Voluntaryism: The Real Origin of Romish and Priestly Domination

Voluntaryism/the Voluntary Principle is the belief “that the only relation that ought to subsist between the State and the Church — between civil government and religion — is that of entire separation; or, in other words, its advocates maintain that nations, as such, and civil rulers in their official capacity, not only are not bound, but are not at liberty, to interfere in any religious matters, or to seek to promote the welfare of the church of Christ, as such. This theory, if true, supersedes the necessity of all further inquiry into the principles that ought to regulate the relation between Church and State; for it really implies, that no connection should subsist, or can lawfully subsist, between them” (William Cunningham,  Historical Theology, vol. 1, pg. 391).

The following is a summary from James Gibson’s The Church in Relation to the State, in which he outlines the corruptions of the Church from Apostolic times up until the fourth century in order to demonstrate that the Voluntary Principle is “the real origin of Romish and priestly domination” in the Church rather than the Establishment Principle.

Voluntaryism: The Real Origin of Romish and Priestly Domination

by James Gibson

The Church in Relation to the State
pgs. 160-169.

From the preceding induction of historical testimonies, the following conclusions may be fairly drawn :—

That great corruptions prevailed in the Christian Church in the first century, even while it might be strictly called apostolical.

That they had increased in the second century to a degree as great, and in some respects greater, than they have ever done in the Reformed Established Churches of Britain, with all their acknowledged abuses.

That they became much greater in the third and beginning of the fourth centuries, before the conversion of Constantine.

That their increase under Constantine, and even his successors, was in reality only the natural progress of events and principles; that they were in many cases materially checked by Constantine and some of his successors; and moreover, whatever might be the indiscretions of the Roman emperors in giving the Church wealth and power, they were not the consequence, but the clear violation or obvious abuse of the Establishment Principle, which they ill understood; while there was nothing in the Voluntary Principle, though it had been recognized, that could possibly have prevented them. The only remedy, in any one way or another, would have been a State enactment, which is the Establishment, not the Voluntary Principle. The idea of keeping the emperors Pagan for this purpose, is too ridiculous to merit any consideration.

That the corruptions of the Church originated in the general depravity of human nature, promoted and developed by a great variety of causes.

That the chief of these causes was the general ignorance of mankind, mightily enhanced by the universal calamities induced by the subversion of the Roman Empire.

That the false philosophy of the early ages, so soon mingled with the doctrines of Christianity, was far more calculated to foster than to dispel ignorance and superstition.

That this superstition, with many other evils, was deeply engrafted on Christianity, in the western nations, by the irruptions of the barbarians; events, in the inscrutable arrangements of a just and wise Providence, which Christianity, under any form, was, humanly speaking, unable to prevent.

That whatever enhancements of corruptions arose from the imperial gifts of Constantine, these gifts were on the Voluntary Principle, and were not confined to Christians alone. Neither he nor any of his successors have ever given the Church a State endowment. In all probability an Establishment, could it have been erected, regulated on the principles of the Church of Scotland, would have prevented them.

But that such a national or imperial endowment by the Roman emperors, by formally setting apart a portion of the national property, never, in fact, took place under the Papacy. The parochial institution was not known till some centuries after Constantine. The Church, in all countries under the Papacy, acquired its wealth by voluntary gifts, and its civil jurisdictions from the voluntary appeals, founded on the early customs of the Christians, permitted by the civil power, and afterwards arrogated as a right by the clergy. The clergy early claimed the tithes, even in the second and third centuries, but when yielded, during at least the first eight centuries, it was voluntarily, or in submission to ecclesiastical and not to civil authority. When first granted by Charlemagne, it was in lieu of property wrested from the Church, and in consideration of favours received.

That the emperors actually resisted the growing power and influence of the clergy, even so early as the year 370, about thirty years after the death of Constantine. Had Constantine and his successors been to blame for exalting priestly power, it is somewhat singular that the Patriarch of Constantinople, the seat of the imperial government, did not obtain the ascendant, rather than the Bishop of Rome.

That the Church acquired her immense property and formidable power by the voluntary contributions and concessions of the superstitious of all ranks. In this she was aided by the monks—by the superior learning and dexterity, and even humanity of the clergy, in dark and barbarous ages; together with the reverence attached to the city of Rome, from many centuries of slavish habit.

That by fraud, artifice, and boldness, supported by the superstition of the multitude, the clergy were enabled successfully to resist the attempts of emperors and princes to repress their ambition. Being a united body, with uniformity of plan and object, spread among all nations, corresponding with one another, and ultimately with one head, they were an undying and universal corporation, bent on their own aggrandizement, and were thus more than a match for the unsettled power of princes in barbarous times.

That while mankind are in an imperfect state, and selfishness may successfully practice upon ignorance, it is not safe to leave so large a body as the clergy to pursue their own objects, either of wealth or ambition, without admitting any State regulation.

That, therefore, the Voluntary Principle, being a principle of entire independence of civil interference, even to prevent the undue wealth and power of the Church, if acquired from any other source than the State itself, which is in truth the Popish principle, is dangerous. For while the abuses of the Establishment Principle admit of national correction, the evils of the Voluntary system, which are inherent in human nature, do not; because it rejects all external interference, itself having no power whatever to preserve the purity or keep down the ambition of Churchmen.

That, therefore, it seems the dictate of reason and wisdom, adopted by our Reformers (who had experienced all the evils of priestly domination, and inquired into the causes, and considered the remedy), that the State, acting on the principle evidently held out in the Jewish Establishment, should make such a provision for the support of the true religion, as shall procure a sufficient number of religious teachers to every district of the country, while they shall neither be tempted to degrade their office, nor have the power of personal or party aggrandizement arising from it—to the injury of religion, and danger of the community.

These ends are secured by the principles of the Church of Scotland. If deviated from, the national voice can, without violent commotions, easily rectify the deviation. They should not, therefore, be surrendered for visionary theories, which have been tried and found dangerous. Had the Voluntary Principle—namely, the rejection of State interference in behalf of religion, been always acted upon, we should yet have been groaning under a Popish domination; (John Owen, in proving the necessity of magistratical interference about religion, gives, as one of the “pernicious consequences” of the opposite doctrine, the following:— “The condemnation and abrenunciation of the whole work of reformation, in this and other nations, so far as it hath been promoted by laws, or constitutions of supreme magistrates, as in the removal of idolatry, destroying of idols and images, prohibiting the mass, declaring and asserting the doctrine of the gospel, supporting the professors of it; which things have been visibly owned and blessed of God.”— Two Questions, &c.) with the wealth of Europe, America, and the Indies, under the control of the once arrogant, though now humbled, Bishop of Rome.

I cannot help reflecting here on what appears to me the beautiful correspondence between the original principles of God’s Word and the actual state of the world. I have endeavored to show elsewhere that it is the duty of states and nations, a duty founded on Scripture, reason, and common sense, to support, encourage, and foster, both by kindness and correction, the Church of God; in other words, to provide for the instruction of their subjects in true religion. And it is pleasing to learn, from an examination of history, how much their duty is their interest, and how dearly they have paid for not understanding and practicing it in former ages. As a religious man, caring for God’s honour, and the welfare of my country and of mankind, I most earnestly pray, that on this subject they may be better enlightened; that they will have some mercy on the perishing souls of millions, and strive to enlighten them in the faith of Christ; that, profiting by the lessons of history, to which, it is to be lamented, many profess to feel more respect than to the Word of God, they will not think themselves absolved from this duty by plausible, though shallow and false notions, now so prevalent, on liberty and rights of conscience. It will always be found in the long run, that the truest liberty, and the truest freedom of conscience, paradoxical as it may seem, is when both are under the restraints of the principles of “pure and undefiled religion.” The heart of a Christian bleeds at the thought, not merely that in the world at large there are millions perishing for lack of knowledge, but that, in some large cities of the British Empire, such as our own, there are 50,000 persons without spiritual instruction, for one-half of whom there is no place of worship, and the rest of whom cannot be reached through the deficiency of ecclesiastical labourers. Who can possibly devise a remedy but those who wield the resources of the community? Any other notion is a mockery of common sense. Must this mass of irreligion, ignorance, misery, and vice, be left to generate itself, and infect society, without an effort, in a Christian country, to relieve it? Are those who have the means of relief in their power, from false notions of liberty of conscience, to stand by with folded hands, and see them go down into eternity ignorant of God and eternal life, till visionary schemes of voluntary benevolence are formed to rescue them? While men are thus arguing for leaving the truth to itself, does any man believe that the prince of darkness, whose subjects are unhappily more numerous than the children of light, and far more powerful to do evil than the latter are to do good, will be contented in giving only negative support to error and delusion? Certainly he will not. Are intolerance and persecution, detestable as they are, to be held forth as bugbears to frighten us from demanding the direct support of the national counsels and means, in behalf of that which ought to be dearest to human beings, and the first object of a nation’s care—namely, the honour of the God of nations, and the spiritual happiness, in time and in eternity, of the immortal beings within its limits? I profess to hold in abhorrence, as utterly impious, the doctrine that we ought to set up to a nation’s gaze, in its government stripped of all connection with religion, an institution that has thrown off the armour of truth, and declared itself, if not the champion of error, at least the patron of in difference, in other words, of atheism; for whoever or whatever is not with God, is against Him. Any notion of a medium is delusion. I would as soon contend for the propriety of setting up Nebuchadnezzar’s image in the plain of Dura, as for setting up such an institution to the admiration of the national mind. Though it were done, I know that God would still find means to preserve His truth, as He did His three young but noble servants in the fiery furnace, and His gospel in the no less heated furnace of persecution; but that is no reason why God’s professing people should adopt a principle—as wild and enthusiastic as the maxim that men may sin because grace doth abound—namely, that truth is not to be aided by human means, because God is omnipotent. God’s promise that seed-time and harvest shall endure, is not more sure than the promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church of Christ; but neither in the one nor the other will it justify our apathy, either as a nation, or as individuals.

To guard against false impressions, I would make these remarks:—

In thus tracing the corruptions of the Church to the Voluntary Principle, combined with human depravity, I must not be accused of proving too much, and arguing against the appointment of Christ in the infancy of His Church. My doctrine is—that Christ, as Head of the Church, hath indicated in His Word His design that rulers should support it—that they should mutually respect each other’s distinct rights, and mutually promote each other’s benefit—and that so soon as such a mutual co-operation was possible, in the nature of things, it should be acted upon;— that the early Christians did so on the first opportunity that presented itself, even when, by the admission of our opponents, what they call the corrupting principle of an Establishment had not affected them—and that it was from deviations from this principle, caused by circumstances almost uncontrollable, that the evils of the Church arose. I do not say that voluntary gifts are in no case allowable; I only maintain that states are bound to supply their deficiencies on the one hand, and to regulate their extravagances on the other; for both, a fixed national provision is the surest remedy. Farther; though the scope of this Essay is very unfavourable to the clergy, I do not subscribe implicitly to the words of the admonition read by the Pope’s legates to the Council of Trent, “that it is a manifest thing, that the clergy, and pastors alone, were both the corrupted and corrupters,” nor do I think that they have been worse, but, on the contrary, greatly better, than the generality of the men of their age; and there were no doubt many who “sighed and cried for all the abominations that were done in the midst of Jerusalem.

Again, though such has been the history of Christianity, it is no objection to it that it hath been so over-burdened with the wickedness and folly of mankind. In both cases, the evils are traceable to human nature; (“It becomes us, however, with deep humiliation, always to remember that the sorcery which thus drugged the world was, from the first, most prodigally patronised by the vices and the wants of human nature.”—Life of Wickliff, p. 24.)  and should teach us this lesson, that so far is the maxim, with which we set out, from being true, “That the truth will take care of itself,” that, on the contrary, it never has done so, and requires the whole wisdom and means of human skill and aid to resist its overwhelming opponents. And still, it is no less true that “it is not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”—May He dispose the hearts of kings, and rulers, and people, to be zealous for God; and then they will no longer be as men who sow the wind and labour in the fire.

Pope Sylvester I Carried in the Sedia Gestatoria, with His Retinue by Raphael.
Pope Sylvester I (314-335 A.D.) Carried in the Sedia Gestatoria, with His Retinue by Raphael.

2 thoughts on “Voluntaryism: The Real Origin of Romish and Priestly Domination

  1. “Afterwards, superstition increasing (fascinated by which the common people believed that there was no wickedness so atrocious and no crime so base that it could not be expiated by donations of this kind), the force of overflowing largess could not be stopped by any dykes, by which as by an immense flood the church was overwhelmed and destroyed and its spiritual glory has degenerated into the splendor and luxury of a profane monarchy. With too much truth was it said, “Religion brought forth riches, but the daughter devoured her mother.””
    —Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology XVIII.xxviii.xix, vol. 3, pp. 273-374.


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