Political Dissent Part Six: Conclusion

In the first article in this series, it was asserted that for the Reformed Presbyterians the primary significance of the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations was the support of political dissent. In subsequent articles, some of the historical and theological development of the mediatorial kingship doctrine in relation to the practice of political dissent was discussed. That the primary significance of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations was the support of political dissent is historically undeniable. While there are clearly other aspects to this doctrine, it is just as clearly its connection with the practice of dissent that made it of special significance for the Reformed Presbyterians.

As we have seen, the genesis of the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations as a distinctive of the Reformed Presbyterians seems to have come as a result of their debates with the Seceders. It appears to have had no particular significance to the Covenanters prior to that. And the rub between the Seceders and the Covenanters was not the Covenants per se, nor was it whether the Covenants were binding on future generations. It was not the Revolution Settlement, either: They had similar views on its shortcomings and the various troubles that resulted from them. So where did the problem lie? Writing in the late nineteenth century in his “The Reformed Presbyterian Church Of Scotland Its Origin And History,” Rev. Matthew Hutchison says this:

“The great difference between the parties concerned the doctrine of civil magistracy, and the attitude that should be maintained towards the existing civil authorities.” 

In a word, it was dissent.

The Seceders had maintained that a magistracy that existed by Divine Providence and which had the consent of the people was a lawful one, and that included the British Crown. This notion was completely unacceptable to the Covenanters, who, as we have observed, had viewed the government as illegitimate (because the Covenants had not been recognized) going back to 1690. The legitimacy question, and therefore the necessity of dissent, was vital to them, and it was where the debate began.

But the controversy between the Seceders and the Covenanters was apparently a protracted one, and “at a later date”, as Hutchison puts it, the “extent” of the mediatorial dominion of Christ became the focus of the debate. Whether that came as a result of the Covenanters making a defense against Gib’s forceful arguments, or if Gib pushed them into a place they might not have otherwise gone, is difficult to say. But whatever the case, within a few decades the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations was viewed as an “essential element” and a “distinguishing mark” of the Reformed Presbyterian Church both in Great Britain and America. And, going forward for some two centuries, this doctrine would be the theological foundation for dissent.

It’s true, of course, that the doctrine and practice of the RPCNA has changed. Synod’s Special Committee writes: 

“As a denomination, we do not believe that principled political dissent (as proposed by Wylie and practiced historically by the RPCNA) is a necessary implication or application of Christ’s universal dominion as Mediator. In other words, it is possible to agree with Wylie’s Christology (i.e. mediatorial dominion) and yet strongly disagree with his theology of the civil magistrate (i.e. principled political dissent from a non covenanted civil government). From a confessional standpoint, the case could be made that the Westminster Standards themselves support such a stance (i.e. mediatorial dominion minus political dissent) in today’s North American context. Historically, RP’s in Scotland have practiced political dissent due to their understanding of the perpetual obligation of the Scottish covenants, and not merely due to their affirmation of Christ’s mediatorial kingship.”

The difficulty here is that it is no longer clear what the special significance of the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ is to the RPCNA. What makes it a “doctrinal lynchpin” and denominational distinctive without its connection to dissent? This lack of clarity is exacerbated by the fact that there are still men in the RPCNA who practice and promote political dissent, and are, at some level, still connecting dissent with the mediatorial kingship of Christ.

The committee acknowledges the diversity of thought with regard to the mediatorial kingship of Christ:

“…there are a wide variety of opinions within the RPCNA regarding the nature and implications of Christ’s mediatorial kingship. At times, one gets the sense that for every ten presbyters, there are at least a dozen different ways of explaining it. Some tend to equate Christ’s mediatorial kingship with a whole host of Biblical duties or moral principles which we actually hold in common with Reformed churches which deny our understanding of Christ’s kingship. Others associate the phrase Christ’s mediatorial kingship with imbalanced forms of political activism which can only serve to dilute the society transforming effects of balanced, gospel centered ministry. Still others perhaps unintentionally, have tended to obscure this doctrine’s distinctive meaning and relevance to our society. It is all the more crucial, therefore, that we take the time to reassert a balanced, Biblical understanding of Jesus Christ as head over all things for the sake of His church.”

While the thoughts expressed by the committee here (and many other places in their 2020 report) are very much appreciated, one is still at a loss to know what makes the mediatorial kingship even in a “balanced, Biblical understanding” (thus, I take it, absent a necessary connection to dissent) a distinctive to the RPCNA? 

And, while we haven’t examined it in a detailed fashion, we have nonetheless seen in this series that political dissent has a checkered history. One can make the case that the practice of dissent can be traced back to the efforts of one man, Sir Robert Hamilton, a man that many consider to be a radical schismatic that caused trouble of one sort or another nearly everywhere he went in the latter half of the seventeenth century. For example, as Mark Jardine has observed, exiled covenanting minister Robert MacWard feared that Hamilton’s hardline views toward a number of covenanters (including MacWard) would have an effect that was worse than that of the indulged ministers: “The ‘cause of the whole frame of Presbyterianism may be more certainly destroyed, than by the other’ as the ‘poor remnant may run down one another with division’. ‘Whosoever adopts this principle’, he warned, ‘hath not the mind of Christ; for there are other patent and obvious ways to witness against all the evils of our way besides these’…”

We have also seen that the RPCNA has made great strides in ridding itself of hyper-emphasis on societal and political concerns. Yet the promotion of political dissent still remains among many.

Hutchison asks a series of important questions: “Was it not an overstraining of Church power to prescribe for the civil or political action of the members?” “… is it right to make every article in a testimony a condition of Church fellowship or to make a certain civil or political attitude towards Government, even though that be assumed on religious grounds, an essential pre-requisite to communion? If it is, where would it end?  Would it not degrade the Church into a political organization?”

It is true, of course, that the rigorous view of church membership Hutchison refers to is no longer required in the RPCNA, as we have already mentioned. But is there not still a danger in connection with Hutchison’s concern when political dissent is promoted so strongly as it is in certain quarters?

I am aware that there are a number of reasons that people give for dissenting nowadays. It’s not always about the U.S. Constitution, or implications of the mediatorial kingship question. Some have cited scriptures such as Deuteronomy 17:15 and II Samuel 23:3. But dissenting on grounds found in these verses presupposes that they apply to all peoples, to all nations, at all times, and in every circumstance. I believe the scriptural examples of Daniel and Joseph clearly demonstrate that presupposition to be false. 

With due respect to my dissenting brothers, I see no compelling reason for political dissent from either scripture or your arguments past or present. At the end of the day, it simply seems to me to be a practice that robs people of their civil rights on completely spurious grounds. It just seems to convey the bewildering message that, although Daniel and Joseph could run pagan countries on behalf of pagan kings, you, Mr. Reformed Presbyterian Church member, shouldn’t vote.

There are a lot of other questions that are raised by some of the matters discussed in this series: What is the nature of a vote? What is the definition of a Christian nation? What is required by the Establishment Principle? Were the Covenanters’ assumptions about a covenanted nation warranted? Some of these are rather difficult questions to wrestle with, particularly the last one. But these are questions for another day and another series of articles. In the meantime, I would encourage anyone reading this to feel completely free to exercise their civil franchise, head out to the polls, and vote.