Free Church challenge
The last twenty years have been tempestuous for the Free Church of Scotland. Simmering tensions during the 1990s resulted in the breakaway Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) in 2000.
At the root of that was intense controversy surrounding allegations of wrongdoing against Professor Donald Macleod of the Free Church College, and of mishandling by the Free Church in its response.
Prof. Macleod was exonerated by the church’s own investigation and a secular court. However, a deeply unhappy aftermath has meant protracted legal wrangling over property between the Free Church and Free Church (Continuing), which still continues.
In November 2010, further public division erupted after a plenary assembly in Edinburgh voted to introduce hymn singing and allow the use of instruments in public worship.
The resulting vote by the church’s commissioners was 98 to 84 – a majority of just 14 for hymns and instruments. This decision breaks from the Free Church’s long tradition of exclusive, unaccompanied (metrical) psalm singing. Thirty members at the session reportedly insisted on recording their dissent from the decision.
The vote was also marked by disagreement from Rev. Kenneth Stewart, a well known minister and strong critic of the hymn-singing move. He later told his congregation in Partick, Glasgow, that he planned to stand down as a minister in the denomination, saying, ‘It seems clear to me, that in spite of a lifelong adherence to the Free Church and a lifelong commitment to it, I can no longer continue in it, at least not in office’.
Such disputes have brought obvious unhappiness to churches. But there has been another less well perceived but far more radical problem – a slow drift into unbiblical ecumenism.
A century on from the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910, this would hardly rate as news for most Protestant denominations, so bad have been the ravages of theological liberalism. However, the Free Church of Scotland is different.
Throughout the twentieth century it has adhered to its doctrinal standard, the Westminster Confession of Faith, which unequivocally opposes Catholic dogma. Chapter 25, VI, for example, says, ‘There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God’.
The Free Church’s preachers and office-bearers are required to vow: ‘I, [name], do hereby declare, that I do sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the confession of faith, approven by former general assemblies of this church to be the truths of God; and I do own the same as the confession of my faith’.
Yet, amidst other signs that all is not well on this issue, Free Church ministers have taken part in BBC Alba ecumenical services, broadcast over the past two years on Christmas Eve. Rev. Ronnie Morrison and Rev. Christopher MacRae featured at Inverness (2009) and Skye (2010), respectively.
More recently, Rev. David Robertson of St Peter’s, Dundee, and editor of The Record, has made some alarming statements. He was first caller to Radio Scotland in a chat programme marking the pope’s Scottish visit (16 September).
Mr Robertson is known for his book The Dawkins letters: challenging atheist myths, so understandably he agrees with the pope’s stance against militant secularism.
Having stated in his call, with examples, that he ‘would disagree with the pope about many things’, he then affirmed: ‘I would like to welcome him as a religious leader. I would like to welcome him as a fellow Christian. Personally I would love to meet him and to hear him’. On Youtube he repeats the claim that the pope is a ‘Christian brother’.
The pope is undoubtedly a thoughtful ethicist, but Galatians 1:6-10 is still in the Bible, and it is the Bible’s criteria that must decide who or who is not a Christian.
Mr Robertson’s Edinburgh presbytery (and wider denomination) has, so far, and in spite of repeated requests to do so fromET, failed to make a public statement about his stance. So, the question remains, where does the Free Church really and practically stand on these issues?
The challenge that lies before that church is not only to achieve reconciliation over various divisions that blight it, but to secure its very integrity by attention to fundamental challenges posed by ecumenism; and, in particular, to address these questions: ‘What is the gospel?’; ‘What is a Christian?’; ‘What is the church?’; and ‘What is a vow?’
If a church goes wrong on the gospel, then it goes wrong on everything. Many readers will be praying that the Free Church rises to this challenge.