About the Covenanter Church,
Who are the Covenanters?
By Jeremy T. Kerr.
THE Covenanter Church is the historic Presbyterian Church, as it was refined and established at the end of various Reformation developments in Protestant Scotland. As such, she represents the Presbyterian Church prior to the influences of theological liberalism in the 1900s, the many earlier controversies and compromises that prepared the way for theological liberalism, and also the State impositions of an earlier time, which had effectively brought an end to the time period we remember as The Reformation.
Why is any of this important? Because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and King of the Christian Church, is important. The ‘Jesus’ of modern liberalism is very different from the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus of the Bible is both God and man, and saves his people from eternal wrath. Also, the Jesus of the Bible is Lord of Lords, the only King of the Church. A church that consents to state impositions, whether in doctrines, practices, or internal government, is a church that consents to the kings of the earth, as they dethrone the Lord’s Anointed.
So it is important that the old Presbyterian Church of Protestant Scotland be preserved according to her original Biblical doctrines and practices.
As such, the Covenanter Church is not a new organization, nor a distinct independent religious body. It is a part of the proper ‘Holy Catholic Church’ adhering to the Protestant Reformation. And it is a part of the Reformed Church adhering to the Covenants which formerly united Scottish Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians in the 1600s. To some the concept of Covenant may seem unfamiliar or oddly distinguishing. In reality, a covenantal nature is essential to the constitution of every church which has any relation to God. The historic Covenanter Church of the Presbyterians may, in regard to its name, be accounted merely as a Christian church that makes explicit this relation which the whole Church, and every believer, has with God through Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the Covenant. Understanding the Biblical idea of Covenant is important: it affects our Theology, our Spirituality, our Relations to one another, and our Hope for the Future.
If the Holy Ghost witnesses that it is according to a ‘new covenant’ that God makes with his Church, that he puts his laws into their hearts, and forgives their sins, (Hebrews 10.16,17,) then understanding our covenant relation to God is important to our theology. How much more, when we are assured that the blood of Christ which was shed for our sins, is also “the blood of the everlasting covenant”? (Heb. 13.20.) Likewise, if those in covenant with God are so privileged that he calls them ‘mine,’ and they again may call him theirs, (Psalm 89.28, Deut. 5.2,3,) then understanding our covenant relation to God is important to our spirituality. As our Lord Jesus is the ‘Mediator’ of the Covenant, and his ‘blood of sprinkling’ pertains to all Christians, (Heb. 12.24, 1 Tim. 2.5,) it may not seem needful that believers proceed to compose or adopt covenants to define their vows to God, or their relations to one another. For the present, however, our point is only to note that these relations are covenantal. Every careful disciple will find in both Scripture and history, that the practice of covenanting has had an important place in the life and progress of God’s people. (2 Chron. 34.30-33; 2 Cor. 8.5.)
It should also be observed that the Covenanter Church is, in the very best sense of each of these terms, Christian, Trinitarian, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Reformed, Presbyterian, Establishmentarian, and Dissenting. Each of these qualities is worth explaining, and will manifest many other characteristics which Covenanters regard as important to the life of the Christian and the community of believers.
Covenanters are Christian. To put the matter in more useful terms, we desire to be Christ-focused, and in being Christ-focused we are greatly concerned that the Christ we know and confess be that very Christ who is revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures:—the Christ in whom God is manifested to man in the flesh. (1 Tim. 3.16.) Covenanters take positive stands on many doctrines, and commit ourselves to a few unpopular practices. But we do this for Christ’s sake. By him we are “bought with a price,” and must conclude that from henceforth we “are not our own.” (1 Cor. 6.19,20.) Consequently, everything in our life must be made to yield to his will and to his honor. In all these things our focus and concern is not about a philosophy, about tradition, about politics, about our own interests, about an earthly identity or history; it is and must be about Christ himself. As the Apostle Paul said, “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2.2.)
Covenanters are Trinitarian. From the time of Christ Jesus, to the present day, even with all of the atheism of these later times, there has always been plenty of religion and much talk of ‘God’ in the world. So also, in our day, there is no shortage of people who speak of ‘Jesus’ and profess to believe in the ‘Christ.’ Sadly, the deception of heretics, no longer restrained by either church discipline or civil penalties, has carried many away from the knowledge of the True God. (1 John 5.20.) A Trinity of three divine persons subsisting as one God is believed by all true Christians, and yet accounted irrational by many who call themselves Christians. Covenanters believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, (Matthew 28.19,) and are not ashamed to affirm this. This is not mere ‘church dogma,’ but Bible Doctrine that is essential to the true Christian faith. (See Hebrews chapters 1 & 2, and 1 John 5.)
Covenanters are Catholic. In that very proper sense of the term, which all Protestants continued to use, even after separating from the ‘Roman Catholic Church’ and its corruptions, we affirm our identity with the authentic Catholic Church. Further, our principles of church fellowship are intended to express our strong opposition to all schism and sectarianism. We oppose modern denominationalism as destructive of the body of Christ’s people. By affirming our creed of doctrine, and asserting our testimony, we intend to express the proper duty of the whole Catholic Church of Jesus Christ, and to pursue a right course for attaining true unity among all Christ’s people. (1 Cor. 1.10.)
Covenanters are Protestant. We are Protestant because we maintain the beliefs of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and identify with the history of those who, by the voice of God’s Word, were called to “come out” from the spiritual ‘Babylon’ of the Roman Church. (Rev. 18.4.) Often the word ‘Protestant’ is used for all who are not ‘Roman Catholic.’ Properly, true Protestants believe in the supreme authority of the infallible Word of God, and the Gospel of Justification by Faith Alone. (2 Tim. 3.16,17; Gal. 2; Rom. 4.) In light of these convictions, Protestants are driven to conclude that the Papacy of the Roman Church, claiming to represent Christ, and yet opposing his truths, is the very Antichrist foretold in 2 Thessalonians 2.
Covenanters are Evangelical. This word is more broadly appropriated in our day than it ought to be. The Evangel is the Gospel. It is Good News. Covenanters believe and desire to bring to others the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is a message about the forgiveness of sins, and about acceptance with God. But it is also a specific message about how men have acceptance with God. It answers the challenging question put to Job, “How can a man be justified with God?” (Job 25.4.) An Evangelical who believes the Evangel, believes that by Christ’s suffering the wrath of God in the place of his people, God is both “just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” (Gal. 3.13; Rom. 3.25,26.) The believer’s sin is no longer imputed unto him, because Christ has taken it upon himself. Consequently, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believing sinner. (Rom. 3.21,22; 5.18,19.) Good News like this must be proclaimed. As Evangelicals, we consider the Gospel as not merely Good News, but a gracious offer of life to all who hear it, and such as ought to be accompanied with the earnest pleading of those who bring it. (2 Cor. 5.20,21.)
Covenanters are Reformed. In accordance with the Bible, and conformity with the churches of the Reformation, we believe every sinner is by nature a slave to sin, (John 8.34,) and unable to resolve this problem by any strength of his own heart, mind, or ‘free-will.’ A thorough acceptance of the Bible’s message about man’s problem with sin and guilt, and God’s remedy, leads us also to accept and teach the doctrines of ‘predestination’ and ‘perseverance’ as essential to the Good News of Jesus Christ, (Eph. 1; Rom. 9; John 10.28.) Reformed churches also reject worship practices that are not learned from the Bible, including imitation sacrifices, entertainment worship, man-made festivities, and unauthorized songs. Whether a tradition is new or old, we accept no tradition as Christian worship, merely for the sake of tradition. Most of our worship is therefore comparatively simple. (Deut. 12.29-32; Mark 7.7.) The Lord’s Supper especially is sacred, and must therefore be kept free from the traditions of men. In the Supper, Christians are brought into the spiritual presence of Christ, who presents his body and blood to us for the nourishment of our faith. It is not a time to present him with silly inventions of our own.
Covenanters are Presbyterian. Searching the Scriptures carefully, we conclude that the office of Presbyter, or Elder, is the same as the office of the Bishop, or Overseer. (Titus 1.5,7; Acts 20.17,28.) All of the offices, and officers, of the Church, are the gifts of Christ, having commission from him to carry out his work, (Eph. 4.11-13,) and limited by the bounds of the authority and mission he gives them, (Matt. 20.25,26.) Presbyterians, therefore, take a firm stand against Episcopacy, with its hierarchy of officers, while also avoiding the extremes of Independency, which despises and neglects the means Christ appointed for holding accountable both people and officers. Avoiding these extremes, we respect the proper authority of Presbyteries and Synods, composed of officers ruling and working in unity together. (1 Tim. 4.14; Acts 15.)
Covenanters are Establishmentarian. We do not oppose the separation of Church and State, found in both the Old and New Testaments. But we also find in our Bible that Church and State are both institutions of the same true God, and accountable to him. We find that the best rulers of either, are those qualified according to the rule of God’s word, and working for the advancement of his kingdom. (Exod. 18.21; Deut. 17.18-20; 2 Sam. 23.3; Acts 10.) In general, modern nations and societies are organized and built upon the premise that putting God and religion in the forefront of the society’s goals, standards, and laws would be harmful. Conforming to prevailing political philosophy, many churches have even taught this. But it is a lie, and we reject it. The Bible itself assures us that, regardless of the historic disorders of societies which implemented bad religion in their national standards and constitutions, good religion is exactly what every nation needs: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,” (Psalm 33.12,) and all sin in opposition to this is shameful. National indifference to religious truth, and toleration of false religion, is not honorable. “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Prov. 14.25.)
Covenanters are Dissenters. No Establishmentarian can be happy with the face of society as it is observed in the 21st century. But whether we are happy with it or not, we are obliged to submit to the Lord’s will in his providence, and to give our respect and obedience to every system and authority to which it is due. The Bible is clear that there is no ‘power’ but of God, and that Christians are obliged to submit even to the various ‘ordinances of man’ for the Lord’s sake. (Rom. 13.1; 1 Pet. 2.13.) On the other hand, the Bible does not teach that God gives absolute rights and privileges to anyone who will abuse the offices of church ministry or civil authority. A careful reading of the Bible shows that an admirable prophet plainly declared his disregard for the King of Israel, (2 Kings 3.14,) distinguishing between a proper king, and another ‘king’ not worth seeing. It also shows that our Lord Jesus is not known to have called his contemporary governor ‘our king’ or ‘my lord.’ He had another word for Herod. (Luke 13.32.) Evidently, it was not honor which was ‘due’ to Herod. The Bible has serious warnings against those who reject true government, (Jude 8; 2 Pet. 2.1-12); but the seriousness of such rebellion should not be an occasion for good Christians to regard as a proper ‘power’ from God those rulers and institutions which really have their ‘power’ from the ‘dragon.’ (Compare Rev. 13. with Rom. 13.) Can we define the true ‘power’ which comes from God? Covenanters believe that we can: that it is defined in the description of a ‘power’ given in Romans 13, and defined by the qualifications of authorities specified throughout the Holy Scriptures. When these are well weighed, we are compelled to conclude that the governments and constitutions of society, which long ago supplanted the Christian institutions of the West, are not the ordinance of God. (Hos. 8.4.) From such convictions, we are driven to a principle and practice of ‘political dissent’ which begins with a prayerful recognition of the fact that our nation has problems that go much deeper than anything addressed by modern political parties,—problems that will not be solved by “performing our duty at the polls” or even “going back to the constitution” or getting the “right interpretation of the Bill of Rights.” We need to learn to respect the Rights of God, and we need a new constitution worthy of being called the ‘ordinance of God’ and establishing men to rule as ministers “to thee for good.” (Rom. 13.2,4.)
Now, a church like this is neither to be avoided nor forgotten. What we have described is a church which sees the full scope of life in the light of God’s word, and confronts the whole world with the truth of this revelation. That is the duty of every church, and the duty of every one of us. Those who desire to learn more are encouraged to research the history of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, to consult the Westminster Confession of Faith, to read the old Declarations and Testimonies of the Covenanters, or to visit our website at: