Magistratical Intervention Defended

Recently some in Parliament have threatened, in the expected institution of female bishops, to veto any amendment that the Church of England’s General Synod might add to let parishes objecting to women’s ordination remain under the authority of a male bishop. Predictably, these MPs say that such provision would make female bishops only second-class bishops. Despite my disdain for these egalitarianism demands, however, this is not my main matter here, and I ask my patient readers to direct their attention instead to a more basic thing.

The matter is as follows. A salt-of-the-earth church friend, a devotee of Thomas Chalmers, says on Facebook, ‘Whatever your thoughts on women bishops, Parliament must not be allowed to impose their will on spiritual matters on the Church.’ I take exception to establishing this as a principle, and especially to excluding other views as basically sub-Christian.

Where my friend and I differ, implicitly – though he rarely talks explicitly about theology – is how we interpret the Protestant doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (the spiritual and the temporal), a subject currently under debate among Protestants. Brad Littlejohn gives good historical coördinates to this discussion. My friend’s interpretation seems to align with that of the 17th-century Scottish Covenanters, mine with that of John Calvin and Richard Hooker; oddly enough, the 19th-century Tractarians (Pusey, Newman et al.) would probably have agreed with him, despite my being a moderately high Anglican.

It is in this matter that I now try to defend, against the accusations of many Christians, the position of Luther, Calvin and Hooker. I hold, with them, that the civil magistrate, though having no direct jurisdiction in liturgy and church books, can justly have a part in ensuring the good governance of the Church, and even enact laws touching the appointment of ministers. Ranged categorically against us are the Papalists and the Anabaptists: the former holds a two-sword theory of ecclesiastical and civil government, and the latter opposes intercourse between the Church and the civil magistrates. I hope, however, that my readers will grant me the good will to hear me honestly, that I may argue for the decency of the so-called Erastian position.

Where civil magistrates are elected or checked by elected officials, it may first be objected that the Church of our Lord Christ is not a democracy. Yes, I cannot agree more that the Church is not a democracy. It is clear enough that the catholic Church is fundamentally a monarchy, whose King is Jesus Christ the only-begotten Son of God. Invisibly he rules by the Holy Spirit in the heart of everyone who believes in him; visibly he rules by no single government, but rather in many polities ruled by the inspired and inerrant authority of holy Scripture. Visibly, then, men must rule as vicegerents of Christ, and they have valid authority except where Scripture forbids it: there is no way around the reality that the visible Church is governed by sinners who serve as ministers of Christ. They are fools, of course, who say the voice of the people is the voice of God, but it is clear nevertheless that God rules his Church through fallible men, men who even (or especially) as bishops are capable of great evil and mischief. That men must rule as deputies of Christ is not itself a threat to this same Christ’s authority over the Church: otherwise we should reject the biblical support for any ordination, let alone women’s ordination.

Some distinguish worldly government and actually spiritual government: King and Parliament by nature are ‘worldly’ government, while the Presbytery is ‘spiritual’ government. To be sure, a church’s outward discipline has a bearing on the faith of its members, and can be called spiritual in that derivative sense; but the division of ‘spiritual’ governance from other human governance, as if one is properly spiritual and the other not, does not follow from right reason. Is any human government structurally more spiritual, except as its executors are more Christian in character? If a man were an elder in a city’s presbytery, would this ‘heavenly’ work of his be any holier than if he were instead an ‘earthly’ burgess of the same city? There is no logical necessity to think so, because St Paul calls the magistrate a minister of God and even tells us that to resist this authority is to resist the ordinance of God:

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

This is even the reason, says the Apostle, for paying our taxes. Nor does he even suggest here a distinction between a common realm of the civil minister and a holy realm of the gospel minister. What the Queen does to uphold the Church in the United Kingdom, then, is no less spiritual a work, and no more worldly, than what the bishops and presbyteries do. For though all this work is directed toward a spiritual end, namely that the people should be saved through faith, it is all in fact earthly work.

Therefore we believe that church censures, including excommunication, are matters of earthly governance, though charged with a contingent efficacy: if a man once excommunicated remained unrepentant, he would surely be damned; but if by the Lord’s will he repented, he would instead be spared. Likewise with absolution of sins: the pardon declared and pronounced by Christ’s ordained ministers takes real effect if met with faith in Christ, but in the ears of him who hears it without faith it is nothing but mummery. Both of these disciplines can be described as extensions of baptism, through which the Lord truly effaces our sins to the end of the world if we have persevering faith. At the same time, the effect is not in the outward, earthly ministrations but in the inward, invisible work of the Holy Ghost, which alone is heavenly in the proper sense of the term.

As Christians we have a citizenship in heaven, but this is not the same as the membership of a Presbyterian or Anabaptist or Romanist polity. The citizenship of those who are in Christ, precisely enough, is secure with his body in heaven. None of the Christian communities on earth, or even their aggregate, define the limits of what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls a better country, that is, an heavenly. The limits of these communities, after all, do not actually show who will at the last be saved and who will instead be lost forever, nor do they show who has a lasting faith and who does not have an ultimately saving faith. The heavenly citizenship, therefore, is a mystery ruled by the Holy Ghost and not by the earthly rulers of any institution.

As for some sources who are often cited as authorities, I acknowledge that their views exist among important Protestants, sometimes quite contentiously in Scotland, and thus that within Protestantism there exists in some quarters a ‘division between spiritual and human governance’, but I will not concede that they represent the only – or even the mainstream – view of what we often call church and state. Though prevalent now, this view dividing what people often call spiritual and human governance was far from universal among the Protestants. Two of these often-cited groups are the American founding fathers and the Scottish Covenanters, so I shall address the challenge of each in turn.

Despite the recent jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Constitution of the United States has never ordered disestablishment of the state churches. As originally written, the U.S. Constitution specified only that there would be no religious tests for public office in the national government (Article VI, para. 3):

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

But Massachusetts and Connecticut, according to John Harmon McElroy, ‘had what could be termed strong religious establishments, since the establishment laws in those states gave preference to just one church and made membership in it a qualification for voting and holding public office.’ Even the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which became law in 1791, did not threaten the existence of established churches in the states: it was not until the Supreme Court ruled in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) that the states were forbidden, on the grounds of the First Amendment, to privilege one religion over another. The last disestablishment of a state church in the United States, in 1833, was 42 years after the First Amendment had been ratified and come into force. If the American founding fathers had uniformly held it unacceptable not to separate church and state immediately, they would surely have spoken up. The reason no one objected on legal grounds to the continuance of state establishments was, as shown by the drafting process for the First Amendment, that the final wording was careful to avoid forbidding the states from having established churches. Dr McElroy explains:

As with bills today, it was a conference committee that reconciled the House and Senate versions and produced the final language of the First Amendment that Congress sent to the states for ratification. Two members of this six-member committee, Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman, were from Connecticut, a state with a strong religious establishment. The language of the conference committee’s final version kept the Free-Exercise Clause that both houses of Congress preferred to Madison’s diffuse wording but rephrased the Establishment Clause in a way that significantly broadened its frame of reference. That clause’s final wording (‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’) succinctly prohibited Congress from both enacting an establishment law of its own and disturbing the establishment laws that then existed in half the states of the Union.

Since the U.S. Constitution actually left the states’ established churches intact, allowing each state to determine its own establishments or disestablishments, it can hardly be said that it dictated a separation of church and state in the current sense of the term. The private opinion of Thomas Jefferson, who first referred to a ‘wall of separation between church and state’ when writing to reassure the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut that the national government would not interfere with their decisions (because the Baptists were the first to support disestablishment, particularly in Virginia), is useful for establishing that Congress was not to deal with the internal affairs of the various churches in America, but by no means does it destroy the states’ respective authority to maintain established churches if they so choose, nor their authority to legislate for the ‘spiritual affairs’ of those established churches; my private judgement is that Everson v. Board of Education ought to be overturned.

As for the Covenanters, I have already noted our difference of opinion. This group, which included Samuel Rutherford of Lex, Rex fame,1 believed in presbyterian government by divine right, every bit as much as supporters of absolute monarchy believed in the absolute and inalienable divine right of kingship. This is not a sloppy association: the belief in a church government separate from the civil, for Presbyterians, is often undergirded by the clericalist foundations of divine-right presbyterianism, which are also those of papalism. The papalists call the Bishop of Rome the Vicar of Christ; the divine-right Presbyterians treat their visible structures, especially the presbyteries, as vicars of Christ, without which there is no true Church (and I shall not vouch for those who are divine-right Episcopalians). Outside of the Church, as Christians of all kinds agree, there is no salvation: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. If the Church be defined indeed by its visible structures, then the Bishop of Rome can claim that obedience to him is a condition for salvation, and likewise the Presbyterians can refuse to recognize others as true churches; and both, as they have done historically, will dictate to the civil rulers what may and may not be done, lest they be cast out of the Church into (essentially) everlasting damnation. It is only when out of power that divine-right Presbyterians have done otherwise. This is why John Milton said of the divine-right Presbyterians, ‘Today’s presbyter[y] is but yesterday’s priest [i.e. mass-priest] writ large.’

Since I have spoken chiefly against the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome, some may think I uphold what Anglicans may call ‘the tyranny of an atheistical Parliament and all its detestable enormities’. I contest the justice of this charge. Those who know me will know also that I refuse to let myself or the Church be conquered by anyone’s tyranny. As I maintain the freedom of my own mind, so fiercely would I maintain the freedom of the Church. In this I stand with Thomas Chalmers, a great Presbyterian minister of the 19th century. Ministers in the Church of Scotland were then presented to their parish livings by patrons of the landowning classes, often over the objections of the congregations; many evangelicals demanded instead that congregations be given the right to elect their ministers. The Rev. Dr Chalmers, however, successfully supported in 1834 the passage of the Veto Act in the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, which allowed for a majority of male communicant heads of family in a parish to veto a patron’s presentation of a minister if they could say why they were dissatisfied with the minister presented. In 1839, however, the House of Lords not only upheld a court ruling that declared the Veto Act illegal but even denied that congregations should have any legal say in the appointment of their ministers. In 1843, after efforts to legalize the congregational veto had failed, Dr Chalmers led the secession from the Church of Scotland of some 470 ministers, over a third of the total, to form the Free Church of Scotland.2 For his valiant defence of the Church’s liberty, for his fight against class domination in the Church of Scotland, I applaud Dr Chalmers.

Still, I dissent from his reasoning. Provided that Parliament is bound to the authority of Scripture and the particular laws of the church it regulates (which in the present case it openly and lawlessly flouts instead), I see no reason categorically to reject its involvement in ‘spiritual’ matters as something sinful. Ungodly men were oppressing the Church in the Dr Chalmers’ time, as they do today. That they abuse their powers, however, cannot nullify their rightful, though justly limited, authority over the Church on earth. The line separating the jurisdiction of the magistrate and the jurisdiction of the bishop is not the spiritual versus the temporal realm, the heavenly versus the earthly, but rather the rule that the magistrate protect rather than persecute the gospel and those who proclaim it. He who follows this rule deserves no censure. Few Protestants take offence, after all, at King Josiah or, after the coming of Christ, at the princes who upheld the Reformed doctrine over the Romish.3

In Britain, it is entirely within the monarch’s right, so long as he keeps his vow to ‘maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law’, to choose to what extent he will keep the Church of England the established church in England, and upon what conditions he will continue to extend to it the same privileges it has enjoyed historically. On the advice of Parliament he may enact religious tests for public office or repeal them, and he may alter the number of bishops sitting in the House of Lords. He must ‘maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England’, but within these and other constraints of his coronation oaths he is relatively free to guide the established churches of his realm with the kind of authority entrusted to him by God. By administering the civil law he has the power to persuade the clergy and their synods to do what will best promote the peace and faithfulness of the Church, being bound in his official duties to the authority of holy Scripture.

Likewise Parliament is bound by holy Scripture, whether they acknowledge that authority or not. I say this not only in reference to their duty to make judgements reflecting the righteousness of God, but also to the legal authority, in a Christian state, of appeals to Scripture. The legal tradition admits explicitly biblical arguments, and this is acceptable reasoning not only because a few happen to be swayed by such arguments but because the authority of the Bible is part of Britain’s constitutional foundation. Especially regarding the law of the Church of England, Parliament is obliged – indeed, it has formally obliged itself – to submit to the decisive authority of holy Scripture, because the Thirty-Nine Articles are the law of the land where the Church of England is concerned. This is essentially what justified the passage of the Test Acts, to exclude papalists from taking over the government of the Church of England and subjecting it unlawfully to the Bishop of Rome; this is also why Romanists are no longer allowed to inherit the British throne, though even the Conservative Party now thrusts about to repeal the ban. In the discussion of bills concerning the institutionally established Church of England, by the same token, I expect even Muhammadan MPs to use biblical reasoning, or else to recuse themselves. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a Protestant nation, and thus far Parliament has no right to act otherwise, so long as the ruling monarch is bound by the coronation oaths to ‘maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law’ and to ‘maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England’.

The sin of the MPs who threaten to overrule the General Synod of the Church of England is not that they have sharply rebuked the clergy in a ‘spiritual’ matter, but rather that they have threatened the godly for failing to blaspheme God to their tune. The former, if done according to God’s word, is no shame; the latter is a compounded offence against God. What they have done wrongly, biblically, is to arrogate to themselves the authority to dictate terms to the clergy without so much as a reasonable appeal to the higher authority of Christ and his holy Scripture. This much is to be condemned, but I maintain that Parliament has not just the right but the duty, in the defence of true piety, legally to veto any anti-biblical legislation passed by the General Synod.4

However the people rebel against God, they are bound not only by nature but also by baptism to love and serve him from the heart, and to love and serve other people for his sake. This is our call to duty, and everyone whom it calls must answer.


1. In Lex, Rex (1644), defending the Scottish Presbyterians’ part in the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640, the Rev. Dr Rutherford argued so strongly for the king to remove himself from ecclesiastical matters that at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 he was to stand trial for treason, and would probably have been executed had he not died of natural causes before he could be tried.

2. Oddly enough, the Rev. Dr Chalmers strongly supported the established churches of Great Britain and Ireland. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography elaborates: ‘It was, he argued, the national religious establishments of Scotland, England, and Ireland, with their parish churches and schools, and their universities, that formed the national character and provided for the transmission of Christian civilization. These establishments were by necessity supported by endowments and it was incumbent on the state to protect those endowments. Because of the weakness of human nature, religion and education could not be left to the laws of the market place. […] Only endowed national establishments, under the protection of the state, would have the power to break through corrupt human nature and reach the individual conscience with religious and moral truth. Only the establishments would have the permanent influence needed to preserve Christian civilization.’ 

3. Most who object to the very use of civil authority in favour of biblical truth, and who condemn the Reformation for its reliance on civil protection in defiance of papal power, are clericalists who cannot ultimately distinguish themselves from the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome.

4. Parliament would, in my judgement, be overstepping its bounds to actually defrock anyone, since it seems a breach of propriety to take that from the authority of the bishops and their synods, but I consider it unexceptionable for Parliament to pass resolutions approving such action and recommending it to General Synod. This use of persuasion rather than force, perhaps, is wiser and better reflects what the Kingdom of God ought to look like, and it is at least distasteful to try to overrule General Synod without grave cause, but I am unwilling to condemn all legislation that Parliament has enacted, with Royal Assent, on behalf of the Church of England.

5 responses to “Magistratical Intervention Defended

  1. “Mohammedan”? “Romanist”? Are you serious or on drugs? Who talks like this? Do you call the Orthodox “Moscovites” or “Grecians”?

    BTW, you forgot New Hampshire which had an established church until 1819 and didn’t allow non-Protestants to be elected to its state legislature until the 1870s. Charming, no?

    Mixing church and state is ridiculous. Rhode Island and Vermont have never had state churches-how depraved are they compared with the rest of the nation? Do you seriously think Russia is better off now with its patriarch attached to its national government at the hip? Is Wales spinning off into the void after having disestablished its church right after World War I?

    If the church has to rely on the state for privileges, it’s obviously weak and deserves irrelevance. Keeping religion in politics because “it’s good for society” is paternalism at its most condescending and intrusive. Funding it with tax money and tax breaks robs people who want nothing to do with it under cover of “historical ties” and “it’s part of our history”. For a group that claims to represent ultimate realities and someone all-powerful, you sure do need a lot of help to survive don’t you?


  2. As a matter of fact, I do occasionally call Eastern Orthodox Christians Muscovites or Byzantines. Those who actually know me allow me to speak this way. I have friends whom I customarily call Romanists to their faces, and they know I mean it not for abuse but for precision, given my claim that Rome does not hold exclusive title to the name Catholic.

    As for suffrage, I do not share the democratic presuppositions of a position that would dismiss New Hampshire out of hand for excluding non-Protestants from its state legislature. Toleration of religious practice does not necessitate the granting of the franchise, and I think Spencer Perceval was a model of due caution on the question of Roman Catholic Emancipation in Britain. Since 1960 Roman Catholics have, with the possible exception of Rick Santorum, shown themselves fit to hold high office in the United States, by virtue of their accepting a constitution whose theoretical foundations are in fact Protestant in character; whether a Roman Catholic can do this without abandoning the integrity of his faith remains to be seen.

    At any rate, you have assumed from the outset that mixing church and state, however this is to be defined, is ridiculous. Though you stop short of begging the question, I think nevertheless that your comment is more about your prejudices than it is about my argument. There can, therefore, be no real discussion as to the merits and demerits of an established church, since you have framed your own part in this discourse to consist almost solely of a quite intolerant invective.

    Your last paragraph, however, does bring forth some real argument. You begin, ‘If the church has to rely on the state for privileges, it’s obviously weak.’ With this I cannot agree more: the Church is weak indeed, for it holds the frailty of many sinners. To many Christians, it is this weakness that has occasioned calls for protection from the civil magistrates. You may take up this issue with the magistrates, who have deemed it right to leaven society with the Christian faith for the sake of public virtue; but I think this protection, itself a result of divine providence (though I know this interpretation draws the ridicule of those who consider Christianity non-falsifiable), has nothing to do with the truth of God’s existence or power. It was, after all, in both the growth and the decline of the Roman empire, often through the blood of martyrs that the early Church grew in numbers and political clout, and only then did its faith gradually become a constitutional foundation for many nations.


    • Sir, 99% of the world has left this behind at least 100 years ago. The only countries which still have clergy automatically involved in their governments/legislatures are Iran, England and Vatican City and the first and last are hardly models of morality or transparency.

      How can the church call for protection from the same people from whom it demands privileges? How can the magistrate be both protector and danger? If you truly believed that god was on the church’s side and that the “gates of hell will not prevail”, why bother with tax breaks or automatic deductions from your salary (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) or mandating that your head of state has to be a member (Norway, Denmark, Monaco) or that your head of state or anyone who wants to be head of state can’t be a member of your old rival group or even married to any member of that old rival group (England) or the essentially tribal church affiliations of Greece and Russia?


      • Mr Stassen,

        Though I do happen to approve of having bishops in the House of Lords, I think you mistake confessional subscription for ordination. Nothing about allowing only Protestant legislators necessitates that the clergy have ex officio seats.

        I see what you mean, though, about the dangers of clerocracy, and I’m glad that in our own day the bishops in the House of Lords have an advisory role in Parliament, which is a role of auctoritas, rather than a binding vote that could absolutely block legislation. In this publicly recognized role, the senior bishops of England are able to bring their churchly expertise to matters that concern the governance of the Church of England as well as matters of public morals, yet without creating a theonomic society that imposes ancient Israelite law without the broader considerations of natural law and the particular circumstances of modern Britain. As Richard Hooker says, ‘Unto the word of God, being, in respect of that end for which God ordained it, perfect, exact, and absolute in itself, we do not add reason as a supplement of any maim or defect therein, but as a necessary instrument, without which we could not reap by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yieldeth.’

        The essential privilege that the Church ought to have, according to Protestant political theory – although the Church does not need it to survive – is protection itself: the point of an established church is not for a country to be run by clerics but for true religion to be promoted as a matter of public morality. So early kings, carrying out their duties of state, considered Christianity the foundational truth of all things, and later the rulers of England deemed the Protestant Reformed religion the best form of the Christian faith. The government official’s interest is double: as a magistrate, to promote the public good; as a Christian, so to govern as to maintain the peace and safety of the Church. As Richard Hooker points out, however, even the public good is not limited to the concerns of this life: ‘A gross error it is to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body and not of the soul, for men’s temporal peace and not their eternal safety; as if God had ordained Kings for no other end and purpose but only to fat up men like hogs and to see that they have their mash?’ For this reason the British monarch is bound to certain religious requirements, that he may serve this end in good faith.

        Sometimes, of course, magistrates are readier to destroy the Christian faith than they are to urge the people to its virtues. Then their wickedness becomes a danger to the Church, even though they will never succeed in destroying it, and the power they should wield for good becomes an instrument of lawlessness and tyranny.

        You may be interested to read Brad Littlejohn’s review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4) of John Perry’s recent book The Pretenses of Loyalty.


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