The Christian's Response to an Encroaching State (Part III)
Written by David Silversides
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Reformed Worldviews - Government

In the last article Rev. Silversides explained the current exaggeration of the role of civil government

The Church’s Response

Firstly, we should oppose unlimited government in principle

Big Government is bad news for Christian freedom. Emotional attachment to socialism, on the grounds that more remote areas of the country may seem less neglected under such, will not do now. The day could come when we would very much like the government to forget all about us!

Secondly,  we need to be on our guard for Erastianism

Erastianism can be explained by looking at the four main views of the relationship between the church and the State. There is the Roman Catholic view that the church should govern the state. The Pope, as the supposed Vicar of Christ on earth and head of the church, is also viewed as the father of princes and ruler of the world and therefore a Christian State is one that submits to the Papacy. Then there is the Erastian view, named after Thomas Erastus (1524-1583) that puts it the other way round; that the State governs the church. Also, there is the view known as Voluntaryism; that church and State have no obligations to each other and the State should not be involved in recognising and caring for the interests of the church. Finally, there is the Reformed view, which we regard as the Biblical view, that both church and State are to be subject to Christ, that Christ is King and Head of the church and King of nations. The two are separate in their government, but with duties to each other. The church is to bear witness to the State, as part of its testimony to the whole counsel of God, as to what the State’s duty is and the State, in implementing the Law of God in the public domain, facilitates the church in its legitimate functions. Holding this Reformed view, we are obliged to resist Erastianism. We must resist the State interfering in the government of the church. We need to be ‘on the ball’ lest Erastian encroachment seeps in before we realise what has happened to us.

The situation regarding Gift Aid, for example, needs to be watched. Whilst we don’t want to give more money to the Government than necessary, especially since they misuse so much of the taxes given to them, nevertheless the church must never re-invent itself or revise its mandate from Christ the King in order to fit in with State requirements. If Christ’s definition of the functions of the church is not good enough for the Government to think that we provide public good, then so be it. Perhaps you think that if it came to abandoning Gift Aid, the church could scarcely survive. The way forward is: we and all the Lord’s people must love the Lord Christ and give as we are really able and commit the future of the church into His hands. He can look after His Church. We must be faithful to Him first of all. Meanwhile, we must be committed to never essentially altering His instructions to His church to suit any Government or pretend that our main work is something other than preaching a definite, Biblical, doctrinal Gospel rather than social work.

Thirdly, we must  oppose State interference in family government

We must not allow the State to intervene in parents’ obligation to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We must teach our children the truth and we must discipline them according to the Word of God whether the Government approves or not.

At this point, though probably hitting something of a raw nerve, we must face the fact that ungodly State schooling is already interfering with Biblical nurture. For the purpose of this address, let us suppose Knox and his colleagues were right in including in the First Book of Discipline a blueprint for a school system covering the whole of the country, not only initiated by the State, but under its long-term control. Do we really imagine that the present system bears any resemblance to what Knox had in mind? He did not regard education as neutral. He wanted schools for the instruction of children in ‘godliness and virtue’. Will an ungodly Government organise godly education? Will a stream rise higher than its source to any great degree? No, and schools will not rise much above the ungodly government which runs them.

This is not to dismiss the commendable efforts of individual Christian teachers. We have Christians in many roles in life, but the presence of some Christians within an organisation does not make it a Christian body. There are Christian policemen, but we do not have a Christian police force. There are Christian teachers, but we do not have a Christian education system and we have to face that. If parents struggle with the idea of taking on the whole of their children’s education themselves (though this is a completely Biblical option as Scripture makes no mention of Schools; they are not a Divine ordinance but a helpful arrangement and no more), then let us get on with establishing Christian schools where teachers truly do act on behalf of Christian parents by teaching the whole curriculum in  a way which is compatable with a Christian viewpoint. ‘Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge’ (Proverbs 19:27). How can we read these words to our children and then send them where they will hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge? We need Christian schools urgently.

Even the most ardent defender of the concept of a State school system should feel no obligation to remain bound to it when it is largely in rebellion against Christ any more than he should feel bound to stay in the Church of Scotland because he believes in an established church. Yes, we submit to the civil powers when they impose foolish and unnecessary regulations. We fill in their irritating forms as required if it is not sinful to do so. Nevertheless, when we are required to sin, then we must obey God rather than men. And when the State crosses the line into the divinely appointment government of the church or interferes with a Christian parent’s duty to his children, we resist.

Fourthly, we also  need to watch for State interference in the workplace

The equality agenda turns up in all sorts of places. Not only those providing goods and services may be required to recognise and accommodate ‘same-sex partnerships’, which Christians must never do, but also contracts of employment are another hazard. Can a Christian responsible for taking on staff who will be working with young people agree to ignore the fact that a particular candidate is a known, practising homosexual, for example? Christians must always check a contract of employment before signing, lest they commit themselves to a sinful course.

Fifthly, keep in mind the  historical Biblical benchmark of United Kingdom history

The nearest that Scotland has ever come to the Biblical ideal was the National Covenant of 1638. That is the high tide of Scriptural national acknowledgement of Christ as King. The Reformation was wonderful, but the National Covenant took things to an even slightly higher level than the Reformation under Knox. From then it has been a course of ‘up and down downwards’. But is this relevant to today? The Covenanters at the time certainly believed that what they were doing would be relevant for future generations. We tend to look rather selectively at Scottish church history. We look at the Reformation and see the marvellous work of God and rightly so, but then when we come to the Covenanters, we tend to narrow our vision down to individual, exemplary, sacrificial, godly lives: the two Margarets, Cameron, Cargill, Renwick etc. Certainly it is wonderful to see the power of God’s grace in their lives. Their godliness, their devotion to Christ was marvellous. But we can overlook the specifics for which they contended and move on to the eighteenth and nineteenth century revivals and on to the Disruption and admire the works of the Lord on a broader canvas again. Can we not pause for a moment and look more closely at what the Covenanter worthies were actually saying? Certainly, they were resisting State interference in the church, but that was not all. They were saying that the National Covenant of Scotland of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1643 were perpetually binding. This is a point that was maintained by those who subsequently made up the Reformed Presbyterian Church, but not only by them. It is true that the ‘Cameronians’ (later becoming the Reformed Presbyterians), after the Revolution Settlement, held this point with a peculiar rigour, but they were not the only ones who believed it. Alexander Shields (who entered the post-Revolution Church of Scotland) believed it. Those who later became the Secession Church (such as the Erskine brothers) believed it. And much more recently, the late Rev Kenneth MacRae of Stornoway Free Church, in an address on the propagation of the Reformed Faith, said that Scotland was the second guiltiest nation on the face of the earth after Israel because Scotland had been covenanted with God. The idea of the descending obligation of the historic covenants is not confined to the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

The earlier Covenanters saw themselves as binding the nation perpetually to the acknowledgement of Christ’s Kingship over church and State. Some will be familiar with a volume entitled Sermons In Times of Persecution in Scotland containing some wonderful sermons setting forth the glorious Gospel of Christ. In amongst them is a sermon preached in 1663 by John Guthrie of Tarbolton in Ayrshire, the youngest brother of William Guthrie of Fenwick and cousin of the martyr, James Guthrie.  His text was Ezekiel 17:19, ‘Therefore, thus saith the Lord God, As I live, surely mine oath that he hath despised, and my covenant that he hath broken, even it will I recompense upon his own head’.

Guthrie contends  in regard to the Covenants entered into by Scotland (the National Covenant) and then by the three Kingdoms (the Solemn League and Covenant) that no one on earth can release Scotland from their obligations and England and Ireland also in the case of the Solemn League. He points out that in the text, Zedekiah was held guilty for breaking his covenant with Nebuchadnezzar that he had sworn in the name of the Lord, even though he was constrained to it. He also refers to Joshua 9 where the princes of Israel swore in the name of the Lord not to harm the Gibeonites. Though the Gibeonites were deceitful and the princes of Israel were rash, the oath stood, not only for the princes, but also for the whole people. Then centuries later in 2 Samuel 21:1 & 2 the house of Saul was being judged because Saul had slain the Gibeonites in breach of the covenant made all those generations before.

The doctrine that the Covenanters held was that the whole nation was bound to all future generations of that nation by the covenants sworn by their own generation. This explains why James Guthrie, when he was on the scaffold with a rope around his neck, lifted the napkin and cried, ‘The Covenants! The Covenants! They shall yet be Scotland’s reviving’. Was he right or wrong? Was he carried away with the excitement of the occasion or was he speaking words of truth and soberness? Our Westminster Confession says, ‘An oath cannot oblige to sin, but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance’ (West. Conf. 22:4).

This means that, on top of all our national sins and guilt, this is added, that we are a Covenant-breaking nation. This is no denominational hobbyhorse, but an important historical fact to take into account in any assessment of our present situation. It highlights the depth of our degradation and apostasy as a nation. It should stir us up to prayer and to pray high. This is the benchmark that has been set for us and we should pray for the blessing of God to take us back to and even beyond that high ground of Second Reformation attainments.

It should also, however, encourage in the present, not despondency but a healthy scepticism about contemporary Government by any party. There is no room for naivety. The Government is not our friend. We can talk about the Establishment Principle and we believe it. But this does not mean pretending that a wicked Government is anything other than that. This must be acknowledged honestly and openly and the repercussions of this fact frankly faced. We must be vigilant that we do not allow dependence upon the State or the intrusion of the State to cause us to compromise the Crown Rights of the Lord Jesus Christ. We should be stirred to jealousy for His honour as our King and our Redeemer; our Beloved is the rightful King over all, and every thought ought to be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ and therefore we must, by His grace, insist on His Crown rights over the individual heart and life, over the family, over the church and over the Nation. His glorious prerogatives are worth contending for because He is fairer than the children of men. Amen.

Rev. David Silversides is the pastor of Loughbrickland Reformed Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland, UK. This article was printed in the Free Church of Scotland's "Free Church Witness" and is republished here with permission.