A Troubling 17th Century Presbyterian “Tweet”

What if a “tweet” about government interference in the church put you in prison for four years? Then eventually banished you from your country for the rest of your life?  Such was the case of Andrew Melville.

Perhaps nowhere else on earth has the drama of Christ’s headship over the church been more intense than when the Reformation came to Scotland. When it arrived there in the sixteenth century, popes and kings battled over who was the head of the church.

In so many words, the pope would say, “I am the head of the church, for the members of the church are my subjects and I appoint bishops to rule over it.” Similarly, the king would then respond, “No, I am the head of the church, for the citizens of the nation who attend church are my subjects and I will appoint bishops to control it.” In the midst of this dispute, the Reformers studied their Bibles and said, “No, Christ is the head of the church, for he bought its members with the price of his own blood and his Father has seated him as its Lord.”

Most of these Scottish Reformers upheld the Presbyterian form of elders governing the church to uphold this truth that no man but Christ is to be honored as the head of the church. Andrew Melville (1545-1622) was one such man, a pastor, theologian, and leader of the movement to prevent the government from controlling the church in his land. Known as the “Father of Presbyterianism,” Melville, having spent seven years in Geneva learning about Biblical care of the church from the legacy of men such as of Bucer, Calvin, and Beza, used the pulpit to speak boldly about the encroaching powers of the government on the church. As a result, he was often in trouble with the king.

You can understand why. On one occasion, after working tirelessly and speaking out against the practice of King James VI of Scotland of appointing prelates in the church, he spoke these words to him directly:

And therefore, Sir, as diverse times before, so now again, I must tell you; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is king James, the head of the 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, not a lord, not a head, but a member.”

After years of conflict and being seen as treasonous for fighting against the king’s dictatorial powers over the church, Melville was summoned to London in 1606 after this same King James had become King James I of England. (This is the King James the Bible version is named after.)  Melville was called there under the pretense of working out peace in the situation, but instead he was forced to listen to two of the king’s appointed bishops lecture him on why the church should be under the king’s control.  Here we come to the “tweet.”

In response to these men, Melville penned an epigram, which is a brief, memorable, satirical statement. His epigram read:

Why do these two closed books stand on the altar of the English king? Two blind lights, two dry wash basins?  Does England hold back the judgment of and care of God with these blind lights and buried filth?  While she sets up a royal altar according to the Roman ritual, she fights the Roman whore zealously.

For this action, King James put him in the London Tower for four years and then banished him. Melville went to France and spent the last eleven years of his life teaching there. All over a “tweet.”

Melville reminds us that we must zealously understand, defend, and promote Christ’s headship over the church because of its vital necessity to the people of God. As government powers rise, one wonders how long it will be before sermons and even tweets land God’s people in similar circumstances?

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