Establishment Principle, Part 4: Liberty of Conscience

Establishment Principle 4 Liberty of Conscience

In part three we considered the necessity 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 this final post of our series we will envisage the dangers of ecumenical latitudinarianism to the unity of the Church and answer objections regarding persecution and liberty of conscience.

Latitudinarianism and the Unity of the Church

The unity of the Church is of crucial importance, however it is not always a virtue nor an infallible mark of a true and pure church. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, boasts of unity yet is radically corrupt and apostate. “Truth is too important to kill it in the streets for the sake of peace” (R.C. Sproul). “We are exhorted to ‘follow peace with all men,’ not absolutely, but so far only as it is consistent with ‘holiness,’ and may be lawfully practicable (Heb. 12:14)” (M’Crie, The Unity of the Church, pg. 96).

“[Latitudinarianism] proclaims an undue latitude in matters of religion, which persons may take to themselves or give to others. Its abettors make light of the differences which subsist among religious parties, and propose to unite them on the common principles on which they are already agreed, in the way of burying the rest in silence, or of stipulating mutual forbearance and charity with respect to everything about which they may differ in opinion or in practice.
. . .
“[It is] a principle of difformity (i.e. diversity of form) which, however congenial to the system of polytheism, is utterly eversive of a religion founded on the unity of the divine nature and will, and on a revelation which teaches us what we are to believe concerning God and what duty he requires of us.”

Thomas M’Crie, The Unity of the Church, pg. 108.

Latitudinarianism “strikes against the radical principles of the unity of the Church, and confirms schism by law” (M’Crie, The Unity of the Church, pg. 115). In this latitudinarian scheme,

“that church which is most faithful, and has made the greatest progress in reformation, must always be the loser, without having the satisfaction to think that she has conveyed any benefit to her new associates. It behooves her profession and managements to yield, and be reduced to the standard of those societies which are defective and less reformed. And thus, by a process opposite to that mentioned by the Apostle, those who have built on the foundation ‘gold, silver, precious stones,’ are the persons who shall ‘suffer loss‘ (1 Cor. 3:12, 15).”

Thomas M’Crie, The Unity of the Church, pg. 116.

Persecution of Dissenting Christian Brethren?

The most common objection to this doctrine of Establishmentarianism is that it would result in the persecution of Christians who could not in good conscience conform to every jot and tittle of the national confession, such as Baptists not wanting their children baptized in the established Church. This notion is baseless in a number of ways.

1. Liberty of conscience is not to be conflated with latitudinarian laxity.

“Toleration and liberty of conscience is a very convenient and effective rallying cry. But the attempt to show that they are violated by the State Church system is utterly visionary and baseless, proceeding as it does on ignorance of the just rights of conscience, and on an extraordinary confusion of ideas as to what constitutes a real violation of these rights.”

William Balfour, Establishment Principle Defended, pg. 58.

The establishment now spoken of is to be considered as a bestowing of additional privileges upon some; not as a detracting from the natural and common privileges of any (Gib, Display, vol. ii. Append. iii. pg. 403). It is not persecution for someone to dissent from the national Church and thus chose to separate themselves from membership. They will still be required to attend Sabbath worship and observe the means of grace in Word and Sacrament presented, but if they cannot conform to the membership vows then they cannot be a member and thus not a citizen of the covenanted nation, yet they may live freely and go about their lawful business. This is essentially how it already works for many Baptists who attend Presbyterian churches but cannot be members in good conscience, yet they willingly choose this arrangement rather than attend an Arminian Baptist church (yet some individual sessions sinfully allow those who “contemn or neglect” (WCF 28:5) the ordinance of infant baptism, they are confounded here). It is not much different in an establishmentarian context.

“The Confession of Faith has often been accused of advocating intolerant and persecuting principles. It is, however, in truth, equally free from latitudinarian laxity on the one hand, and intolerance on the other. An intelligent and candid perusal of chapter 20, “On Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience, ought of itself to refute all such calumnies. The mind of man never produced a truer or nobler proposition than the following:

“‘God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.’
. . .
“Many seem to think that by liberty of conscience is meant, that every man should be at liberty to act in everything according to his own inclination, without regard to the feelings, convictions, and rights of other men. This would, indeed, be to convert liberty into lawlessness, and to make conscience of licentiousness. But the Confession proceeds upon the principle that truth can be distinguished from error, right from wrong; that though conscience cannot be compelled, it may be enlightened; and that when sinful, corrupt, and prone to licentiousness, men may be lawfully restrained from the commission of such excesses as are offensive to public feeling, and injurious to the moral welfare of the community.”

Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, pgs. 22-23.

The civil government cannot permit people to do things against God’s moral law, that is not true liberty:

“It is absurd to suppose it, that God can give men a power which He has not Himself; and shocking blasphemy to suppose Him capable of giving men a right and authority to contemn or counteract his own law as their rule, or his own glory as their chief end, in everything they do (2 Tim. 2:13; Hab. 1:12, 13; Exod. 15:11; Deut. 32:4; Zeph. 3:5; James 1:13).
. . .
“If magistracy, conscience, and human rights, natural and civil, be all derived from God, as all but Atheists must allow, magistrates can have no more power, authoritatively to tolerate sin, than God himself can command it. If God, by virtue of the infinite perfection of his nature, have no will, no power, authoritatively to proclaim liberty to commit sin, he cannot communicate any such power to the magistrate. Nor can the magistrate account to God for exceeding his power in licensing that which is infinitely injurious to him… If conscience derive all its power from God, it can have no… power to enjoin any thing sinful… If all human rights be derived from God, the primary and supreme proprietor of all things, it is impossible they can authorize men to contrive or commit any thing sinful, or can protect them in it.”

John Brown of Haddington, The Absurdity and Perfidity of All Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy, Idolatry, and Popery, pgs. 7 & 25.

2. Full subscription is not required for membership in the Church or citizenship in the nation.

A strict confessional standard was not the basis of citizenship in Israel, the prototypical covenanted nation. Strict subscription to the national confession should be required for holding civil or ecclesiastical office, but not necessary for being a member of the congregation or a citizen of the covenanted nation. Presbyterians have generally had a higher standard for access to the Lord’s Table than for membership. The Westminster divines required significantly less than strict subscription to the confession for access to the Table, and even less strict requirements for church membership (one can be a member, yet suspended from the Lord’s Supper for a time, cf. WCF 30:4). Therefore, everyone living in a covenanted Christian nation would not be forced to be members of the visible Church, if they cannot conscientiously submit to the doctrine, practice, government, and discipline of the Church then they cannot be members, but they may still come and hear the Word preached. Citizenship in a covenanted Christian nation requires church membership, not full subscription. If there is something unbiblical in the confession then that needs to be worked out pre-establishment during the Reformation, or even afterwards in the covenanted nation, through the church assemblies.

God did not allow for people to “contemn or neglect” the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament and He does not allow it today (Gen. 17:14; Ex. 4:24-26; Acts 10:47). “Since none of us would seriously suggest that circumcision was merely an optional rite of entry into the Old Testament church, on what basis do we make such a distinction with respect to baptism? Both rites come to us via direct command of God, and the account of God’s nearly taking Moses’ life in Exodus 4 because of his failure to circumcise his own son should serve as an urgent warning against our neglecting baptism” (Holstrom, Baptism and Church Membership: A Plea for Confessional Fidelity).

“The Lord, (Psal. 50:16), forbids hypocrites remaining hypocrites to take the Lords covenant in their mouth, but I said not, therefore he forbids the Church to take in any as members but these onely to come to see their sinne and to reform their evil waye, for if they who leave the wayes of Paganisme, Judaisme, Popery, and the wayes of sin, professe they are willing to be the disciples of Christ if the profession be not grossely and knownly hypocriticall, and their coming in be not for by-ends and to betray the cause, but morally ingenuous and negatively sincere, the Church is to receive such, and is not forbidden to admit them as members, whether to the knowledge of the Church they be reall converts or not reall converts. I grant it is another thing, if they refuse to come and to be baptized (Luke 7:29-30; Luke 14:17-18), sure no man can be a Church-member against his will. The Lord may well rebuke Magus and Judas while they are Church-members, the same way that he rebukes the hypocrites (Psal. 50:16-17), and say what have you to do to declare my statutes, &c. for I know your hearts, how you hate instruction, &c. and yet the Church sinnes not in admitting them… This active call [by God of the preached Word] may be refused, and the refusers never be the Church, (Luke 14:16-17) not visible members, they visibly refusing the call and counsell of God and neglecting obstinately to be baptized, (Luke 7:30).”

Samuel Rutherford, Survey of the Survey of that Summe of Church-Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker, pgs. 15-16.

3. Reformation will have to have occurred in the land prior to an established Church, and thus there will be much less disunity in the Church.

See our treatment of this topic in part three. Establishmentarianism cannot be conceived of in a context devoid of a Holy Spirit wrought Reformation in the Church and the land. The prophecies of Scripture clearly teach that there will be a golden age of gospel prosperity and ecclesiastical unity. It is a huge oversight to imagine the Establishment Principle being instituted the way things are at the current time, this view is inherently eschatological and requires many things to take place prior to it being a reality. It may seem like a utopian pipe dream, but we believe the case is abundantly clear from Scripture itself and who are we to doubt God’s Word based on what we see going on around us at the time? “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (James 4:14). At the same time, we are not merely waiting for a revival or trying to ascertain if enough revival has happened yet to see if we can establish the Church. We ought to be vigorously working for the expansion of the Kingdom of Grace because the Lamb who was slain deserves the worship and adoration of every creature on earth and we know beyond all shadow of doubt that He will succeed even if we may not see it in our lifetimes. Our eschatology is never merely future, it is progressive and ever growing; we have hope in transformation.

Except the Lord do build the house,
the builders lose their pain:
Except the Lord the city keep,
the watchmen watch in vain.
Psalm 127:1 (SMV)

The Lord of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand: That I will break the Assyrian in my land, and upon my mountains tread him under foot: then shall his yoke depart from off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders. This is the purpose that is purposed upon the whole earth: and this is the hand that is stretched out upon all the nations. For the Lord of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? and his hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:24-27).

4. A properly countenanced national church will follow the ecclesiastical due process outlined in Scripture and will be Spirit led such that difficult and incorrigible cases, which require the civil magistrate to intervene, will be extremely rare.

“The officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition, suspension from the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season, and by excommunication from the Church, according to the nature of the crime and demerit of the person (Mat 18:17; 1 Cor 5:4-5, 13; 1 Thes 5:12; 2 Thes 3:6, 14-15; Titus 3:10).”

Westminster Confession of Faith, 30:4.

Religious errors ought to be corrected by spiritual means, that is, through the discipline of the visible Church, “spiritual discipline, if erected and allowed freely to exert itself, would accomplish that desirable end, without the interposition of any secular violence” (M’Crie, The Unity of the Church, pg. 187). Westminster Divine Robert Baillie explains the practical benefits of having an established Presbyterian church in the land:

“Now, indeed, every monster walks in the street without control, while all ecclesiastic government is cast asleep; this too too long inter-reign and mere anarchy hath invited every unclean creature to creep out of its cave, and shew in public its misshapen face to all who like to behold.

“But, if once the government of Christ were set up amongst us, as it is in the rest of the reformed churches, we know not what would impede it, by the sword of God alone, without any secular violence, to banish out of the land these spirits of error, in all meekness, humility, and love, by the force of the truth convincing and satisfying the minds of the seduced.

“Episcopal courts were never fitted for the reclaiming of minds; their prisons, their fines, their pillories, their nose-slittings, their ear-slittings, their cheek-burnings, did but hold down the flame to break out in season with the greater rage.

But the Reformed Presbytery doth proceed in a spiritual method evidently fitted for the gaining of hearts; they go on with the offending party with all respect, and at so much leisure as can be wished, appointing first the fittest Pastors and Elders in the bounds, to confer and instruct him in private: if this diligence do not prevail, then they convent him before the Consistory of his Congregation; there by admonitions, instructions, reproofs, and all the means appointed in the Gospel, they deal with him in all gentleness, from weeks to months, from months oftentimes to years, before they come near to any censure, and if so it fall out that his insuperable obstinacy force them to draw out the terrible Sword, their proceeding here also is so exceeding leisurely, and full of sensible grief and love to the party, of fear and Religion towards God, that it is a singular rarity among them to see any heart so hard as not to be mollified, and yield before that stroke be given. Excommunications are so strange in all the Reformed Churches, that in a whole Province, a man in all his life will scarcely witness to one, and among them who are cut off by that dreadful Sword, very few do fall in the State’s hand to be troubled with any civil inconvenience.

“It is not prophecy, but a rational prediction bottomed upon reasons and multiplied experience: Let England once be countenanced by her superior powers, to enjoy the just and necessary liberty of Consistories for Congregations, of Presbyteries for Counties, of Synods for larger Shires, and National Assemblies for the whole land, as Scotland hath long possessed these by the unanimous consent of King and Parliament, without the least prejudice to the civil State, but to the evident and confessed benefit thereof; or as the very Protestants in France, by the concession of a Popish State and King, have enjoyed all these four spiritual courts the last fourscore years and above: Put these holy and divine instruments in the hand of the Church of England, by the blessing of God thereupon, the sore and great evil of so many heresies and schisms shall quickly be cured, which now not only troubles the peace and welfare, but hazards the very subsistence both of Church and Kingdom: without this mean, the State will toil itself in vain about the cure of such spiritual diseases.

Robert Baillie, A Dissuasive From the Errors of the Time (1646), pgs. 7-8.

People are not forced what to believe, only external actions can be forced or punished by the civil government. Christ has equipped His Church with the necessary tools to deal with spiritual matters, not the State.

“When a particular profession, or confession of faith, form of worship and ecclesiastical government, obtain the formal sanction of civil authority, they are recognized by the legislature, as declaratory of that religion which obtains the national countenance and support, and according unto which the legal privileges and emoluments appropriated for this purpose are to be conferred and enjoyed. But this by no means implies that all shall be obliged, under civil pains, to conform unto this establishment, or be punished for dissenting from it. There is a wide and essential distinction between the exercise of compulsive power about religion, and compulsion in religion.”

Thomas M’Crie, Brief View of the Evidence for the Exercise of Civil Authority About Religion


In conclusion, we have seen that the Establishment Principle is about the civil government establishing and supporting the Church as an institution, rather than an abstract and invisible entity, and that Establishmentarianism is not Erastianism and it is not an Ecclesiocracy. We examined many prophecies about the New Covenant age and saw that “the whole tenor of the declarations, promises, and predictions of the Old Testament, lead to the conclusion that Christianity shall be owned, countenanced, and supported in a national way” (M’Crie, Statement of the Difference…) and that it must be preceded by Reformation and a work of the Holy Spirit in order for it to be effective and pious. The Church must be united in doctrine, worship, government, piety, and practice, and Presbyterian church government alone is of divine right and Latitudinarianism is a disease to the unity of the Church. Lastly, we saw that persecution of dissenting brethren is a misguided myth and is based on “ignorance of the just rights of conscience, and on an extraordinary confusion of ideas as to what constitutes a real violation of these rights.”


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