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Models for Reformation: Covenantal Lawsuits - Church of Scotland (1500s)

By Jay Rogers
Published March 31, 2008

Increasing persecution by the Catholic authorities against the Scottish Reformers in the 1500s led them to adopt a form of public prayer proclamations or “covenantal lawsuits.” The intent of these prayer proclamations was to implore their enemies to come to the knowledge of salvation. If the wicked rulers refused to repent of their murders and idolatries, the Church, acting as an ecclesiastical court, was giving them over to hell. These declarations warned their oppressors to repent or suffer the consequences of facing a militant uprising led by the Church of Scotland. The text of one such proclamation reads as follows:

To the generation of Antichrist, the pestilent prelates and their Shavelings within Scotland, the Congregation of Christ Jesus within the same, sayeth,

To the end that ye shall not be abused, thinking to escape just punishment, after that ye in your blind fury have caused the blood of many to be shed, this we notify and declare unto you, that if ye proceed in this your malicious cruelty, ye shall be entreated, wheresoever ye shall be apprehended, as murderers and open enemies to God and unto mankind; and therefore, betimes cease from this blind rage. Remove first from your bands of bloody men of war, and reform yourselves to a more quiet life; and thereafter mitigate ye the authority which, without crime committed upon our part, ye have inflamed against us, or else be ye assured, that with the same measure that ye have inflamed against us, and yet intend to measure to others, it shall be measured unto you: That is, as ye by tyranny intend not only to destroy our bodies, but also by the same to hold our souls in bondage of the Devil, subject to idolatry, so shall we with all force and power, which God shall grant unto us, execute just vengeance and punishment upon you.

Yea, we shall begin that same war which God commanded Israel to execute against the Canaanites; that is, contract of peace shall never be made till ye desist from your bloody idolatry and cruel persecution of God’s children. And this we signify unto you in the name of the eternal God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, whose verity we profess, and Evangel we will have preached, and holy Sacraments rightly ministered, so long as God will assist us to gainstand your idolatry. Take this for advertisement and be not deceived.

The Scottish Covenanters refuted the idea of the “Divine Right of Kings” arguing that the King himself is in covenant with God. The people, as the king’s subjects, were also a part of the covenant. Yes, God ordained earthly rulers, but only those who were just and obedient to God’s law. If a king broke covenant with God, the people were obliged to throw off the shackles of tyranny – otherwise the people would be guilty of submitting to the unjust commandments of wicked rulers. John Knox implored the earthly rulers to submit themselves to God’s authority:

The name and the cloak of the authority, which ye pretend, will nothing excuse you in God’s presence; but rather shall ye bear double condemnation; for that ye burden God, as that his good ordinance were the cause of your iniquity. All authority which God hath established, is good and perfect, and is to be obeyed of all men, yea under the pain of damnation. But do ye not understand, that there is a great difference betwix the authority which is God’s ordinance, and the persons of those which are placed in authority? The authority and God’s ordinance can never do wrong; for it commandeth, That vice and wicked men be punished, and virtue, with virtuous men and just, be maintained. But the corrupt person placed in this authority may offend, and most commonly doth the contrary hereof; and is then the corruption of the person to be followed, by reason that he is clad with the name of the authority? Or, shall those that obey the wicked commandment of those that are placed in authority be excusable before God? Not so; not so. But the plagues and vengeances of God taken upon kings, their servants, and subjects, do witness to us the plain contrary.

Pharaoh was a king, and had his authority of God, who commanded his subjects to murder and torment the Israelites, and at last most cruelly to persecute their lives. But was their obedience (blind rage it should be called) excusable before God? The universal plague doth plainly declare that the wicked commander, and those that obeyed, were alike guilty before God. And if the example of Pharaoh shall be rejected because he was [a gentile], then let us consider the facts of Saul: He was a king anointed of God, appointed to reign over his people; he commanded to persecute David, because (as he alleged) David was a traitor and usurper of the crown; and likewise commanded Abimelech the High Priest and his fellows to be slain: But did God approve any part of this obedience? Evident it is that he did not. And think ye, that God will approve in you that which he did damn in others? Be not deceived: with God there is no such partiality. If ye obey the unjust commandments of wicked rulers, ye shall suffer God’s vengeance and just punishment with them. And therefore as ye tender your own salvation, we most earnestly require of you moderation, and that ye stay yourselves, and the fury of others, from persecuting of us, till our cause be tried in lawful and open judgment.”

The consequences of disobeying the covenant of God was suffering the severity of God’s judgment. If the persecutors of the Scottish Church refused to repent, they would suffer excommunication. Knox and his followers knew that God himself would give victory to the Church. Judgment would come on their oppressors in some way, either in the case with Ananias and Saphira being struck down immediately (Acts 5:1-11); in the case of Simon the Sorcerer in being brought to repentance (Acts 8:18-24); in the case of Herod being struck down by disease (Acts 12:23); or in the case of Elymas the Sorcerer who was incapacitated by being struck by blindness (Acts 13:8-11). Armed uprising was not the first priority of the Church. They were first to dispense with all effective means of Church discipline. But armed resistance, as a last means of self defense, was never ruled out.

John Knox, The Reformation in Scotland, pp.168,169,171,172.


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