Political Dissent Part Two: The Doctrine Articulated

While the Covenanters and the Seceders in the 18th century were in agreement on the desirability of a Christian magistrate and a Christian civil government, the Covenanters viewed these things as absolutely essential in order for a government to legitimately exist. The Seceders, for their part, maintained that it was one thing to say that these things should be, but that it was quite another to suggest that they must be or else a government is to be viewed as illegitimate.

Speaking of the magistrate in this context, Adam Gib writes this in his “Display of Secession-Testimony”: “It is manifest, therefore, that the due measure and performance of scriptural qualifications and duties, -belongs not to the being and validity of the Magistrate’s office; but to the WELL-BEING and Usefulness thereof.”

The Covenanters repudiated this distinction in no uncertain terms. In the “Ploughlandhead Testimony,” they had this (among many other things) to say in reply: “Seceders maintain, that the people, without regard to scriptural qualifications, have an essential right to choose whom they please to the exercise of civil government, and that whomsoever they choose are lawful magistrates; and thus make the great ordinance of magistracy dependent on the uncertain and corrupt will of man. But that this anarchical system is not of divine authority, but owes its origin to their own invention.”

In the course of this debate with the Seceders the subject of the mediatorial kingship of Christ perhaps first came into focus. Matthew Hutchison, writing in his work “The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland: Its Origin and History, 1680-1876” speaks to this: 

“The controversy continued for a long time, and at a later date it became in large measure a discussion as to the extent of the Mediatorial Dominion of Christ; and especially as to whether civil government was among the “all things” put under Christ, whether as Mediator He is King of nations, or only of the Church, which is His proper kingdom, while as God He rules the nations in subservience to the interests of the Church.”

William Symington’s great work on the mediatorial kingship (or, as he preferred, mediatorial dominion) “Messiah the Prince” appeared in 1839. It is a comprehensive work dealing with the issue in every aspect from the perspective that Christ rules the nations as mediator. By the time Symington’s work was published, the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations was well established among Reformed Presbyterians, and was included in the Scottish Reformed Presbyterian Testimony of 1842. 

Symington argues that civil society is “founded in nature, and not in grace” but “originates with God as the God of nature.” He goes on to say that nations “in a certain sense…derive even their existence from Christ.” Civil government is an ordinance of God and an ordinance of man. It is an ordinance of man only insofar as the people may fix constitutions, elect rulers, and so on. He warns that it is “not to be inferred from this, that it depends solely on the will of man whether civil institution should be set up in a country at all, that civil society originates wholly in voluntary compact, or that whatever is sanctioned by the public will is necessarily right, and consequently obligatory.”

Further, says Symington, “It is admitted that God has invested the people with power in political matters, and that the people of course have a right to the exercise of this power; but it is at the same time to be attentively observed that he has given them a law by which they are to be regulated in the use of this power, and it is only when they act according to the law given them that their determinations and institutions possess the sanction and obligation of righteousness.”

He makes the point that the “electors” are also under the obligation to Christ’s mediatorial dominion: “Nor is it only to the qualifications of the rulers whom they choose, that, out of respect to the will and glory of Christ, men are bound to attend, but also to their own qualifications as electors. This point is too apt to be forgotten. It is, however, one of great importance. Where the elective franchise is liberally enjoyed, everything may be said to depend upon the manner in which it is exercised. Electors, who are themselves irreligious and immoral, are not likely to set a high value on the existence of proper qualifications in those whom they choose to represent them. To such, the absence of these qualities is apt rather to prove a recommendation. But the choice of a representative, it should be borne in mind, is a civil right, the exercise of which involves, to a great extent, the welfare of the nation. It is not the individual himself alone that suffers from an improper use of this privilege, but the community at large. It is, consequently, of immense moment, that he exercise it, not from passion, fancy, or prejudice, but under the guidance of sound Christian principle. He is bound to subject his judgment and inclinations in this matter to the control of God’s Word.”

Symington makes it clear that he believes “immoral systems of government” aren’t merely failing to meet the standards of scripture with respect to Christ’s mediatorial kingship over them, but that these systems of government are indeed unlawful authorities. He does state that Christians should nonetheless submit to them, but not because they possess lawful authority: “Lawful authority is for the most part, though not always, to be obeyed; unlawful authority, never. Lawful authority may be employed to enjoin what is not lawful; and in this case it is not to be obeyed. Unlawful authority may be employed to enjoin what is lawful; and, in this case also, it is not to be obeyed. What, it may be said, not to be obeyed even when requiring what is right! Certainly not. The thing enjoined is to be done; not, however, because enjoined, but from respect to its own intrinsic obligation springing from the law and will of God.”

He illustrates this idea as follows:

“A wicked neighbour, usurping an authority which does not belong to him, intrudes into my dwelling and commands me to worship God, to love my wife, and to bring up my children in the fear of the Lord. These are lawful commands; and it is at my peril that I neglect them; but in doing them I am not, surely, obeying the intruder. This distinction, betwixt obedience to lawful commands out of respect to the authority enjoining them, and obedience to them out of respect to their own intrinsic obligation, is a most important one, in a practical point of view. It enables Christians, living under iniquitous and anti-christian powers, to do much that is calculated to promote the good of the community, and their own civil interests, without giving the sanction of their approbation to those who renounce the authority and disregard the law of Christ, and thus violating their oath of allegiance to the Prince of the kings of the earth.”

So, for Symington, the failure of a government to recognize Christ’s rightful authority doesn’t make it simply immoral. Rather, the failure of a government to recognize Christ’s rightful authority over it makes its authority unlawful. It is rendered illegitimate. The people living in such a nation may indeed submit to such a government, but only insofar as whatever that submission may require is intrinsically lawful, and that submission does not give approbation to the illegitimate government. They must “avoid whatever is calculated to involve them in a participation of its guilt.”

Thus, he makes the connection between the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations and political dissent certain: The civil government, the rulers within it, and the people that may elect them are all bound to various duties under Christ as mediator. Failure in those duties by a government renders it illegitimate, and it becomes the duty of Christians living under such a government to practice political dissent.

Alexander M’Leod had taken a similar position in his 1803 work “Messiah, Governor of the Nations of the Earth.” After arguing that Christ, as mediator, rules the nations, he raises a possible objection:

“OBJECTION VI. The admission of Christ’s headship over the nations would involve us in a dilemma from which we could not be extricated. If Messiah be King of nations, and christians have sworn allegiance to him, they cannot consistently be in allegiance to any civil government which is opposed to the kingdom of Christ. No man can serve two masters. And yet the scriptures command every soul to be subject to the higher powers, and teach that the powers that be are ordained of God. Rom. 13:1. This is an objection with which I have often met. It appears to be a formidable one; and it has assuredly influenced many serious minds to call in question the duty of contending for the doctrine of Christ’s headship over the nations, as a part of that faith which was once delivered to the saints.”

In answering this objection, among other things, he says this:

“It is impossible such a dilemma could exist, as that you must necessarily renounce obedience to the Prince of the kings of the earth, or transgress the commands of his Heavenly Father. God’s precepts are not contradictory. Whatever he has appointed is in subserviency to the Mediator. He does not approve, he cannot sanction with his authority, that government which is constituted upon immoral principles. To an immoral constitution he never shall require the obedience, the allegiance, the subscription, or the support of his subjects.

Such powers as oppose God or Christ, are not ordained of God, in any other sense, than the prince of the power of the air, whom they serve, is; nor does God require that every soul should obey them. The authority which he sanctions, and to which he demands conscientious allegiance, is one which is a terror to them who do evil, and a praise to them who do well. [Rom. 13:3.] Submission to such is submission to God; allegiance to governments of a contrary character is rebellion against Heaven. God is, however, a God of order, and your weapons, Christians, are not carnal. Conformity to the general order of society is a duty, provided this can be done without violating the divine law. If this be all that is meant by submission to government, there is no inconsistency in it, with allegiance to the King of nations.”

Both Symington and M’Leod, then, as had Samuel Wylie, saw the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations as demanding a distinctively Christian civil government not only for the benefit of that government, but for that government’s very existential claim. It is on this notion that the practice of political dissent now rested.