The RPC on Covenanters and Politics

Covenanters and Politics

A Distinctive Position

Covenanters (Reformed Presbyterians) believe that the Old and New Testaments are the infallible word of God and therefore they accept them as their rule of faith and practice. They seek to establish the supremacy of Jesus Christ in every area of life – personal, family, church and state.

The Reformed Presbyterian view of politics is usually caricatured by the summary “Covenanters do not vote.” This is extremely misleading for the fact that Covenanters may not vote is not a principle but an application of several biblical principles. To define our position by the bare phrase ‘political dissent’ does it a disservice because such a definition is negative, limited and superficial. The purpose of this pamphlet is to demonstrate the biblical foundation upon which the Reformed Presbyterian attitude to politics rests and that the sovereignty of Jesus Christ may be acknowledged and established over the nation and its Government.

We are persuaded that it is God’s truth to which we are testifying. We have no time for that sectarian spins which delights in being ‘different’ just for the sake of it. Nor are we acting out of blind loyalty to an historic tradition, although we have been profoundly influenced by our past. We believe that the Word of God teaches nations their duty, imposes certain obligations upon rulers and provides guidance for the political life of every citizen. We are also convinced that such teaching has been almost entirely overlooked by the church today, and that we, as Covenanters. have a responsibility to make it known. It is our earnest prayer that our position may become less distinctive in the sense that others will be brought to share it.

National Responsibility

Christians believe that every individual on earth is required to turn away from his or her sins and to believe in Jesus Christ. God ‘now commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed’ (Acts 17:30,31). But what about groups of individuals — nations, for example? Does a nation have any distinct responsibility towards God. apart from that which devolves upon each individual composing it? Several strands of biblical evidence show clearly that there is such a corporate responsibility.

1. The Mediatorial Kingship of Christ

When he was about to return to heaven, Jesus Christ said to his disciples: ‘ALL AUTHORITY in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Matt. 28:18). He did not say ‘some authority’ – over Christians, for example, or over the church. The risen Mediator placed no limitation upon his kingdom, but claimed universal dominion, in line with one of the purposes of the resurrection that ‘IN EVERYTHING he might have the supremacy’ (Col. This means that there is no corner of the universe which is excluded from Christ’s rule There is no individual who can truthfully say that he owes no obedience or loyalty to King Jesus. There is no society or nation which has the right to say: ‘We will manage our own affairs as we think best, without any reference to the will of Christ’. To do so is to claim ‘some authority’ for man and to seek to rob the Lord Jesus of what is his. God the Father has fulfilled his promise to his Son, the God-man: ‘I will make the nations your inheritance, and the ends of the earth your possession’ (Ps. 2:8). Men may not recognise their obligation to serve Christ. Nations may and do repudiate his claim upon them, but this does not in any way cancel out that God-given authority. The lawbreaker does not invalidate the law by his disobedience, he merely renders himself guilty and liable to punishment. Christ is now, by his own statement, king of the universe, and every part of that universe is duty-bound to recognise his kingship. He is, moreover, the source of ‘all authority’ which is exercised ‘on earth’. The father in the home, the elder in the church, the employer in the factory, the ruler in the nation – all serve as stewards of Christ, exercising power by his gift and responsible to him for their use or abuse of it.

2. Christ and the Nations

Christ is often spoken of in the Bible as the king or ruler of nations, the one whom they are called to serve in their national life. He is ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’, he is ‘king of kings end Lord of lords’ (Rev. 1:5,19:16). In the great Messianic twenty-second psalm David prophesies: ‘All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations’ (Ps. 22:27, 28). The complete fulfillment of these words lies skill in the future, but they speak of God’s eternal and therefore present will for the nations. He intends them to be subject to his Son and calls upon them to yield such submission now, without delay. The fact that the will of God may not be carried out perfectly in the near future is no excuse for ignoring it in the present.

Perhaps the clearest teaching on national duty is to be found in the second psalm, infallibly interpreted in the New Testament (eg Acts 4:25, 13:33, Heb. 1:5, 5:5) as referring to Christ. ‘The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. “Let us break their chains, ” they say, “and throw off their fetters.”‘ (vs. 2, 3). God is not dismayed at fallen man’s hostility. His Son has been appointed mediatorial king and he will rule the world in mighty power. So what is the duty of the leaders of these rebellious nations? ‘Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment’ (vs. 10-12). God here speaks to the kings and rulers, not as private individuals but in their official and public capacity. It is as rulers that they are to serve the Lord and kiss the Son. These words apply to every monarch, president, prime minister and politician in the world today. They are to repent of their rebellion against the Lord’s Anointed. They are to come before him in loving service ~ in their official capacity – so that loyalty to Christ is reflected in every policy, act of government and facet of national life. The nations are to serve Christ their king AS NATIONS. The Scripture is plain and can bear no other interpretation.

It can be seen, from these passages. that the Bible teaches a national responsibility towards Christ. Each nation is required to acknowledge his authority and each government is obligated to rule in accordance with his will. To fail to do so is serious sin.

Our National Sin

As citizens of the United Kingdom, we have a great deal for which to be thankful. Many of our laws are humane and enlightened. Our law-courts, police and civil service are, in comparison with many other countries. commendably free from corruption. There is a strong tradition of respect for the freedom and rights of the individual. The state makes provision for the sick and elderly. These benefits, and many others. should not be taken for granted, for they are shared by comparatively few of our fellow men. However, when one considers the responsibility of the state towards God. it must be said that our national life is stained by grievous sin.

There is. of course. a superficial recognition of Christianity. The monarch is crowned at a religious service. Each day’s business in the House of Commons is preceded by prayer. A thin layer of religion covers British public life. But it is no more than a rapidly-cracking veneer, and the wretchedness of the underlying reality is becoming more apparent every day. Many of our laws are in blatant contradiction of the Law of God. Legal and medical provision is made for the murder by abortion of multitudes of unborn children. Such evils as prostitution, adultery and homosexuality are under little or no restraint. Pornography flourishes unchecked, the breaking of the Sabbath is encouraged, the life-long bond of marriage can be sundered with ease. A significant proportion of government revenue is derived from gambling and the consumption of alcohol, both intensely damaging to the moral fabric of the people. In defiance of the scriptural injunction that ‘he that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God’ (2 Sam. 23:3), no moral or religious qualifications whatever are demanded of those who aspire to political office. It is, in fact, widely claimed that a man’s beliefs and morals are his own affair and have nothing to do with either his politics or his constituents.

Yet these various evils, serious though they are, are no more than symptoms of a deeper sickness – the refusal to recognise the authority of Christ. At the heart of our national sin, as of every sin, lies man’s arrogant wish to be self-sufficient, to be master of his own destiny, to be ‘like God’ (Gen. 3:5). In the thinking of our politicians and people Christ does not reign over the nation. His throne has been usurped by ‘the people’, who are, we are told, the supreme and final authority. By what right does a government rule? – by the choice of the people. Upon what standard is law to be based? – upon the will of the people. To whom alone are politicians responsible? – to the people, at the next election. The true king of the nation and of the monarch is forgotten. Christ Jesus receives no recognition and his will is flouted openly. He is allowed a ceremonial seat on state occasions, but only on condition that he does not interfere in any way in the management of affairs, for ‘king Man’ will brook no rival in his pretended kingdom.

This exclusion of Christ from the constitution and government of the nation is our great national sin and the cause of all our present troubles. No matter how sincere and well-meaning politiciansmay be, no matter how admirable the intentions of a government or how painstakingly framed its policies, all is brought under divine judgment by the refusal to give God his place. Whatever man does without God is doomed to destruction, for ‘unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain’ (Ps. 127:1). While many Christians join with us in condemning specific national sins, Covenanters go further and protest against the heart of the problem – the blasphemous lie that man is free to order his affairs apart from the will of Jesus Christ.

The guilt of the United Kingdom is, moreover, increased by the fact that this repudiation of Christ is not due to ignorance. Many countries have never been favoured with the full light of gospel revelation, but such is not the case with Britain.

The Reformation in the 16th century spread the knowledge of Christ throughout the land, and one of the results of this was a remarkable recognition of Christ’s authority over our nation. In 1643 representatives from the parliaments of England and Scotland signed a ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ on behalf of Scotland, England and Ireland. This agreement was legally ratified by both parliaments, signed by many throughout the whole nation and later endorsed on two occasions by King Charles 11. By its terms, the nation was committed, among other things, to a reformation of religion according to Scripture. The desire was expressed that ‘the Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us’. In the closing paragraph of the covenant there is a moving confession and prayer:

And because these kingdoms are guilty of many sins and provocations against God, and his Son Jesus Christ, as is too manifest by our present distresses and dangers, the fruits thereof; we profess and declare, before God and the world, our unfeigned desire to be humbled for our own sins, and for the sins of these kingdoms; especially, that we have not as we ought valued the inestimable benefit of the gospel; that we have not laboured for the purity and power thereof; and that we have not endeavoured to receive Christ in our hearts, nor to walk worthy of him in our lives; which are the causes of other sins and transgressions so much abounding amongst us: and our true and unfeigned purpose, desire and endeavour for ourselves, and all others under our power and charge, both in public and in private, in all duties we owe to God and man, to amend our lives, and each one to go before another in the example of a real reformation; that the Lord may turn away his wrath and heavy indignation, and establish these churches and kingdoms in truth and peace.

The Solemn League and Covenant is a human document – and therefore fallible. There are parts of it which need to be adapted to new circumstances. Many signed it from unworthy motives. And yet, in spite of its limitations and weaknesses, it is a magnificent affirmation of national loyalty to Christ. The authorities bowed before him and solemnly pledged themselves to rule in accordance with his will. The nation, as such, was dedicated to his service. But the dedication was short-lived, for the Covenant was soon repudiated and the English parliament ordered it to be ceremonially burned in 1661. Since that time, it has dropped from the national consciousness, remembered only by those who are known as ‘Covenanters’.

Our nation has chosen to forget this commitment to God. Our nation has deliberately fumed away from the recognition once given to Christ. No place whatever is now allotted to him within the legal and constitutional framework of the United Kingdom. Government is in the hands of rebels against God and laws are framed in direct opposition to his will. Our national life is built upon the monstrous falsehood of human autonomy. Such is the depth and seriousness of our national sin.

What is to be Done?

1. Evangelism

No act of parliament can make our country Christian. People cannot be compelled by government to serve God. No mere formal acknowledgement of the authority of Christ will satisfy the demands of Scripture. Any national turning to Christ must be preceded by the turning of individuals to him in repentance and faith, for there must be many more Christians in the nation before there is any realistic possibility of having a Christian nation. So we must pray earnestly for conversions and work to spread the gospel by every biblical means. The greatest need of the hour is a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a fresh work of revival leading to a new reformation. Constitutional reform is needed, but God forbid that we should ever forget that the best way of achieving this is by carrying out our primary responsibility of making known the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2. Teaching

There must be a proclamation of the forgotten truth that Christ is king of the nation and that it is sinful for our nation to fail to recognise his kingship. Christians must be delivered from the delusion that the gospel has nothing to do with politics. We must seek, by God’s grace, to explain to our fellow-believers the teaching of the Word on national responsibility, in order that they too may be convicted of the guilt which rests upon a Christ-rejecting, covenant-breaking people.

Politicians too must be instructed as to their responsibilities towards God. They need to be reminded that they derive their authority from Jesus Christ, that they are obliged to exercise it in complete conformity with his revealed will and that they will answer to him for their stewardship at the day of judgement.

As Covenanters, we must accept some of the blame for our calamitous national situation, for we have not spoken out as we should. Entrusted with this vital truth, we have buried it among ourselves, and our guilty silence has deprived others of the opportunity to embrace it. We must repent and speak out boldly for ‘the crown rights of King Jesus’. It is not our responsibility to ensure that others accept our position. It is our responsibility to ensure that they are acquainted with it.

3. Political Dissent

A very pressing question concerns the political responsibilities of the Christian in Britain. He is a citizen of a country where Christ has been excluded from public life, and where the political are managed without any reference to the King of Kings. Yet the Christian’s primary loyalty must be to Jesus Christ. He cannot deny his Lord, he cannot be a party to anything which would dishonour Christ’s name, he must put his Saviour first in every part of his life. How then is he to live both as a citizen and as a consistent Christian?

He must, of course, honour and pray for those in government. He must submit to the powers that be, insofar as such submission does not involve disobedience to God. He must pay his taxes and serve the country to the best of his ability. These are clear Scriptural duties which are incumbent upon every believer, even in situations where the government is far more hostile to Christianity than our own. But does the Christian citizen have any further responsibility? Should he, in other words, play a part in actually choosing those who rule the country? Should he cast his vote in parliamentary elections?

Reformed Presbyterians answer, reluctantly, that it is inconsistent for a Christian to vote in our present system. We live in a ‘democracy’, which means ‘rule by the people’. The main instrument by which the people exercise rule is the vote, and all those who vote declare themselves members of the ruling body. They become active participants in our political system and thus assume responsibility for the constitution and actions of that system. Those who vote for parliamentary candidates are, in fact, asking those candidates to serve as their representatives in government and to take on their behalf the oath of allegiance required of members of parliament: ‘I do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law, so help me God.’

But surely no Christian can possibly do this without disloyalty to his Lord? How can we swear unqualified allegiance to a monarchy which does not recognise its subordination to Christ, and which, indeed, usurps his Headship in a branch of the church? How can we make the law of the country the basis of an oath, when that same law is contrary to the Law of God? Our nation is saying. in effect: ‘We have agreed to manage our affairs without Jesus Christ. We do not recognise his authority over us in any way. We, the people, are the ultimate authority in this land.’ Can a Christian play a part in such an unholy rebellion against divine authority? Can he join in this conspiracy and lend moral support to a constitution which is fundamentally sinful? Can he ask a parliamentary candidate to swear on his behalf an oath of allegiance to the head of a system which dishonours his Saviour?

The objection may be raised: ‘But if everyone thought as you do, how could matters be improved? Surely Christians should be active in sending godly members to parliament so that laws may be enacted which honour Christ.’ As will be seen in a moment, we believe that there is a place for positive political action. But it must be stressed that it cannot take place within the present system. It is never right to do wrong. To participate as an elector in an anti-Christian political system is wrong, and the Christian may not plead that he has an excellent motive for wrongdoing. We are not responsible for the consequences of obedience to Scripture and we dare not think that we are wiser than God or that there is a situation in which his Word could do us harm. We have to trust him to honour our loyalty to his Son. The option doing evil that good may come is simply not open to us.

We find it exceedingly painful to forgo our right to vote. Reformed Presbyterians are keenly interested in politics and consider the franchise a most valuable privilege. But we cannot agree to abandon our Christianity at the door of the voting booth. We cannot accept responsibility for the national sin of rejecting Christ. If the system of government has no place for him then it has no place for us. When the state separates from God, we must separate from the state. We believe that every loyal Christian should follow our example.

4. Political Action

Are we then doomed to remain for ever on the outside of British political life? Perhaps not.

We are prepared to support, as parliamentary candidates, men of godly character who are willing to honour Christ in their politics. In practical terms. this would mean:

a. If ii they would refuse to take the present oath of allegiance and would instead make an affirmation of loyalty to the state which would specifically safeguard their primary loyalty to Jesus Christ;

b. that, together with this affirmation, they would make an explicit declaration of dissent from the anti-Christian nature of the constitution and a statement of their resolve to work for the national recognition of Christ;

c. that they would promise to frame all their policies in accordance with the Word of God and to resist all pressures of political expediency and party discipline which might compromise such obedience.

Could any politician be found who would make this commitment? We must work and pray for the emergence of such men. We must talk to the politicians we must publish our convictions, we must seek to persuade our fellow-citizens. The word ‘impossible’ should not be found in the Christian’s vocabulary, for nothing is impossible with God. We believe that loyalty to Jesus Christ demands the above conditions. We can vote for no-one who refuses to meet them. We look to God to so bless our efforts that they may bear fruit in his time and way.

The British nation may be compared to a house which has been built upon sand. This house needs many repairs – slates are missing, windows are broken, there is rust and wood-worm. Workmen – a few of them Christians – are busily engaged in trying to carry out these repairs and are calling on us to join them. But we can see that tine’ basic problem lies with the foundation and that the repairs will prove useless unless the house is rebuilt upon rock. What are we to do? Should we lay aside our insight and join in the work of superficial improvement, saying nothing about the certainty that the whole building is doomed? Or should we point out the desperate danger of the unstable foundation and call on the inhabitants of the house to a radical rebuilding?

Our message to the nation remains the same as it has been for nearly 350 years: ‘Why do you say nothing about bringing the king back?’ (2 Sam. 19:10). We have not abstained from political activity because we do not care what happens to our country, but because we do care so very intensely. We have not dissented because ‘politics is a dirty business’. but because we realise that there is only one way of making it clean. Our position is an expression, not a denial, of our patriotism. The greatest service which one human being can perform for another is to lead him or her to the Lord Jesus Christ. That is precisely the service which we Covenanters wish to perform for our beloved nation.

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