Thursday, July 2, 2009

Primer on the Establishment Principle

The Establishment Principle. What is it?

The Establishment Principle or the Principle of the National Recognition of Religion maintains the scriptural view of the universal supremacy of Christ as King of Nations as well as King of saints, with the consequent duty of nations as such, and civil rulers in their official capacity, to honour and serve Him by recognising His Truth and promoting His cause. (C.J. Brown, Christ's Kingship Over the Nations Maintained and Defended in the Establishment Principle, p. 1)

What are the other major theories of church-state relations within Christendom?

1) Roman Catholic papal supremacy over the nations; 2) Erastianism, ie., the chief magistrate is head of the church; 3) Voluntaryism, ie., the state is secular and completely separate from the church.

Isn't the Establishment Principle itself Erastian?

Whereas Erastianism posits the magistrate's power over the church in sacris, that is, in (internal to) religious matters, the Establishment Principle posits the magistrate's power with respect to the church as circa sacris, about (external to) religious matters.

What is the Scriptural basis for this doctrine?

Among some of the scriptural passages adduced in support of the Establishment Principle, include the following:

Ps. 2.10-12 Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

Ps. 9.17 The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.

Ps.22.27-28 All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the LORD'S: and he is the governor among the nations.

Ps. 33.12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.

Isa. 49.23 And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.

Isa. 60.12 For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted.

Rom. 13.3-4 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.

1 Tim. 2.1-2 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.

Rev. 19.16 And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.

Rev. 21.24, 26 And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it.

What is the (Presbyterian) Confessional basis for this doctrine?

Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), Chap. 23:

II. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto;(b)in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth;(c) so for that end, they may lawfully now, under the New Testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.(d)

(b) Prov. 8:15, 16; Rom. 13:1, 2, 4.
(c) Ps. 2:10, 11, 12; I Tim. 2:2; Ps. 82:3, 4; II Sam. 23:3; I Pet. 2:13.
(d) Luke 3:14; Rom. 13:4; Matt. 8:9, 10; Acts 10:1, 2; Rev. 17:14, 16.

III. 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:(e) yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, 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 sttled, administrated, and observed.(f) For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.(g)

(e) II Chron. 26:18 with Matt. 18:17 and Matt. 16:19; I Cor. 12:28, 29; Eph. 4:11, 12; I Cor. 4:1, 2; Rom. 10:15; Heb. 5:4.
(f) Isa. 49:23; Ps. 122:9; Ezra 7:23, 25, 26, 27, 28; Lev. 24:16; Deut. 13:5, 6, 12; I Kings 18:4; I Chron. 13:1 to 9; II Kings 23:1 to 26; II Chron. 34:33; II Chron. 15:12, 13.
(g) II Chron. 19:8, 9, 10, 11; II Chron. 29 and 30; Matt. 2:4, 5.

Chap. 31:

II. As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion;(b) so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies.(c)
(b) Isa. 49:23; I Tim. 2:1, 2; II Chron. 19:8, 9, 10, 11; II Chron. 29, 30 chaps.; Matt. 2:4, 5; Prov. 11:14.
(c) Acts 15:2, 4, 22, 23, 25.

Westminster Larger Catechism (1647):

Q109: What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?
A109: The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, ... tolerating a false religion;[6] ...

6. Deut. 13:6-12; Zech. 13:2-3; Rev. 2:2, 14-15, 20, Rev. 17:12, 16-17

Q191: What do we pray for in the second petition.?
A191: In the second petition (which is, Thy kingdom come,)[1] ... the church furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances,[7] purged from corruption,[8] countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate:[9] ...

1. Matt. 6:10
7. Matt. 9:38; II Thess. 3:1
8. Mal. 1:11; Zeph. 3:9
9. I Tim. 2:1-2

What about the 1788 American Revision to the Westminster Standards? Does not this exclude the Establishment Principle from the American Presbyterian confessional standards?

The Westminster Standards, as revised in 1788, and adopted by most modern American Presbyterian churches, modified WCF 23.3 to change the Establishment Principle expressed by the Westminster Divines into a statement that the magistrate has a duty to protect the church, but not to establish one church in preference to other Christian denominations, and deleted the reference to the magistrate's power to call synods (WCF 31.2) as well as second commandment sin of "tolerating a false religion" (WLC 109). Yet, it retained the duty of magistrates to maintain "piety" (WCF 23.2) and the statement that we are to pray that the church would be "countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate" (WLC 191), although it seems clear that the doctrinal points retained are understood by the modern adopting bodies in a sense rather different than the original Westminster Assembly, that is, not to uphold the Establishment Principle, but rather to protect Christian churches in general without advancing true religion, per se, or suppressing false religion.

'Actually, the revision was primarily intended to move the confessional position of American Presbyterianism from the "establishment principle"[7] to "voluntaryism,"[8]'

7. The "establishment" view of church-state relations (which should not be confused with Erastianism, as Kline unfortunately seems to do) is that the state should establish a particular church (e.g., in England--the Church of England [episcopal in form], and in Scotland--The Church of Scotland [presbyterian in form]) and work with it for the advancement of the cause of religion in the realm. We may paraphrase William Cunningham's description of the principle behind this view: the obligation to advance the cause of God, and the Kingdom of Christ lies not only with individuals, but also with rulers and nations. See Historical Theology, 2:560.
8. Not the more extreme "voluntaryism" of British independency which operated on the principle that the responsibility for the advancement of the cause of Christ rests merely on individual men, rather than rulers and nations (see again Historical Theology), but a "moderate voluntaryism" which explicitly intended government to favor the Christian religion (but not one particular denomination), protect all denominations of Christians, pass no law hindering Christian ministers and church members in the due exercise of religion, and to uphold the moral law. Cf., WCF 23:2,3 (American revision). (Ligon Duncan, The Westminster Confession: A Theonomic Document?)

Can one adhere to the Establishment Principle if he lives in a country which is officially opposed to (e.g., U.S. Constitution, First Amendment), or stands apart from, an established church?

Thomas Chalmers on the 1843 Disruption: "Though we quit the Establishment, we go out on the Establishment principle; we quit a vitiated Establishment but would rejoice in returning to a pure one. We are advocates for a national recognition of religion — and we are not voluntaries."

George Smeaton on the 1843 Disruption: Thus in one day the Free Church of Scotland, as she fitly called herself, started into vigorous existence. Her very name implied nationality and connexion with the historical Church of Scotland. She arose, not as a sectarian denomination, not as assuming any new ground or principle unknown to the confessors and martyrs of Scotland. She repudiated, and will repudiate, the attitude of a sect. She was conscious of being, what she called herself, the Church of Scotland, Free, and would not break her connexion with the past three centuries of Scottish church history. The principle of national establishment of religion as the fitting homage of the nation, and as the duty of the nation to Christ, the Prince of the Kings of the Earth, was her avowed principle, and could not be surrendered by her without becoming a new church and forfeiting her name. Her protest was not against the Establishment as such, but against the submission with which the Establishment succumbed to the ursurpations and encroachments of the civil power. And had a protesting minority continued within the pale of the Establishment, maintaining the church's independence and the people's rights, they would have had the warm sympathy of every Free Churchman. The footing on which they resolved to go out, and on which the practical steps were taken with a view to a new organization, was unmistakably put before the public to this effect. (George Smeaton, Memoirs of Alexander Thomson of Banchory (Edinburgh, 1869), p. 289 (emphasis is Smeaton's), quoted by John W. Keddie, George Smeaton: Learned Theologian and Biblical Scholar, pp. 48-49, 191)

Is the Establishment Principle really so important?

John Kennedy of Dingwall: [The Establishment Principle is not only] “worth living for, but a principle worth dying for."


  1. Lets get back to the Solemn

    League and Covenant that we are

    obligated to keep.

  2. Thank you for this helpful post.

    Are you able to provide a reference for the quote by John Kennedy of Dingwall?

    David Blunt

  3. You are welcome, David. The Rev. John Macleod quoted Kennedy thus in a paper delivered in 2000 and published in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland's magazine in April 2001:

    At the outset, we may well ask: What is this principle and what is it that makes the upholding of it so vitally important a matter that the eminent Dr Kennedy of Dingwall, a man who measured his words before giving utterance to them, was moved to declare that it was not only a principle “worth living for, but a principle worth dying for”? In plain terms, “the Establishment Principle, or the Principle of the National Recognition of Religion, maintains the scriptural view of the universal supremacy of Christ as King of Nations as well as King of saints, with the consequent duty of nations as such, and civil rulers in their official capacity, to honour and serve Him by recognising His truth and promoting His cause.” (2)

    (2) 2. Quoted in Christ’s Kingship over the Nations.


    My copy of C.J. Brown, Christ's Kingship Over the Nations Maintained and Defended in the Establishment Principle, says, p. 28:

    "The Establishment Principle," said the eminent Dr. Kennedy of Dingwall, "is not only worth living for, but a Principle worth dying for."

    Beyond that, I have not sourced the quote directly to Dr. Kennedy. I hope this helps.

  4. Many thanks for this information.

    Next question is: Do you have the details of the place of publication, publisher and date of C.J. Brown's work?

    Thanks again.

  5. You are welcome! Regrettably, the essay has no date or publisher name/location. I suspect it was published in the 1940s or 1950s, perhaps by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It is hard to find on the used book market. I've had my copy since the early 1990s.

    The only place I know where you can find a copy is Still Water Revival Books.

    BROWN, C.J.

    Christ's Kingship Over the Nations Maintained and Defended in the Establishment Principle, or, The Principle of the National Recognition of Religion

    Maintains the universal supremacy of Christ as King of the nations, as well as King of the saints, with the consequent duty of nations as such, and civil rulers in their official capacity, to honor and serve Him by recognizing His truth and promoting His cause. Demonstrates that this position was "the unanimous testimony of the Reformers" and proves this truth from both the OT and the NT. Answers common objections, which are often arguments from abuse, while refuting the opposing error of Voluntaryism showing its sectarian nature. A marvelous little book that is much needed in our day! As the author notes, "Let us keep to the King's highway trod by the martyrs and Reformers, and in the name of our God display our banners that Christ is the Prince of the kings of the earth, and that the nation and the kingdom that will not serve Him and His Cause shall perish, yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted."
    (Rare bound photocopy) $9.95-70%=2.99
    (Hardcover photocopy) $15.00 (US funds)

    This book is also available on Reformation Bookshelf CD volume 25 (CD SUPER SALE) at:

  6. SWRB is now selling a digital copy of C.J. Brown's work on the establishment principle for 99 cents at