By the early 17th century, the only type of governance that the English people had known for hundreds of years was the monarchy. Along with the office of the king in the political realm, for Christians there was a corresponding office of bishop. The term bishop was derived from the Greek word episkopos, as found in Titus 1:7, typically translated today as “overseer.” Just as the king oversaw the worldly affairs of state, the bishop oversaw the spiritual affairs of the church. King James I of England, who sponsored the famous English Bible translation that bears his name, was famously quoted as saying, “No bishop, no king.”
For James, a king can only rule a people properly with the assistance of bishops who could administer the spiritual life of Christian communities in accordance with the standard set by such a benevolent and divinely appointed king. King James, along with his bishops, saw this governing arrangement as quite efficient. But what happens when the people begin to lose confidence with their leaders? What happens when you can trust neither your bishop nor your king?
A Crisis of Church (and State) Governance
Such was the situation when a wealthy Puritan landowner, Oliver Cromwell, had come to have a personal faith in Jesus Christ. As a young man, Cromwell had taken little interest in spiritual matters. But by the late 1620s, Cromwell went through a spiritual crisis. Cromwell had suffered from depression and was involved in a bitter land dispute. But in surviving the crisis he had embraced a faith completely committed to a firm belief in the Bible, convicted of his own sin and his need for God’s grace.
But soon Cromwell became convinced from his reading of the Bible that much of England’s spiritual practices were terribly compromised with what he saw as the continuing, corrupt rituals of medieval Roman Catholicism that had dominated European life for many centuries. Though England had become a Protestant country nearly one hundred years earlier, Cromwell came to believe that the purifying message of the Bible had not gone far enough in reforming spiritual life in England. His greatest fears were confirmed when the then king of England, Charles I, married a Roman Catholic.
Was this a sign from God that England and England’s churches were moving in the wrong direction? Cromwell’s personal spiritual crisis had then led to yet another crisis that would not only impact the political life of England, but the rest of the history of spiritual life among English-speaking peoples.
King Charles I came to believe that he could rule absolutely. In his mind, God ruled through him and his decisions. Though church and state were not completely identical, they had become so intertwined that he was able to secure the appointments of bishops who would do his bidding without question. For Charles, his motto was from the Latin, rex lex, where the king is the law. In contrast, the Puritans inspired by the Protestant Reformation, like Cromwell, saw the order as being reversed, lex rex, where the law is king, and therefore the king and his church authorities must submit to God’s law.
Oliver Cromwell, now a member of England’s Parliament, was horrified by the secular abuse of power over the church. Yet like Charles, Cromwell was a man of his time who could not easily disassociate the affairs of state from the affairs of the church, though he did seek to restrict the king’s encroachment upon churchly matters. Cromwell was a student of the New Testament, noting that the Bible from his perspective advocated rule by elders in the local church. The office of elder, an English translation from the New Testament Greek term presbyter, is derived from passages like Titus 1:5. In Cromwell’s mind, there was no legitimate way to distinguish between a bishop, or overseer, from an elder. “Bishops” were merely elders. This set Cromwell on a collision course with King Charles, who depended on his bishops to maintain order in his monarchial controlled church.
Yet Cromwell went further than the neighboring Presbyterians to the north in Scotland. Whereas the Presbyterians of Scotland also ridded themselves of the separate notion of bishop in their churches, opting for governance by a team of elders, they differed from Cromwell’s independent streak by suggesting that elders had greater power and even could oversee multiple churches. Cromwell was firm in his belief that the people in a particular local church congregation had the right and responsibility to select their own elders, including their pastor. This made Cromwell a congregationalist by insisting that the main power for making decisions in the local church body was in the hands of the people, not a body of elders that could potentially oversee multiple churches or overrule the influence of a local congregation.
Secular, political intrigue and spiritual concerns were tragically convoluted and amplified in the conflict between Cromwell’s dissenting independents and King Charles. What made Cromwell such an extraordinary figure is that he was an exceedingly capable military man. Soon the two sides came to blows, with Cromwell leading a rag tag assembly of spiritually energized men into a disciplined military force. Cromwell’s “New Model Army” effectively resisted the efforts of King Charles and his royal militia.
I do not remember the source, but I recall some saying of Napoleon’s that he would rather face a large army of spiritually nominal Catholic soldiers than a much smaller group of Puritan warriors kneeling in prayer.
More than a century before the American Revolution and two centuries before the Civil War in the United States, England had become embroiled in their own Civil War. A complicated dispute over the proper form of church governance had spilled into the political arena to become a bloody and terrifying conflict.
Cromwell and his “New Model Army” gained the upper hand with King Charles. In desperation, Charles was able to convince the Presbyterians of Scotland to join him in trying to crush Cromwell. But alas, the king was defeated, captured, and soon executed for treason. It would be the only time in the history of England that a reigning king would lose his life at the demands of the people.
But by losing their king, as well as the bishop system that went along with it, England soon found itself in more political and spiritual turmoil. Different groups with varying agendas began to appear, all attempting to reform England and her churches to what they saw as being the proper and “biblical” model for church life and governance. Roundheads, Levellers, and Quakers were just some of the various groups that sought to reshape English and church life in the manner they saw fit in the different ways they read the Bible.
Now the country appeared to be descending into chaos. With the endorsement of supporters seeking to re-establish order, Oliver Cromwell then took the unusual step as the nation’s military leader to declare himself, not as king, but rather as the Lord Protector in 1653. Cromwell served not only in a civil capacity, but because of his uncompromising Christian faith he was also a rallying point for those Christians troubled by the lack of unity within the churches.
History has not been too terribly kind to Oliver Cromwell’s legacy. Cromwell’s fierce moral discipline chafed against much of the declining moral standards of the country, clamping down on drunkenness and immorality. Yet Cromwell sought to ban the celebration of Christmas as a pagan festival and imposed stiff fines on those who dared to work or play sports on the Sunday Sabbath, much to the chagrin of more moderate Christians. Cromwell is mostly criticized for the terribly severe treatment of thousands of Irish Catholics who resisted English rule, exacerbating the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that continued well into the 20th century and in some cases even beyond.
But Cromwell left some very positive marks as well. He affirmed a rather progressive view of liberty of conscience and religious freedom that was quite remarkable for his time, and he encouraged Europe’s persecuted Jewish community to return back to England in 1657 under the protection of the government. Much of the republican style of governance under Cromwell became a model for rethinking how to do secular as well as church governance in American across the Atlantic, particularly in the aftermath of the American Revolution.
Nevertheless, Cromwell’s immediate legacy would not last. After his death in 1658, the leadership of the Protectorate passed to his less than capable son. The political and church instability of the day stirred many to want to return to the days of the monarchy. Soon thereafter, the flamboyant and often sacrilegious Charles II, son of the executed king, was brought back to England and the monarchy was restored, and the system, though modified by changes brought on by Cromwell’s republican ideals, remains in place today in Great Britain.
Lessons of Oliver Cromwell for Christians Today
Why tell the story of Oliver Cromwell? American Christians know nothing of kings these days and the relation between church and state realms is clearly more distinct now than it was in the 17th century. In an increasingly secularized society, the loss of a pastor or other crisis of confidence in church leadership rarely if ever has any secular/political ramifications. But aside from the church vs. state questions, we can learn something from Cromwell on the level of a local Christian community when the challenges of church governance are not well understood and not uniformly practiced.
When it comes to the question of the proper governance of local churches, the story of Oliver Cromwell remains just as relevant as ever. Churches still today have different approaches to governance, whether they be episcopalian, a bishop led church; presbyterian, an elder led church; congregationalist, a more democratically run church, or something in between. Christians have varied between the Anglicans on the one hand who still favor a strong bishop-led movement to the Quakers who do not even have any ordained clergy. Every church struggles with the challenges of granting too much power to an individual pastor, an elder board, or the masses of the congregation. A strong, lead pastor system can work great when the congregation has confidence and trust in the leadership, but the system may break down if and when trust is broken. On the other side, if a more decentralized system of governance gets too complicated, bureaucracy, inefficiency and frustration can easily set in. Many evangelical churches today opt for some type of plurality of elders as the best model in alignment with the teachings of the Bible, but the nature of church polity still remains hotly contested.
Cromwell’s long term legacy is still under considerable debate among scholars. Some decry the chaos and religious xenophobia under Cromwell’s influence. Others today, particularly among many American Christian home schooling enthusiasts informed by the ideals of Christian Reconstructionism, look to the Cromwell era as an ideal that was only partially realized. On this point, it is difficult to imagine how the accomplishments of religious freedom through the American Revolution would have come about if Cromwell had never succeeded in the struggle against King Charles I.
England has never again attempted to form a republican commonwealth guided by strict, biblicist principles, though many of her local church communities have sought to continue the reforms begun by the Puritan idealists in Cromwell’s day. The contemporary Baptist movement, which has historically been one of the largest and most influential evangelical traditions in America, had its genesis in the era of Cromwell. The high water mark of conservative Protestant Calvinism is identified by the drafting of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1648, an approach to evangelical faith embodied most prominently and broadly in today’s popular Gospel Coalition movement and the New Calvinism. Cromwell’s influence continues to be felt.
Some of Christianity’s most creative thinkers and intellectuals served under Cromwell or grew up under the turmoil of the Protectorate’s regime. These include several of the greatest authors in the English language, John Milton, the writer of the epic poem, Paradise Lost, and John Bunyan, the dissident pastor who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. Others include the first leader of the egalitarian Quakers, George Fox, as well as one of the principal founders of the Royal Society of London, the brilliant scientist and founder of modern chemistry, Robert Boyle. Spiritual upheaval in society and the church can lead to some remarkable things that can arguably be attributed to the hand of God’s providence.
As in the secular realm, for Christians in local churches, living through the challenges brought about by the stresses and strains as to how a church can best be governed can be a traumatic experience. Tremendous hurt and confusion often accompany such trying times where trust and confidence in church leadership is in flux. Negatively, these experiences can divert the energies of believers to become preoccupied with internal issues, undermine unity, and neglect the calling of Christ to serve in fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples of all of the nations. Positively, these experiences can also ironically serve as the creative spark to lead the church and individuals forward to new and even greater things for God and His Kingdom purposes.
Ultimately, the church universal is Christ’s body and the local Christian community is an expression of Christ’s bodily presence. It is not under the control of the pastor, the elders, or the congregation. The extent to which a faithful community of Christians can see their way through the challenges of church governance can be measured by how well they recognize God’s supreme role in guiding and forming the life of that community. Is Jesus Christ the head pastor/elder of your church?
What happens when you go to church to worship as a committed 17th century Puritan Christian, only to find an altar adorned with medieval Roman Catholic accoutrements, all set in place by not only the order of the bishop, but also that of the king? You get Oliver Cromwell reenacting Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple…. you do not want to mess with this guy. Get a glimpse from the 1970 film Cromwell, starring Alec Guiness and Richard Harris. This is a great film that I believe every Christian should see.
For a brief introduction to church government, you might want to read Dr. Erwin Lutzer on the topic.