No Fear or Flattery
“Lord our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but your name alone do we honor” (Isaiah 26:13 NIV). It’s fitting that the only sermon by the Scottish Reformer John Knox that survives in writing is based on this verse. On the day he preached it in St. Giles’ cathedral in Edinburgh in 1565, Lord Darnley—the king of Scotland at the time because of his marriage to Mary Queen of Scots—was in attendance. While Knox didn’t make any explicit reference to the royal couple, Darnley thought he and his wife were being condemned and left the service in a rage. Later that afternoon Knox was summoned by some civil leaders who told him the king wanted him to stop preaching for the next several weeks. Knox replied that all he had done was preach from his text. As long as he felt like he was obeying God’s Word, he would keep preaching. You can see why, at his funeral seven years later, an onlooker said “Here lies a man who neither flattered nor feared any flesh.” Although a controversial figure, John Knox preached through both his life and his words that the church could and should challenge those in power if they were keeping them from responding in obedience to the Word of God.
Not much is known about John Knox’s early years. He was born in the early 1500s in Scotland and studied theology in order to become a pastor. In 1547 he unintentionally got caught up in a conflict between Protestants and Catholics in St. Andrew’s, and was imprisoned and consigned to harsh work as a galley slave for more than a year. When he was released he was exiled to England until Mary I (different from Mary, Queen of Scots mentioned earlier) gained the throne in 1553. He decided to flee the rule of “Bloody Mary,” so called because of her hostility towards Protestants, for Switzerland. There he spent time with John Calvin and sharpened his Protestant doctrine and practice.
The Start of Presbyterianism
In 1559 a civil war broke out in Scotland fueled by conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and John Knox was asked to return home to help support the Protestants. By the next year Catholicism was abolished, and John Knox and his fellow Reformers got to work reorganizing the church in Scotland. Today’s Presbyterian denomination is its descendant. Thanks to John Knox, it’s still marked by a structure that allows the congregation to appoint elders and pastors.
Around the same time Knox was shaping the Church of Scotland, the Catholic-supporting Queen Mary ascended the throne. While they were both alive, Knox and Mary exchanged harsh words with each other. (It didn’t help matters that Knox wasn’t a fan of women in political authority.) The two of them “came to symbolize the Reformation conflict: Protestant against Catholic, but also the democratic claims of Calvinism [that the congregation should elect their leadership] against the monarchy’s power to appoint bishops.” Unique about Scotland’s situation in comparison with the rest of Europe, where Protestant and Catholic regions were roughly the same as the religious affiliation of the monarch, is that the worship practice of the people was different than the worship practice of their ruler.This was a fitting situation given Presbyterianism’s emphasis on reducing the influence of hierarchy. The fact that the royal leader of the country was Catholic didn’t stop them from developing a different form of being the church.
Thanks in large part to John Knox, Presbyterianism emerged from a desire to challenge how power structures both inside and outside the church keep us from heeding God’s Word.