by the willow trees

Yesterday the Free Church voted to allow congregations the liberty to use hymns and musical accompaniment in their worship services. To forestall blank looks: they always did sing! they sang things that were inspired, and they sang using their voices.

This is a serious step. It is a good thing that they consulted widely and discussed it for a lengthy period of time. It is a good thing that they prize unity so much. It is a good thing that the decision safeguards the continued singing of the Psalms in their congregations.

It is serious though because it is a clear break with the historic position of the Church in Scotland since the Reformation. The Free Church’s ties with the Reformation have been weakened by this decision.

It is serious because it undermines the Free Church’s commitment to purity of worship, something which they previously shared with other closely related denominations, who now have lost a partner in witness to the regulative principle of worship and through it, sola scriptura.

It is serious because, even though the form of worship is in itself a matter of lesser importance than the unity of the larger church, whatever threat there was to the unity of the larger church was not coming from office-bearers who respected their ordination vows or people who had intelligently and conscientiously become members of a church whose position on purity of worship was well known. Pragmatically speaking, this decision is conceivably justifiable as the relaxing of a lesser principle for the sake of a greater good, yet the ones who have lost the most are not the ones who had made the most fuss.

It is also serious because there was no weight of scripture behind the change. The Free Church did not yesterday discover a biblical principle which negated the regulative principle. It is possible that they may be dealing biblically with what would otherwise be an intolerable difference of opinion on forms of worship, much though I hae ma doots. But the scriptural case for inspired materials of praise sung a capella has not been overturned. Appealing to scripture for how to deal with disunity is a good thing. Appealing to scripture for how to format your worship service should come just as naturally, but it does not seem to have been as characteristic of either side of this debate as it was, say, twenty years ago, or in the 1870s, or prior to the Disruption. [UPDATE: A friend in the Free Church explains that it wasn’t accurate to say this. “Both James Maciver and Kenneth Stewart delivered superb addresses firmly grounded in first class exegesis in defence of the confessional position. Earlier on, during the consultative stage, Stewart had already written a very accomplished exegetical paper too.” I’m sorry to have written something misleading and happy to set the record straight.]

Consciences in the Free Church today may well be hurting. Obviously, there is no cause for the sprouting of another new denomination: sub-optimal practice does not un-make a church. And in the FPs there is at least one option for an alternative denominational home, if sociological considerations don’t make people overlook our existence, our shared confession, and our once shared practice. Watching from the sidelines, there are other heavy hearts in the spiritual Sion, hanging our metaphorical harps on the figurative willows. How can we sing the Lord’s song, in this foreign land?

(I’m off to catch a train now and will be away for the weekend. If you’re commenting, be nice please.)

42 thoughts on “by the willow trees

  1. Thanks Cath, this was interesting to read.

    What is of concern is whether many have gone against their ordination vows. I’ve not seen the text of those vows yet but I would like to.


  2. “No weight of scripture behind the change”

    We who sing hymns do so on principle (not just because we don’t know any better), because we believe that we are commanded to do so, and we ALSO uphold the regulative principle. Indeed, I believe that Exclusive Psalmodists are in breach of the RP, because you neglect to do what is commanded. Of course there is an ‘agree to disagree’ point here, but I dont think you are fair in your implied accusation that those in favour of hymns have abandoned the RP.

    Anyway, this is a sore argument, and the outcome of the vote has suprised many. Doubtless endless pages will be written, but I fear that little will be to the glory of God.

    It struck me as a strange coincidence that this decision was made on the same day that a little package of ‘Sing Psalms’ arrived at my home from the Free Church Bookshop. We sing Psalms at church, but not enough of them in my opinion, and I am hoping to increase the number of Psalms soon.


    • Jonathon,
      Please tell me where you are commanded in scripture to sing hymns – as in human ballads composed by a range of men some of whom are much less theologically sound than others.
      I think Catherine is spot on…. those who sing hymns or tolerate the singing of hymns within the practice of their church communion have abandoned the regulative principle… it is not an ‘agree to disagree’ issue it is a right and wrong issue… and Catherine is right…



  3. @Jonathan, If the argument of the Free Church was “we think scripturally we are commanded to sing hymns”, that’s very different to arguing that “we should tolerate those who want to sing hymns and allow them to do so despite that contradicting the position we have held thus far”.

    Please forgive me if I’m mistaken, but this seems to me to be the argument – “tolerate” is used in the accepted amendment but afterwards they found “liberty” the term of choice.


  4. Maybe I am talking at crosspurposes. I was merely saying that there are good and justifiable reasons for NOT holding exclusive psalmody, and that the original article did not reflect that.

    Perhaps in the context of the debate within the FCoS, Catherine’s comment that there was ” no weight of scripture behind the change” is actually correct.

    Now stop giving me thumbs down you haters!


  5. “Sub-optimal practice does not un-make a Church.” Really?
    I wonder if Calvin, Knox et all would agree.
    On the psalm singing issue, it has always seemed to me that the “Wee Frees” had a lot in common with many Catholic orders. Which sing psalms unaccompanied several times a day.


    • No, really. Examples being the church in Corinth, where they made a travesty of the Lord’s Supper, and most of the seven churches of Asia (“I have somewhat against thee”). And the example of people who seriously objected to organs in the C19th Scottish church, yet didn’t split the church over it.


      • The Reformers managed to un-make the Church that had been in Scotland for 1,000 years. Presumably because of what they regarded as “sub opimal” practices.Oh yes and of course it was good to get the land too.


  6. Just some observations about the Psalms.

    The Lord Jesus sang Psalms and did so on that night in which He was betrayed. Matthew 26.30. They are full of Christ and concern Him. Luke 24.44. The Apostles and the early Church sang them. Ephesians 5.19 and Colossians 3.16.

    The martyrs of all ages sang them in the arena, at the stake and on the scaffold. The Reformers and Puritans sang them. The Covenanters sang them on the mountains, moors and moss-hags of Scotland.

    Have we in this age become wiser than they? Shall we in our wisdom so-called, introduce alternative forms of worship to the Psalms? If any think themselves wise in so doing, might I kindly suggest, that they are wise in their own conceit. Proverbs 26.12.


  7. Funnily enough, I was just writing a quick sketch of the first fifteen centuries of Christian worship music for a friend. One of the surprising things for a Catholic is that use of a large part of the psalter in public worship appears to be a relatively late phenomenon , and something that came into the use of “parish” churches from the monasteries (so fourth century onwards). Of course the evidence for the first couple of centuries is almost non-existent, and what there is is mostly as ambiguous as St Paul’s “psalms hymns and spiritual songs” (difficult to tell what is meant by particular words), but what there is, points that way.


  8. Fascinating Cath, thanks for the inside look. I’m not on your side of this question, but I think we would agree that almost all churches don’t sing enough psalms.

    If you want to hear a debate I moderated on the topic, go here to read, or go here to listen.

    So they “affirmed liberty”; this reminds me of the CRC affirming the liberty to ordain women; I think practically speaking, not many women get ordained. What is your feel on how many FP churches will stick to their guns and remain EP? (I assume individual congregations also retain the liberty to sing only psalms?)


    • What confuses me more are the harps – were they used to accompany (!) psalms?
      [I do not say this in mere flippancy, but really wondering why this cannot be taken as an argument for accompanied singing in worship.]


  9. It’s not really an inside look – FC and FP are different denominations, FP smaller and without the least controversy over EP sans musical accompaniment. My guess, although only a guess and better informed views are most welcome, is that only a minority of congregations would take advantage of the new liberty. According to the amendment, , the decision is down to each kirk session. My understanding is that ministers would have voted for the amendment for the sake of unity even if they don’t themselves want to abandon the ‘a capella inspired only’ position.


  10. Further thought. It isn’t really something that you’d expect to make sense to people who already belong to churches where non-inspired praise materials and musical accompaniment are allowed. But in the Scottish context this is huge. It would have been utterly unthinkable 20 years ago for the FC to make a decision like this. That’s not just an appeal to tradition: it’s an appeal to a traditional understanding of the confessional position and, it’s worth adding, of the constitutional position of the church itself.
    I wrote the post reeling, feeling wildly disoriented, because other than feeling desperately saddened, I just don’t know what to make of it. Saying that the FPs are available as a sort of refuge doesn’t necessarily help, because for myself I would struggle to leave my own denomination in spite of its many faults, and I know that that loyalty is just as strong in the FC.
    Confessionally minded people who understand the constitutional situation and actively want to comply with the Reg Princ (not just have to) are now, you might argue, even more needed inside the FC — even though on the other hand they are the very people whose consciences are going to be most badly hurt if they do remain. The situation is similar i think if i’m not mistaken to MacDonald and MacFarlane’s position after the 1892 Declaratory Act – even if it was the case that they weren’t going to be forced into adopting/preaching doctrines contrary to the Confession, they couldn’t conscientiously remain in a body which effectively adopted a neutral stance on these doctrines, neither confessing the Confession outright nor being able to use the Confession as a criterion of orthodoxy (to discipline anyone for contradicting it). Other godly ministers did stay in the post-92 FC, but they couldn’t. How on earth to decide what is the right thing to do in today’s situation is a thoroughly unenviable task.

    This decision is also confusing in various ways. I mean confusing to me, as people in favour of the change might be able to clarify. One is that according to the amendment which the assembly approved, meetings of church courts will avoid using instruments and uninspired materials, even though this will be an option for ordinary congregations. I can only guess that this is to safeguard the consciences of church officebearers, but why then is not the same protection being made available for ordinary churchgoers?
    Also – a kirk session cannot approve hymns/instruments against the wishes of the minister of the congregation. I don’t know if this is normal practice, but it seems odd on first glance: doesn’t the teaching elder only have the same voting power as any of the ruling elders? are there any other circumstances where the minister can veto a decision which the session would have otherwise taken? (There could well be, that I just don’t know about – church practice not my strongest point.)

    Anyway, some other related links –
    * Carl Trueman – – on ignoring your ordination vows
    * The Holdfast –
    * R Scott Clark again – – on compromising to keep the numbers up
    * – hymns in Horatius Bonar’s congregation

    Text of the Assembly’s decision –


    • Incidentally, and I should have said this much sooner but where does the time go, I asked around about those things i found confusing, and was told by Someone Who Should Know, that actually, although ministers and elders have the same voting power in matters of church discipline, the minister is authorised by the presbytery to be in charge of worship in the congregation — so it does make sense for the minister to have a veto on worship decisions in the kirk session.

      Also, that meetings of church courts aren’t worship services anyway!


      • On the meetings of Church Courts, we have legislation that says the first hour of the second day of the assembly will be given over to Worship. I think the reason for the concession that this be EP sans MA is to allow those ministers and elders who still hold to this position to participate in that worship.


        • Ah. Thanks. That explains that then. Still seems like an extra layer of protection for the consciences of officebearers though? which ordinary churchgoers aren’t afforded? (or…?)


  11. Keep reading Trueman, btw. Nobody *intends* to be a heretic.
    And: “brokering a compromise deal with a conscience clause rarely does anything more than weaken the orthodox. Some of the conservatives pick up their marbles and head off to other playgrounds; those who remain soon find out who their real friends were — the guys who, while perhaps aesthetically rougher at the edges and a bit too strident in tone, were essentially pointing in the same direction”

    And the Heidelblog’s commentary –


  12. I have not read all the comments here, so I may be echoing something already mentioned. I am no church-history buff, but when I look at the Free Church website, even before this vote, I see a lot of issues that would make such a move incredibly predictable.
    I am not trying to be judgmental, but this church, two years ago or so, was making positive reviews of movies and Harry Potter books. The typical dress of those on the website are those typical of the world, albeit more on the not-so-revealing-of-skin side (apart from arms and legs).
    It appears, and I could be wrong, that the world was, long ago, invited in the front door and it is just having greater influence.
    That said, it is something to pity. Many good churches in the US and UK are facing a change-or-become-obsolete crisis. Rather than shrivel up and die, well-meaning elders and pastors are choosing to make their churches more marketable — especially in the area of worship music.


  13. Well, I’m not sure. The decision seemed to come as a surprise as far as I know. If we accept that the majority of kirk sessions weren’t in favour of the change, and that the vote was presumably made up mostly of ministers/elders who aren’t themselves in favour of the change but voted for the amendment only to keep unity, then it’s definitely a situation to be pitied/regretted (imo) as much as anything else.

    Think as well the pressure to allow hymns/instruments is dissociable from whatever shifts there might be in attitudes to the world. Who knows what judgments might be passed on us if our church website featured pictures of real life people (and i don’t remember anything particularly heinous on the FC website from the last time i visited!). FPs from thirty years ago might find our congregations or homes barely recognisable from the standards that were expected previously. We’re not really in a safe place to throw stones :-S


  14. I was a bit strong in the language I used above (i.e. the “world through the front door”). It may not necessarily worldly, especially where earnest intentions are to please God. I do apologise for that. Also, I am sorry I gave the impression of throwing stones. Ultimately, I don’t mean or desire to do that. I have often wondered if I am too harsh on even some things I accept as Biblical or not Biblical, at present.
    I have very dear and godly friends that are actually in church orchestras and leading worship bands. I know them very well and I know they believe they are serving the Lord and worshipping Him properly.

    I am sure you are correct, too, on the changes in our church over the last thirty years. Those gone before were probably shocking those a generation before then and so on. I reckon every family (and by extension, church, will experience, to some degree, waves of liberalising and conservatising, alternating every generation. Chris and I are more conservative than our upbringing and it may be safe to say that our children will one day find our form of Christianity not-so-pallatable and practically liberalise (I pray they at least lay hold of Christ and see his Word as the complete authority). I know, for sure, that there are things we are inadvertently teaching our children that are wrong — based on the fact that we’re sinners still.

    Should we even be worrying about things beyond true conversion (which is up to the Lord anyway) and let Him handle all the rest of the details? We can trust that the Gospel will always be there, whether veiled or apparently stifled. God is much more powerful than anything we can see.

    What a thought-provoking post! Thanks, Cath!


    • “I have often wondered if I am too harsh on even some things I accept as Biblical or not Biblical, at present.”

      Don’t worry – it’s just convertitis – it wears off :D


      • I reckon it’s more like Reformeditits or Calvinitis. ;-)
        I tended to err on the side of Mercy in times past and have been converted for quite some time (most of my life). I have to always remind myself that it is by both Mercy and Truth that iniquity (within oneself and others) is purged.

        As for the wearing-off, I would suggest that we’ll always struggle with pride and belief-error in some form or another. It just may manifest itself differently, depending on the light under which we’re seeing it at the time.
        Many Biblical concepts (such as worship and Baptism) are very deep and only time and submission to the Holy Spirit’s teachings will cut away that which is wrong and cultivate right thoughts. I have views on these now, obviously, but I must remain open to Him and search these things out well. The birth, death, and resurrection of Christ and the lost condition of man are not contentious among true believers and are the only things we can be assured of fully.
        I reckon these, anyway.


    • Don’t worry. Something else I meant to add several times was that I’m sure most people have friends in churches which use hymns and instruments. Critiquing the practice by no means eliminates the possibility of fellowship.

      Beyond true conversion … it’s tricky. There’s always the “They Ought To Know Better” principle – people on a trajectory from very unreformed towards more reformed need more slack than people heading the opposite direction, eg! And in the same way as the NT is much more painfully clear about what true conversion looks like in practice on the personal level than it’s sometimes comfortable to acknowledge (or is it just me), so it does hold out a more definite idea of what good churchly life looks like in practice than is sometimes recognised. Even when that means things that don’t enter in to the essentials of the faith, like the use/not of orthodox hymns (or presbyterianism, or infant baptism, or the church’s relation to the state, etc etc). There must be an answer on all these things, even if truly converted people disagree on what the right answer is.


  15. I like this………………….

    “The Psalms are full of Christ, you see some of these people that prefer hymns, they think the hymns speak more of Christ, now that’s a delusion, the Psalms are full of Christ to those that have spiritual understanding.”

    Quote from the Rev. Donald Maclean. 15.04.1990 preaching on Revelation 5.5


  16. Good. Better yet: The Psalms are full of Christ. Full stop, although those who have spiritual understanding will appreciate it most. (I mean, you could be a pagan and still realise that the text of the Psalms refers to the person and work of Christ. It’s just a question of hermeneutics, not something mysterious that will only swim into your consciousness after you’ve been converted.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s