the reunion question

The outline of a proposal for tackling the schisms in Scottish presbyterianism has recently been put in the public domain. It’s by Rev K Stewart, titled ‘Reformed Scottish Presbyterianism: Reunion in the 21st century?’ and you should read it for yourself by clicking here.

This is a serious document which deserves to be taken seriously. The single biggest problem of our time (as far as I can see) is the lack of visible unity between the Lord’s people. That is to say, between Christians who confess the same Confession. Disunity is a glaring contradiction of our presbyterian principles and we are all implicated to a greater or lesser extent in the sins of schism and of tolerating schism.

The ecumenical movement has given unity a bad name. People who belong to doctrinally aware denominations which maintain a separate existence for known doctrinal principles are tired of explaining that mere organisational unity is not a desirable goal in itself. In these denominations, visible unity is maintained around a shared confession of faith, which by definition excludes from fellowship those who are doctrinally divergent. This is not schism. It is not schismatic to be separate from heretics. Organisational unity is worthless unless it is unity around the truth.

But although it is right to resist calls for unity with people and groups who we share nothing doctrinally in common with, it is never right to settle down comfortably in a state of separation from those who are in fact fellow-believers. Not heretics. When our brothers and sisters belong to different communions, that should always be a source of grief to us, something we can never regard complacently. Separateness from others is a statement to the effect that, as to doctrine, they are heretical, as to worship, profane, and as to discipline, immoral. This is why it matters so much. If we are one in Christ, we should be seen to be one in Christ. Organisational disunity is a scandal when we all hold to the same truth.

At the same time, achieving unity among those who all hold to the same truth is not straightforward. Mr Stewart’s paper identifies four denominations as requiring strict subscription to the Westminster Confession and committed to purity of worship as historically understood: APC, FCC, FP, RP. To recognise (even in general terms) each other’s commitment to the Confession and purity of worship is to acknowledge that we already share the most important things, and that it is the things of lesser importance which divide us. But the lesser things are not trivial things. There are reasons why we are separate and these reasons need to be faced squarely, evaluated honestly, repented of where necessary, and sincerely put behind us.

To be perfectly honest, I do not find that easy even to contemplate. Unfortunately for my own life of ease, I find it unavoidably necessary.

If we seriously accept the presbyterian vision of one united church, and the need to work towards it, then there are two possible ways of achieving it. Let me for the time being skip over several discussion-worthy points in Mr Stewart’s paper (did I mention that you should read it?) and zoom to the end where these possibilities are outlined. They are: either a new church solution or else an existing church solution. A new church solution would be where the four denominations form one new one, called, perhaps, the Reformed Church of Scotland. An existing church solution would be where one of the existing four acts as ‘host’ for the other three to merge into (the paper nominates, gently, the RPs for that role, although not ruling out another contender).

Trying my hardest to suppress my inner loyal Free Presbyterian and view the situation dispassionately, I can see enough pros and cons to both possibilities that I can’t actually decide which would be better even in theory. Even supposing things could be neatly agreed on the constitutional level, we would still be left with a complex tangle of sociological, cultural, and attitudinal factors to sort out. Since the only thing I’m clear on at the moment is that our current situation is unjustifiable, I’m just going to leave things here and not speculate from a position of uncertainty. Our splits are incompatible with our presbyterianism, so what can we do about it?

67 thoughts on “the reunion question

  1. I clicked on your links to the article, but neither of them are bringing up the article.

    And thank you for discussing such a crucially important topic. It is not just Presbyterians in Scotland that have these problems. This is a worldwide problem, and we need to express the unity of the church worldwide as well.


  2. It has to be tackled. In regard to your last paragraph about all the factors that would remain… sociological etc. They exist already all over the world. A confessional Church does not necessitate that we all be culturally the same. That diversity ought to happily exist within a Church. As an incomer to Scotland myself it seems that often we find it hard to distinguish between cultural and confessional Christianity. We also make a host of unconfessional and unconstitutional points the reason for our separation from each other. Things that would never be a reason to separate in the first place are now made a reason for not considering union.


  3. Gavin,

    Agreed. There is a tendency to attach too much weight to things that are basically cultural markers, rather than necessarily scriptural.

    Yes also to your last sentence. It’s incoherent to say on the one hand that X could never justify a church split, and then turn round and use X as a reason to justify continued separation.

    So, what’s the solution? :-)


    • I’ve been thinking about that point, and I’m not sure that I agree. If Issue X crops up in our own denomination, it may not be worth leaving over, but does that mean we are duty-bound to join ourselves with those who are wrong on Issue X? I’m not so sure that the one leads to the other. Anyone care to discuss that point further?


      • Sharon, I think you are right. If I am a minister in a church, I am only one voice on the session, and one voice in the presbytery, etc. I must work through the proper means that Christ has prescribed in order to reform the church, and I must remain united unless sin is required of me. This might mean that I will remain for a time in a denomination in which many people are in error on some point. And yet this same error might be a good reason not to unite with another denomination if one’s own denomination is not encumbered with it, for it is the duty of the leaders of the church not to tolerate known errors that they are bound by their oaths to oppose and prevent.

        For example, if I am in a denomination that begins to be lax on, say, churches observing Christmas. I ought to work and protest against this as much as I can, using proper legal channels. But it is not necessarily the case that I must immediately split from this church, so long as I am not required to sin or compromise in any of my duties. However, a denomination that does not have this problem should not unite with one that does and so willingly diminish its own purity on this point.


  4. I have a question I will pose here and elsewhere. Why do not the denominations that subscribe to the WCF publicly list all of the issues in dispute, and then have public debates on these issues, each setting forward its most articulate minister on the issue in question? How well can each defend its respective position? But if one side cannot cogently defend itself on the issue in question, maybe they should change on it. What do people think about this proposal?


  5. For instance, let’s say one denomination insists on the critical text and one insists on the received text, then why not have that public debate? Or let’s say one says it is ok to attend the Romish Mass and one says it is not ok, then let’s hear the public debate. My view is that all too often people do not decide denominations based on the issues but rather personalities. Public debate of the issues makes it somewhat harder for people and denominations to get away with that sort of thing, and forces the denominations to take a hard look at whether the issues they are remaining separate for are really worth remaining divided over.


  6. Hi Parnell,

    Just a quick thought. I think that dialogue regarding the issues that separate the denominations is absolutely essential, and in that sense I agree with you. However, and perhaps it is a minor point, I think the setting of a public debate would not be the best one for this kind of thing. Not that I have anything against public debates. I just think that it would raise the likelihood of people feeling the need to save face (shouldn’t be an issue, but that is human nature), and would engender an appearance of even greater division than what actually exists.

    So, yes to discussion of the points of division, absolutely. But I think the most prudent setting and format for this would be in relative privacy (certainly from the attention of secular media, who would no doubt be desperate to report on the matter, and most likely very irreverently), and in the form of a brotherly discussion.


    • I’m with Parnell. Let it all hang out. If you can’t stand the heat, say uncle and fold under another church body. There is no excuse for the Church, which is the pillar and ground of truth, not being able to defend publicly what it professes to be truth. Secrecy can only lead to further fog and less clarity and transparency in the process.


      • “How well can each defend its respective position?”
        There does need to be discussion through issues and the members do need to be aware of the issues and arguments, but pitting church against church is only going to more deeply them.
        I also don’t believe the aim in such discussions should necessarily be to convince everybody else of your argument, it should can we work around the issues. Otherwise there is no way we will ever be united, held back tertiary issues.


        • I think that public debates could be good, but I do agree with Neil that it might be better to have private conversations for the reasons he mentions. In a public debate, there is not the atmosphere for someone to change their mind or to consider reasonable compromises, even if these would be the right thing to do. In private conversations, things can proceed more thoughtfully. My guess is that many of the reasons for division will end up coming down to things that the different parties will be able to come together over if they come to the discussions with an attitude that is willing to embrace reasonable, non-sinful compromises. If there is a great desire for unity, my guess is that such compromises will end up being possible without sin.


          • Sharon

            Some ot the things that come to mind are.
            1. No version of the Bible is set down for use – while there were different versions in use. In the church of England the AV would have been used but in the Church in Scotland this took alot longer to be accepted. From memory the Geneva Bible held sway until at least the mid 17th century when the Scots began to use the AV.

            2. No text of Scripture is set down as the true text – we might argue that the principle of providential preservation of the original texts is codified however. The debate will then be – has God providentially preserved the texts that have come to light in more recent history. I personally am for the received text but my point is, it is not specifically codified in the Confession and the men of that day knew of the existence of other texts.

            3. There is no issue over the subject of headcovering (again I hold to the practice) but such things are not set down in a confession. Were we to study the practice in the 17th Century I expect there would be considerable diversity.

            4. There are many areas that are coming to light in the debates of the Assembly (from the minutes being published by Chad Van Dixhorn), where decided accomodation was made in the form of words used so that men who differed on certain points could both subscribe the document. It is important to read the document in its historical context. Robert Letham’s recent book helps to do this, though you might not agree with all his conclusions. Points that come to mind are – how the WCF deals with how we partake of the guilt of Adam’s sin; Also care in the words chosen in relation to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness – was it his active obedience, passive obedience or both. Gataker was opposed to the imputation of the active obedience from memory (again I disagree with him).

            5. Another point might be the issue of what version of the Psalms should be sung. Resulting from the Assembly a new translation was made i.e. 1650 edition. But there is no attempt to limit the church to any version, rather the point would be the issue of accuracy of translation and what best aids the uniformity of the Church’s worship.

            6. There is no stipulation of minister’s dress code to my knoeldge. To require a minister to wear a certain uniform as a term of his ministry does not appear to have been on their agenda. Though men at the time did wear ministerial attire, and different forms of it in different areas of the land.

            All these points open up serious issues for discussion about what we do where we differ on these points. The Churches we are talking about in Scotland clearly take different positions on some of them. How are we going to get round them? Do I say Rev. Kenneth Stewart uses a different Bible version and version of the metrical Psalms from me, there is no way we can be in the same Church unless he changes, or is there room for both of us as we are?


            • From what I have seen, it seems to me the Free Presbyterians especially have some unique views on some of these kinds of things. I would be interested to hear some FP responses to the things Gavin has mentioned.

              Also, does anyone know where I might be able to get a full copy of the FP synod statement in which the faults of the FCC were recently discussed? I’ve seen parts of it, but is it available to access in full anywhere?


              • The list of “obstacles to unity” with the FCC was in the 2011 Report of the Religion and Morals Committee, which as far as I know can only be found in the 2011 Synod Report, available from the FP Bookroom.


                • The 2012 Synod Report just clarifies that the list in the 2011 Report is a preliminary list of points that will probably be addressed in the Statement of Differences, which is currently being revised. I’m guessing the Statement of Differences, once completed, will be the official source, so to speak.


                • The extra material in 2012 was on the RPs (pages 41-43) and on the FCC in a remark on page 39 (in relation to the constitutional changes in the FCof S) “The competing claims of the Free Church (Continuing) as the true heirs of the Free Church constitution are to be dismissed on account of their being a new denomination and being established on unfounded and new principles relating to an alleged continued right of protest”.

                  This remark was in the context that the FPs’ long-standing claim to be the true heirs of the Free Church/Church of Scotland was being further strengthened by the FCofS departing from its constitution in 2010.

                  So far as I can see the material on pages 38 to 43 amounts to the following: The FPs have the genuine succession to the Free Church/Church of Scotland. Other people in the 21st century who have problems with changes in the post-1900 Free Church (who the FPs always said were wrong but are now even more wrong) ought to be knuckling down and accepting the FPs’ package of practice and discipline rather than setting up new slightly less strict churches as in the FCC and the (in effect) newly constituted RPofS both of which amount to an unnecessary schism from the core of true Scottish presbyterianism found in the FPs.

                  I do have a degree of understanding/respect for such a position, but it does seem rather different from how things would have been in earlier times prior to the existance of the FPs, when a much wider range of viewpoints would have existed in the one denomination whether Church of Scotland or Free Church and these did not automatically result in separation.

                  Of course there is room for thanksgiving that although there is formal separateness there is mostly warmth towards one another on a personal level. If we were really diligent in evangelism there would probably be room for all of us, although the situation is obviously not ideal. In practice only in somewhere like Stornoway is there a lot of overlap – in places like Inverness and Glasgow the populace is so large and godless that there’s plenty of room for different local churches to not get in each other’s way and in the smaller villages there are probably generally only a couple of evangelical denominations in any one place.


  7. Great discussion! The link is not working for me here in the U.S. O for the disintegration of the schisms that are as breaches in the walls of Zion that weaken the voice of the City of God so that her trumpet blasts give an uncertain sound!


  8. Sharon – there is some merit in the position you are outlining but we must approach it with extreme caution. The situation in Scotland presently is that there are a number of denominations who hold to the Westminster Standards and profess a strict adherence:

    1. Our attitude as churches, if we value the cause of Christ would be to actively do all we legitimately can to seek unity and endeavour to overcome whatever issues we perceive divide us – while still being faithful to the Word of God.

    2. It is ironic that so many denominations hold to the Westminster Standards and use extra confessional points to justify their separation when those documents were produced in attempt to unite a Church in the three kingdoms of England Scotland and Ireland. There were many differences throughout those churches (far more than divide the FCC and FP’s for example) that were left untouched by the Confession and would have existed in the breadth of such a confessional church. The divines purposely left many things out of the confession to achieve this unity.

    3. Gillespie’s appeal to the Assembly is not the attitude we in the Scottish churches are adopting today. He begged men to accomodate, to tuck in their elbows for the sake of unity rather than each man or group demand his own liberty but the church be in pieces. We need to get back to this attitude and let it govern all our endeavours for unity.

    ‘If you be the Sons of peace, you shall be characterized by this Shibboleth, you will call for Accommodation, not for Toleration; for one way, not for two. Let there be no strife between us and you, for we be brethren: and is not the Canaanite and the Perizzite yet in the land? [Gen. 13.7,8.] O let it not be told in Gath, nor published in the streets of Ashkelon. Let it not be said, that there can be no unity in the Church without Prelacy. Brethren I charge you by the Roes and by the Hinds of the field, that ye awake not nor stir up Jesus Christ till he please [Cant. 2.7.]; for his rest is sweet and glorious with his well-beloved. It shall be no grief of heart to you afterward, that you have pleased others as well as yourselves, and have stretched your principles for an Accommodation in Church government, as well as in Worship, and that for the Church’s peace and edification; and that the ears of our common enemies may tingle, when it shall be said, The Churches of Christ in England have rest, and are edified, and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the joy of the Holy Ghost are multiplied. [Acts 9.31.] Alas how shall our divisions and contentions hinder the preaching and learning of Christ, and the edifying one another in love! Is Christ divided? saith the Apostle. There is but one Christ, yea the head and the body makes one Christ, so that you cannot divide the body without dividing Christ. Is there so much as a seam in Christ’s garment? Is it not woven throughout from the top to the bottom? Will you have one half of Israel follow Tibni, and another half to follow Omri? O brethren, we shall be one in heaven, let us pack up our differences in this place of our pilgrimage, the best way we can. Nay, we will not despair of unity in this world. Hath not God promised to give us one heart and one way? [Jer. 32.39; Ezek. 11.19.]and that Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim, but they shall flee upon the shoulders of the Philistines toward the East, they shall spoil them of the East together? [Isa. 11.13,14.] Hath not the Mediator (whom the Father heareth always) prayed that all his may be one? [John 17.21.] Brethren, it is not impossible, pray for it, endeavour it, press hard toward the mark of Accommodation. How much better is it that you be one with the other Reformed Churches, though somewhat straitened and bound up, than to be divided though at full liberty and elbow-room? Better is a dry morsel and quietness therewith, than a house full of sacrifices with strife. [Prov. 17.1.] Doth not the Solemn League and Covenant bind you sincerely, really, and constantly to endeavour the nearest (mark nearest) uniformity and conjunction in religion: and that you shall not suffer yourselves directly or indirectly to be withdrawn from this blessed union and conjunction. I know there is a spirit of jealousy [suspicion] walking up and down. O beware of groundless fears and apprehensions. Judge not, lest you be judged. [Matt. 7.1.] Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment. [John 7.24.] Many false rumours and surmises there have been concerning the Presbyterian principles, practices, designs, Expertus lequor. I am persuaded if there were but a right understanding one of anothers intentions, the Accommodation I speak of would not be difficult. Brethren, if you will not hearken to wholesome counsel, you shall be the more inexcusable. I have in my eye that law of God, Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. [Lev. 19.17.] Faithful are the wounds of a friend, [Prov. 27.6.] Therefore love the truth and peace. [Zech. 8.19.] Yea, seek peace and pursue it. [1 Pet. 3.11.]

    Consider what I say. The Lord guide your feet in the way of peace. And O that God would put it in your hearts to cry down Toleration, and to cry up Accommodation!’

    Geroge Gillespie – Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Liberty of Conscience


    • Well said, Gavin (and George Gillespie)!

      I would say, though, that as our ultimate standard is the Bible, we ought not to compromise on biblical truths that we ought to defend even if they are not mentioned in the Westminster Standards.

      However, Gillespie expresses the attitude we need to have well. We must stretch as far as we possibly can for unity. The only boundary for our stretching ought to be sin. Whenever we can accommodate without sin, we must make every effort, no matter how laborious and uncomfortable, to achieve unity. Anything else shows a deplorable apathy for the one Body of Christ for which he died. Let it never be that we, through our search for unnecessary comforts, should have a part in dividing Christ!


    • Thanks for this reply. Regarding your second point, can you give me an example of some of the issues left untouched by the confession, and differences that were allowed to stand in the churches at that time? I don’t know as much about the history of that time as I should.


  9. Pingback: Reformed Scottish Presbyterianism Reunion in the 21st Century

  10. Sharon

    Some ot the things that come to mind are.
    1. No version of the Bible is set down for use – while there were different versions in use. In the church of England the AV would have been used but in the Church in Scotland this took alot longer to be accepted. From memory the Geneva Bible held sway until at least the mid 17th century when the Scots began to use the AV.

    2. No text of Scripture is set down as the true text – we might argue that the principle of providential preservation of the original texts is codified however. The debate will then be – has God providentially preserved the texts that have come to light in more recent history. I personally am for the received text but my point is, it is not specifically codified in the Confession and the men of that day knew of the existence of other texts.

    3. There is no issue over the subject of headcovering (again I hold to the practice) but such things are not set down in a confession. Were we to study the practice in the 17th Century I expect there would be considerable diversity.

    4. There are many areas that are coming to light in the debates of the Assembly (from the minutes being published by Chad Van Dixhorn), where decided accomodation was made in the form of words used so that men who differed on certain points could both subscribe the document. It is important to read the document in its historical context. Robert Letham’s recent book helps to do this, though you might not agree with all his conclusions. Points that come to mind are – how the WCF deals with how we partake of the guilt of Adam’s sin; Also care in the words chosen in relation to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness – was it his active obedience, passive obedience or both. Gataker was opposed to the imputation of the active obedience from memory (again I disagree with him).

    5. Another point might be the issue of what version of the Psalms should be sung. Resulting from the Assembly a new translation was made i.e. 1650 edition. But there is no attempt to limit the church to any version, rather the point would be the issue of accuracy of translation and what best aids the uniformity of the Church’s worship.

    6. There is no stipulation of minister’s dress code to my knoeldge. To require a minister to wear a certain uniform as a term of his ministry does not appear to have been on their agenda. Though men at the time did wear ministerial attire, and different forms of it in different areas of the land.

    All these points open up serious issues for discussion about what we do where we differ on these points. The Churches we are talking about in Scotland clearly take different positions on some of them. How are we going to get round them? Do I say Rev. Kenneth Stewart uses a different Bible version and version of the metrical Psalms from me, there is no way we can be in the same Church unless he changes, or is there room for both of us as we are?


  11. Hi Gavin trust you are all well. I think that there are very fundamental questions here that require a more full discussion than on this type of forum which doesn’t always lend itself to engaging reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God because it’s necessarily brief. So passing over the contention that a number of denominations profess strict adherence to the WCF, I’ll limit myself to what you have said about the Westminster Confession/Assembly…but I’m afraid it will still be long!

    Not every point that a Church would consider fundamental is to be found in the WCF. For instance it doesn’t mention presbyteries, kirk sessions or very much about the form of government etc because those are in the Form of Government. It doesn’t outline in full some aspects of worship because those are in the Directory of Public Worship. Other aspects are drawn out more fully in the Larger Catechism even on ecclesial points and on moral matters. Some aspects of the things that divide in practice may be applications of the principles already enshrined in the WCF. One can be a little cavalier on this argument. A certain Principal of a certain College was arguing some years ago that his Church didn’t have a declared position on homosexuality because the WCF doesn’t mention it. Some issues are either covered by application of the existing principles or were not matters of contention in the 17th C. Although the word inerrancy doesn’t appear in the WCF and the opposite error isn’t roundly refuted because it wasn’t the issue it is now, I think there is enough there to show that it does assume that Scripture is without error. If the WCF is going to a living, useful confession we need to apply its principles and not hide behind the idea that only what it spells out in exact terminology can be our core commitment.

    Gillespies Paranaetick is indeed a wonderful statement that ought to be studied. Let’s remind ourselves of the circumstances of it, however. All that separated them was really just aspects of church government. The accommodation proposed by the presbyterians was that the national church should be presbyterian in government and the Congregationalist ministers would join and work within this and not oppose it – they didn’t need to change their opinion about what was the best form of government. The latter didn’t think it would be sinful to do so yet they were holding out for a schismatic toleration where there could be a jumble of sects and churches outside this establishment which would work against it. The Solemn League and Covenant had bound them to work for uniformity and also conformity to the pattern of the best reformed churches in other countries. Now they were breaking that oath. We’re not therefore comparing like with like. Composing differences by having a declared position on uniform practice that everyone abides by irrespective of their opinion is altogether different from making matters of practice an open question and throwing uniformity out of the window. This is where you need to bear in mind what Gillespie wrote about uniformity They often gave things up in the interests of uniformity. Amongst other things, he doxology was given up by the Scottish Church at the time of the Westminster Assembly for the reasons of uniformity and that there was no scripture warrant for singing this even though it was in the words of Scripture.

    Mark is right the question here is that accommodation cannot be in anything that would require one to sin.

    Now for the other issues.

    1. The Westminster Assembly did most of anyone to establish the AV over the Geneva Bible which had served its generation by the will of God but had now been overtaken. One can see that in the period before This assertion can be maintained in various ways but it’s an interesting historical point that needs to be drawn out further at length. The Assembly instead ensured the use of the AV in its role in controlling the press amongst other things and moulded its documents according to its language. They were looking for uniformity and dealt with this issue in the Directory for Public Worship. The principles of the WCF on Scripture lead one to certain conclusions about the essential features of a translation that will eliminate various options. Most importantly, the marginal differences between a Geneva and AV are a world of difference compared to the massive differences between the AV and other versions promoted today. If a church cannot determine for itself the most accurate translation of the Scriptures and recommend such to its people – what questions will it be able to address? Any decisions that it makes must come from Scripture and will the trumpet not give an uncertain sound when there is no agreement on the final authority to which appeal is made? Can anything be more damaging to the authority of Scripture and trust in it than for Rev. X to go to congregation Y where they use the New Non Standard Version and preach from a verse in his version that does not even appear in their’s? Do we really think that given their emphasis on uniformity the Westminster divines would have been happy with such a situation?

    2. The WCF requires the use of a text that has been providentially preserved by God pure and entire in all generations of his church. This is non-negitable and it is ultra vires of any church professing strict WCF adherence to allow the use of anything else. The Westminster Standards quote from and cite words that do not appear in the critical text but only in the Received Text. Here is the application of the principles within the WCF. They were well aware of textual variants and other manuscripts such as Codex Bezae but adopted the confessional position that is ably defended by John Owen. The Received text had been fully settled among the Reformed for around 50 years.

    3. Gillespie argues from the Scriptural injunction on headcovering for uniformity in practice. There was no real issue about this in the 17thc in terms of practice so it was no emphasised. I wouldn’t expect to see it in a Confession of Faith any more than other areas of detail. The great question is does Scripture require it or not?

    4. Some of the areas of accommodation being suggested are supposition

    5. The Westminster Assembly began the work of revising the Rous psalter in 3 committees. David Silversides wrote about this “The Assembly was divided into three committees, each responsible for the scrutiny of 50 Psalms. All 150 were subsequently read line by line before the whole Assembly.” Baillie wrote, “the Psalter is a great part of our uniformity, which we cannot let pass till our church be well advised with it” It went north for review and what we have is the result of that. The fact that the Assembly at Westminster didn’t complete their task doesn’t change their intention. Shouldn’t we have the same intention today? While we are on psalms. Why are you going to stop at exclusive psalmody? Some would argue that psalms in the WCF had a wider interpretation (personally I don’t agree) to include other Scripture songs and uninspired hymns? They could be pedantic and argue that it doesn’t say psalms of David etc. Indeed I’m not sure why the Free Church are excluded from the circle of union possibilities since (on paper) they have stricter subscription terms in relation to the WCF than APC and RPCI.

    6. This is another area of practice where there wasn’t significant contention. The CofS had a stated position and this was not expected to change.

    There is a great attack on biblical uniformity in our day and allowing everyone to do what is right in their own eyes is advocated instead. Uniformity is a major issue – once you have abandoned that in the way that the Free Church have you are systematically undermining the essence of Presbyterianism.


  12. I am a member and a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the United States, so I am somewhat removed in my immediate circumstances from the controversy over Scottish Presbyterianism. However, I have come to think that the Scottish Presbyterian tradition is the most pure stream of biblical Reformation teachings, and thus that what happens to the Scottish churches is of crucial importance to the church worldwide. If Scottish Presbyterian churches could find a way to unite, it would strengthen their position both in Scotland and throughout the world, encourage others who hold similar convictions to unite with them, strengthen the call to reform to other, less consistent Presbyterian/Reformed churches, and strengthen the church’s witness to the world. Jesus, in his high priestly prayer, seemed to closely connect the unity of the church to the success of the preaching of the gospel in the world. Therefore, for these and other reasons, I place a very high priority on the unity of the Body of Christ.

    However, as Rev. Stewart said well, unity must only be achieved in the truth, and never on the basis of sinful compromise. So far in my examination of the various Scottish and other Presbyterian churches, I have come to lean towards the conclusion that the FPs are the best candidate for the rightful heir to the historic Church of Scotland. I base this both on an assessment of their consistency in advocating biblical truth and on my assessment of the histories of various splits in Scottish and other history.

    I have had concerns in my examination of Free Presbyterian convictions, and I have also learned a lot. I have found that it is often the case that where the FPs disagree with others, I find that I can sympathize to some degree with both sides. For example, I am greatly in sympathy with the FP position on a strict forbidding of the use of public transport on the Sabbath. However, I also somewhat sympathize, or I can see the plausibility of, the point of view of those who think that people utilizing pubic transport to get to church when they truly have no other reasonable way to get there should not be disciplined. I have found that when I have concerns about other denominations, it is almost always in some area where I think they have been too lax and tolerant, whereas with the FPs it is almost always in some area where I fear they are too dogmatic and strict.

    It seems to me that in many cases it may be easier for a someone who is less strict than a denomination to accommodate to the denomination than it is for someone who is more strict to accommodate to a less strict denomination. For example, if I was convinced that any use of public transport on Sunday, even to get to church when there is no other way to get there, is a violation of the fourth commandment, I would be required by conscience to work towards the disciplining of members who use it, and yet my denomination would tell me that this is an illegal imposition on people’s consciences and would likely not allow me to do it. However, if I was a bit less certain myself whether the use of public transport to get to church must be disciplined, and I was part of a denomination that was stricter on this, then perhaps I could accommodate the practice of the denomination on the grounds that members ought to respect the authority of synods and follow their moral guidelines even if they do not entirely necessarily agree with every aspect of them, insofar as those guidelines are at least reasonably plausible applications of biblical teaching. to use another example, suppose I hold that there are some trousers that are feminine and modest enough that women could wear them without sin. If I were in a denomination where the general opinion is that really only skirts and dresses are feminine enough given current culture, I might not totally agree with this assessment of culture, but I could grant it as a plausible position and an attempt to guard a recognized biblical truth and so hold that members ought not to unnecessarily cause scandal over it. It is not worth splitting the church over. Whereas if I was very strict on this and in a denomination that is not, I would have a harder time disciplining those no one else thinks need to be disciplined. Also, if I think a church is too strict, I can work to correct this imbalance over time, and I am more likely to succeed than I am to make a church that is looser more strict, given the pull felt by churches towards accommodating modern culture.

    So this leads to something of a proposal for consideration. FPs will likely not be open to any union with any churches that are less strict on their distinctive moral convictions, because they hold them to be proper applications of biblical teaching. But could not those who are a bit less strict accommodate them by agreeing to a uniform practice out of concern for the unity of the church, in deference to the opinions of those who are more strict, without sinning against their consciences? Perhaps a compromise could be reached in dialogue where the FPs could come to express appreciation for the concern of others for liberty of conscience and to try to accommodate them as best they can, and where they cannot perhaps others less strict could agree, for the unity of the church, to accommodate to some more strict practices. This seems particularly to me to be a reasonable proposal to consider in the light of what I take to be the strong historical claims of the FPCS to be the heir to the C of S of the Reformation.

    It might be objected that this would require ministers to do something (like disciplining a female member who wears trousers) that they would take to be a violating of that member’s freedom of conscience. But could they not look at such discipline in practice as not so much a discipline only over the act of wearing trousers per se, but over the act of wearing trousers in circumstances where doing such is scandalous and endangers the unity of the church and respect and deference for synods? The latter might reasonably be held to be a censurable offense even where the former possibly may not, especially if the stricter denomination is sensitive to these differences of opinion. In this way, it seems easier to accommodate a limited amount of greater strictness than vice versa–again, particularly considering historical claims and deference to them.

    I know there are a number of assumptions and points that can be objected to in what I have said, but I put it forward as a way of looking at things hopefully worth considering to some degree.


  13. Thankyou, commenters, for this very useful discussion.

    It comes as a great relief to me to see that other people’s comments can run to such great lengths as these :-)

    If there’s still appetite for discussion, could I ask for further thoughts on a couple of points.

    One is still this issue of what we should/shouldn’t accommodate. To pick up on Mark’s example from far above, where there is laxity on some point in Denomination B but not in Denomination A. The argument is that Denom A would then diminish its own purity if it united with Denom B. Granting this, the question then arises: doesn’t this put both A and B in the position of saying, Our respective stances on Issue X are so important to both of us that we would rather carry on as separate denominations, than unite around all the other doctrines (etc) that we share. Would not at least one of these denominations be acting divisively by prioritising some question of practice over a shared doctrinal basis?

    Next, what do people think about Mark’s proposal?

    And: what exactly do the different denominations mean by (strict?) adherence to the WCF?


  14. I’ve been continuing to think about this issue all week. I would like to add some thoughts and clarifications to my previous statement.

    I do think there must be a balance here. We must accommodate where we can without sin, but we must never, ever accommodate where sin would be required. Particularly, the officers of the church have a moral obligation to preserve the purity of the church, and they are accountable to and for one another, as the biblical presbyterian system of government implies.

    The various denominations in Scotland (at least the ones being discussed here) agree on adherence to the Westminster Standards, but they do not agree on how to biblically implement them in all areas. And these areas of difference, whatever side we take on them, are very important and cannot be swept under the rug. If unity were achieved without these issues being settled, it could only be the result of declension in all the denominations and would result in a weakened church that has chosen to put pragmatism before principle.

    That being said, there is a place for accommodation, when it does not involve sin. But the balance can be tricky. Take the example of women wearing trousers. The FPs are against it as a generally assumed principle, as I understand. If I am not mistaken, the RPCS and the FCC and the APC, on the other hand, do not tend in principle to be against it. Somebody here is being unduly restrictive, and somebody is being unduly lax. How can there be honest, non-compromising unity as long as this still remains a divisive issue? It would seem that looser denominations would have to discipline people for things the Bible does not oppose (in their view), or the FPs would have to allow what the Bible tells them not to allow (in their view). How could either side, given their positions on this, come together without compromise?

    The first and best solution would be that all the denominations would come to hold the same view on this, and then unite. But must there be a divided church until this happens? I don’t know. I confess it drives me crazy to think that the Body of Christ must remain rent in pieces because of issues like whether or not trousers can be adequately feminine! This just seems so ridiculously minor of an issue! And yet nothing that is a matter of biblical ethics is minor, and we must not think of it so. We do not want to embrace the agnostic indifference of the world to matters relevant to the application of God’s Word.

    Part of what bugs me with these kinds of issues is that they are sometimes not so much matters of different biblical interpretations as matters of reading the culture to figure out how to apply agreed-upon biblical principles to them. For example, Brian Schwertley, and American Presbyterian, has started a whole new denomination in America. He did this because he feels the other Reformed denominations are either too loose or too strict. He thinks the FPs are too strict about trousers, and he has written an article dealing with the subject ( He is divided from the FPCS for these kinds of reasons. In reading his article, I find that he is basically in total agreement with the FP position in terms of biblical interpretation. Both agree that there ought to be gender distinctions in dress–that women should not dress like men and vice versa. Where they disagree is simply that the FPs seem to tend to think that trousers, given current western culture, have the connotation of being men’s clothing, whereas Schwertley thinks that western culture has changed such that this is no longer the case; and therefore he holds that there are trousers women can wear that are feminine (and modest) enough to meet biblical requirements. What keeps going through my head is, “Do we really need to have two separate denominations, rend the body of Christ, weaken the witness of the truth in the world, weaken biblical evangelism, simply because we do not all read, not the Bible, but western culture, in exactly the same way?!” I cannot but think that surely there must be a way through that that can preserve unity!

    For my own part, I am a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, but I really want to be a member of the FPCS because I think it has the best historic claim to the heir of the historic Church of Scotland. (I won’t try to spell out all my thinking here that has led me to this practical conclusion. If you want to know, feel free to ask!) I’m not sure I see eye-to-eye with them on everything. I’m not sure what I think about the trousers issue. For another example, the FPCS seems to hold that it is inappropriate to say “you,” etc., when referring to God, and that we must say “thou,” etc. I was baffled when I heard this. Where in the Bible can one find that requirement? Mr. Vogan explained to me that it is because “you” is plural and it is inappropriate to refer to God using plural pronouns. I was fascinated by this explanation. It never would have occurred to me, because it seems obvious to me that “you” no longer is plural in most of the western world. Why hold on to a rule that makes perfect sense in one culture, but seems to not take into account obvious and nearly universal changes in the English language? I agree with the underlying principle completely; of course we should not refer to God with plural pronouns. But I cannot see that it is wrong to use “you” to refer to God given the way the English language actually works today. So I’ve thought to myself, What do I do with this? Do I consider the FPCS to be imposing inappropriately on liberty of conscience and look to other denominations, like the FCC? But if I were to go that route, I would be saying that this issue is sufficient to justly divide the church. Is it? It is not a difference over biblical doctrine. It is merely a difference in what we think words tend to mean in the culture. Perhaps in the Scottish Highlands “you” still has a plural connotation. It certainly does not in Salt Lake City, Utah! Could this be an area where I could accommodate? Perhaps I could grant that in FPCS culture, “you” is plural and so it would be inappropriate for them to allow it to be used in reference to God, and then when I joined them I would abide by their usage for the sake of unity, hoping that as the church broadens it will recognize more differences of language. In short, can I accommodate here, or is this worth splitting the church over? For that is what I would be saying if I were to choose another denomination on the basis of this.

    What I would like to do personally is try to join the FPCS and work out some of these things in dialogue during that process, involving myself and all of my family. Perhaps it would end up that I could not accommodate that far, but perhaps sufficient agreement could be reached to enable it. It seems to me it is my duty to try as hard as I can, without sinful compromise, to make it work. Unfortunately, the nearest FPCS is in Texas, at least a day’s drive away, and so I can’t pursue this right now. But that is how I look at it.

    Perhaps sharing my personal perspective will be helpful, in that it shows where I am coming from when I think about these things. And I should add that even where I have concerns about the FPCS, I have learned an enormous amount from them, and they have caused me to consider things I’ve never thought about before, and I have grown a great deal through my interactions with them.

    So perhaps we can draw a few principles here. 1. We need to figure out who has the best historic claim to be heir to the historic Church of Scotland, all other things being equal, among those who can be said in some way to require strict subscription to the Confession. This is important because I think that the answer to this question will provide a prima facie duty to join that denomination. Other factors may move us away from that denomination, but we will have an appropriate deference towards it and try to accommodate as best we can. 2. We need to figure out what the biblical teachings are regarding the differences in practice that are divisive. Is there agreement on biblical interpretation? Where there is not, this is an objective matter that needs to get worked out, and those who are wrong need to move towards greater purity. 3. Once there is agreement on biblical interpretation, we need to figure out why any remaining disagreements are there. Are there disagreements over how to understand the culture, such as I have been talking about? Are there differences in feelings about what would be the most prudent application of some biblical principle in some area? It is in these things that perhaps some accommodation could happen, perhaps. But how much? Could dialogue help us figure that out? Where can we practice some give-and-take here, without sin?

    There are perhaps more principles that could be drawn out, but this has become very long! I hope people find it helpful, though. I really appreciate this conversation, and I want to take advantage of this opportunity to talk together and really think through these crucial issues deeply.



  15. Just a brief additional thought (then I’ll be quiet for a while : )): I have found that some of the things that have most concerned me about the FPCS have also been some of the things that have drawn me to them. Their practical positions and stands seem to portray a seriousness about church discipline and a care about the details of what godly living requires that I have found quite rare. If they go too far on some things, every other denomination I’ve ever seen seems to go too far in the other direction. Considering that churches have a more natural tendency to decline towards looseness in modern western culture, the FPCS’s tendency to have preserved such a level of strictness strikes me as a sign of an inward resistance to certain cultural diseases that tend to infect churches, and this makes me think them special in this way, and it also increases my sense that I can learn from them, and it makes me wonder if even in those areas where I am unsure of their position, I might find that it is I myself and not them who has been unbalanced. I have already found this in some areas, and I think it likely I will continue to find it. Not that this justifies everything they do, and there are a lot of things I am still unsure about, but I wanted to share this experience.

    OK, I’ll stop talking now (for a while, anyway).



  16. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for these considered and careful comments.

    If no one else is going to respond (although I wish they would..!) here are some quick reactions.

    One is that the emphasis on not forcing people to act against their consciences is very welcome. It may be the case that on some points, some FPs are mistaken in their belief that it would be sinful to do (or not do) some particular thing, but even so, the best response from others is charitableness until such time as these consciences get more light (if that’s what’s needed).

    On the two specific points mentioned, there are already members in the FP Church who conform themselves to the majority practice so as not to cause offence, rather than because they share the view that it’s necessarily sinful for women to wear trousers or sinful to address the Lord using ‘you’ in prayer.

    I would share the view that the problem is often ‘not so much matters of different biblical interpretations as matters of reading the culture to figure out how to apply agreed-upon biblical principles.’ Some of the practical issues which seem the most significant, take on their significance initially because of cultural conservatism, and then as people search around for justifications, bible verses or largescale biblical principles get pressed into service post hoc, so that a particular *behaviour* becomes the really important thing, invested with all sorts of moral implications, even when the original cultural context changes to make the behaviour more problematic now than its opposite was to start with.
    (Eg, women potentially finding themselves obliged to wear skirts even when the cultural connotations of doing so have changed to signal something less compatible with the 7th Commandment than trousers were to start with.)
    (‘You’ is incidentally the only possible form for the second person singular in the Scottish Highlands. ‘Thou’ is a form uniquely used for addressing the Lord in prayer. A defence of ‘thou’ based on a felt need to have a special pronoun for addressing a divine being would, though at odds with precedent in Hebrew, Greek, and English, be more plausible than a defence on the grounds of ‘you’ obligatorily connoting plurality.)
    (That’s by the by.)

    At the same time I also appreciate the point, although I don’t really understand how it works, that cultural conservatism acts as a sort of protective factor against what you’re calling looseness. Can we say it’s the cultural disease of obsession with novelty that infected the church such that (eg) the AV fell out of favour, hence people’s familiarity with ‘thou’ declined, hence using ‘thou’ in prayer becomes weird and unnatural, hence ‘you’ replaces it. But resistance to novelty per se is not a virtue. Mere conservatism can’t be the answer. An 1890s time warp isn’t what we want (and to be fair, it’s not what we’ve got anyway) – this is meant to be The Church we’re talking about, a particular manifestation of the whole body of those who profess the Lord Jesus Christ in all ages and places. Maybe if we recovered a sense of the ‘all ages and places’ thing we would be less prone to make up rulings and regulations on specific behaviours: sanctification and godly living is attainable by *all* Christians, such that church courts should be very reluctant to insist on (or repudiate) context-dependent behaviours, but should go only as far (although every bit as far) as Scripture warrants.

    By way of brief reference to the three-point plan (1, historic claim, 2, biblical teachings, 3, application of biblical teachings), my feeling is that point 1 can be taken relatively independently of 2-3 as a question in its own right and with perhaps more straightforward resolution. Although I’m open to correction, I would also suspect that point 2 would be largely shared in all the denominations (if we share the Catechisms in common, I don’t see many people taking exceptions to the requirements and forbiddings in the questions on the 10 commandments, eg). So it’s point 3 where things get awkward – responses to contemporary culture and issues of prudence and wisdom rather than black and white right and wrong.

    I’d still like to hear what other people think.


    • IMHO The special pronoun defence is what is known as *tradition*!

      So far as I can see the only logical defence is – we are going to keep the AV because it is more accurate and based on a better Greek text. The AV includes a very useful distinction between singular and plural pronouns (though it does not include the distinction between masculine and feminine pronouns found in one or both of the origonal languages). We should retain this in prayer along with other features of the AV as they give a reverent tone to prayer and are a barrier against the lightness and frivolity evident elsewhere. We would not introduce a special singular pronoun if a language did not have one, but we still have one in the context of Bible and church, and should retain it.

      A possible problem is, of course, that many people have not experienced this since the 1970s/80s.


  17. This has been a very interesting discussion but I do think that those who believe that these ‘minor’ issues can be resolved without offense being caused are rather naive. We went from the Free Church of Scotland to worship in a Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America believing that they upheld the same Confession and form of worship. Although their position on Exclusive Psalmody was probably more clearly articulated and defended than it was in the Free Church, they could not understand my husband’s conviction that the women should not be praying publically during Worship and they would not have him conduct services because of this although he had asked graciously if the time of open prayer could be after the Benediction when he was conducting the services.. We’ve learned that anything that seems to be judging the practice of another denomination is seen as divisive. We found that there were vast differences in our view of Roman Catholicism, Sabbath observance and the Church Calendar too.


    • Hi Flora, I’m a member in the RPCS. Yes the RPCNA are generally more lax than the RPCS unfortunately. But even within the RPCNA, as you might know, there are many people who hold to a more RPCS view.

      But if an uncompromising Biblical unity could be achieved here in Scotland, as has been mentioned, perhaps it could have a big impact on North American Presbyterian churches, and move denominations like the RPCNA to a more confessional and conservative doctrine once again.

      What a great witness it would be if the massive human hurdles could be overcome, and all liberal leaning office bearers powerfully persuaded with regards to doctrine, and there could be one strong reformed church in Scotland, whose congregations would reach every corner of Scotland.


      • You could be right ,David. My experience has been mainly in the Canadian Presbytery although I was rebuked by a Deaconess in Pittsburg many years ago for wearing a ‘head-covering’ and accused of drawing attention to myself. I have no idea where the Scottish and Irish R.P Churches stand on some of the issues I mentioned ( Roman Catholicism, Sabbath observance, women speaking and praying in worship services). All I know, is that there were very different views and practices in the F.P Church and Free Church that I was converted and nurtured in, to what I saw in the R.P.C.N.A. I We were especially concerned to see covenant children being educated in Roman Catholic schools. It is important to work towards unity and if the Lord would answer the fervent prayers of many of His people and send Revival ,it would be so much easier.


        • Oh it sounds like you definitely came across one of the most liberal congregations. They are definitely a minority in the denomination. Well the Scottish and RP would be far more conservative. Certainly in the RPCS it is a requirement to hold to WCF teaching without any qualification or exception, so of course that includes believing the pope to be the anti-christ and so on.
          So at least in Scotland and with the RPCS, for the time being, unity is a very realistic and achievable goal.


          • Hi David,

            Thanks for your comments. Could I run something past you?

            One thing that makes FPs quite nervous and skittery about other denominations is the amount of variation that that there can be within a denomination. With the FPs, there is a lot of internal consistency and shared beliefs and practice, and it can be hard for us to understand how a presbyterian denomination could let individual congregations do their own thing on things like this (deacons, hats, hymns, whatever).

            Accepting what you say about the fact that the RPCS is more conservative than the RPCNA, how should we understand the relationship between the RPCS and the RPCNA? how far does belonging to the RCPCS implicate you in the various practices of the RPCNA which you disagree with? Is there leeway for a congregation of the RPCS to actually go ahead and ordain deaconesses if they wanted to, or is there something different about the RPCS which means it will continue to be different from the RPCNA on a thing like this?



            • Hi Catherine,

              Yeh they are totally separate denominations, only sister churches. So that is really just a strong relationship, things like youth exchanges and sharing prayer requests. RP churches worldwide are like a family of denominations.

              So the RPCS is a totally separate denomination, so laxity in doctrine in the RPCNA is not an issue here in Scotland between the FPs and RPCS. And your comments on Presbyterianism are shared with the RPs, consistency is vital.

              However you gave the head covering as an example, this is not enforced as it is in the FPs. I think Rev Beers referred to it earlier, saying it isn’t a matter that should divide.
              We would agree with that. In my congregation in Glasgow it is preached from the pulpit and declared to be the Bible’s teaching (as in the FPs), but if a member doesn’t wear one she isn’t disciplined. What would happen is fellow members or office bearers may discuss the matter with her and encourage her to. I’d imagine this would be a matter that the FPs would have a different view to the RPs and FCC on.

              My own view is that the WCF doesn’t make it a matter that is necessary for unity, but that it is certainly the Bible’s teaching and we should seek to persuade women in the matter.


              • I wonder if David’s comment here touches on one of the most substantial differences between the denominations in question, and that is the use of church discipline. Perhaps the internal consistency that Cath mentions is a result of the FP approach to discipline. Thoughts?


                • The RPCS relationship with the RPCNA concerns me, as well as other similar relationships (such as the relationships of churches involved in the International Conference of Reformed Churches). It seems to me that such relationships often do not take adequately into account that we are presbyterians, not independents. The logic of presbyterian church government is that smaller units of the church should be able to come together in larger, authoritative councils that can come to conclusions binding on all the churches under that council and can discipline individuals and member churches. This implies that all the churches are to be united in a common confession and that the same uniformity expected within a region or a nation ought to be expected within the whole universal church. If it is right within a part of the church to discipline someone, say, for using uninspired hymns in worship, it must be right in every other part of the church to do the same thing, and there should be unity of discipline across the universal church.

                  I fear that Reformed churches have grown far too comfortable with vaguer “sister church” relationships that are really manifestations of an attitude of independency rather than presbyterianism. We are being presbyterians on a more local level, or even a national level, and then reverting to congregationalism/independency on larger scales.

                  We need to take seriously the fact that when we assume presbyterian church government, any division or lack of union between two denominations implies an attitude from one denomination that the other is “unchurched”–that is, not a formally recognized true church. For one denomination to recognize the ecclesiastical authority of another denomination is to merge into one united denomination. (I’ve talked about this a bit more here – So while there can be dialogue between denominations, and a recognition of God’s providential and gracious work among people of different denominations, yet we presbyterians cannot have a situation where we think we are all one big happy church family while we are divided into different denominations.

                  I don’t mean to imply that the RPCS has not thought about this in terms of its relationship with the RPCNA, but I do wonder if this, and the implications of this, have been adequately considered. I consider the FPs to be more consistent in this area.

                  And, like Sharon, I am also concerned about the view of church discipline that David has expressed. How can a church recognize that there is, for example, a biblical command for headcoverings, and then not discipline with regard to it? Does the church have a right to decide that what God has commanded doesn’t really need to be commanded? Does the church have a right to decide that what God has said is unacceptable is really OK and should not be opposed (at least with very much effort)? And while the WCF is a great symbol of biblical teaching, it cannot replace the Bible as the source of the unity of the church. We cannot say that we will not make much of some doctrine because it is not in the WCF but only in the Bible. As others have said previously, the WCF is not intended to be the sum total of everything the Bible says, and therefore all we need to worry about, but is only a summary of central points of biblical doctrine. I do think that what we are seeing here is a significant difference of outlook between the FPs and the RPCS and perhaps the FCC.


                • Sharon – It is one of the most substantial differences. Although only in areas like these.

                  Mark – I think it is unfair to accuse the RPs of having a congregationalist attitude. The situation stems from a belief that denominations should be national and not worldwide. A worldwide RP church wasn’t feasible when these denominations were formed, and I don’t think it is today either. In any case, you can clearly see we aren’t in a position to unite with the RPCNA. This isn’t an issue I have studied, so perhaps I can be corrected, but a worldwide presbyterian church seems an impossible situation. “Scotland” would also have to be dropped from our names if we were to seriously promote that view.

                  On your second criticism, because we don’t deem it an issue to discipline and withhold a genuine Christian from the table for, you’ve said:
                  We believe it “doesn’t really need to be commanded” and we believe we “have a right to decide that what God has said is unacceptable is really OK and should not be opposed (at least with very much effort)”.

                  Again I think this is an unfair judgement. I don’t think it is right to start quizzing our members – before allowing them to the table – on the whole Bible to see if there is anything that we believe the Bible teaches that they interpret differently.

                  We believe that the WCF consists of all doctrine that is essential to believe and hold to, to be admitted into office in the church and for Church unity.

                  I believe that for your view to be consistent that an additional vow on the head covering issue must be taken by men being admitted into office in the church, because in your view the vow on the WCF is not sufficient with regards to doctrine. And that members also should be taking a vow on the WCF and on the head covering issue, to ensure that they agree on every single point. It would also require a robust teaching programme for a new convert before they could sit at the table.

                  In the RPs we do take a vow on membership, and we believe this vow covers the essentials for membership. We have an additional vow for office bearers, and we believe this covers all the essentials to take office (this one will probably be identical to that of the FPs).

                  I am personally uncomfortable with introducing additional rules and requirements over and above the current ones, which are summed up in our vows.


                • David, I did not mean to come across sounding like I was being unfair to the RPCS. I do think that some of the positions you expressed illustrate some ways of thinking that I regard as problematic. I think they are shared by many in the Reformed world today, certainly very much by many in my own current denomination, the OPC, as well. And these issues are important for thinking through the unity of the church.

                  “I think it is unfair to accuse the RPs of having a congregationalist attitude. The situation stems from a belief that denominations should be national and not worldwide. . . . This isn’t an issue I have studied, so perhaps I can be corrected, but a worldwide presbyterian church seems an impossible situation.”

                  I would call this a congregationalist/independent viewpoint, at least at the international level. I do not use the term as a rhetorical pejorative, but as what seems to me an accurate description. The logic of presbyterian church government implies that the whole church should be unified together under a series of courts. To stop this at the level of nations is to cease to think presbyterianly at that point and instead to adopt an independent outlook. A fully consistent presbyterian view would require an international council of churches that has true binding and disciplinary power. It may be that such a council would meet much more rarely than the national councils, but it ought to be there. I don’t think the lack of adequate recognition of this is a uniquely RP problem. I think this is something the Reformed churches have perhaps never worked out fully adequately and which is a problem for most of them today. I do think the FPs are more consistent than apparently the RPs are in working through this, from what I have seen.

                  “We believe that the WCF consists of all doctrine that is essential to believe and hold to, to be admitted into office in the church and for Church unity.”

                  I admit I do find this problematic as well. There are some doctrines in the WCF that are more central than others. And there are some doctrines not mentioned in the WCF (not having women pastors, for example) which are at least as central as some of those that are mentioned. Presbyterian churches are confessional churches. We don’t allow into office anyone who holds some minimal list of “the fundamentals of the faith,” but only those who are competent in the whole counsel of God. I do acknowledge that we cannot rule out all disagreements on everything, and that there are times when some degree of tolerance has a role to play, but surely we should never say that we will not as a church stand up for some doctrine, even if it is taught in the Bible, just because it isn’t mentioned in the WCF. I would agree that we have to have a degree of leniency with members, depending on individual circumstances, but I think we ought not to simply lay aside as outside what the church should confess any biblical teaching. This is an important issue in this conversation, because there is a difference in outlook here that is part of the reason for division between the denominations.


  18. Matthew – sorry for the delay in responding. Been busy and away from home.

    Thanks for your response. It is a helpful clarification and confirmation of all but one of the points I made. I had intended to give the context of Gillespie’s quote but thought space did not permit. As you show it was in the context of the Church government question and in response to the Apologetic Narration as I understand. It is quite a point (church government) he is asking the independents to accomodate on, a far greater point one might argue than anything that divides the FCC and FP Churches for instance.

    I agree with you for the need of uniformity but in relation to your response, we have to decide what degree of uniformity we can accomodate for the sake of unity. They are both very significant issues but for me the issue of pursuing unity appears to hold the scriptural precedence over the maintenance of a narrow uniformity. I think Church history in general bears this out.

    Thanks again for your response. I will bow out of the discussion at this point as time does not permit me to keep up with it.

    If according to Paul we are to ‘endeavour (work hard) to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace’ how hard we should seek to promote and achieve it where it is possible. May the Lord bless the rest of your discussions and the cause of the Reformed Church in Scotland.


  19. “They are both very significant issues but for me the issue of pursuing unity appears to hold the scriptural precedence over the maintenance of a narrow uniformity.”

    There are all kinds of nuances here, and the issues, and what is more important, have to be weighed on a case-by-case basis. Uniformity in terms of embracing biblical truth clearly has priority over unity, since we are not allowed to water-down God’s Word. Uniformity in terms of practices that are intended for the good order of the church are more difficult, as they can be different in different contexts, and yet it is important to maintain sufficient good order. In these cases, though, there are likely to be occasions where it might be right to choose unity over uniform practice connected to tradition. I would say that the scandal of the current divisions is so great and pressing that the possibility of non-sinful compromise for the sake of unity must be seriously considered whenever possible.


  20. As an elder in the FCoSCont., I think there is a great deal that is appealing in this call but also that it would be naive in the extreme to think the barriers between us are all on largely ‘cultural/secondary’ matters.
    The ‘elephant in the room’ that I can see no way of overcoming, so far as potential union between the F.P.s and the FCC is the foudational issue of the Right of Continued Protest against any Act/Finding of the highest court of the church. The FCC
    ‘s very existence rests on this and currently the whole thing is being reviewed in presbyteries. In the F.P. ‘s they many years ago skewed off on this and refuse such a Right, allowing only a ‘one off’ dissent. Effectively any decision of the hghest court is put beyond correction or criticism! I simply cannot see this stumbling block, so distinctive of both churches, ever being smoothed away.


  21. Yes, we’re aware that the FCC have invested a lot in the idea of a putative right of continued protest.

    It’s one of many obstacles to unity that need to be discussed.


  22. Mr. Willson (and other FCCers here), how would you describe the basic idea of the right of continued protest? What exactly does this mean (and not mean)?

    Thank you!


  23. The Right of continued Protest is embedded in Scottish Presbyterianism, especially evident in the old, pre 1900 Free church of Scotland, when the conservative ‘Constitutionalist’ party, led by such men as Drs. Begg and Kennedy who on a number of occasions, along with others, felt obliged to lodge full, formal ‘Protests’ against proposals or findings and intimated their full right and intention to continue to work to have what they saw as unwise or downright wrong legislation reversed. And though the battles were often on momentous issues and tthreatened monentous consequences yet they were permitted to pursue such a course of defiance. It might seem paradoxical but this sacred Right actually helps prevent the very thing that has come to pass, viz, multiple and arguably precipitate divisions. It allows both sides in an argument to take stock and present their case without immediate separation. It also prevents the highest courts of the churches to be placed beyond criticism and correction. It has also become itself a battleground. First the Free Presbyterians deviated on it in the 1930s over a notorious discipline case and it has haunted them periodically ever since. They have lost at least four ministers over it down the years and had at least one minister, the Rev Fraser Tallach, who persistently dissented on the issue and eventually wrote a whole study on it, entitled The Open Door. The Revs Moshe Radcliff and John Brentnall in the 70s were deposed for insisting it needed changing and they too produced a very interesting study, The Right of Protest in 1975. The 1989 split between the F.P.s and those who formed the Associated Presbyterian Churches was also triggered by invoking a Protest against a Synod disciplinary decision. Despite the clear lessons and record of Scottish Presbyterianism’s history, the pre 2000 Free Church of Scotland allowed impetuous feelings running high over a disciplinary case to ride roughshod over caution and due procedure and again attacked any right to continued Protest with the result they barged ahead to deprive around a third of their ministers and many elders the right to continue in office if continuing with Protest. The calamitous result for Scottish Presbyterianism remains to this day and will not go away any time soon. Church majorities that legislate in haste, in the heat of the moment must repent at leisure or live with unforeseen consequences of rash discipline. Thus, this Right is NOT some ‘novelty’ or obscurity but something enshrined in Presbyterianism to help preserve unity and effect correction. Only a complete ignorance or denial of Scottish Presbyterianism and its history would allow one to dismiss it. And the potential consequences of repudiating it are too serious to treat it as negligible. I see that Kenny Stewart, presumably due to his personal stance with the majority in 2000, states he has problems with the FCC ‘Reconstitution’; if by this he means he rejects the Right of Continued Protest, the ground on which the minority were ejected, then I am afraid I for one would strenuously resist any reuinion denying this Right. On a lesser note, i also see he puts forward the Reformed Presbyterians as the best option to be the ‘receiving church’ if reunion were to involve not creating a new denenominational merger but the others entering one of the already extant denominations. One of the reasons he cites is that the R.P.s are the only direct lineal descendants of the 1640s Second Reformation Covenanting Kirk; the others are all descended from the 1690 Settlement with its Act of Toleration that was associated with the Glorious Revolution. He claims each of those churches harbours reservations about the Revolution Settlement. Perhaps some do, but I for one most definitely do not. Toleration may have its abuses but I remain unconvinced that there is a workable alternative to help preserve the right of conscience for dissenting groups. Thus, although the Call for reunion is a highly laudable one, even an exciting prospect, yet there are some very hard issues we MUST not dodge. And let me hasten to add though I put forward these stances with some dehree of staunchness, yet I have great respect and affection for the valiant stance for the Reformed Gospel the other denominations mentioned here have made over the years.


  24. Mr. Willson, thank you for your reply. I am, however, still not entirely sure what the right of continued protest entails. Does it mean merely that an individual or group might disagree with a synod (or GA) conclusion? Does it mean that an individual or group have the right to disobey a synod conclusion? My understanding is that one is not necessarily required in the FP church to agree with everything the synod says, but one is required to conform to its resolutions. I would think that the logic of presbyterian church government would imply that one has an obligation to conform to lawful synodical conclusions and that the church has a right (assuming it is right) to discipline someone for not following such a resolution/conclusion. Otherwise, the synod’s power would really be only advisory, as in congregationalism. Would you mind elaborating briefly on exactly what the right of continued protest entails?

    Thank you!


  25. Mark,
    The scenario you outline- where a minority register disapproval/disagreement in a ‘one off’, after which they agree to toe the line, is not one of formal ‘Protest’ but technically is termed a ‘Dissent’.
    A formal Protest is the highest expression of disapprobation of a Synod or General Assembly ‘Act’ or ‘Finding’. By its nature it should be used sparingly and rarely, where the Protesting parties are alarmed that a decision will involve them in a breach of their Ordination Vows not to follow divisive courses from the doctrine, worship , discipline and government of the church as authorised, laid down and practised when the Vows were taken. Classically, Presbyterianism has held Christ alone to be Absolute Head of His Church so in exceptional circumstances the highest court, if perceived to be in egregious error or tending that way, can be defied by formal Protest and notice to adopt all competent means to reverse or avoid such decisions.
    The best way to elucidate is to provide a concrete example. To my mind one of the most glaring proofs of the Right was when Begg Protested the GA’s agreement that the Free Church schools should handed over to the State in the Scottish Education Bill of 1872. Begg saw this as a betrayal of the Church’s duty to educate and he scorned the assurances of due protestion of proper religious instruction as utterly complacent ( prophetically!!) For our purpose of demonstrating the Right of Continued Protest and even defiance most significantly Begg signalled his intention of ensuring his dissident opinion would be represented before the Government though in diametric opposition to the majority view!! If this is not proof positive of the Right I fail to see what is! Of course the very existence of the Free Church Defence Association ( Begg’s brainchild and then revived in the late 90s to oppose Union with the liberal United Presbyterians) in the old Victorian Free Church also proves the point.
    Finally, when a Protest is tabled it usually should draw forth a Response to try to satisfy the Protestors either that they are mistaken or their fears groundless or that they were in fact right all along!


  26. One further thing occurs to me to mention. The Disruption Fathers produced a now obscure but nevertheless authoritative ‘Catechism on the Principles and Constitution of the Free Church of Scotland.’ My copy is a ‘new edition’ dating from 1876 but substantially the same as the original from 1847.
    In it, we get a run of questions on Christ alone as Head then the following;-
    Q.96 Is there no remedy open to those who may be aggrieved by the proceedings of the office-bearers of the Church?
    A. They have a remedy; they can appeal to the Head of the Church.
    Q.97 What does this right of appeal imply?
    A. That the right of private judgement belongs to the individual members and office-bearers of the Church.
    Q98 Are those who take an appeal to Christ at liberty to disregard the sentence or proceedings of which they complain?
    A. They are, but at their peril and as they shall answer to Christ when he decides on their appeal.

    Q.211 Did the Church act rashly in passing the Veto Act?
    A. On the contrary, she was shut up to the adoption of that, or some similar measure.
    Q.212 Why so?
    A. Beacuse the evangelical party who now prevailed in her councils, had always held it as a principle that the Church could not without sin act under any system of patronage which subverted the right of the congregational call, or which rested the title to the holy ministry on the civil instrument of a presentation.

    Note well- the ‘evangelical party..HAD ALWAYS HELD…’ They were under Protest, in effect, and had been determined to work towards the reversal of the old Patronage system.


  27. I need to do more research on this, so hopefully my thoughts here won’t be off the mark. Thank you for providing more information on this idea.

    It would seem to me that in a presbyterian system, the ruling of the highest synod would be binding, provided that ruling is lawful (does not require sin). If the ruling does require sin, it must indeed be disobeyed. I also agree that we should never split from a church. Rather, we should work for reform without sinning within the unity of the church. So, from the perspective of the individual, there is certainly a right (and a duty) of continued protest, as long as it is possible.

    However, it seems to me a synod cannot lawfully grant a right of continued protest to individuals, for this reason: A synod which rules on a certain issue presumably believes its ruling to be correct and lawful, and thus to have the authority of God behind it. The synod must therefore regard that ruling as binding on everyone in the church. There is certainly no right to continue to protest against a lawful ruling backed by the authority of God, for that would be a right to protest against God. If the synod were to grant an individual a right of continued protest, it would be admitting that it’s own ruling was unlawful and sinful and therefore without authority, which it obviously cannot do without giving up that ruling.

    So, in short, while individuals always have a right to protest unlawful rulings, yet synods which believe their rulings to be lawful cannot recognize a right of continued protest. The synod must discipline the protesting individual if he does not conform to the ruling, or else it is admitting its own ruling is not lawful (and therefore it is lawful to protest against it). So while an individual has a right and a duty to continue to protest within the unity of the church, the synod has a right and a duty to discipline a protester it believes to be wrong. Either way, then, the synod will end up rejecting the person and a split will occur, whether the fault be in the individual or in the synod. In the former case, the synod’s rejection of the individual will be lawful and have binding authority which all should recognize. In the latter case, if the synod has ejected the protester from the church, the individual has the right to consider the synod as having cut itself off from Christian fellowship, and so may (depending on the circumstances) continue with the opinion that he (and others like him) are the true continuation of the church.

    What can’t happen, though, with any consistency, is that a synod can make what it thinks to be a lawful ruling and then allow disobedience to it by individuals, for this would be to give up presbyterianism for congregationalism (because the synod would be saying its rulings are only advisory and not binding). So if this is what “the right of continued protest” means, I think it is unpresbyterian. But I don’t make that claim, because I am still unsure exactly what “the right of continued protest” really means and implies.


  28. It seems to me , Mark, that what in effect, you are arguing for with your take on a Synod/General Assembly’s supposed obligation to discipline a person for Protest and non assent, is the Absolutising of its Acts/Findings. They are being put beyond correction! That is neither Presbyterian nor Congregationalist! A Court of the Church cannot just summarily discipline a person without due Process, ie a fair trial at which all the issues are hammered out. It is the gravest of errors to introduce procedures that make it impossible to undo unwise or just plain bad legislation! Of course a Court may discipline a person for clear, proven breach of their vows and the clearly agreed upon doctrine, worship, discipline and government of the Church as laid out in its subordinate standards. However, in this life things get murky and messy and often require further investigation and where some person or group of persons lodges a Protest it is wise to seek all means to satisfy their doubts, objections, misgivings, not just sling them out. Say a majority in a church court does decide to expel, depose or suspend certain individuals for questioning their judgement as expressed in their formal decisions of acts and Findings: and say, upon reflection they begin to have second thoughts and want to reverse a past decision. If the mere challenge to a Finding gets you ejected then such a course of rectification becomes virtually impossible, does it not? Of course, in the Constitutional Catechism I cited, you will notice that the ultimate Appeal to Christ is a Right that we are rightly warned involves very real peril, thus implicitly counselling it should only ever be used with the greatest caution and where we feel fundamental issues are at stake. I believe Dr Begg and the Constitutionalists well realised this but because the church was repeatedly coming under assault they felt morally obliged to resort to it, possibly more regularly than any other group in the course of post Revolution Settlement Scottish Presbyterianism. I also believe in the U.S.A., Dr Hodge dealt extensively with this whole matter of
    Protest though I do have his works covering this to hand.
    Incidentally, it may interest you to know that the Free Presbyterians seem to have undergone something of a shift on this themselves, between the early decades and after the mid 1930s. It is well known that one of their early ministers, the Rev Allan MacKenzie, in 1897 lodged a Protest before the Synod; Synod decided to frame a reply and confer with him once that reply was ready. That hardly accords with the current doctrine that a Protest ipso facto effects suspension/separation.


    • Hi Ewen, Given the time, ink and money spent thus far on defining and debating continuous protest I doubt that this is the optimum place for managing such a wide, deep and labyrinthine subject. I fear that dependence upon some second or third hand discussions leads to a very inaccurate view of the FP position. I’m only interested in correcting the false interpretations that you have advanced of the FP position. For instance you say that the current doctrine is that protest ipso facto effects suspension/separation while Article 1 of the Synod statement says the exact opposite! The shift that you are asserting confidently took place did not take place – it is a piece of historical revisionism that is not supported by the clear facts and testimony. The Synod statement is entirely consistent with the 1897 action of treating a dissent with reasons tendered in a context of dissent (yet inaccurately described as a protest) as a dissent with reasons! Again this is where going back to the original sources would help clarify.


  29. Thank you for the further clarification and information on this subject. I would still see a problem if the right of continued protest implies a right to disobey synod conclusions, as this would destroy the binding character of such conclusions. But there are certainly a lot of nuances in all of this. It is something we all must continue to think through carefully, along with the other issues involved in continuing disunity.


  30. In the news today – thought it might clarify a misunderstanding

    The Editor
    Stornoway Gazette
    Letter to the Editor
    Rev David Campbell (Letters, 13th September) claims that the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) “contends that after a General Assembly has made a decision in a judicial case, office bearers have a right to protest and defy that decision”.

    That is incorrect. The Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) does not believe that a judicial decision can be protested against regardless of circumstances. When such a decision is reached in proper form, i.e. in
    full conformity with the law and constitution of the Church, there can be no legitimate room for protest.But where these conditions do not apply, or where a non-judicial decision is enforced as judicial, as happened in the Free Church in the years immediately preceding 2000, it is not only the right, but the duty, of members of Church courts to protest, and to continue protesting, until the wrong is put right. This arises from the ordination vow – binding on all office-bearers – to assert, maintain and defend the doctrine, worship, discipline and practice of the Church.

    It was the denial of that right, so preventing office-bearers from fulfilling their ordination vow and defending the constitution, which led directly to the division of 2000. In acting as they did, those who formed the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) were adhering fully to the law and practice of the Free
    Church of 1843 and following the example of faithful men, such as Dr James Begg, who exercised the right of protest in a similar way without being denied that right.

    The Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) will seek by God’s grace to continue faithful to the heritage of 1843, from which they, and indeed Mr Campbell’s denomination, claim descent.

    John MacLeod
    Press Officer, Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)


  31. Yes, I am glad the letter in the Stornoway Gazette appeared. It clearly shows continued Protest is not a recipe for ecclesiastical anarchy! By the very nature of the case, a formal Protest should arise only where some decision is preceived as a grave threat to a fundamental issue of the church’s official stance. If a whole denomination slides over the cliff with no Protesting minority then they will be answerable directly to Christ himself for their actions. If the majority are determined to slide in the face of a Protesting minority, however,they owe it to the protesters to produce a vindication of their course of action; if they fail to carry all, then the minority who remain must have a good claim to considered be the rightful representatives of the original church.


  32. So far as I understand it, a non judicial decision is one such as where the denomination declares its stance on some moral issue of the day( eg same sex ‘marriage’. Also some decisions may allow for a range of opinions amongst elders/members.
    A judicial decision is more a matter of exercising discipline over a member or office bearer who has transgressed in some way and caused a public scandal or a potential scandal. However I think Gavin Beers is the best person here to clarify the exact difference.


    • I have not read all that has gone before regarding Protest, but I have been asked to respond to the particular question regarding Judicial Process.

      A Judicial Process begins with a Libel. The Practice of the Free Church states, “…It has been established by long practice that no judicial process of a serious kind can be carried out against a Minister or a Probationer, except by the use of what is called a Libel…”

      A judicial process therefore begins with a libel, and is equivalent to someone being prosecuted through the civil courts and being found either innocent or guilty of a crime. Such a decision – arrived at by due process – cannot be Protested against. The verdict may be wrong; we may disagree with it most strongly. However, one must either live with the decision and its consequences or leave the denomination. What one is not entitled to do is continue to Protest such a decision. To believe otherwise, is to believe that one can Protest until one gets the decision one wants. This is simple tyranny. The Right of Protest does not endorse such tyranny and neither does the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).

      James I Gracie
      (F.C. Minister – Edinburgh)


  33. Pingback: reunion response « ninetysix and ten

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