In 1596 Scottish Presbyterian Andrew Melville famously addressed King James VI regarding the state of the Scottish church, or “the Kirk.” Melville, long considered to be John Knox’s primary successor in the Scottish Reformation, spoke to his king in no uncertain terms. At stake was nothing less than the lordship of the church:
There are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the lord of this commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose Kingdom he is not a King, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member. We will yield to you your place, and give you all due obedience, but again I say, you are not the Head of the Church; you cannot give us that eternal life which we seek for even in this world, and you cannot deprive us of it. Permit us, then, freely to meet in the name of Christ, and to attend to the interest of that Church of which you are a chief member.
After reading Melville’s incredibly bold address it should come as no surprise when Margo Todd, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, claims that for many in late sixteenth century Scotland, the word “Puritan” was simply another name for “Melvillian” or “radical Presbyterian.” For Scots as well as so many other Europeans, the state church was simply a common assumption. Not until John Glas’ The Testimony of the King of Martyrs (1727) was the idea of any division between state and church authority even legitimately considered in modern Scotland. However, as Melville demonstrates, Scottish Presbyterians never confused their obedience to an earthly king with their worship of a heavenly one.
Perhaps even more than their English counterparts, Scottish Presbyterians stressed the importance of Christ’s lordship in the church. Unlike their southern neighbors, they had, for a time, achieved in the state church a system of discipline that approached something close to a “Puritan nation” (if one could allow for such a term). According to John MacLeod, “Indeed, discipline was one of the salient marks of the Scottish Reformed Church; for its Confession, when it was drafted, gave this as one of the notes by which the true church was to be known.” As a result, the Scottish Church has much to teach the modern American church, beginning with the doctrine of the church itself: soteriology is inextricable from ecclesiology. The way that we think about church government and discipline is a reflection of our view of Christ’s lordship. And at stake is more than politics. It’s about the salvation of sinners.
Today when many congregationalist evangelicals read the word “Presbyterian,” pastoral ministry isn’t the first thought that comes to their minds. However, not only were Scottish Presbyterians those Christians who submitted willingly to the precepts of Scripture, they believed that Presbyterian polity was the best way to minister to the souls of their congregations. In his book The Whole Christ (2016), Sinclair Ferguson describes the basic structure of Scottish Presbyterianism:
“Scottish church life has been dominated by Presbyterianism since the days of John Knox and the Reformation in the sixteenth century. In Presbyterian churches each congregation is led, or “governed,” by elders, usually one teaching elder (the minister) and a number of ruling elders, at best men of spiritual integrity and some measure of discernment and pastoral ability. The teaching elder was normally a university-educated, theologically trained man. The ruling elders had no formal theological education. They learned to be elders by years of receiving biblical instruction, by themselves being led by elders, and by a kind of osmosis as in due course they took their place in the company of long-standing elders in what was known as the ‘Kirk Session.’” (26)
At its heart, Presbyterianism was anti-episcopal because it was thoroughly pastoral. In the heart of Scotland the old saying “No Bishop, No King” was founded upon the common understanding that episcopacy was so often the extension of monarchial tyranny. Only through elders and teachers could Scottish Christians faithfully ensure that the laity were personally shepherded instead of distantly managed. Discipleship demanded closer relationships between the clergy and the laity. Because Presbyterianism challenged the absolutism of the house of Stuart, the king famously stated that Presbyterianism and monarchy have less in common “than God and the Devil.” For those who exalted the lordship of Christ, the absolute sovereignty of James VI was at odds with their basic confession.
Today in 21st century evangelical America, the perennial foe no longer wears a crown. Hence there is a temptation to see Presbyterianism less in terms of its pastoral ministry and more in terms of its hierarchy. However, even for Baptists or other congregational denominations, such a perspective misses the historical and pastoral significance of Scottish Presbyterianism. Even though paedobaptism and classic covenant theology may not mesh well with the majority of evangelicals today, our appreciation for Presbyterianism should begin with their own emphasis upon the Lordship of Christ. Because Jesus reigns over His church, pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons have a responsibility to order their ministries in such a way that magnifies the Head over the body. In an age when political Christianity would compel us to recapitulate a state leader for the church, and while pragmatic Christianity would have us tear down any spiritual authority whatsoever, Scottish Presbyterianism reminds us that the nexus of our doctrine of the church and our doctrine of salvation is found under the Lordship of Christ.
Sir, when you were in your swaddling clothes Christ Jesus reigned freely in the land, in spite of all His enemies; His officers and ministers convened for the ruling and welfare of His church, which was ever for your welfare, when these same enemies were for your destruction. -Andrew Melville to James VI (1596)