attention. Even the legislators and wise men among the heathen bore united testimony to this truth. M’Crie tells us that “in the codes of law established in Greece and Rome, there were laws respecting religion, which were reckoned the most sacred and inviolable. And in almost all nations, not only the civilised, but the more barbarous, ancient as well as modern, the public countenance of religion, with provision for its institutions, has formed, in one way or another, an important branch of their political regulations. These are the dictates of common reason, received and acknowledged among mankind; they are the voice of God, speaking by men of all ages and countries.” (7)
The application of the principle to the support of a false religion, and the worship of such as are “by nature no gods” does not, however, invalidate the argument that civil magistracy is a divine ordinance. Religion, it is argued, lies at the very foundation of civil society; its sanctions and influence are necessary in order to gain even the direct and immediate ends of government, which are the preservation of justice and peace among men. “Hence it becomes the high duty of legislators and rulers to avail themselves of the sanctions and obligations of religion, to take order that their subjects be instructed in its principles, and that those institutions be maintained and respected among them which are calculated to impress a sense of it upon the mind, and to dispose them to act under its powerful influence.” (8) “Common sense,” M’Crie wrote, “as well as the experience of all ages, teaches us that no government can flourish which does not encourage and propagate religion and morality among its particular members. Cicero makes it of doubt, whether it be possible for a community to exist that had not a prevailing mixture of piety in its constitution. A man who would hope to govern a society without regard to these principles is as much to be condemned for his folly as detested for his impiety.” (9)
But the Establishment Principle is not merely to be understood from the “law of nature”; it is above all to be understood as supported by the Divine law. The moral law in all its extent is binding on all men whatever station they may occupy, wherever in the social order their lot has been assigned them. The Larger Catechism lays down that in the observance of the moral law, the rule to be followed is that “what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavour that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.” (10) For example, we are by the Fourth Commandment not only bound to sanctify the Sabbath ourselves, but to use all means competent to us, in our station, to prevent its profanation by others. The same applies to the other commandments. This holds especially true of all persons in authority, as parents, masters and magistrates, who are bound to use not merely their advice and example, but also their authority, for promoting the observance of the divine law, and for preventing or restraining open violation of it.
Magistrates, as guardians of both tables of the moral law, as “the ministers of God”, are particularly bound to promote His honour and to see to it that His law is respected. As M’Crie points out, it was the conviction that the Second Commandment placed them under the obligation of keeping the Divine ordinance pure and entire that moved godly kings of Judah, such as Hezekiah and Josiah, to remove the monuments of idolatry and provide for the restoration of the worship of God as prescribed in His Word. In this connection even Darius is commended in that he signed the decree which secured the liberation of the captive Jews and facilitated the rebuilding of the temple, where they were exhorted by this heathen potentate to “offer sacrifices of sweet savours unto the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and of his sons” (Ezra 6: 8-10). Sentiments of a similar nature were expressed by Artaxerxes. If Persian kings were of this mind, how much more ought it to be so in the case of Christian kings or magistrates acting in their official character. There are not a few examples to be found in the Word of God of leaders and rulers who, in exercising authority, acted in accordance with the divine injunction: “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” “Where do we read, in all the book of God,” M’Crie wrote, “of approved magistrates who confined themselves, in their official capacity, to civil matters and the secular interests of mankind, and who did not employ their authority for the advancement of religion? We have a large account of the conduct of Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, Asa and Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah. Who will deny that their actions are recorded as an example to rulers? But they are commended chiefly for the warm zeal and activity which they displayed in their station, in settling or reforming religion, providing for the instruction of their subjects, and the due administration of divine ordinances. No magistrate, who consults the Bible, will ever imagine that religious matters are excluded from his province.” (11)
The New Testament confirms that it is the duty of magistrates to do all within their power and sphere of influence to promote the interests of Christ’s cause and kingdom. The duty is laid upon Christians to pray “for kings, and for all in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (2 Tim 2:1). Magistrates accordingly are to exercise their authority in a way that will lead not only to men and women living quiet and peaceable lives, but they are at the same time to promote godliness and honesty, or that morality which expresses itself in love to God and one’s neighbour.
Though, as M’Crie points out, the institution of civil magistrates is “from God as the supreme Lord and king of all the world and not properly from Christ as Mediator”; yet “a right to have the kingdoms of this world rendered subservient and tributary to His spiritual kingdom, in the visible Church, belongs to Him as Mediator.” In the second Psalm, kings and judges of the earth are exhorted to be wise, to be instructed, to serve the Lord with fear, and to do homage and service unto Him. It is clear that they are thus exhorted in their official roles as rulers, as “kings of the earth and rulers taking counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed”, and not simply as ordinary individuals. From the New Testament, it is evident that it was Herod and Pontius Pilate that the Holy Spirit had in view when the psalmist was moved to pen these words, and this confirms the view that the ushering in of the New Testament dispensation did not alter the ordained relationship between Church and state.
James Bannerman confirms this view: “That civil government is an ordinance of God as the God of nature, and not of grace, is a most important truth, and one that lies at the foundation of the essential difference between the state and the Church, which owes its origin to Christ as Mediator. But it is no less true that God has handed over to Christ as Mediator the ordinance of civil government, to be employed by Him in subordination to the great purposes of His mediatorial reign. Among the all things over which Christ is now made Head to the Church, is to be numbered the ordinance of magistracy or civil government in this world – a truth which seems unquestionably to draw with it the conclusion that, in the hands of Christ and under His control, the civil government of nations may be made instrumental in advancing the interests and promoting the well-being of the Church. In the joint dominion to which Christ has been exalted, both over the state and over the Church, and in the express and avowed object for which this dominion has been vouchsafed to Him, we recognise a foundation laid for those two Divine ordinances, originally separate and still essentially distinct, becoming serviceable and advantageous to each other. . . . In the common subordination to Christ of the body politic and body ecclesiastical alike, and in the object which is to be promoted by that subordination, we see the foundation laid for a friendly alliance and co-operation between Church and state. Distinct and separate in their essential character, they are yet brought into one through their mutual subjection to the same Divine Head, and their mutual subserviency to the same gracious purpose. Fundamentally unlike in their character on earth, they are resolved into a higher unity through means of one Head in heaven. The Church and the state, because equally the servants of Christ, are helps made and meet for each other.” (12)
They are like “two branches growing out of the same stock, two streams flowing from the same fountain, two lines drawn from the same centre, two arms under the same head; but the power of the magistrate is subordinate unto, and dependeth on, the dominion of God the Creator of all: the power of church officers dependeth upon the dominion of Christ, the Mediator and King of the Church.” (13)
1. This is the first part of a paper presented at the 2000 Theological Conference. It is being printed at this time in view of the likelihood of a General Election in the UK in the near future. This was also a reason behind the choice of the sermon for this issue. (Editor.)
2. Quoted in Christ’s Kingship over the Nations.
3. A F Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, p 182.
4. Professor Morris, Theology of the Westminster Symbols, p 341.
5. Commemoration Papers on Westminster Assembly . . . May 1943.
6. James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol 1, p 97.
7. Thomas M’Crie, Statement,p 113.
8. Ibid, p 116.
9. Ibid, p 117.
10. Question 99, Rule 7.
11. Thomas M’Crie, Statement, p 123.
12. James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol 1, p 113.
13. George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, p 120.