from the sidelines

So far, we’ve had Reunion in the 21st century?, a Response, and an Answer.

In something of a different genre, we now also have ‘No Claim to Perfection?’ by Philip Ross. It’s available here, although it’s only fair to give warning that you may find it a disappointing read.

It (a) makes one substantive point by way of contribution to the discussion, (b) is overall a depressing hindrance to any potential reconciliation, yet (c) indirectly gives some opportunity to salvage the discussion.

(a) One substantive point is all I can find, and it doesn’t appear until half way through.

If you recall that the original ‘Reunion’ paper proposed reunion or amalgamation of four denominations, one essential criterion for identifying these four was that they all require “strict subscription” to the Westminster Confession. The ‘Response’ queried whether the APC does indeed practice “strict subscription,” since the APC Deed of Separation says it accepts the Westminster Confession “insofar as” it is consistent with Scripture.

For expressing a church’s relation to its confession, terminology like ‘insofar as’ should ring alarm bells because historically it was understood that the church accepted the confession not ‘insofar as’ it is consistent with Scripture but ‘because’ it is consistent with Scripture. To say you follow your confession only ‘insofar as’ it is scriptural is only another way of saying ‘1892 Declaratory Act’, which, as good Free Presbyterians and friends, we all know spells disaster.

Philip Ross’s article speaks to this point. He concedes the ‘insofar as’ wording could be considered “infelicitous or historically naive” but denies that it defines how the APC subscribe. He says we should take the APC understanding of subscription from their Questions and Formula, which are the same as in the FPs, and retain the ‘because’ (“strict”) subscription.

This matters in the current discussion because an ecclesiastical body practicing “loose,” quatenus, ‘insofar as’ subscription would rule it out as a possible participant in any reunion or amalgamation that could ever take place. If the case can be made for “strict,” quia, ‘because’ subscription on the part of the APC, then – good news – they’re back in the running.

But (b) if Philip Ross’s article is representative of feeling in the APC towards this discussion (or the FPC as one of its participants) it is questionable whether reconciliation is much in their minds in any case.

This article can in no way be construed as a helpful contribution to the discussion. In marked contrast to the three Reunion – Response – Answer papers, it doesn’t even claim to be trying to engage in a respectful or brotherly spirit. That tone of unyielding censure and condemnation which Philip Ross so deplores in the Free Presbyterian Magazine he simply replicates in his own unremitting criticism of the Free Presbyterian Church. The hostility and finger-pointing of this article does absolutely nothing to encourage what had up to now been an atmosphere of frankness and openness to dialogue that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Instead such a wilfully unsympathetic presentation of the FP Church simply invites the response from even the most well disposed FP that it’s not worth the trouble of attempting to have this discussion, and perpetuates the feeling among others that the FP Church is ineligible for participating in any meaningful discussion of ecclesiastical reconciliation.

Maybe the thought doesn’t bother Dr Ross because maybe he thinks the FP Church is so irredeemably contemptible that nobody should even want to consider reconciliation with them anyway. So let’s just concede that the Magazine never shows the FPs at their best, that there is immense cultural conservatism descending to all sorts of apparent trivia, and that having found themselves on the defensive from day one in 1893 the FPs have never felt it advantageous to engage in any public form of self-reflection or self-criticism. None of this means that there are no Christians left in the FP Church, or that the splintered and divided state of Scotland’s believers isn’t a genuine burden to Christians in the FP Church, or that there is no appetite within the FP Church for more and better relationships with other Christians. Nor does it license this kind of sniping from the sidelines. Rather, when the discussion is a sensitive one about brethren from different communions seeking to dwell together in unity, it seems crassly inappropriate to magnify and highlight the obstacles on one side, in the absence of any qualification by way of recognition that there could be plus points to the FP case and that some of the barriers to union have been raised by and can only be dismantled by the other participants in this discussion.

It is, in short, a crashing disappointment.

Still, (c) if you squint hard enough, this article could offer some useful material for the current discussion.

* It reminds us that church splits are nasty things. Nearly 25 years on from 1989, an awful lot of bitterness and grudges remain. If there’s difficulty within a church, splitting it will by no means end the difficulty, but will simply perpetuate it in a different setting. When believers fall out, it needs to be dealt with in-house – leaving in a strop solves nothing. If there is anything to be gleaned from the FP and APC experience, friends who have been involved in recent splits could perhaps take warning that not after their children nor their children’s children will they be over it – that unless they work hard now, the resentment and disaffection could easily persist for generations.

* FPs don’t need reminding that their reputation is really poor even among fellow believers. Obviously, we’re used to it. Obviously too, the natural response is to react with defensive counter-criticisms and then carry on as before, doughty presbyterians floundering in a context of super-nice evangelicalism where mutual misunderstanding is guaranteed. Our public face wears a constant frown of disapproval and we are almost perversely determined to only say things out loud that will make us sound as objectionable as possible. People who look no further than our public pronouncements don’t hear the gospel preached from our pulpits and don’t see the graces exercised in people’s private lives. But from the inside we know there is a big gap between caricature and reality, even if as a body we don’t particularly excel at demonstrating this to onlookers (and tend to abandon even the attempt when onlookers are manifestly prejudiced).

* Although in not exactly the nicest possible way, this article does point to places where we could do some difficult thinking about our priorities and the difference between cultural markers of Free Presbyterianism and biblical requirements for all Christians. Obviously, this article creates the opposite of a safe space where that difficult thinking could be done, but quietly and compassionately and out of the public eye we could do worse than talk these problems over.

* People can be busy writing very useful books one moment, then turn round and do a startling amount of damage the next. Whatever you might think about the need or timeliness or practicality of the current calls for a reunion of confessional churches, venting this kind of indignation against any denomination contributes only to perpetuating the cycle of criticism, resentment, and petty point scoring that saps the energy of believers in all denominations and makes it all the more difficult for all parties to remember that behind the denominational boundaries we are all believers, with ultimately the same hope in the same saviour. Recognising and treating each other as brothers and sisters isn’t a substitute for dismantling the denominational boundaries, but it is both a prerequisite for it and only what we owe each other even while the boundaries remain.

63 thoughts on “from the sidelines

  1. Been thinking a lot recently about our adoption as sons and daughters of God the Father in Christ the Son and elder brother. We are family. We have been exalted together in Christ to the highest possible degree of elevation of the creature to the sonship and daughterhood of Almighty God. If we really reflect on that glorious truth does it not make our divisions all the more grievous? But how much more precious it makes the redeeming and relentless love of God our Father. Our Father.


    • I read his paper and my initial reaction was: he obviously doesn’t count any FP’s amongst his friends. It is easy to be harsh in your judgement about people you don’t know personally. Even if he feels he is speaking the truth, the Bible requires of us to speak the truth in love.


      • Just on the above point for the sake of accuracy I should say; Mr Ross grew up in the FP church. His father was an FP minister, many of his family and friends are FP’s


  2. I’ve just read Ross’s article, and I have a few thoughts:

    1. I am an outsider to the FP church, but one that has made a very serious study of the denomination over the past year. My impression from conversation with a number of people in the FP church is that many FPs, including ministers and ruling elders, are quite self-conscious about imperfections and shortcomings within the FP church. There have been numerous occasions in my correspondence when various FPs have quite openly to me expressed some degree of dissatisfaction with some aspect or another of FP ways of doing things. From what I have seen, it seems to me that there is a fair amount of self-reflection that goes on inside the FP church. I don’t get a sense of a blind acceptance that everything an FP synod does is always right and best, for example.

    2. Some of the concerns expressed by Ross echo issues that have weighed on my mind as well as I have tried to understand FP doctrine and practice. Many distinctive FP issues–such as women wearing trousers, using older English pronouns in prayer, concerns about using the internet on Sunday, etc.–seem to me to be reasonable attempts to apply biblical principles. They seem quite different from a “legalistic” attitude which tries to create rules out of nowhere. For example, the Bible forbids women to dress like men. That is quite explicit. Does that mean women should not wear trousers? Well, perhaps. If it does, it is not unreasonable for a church to take it into their hands to watch over the practice of members in this regard. The complexity of an issue like this for me is that sometimes the FP church seems to come to conclusions that I think could possibly, reasonably, be dealt with other ways as well. If I were made king of the church, there are things I would no doubt do differently from the FPs. And yet what they do seems to be within a realm of reasonableness and not just crazy legalism.

    I think that FPs need to be very careful to take seriously the concerns of those outside who are worried about some of the, frankly, rather bizarre-seeming (at least until you get more used to them) practices enforced in the FP church. I can testify that those concerns are not always born out of a desire to ignore God’s Word. They are sometimes born out of a desire to be very careful to protect proper liberty of conscience, as Ross suggests. On the other hand, I seldom see people who criticize the FP church be careful to try to understand what the FPs are doing. More often, there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction–“That’s legalism!”–that does not carefully enough consider the FP positions. I think both sides need to be reminded to be careful to take each other seriously in serious dialogue with each other. Unfortunately, what passes for dialogue too often can become simply a rant from one side to the other without the care needed on both sides to make it work.

    Here is one example of a completely unhelpful way to do dialogue: Ross complains about certain FP rules, and he calls on the FPs to reconsider them, but he provides no attempt to understand where those rules are coming from, nor does he seriously engage the issues and try to provide any biblical alternative. The FPs are not crazy for thinking that the church might have a responsibility to make certain rules for members with regard to Sabbath observance, for example. Critics cannot simply refuse to consider carefully the justifications for particular rules and just toss them aside into the category of “legalistic rules” without more careful consideration. On the other hand, perhaps FPs could do a better job sometimes at considering whether the rules they have arrived at are the only possible way of safeguarding certain biblical principles.

    The need for the church to seek unity requires us to listen to each other carefully, to take each other seriously, in dialogue. We must not compromise on conscientious principles for the sake of getting along, but we also must be prepared to do the hard work of considering other points of view and taking seriously each others’ concerns. I truly believe that if all the churches would engage in dialogue of this sort with the right kind of attitude, many of these issues could be worked through in a surprisingly short amount of time. Perhaps part of the problem is that we have too quickly decided that we will never be able to overcome the differences. Or perhaps I am simply an incurable optimist! :-) But I think it is still worth a really good try.

    One thing that has been suggested is that the various denominations might put on something like a public debate, or a series of debates, to deal with various differences. Done in the right spirit (which will require much work!), such a debate might enable the real issues to be explored in a more thorough way. It seems to me worth considering.


    • Hi Mark, I can’t honestly see any of the FP Ministers taking part in a public debate with ministers from other churches. All we will see in relation to the question of the FP position to the other churhes will be an updated statement of differences in the Synod Report.


    • Re your Point No 2 – Couldn’t it be argued that the Pharisees had a Biblical basis for their legalistic rules and regulations, especially regarding Sabbath observation? I’m not trying to be deliberately argumentative, but are issues of legalism ever “created out of nowhere”? Surely this is what makes legalism so dangerous and insiduous. I’m trying to make a general point here and not talking specifics.


      • Angus, I think you raise an excellent and very important question here. Honestly, this is my single biggest struggle in choosing the FP side.

        I think one of our guiding principles here is well expressed in the Westminster Confession, 1:6:

        “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”

        There are to be no rules added to the rules of God’s Word. The only rules that can be justified for the church to make are rules that can be proven to be necessary to fulfill biblical commands. The error of the Pharisees (or at least one of them) was to add man-made rules to God’s rules.

        So we can look at, say, the trousers issue objectively. Deuteronomy 22:5 says that women are not to wear men’s clothing. That’s clear enough. But our trousers men’s clothing? If they are, then the church has a right to forbid women to wear them. If they are not, it doesn’t (assuming other reasons don’t come into play). So, are trousers men’s clothing? I don’t know. Our culture (or, at least, American culture) is ambiguous on this.

        Let’s look at another example: My understanding is that the FPs are big on having people use King James language in prayer–specifically pronouns like thy and thee in relation to God. The justification I have heard for this is that it is inappropriate to use plural pronouns to refer to God, because God is one. Now, God is certainly one, and we should certainly not use plural pronouns to refer to him for that reason. I would think everyone would agree with that. But are “you” and “your” really plural pronouns only in modern English? Surely not. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I think I ought to say it: I find the argument that we should avoid “you,” etc., in reference to God because it is a plural pronoun absolutely ludicrous. It completely ignores obvious realities about the change of language. It might be argued that we were better off when English had distinct singular and plural second person pronouns. It might be argued that it is wise in Bible translation to use older pronouns that better translate pronoun distinctions in the Greek and Hebrew. But surely it is absurd to tell people they must pray in King James language so as to avoid referring to God as plural. “You,” etc., is certainly not exclusively plural today. Is there anyone who is seriously not aware of the changes in the English language on that point? Why force people in the church to conform to rules of English that the rest of the English-speaking world has so left behind that it would never occur to anyone to assume the plural simply because “you” is used? (Can you imagine someone calling another person “you” and getting the response, “Who art thou referring to as plural?!”)

        So what do we do about these things. Honestly, I wish the FPs would drop some of their insistence on some of these things so as to make the conversation much easier. It does seem to me that we must leave some room for reasonable flexibility. People in the church aren’t always going to agree on everything. Sometimes generational differences, cultural differences, etc., create different understandings of the meaning of certain actions. What kinds of clothes are irreverent in what circumstances? Am I showing disrespect if I wear a hat in the house? Am I being irreverent if I don’t use King James English when I pray? What do we do when people see these kinds of things differently? Do we split the church? Are they reasons to avoid union? Do we not need to have some flexibility with each other? But in doing so, how do we avoid countenancing the errors of the Pharisees in making man-made, unbiblical rules? If the FPs, on all other grounds, have the best claim to be the church we should join, when do we find their rules so problematic that we cannot join with them. Let’s make no mistake: When we refuse to join with a denomination in this way, we are saying that our concerns are enough to justify splitting the church of Christ. That is a heavy thing to do. And yet to countenance legalism is also a heavy thing to do.

        The way I have looked at things is that we are to allow some reasonable flexibility for people who may not apply biblical principles exactly as we do in all circumstances. I have considered the FPs to be within bounds of such reasonable flexibility. So I have seen it as my duty to tolerate the enforcement, for example, of King James language praying, even though I cannot say that I think praying in modern pronouns is wrong, given that all the evidence gives the FPs the best claim to de jure authority as a church. Am I wrong to do this? Should I instead give my allegiance to some other church because of FP rules like this? I am open to correction. These are difficult issues.

        So what is the difference between the Pharisee rule about eating with unwashed hands and the FP rule about praying in King James English? Neither of these, I think, are necessary to preserve biblical principles. (Does anybody really, seriously think they are on the forum? I would be interested in hearing a serious justification of the FP practice here.) But the Pharisees came up with innumerable traditions that could not reasonably be seen as biblically necessary, while the FP rules are much fewer, held a bit more loosely (?), and are more reasonably connected with biblical principles.

        I need to continue to give this further thought. What do you all think?


        • Also, if we were to abandon the FP position because of some of their rules, are other denominations better? It seems to me that if the FPs are too strict, the other groups are usually too lax. For example, it seems to me that the command for women to wear head coverings in church is quite clear in Scripture, and yet my sense is that the FPs are about the only denomination of the four Scottish ones under discussion that disciplines members with regard to it.


          • Another element to add here: How do we decide what the FP rules actually are? There are no official FP statements that I am aware of that push the trousers issue or the plural pronouns issue. These seem more to be very common practices than specific rules. If that is the case, then are they really required? Could an elder or a session in the FPCS get away with refusing to discipline a member for using singular pronouns, in the name of Christian liberty? If so, perhaps we need to stop talking about FP rules and talk instead about tendencies among individual FPs. Perhaps that can help solve some of these problems. I don’t know.

            Another question: What would happen, in the FCC or the RPCS, if a session were to discipline a member for refusing to wear a head covering in worship? Would this decision be allowed to stand, or would it be overturned by a higher court?


  3. Call me a pessimist but union between the FPC and any of the other churches is just not going to happen. That much has been made clear to me through these discussions.

    None of the other churches agree with the FPC and she is not willing to change. That’s not a burn on any of the parties, just recognising the irreconcilable differences.

    Not to say that hope does not remain for the other three denominations mentioned.


      • If you mean unwilling to change to adopt FP’s beliefs, I intended that under : “None of the other churches agree with the FPC”.

        If you mean the 3 other denoms, The point is that THEY are really the groups that are “one in belief and practice”, there isn’t a whole lot of change or compromise required.


        • I think you’ll find that there is a lot more compromise required than you think. For a start between the FCC and the RP’s there’s different opinions on versions of scripture and (the enforcement of) headcovering – just two big areas that come to mind.


            • “I have no need of thee” – Apologies if these comments seem pointed but I think that is a really horrible thing to say.

              I desire the church to be united, but just because I am not willing to abandon my biblical convictions to meet the FPC on it’s terms does not mean im saying “I have no need of thee”.
              By such a standard one could charge the FPC of the same crime for not abandoning is convictions and joining the RPCS on its terms.


              • Connor,

                Just wondering what the Biblical convictions which you have which would you have to abandon to meet the FPC on its terms are?


                • Hi Norman, that is going to be any area where differing convictions are held eg. Head coverings, Bible&Psalter translations, When church discipline is appropriate, communion elements, gender clothing, attending/preaching in other denoms, baptism issues (Re: Discussion on ‘Our Confession’) etc.


              • Sorry Connor, you are right. It wasn’t a nice thing to say. Apologies. Guess I am a bit miffed that you are ruling out the FP’s already, I would have expected a bit more effort to try and win us over.


              • Connor, I don’t think you are necessarily required to abandon Biblical convictions in order to join a church with more conservative positions on various issues. It’s not as though the FP church requires you to *agree* with every point of discipline and practice in order to become a member. I certainly disagree with the FP church on various small points, and yes, my elders are fully aware of this, yet I am a full member and feel very much at home in the FP church.

                As long as I am willing to *comply*, then I am welcome within the church. And it seems clear to me that I am not doing wrong in complying with FP expectations. For instance, when I first joined the church, I was not persuaded that women ought to be required to wear head coverings in church. But it was also pretty clear to me that there was nothing *wrong* with wearing a hat in church, so I wore a hat. Well worth it for the sake of peace and unity!

                Now, as it happens, I have since been persuaded on the point of headcoverings, and am in agreement with the FP church. But there are other points where I still disagree. For instance, I see no current Scriptural justification for requiring women to wear skirts only. But am I compromising my convictions by wearing skirts? No, not at all. Scripture doesn’t *command* me to wear trousers, so I can wear skirts with a clear conscience. And again, I feel it’s well worth it.


                • If I may comment a bit on the heels of Sharon’s comments:

                  I would say there certainly are times when it would be inappropriate to go along with a practice–if that practice required sin, or if going along necessarily expressed an approval of some practice as necessary that wasn’t, thereby bearing a false witness.

                  But I do believe, as I’ve said before, that there are areas of reasonable flexibility. We have to recognize that fact, or else we will probably never have unity that could reasonably be achieved. It is well within an appropriate use of church power to discipline members for violating the gender-dress requirement in Deuteronomy 22:5. The prevailing view in FP circles right now is that this can only reasonably be done in modern culture by not wearing trousers. We can argue that this is a misreading of modern culture, but it is clearly in a different category than simply making up a rule out of nowhere and imposing it (such as “Everyone must wear a red shirt on Tuesdays because I say so!”). If, all other things considered, it is appropriate to join an FP church, I think it would be schismatic to refrain from joining merely over a disagreement (or a few disagreements) over exactly how to interpret modern culture in one or a few areas. Granted, a church could go so far as to leave the realm of reasonableness and leave no choice for the people in it but to protest and perhaps leave, but I don’t think the FPs, from what I know of them, have reached that point. Therefore, I do not think relatively minor differences over these kinds of matters ought to justify continued separation.

                  On a denominational level, if the only reason for avoiding merging with the FPs is concern over these kinds of issues, I don’t think they constitute a sufficient justification for remaining separate. I don’t say there aren’t other issues to work out; but I am saying that IF there is otherwise a duty to merge with the FPs (such as their having the best claim to de jure legitimacy in their line, etc.), these issues ought not to be enough to push us to a contrary decision. And I would say the same for the other side as well, such as if all other things supported the RPCS and the only concern were that the RPCS thinks that trousers are not necessarily only men’s clothes in modern culture, etc.

                  We’ve got to be able to make these kinds of careful, nuanced distinctions and be willing to do our duty in light of them–on all sides–if unity is ever to be achieved. And we also have to be willing to do our duty even if the other side isn’t doing its duty in every way as it ought as well. For example, let’s say the FPs haven’t been compromising enough on some of their distinctives (I am not making that claim, but putting it forward as a hypothetical), but that otherwise the evidence is such that we ought to join and merge with them. That duty on our part would not be overturned on the basis of the FPs not being as “friendly” as we would like, etc. And we could same the same in reverse with regard to the RPCS, etc. My point is, we need to look at these matters objectively, take into account all proper nuances, and be willing to put our duty first and let it trump our preferences when it ought to. This is a duty pressing upon all of us, wherever it may lead us.


                • I am a bit ambivalent about the just going along with cultural requirements for the sake of peace argument. That approach may tend to perpetuate what are in themselves unhelpful practices which have no Scriptural warrant. A classic example for me is the “men must wear a suit to church” policy. Now I do not believe that men must wear a suit. I believe it is a cultural marker which was used in the past to distinguish worship and world. It was recognised as such in the islands anyway. It is most certainly not recognised as such in Glasgow today. Indeed I am persuaded it is a forbidder to those passing the church who may in many cases associate suits only with funerals, weddings and court appearances. Now I wear a suit or at least a collar and tie to church. I do door duty and I have been reflecting recently on the cultural signals my suit-wearing sends out to passers by. Does it say “you may only attend church if you own or are comfortable in a suit.” Are people left thinking they would like to come in but. The but being I won’t fit in with the suit wearing culture. Am I by wearing a suit perpetuating the problem for the sake of pleasing people? Would becoming all things to all people involve dressing down a bit but still smartly? The point being that for the sake of peace I may actually be perpetuating what is unhelpful to others although it has the effect of pleasing the group.


                • With regard to Donald’s comments on wearing suits: I would agree that we should be sensitive to how we are coming across and the messages we are sending to the broader culture. We should also be sensitive to the message we send to our brothers and sisters in the congregation. It can be an interesting balance sometimes. Personally, if the strongly prevailing culture within my congregation was to wear suits, I would feel myself to be unnecessarily provocative to dress in a way that stands out in the congregation just to make a statement that suits are not required. In this case, I would think it is more important to match the culture of the internal congregation than the people walking by outside. Though, at the same time, if I believed that our internal practice were a significant detriment to the people walking by, I might bring that up to people in the congregation and see what others think, try to change opinions and practices over time, etc. I’m not saying I feel that way about the suit issue, but that is what I would do if I did feel that way.

                  But there is often more than one way to go about doing these kinds of things, and much depends on the exact nature of the local situation. Certainly, I would not consider it appropriate to leave a de jure denomination on the grounds that I choose not to wear a suit. Any possible pros are far outweighed by the cons in that case, i would think.


                • Donald,

                  Our main purpose in going to church is to worship God and we should dress in a manner which we think is appropriate for such an important duty. You mention people associating suits with things like court appearances, funerals and weddings, if people look upon a suit is something that men wear for important occasions then surely it would be a good wittness to show then that church is something important? If the public see people dressed in their “civvies” going into a church building, they might think that there is a youth club or an AA meeting or something like that going on in the church building rather than a religious service.


                • Hi Norman,

                  I don’t dispute that worshipping God is important. I merely made the point that a suit is ultimately a cultural marker. But to wear a suit is not to worship. And a culture that is uniform is intimidating and prohibiting to the outsider. If I watch a crowd entering a church and each man is wearing a suit do I conclude that I must wear a suit to worship God? I think I must. And where does that leave me if I don’t own a suit. I am a support worker. I know many men who do not own suits.


                • Hi Donald,

                  Should we dress in a manner which we think is reverent or is it more important that we dress in a way in which we think will please onlookers? Should we all turn up in our casual clothes just incase one person will feel more comfortable in going to church? I’ve never seen anyone be made to feel unwelcome in a church because they don’t have a suit on. Could people not be put of from going to a church if they see people dolled up in make up or women wearing jeans? They might think “what kind of a church is that? everyone is dressed up as if they are going for a night out”?


                • Is what we wear to church really a signifier of our reverence and of a true spirit of worship? Is it not rather a cultural marker determined by society? I am not saying people should not wear suits. I am merely suggesting that there ought not to be an ought-ness about it. The slaves in New Testament churches did not own suits or their equivalent. Were they banned from the assembly? No, they weren’t. Because God is far more concerned with the attitude of the heart than the external. Provided there is modesty. I remember being in a LDOS meeting and being the only one not wearing a suit. I felt like I didn’t belong there although as knew I did. So how much more like that do those who are not so informed feel in a church where all wear the same? They feel different because of uniformity and cultural signifier. I am we’ll aware of the argument that goes something along the lines of “If you were going to see the Queen you would wear your best so you should do the same for God.” My best is a kilt. Shouldn’t I wear that to church? That is really the new cultural signifier of occasion.


                • Donald,

                  Should the male members of the congregation leave their suits hanging in the warbrobe on sabbath and perhaps put something a bit more casual on just in case it makes someone who doesn’t turn up in a suit feel more comfortable?
                  I know that “man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” and we shouldn’t look at someone who turns up in church without a suit as being unworthy to enter the assmebly but the tradition of wearing suits to church is a still a good one.
                  If a lady started going to a church in which the women wear jeans, make up and don’t have headcoverings would the ladies start wearing skirts and hats and do without the make up so that the new lady would feel more at home?


                • Hi Norman,

                  We must always beware of teaching as commandments the doctrines of men. If you can point me to the Scripture that requires the wearing of a particular cultural signifier to the house of God then you will persuade me of the case.

                  I made no mention of women in trousers, makeup or head coverings. These are important issues but not strictly relevant to the point I was making. There are biblical guidelines regarding these specific issues. My question is whether what we wear actually deters some from entering the house of God at all and if it does we really need to be absolutely clear on the biblical case for it. You yourself used the word tradition. If wearing a suit is merely a tradition then it cannot bind or be a binder.


                • It is true that we must be careful to avoid adding rules to the Word of God. But there is a balance here, and the other extreme is to be careless of the social meaning of words and actions in certain contexts. We don’t want to elevate cultural rules and expectations to the status of unchanging biblical rules, but on the other hand we don’t want to treat them as unimportant. (“I became all things to all men . . .)

                  For example, imagine I was to go to a country where it is customary to remove shoes before entering the church service, on account of the general cultural attitude of looking at wearing shoes inside as disrespectful. On the one hand, we would hope that the church in this country makes a clear distinction between this cultural view and expectation and unchanging biblical rules, and never lifts up the former to the latter’s status. On the other hand, do I not have an obligation to avoid unnecessary offense by taking my shoes off along with everyone else? I think so. If, in this context, wearing shoes is a sign of disrespect, I cannot simply ignore that important bit of information on the ground that it is not a written-out biblical standard. Words and actions have meanings, and those meanings are often to a great degree culturally determined. Respect for our fellow human beings requires us to take that seriously. I would go so far as to say that if a person were to go into church and deliberately shock and offend people by knowingly wearing shoes just to make a point, this person (if he is a member) could possibly be a legitimate subject of church discipline (though I would speak to him privately and informally first). Is this adding rules to the Word of God? No, I don’t think so. It is enforcing the biblical principles of showing proper respect by being sensitive to the cultural meanings associated with certain words and actions.

                  In listening to these discussions, my overall impression is that the non-FP groups tend to be a bit imbalanced in the direction of not adding rules to the Word of God, sometimes to the exclusion of the opposite concern of showing respect for cultural meanings. This is something the FPs seems to understand better than most, even if we can argue that the FPs sometimes get too hung up on the cultural meanings of words and actions. If we could all be more conscious of avoiding both extremes, perhaps this might help us come closer together on some of the points of difference.


                • Hello Donald,

                  “We must always beware of teaching as commandments the doctrines of men. If you can point me to the Scripture that requires the wearing of a particular cultural signifier to the house of God then you will persuade me of the case.”

                  I wasn’t claiming that there is a command in the Holy Scriptures that we are to wear suits to church.

                  Does that fact that the majority of men in the more conservative churches wear suits actually deter some from entering the house of God? Seems like a poor excuse to me if this is the case?


                • Hi Mark,

                  Really, the issue is one of what is biblically required in the worship of God and not what is culturally determined. There are certain requirements with respect to dress which are quite clear. There are others which are interpreted differently, but we are still dealing with biblical requirements. Is there Scripture that states that what we wear to church should be a culturally determined signifier? Or what principles should be employed in ascertaining what should be considered approved clothing. The whole example with shoes falls into the category of teaching for commandments the doctrines of men. It would certainly behoove the Church to understand why the culture forbids the wearing of shoes indoors. Would it be a principle the Church should dignify? Where did the practice originate? Is it a carnal or worldly principle? The Church is surely to shape culture, not reflect it. I am less concerned about breaking a taboo if it is not scriptural. If it can be proved to be so then that is all and well. I will happily rest my case. But really, the thing has to be evidenced from the word of God if we are to elevate it to the level we have as a ‘must’.


                • Donald,

                  What happened to being “all things to all men”? One minute you are suggesting that we should go to church dressed a little more casualy so as not to put off people who are terrified of people in suits from coming into church. The next minute you are suggesting that if there was a custom for taking one’s shoes off in a culturaly different country to ours that you would storm into the church with your shoes and socks on just to break the taboo about shoes being disrespectful.


                • Norman, surely being all things to all men applies to what we are outside the public worship of God and not within it? Applying that principle to what takes place within the walls of the church building when public worship is joined is what is leaving the church in the mess its in in Scotland today. Worship is not about accommodating culture it is about what God explicitly requires. That was my point. And if God does not explicitly require an aspect of worship how can we command it ourselves? Where exactly is the explicit requirement that a culturally determined signifier is commanded as a dress code for worship? Providing that reference would put the whole debate to bed. We cannot rail against worldliness on the one hand and then argue that worldly cultural principles should inform how we dress in church. That seems a little odd to me at least. If we spent as much time dressing our hearts and as we do fretting over whether people are wearing suits or not might we not be in a better place today as churches? Just because someone is wearing a suit that proves absolutely nothing about their preparedness to join the public worship of God. Is it not pharisaism to suggest otherwise? God does not judge on outward appearance. We, however, seem to major on it.


                • With regard to the “not wearing shoes in the foreign country” illustration, my biblical basis for saying we ought not, in that context, to wear our shoes into the worship service is the third commandment, which forbids disrespectful actions towards God. In the described culture, wearing shoes indoors would convey disrespect for God; we are not to display disrespect for God; thus we should not wear shoes in the worship service there.

                  The other biblical foundation would be the biblical injunction to care about our brothers and sisters and not cause them to stumble. If these Christians are accustomed to seeing the wearing of shoes as a sign of disrespect, I am conveying a message of disrespect to them by doing this in their presence, thus causing them to stumble.

                  The error of the Pharisees (or one of them, at least) was that they added man-made rules to the Word of God. They commanded things that had no biblical basis. That is not the same thing as what we are talking about in the shoe scenario. There, we do have a biblical basis for being concerned to understand cultural meanings and to act appropriately.

                  I’m concerned that there is a tendency to reject the FP church simply because of some cultural customs in the church that are within the realm of reasonable toleration. I understand the concerns people have. I think I have exhibited the fact that I share them to some degree. However, we’ve got to be balanced. Must I really discount a denomination because there is a prevailing attitude, for example, that trousers are men’s clothing? If, in that church culture, trousers carry the connotation of men’s clothing, surely the unity of the church is important enough that even those of us who don’t naturally see trousers in this way ought to accommodate to a prevailing culture that does and act accordingly. This is not giving in to legalism; it is recognizing the nuances of what it means to live in a world saturated with cultural meanings that aren’t always the same in all times and places. In my experience, the FPs seem generally to show a reasonable attitude towards these things. They understand that their interpretation of trousers is somewhat culturally determined, and they are hesitant to enshrine it in a written law, and they have avoided doing so. (On the other hand, I do think that some FPs could be more careful to take seriously the concerns of the other side–I’ve seen some tendency sometimes to brush these off too quickly without sufficient sympathy.) If the unity of the church is ever to be achieved, we must all learn better balance in these kinds of things. We must not compromise our legitimate principles, but we need to care about achieving unity enough to be accommodating where we can without shirking our true duties. We need to work better at considering each other’s points of view and giving the benefit of the doubt to each other when we can–not compromising on truth, but being willing to go as far as we can towards acceptance and unity without compromise, even if it makes us a bit uncomfortable sometimes. And I speak this to all of us, as we all can do better in this regard.


                • Hi Mark. What if taking of my shoes in church is viewed as a mark of disrespect in my culture and that is my cultural norm? I cannot take my shoes off without violating my own conscience. I cannot worship with them on without causing offence. Therefore I cannot worship. Surely this illustrates the difficulty of making cultural signifiers normative in the public worship of God. Just how far does one take the when in Rome rule and why should one culture be preferenced over another? Particularly if that culture is largely pagan or idolatrous. Is it not just safer to go with what the Bible actually prescribes and proscribes in the public assembly?


          • “than you think.” – That’s a silly thing to say, you are aware that I am well acquainted with the FCC and the RPCS and am keenly aware of the differences.

            I only see two doctrinal differences between the FCC and RPCS – acceptance of textual families and opinion on communion elements.

            Individual congregations may practice but the FCC doesn’t require discipline for ladies who do not cover their heads, does it?

            Anyway if you think I’m being negative what’s with the negativity in that comment? If your upset by my ‘ruling out’ the FPC why so critical of FCC/RP union discussion?


            • Hi Connor,

              Sorry again, I was making that comment simply because you were stating that “THEY are really the groups that are “one in belief and practice” and I felt that wasn’t really true, as you have now admitted yourself. There are things to be worked out. Those 3 churches might be closer together in those things than us maybe, and I would be very happy for those Churches to unite provided it isn’t on the lowest common denominator.


              • Well I was being relative, it was all this talk of reunion of churches that are ‘one in belief and practice’. I feel like that can legitimately be stated to a fairly strong extent for the other three.

                I obviously do not mean they are exactly the same -my comment did acknowledge the presence of differences- but that they are VERY similar and the issues that separate them should come secondary to the doctrine of the unity of the church.

                Thanks again for that, maybe I do reject it too soon. But after discovering more of the differences between the FPC and the others, and seeing how numerous they are and with what conviction they are held, I just don’t like all the wasted time and effort and confrontation that will go into discussing something that in my assessment is -in the words of hip hop duo ‘Rizzle Kicks’- “Na na na na never gonna happen”


                • ” I just don’t like all the wasted time and effort and confrontation that will go into discussing something that in my assessment is -in the words of hip hop duo ‘Rizzle Kicks’- “Na na na na never gonna happen” …… Very pragmatic Connor but maybe not quite the attitude required Biblically. When union is sought on the basis of human reasoning and discussions then all we will end up with is yet another church in Scotland: the new ‘united’ one, as there will always be people in the different denominations who do not like the union.
                  I believe union is only possible after an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in other words God uniting us together (though of course he uses human means) and I think the very first thing we should do is go on our knees. And I don’t mean mentioning unity every so often in our prayers, but PLEADING at the throne of grace for an outpooring of the Spirit and a uniting of the body of Christ in Scotland. Only through His Spirit can we overcome our differences and have true BIBLICAL unity.


            • Hi Connor,

              Just two quick points:

              Firstly, I’m not all that up on what the differences are between the FCC and RPCS. I’m aware there is a difference regarding biblical texts, but what is the difference of opinion regarding communion elements? Presumably it is not a significant one if accepting the alternative position would not violate the conscience.

              Secondly, as I understand it, the FCC believe that church office bearers have the right to protest against decisions of their denomination and remain as office bearers of that denomination. I was under the impression that the RPCS, in common with all other Presbyterian denominations in Scotland that I am aware of, deny this. Surely this is a more significant difference than the need to tolerate (admittedly very quaint) practices of individuals within a denomination; practices which, as Mark (correctly) points out, are not in fact required by the FPCS.


    • Hi Connor. There is at least a willingness on the part of the FP church to consider the possibility of maybe exploring the idea of union ;-). There is an openness there now that wasn’t always there. There is a recognition on all sides I hope that the status quo is indefensible and something has to change. As one who believes in covenanting you must recognise that the Solemn League and Covenant enjoins us all, FP, RP, FCC and APC to strive towards the extirpation of schism. Where we are today is an outrage to the Spirit of unity we claim indwells us and unites us to Christ and one another. This far from a waste of time. In a sense it is the best way we can possibly spend our time. The visible unity of the body of Christ is a prize beyond price. We may not see it in our lifetime but we must surely and ceaselessly strive towards it. Part of the problem we have is that there are competing claims to be the Reformation Church of Scotland. Only two are credible. The FP and the RP claims as I see them. The FP position on the Church and schism is coherent with their claim. But that does not mean I recognise it.


  4. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that it might be easier in some cases for less strict denominations to join with a more strict denomination than for a more strict denomination to join with a less strict denomination.

    For example, the FP church holds that women ought to wear trousers and it disciplines those who do not. I gather the other three denominations don’t. I think all four denominations would agree on the principle of gender distinctive dress, though. Am I right? The FPs do what they do because their leaders currently think that trousers, in modern Scottish culture, are men’s clothes, and that women wearing them sends the message that they are dressing like men, and so they ought not to do it to be faithful to the biblical principle of gender-distinctive dress. Presumable the other three denominations are more lax on the trouser-issue because they think that trousers, in modern culture, aren’t really so much men’s clothing distinctively any more. So the disagreement is not about biblical teaching. It is not that the FPs have made up a law out of nowhere and are enforcing it. The disagreement is over how to understand the meaning of trousers in modern culture. It is not surprising that such an issue is somewhat subjective and subject to different evaluations.

    Could the other three denominations recognize that the FPs position is not the same as one that invents rules out of nowhere, but that their position, even if it goes beyond what seems to be necessary, is not so radically wacky that it cannot be seen as at least somewhat reasonable? Could they recognize a legitimate and tolerable difference of opinion on the cultural meaning of trousers, and grant that the FPs approach makes sense if we assume their cultural understanding of trousers?

    If this is possible, could it then also be possible for the other three denominations to consider joining the FP church on FP terms in this area? The FPs would not join with the other denominations because their officers would be forced in doing so to give up their enforcement of the trouser regulations, and they would feel they cannot do this because it is their honest judgment that trousers are men’s clothing. However, perhaps the other denominations could agree to join with the FPs and enforce their trouser regulations on the grounds that those regulations have at least some basis in reality–trousers have been men’s clothing in the past, they are sometimes still seen as men’s clothing today, etc. Perhaps in this way the unity of the church could be achieved in this area without the FPs having to compromise what they think are required applications of biblical principles.

    On the other hand, as I write this, it occurs to me that an argument could be made going the other way as well. Perhaps officers, say, in the RPCS, feel conscience bound NOT to enforce trouser regulations on the grounds that they do not believe them to be men’s clothing in most circles and situations today, and that to enforce such regulations would therefore be groundless, and thus an inappropriate violation of liberty of conscience. Perhaps the FPs could defer to the RPCS in this case, choosing to allow the non-enforcement of trouser regulations on the grounds that the RPCS’s position on trousers is also reasonable, in that the culture has certainly changed in this area, etc. Thus, the FPs should consider joining the RPCS or one of these other denominations (at least with regard to this issue–we’re leaving out for now the other issues of difference for the sake of a close examination of one issue).

    Part of the difficulty for me is that I see both positions as within the realm of tolerable reasonability. So as I think of which church I ought to join, I look at other issues as well, and I look at the issue of legitimacy in splits. How did the denominations become separate from each other? Who was right (or more right) in the splits that have taken place through history, as far as we can tell? Then I would default to the legitimate line. In this case, looking at no issue other than the trousers issue for now (as if that were the only current difference between the denominations), I would go with the FPs, because I think they have the best claim to the legitimate line. So, in that case, I would advise other denominations to join with them and put up with their trouser regulations, recognize those regulations to be within the realm of reasonable tolerability. If the best claim to the legitimate line were to go to the RPCS, on the other hand, I would advocate the FPs joining them and putting up with their (from the FP point of view) somewhat erroneous, though not ridiculously unreasonable, assessment of the meaning of trousers in modern culture.

    I’m glad the FPs are going to put out a new Statement of Differences. Do the other denominations do this? I think they should. It is very helpful to have a list of exactly where the denominations differ (and a list that both sides agree on), so that the issues can be examined one by one and then all weighed together.

    Oh, if only we Christians weren’t so irritating as to get ourselves into this ridiculous situation in the first place so that it seems sometimes to take a pack of trained lawyers to sort it all out! (Yes, I’m exaggerating, but I wish I was exaggerating more!)


    • If women wearing trousers or not is considered a matter of christian liberty, why should it be used as a reason to be separate from fellow christians?
      Also, given the culture that we’re living in, is there a danger that the enforcement of such a “rule” might prevent the Gospel getting a hearing in some quarters?


    • Mark – on your first paragraph. No. One cannot submit to belief/practice/discipline that one believes to be unbiblical whether that be sub-scriptural OR add-scriptural.


      • I think a definition really has to be given here of what you mean by unbiblical. If you mean contrary to scripture then yes, I agree that one cannot submit to anything that is contrary to scripture. If you mean not required in scripture, then I think the only situation in which this cannot be tolerated is in the worship of God – otherwise, I think it is unbiblical (i.e. contrary to scripture) to make such a big deal of idiocyncracies which are not required in scripture.


        • Hi Neil, thanks for you comments, as it’s brief Im going to reply here and then ‘sign-off’, as I’ve said before Im not interested in reading&writing massive comments and engaging in pointless debate.

          I agree with you comment. I believe issues of both nature exist. As an example of the the first, I believe it is sinful (not just un-required) to refuse a woman membership on account of her wearing trousers.


  5. “If women wearing trousers or not is considered a matter of christian liberty, why should it be used as a reason to be separate from fellow christians?”

    It shouldn’t. But whether it is a matter of Christian liberty or not is a point in dispute. It is not a matter of Christian liberty, but rather of divine command, that women are not to wear men’s clothing. If that is what trousers are, then it is a matter of divine command that women should not wear them, and it is right for the church to censure such behavior. That is the FP position (though it has never been officially endorsed by a pronouncement of synod or in constitutional documents; it is simply a widespread attitude, which is itself another interesting dynamic in all of this).

    “One cannot submit to belief/practice/discipline that one believes to be unbiblical whether that be sub-scriptural OR add-scriptural.”

    However, it is also true that we must be somewhat flexible and tolerant. What I mean is this: If a church has a rightful claim to be the proper de jure church to join, we should not leave it even if it has some imperfections, particularly if those imperfections are not a matter so much of being unbiblical but a matter of disagreement over how to best to apply certain biblical principles to the culture. On many issues, I think there is going to be an area of reasonable tolerability, where I might not entirely agree in outlook on something but I can recognize the outlook as within the realm of reasonableness. I am personally willing to tolerate some flexibility with the trouser issue, for example, for the sake of the unity and peace and good order of the church. I am not convinced that it is absolutely necessary for a church to be so strong on the trousers issue as the FPs are, but I also see their position as reasonable, and so if I have good reason to be in communion with them overall, I am not going to choose another denomination simply over the trousers issue.

    I would say the same thing with regard to church unity. If the FP church is granted to have the best claim to de jure legitimacy overall, I don’t think that having a few odd quirks (if we grant that is what they are–actually I think it is often more complicated than that and that we ought to consider the FPs may sometimes have a better grasp on the culture than some others–but probably not always) on some cultural application issues ought to justify considering that claim to be revoked. Therefore, the other denominations ought to merge with her. On the other hand, if, say, the RPCS turns out to have the best claim overall, I would say that the FPs ought to exercise a similar degree of tolerance on culturally disputable matters and merge with them. I don’t think any side should ever compromise what they sincerely believe to be matters of conscience and duty (though we all need to be absolutely clear that we are right in judging what those are); what I am saying is that I think some toleration is within the realm of what it is within our duty to grant.


  6. Hi Connor,

    Not sure why RPs would object to head covering, the 1640 Psalter or the AV as they are all things which the RP church used to have in the not too distant past. For the sake of unity could trivial things like preaching in other pulpits not be cast aside?


  7. Perhaps I may pose a question here that would be useful both for myself and for others. It is my view that we ought not to leave a denomination that has legitimate authority, and we ought to merge with such a denomination if we can, as long as it is possible without sin to be a part of it. And that includes being able to be an officer in the church without sin. If we can, without sin, be a full part of the denomination, including being officers in it, then we should not break with it and we should stay with it rather than going to another denomination. The denomination may have various imperfections, but as long as they are not imposed upon us in a way that would require us to sin, it is not just ground for separation.

    So, first of all, do we all agree with this methodological principle?

    If so, the question I would like to ask is this: Would any sin be required in order to be an officer in the FPCS? If you think there would be, what specifically would it (or, if more than one, would they) be?


    • There would be sin in taking office in any church that you do not recognise as being the heir of the first true national Church of Christ in that land. If you do not recognise the de jure claim of that church then it would be sin to be an officer in her. So it hinges on the legitimacy of authority. Of course the FP and RP churches look to different places for their authority. Two competing claims, the validity of which you recognise determining which church you could take office in. Of course it is often the case that we recognise what we are conditioned to recognise. But that is a whole other issue!


  8. As of now, I’ve received two answers to my question regarding what sin might be required to be an officer in the FP church. Connor put forward that it would be sin to require a woman to wear trousers as a requirement for membership, and Donald said that it would be a sin to be an officer in a church which did not represent the proper line of de jure authority from the earlier Church of Scotland.

    With regard to the latter assertion, I entirely agree. De jure historical status is a key central issue in all of this. If the FPs have the best historical claim, then the practical implication of this is that we must default to them in terms of joining them individually and in terms of merging our denominations with them on their terms unless we can show that sin is required to be an officer or member in their church. So if we have two denominations, both roughly equally pure, the default is to the denomination with the best historical credentials. Even if the church with the best credentials does some things less satisfactorily than the other church, so long as sin is not required, we should still favor that church. However, if sin would be required to be an officer in that church, we ought to then look at the situation of the church next in line historically, and keep doing this, until we find one where sin in officers would not be required. If there is no such church, then we are warranted to see a new denomination form, and if we cannot do that (being nothing more than lowly members) probably we should go back to the existing church with the best de jure line and continue to work for reform there as much as we reasonably can. My current position is that the FPs have the best historical claim, which is why I am interested in any testimony amounting to a claim that it would be sin to be an officer in the FP church.

    With regard to the trousers issue: There is no written rule regarding trousers in the FPCS, though there is a widespread view that they are men’s clothes and discipline tends to proceed accordingly. The fact that there is no written rule means that the attitude of the church can change if the meaning of trousers shifts in the culture. Whether or not trousers are men’s clothing is not something written in stone, but must be determined from the existing culture. Which culture? The culture of the society in which the church exists, but also–and I think this is too often forgotten–the culture within the church itself. Churches develop internal cultures just as broader societies do, and there is no reason why the broader society’s culture should be respected but not the culture within the church. It seems clear that right now, the strongly predominant culture within the FP church regards trousers as men’s clothing. The attitude of the surrounding culture (both in Scotland and in America) on this question seems to be somewhat ambiguous–trousers are sometimes seen as men’s clothing, but they have also become so familiar in connection with women that they are often seen as unisex clothing. Giving the current situation, I would not have a problem, were I an officer in the FPCS, asking women members to avoid trousers out of respect for the fact that for some people in the broader society and for many people in the church, trousers are considered men’s clothing, and thus their wearing of them would be seen as violating Deuteronomy 22:5. If the member refuses to respect this fact and insists on wearing trousers, I would consider it appropriate, at least in many cases, to discipline that member. So I do not feel the FP prevailing attitude regarding trousers would require an officer to sin. Rather, I think that being sensitive of the trousers issue is a reasonable requirement for preserving the unity of the church in the current cultural situation. We should not abandon the FP church, if it has the proper historical line, over this issue as it currently stands.

    Regarding the “praying to God in King James English” issue: From what I understand of this, it, too, is not a written rule, but a prevailing practice. I have been told that it is not really enforced in private families and with individuals in private, but pretty much only in the public prayers of the church. I think it is appropriate for members to respect this prevailing tradition in practice and not try to subvert it by praying in a way that would be seen as provocative to the rest of the congregation. I would certainly not feel justified in disciplining a member who voiced the opinion that it is not necessary in principle to pray that way, but I would not find it out of bounds to instruct members not to be unnecessarily provocative but to adapt themselves to the customary way of praying for the sake of peace. Depending on the circumstances, I might even feel comfortable disciplining a member if he proceeded, after being instructed in the manner, to pray in a provocative way in the congregation. I think that I could be an officer and get my with my current approach in the FPCS from what I know of what would be expected there, so I currently don’t think this is a sufficient reason to break with the FP church.

    Other matters need to be approached in a similar fashion. Based on what I know so far, I have not encountered anything in the FP church that would require an officer to sin, and so I maintain my commitment to the legitimacy of the FP claim.

    Any other concerns that can be put forward here as to sin that would be required of officers in the FP church and that would justify abandoning union with her (putting aside the historical issues for the time being–though that discussion is crucial to the overall evaluation)?


  9. I’m a bit behind on this discussion but would like to offer the following comment which I hope is constructive and comes from an appreciation for Dr Philip Ross’ paper.

    What Dr Ross’ paper helpfully shows us is the importance of attitude in regard to union. He is being frank and for some Free Presbyterians a little too frank. That is clear in Catherine’s response here. The tone of Dr Ross’ article, rightly or wrongly, almost has one standing with triumphant jubilation after long years of Free Presbyterian “unyielding censure and condemnation”. It is sad to say but I would imagine that many who have read Dr Ross’ article would be suppressing the urge to punch the air with great ‘whoops!’

    It is also sad that it may be too much to expect that the “unremitting criticism” in this paper would bring a reality check to some Free Presbyterians on the issue of union with them. Whilst there may be a real longing to see a union of like minded confessional Christians within the Free Presbyterian Church, one gets the impression that the attitude of those who may be in a place of influence towards that continues to be cold and hard. I believe that Campbell and Vogan’s paper demonstrated something of that.

    It is unfortunate that those with winsome and warm-hearted Christian faith within the denomination will also be looked upon as the ‘frozen chosen’ as they conform to the world they find themselves in. ‘A good witness’ some would say, but I fear only to the Free Presbyterian Church. Dr Ross’ paper, as well as the above discussion in the comments, highlights how divisive the traditions of man can be. The discussion, as far as I can discern, is concerned with the possibility of uniting around the Westminster Confession of Faith but such traditions demonstrate a lack of proper understanding on the outworking of the regulative principle. The Lord Himself criticised the so called religious establishment of his day. In Mark 7:6-8 speaking to the Pharisees and Scribes He says, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

    Unless there is a change in attitudes then it is very difficult to see how there can be even constructive moves towards union.


  10. Ross,


    It’s attitude that is fundamentally the problem here. I honestly don’t know any Free Presbyterians who have an attitude of triumphant jubilation at being separate from those who left at the time of the APC split. I find it actually very hard to imagine what it would be like to have that attitude about another body of believers. Accepting for the sake of argument the charge of “unyielding censure and condemnation”, the worst that can be said about it is that its disapproval stems from misguided conservativism, and gets tiresome. But the overall tone of Dr Ross’s paper was like a gleeful expose of all the flaws and foibles of a hated enemy. Since when were we enemies who hated each other? There is no way this piece could serve as a reality check for Free Presbyterians when it was so blatantly written in anything but a constructive manner. As you say, all it’s fit for is hyping up the opposition – punching the air etc – when actually, we miss you (those who left) and wish the split had never happened.

    Hidden under the nasty rhetoric in Dr Ross’s paper, there is after all food for thought – you’re right. See the third bullet point towards the end of the original post. But winsome and warm-hearted it’s not. So it takes all the more effort to find any motivation to take these points on board. This is so disappointing because even if we completely ignore the problem of union, we as Free Presbyterians do need to do some careful self-examination. But when the invitation comes sneeringly from those who clearly view themselves as so vastly more enlightened and liberated than us, it’s only too easy to ignore. Which helps nobody.

    This comment thread has so far been a bit underwhelming (sidetracked down rabbit trails and lumbered with overseas punditry). Ross, if you (or anyone else) are local and can continue to offer constructive contributions, it would be good to take the opportunity to engage.

    In the meantime, there needs to be a change in attitudes on the part of more than the FPs before any progress can be made.


  11. Cath,

    Thanks for your response. I agree there has to be a change in attitudes across the board not just with the FP’s. This post, however, is very much concerned with how, in the discussion of union, the FP’s portray themselves and are perceived by others.

    I don’t want to get drawn into this debate particularly but if I may give another comment which again I hope will be constructive. It is more of an observation than anything else.

    I can say that I have some admiration for any Free Presbyterian who are willing to engage in some genuine critical assessment of the denomination and particularly at a public level. It is commendable in you and I am sure it must raise some eye brows. However, I can’t help but see some irony amidst the ‘pot calling the kettle black’ in your thinking on this discussion. I’m not being critical for the sake of being critical but hope that perhaps it might promote some “careful self examination.” (And we all need to do that.) As you have said, it is not likely that Dr Ross’ paper will bring such reflection.

    Your criticisms of Dr Ross’ paper as being “like a gleeful expose of all the flaws and foibles of a hated enemy”, amongst other things, is set against your own criticisms and admissions of “unyielding censure and condemnation.” Although one can detect that you concede such with reluctance and with a lack of real significance as you seek to brush it away with a wispy view of “misguided conservatism” as if that were nothing. If that is a legitimate reason then it would be very appropriate and justifiable to state that Dr Ross’ paper too is just a consequence of “misguided conservatism” (albeit not his own). However that is not how you (want to) see it.

    There seems to me to be an issue here where you are willing to concede (and I think deep down you are) that the Free Presbyterian Church displays a critical spirit, so to speak, going beyond that which is characteristic of Protestantism. And when they receive criticism of a similar nature (and let’s be honest, even in tone) then there is, as far as I can tell, a lapse in your consideration.

    We are thinking about union between confessional denominations and we can agree that attitudes are of fundamental importance to that. That is why you are so disappointed with Dr Ross’ article and the possible repercussions that it may have towards a genuine spirit of reconciliation and union. Can you then see the irony in your response? It is not likely that other denominations are not going to brush Free Presbyterian criticism away like dust or with a gentle sigh saying, “Oh well, I guess that is just ‘misguided conservatism’ at worst. Ho hum.”

    I know, “a crashing disappointment.”

    That is not to say that it will not happen and that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland will not be at the fore of it. But I think it will not happen and should not happen until we all have the mind of Christ. Thank God that He holds it all in his hands and let us pray that the gospel of grace will penetrate our hearts and minds so that we will see a new day.


  12. Apologies, near the end of my comment i had one ‘not’ too many. I meant to say, ” It is not likely that other denominations are going to brush Free Presbyterian criticism away like dust or with a gentle sigh saying, “Oh well, I guess that is just ‘misguided conservatism’ at worst. Ho hum.”


  13. Ross,

    Misguided conservatism is a pretty powerful force though, not just some wispy nothing. Unless it’s kept in check, conservatism can easily lay the foundation for legalism, as people lose the ability to distinguish what is genuinely the Christian doctrine and practice of all times and places from the cultural mores and habits of particular times and places where Christians have happened to live. This is a real worry for not uniquely the FPs but all small and dogmatic (in the non-pejorative sense of doctrine-conscious) groups of Christians, and the smaller, more localised, and dogmatic they are, the bigger the risk becomes.

    But (in a Pope is Catholic shocker) if I sometimes see the FPs maybe teetering on the edge of legalism I still see them staying more or less on the side of the angels, at least in the sense that they still know the catechism and they’re still good at preaching the free offer of the gospel, and when those who may sometimes err on the conservative side are as often not the hardline true blue figures of popular scorn but lovely dear Christian people who would be an asset in any denomination for their kindness, warmheartedness, prayerfulness and godliness. That’s why the worst I’ll concede is misguided conservativism – in the sense that (occasional nutters aside) people’s hearts are in the right place. It’s largely predictable that confessional churches will generally be conservative, but in the FPs the confessional element is still thankfully stronger than the conservative element.

    I’ll second your final para.


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