Establishment Principle, Part 3: Reformation and Unity of the Church

Establishment Principle 3 Reformation and Unity of the Church

In part 2 we examined the Scriptural evidence for the Establishment Principle and particularly the prophecies that God will cause it to occur in history. In this post we will see the importance of a Holy Spirit wrought Reformation and unity in the polity, discipline, worship, ordinances, doctrine, and practice of the Church prior to, and in harmony with, the establishment of a national Church.

Establishment of Religion Must be Preceded by Reformation

Reformation and religious unity is required before Establishment could or should occur. Establishment likely could not take place on a practical level in a religiously disunited or disestablished nation, and it would lead to unnecessary strife and further division if it was forced or fabricated by the power of man. “Nothing engenders strife so much as a forced unity, within the same organization, of those who disagree fundamental in aim” (Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pg. 141). The current disunity and declension of the Church makes establishment improbable at this point in time; likely, a covenanted reformation in the Church will need to precede it, which is genuine and of the Spirit. If it is not a “thorough reformation according to the commandment of God, superstition and idolatry [will return] again like an inundation. . . Either now endeavor to carry it through to every point of known perfection, doing whatsoever the God of heaven has commanded, or look for nothing but that superstition and idolatry, and with it ruin and desolation, shall come upon you as a flood” (Alexander Henderson, a sermon preached to the House of Commons, Dec. 27, 1643). Half-hearted or man-crafted reformation will only bring disaster (Luke 11:24-26). Oh that we would have such zealous and pious preachers as Henderson in our day!

Reformation must be a movement of the Spirit and we are assured from Christ’s High Priestly Prayer (John 17:20-23) that the Church will be united as one, and from the prophecies of Scripture that nations will covenant themselves unto Jesus Christ (Isaiah 19:18-25) and countenance and support His Bride (Isaiah 60). It has happened periodically throughout history to one degree or another, but has yet to more substantially take hold as the Kingdom of Grace is propagated unto, and permeates, all nations (Isaiah 66:23), “the conversion of the Jews, the fulness of the Gentiles, the fall of Antichrist,…the deliverance of the distressed churches abroad from the tyranny of the antichristian faction, and from the cruel oppressions and blasphemies of the Turk” (Westminster DPW). Therefore we pray that “God would establish peace and truth, the purity of all his ordinances, and the power of godliness; prevent and remove heresy, schism, profaneness, superstition, security, and unfruitfulness under the means of grace; heal all our rents and divisions” (Ibid.) and that God would preserve those nations who have covenanted unto God from breaking their covenants, or if they already have, that God would grant them the grace of covenant renewal and fidelity. The Directory for Public Worship also exhorts us “to pray for all in authority, especially for the King’s majesty; that God would make him rich in blessings, both in his person and government; establish his throne in religion and righteousness, save him from evil counsel, and make him a blessed and glorious instrument for the conservation and propagation of the gospel, for the encouragement and protection of them that do well, the terror of all that do evil, and the great good of the whole church, and of all his kingdoms” (Ibid.).

Public vows and religious covenants formed no part of Jewish peculiarity. They did not belong to the ceremonial law; and it would be something worse than an absurdity to describe them as oaths of allegiance to Jehovah as the political head of the nation of Israel. They are not more unsuitable to the character of the Christian Church than they were to that of the Jewish. Accordingly, it is expressly foretold in many prophecies, that such solemn exercises shall take place in New Testament times (Isa. 19:18, 21; 44:3-5; 45:23; Jer. 4:2; Zech. 2:11; 13:9). These predictions have been verified and fulfilled at different periods and in different countries. And in none have they been more eminently fulfilled than in our own land, especially in times of reformation and union. When peace has been restored between contending nations, it is common for them to renew their former compacts of amity, and to repeat the solemnities by which they were originally ratified. What more seasonable for those who have long been divided by their own sins and the divine anger, than to humble themselves before God, and to ask of him a right way? And what more fitted for expressing their gratitude and cementing their union, than a joint declaration of themselves to God, accompanied with solemn pledges of mutual fidelity?

Thomas M’Crie, The Unity of the Church, pgs. 88-89.


Christ has inherited all the nations, therefore they are obligated to covenant unto Him, institute His Law, and establish and support His Church, not according to the imaginations and fancies of men, but as He, “the head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22) has organized Her. The polity, discipline, worship, ordinances, doctrine, and practice of the Church has been set up and dictated by the express Word of the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ (Ezra 7:23). 

The rule of building the house of God, and of the reformation of religion is the same and perpetual; the commandment of God, and not the commandment of man, one or more, whether they be civil or ecclesiastical persons. It is their part to provide according to their places and callings, to command and direct that the commandment of God be obeyed. This King commands not that his will be done, but what God has commanded. Neither King nor Parliament can command otherwise. Civil powers have great authority, not only in things civil, but in matters of religion, and they sin against God if they use not the authority which God has put in their hands for the good of religion. To them belongs inspection and watching over, not only Ecclesiasticos [church people], but Ecclesiastica [church things]. Ecclesiastical persons are subject to civil authority no less than others, and in respect of things ecclesiastical or matters of religion, Eusebius brings in Constantine the Great, saying, Vos Episcopi in Ecclesia, ego extra Ecclesiam seu templum Episcopus a eo constitutus sum [you were made bishops in the Church, I was made bishop outside the Church or temple, by God], not that any mortal man whether Pope or Prince, can be properly head of the church, or vicegerent unto Christ the Mediator in his special and economical kingdom of grace. For princes are vicegerents to God, and to his Son Jesus Christ as he is God, in his universal kingdom of providence; and this watching and inspection of princes and magistrates, is objective Ecclesiastica, but formaliter civilis, it is about matters of religion in a civil manner, and in a way suitable to the nature and quality of their place and power. The faithful custody and preservation of religion, is a part of their office. For they are not only keepers of the second, but of the first table of the Law. To them appertains the vindication and defense of religion against contempt, corruption, and abuses. Religion also expects from them the civil sanction, that the worship of God and the wholesome constitutions of the church about religion, be confirmed and settled by their laws. Co-action also is theirs, for they by their power are to constrain their subjects to the duties of religion, and to coerce and stop them that they do nothing to the contrary. They also may and ought to call assemblies of the church, when the case of religion does require, preside as civil presidents, and examine church constitutions, not only as they are Christians for satisfying their own souls, but as magistrates for the good of the people. And when there is a necessity of reformation of religion, and the ministry and churchmen, like the sands of the seashore are covered with a deluge of defection and corruptions, they are by their authority to endeavor a reformation. And yet in all this exercise of their power, they are to do nothing but according to the commandment of God. So David, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah, and other good and religious princes have done. But when Jeroboam puts his own commandment in the place of God’s altar, when the Kings of Judah and Israel did worship God, or did command the people to worship God, otherwise than God had commanded, wrath was upon the kingdom of the king and his sons.

Alexander Henderson, Sermons Preached before the English Houses of Parliament by the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly of Divines, pgs. 88-89.

For the nation and kingdom that will not serve [the Church] shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste” (Isa. 60:12).

The true religion is the bond of unity in the Church. Thomas M’Crie gives the following five points of true unity:

1. This unity consists in Her having one Head and Lord.

[The Church must] be in professed subjection to him, in his divine mediatorial authority, as the one Universal Pastor, and sole Head of government. To admit a temporal head of the Church, whether pope or king, to call any man master in religion, or to enlist ourselves under the banners of any human leader, is to sin against the first precept of Christian unity.

The Unity of the Church, pg. 21.

In order for a nation to establish and support the Church, all fiat and arbitrary church power must be destroyed. Papacy and Episcopacy supplant Christ as Head of the Church and would only lead to Ecclesiocracy on the one hand, or Erastianism on the other. The Papacy is the Man of Sin and must have no influence in a nation that seeks to covenant with God and support the true Church. Christ “is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18) and to determine for ourselves whatever doctrine, worship, practice, government, or discipline we fancy is a de facto denial of the Headship of Christ over His Church.

2. The unity of the faith.

There is one body because there is one faith (Eph. 4:4-5). False doctrine must be expunged through Reformation and a work of the Holy Spirit. Federal Vision, Arminianism, Theistic Evolution, Antinomianism, Higher Criticism, “Word of Faith” and other Charismatic movements, are a just a few examples of destructive heresies currently infecting the Church, which prevent unity and a national establishment of religion. Additionally, overly strict doctrinal purity and being quick to separate reviles the unity of the faith. There must be a balance between these extremes, we must “keep off from splitting either upon the Charybdis of pertinacy and tenaciousnesse, or upon the Scylla of Levity, Wavering and Scepticisme” (George Gillespie, Miscellany Questions, ch. 10).

[The Church] is called “the city of truth,” as well as “the habitation of righteousness;” her gates are open to receive “the righteous nation that keepeth the truth” (Zech. 8:3; cf. Isa. 32:17-18; 26:2); and truth is inscribed on her columns, and on the banners which float on her walls and bulwarks. When this is not the case, Christian societies are destitute of the unity of the Church of Christ, by whatever ties they may be kept together.

The Unity of the Church, pg. 22.

3. One baptism, and fellowship in the same acts of worship.

It consists in their celebrating the same holy ordinances ­ in their performing acts of worship the same in kind, wherever they assemble, and in their being disposed and ready to embrace every properly occurring opportunity to join with all “those who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord, both theirs and ours” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2). Thus it was, as we have seen, in the primitive Church; and thus it would still be, if catholic unity were preserved, and if the institutions of Christ, along with the faith to which they relate, were every where preserved pure and entire.

Ibid., pg. 23.

Disunity and impure worship and sacraments. Hymns replacing the Psalms, the use of musical instruments which were abrogated with the Temple cultus, paedocommunion, insufficient fencing of the Table, the neglect of paedobaptism, family worship, and the keeping of the Sabbath, the use of graven images of Jesus and other Persons of the Trinity, etc. are major problems in the Church today that we ought to be actively working and praying to reform. “Nothing which has religious significance can be lawfully incorporated into the worship of the church unless it has warrant from Scripture. The church has limited power of discretion over some circumstances namely, those which (1) are without spiritual significance, (2) are not determinable from Scripture, (3) are such that worship cannot be conducted in an orderly fashion without them, and (4) are not arbitrary” (Michael Bushell, Songs of Zion, pg. 116). We can only approach God on His own terms, not only for salvation, but also in worship, this is the essence of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Until there is unity and purity in this area there cannot be a lasting and godly establishment of religion.

4. Unity in respect of external government and discipline.

The exercise of authority and government is necessary as a bond of union and a basis of stability in all societies. By means of it the largest communities, and even many nations, may be made to coalesce and become one, under the same political government.

Ibid., pg. 24.

Independent and Episcopalian polity, the “Emergent Church” and like movements, non-denominationalism, women holding ecclesiastical office, self appointed and non-ordained so-called “ministers,” corrupt or incontinent church courts within Presbyterianism, “rotten presbyteries” which are a safe haven for false teachers and lascivious men, etc. are all divisive influences in the Church which must be remedied by a Reformation of the Holy Spirit and faithful men within the Church before the Church can hope to have a lasting impact on the culture and nation.

5. The bond of mutual charity and peace.

Above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14). Pride, enmity, divisions (1 Cor. 1:10-17), cobelligerence with the ungodly for temporal and pragmatic goals, etc. derogates against the bond of mutual charity and peace that the brethren ought to have.

A bare and cold agreement in the articles of a common faith, and external uniformity in the acts of worship and discipline, will not preserve the unity of the Church. To “be perfectly joined together,” Christians must be of “the same mind,” or affection, as well as of “the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). It is by “speaking the truth in love,” that they “grow up in all things to their head, even Christ” (cf. Eph. 4:15).

Ibid., pg. 25.

Alexander Henderson, in a sermon preached to the House of Commons (Dec. 27, 1643), emphasizes the gravity of true and pious humility, covenanting, and reformation needed for a successful and God-honoring establishment of religion:

There be three things in England which give us hope and promise deliverance. Firstly, your frequent and continued fasting and humiliation. Secondly, your entering into a solemn [league &] covenant with God for obtaining mercy. Thirdly, your begun reformation, and the course you have taken for perfecting the same, “That whatsoever is commanded by the God of Heaven may be diligently done for the house of the God of Heaven” (Ezra 7:23). If these three be performed in truth, you may expect blessing. True humiliation, covenanting with God, and reformation, are the harbingers of peace and happiness. But when they are not in truth, the hypocrisy threatens more than the performance promises.

Sermons Preached before the English Houses of Parliament by the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly of Divines, pg. 77.

The common adage, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” has an element of truth to it, but it is commonly understood in a latitudinarian way as if some doctrines of Scripture are inconsequential or that the multitudinous interpretations make certain passages imperspicuous; the list of “essentials” is ever diminishing as the list of “non-essentials” grows exponentially. Doctrine matters; this “pretended liberty of conscience” is not true unity nor charity. Henderson continues,

God is not honored by a begun, imperfect, and half reformation. He is ready spew out the lukewarm person, family, or people [cf. Rev. 3:16]. . . Although it is true, that some things in religion be fundamental, and absolutely necessary unto salvation, and other things not so, yet to be obstinate against revealed truth, or to misregard or despise smallest matters of religion, which are necessary to be received, if not for themselves, yet for the authority of Scripture (as some make the distinction), brings as certain a curse and condemnation as ignorance and error does in matters more substantial.

Ibid., pg. 91.

Conclusion

Now that we’ve seen the importance of a Holy Spirit wrought Reformation and unity in the the Church prior to, and in harmony with, the establishment of a national Church, in the final post of this series we will consider the dangers of ecumenical latitudinarianism to the unity of the Church and answer objections regarding persecution and liberty of conscience.

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2 thoughts on “Establishment Principle, Part 3: Reformation and Unity of the Church

  1. “The ordering of the state and kingdom, how necessary soever, ought not to precede the settling of the church. In this the interest of God, in that the interest of man is chief… Except the Lord build the house of a kingdom, the industry of the wisest men is for little purpose [Ps. 127:1]. And how shall the Lord concur with men in building their state, when men are so careless of his honor and service, as not to build his church? Nehemiah laid not a stone in the wall of the city, until Zerubbabel had set the capstone on the wall of the Temple [Zech. 4:7-10].”

    — Robert Baillie, Introduction to his sermon on Zechariah 3:1-2 delivered before the House of Commons, Naphtali Press, p. 177-178.

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