If you were to survey the British and European church landscape at the moment, I doubt that the International Presbyterian Church (IPC) would stand out. Few Christians, I think, have heard of us. We are a very small denomination, comprised of two presbyteries along language lines.
The English-speaking presbytery has nine congregations — four in Scotland and four in England (with another hoping to join soon) — and one in Belgium. There are also various church plants and pioneering works in England and Europe. The Korean-speaking presbytery has seven congregations in England.
The IPC was started in 1954, through the ministry of Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland. From its early days it was closely identified with L’Abri, Schaeffer’s better-known ministry among sceptical and doubting young people.
In time, two congregations started in England: in Ealing, London, in 1969 and in Liss, a small village in Hampshire, in 1972. Both were led by Ranald Macauley (Schaeffer’s son-in-law) and continue to exist today.
Bob Heppe, an American missionary, started a new church among South Asians in Southall, London, in the 1990s, but growth during the rest of the 20th century was gradual. Since the 2000s, however, there have been lots more encouragements. New churches have been planted.
There has been a surge in the number of men being ordained and ministering in the IPC, who are convinced that in the Reformed faith lie the resources with which to speak the gospel to our secular culture and lead the church to maturity.
Others are in training and looking forward to starting new IPC works in England. Our four Scottish congregations joined us, at considerable personal cost, as a result of the Church of Scotland’s compromise on sexual ethics. The Christian experience and maturity in these congregations has been a great blessing to us.
So, what characterises the IPC? Like other confessional Presbyterian denominations, all our elders vow to teach in accordance with the Westminster Confession of Faith (or the Dutch Reformed equivalent). Because we’re part of this wonderful institution, the church, established by Jesus Christ, we don’t think we’re free to make up our own way of ‘doing church’.
The word ‘Presbyterian’ comes from the Greek word presbuteros, which means ‘elder’ (1 Peter 5:1). The idea is that the church is governed by a group of elders, not by the congregation, nor a bishop above the elders.
The elders of each congregation are not independent of one another, but connected and accountable to a presbytery of elders across a whole region (as in Acts 15, at the Council of Jerusalem).
Far from being a nuisance that interferes with individual congregations, presbytery is a massive help. As a member of presbytery, it protects me from myself, and holds me accountable for my life and doctrine. We meet four times a year in a relaxed and warm-hearted atmosphere, wanting to see strong relationships built between elders.
We baptise the children of believers, not out of custom, but out of conviction that they are members of the visible church of Christ, just like the children of Abraham. We don’t bring them up standing outside the church until they repent and believe. We bring them up praying they will never know a day when they do not trust the Lord Jesus Christ, and repent of their sins for their salvation.
I do not think the IPC is the panacea that will cure the church’s struggles in Britain and Europe. History doesn’t suggest that Presbyterians have a better track record of staying faithful to the gospel than others. I’d be the first to admit that some versions of Presbyterianism feel like David trying on Saul’s armour! It just doesn’t fit, and is a hindrance not a help.
The principle of ‘covenant’, which is the heartbeat of Reformed theology, when put into practice properly, is putting steel in our bones. It is helping us evangelise, disciple people, preach and praise our God.
At a time when churches are tempted to sacrifice careful thought on a large number of issues for a ‘simple gospel’, we are finding lots of these ‘obscure’ doctrines are the most practical of all. So, though small, who knows, under God, where this might lead?
The writer is Assistant Minister at Trinity Church, York (IPC)