David Randall’s account of how he eventually found it imperative to leave the Church of Scotland makes for sad reading. Randall’s point is that once the CoS formally rejected the Word of God as its ultimate authority, it ceased to identify as the church, and that this formal rejection was made unequivocally in 2014. The specific controversy which prompted this crisis is of course less relevant than the underlying problem in the CoS which it brought to prominence – that when the choice was between retaining status in the sight of people who couldn’t care less about what Scripture says versus maintaining obedience to God’s clear Word, the biblical requirements became too awkward for the church as a body to live up to.
Some quick reflections.
- In an environment hostile to Scripture, there’s never going to be a good time to stand up for Scripture. For decades, good people in the CoS have preferred to compromise and keep quiet on one disputed point after another, always waiting for a more opportune time to take their principled stand. But principled stands are unfortunately always going to be difficult. It’s obviously easier said than done, but the point is whether the Christian (individual or denomination) is prepared to suffer whatever hardship it might bring, rather than sin or be complicit in sin. A strategy of informing consciences and strengthening resolve must therefore always better than a policy of deliberate quietism.
- Randall makes the very good point that you cannot be a presbyterian and not be implicated in the decisions/positions your supreme court takes. Moving the focus away from the CoS for a moment, this holds true for any presbyterian denomination. For one thing, it means that if the Assembly or the Synod legislates either in the direction of tolerating sin or in the direction of adding commandments which define as sinful what God’s Word does not call sin, we are all implicated in the libertinism or the legalism respectively. This should be a reminder to delegates at our church courts to have their eye on the real spiritual authority which these courts have, not to abuse it – to legislate every bit as far as Scripture allows, but certainly no further than Scripture allows. If we find it easy to point the finger at the CoS (or whoever) for relaxing Scripture’s requirements, we could do worse than reflect on how perilously close our more conservative bodies sometimes come to prohibiting what Scripture doesn’t forbid.
- On the question of when to leave a compromised denomination. No branch of the visible church is perfect, yet every Christian is meant to be a member of the visible church. It’s understandable that you would want a definitive formal repudiation of Scripture (a clearcut rejection of church-hood) before leaving the denomination of your heritage and which you’d no doubt invested a lot of service in. But the need to wait for that formal break from Scripture is at its most pressing when the choice is between the one visible body calling itself the church, and nothing. In contemporary Scotland, that need is much less pressing. By the Assembly decision of 2014, the CoS had a long track record of failures of church discipline and a general drift away from biblical doctrine, worship, and practice, while there were other denominations around which gave a much clearer display of the marks of the church – denominations which would have benefited from the service of CoS evangelicals a long time before now and where, you might have thought, their energies would have been better focused. While admiring the tenaciousness of those who didn’t move sooner (their loyalty is a striking contrast to many true blues in less troubled denominations who flit on much lesser provocation), this was not a choice between a fatally compromised church and the wilderness, but between that and an (albeit depressingly) large range of much less compromised denominations.
- But also there’s the question of where to go once you leave. Not one of the existing denominations shows the marks of the church as unequivocally as it should or fully lives up to the model ‘reformed in doctrine, worship, and practice.’ Ie, there are drawbacks to joining any denomination you could name. And while people unhappy in the CoS are right to insist on biblical conviction about one particular creation ordinance, this is by no means a sign that they’re convinced about other, even more crucial, aspects of Christian living, Christian doctrine, Christian worship, or Christian church government. It is sad indeed for presbyterians to abandon presbyterianism for the committed individualism of independency. It is also sad for presbyterians to flounder along in competing denominations, unwilling and unable to rally themselves fully around the Confession of Faith, purity of worship, and biblical church discipline. If it seems fair game to blame people for taking far too long to leave the CoS (or whoever), it would also be worth considering carefully why they might not have wanted to leave if it meant joining us (FPs or whoever), and make very sure that the reasons are truly only to do with our commitment to reformed doctrine, worship, and practice, and not justifiably to do with additional unnecessary stumbling blocks in the form of our own problems or our culture or attitudes.
David J Randall, A Sad Departure: Why we could not stay in the Church of Scotland (Banner of Truth, 2015)