some weird objections

A post by Gordon Matheson here rightly identifies the Establishment Principle as central to the concerns that many Scottish Christians have about changing to a secular constitution if Scotland became independent.

But rather than concurring with this, the post goes on to make three observations on the relationship between Church and State which sit rather uncomfortably with a conventional understanding of the Establishment Principle – a principle so crucial to the witness of the heirs of 1843.

Observation 1.

Firstly, God doesn’t need the Establishment Principle to guarantee the place of the church at the heart of the nation. The suggestion that the church needs the trappings of Establishment is bogus. We need to remember, the Church started life as a few dozen people gathered in a room in Jerusalem. It flourished in the face of fierce persecution in its Jewish cradle, in the culture of the Roman Empire, and across the whole Gentile world. Even today, the Church thrives in counties where it is suppressed. The Establishment Principle, if anything, should urge us on to win and hold onto hard-won religious liberty. The American constitution, for example, guarantees that liberty, but wisely does not establish any religion or denomination – yet the Church does okay in America. Meanwhile, in the UK, where we have an Established Church, we’re peripheral – hardly at the heart of anything. Establishment provides no guarantee of a place – let alone a place at the heart.

The oddity of this observation is that establishment isn’t so much about the needs of the Church as the needs of society. Nor is it about what God “needs” so much as what God ordains – what God has revealed is his preferred way for how Church and State should relate. The Establishment Principle doesn’t force us to choose between religious liberty and the church at the heart of the nation – it’s about both. And legal provisions that the Church should be established are not so much fancy trappings that we can easily dispense with as simply the State’s way of expressing its acceptance of its obligation under God to give national recognition to the Christian religion. If it happens that, in spite of legislation like the Treaty of Union, neither the state nor the established body are taking their current legal responsibilities seriously, that’s not a problem with the legislation but with the flaws and frailties of the state and the body it currently establishes. It certainly doesn’t undermine the Establishment Principle, which is just our terminology for the relationship which should hold between Church and State when both are living up to their divinely ordained responsibilities.

Observation 2.

Secondly, the Establishment Principle has never guaranteed orthodoxy. In fact, Established Churches tend towards a sickness in doctrine. History is replete with examples – from the Church of England’s half-way reformation, to the Three Self Patriotic Church on modern day China. The Establishment Principle is supposed to lead to a healthy balance between church and state. But because we live in a broken, sinful world that rarely happens. Even when it does it rarely lasts long. Either the state exercises undue control over the church’s doctrine and affairs; or the church becomes grotesque in her demands of the state; or the church makes compromises to appease the state. This has already happened in Scotland. We need to ask, what’s worse for the nation – a sick established church, or a healthier non-established church? It’s strange that a Free Presbyterian minister has forgotten this has happened before. In the run up to 1843 the relationship between state and established church became unbearable for men like Thomas Chalmers, and he walked out. The “Free” in the Free Church, and her various offspring, is a recognition that Establishment is a great Biblical principle, (and we still call the state to her highest calling in this); but we realise we live in the real world, where great principles rarely work as desired.

In the Scottish context, it simply is not the case that historically the Established Church has tended towards a sickness in doctrine. Strange for a Free Church minister to forget, but in the run up to the Disruption, the “sickness” was on the side of the State, not the side of the Church. The Disruption was actually a manifestation of very robust health on the part of the then established Church, when they would prefer to forego the benefits of establishment than violate the principle of Christ’s authority in his Church. For that whole length of time between the Reformation and the Disruption, Scotland had in actuality enjoyed that same healthy balance between Church and State which Gordon claims is so rare and short-lived – the 1842 Claim, Declaration and Protest is a standing testimony to this (and it’s part of the reason why the state’s encroachments in the early 1800s were so outrageous and intolerable).

The scenarios on offer – a sick established church or a healthier non-established church – are a false dichotomy. The ideal, encapsulated in the Establishment Principle, is a healthy established Church – and it’s not some remote, fanciful ideal so noble as to be unattainable. It’s as concrete and attainable as the principle that souls are converted under the preaching of the Word, or that people shouldn’t go around breaking the sixth commandment – both grand Biblical principles and things we should be able to consciously work towards without a second thought.

Observation 3.

So my third observation is that things break. Scotland’s history is full of broken covenants – but times of refreshing have come.  Yet today, you would have to wear rose-tinted spectacles to think the church (sick or healthy) has a place to lose at the heart of the nation. The Church in Scotland is largely irrelevant, sick with errors in doctrine, and frequent misplaced emphasis in word and action. God has already been provoked – and has given Scotland the church she wanted. I don’t think we need the FPs to tell us that might happen – we need to open our eyes to what already is!

Despite that, God has continued to be faithful to us. There are still a lot of healthy parts of the Church. He does that because of his grace. While we can never assume grace, we cannot live without it. The assumption that Scotland will be cut off from God’s blessing if we revoke a man-made treaty smacks of a graceless, legalistic view of God. We have to rely on a God who is not like that.

Thankfully, the Synod resolution neither assumes that we will be cut off from God’s blessing for revoking a man-made treaty, nor entertains a graceless, legalistic view of God.

People who read the resolution itself rather than the version filtered through BBC reportage would see that the main concern is not with independence per se, nor with changing treaties per se, but with corporately adopting a secular(ist) constitution to replace the one where Christianity is given its (rightful) place at the heart of the nation. To the extent that secularisation is a rejection of God, God’s authority, and God’s kindness to us collectively in providence, there’s not much room for doubt that to that extent it’s not quite the loving respect we really owe him.

Legally and constitutionally, the Christian religion does have a huge place to lose at the heart of the nation. Our challenge today is not to pretend that the constitution is irrelevant to the church’s role in society, but to work together to ‘strengthen the things that remain and are ready to die,’ and see how we can best cooperate to shape a society where the gospel can be preached freely and lived openly, for the good of Scotland.

9 thoughts on “some weird objections

  1. Hi,
    I think if you more carefully read my post, my objection isn’t to the EP, but to the suggestion that ditching the Act of Union will be a provocation of God, and in some way disastrous for the cause of the Gospel in Scotland. Instead of assuming a Free Church minister has said something, therefore it’s bad, it would be nice if you read my post with a less critical eye.

    Also, your last paragraph suggests you and I see Scotland very differently. The Scottish people, through their elected representatives have already ditched the established church. The church losts its place long ago – and the way “back” isn’t to go and try to reassert an old constitution, but to win Scotland anew. I’m in the business of trying to win people anew – you are, in my opinion, in the business of clouding the eyes of a lost generation with stuff that is totally unnecessary to the immediate concerns of the Gospel.


  2. But if you read the resolution more carefully, you’ll see that ditching the Act of Union is not the central problem. So maybe we’re both talking past each other…

    I’ve actually only just seen your blogpost of today (something to do with the settings on how often my feeds get updated…) and it’s very thought-provoking. Stay tuned, because I’m pondering what to say on that next!


  3. Cath,
    This is a bit of a rambly, many-threaded chain of thought, so I apologise for that. I think a lot of what goes on in Scotland when it comes to how we think about applying things built on the EP, the Solemn Leauge and Covenant, &c. is nothing short of the Galatian Error. It’s the assumption that blessing comes through getting everything outwardly right – following all the binding rules.

    Before you suggest the resolution says nothing about binding rules, the FP’s resolution equates the Act of Union with the boundary markers in ancient Israel – markers which were placed on divine authority in the latter chapters of Joshua.

    The FPs appear to be saying God will be provoked to judgement if the marker in Scotland, the Act of Union, is touched or moved. I think it’s safe to infer from that the understanding that God will bless if we acknowledge the marker, and come back to it. That’s going a whole way beyond scripture; not only that, but going for full on Galatian Error. It roots of the hope of salvation in something other than Christ alone. (I appreciate you might say, but nobody is talking about abandoning faith in Christ… but then, nor were the wolves who infiltrated the Galatian churches, they proclaimed a “Christ + something else” salvation. That is exactly how I read the FP’s resolution.

    But please, my observations are not anti-EP – it’s just noting that the EP need to be applied today in the way our Presbyterian fore-fathers in Scotland did three hundred years ago. In lands where there is no EP, or no established church, there is still blessing. In lands where established churches have existed, they are not guaranteed healthy orthodoxy, and the lands which establish them abandon the Gospel with staggering consequences. But despite all these flaws, God still blesses us with times of revival, and awakening. I don’t see why you would disagree with the observations, or my conclusion that because the since the EP is not vital, this intervention on the FP’s part was unwise.

    Last thing, we’ve got to stop pretending that the church is in any way at the heart of the nation because a document from the 17th or early 18th C. puts us there. We’re not, and our heads are in the sand if we think otherwise. The world watching us is needlessly dissuaded of the Gospel when this is what we chose to focus on. The FPs focusing on this, at this point, makes my ministry harder. The people I’m trying to reach read this sort of story as a church yearning for worldly, political influence. It does nothing but confirm their prejudice, but it gains us nothing. So what on earth was gained by this? I think most Christians in Scotland just want to hide in embarassment when this nonesense appears on the news.


  4. Thanks for this. Thought-provoking stuff.

    I’d certainly have sympathy for the view that the Synod resolution raises the concern that the Synod is too deeply embedded in the historical background to be communicating very intelligibly to today’s Scotland (including the church of today’s Scotland). There’s a big disconnect between what might be easily assumed to be common knowledge among Free Presbyterians and their ilk and the level of interest or even awareness in a wider audience – a disconnect which the terms of the Synod resolution doesn’t necessarily take much pains to compensate for. :-(

    Also, the reservations you’ve expressed in your post about the status we give to the documents of bygone years are things I’ve also wondered about. (
    I also think that thanks to the recent resurgence of the RPs on the scene, there’s a lot of confusion about the sense in which these old covenants are and aren’t binding – I know the FPs historically objected to the RP position, for reasons I assume would be similar to the FC’s, but I certainly am not clear on this, and would really welcome some properly informed discussion.

    As for the Galatian Error – um, like, massive overstatement, perhaps.

    I do think the Synod could have done everyone a massive favour by explaining things better in this resolution (and a zillion other things, but that’s a separate issue). But I honestly don’t think they’re falling into the error you perceive. It *would* be legalistic if Synod expected divine blessing to flow from a return to [insert landmark from golden era of choice here], but a fairer summary would be along the lines that we can’t expect improvements until we get divine blessing, and in the meantime, continuing to abandon major parts of the social structures that both grew out of earlier Christian activity and also strengthened the work of the Church, isn’t doing ourselves any favours. (It’s also hardly fair to judge the church’s position on the gospel of free grace on the basis of a pronouncement from the Religion and Morals Committee on a contemporary political issue…)

    But also, you seem to be treating the Act of Union as something old and outdated – when in fact it’s the constitution we currently have. Even if it seems a bit of a secondary issue because of how far society has drifted, it isn’t necessarily misguided to encourage people to live up to the commitments they’re actually still tied in to – consider marriage counselling, for a faint analogy. It’s not pretending, if it’s a legal reality!

    Which is where I think the suggestion in your blogpost is a bit too simplistic – ie if the suggestion is that rather than looking back, we can only look forward. Part of understanding our current problems is understanding how we’ve got here. Unless we understand our historical background, we won’t be in a good position to move forward. Yes to more appropriate language, but no to proposals that are deliberately blind to our past. In the same way that we can’t (eg) *only* preach the Trinity now that we’ve got the five Solas, we can’t pretend that the last four hundred years of the Church playing a huge role in Scottish society just didn’t happen. Now that we’ve *got* a Christian constitution, we can’t blithely swap to a secular one [assuming that is indeed what independence would mean] and treat it as a neutral issue that will have negligible to null effects on the welfare of our society.


  5. On the EP – I’m just not sure what the (lack of) correlations between establishment and blessings are meant to prove. God isn’t tied to using means, but we are. For our part, we’re meant to be in a State which recognises the Church – that’s how God intends State and Church to be. For his part, sure, he can and does bless other arrangements, but that’s not our business.

    (An analogy – New Testament congregations are meant to have a pastor – some congregations don’t have a pastor and feel they experience great blessing from supply – but that doesn’t mean they don’t need a pastor after all. Or, believers are meant to grow in grace through participating in the Lord’s Supper – some believers never participate and still grow in grace – but that doesn’t mean they can do without the sacrament after all. Etc.)

    The EP is obviously not vital to the gospel itself, but it is vital for the good of society.


  6. “The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven:1 yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemes and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.” (WCF 23:3 WCS)

    Am I wrong in reading the establishment principle as not being the establishment a particular denomination as having the imprimatur and protection of the state but rather establishing the state’s responsibility, as the governing authority established by God, to promote true doctrine, worship, government and discipline within the church of Christ and to suppress all heresies and false religion? It seems to me on a plain reading that that is what God requires of the state in this sphere. Indeed this is the state’s weightiest responsibility, its highest calling and it’s greatest privilege. God required this of the state in 1707 and He continues to require it of the state today. Scotland may have changed but God has not.


  7. You’re right, I think – the responsibility on the State is a very general one (although very weighty) – the details of how a particular civil magistrate fulfils this responsibility in their own particular context aren’t at all tightly specified. The timeless/universal aspect is that the State should do what it can to provide the conditions where the Church can preach the gospel freely.

    With the caveat that in the ideal world there would only be one denomination! – only one communion evidencing the notes of the kirk, rather than our depressing situation of several communions evidencing most of them to some extent.


  8. Agree with your point re one denomination. My point was that the establishment principle does not mean the preferment and protection of only one denomination but rather the preferment and protection of the one true church of Christ (which should only be one denomination – ideally! – and which we should be striving towards today). It is interesting to note that the Kingdom of Judah rose and fell with the godliness of its king and with his promotion or not of true religion and suppression or not of false religion.


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