the obligatory anti-Christmas post

Folks, it’s that time of year again.

I know I have this rule that you should never talk about how rubbish Christmas is at Christmas time. August is best, I feel. But here we are, and August has slipped past again, and still Something Must Be Said.

So, Christmas.

1) The religious problem. As everyone knows, it’s a pagan festival, insinuated into the Christian church by way of exploiting the loose connections between heathen myths and the facts of Christian history. Whatever is the reason for this season, Jesus is not it.

2) The church angle. As everyone knows, the virgin birth actually happened. The Son of God did become man. This is immense. On the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, all our salvation depends.

But the festivals and celebrations of the Christian church are constrained by what Christ has actually ordained. What Christ has ordained is a weekly celebration of his resurrection in the Lord’s day, a one-off symbolisation of regeneration for every believer in their baptism, and a regular symbolisation of ongoing dependence for every believer in the Lord’s supper.

Christmas isn’t in Christ’s list. Nor, for that matter, is Easter, or Lent, or any of the other days vulgarly called holy days. The Christian Church has no right to summon anyone to church services to celebrate Christ’s birth at this time of year. We have all year round to remember and worship on account of this amazing thing, that Christ Jesus came into the world, to save sinners.

3) The cultural angle. As everyone knows, this time of year is a riot of spending too much, eating too much, drinking too much, partying too much, and stressing too much. Whether it’s tacky Christmas, or sophisticated Christmas, or nostalgic Christmas, it’s synonymous with consumerism, materialism, and excess. Most people shopping for presents are not enjoying themselves. Most people preparing huge dinners are glad when it’s over. Most people listening to Christmas music on every possible radio station and in every possible shop eventually find themselves with earworm.

People who have been brought up in Christmas-free families should be deeply, madly, passionately appreciative of that fact. It means you know the gospel truth about the incarnation, untainted by sacrilegious nativity scenes. It means you can go to church all and only those times when God wants you to be in church, and not when tradition dictates. It means you don’t need to buy into an annual commercialised frenzy of tinsel, trees, turkey trimmings, Santas, stockings, sleigh bells, wreaths, crackers, carols, party hats, watch night services, work nights out, and fill in the rest of the paraphernalia for yourself. Or rather, don’t. Don’t be distracted from things that actually matter, by adopting cultural practices that are alien to your own worldview and lifestyle, and and that are in any case a burden grievous to be borne by people who don’t have the same heritage of religious liberty and freedom.

Instead, embrace and celebrate being Christmas-free. Rally your peers and support each other in your Christmas-avoidance when you get together. Let your gatherings be safe spaces where nobody needs to find excuses to get out of the Christmas party. Just think of how dispiriting it is to be struggling, isolated, in the office or at school or uni to behave with integrity and with courtesy – to walk that tightrope between violating your conscience before God and avoiding giving needless offence to colleagues and peers in all the delicate social situations that arise – only to be confronted with exactly the same dilemmas when you meet up with people who should be on exactly the same wavelength. Christmas is something you can safely stay at least a bargepole’s distance away from, without missing out on anything of religious benefit or cultural merit. And I’m putting a note in my diary to say the same again next August.

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reunion response

The Reunion paper by Kenneth Stewart has prompted a good deal of discussion behind the scenes (and here). Now a Response has been published, co-authored by David Campbell and Matthew Vogan:

It’s detailed, thoughtful, plain, and realistic – go and have a read.

 

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?

some weird objections

A post by Gordon Matheson here rightly identifies the Establishment Principle as central to the concerns that many Scottish Christians have about changing to a secular constitution if Scotland became independent.

But rather than concurring with this, the post goes on to make three observations on the relationship between Church and State which sit rather uncomfortably with a conventional understanding of the Establishment Principle – a principle so crucial to the witness of the heirs of 1843.

Observation 1.

Firstly, God doesn’t need the Establishment Principle to guarantee the place of the church at the heart of the nation. The suggestion that the church needs the trappings of Establishment is bogus. We need to remember, the Church started life as a few dozen people gathered in a room in Jerusalem. It flourished in the face of fierce persecution in its Jewish cradle, in the culture of the Roman Empire, and across the whole Gentile world. Even today, the Church thrives in counties where it is suppressed. The Establishment Principle, if anything, should urge us on to win and hold onto hard-won religious liberty. The American constitution, for example, guarantees that liberty, but wisely does not establish any religion or denomination – yet the Church does okay in America. Meanwhile, in the UK, where we have an Established Church, we’re peripheral – hardly at the heart of anything. Establishment provides no guarantee of a place – let alone a place at the heart.

The oddity of this observation is that establishment isn’t so much about the needs of the Church as the needs of society. Nor is it about what God “needs” so much as what God ordains – what God has revealed is his preferred way for how Church and State should relate. The Establishment Principle doesn’t force us to choose between religious liberty and the church at the heart of the nation – it’s about both. And legal provisions that the Church should be established are not so much fancy trappings that we can easily dispense with as simply the State’s way of expressing its acceptance of its obligation under God to give national recognition to the Christian religion. If it happens that, in spite of legislation like the Treaty of Union, neither the state nor the established body are taking their current legal responsibilities seriously, that’s not a problem with the legislation but with the flaws and frailties of the state and the body it currently establishes. It certainly doesn’t undermine the Establishment Principle, which is just our terminology for the relationship which should hold between Church and State when both are living up to their divinely ordained responsibilities.

Observation 2.

Secondly, the Establishment Principle has never guaranteed orthodoxy. In fact, Established Churches tend towards a sickness in doctrine. History is replete with examples – from the Church of England’s half-way reformation, to the Three Self Patriotic Church on modern day China. The Establishment Principle is supposed to lead to a healthy balance between church and state. But because we live in a broken, sinful world that rarely happens. Even when it does it rarely lasts long. Either the state exercises undue control over the church’s doctrine and affairs; or the church becomes grotesque in her demands of the state; or the church makes compromises to appease the state. This has already happened in Scotland. We need to ask, what’s worse for the nation – a sick established church, or a healthier non-established church? It’s strange that a Free Presbyterian minister has forgotten this has happened before. In the run up to 1843 the relationship between state and established church became unbearable for men like Thomas Chalmers, and he walked out. The “Free” in the Free Church, and her various offspring, is a recognition that Establishment is a great Biblical principle, (and we still call the state to her highest calling in this); but we realise we live in the real world, where great principles rarely work as desired.

In the Scottish context, it simply is not the case that historically the Established Church has tended towards a sickness in doctrine. Strange for a Free Church minister to forget, but in the run up to the Disruption, the “sickness” was on the side of the State, not the side of the Church. The Disruption was actually a manifestation of very robust health on the part of the then established Church, when they would prefer to forego the benefits of establishment than violate the principle of Christ’s authority in his Church. For that whole length of time between the Reformation and the Disruption, Scotland had in actuality enjoyed that same healthy balance between Church and State which Gordon claims is so rare and short-lived – the 1842 Claim, Declaration and Protest is a standing testimony to this (and it’s part of the reason why the state’s encroachments in the early 1800s were so outrageous and intolerable).

The scenarios on offer – a sick established church or a healthier non-established church – are a false dichotomy. The ideal, encapsulated in the Establishment Principle, is a healthy established Church – and it’s not some remote, fanciful ideal so noble as to be unattainable. It’s as concrete and attainable as the principle that souls are converted under the preaching of the Word, or that people shouldn’t go around breaking the sixth commandment – both grand Biblical principles and things we should be able to consciously work towards without a second thought.

Observation 3.

So my third observation is that things break. Scotland’s history is full of broken covenants – but times of refreshing have come.  Yet today, you would have to wear rose-tinted spectacles to think the church (sick or healthy) has a place to lose at the heart of the nation. The Church in Scotland is largely irrelevant, sick with errors in doctrine, and frequent misplaced emphasis in word and action. God has already been provoked – and has given Scotland the church she wanted. I don’t think we need the FPs to tell us that might happen – we need to open our eyes to what already is!

Despite that, God has continued to be faithful to us. There are still a lot of healthy parts of the Church. He does that because of his grace. While we can never assume grace, we cannot live without it. The assumption that Scotland will be cut off from God’s blessing if we revoke a man-made treaty smacks of a graceless, legalistic view of God. We have to rely on a God who is not like that.

Thankfully, the Synod resolution neither assumes that we will be cut off from God’s blessing for revoking a man-made treaty, nor entertains a graceless, legalistic view of God.

People who read the resolution itself rather than the version filtered through BBC reportage would see that the main concern is not with independence per se, nor with changing treaties per se, but with corporately adopting a secular(ist) constitution to replace the one where Christianity is given its (rightful) place at the heart of the nation. To the extent that secularisation is a rejection of God, God’s authority, and God’s kindness to us collectively in providence, there’s not much room for doubt that to that extent it’s not quite the loving respect we really owe him.

Legally and constitutionally, the Christian religion does have a huge place to lose at the heart of the nation. Our challenge today is not to pretend that the constitution is irrelevant to the church’s role in society, but to work together to ‘strengthen the things that remain and are ready to die,’ and see how we can best cooperate to shape a society where the gospel can be preached freely and lived openly, for the good of Scotland.

resolution on independence

Cath is of the view that Synod could work harder to make its resolutions less open to misinterpretion and misrepresentation by the Beeb and others.

Cath is nevertheless of the view that, given a bit of contextualisation, the Synod resolution on Scottish independence which has just recently reached the limelight makes a substantive contribution to the debate.

Read it here: Synod resolution on Scottish independence

1. Context

a) The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland continues to understand the relationship between Church and State in terms of the Establishment Principle.

This principle has been entirely mainstream throughout the history of the Scottish church. It says that although Church and State have independent jurisdictions, they still have responsibilities towards each other. On the one hand, the Church has the responsibility of praying for all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity. On the other hand, the State has the responsibility of ensuring that the conditions are in place in society to allow this lifestyle to flourish.

Contemporary challenges to this principle usually come either in the form that the Church doesn’t need to be recognised or established by the State in order to flourish (which is true, but irrelevant), or that a mutually supportive relationship between Church and State is not after all a scriptural principle (a position increasingly popular in wider British evangelicalism and some quarters of American presbyterianism, but not necessarily true).

To the extent that the 1707 Treaty of Union is consistent with the Establishment Principle, it’s hardly surprising that the Synod’s commitment to the Establishment Principle leads it to be concerned about undoing the Treaty of Union, especially when the pro-independence campaign has so far been strangely silent on the details of how the State’s commitment to the national recognition of the Christian religion would be reasserted in a brave new independent Scotland.

b) Although the Synod resolution comes out strongly against independence, this is not the same thing as telling people how to vote.

The resolution expresses the Synod’s understanding of the current legal and constitutional situation, and their associated concerns about what they see as all the disastrous implications and consequences of Scotland becoming independent now, under present conditions and in present circumstances. But a Christian voter would be perfectly within their rights to believe that an independent Scotland would be good for Christianity in Scotland (if they credit, for example, the SNP’s protestations of how respectful they are towards the role of religion in society). They could then vote yes in an independence referendum in all good conscience, Synod resolutions notwithstanding.

I don’t really know how the FP vote gets distributed across political parties – as in, if there’s any particular party that would reliably be favoured by the majority of Free Presbyterians. FPs vote for candidates across the spectrum, from the Lib Dems to UKIP, and although I wouldn’t be surprised if FP voters mirror the Scottish electorate at large in being predominantly unconvinced of the case for independence, that certainly does not mean either that FP voters take their political advice from a synod committee (the idea is laughable) or that Synod would even think to offer such advice.

2. Contribution

The contribution of the Synod resolution to the independence debate is not economic or political or (even) legal/constitutional, but religious. That’s after all what you’d expect, from a religious body.

The religious concern is: in an independent Scotland, what place would there be for Christianity? All you can go by, to answer a question about a hypothetical future scenario, is the trends you currently perceive, and these are not reassuring. The vision offered to us of a modern, vibrant, exciting new Scotland is rigorously secular, contemptuous towards the socially conservative, and hostile by default towards Scotland’s own traditional forms of Christianity. This is a problem for Scotland, and keenly felt by Scotland’s Christians regardless of denomination, right here and now. The worry that many of Scotland’s Christians have for Scotland would be that these attitudes would become more firmly entrenched in an independent Scotland, and that the social, cultural, moral, ethical, and religious changes driven by these attitudes would only become more far-reaching at a faster rate. Of course Christians in Scotland may take the opposite view – that somehow, independence would allow Christianity to flourish in Scotland as never before – that secularism and secularisation would become a thing of the past in an independent Scotland – but the Synod is far from alone among Christian commentators in Scotland in thinking we have little of hope this as far as the eye can see.

Two other contributions of the Synod resolution could be as follows. One would be to remind people that history matters, that we need to take treaties and covenants seriously, even if they were made a long time ago, and that we have to act accountably when we act collectively to make or break agreements.

The other would be to keep the doctrines of grace central to the witness of the Christian church in general, in such a way that everything becomes subordinate to the question how the gospel of Christ can be most clearly articulated in our particular context in this time and place. In the Synod resolution, this point is disguised under terminology that other people don’t tend to use any more – fighting talk about Protestantism and Presbyterianism and the dangers of false religion. But, translated, Protestantism and Presbyterianism mean a gospel of mercy – salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and a community devoted to loving God and our neighbour. Scottish Christians are free to discuss what the best constitutional context for this would be, but surely there can be unanimity that proclaiming the gospel is the main thing.

presbyterians behaving badly

For badly, read: like independents.

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

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

My only thoughts to say out loud are these two.

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

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

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

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

confession time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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