At the 2013 General Assembly (GA) of the Free Church of Scotland, a call was made for evangelicals to leave the Church of Scotland and join the Free Church. Last weekend, Church of Scotland evangelicals met in Perth and formed a network committed to staying within the Church of Scotland in order to seek reform and renewal.
The Free Church GA was also reminded of the Free Church ideal of seeking the prosperity of the Church of Scotland so that one day the Disruption might be reversed. In the Free Church today, I wonder how many really do still hold to this ideal. History has landed us where we are as denominations (Free Church and Church of Scotland). Even after 170 years, the events of the Disruption still upset many in the Church of Scotland. And some in the Free Church still see the Disruption as for ever defining the denomination over and against the Church of Scotland. The GA address reminded those of us in the Free Church that the Church of Scotland is our mother church. Even if it has demoted the confession, and continues to struggle with issues of biblical authority, it has not ceased to be a church, it has not ceased to be the national church (even if its claim to be so is eroding), and it has not ceased to be the mother church whose prosperity we seek. It has not ‘forfeited the right to be called a church of Christ.’
Reformed people have long-argued about the rights and wrongs of secession. In the last century, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott argued the same issue. Stott, not Lloyd-Jones, was right – and history, it seems to me, has judged it that way. Stott’s position best reflects a Reformed ecclesiology. He said:
I would only contemplate seceding if the official doctrine of the Church of England denied the Gospel as I have been given to understand it in any fundamental particular. Then, and not till then, would be the time to secede.
Should people leave the Church of Scotland right now because of the GA fudge on non-celibate homosexuals in ministry? Has the Church of Scotland ceased to be a church because of this? Does it represent the abandonment of a ‘fundamental particular’? I’m sure there is a need for reflection and discussion, but it is not as clear cut as many suggest. Of course, those who suggest it is clear cut tend to hold the a particular ecclesiology, and see it very simply: evangelicals should leave the impure behind. But, is that the ecclesiology of the Reformers, or of the Anabaptists? Herman Bavinck writes of the tendency amongst those who hold this kind of pietistic ecclesiology:
Instead of making a broad and inclusive survey of all churches, carefully distinguishing between true and false, not throwing out the wheat with the chaff, they simply with one fell swoop condemn all churches as false, call all believers to secession and frequently elevate separation itself to an article of faith.… What is the fruit of all this? Not a reformation of churches but an increase in their number and a perpetuation of division. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church
There is a great need in Scottish Presbyterianism for a return to Reformed ecclesiology. Too many have turned to the ecclesiology-lite of Evangelicalism. There needs to be a return to Reformed doctrine on the nature of the Church, and a fresh appreciation of the biblical importance of Christian unity (and of the terrible track-record of Scottish Presbyterianism in this regard). There needs to be recognition of the need for improved ecumenical relationships between the churches, and the gravity and difficulty of the situation facing Church of Scotland people with orthodox, biblical views on homosexuality. And, within the Free Church there needs to be a commitment to the ideal of praying for and seeking the good of the Kirk. Putting all this together, Church of Scotland congregations holding to the orthodox faith of the Confession need support and encouragement, especially on the ground at a local level. Calls for Christians to leave the Church of Scotland and join the Free Church are a case of one church’s unity being another’s disunity. If calls are made to those who have already left, that’s a different thing. Those members and congregations who have already left the Church of Scotland need to be persuaded most of all not to further abandon the ideal of unity within Scottish Presbyterianism.
I’m not Scottish, and the only Scottish church I have belonged to is the Free Church of Scotland. I love the Free Church. I love its people, its values, its theology, its history. Through this church, the Lord has greatly blessed me, my family, my children. However, I also feel a deep love and concern towards the Church of Scotland. I’ve worshipped with my family in her congregations, and been blessed. I’ve met many extremely gracious and gifted ministry candidates, ministers and members – a lot of these during my time at Highland Theological College. I love the Church of Scotland and pray that those who fight to uphold orthodoxy and resist heterodoxy within it would weather the current storm, as they did the storm of the old liberalism. The Church of Scotland is still one of the Lord’s churches. Impure, yes – as all are. Moving in the wrong direction, yes. In great danger, yes. But still part of the Lord’s Church. Those within the Church of Scotland who seek to follow the agenda of the world and disregard the authority of scripture need to be opposed. They need to be opposed from within the church by those who seek faithfulness to the Word of God. For the good of Scotland we must seek the peace and prosperity of the national Kirk.
So, I’m glad that a couple of days ago, 350 Church of Scotland evangelicals decided to stay within the Kirk to work for reformation and renewal. May the Lord bless their witness and work.