in the community

[Long post, written ages ago.]

Traditionally speaking, the religion of highly conservative Calvinists is something that they carry with them into the everyday activities of general life. I mean, as you work with colleagues and interact with your clients and do your shopping and meet your neighbours, you deal with people as such. Even if they’re atheists, or non-Christians, or a different kind of Christian from you, you deal with them in a professional way, or in a neighbourly way. They are not a serious threat to your spirituality (there is a doctrine of the perseverance of the saints). Being a particular type of Christian hasn’t traditionally meant being afraid of the wider society which doesn’t quite share your views, or disapproving of it, or despising it, or being shocked by it, but just playing your part in it.

Whatever this means in terms of salt-and-light-type effects for non-Christians, it’s interesting to think of the advantages this way of life has for the church. I don’t mean any specific denomination, but believers generally. One thing in particular is that it keeps the church sensitive to the reality of scandal. When a Christian does something wrong, and the whole community knows it, all the other Christians in the community feel the repercussions straight away. Years of hard work come undone, and accusations of hypocrisy fly round the more readily, and the memories last a long time. You never thought anyone took any notice that ordinary Christians lived ‘soberly, righteously, and godly,’ until one of them slipped up, and then everybody decided that none of them did. Christians behaving badly is not only an offence within the church but a scandal in the wider community.

But this is only the case when Christians are part of the community. If it was the case that Christians herded themselves into inward facing ghettos, and feared secular contamination to the extent of avoiding contacts outside their particular congregation or even their particular family, then frankly, doctrine and morals would have scope to run riot and neither would the wider community barely care what they got up to beyond keeping well clear, nor would the paranoid folks in the ghetto have to face the reality check that the reactions of the wider community would communicate to them if they only had the kind of relationship that would make that possible.

* * *

Now what has prompted this rumination is a strange series of coincidences. The first was a friend sending me a link on facebook to a video called Divided. Divided is the American story of two teenagers who, we are asked to believe, went out on a personal voyage to investigate the failings of youth ministries in the (American) church. Making some perfectly valid points along the way, the movie turns out to be a vendetta against what the producers call “age-segregated” churches and a big plug on the other hand for “family-integrated” churches – all youth pastors might as well be fired, and their energies devoted instead to pastoring fathers into taking responsibility for how their sons (especially) are being brought up in the faith. “Mothers matter too,” I scrawled in a hasty reply to my friend on the then-latest new and annoying facebook messaging system, and thought little more of it.

Until I clicked on the hundred-odd comments on a Green Baggins post on feminism and the church. Now I should just mention that feminism and the church is an issue that holds very little interest for me. I’ll talk about it if I have to, but a certain over-familiarity with the lazy equation of feminism with lesbian socialism/ socialist lesbianism makes the discussion just too boring, and non-Pauline, to deserve an awful lot of attention (I’m also far from the only person to feel that the bitterly politicised gender debates of American evangelicalism are more than welcome to just stay over there). But this comment thread started to join up some dots for me, faintly. Someone mentioned the patriarchy movement, just as had popped up in conversation on facebook, and (naturally) I did some googling.

And discovered a third thing. Quite a while ago, someone showed me a highly dubious book of parenting advice for (American, again) Christians based mainly on the premise that child-rearing is some sort of all-out war between parents and their perpetually rebelling children. In this ongoing conflict the primary aim of the parent, as obligated by scripture, is to ‘break the will’ of the child by hitting them with implements if they cry, until they stop crying (sic). Here let me note the glaring fallacy of attempting to use physical means to change anybody’s will, and leave the other blatant problems to speak for themselves. Obviously we met this book with not a little incredulity and took it for granted that it was sufficiently nutty on virtually each page that nobody would be able to take it very seriously. Imagine my consternation, then, to see this book being recommended in the context of this patriarchy malarkey from whence also springs the family-integrated church idea.

Patriarchy gets blamed for a lot by feminists. But this is patriarchy like you’ve never seen it before. We’re talking wives forbidden to question any decision their husband makes, daughters trained up to be “helpmeets” to (bizarrely) their fathers, women discouraged from voting, women forbidden from working outside the home, any problems in a marriage blamed on the wife for being insufficiently submissive to the husband, education dismissed as pointless for daughters since they only need to know how to look after babies and how to be submissive to the man of the house. Women are served the Lord’s Supper not by elders but by their own husbands or even their own sons. This is plain weird.

* * *

The thing is, you could probably just do an eyeroll at persistent cult-like craziness on the part of jumped up little demagogues across the pond who go to any lengths in twisting scripture to flatter their own egos, and in a kinder moment spare a thought for the poor hoodwinked women who are the primary victims of their loopiness – add it to the list of outrages in the world you lament but can’t change, and move on. This is the civilised UK, after all. But what prompted the facebook conversation in the first place was that this movement is calling itself Reformed. That, or it’s the principles and ideals of some independent patriarchy movement being insinuated into the Reformed scene. This puts it somewhere at least in the general region of our backyard, and calls for evaluation. Just to spell that out: it is ludicrous to find any connection between this “patriarchy movement”, this brand of “family-integrated” churches, and the principles and practice of the Reformation.

For Reformation principles, consider:
1) Conscience. The church has no right to go beyond what Scripture mandates in terms of the requirements it imposes on believers. The list of things which Scripture mandates, either explicitly or by good and necessary inference, is a lot more limited than some would have us believe. Voting (whether, and for whom) is not on that list. Education (how, and for how long) isn’t either. Organisations popping up to lay down the law on issues like these are acting contrary to the principles of the Reformation to the precise extent to which they load these requirements onto the conscience of church members.
2) Sin. Quite right to say that children are born with rebellious wills, but the principal rebellion is not against their parents, but against God. It’s not the parent’s job to break the child’s will, or somehow beat them into a converted state – they haven’t the power and they haven’t the right. It’s not a broken will that salvation involves anyway, but a renewed will.
3) Personal responsibility. The insistence on (women’s) submissiveness to (men’s) authority is misdirected – the supreme authority is not a man but God. People are directly responsible to God, not to any human intermediary, no matter if the church leadership is very authoritarian and a husband very domineering. If a husband starts expecting his wife to subsume her will into his – too late! her will is God’s already. Abdicating all your decision-making responsibilities and your critical thinking faculty to some man (any one) is devolving onto that person the power that God alone has, and for this to be made a requirement in the name of God and bolstered by alleged scriptural support borders on the profane.

And for Reformation practice, I meant it when I said this brand of patriarchy has never been seen before. There is no historical precedent for its practices within the churches of the Reformation. In fact, Christianity has brought emancipation and respect to women tangled in the very kinds of oppressive situations which this patriarchy movement now seems quite happy to emulate and extend. Rather than pushing some distorted notion of downtrodden “helpmeet,” the Bible expects Christian women to be intelligent, capable, doctrinally informed, and worthy of respect, in order to be “meet” or appropriately matched with intelligent, capable, doctrinally informed, and respect-worthy Christian men. Men who need to surround themselves with cowed, cringing drudges with all the gumption squeezed out of them in order to be satisfied that they’re fulfilling some God-given responsibility are in a very bad place.

* * *

If people were less fearful of the community outside their family and congregation and more engaged with it, there would be less likelihood of fads like this patriarchy movement gaining traction. Increased exposure to Reformation principles and the social history of the church would no doubt help as well, but in the meantime, a handy strategy would be to get to know your neighbours better. The fearsome spectres conjured up from contemporary social ills to persuade well-meaning parents to beat their babies and convince husbands to tyrannise their wives really don’t deserve the attention they’re getting. Society at large would react with outrage if a care home treated its children the way that some people are advising Christian parents to treat theirs, or if one colleague treated another the way some people are advising Christian husbands to treat their wives. For these things to be baptised as biblical, Christian, even Reformed is subversive of the bible, Christianity, and the Reformation – it should cause offence within the church as well as scandal in the wider world. Being part of a shrinking Christian minority entails enough differences between you and the non-Christian majority as it is. Importing unbiblical (and, frankly, abusive) theories and practices to magnify the boundary markers is just wrong.


found while spring cleaning

(Yes, spring cleaning of a Saturday evening. It was that or more lecture prep.)

Scribbled note of something John Colquhoun said:

“The objects which the hand of faith grasps and receives are strictly speaking three – a word, a person, and a thing; or a verbal object, a personal object, and a real object. The word brings the person near to us, and the person brings the thing near. These three should, in our exercise of faith, be distinguished, but never divided. The man who has one of them possesses all; and he who has not all, possesses none. Christ Jesus, the glorious person, with God in him, is, as an object of faith, between the word and the thing; and it is he alone who gives importance and value to both. The former is the Word of God, and the latter, the righteousness of God. We therefore may with full assurance of faith rely on both, and be as firmly persuaded that they can never fail us as that he is the only begotten Son of God, and God equal with the Father.”


“Faith, then, instead of being the condition of the covenant, is only a condition of connection in the covenant, a moral instrument or means of receiving Christ, and, in union with him, justification and sanctification. Instead of giving a right to eternal life, it receives the gift of the surety-righteousness, which gives all the right to it. Instead of giving a personal interest in the Saviour, it only receives that personal interest in him which is freely offered to sinners in the blessed gospel. It does not, strictly speaking, give possession of Jesus Christ, or of his righteousness and salvation; – but it takes possession of them. … [Someone] cannot take possession of Christ and of salvation other than by the instrumentality of faith. … Faith takes all that is in the promises, as a gift of immensely rich grace, but gives nothing of it.”

(A View of Saving Faith, p98 and p30)


the covenant being made with Adam

Here‘s a very interesting and useful discussion of the passage in Luke 10 about “doing” and “inheriting eternal life”.

“It is not self-evident that obedience should receive a reward of [eternal life]. We tend to assume it, but there is no automatic nexus between obeying God’s commands and attaining eternal life. Why should there be? As creatures we are duty bound to obey God with or without reward.”

“We are therefore in search of the source of the principle whereby eternal life on the condition of perfect obedience should be universally promised to humanity, such that Jesus can use it in his evangelism and Paul cite it in his expositions of the gospel.”

– Explains carefully and clearly why we need the concept of the covenant of works. Read it all.

confession time

We’re coming up to a very significant, and depressing, anniversary this May. In May, 120 years ago, there was a fundamental change in the relationship between the Church (in Scotland) and its creed. The church in question was the Church of Scotland, Free (which from 1843 had picked up where the Church of Scotland, Erastianised, had left off, embodying the testimony of the 1560 Reformation); its creed was, of course, the Westminster Confession; and what made the change was the infamous Declaratory Act.

Which means that next year, we will have the 120th anniversary of the separate existence of the Church of Scotland, Free and Presbyterian. In my own mind, I think the founding fathers made a big tactical mistake when they used ‘presbyterian’ as their defining term instead of ‘confessional.’ Because really, what the Free Presbyterian Church is all about, is being Free in the 1843 sense and confessional, in the Westminster sense. (Anyone can be presbyterian, but a Westminster presbyterian? that takes a Macfarlane and a Macdonald.)

Just to recap. It wasn’t till well into the 1800s that it stopped being uncontroversial that the church confessed the Westminster Confession because it, the Westminster Confession, was the most accurate and the fullest statement available of what Scripture teaches.

Since the identity of The Church is virtually coextensive with the Scripturalness of the doctrine it proclaims, changing the creed, or changing the relationship between church and creed, would obviously be a major undertaking. All the more so, when the nature of the change is not a progression towards better understanding of what scripture teaches but regression to a sub-Christian position on fundamental issues. In the 1870s-90s, the most serious doctrinal disputes were over the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture and the nature and extent of the atonement, and the favourite contemporary views were either ancient errors resurrected or up to the minute rationalism.

The act passed in 1892 by the Church of Scotland (Free) was specifically designed – not necessarily to enshrine erroneous or heretical positions as the actual doctrine of the church, but – to neutralise the Confession as the standard of true vs false doctrine: which meant in effect, to obliterate the distinction between orthodox versus heterodox views. The Confession was no longer what the Church confessed – the criterion ‘is it consistent with the Confession’ was no longer applicable for evaluating whether or not a minister could preach a given doctrine. And what then, for the testimony of the Reformation?

Technically, the reason for the separate existence of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is its unique commitment to the Westminster Confession. It was certainly unique in 1893. It remained certainly if less undisputedly unique after 1900. It remains – you know I can’t not say it – unique now. The truths of the Confession is what the FPs are for: reformed in doctrine, first and foremost, as well as in worship and in practice.

This point bears underlining because there often seems to be a temptation to define ourselves in the seemingly more straightforward terms of what we do and don’t do – almost, if you like, putting the order back to front, prioritising practice then worship, and tagging on doctrine as a taken-for-granted. But obviously this makes things less straightforward overall. Partly because any collection of people can agree among themselves to adhere to a ‘strict’ lifestyle and ‘conservative’ habits of worship. These things aren’t what constitute a church though – they’re meaningless without doctrine. But more seriously also because you can’t justify remaining separate from other groups of believers merely on the grounds of differences in practice and worship. If it was really only worship and practice that distinguished us from the other available denominations, there would be no excuse for failing to disband the Free Presbyterian Church, like, yesterday, in order to join up with our fellow-believers in other denominations. Our doctrine, or more specifically our consistent adherence to the Westminster Confession in its totality, is the only thing that legitimises our separateness. This is our identity, and it’s an identity worth maintaining.

Recently I heard that some of the people who have been involved in Scotland’s latest ecclesiastical reshuffle have expressed the wish – the dream – the aspiration – that there could be one single church in Scotland where everyone who believes the Westminster doctrines and values purity of worship could join together. Well, here’s some news for you. We in the Free Presbyterian Church share this wish. We’ve been wishing it for the past nearly 120 years. We’ve been longing and waiting for the time to come when all of Scotland’s Christians would rediscover the value of the Westminster doctrines and the function of the Westminster Confession. We’ve been dreaming of times when people would want to worship God in scriptural purity and New Testament simplicity again. Our oldest and godliest saints call this time “better days” and they’ve been praying for it ever since May 1893. It’s one of the deepest wishes of the Free Presbyterian heart.

Instead, what we get is one message loud and clear, and that is: that wherever people will turn for a Westminster-confessional, Regulative-Principle-compliant witness, it isn’t the Free Presbyterians. People – good people – people we love and respect – our fellow believers in Christ – will do anything and go anywhere, and split churches and divide congregations, before they’ll recognise the testimony of 1893 and the commitment to Westminster doctrine and purity of worship that there’s been from 1893 to date. So we watch from the sidelines as Church of Scotland evangelicals can’t quite bring themselves to join the Free Church, and as Free Church evacuees, twice over in the last decade, pointedly prefer an identity in terms of ‘ex-Free Church’ over an identity ‘Reformed in doctrine, worship, and practice.’

So if things were depressing in 1892, they’re pretty grim now. But the solution is the same: for believers to rally round the truth of Scripture. Maybe, before the 120th anniversary, better days will come.