presbyterians behaving badly

For badly, read: like independents.

There is nothing inherent in presbyterianism to make splits and schisms happen. Rather, the essence of presbyterianism is to embody one holy catholic church.

John Ross has an article here asking whether the proliferation of presbyterian denominations in Scotland is principled or pragmatic. The answer is definitely not principled. But other than putting on record that he’s stolen the alliterative title I’d been vaguely thinking of using for a different post, I’m going to exercise lots of discretion and say nothing much further that’s directly related to the proposal his post puts forward. (As in, I’m not really convinced. But do go and read it.)

My only thoughts to say out loud are these two.

1) Given that presbyterianism doesn’t allow for a multiplicity of presbyterian denominations, the only explanation for the existence of multiple denominations is a failure of presbyterianism. More specifically, I don’t think it would be unfair to say that most presbyterian denominations at the moment are really only presbyterian on paper – in practice, most people’s thinking (or acting) is independent.

That’s to say, when people are in favour of presbyterianism as a form of church government, it’s more because they like the potential it offers for things like “accountability” and the pooling of resources, than because they’re really convinced it’s the only scriptural method of church government. Not that you necessarily hear people saying so in so many words, but as far as the eye can see, this is the only principle that can make sense of people’s behaviour when it comes to the crunch. Either, setting up new denominations implies that there’s not much of a vision for being *the* church of Scotland (at least not on principles that Scotland’s greatest churchmen of the past would recognise). Or else, framing new church plants as the solution to intra-denominational difficulties is something that surely only makes sense on the assumption that things beyond the horizon of the local congregation don’t really matter (doubly so, for plants in communities that are already perfectly well supplied with several reformed options). Neither alternative can plausibly be justified on genuinely presbyterian convictions.

2) History matters too. Mr Ross’s post gives a shamefully long list of presbyterian denominations. But not all of the names on this list have equally good reasons for existing. Two if not three came into being on the back of disciplinary disputes, at least two aren’t even native to Scotland, one, when it relaxed its distinctives, failed to unite with any body it had now made itself identical to, … and so on. The back stories to these denominations make a huge difference to how to understand their separateness, and this is especially true for the ones which went their separate ways as a result of actual theological and/or ecclesiological struggles. Revisiting these doctrinal and constitutional disputes might not be pretty, but one way or another if there is to be any dissolving of unnecessary denominational boundaries it will have to be on a truly principled basis, a basis that our impeccably presbyterian-principled forefathers (Knox, Rutherford, Boston, Chalmers) would recognise as theologically both robust and informed. No denomination should prioritise its own interests over the Christian good of Scotland, but there are definitely denominations on this list which serve and would serve the Christian good of Scotland better than others. What we need … —

Ok, here’s where I need to bite my tongue so that I still manage to stop short of disputing with Mr Ross’s proposal. See what you think for yourselves.


But I did it for the suffragettes. Not because I have the least clue about who these candidates are, or what in the wurruld they’re standing for.