Establishment Principle, Part 1: What it is, What it isn’t

Establishment Principle 1 What it is What it isnt

In part one of four in our series on the Establishment Principle we will see what the Establishment Principle is and how it relates to the nature of the Church as well as what it is not. In part two we will demonstrate the Establishment Principle from the many prophecies of Scripture. In part three we will elucidate, on a practical and spiritual level, what must occur prior to, and in harmony with, any establishment of religion. Finally, in part four we will look at the dangers of ecumenical latitudinarianism to the unity of the Church and answer objections regarding persecution and liberty of conscience.

We have previously written on national covenanting, the duty of nations to swear an oath of fidelity to Christ, uphold His laws, and as a nursing father (Isa. 49:23; 60:16) establish the visible Church and seek to advance, support, and protect Her. The nations are Christ’s “heritage” and obligated to “serve the Lord with fear” and to “kiss the Son” lest He “dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2). “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (Ps. 9:17). “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance” (Ps. 33:12). “I will honour them that honour me, saith the Lord, and those that despise me shall be lightly esteemed” (1 Samuel 2:30).

“Does not the supreme headship of Christ over the nations lay the [civil rulers] under solemn obligation to render due allegiance to the Prince of the kings of the earth?

“Most certainly. Nations, being moral subjects of the Redeemer (Psalm 43:1; Isaiah 10:6; Ezek. 2:3), are bound to take His laws as the supreme standard of right and wrong (Deut. 4:5-8; 17:18-20; Josh. 1:8); to have respect to the moral and religious qualifications of those who occupy places of power and trust in the nation (Exod. 18:21; Deut. 1:13; Eccl. 10:16; 2 Sam. 23:3); to swear allegiance to Him; and to aim at His glory in all that they do – the ruler ruling in the fear of the Lord, and the ruled having a respect to Christ in their civil allegiance. (2 Sam. 23:3; Rom. 13:1-7).”

Samuel Simms, Catechism of the Principles and Position of the Reformed Presbyterian Church

The Establishment Principle is the doctrine that the State should recognize Christ’s authority over all things and set up the visible Church within the nation, in which “Church and State are co-ordinate powers (on an equal level, with separate jurisdictions) under the authority of the Word of God, that the State has the obligation to profess, protect and promote the true religion, civilly uphold all 10 Commandments, and that the Church, maintaining its existence and government by Divine Right, is to speak the Word of God to the State and keep it in check” (Reformed Books Online, The Establishment Principle).

“To avow the truth of God, and to render the homage of a formal and public recognition to that Church which He has established on the earth, is a duty, as we believe, of universal obligation, to be discharged by a Christian state at all times and under all circumstances.”

James Bannerman, Church of Christ, section III.

Before we can fully get into the nature of establishment, we need to briefly consider the universal and presbyterial nature of the Church.

The Church is a Singular Institutional Entity

“The Christian Church is not an arbitrary institution of men – not a mere voluntary association of any number of people, for any purpose, and on any terms, which to them may seem good; nor has its communion been left vague and undetermined by the laws of its Founder.”

Thomas M’Crie, The Unity of the Church, pg. 95.

Not only does Christ make intercession for the saints as He is seated at the right hand of God the Father on high, but He also does “gather and defend his Church, and subdue their enemies; furnisheth his ministers and people with gifts and graces” (WLC 54; Ps. 68:18; Eph. 4:8). In part, these gifts that the Lord Jesus furnished the visible Church with are explained in Eph. 4:11, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;” That is, “the Ecclesiastical functions, which are partly extraordinary and for a season, as Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, and partly ordinary and perpetual, as Pastors and Doctors” (GNV note). These offices are given for the following three purposes, “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:” and to the end that “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” (For the importance of comma placement in Eph. 4:12 and an argument for the traditional interpretation of this verse contra the modern misinterpretation, see here). 

The Church is not only invisible consisting “of the whole number of the elect” (WCF 25:1), it is also visible and catholic (i.e. universal), local churches not being distinct institutional entities from one another, but rather several integral parts of one universal and visible institutional entity. Christ rules His kingdom of grace not only spiritually as Lord and Savior of the elect, but also in the ordinances, worship, and government that He has instituted for the visible Church, “giving them officers, laws, and censures, by which he visibly governs them” (WLC 45); in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer we pray, among other blessings connected with the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, that the Church may be “furnished with all gospel-officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate” (WLC 191). Christ has instituted His visible Church to be “one body” with Christ as the Head and Pastors, Elders, Doctors, and Deacons as officers in the Church with various roles and authority over the congregation (for a more detailed account see the Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church-Government).

Ruling officers (i.e. Pastors and Elders) assemble at 1) the congregation level (Matt. 18:15-20); 2) the city or county level (Presbytery), which includes many congregations, such as the church of Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), Antioch, (Acts 13:1), Ephesus, (Acts 20:17), and Corinth, (1 Cor. 1:2); 3) the regional level, which includes many Presbyteries; 4) the national level, such as the Westminster Assembly; and if necessary, 5) the international level, such as the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the Council of Nicaea, and the Synod of Dordt; the authority of the assemblies increasing cumulatively with regard to the representation of a greater number of churches, not according to hierarchical authority in the office itself (as with Episcopacy), where the inferior assemblies are subordinate to the superior assemblies (Acts 15:31; 16:4-5). Every ruling officer has equal authority and that from Christ Himself through the ordination of previous officers (Matt. 28:18-20; 1 Tim. 4:14; Heb. 5:4). “The church governors act immediately as the servants of Christ, and as appointed by him” rather than deputies of the congregation (Jus Divinum).

“Where is the divine warrant for an ecclesiastical synod?

“In Acts 15 and 16, where we have a cause referred; the proper members of a synod convened; the ordinary and equal power exercised by all those members; the ordinary method of procedure in such courts; and the judicial decrees given by the synod; together with the effect which their judgment, in this matter, had upon the churches.”

Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici, Appendix.

In Christ’s High Priestly Prayer, “Our Lord goes so far as to compare the unity of the church to the unity that exists in the Godhead: ‘That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me (John 17:21)‘” (A Presbyterian Plea, pt. 1).

“The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law) consists of all those, throughout the world, that profess the true religion, (Psa 2:8; Rom 15:9-12; 1 Cor 1:2; 12:12-13; Rev 7:9) and of their children; (Gen 3:15; 17:7; Ezek 16:20-21; Acts 2:39; Rom 11:16; 1 Cor 7:14) and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, (Isa 9:7; Mat 13:47) the house and family of God, (Eph 2:19; 3:15.) out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation (Acts 2:47).

“Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto (Isa 59:21; Mat 28:19-20; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11-13).”

Westminster Confession of Faith 25:2-3

Ecclesiology largely determines the relationship of Church and State. A latitudinarian establishment of Christianity would make sense if the Church were a disjointed collection of independent congregations or if Christ had given a tremendous degree of laxity in how the Church ought to be organized and disciplined. Yet the contrary is true, Presbyterian church government alone is of divine right, and every church must have the type of government that the Lord Jesus set up for His Church, which is Presbyterianism.

A Hospitable Abode to the Church

Now that we’ve seen how the Church is a singular institution we can better understand the duties of the civil magistrate with respect to Her. Lutheran theologian Johannis Gerhardi explains:

“The fruit which arises from the conversion of kings and princes to the church, does not consist in this only, that they provoke others by their example to embrace the gospel of Christ; but also, because they bring their subjects to Christ; afford a hospitable abode to the church in their dominions, and, by their authority, promote the propagation of the gospel.”

Loci Theologici (1657), Tom. vii, pg. 578.

The civil magistrate ought to “countenance and maintain” the visible, institutional Church (WLC 191), not an invisible entity. The magistrate has the authority and duty to ensure “that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies 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” as well as the power to call synods (WCF 23:3), and according to his place and calling, to vow unto God and to detest, oppose, and remove all false worship and all monuments of idolatry (WLC 108). To establish ecumenical Christianity abstractly would be to countenance and maintain schism, not the Church which is “one body.” The nation as a nation must be brought into the Church (Ps. 22:27-28) just as families as families are joined to the visible Church (Gen. 18:19; Acts 16:31). This is why a latitudinarian acknowledgment of religion is insufficient. The magistrate must recognize and support the visible Church as an institution, not merely tolerate multitudinous versions of Christianity.

“Civil magistrates ought to encourage and protect the church: and, in so doing, may, in their station, act in a manner like to parents and masters in theirs. By a proper exercise of their civil power, and for the good of the commonwealth, they ought to prevent and remove persecution, profaneness, idolatry, superstition, heresy, and every other thing which tends to hinder the pure worship of God, Isa 49:23; Isa 60:3,10,16; Rom 13:3-4; 1 Tim 2:2; 2 Chron 15:8,16; 2 Chron 17:3-10; 2 Chron 31:1; 2 Chron 33:15; 2 Kings 18:4; 2 Kings 23.

—They ought to preserve for the church her fulness of spiritual power allowed her by Christ; and by providing places of instruction, and maintenance for Pastors and other instructors, and by encouraging laws, and their own example, they ought to promote the administration of, and attendance upon the ordinances of the gospel, 2 Chron 15:9-16; 2 Chron 20:7-9; 2 Chron 17; 2 Chron 29-31; 2 Chron 34-35; Deut 17:18-20; 1 Chron 22-25; Neh 13:10-14.

—As heads of families ought to promote sound principles and holy practices in their families,—magistrates ought to promote and establish the reformation of doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the church in their dominions, as a mean of promoting their happiness. And for this end, may call synods of church officers for settling and governing her affairs according to the word of God, Exod 32; Josh 23-24; 2 Kings 18:4-7; 2 Kings 12; 2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chron 15; 2 Chron 17; 2 Chron 34-35; 1 Sam 7:6; 2 Chron 20:3; Jon 3:7; Ezra 8:21.

—By their civil authority, they ought to enforce her laws or constitutions which are warranted by the word of God; as observing them tends to promote the welfare of the nation, and ought to excite her rulers and members to an external performance of their duty by every method agreeable to the gospel; and ought to punish open violations of God’s law, as crimes which dishonour him, whose deputies they are, and bring a curse on the commonwealth, 2 Chron 15; 2 Chron 30-31; 2 Chron 34-35; Neh 13; Dan 3:28-29; Dan 6:26-27; Deut 21:18-21; Gen 9:6; Num 35:30-32; Num 15:30-36; Job 31:9,11; Lev 20:11-25; Exod 22:1-15; Deut 19:16; Deut 13:1-6; Deut 17:1-8; Lev 17:2,8; 2 Chron 15:13,16; Job 31:26-28; Lev 24:15-16; Rom 13:3-4; 1 Pet 2:13-14; Heb 10:28.”

John Brown of Haddington, Systematic Theology, Book VII, Chapter 2, pgs. 559-560.

Establishmentarianism is Neither Erastian Nor Ecclesiocratic

Establishment of religion is not to be confused with the control of the Church by the State, i.e. the civil magistrate (which is Erastianism, the Anglican error) on the one extreme, or the control of the State by the Church (which is Ecclesiocracy, the Papist error) on the other extreme. Our confession explicitly denies both extremes and holds a strict institutional and jurisdictional separation of Church and State, the State only having power circa sacra (about religious matters) rather than in sacris (in religious matters). “Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate (Luke 12:13-14; John 18:36)” (WCF 31:5). “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate” (WCF 30:1). “He [i.e. the civil magistrate] may politically, outwardly exercise his power about objects, or matters spiritual, but not spiritually, inwardly, formally act any power in the Church. He may act in Church affairs as did Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah, not as did Korah, Saul, Uzzah, or Uzziah” (Jus Divinum, pg. 77). It is not a legitimate excuse to argue against the Establishment Principle simply because it has been distorted and abused in the past; “It is not just reasoning, to argue from the abuse of any thing, against its use.

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” (WCF 23:3). The civil government may not ordain ministers or insert them into congregations, “he may grant and protect the public exercise of that power within his dominions, but designation of particular persons to the office and power is from the Church, the donation of the office and power only from Christ himself” (Jus Divinum, pg. 78).

“According to our Confession, the civil magistrate must not assume a lordly supremacy over the Church; for “there is no other head of the Church; but the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Chap. 25, sect. 6). He must not interfere with her internal government; for “the Lord Jesus, as king and head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church-officers, distinct from the civil magistrate;” and “to these [ecclesiastical] officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed.” (Chap. 30, sect. 1, 2). He must not, as a magistrate, sustain himself a public judge of true or false religion, so as to dictate to his subjects in matters purely religious; for “it belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience,” &c. (Chap. 31, sect. 3).”

Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, pgs. 316-317.

The State has control “over its own acts and gifts,” such as its countenancing and protecting of the Church and promoting her as she does her mission.

“Should the Church outrage its own constitution, or subvert any article of its own creed which was ratified by the State, the State would be entitled to withdraw from her its countenance and support. But it has no right of control over the creed, constitution, or jurisdiction which it did not confer. They are not the gifts of the State, except where an Erastian supremacy is conceded; and they are not necessarily or legitimately under the control of the civil magistrate.”

William Balfour, Establishment Principle Defended, pgs. 30-31.

Yet, the civil magistrate may call a synod and “provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God” (WCF 23:3; 2 Chron. 19:8). If the Church should become corrupt the magistrate should not countenance and support her, rather he should ensure that the Church is functioning biblically and punish crimes against the first table. On the other hand, if the civil government should become corrupt and attempt to meddle in the affairs of the Church, the Church should oppose it and entreat the government to do its God ordained job. There is to be a balance of power, when one goes astray the other brings him back and exhorts him to do his duty but does not do that duty for him. There ought to be coordinate jurisdictions of Church and State with mutual subordination. “If Aaron make a golden calf, may not Moses punish him? If Moses turn an Ahab, and sell himself to do wickedly, ought not eighty valiant priests and Aarons both rebuke, censure and resist?” (Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, pg. 215).

Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (WCF 31:5).

“While our Confession denounces any Erastian interference of the civil magistrate in matters purely spiritual and Ecclesiastical, it no less explicitly disavows all Popish claims, on the part of the synods and councils of the Church, to intermeddle with civil affairs, unless by way of petition, in extraordinary cases, or by way of advice, when required by the civil magistrate. Our Reformers appear to have clearly perceived the proper limits of the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and to have been very careful that they should be strictly observed. “The power and policy ecclesiastical,” say they, “is different and distinct in its own nature from that power and policy which is called civil power, and appertaineth to the civil government of the commonwealth; albeit they be both of God, and tend to one end, if they be rightly used, viz., to advance the glory of God, and to have godly and good subjects.” “Diligence should be taken, chiefly by the moderator, that only ecclesiastical things be handled in the Assemblies, and that there be no meddling with anything pertaining to the civil jurisdiction” (Second Book of Discipline, chapters 1 and 7). Church and State may co-operate in the advancement of objects common to both; but each of them must be careful to act within its own proper sphere– the one never intermeddling with the affairs which properly belong to the province of the other.”

Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, pg. 398.


In conclusion we saw that civil governments are to provide an “hospitable abode to the church” which is a singular institutional entity organized by Jesus Christ with a specific political and catholic structure. Additionally, we saw that proper Establishment is not Erastianism and it is not an Ecclesiocracy and that “it is not just reasoning, to argue from the abuse of any thing, against its use.” In our next post we will demonstrate the Establishment Principle from the many prophecies of Scripture.



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