Synod Sermon: Rev D J MacDonald, Retiring Moderator
Psalm 133:1. Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.
In Psalms 132 and 133 the Psalmist is speaking of different aspects of the Church of God. In Psalm 132:3-5 we read of David’s promise: “Surely I will not come into the tabernacle of my house, nor go up into my bed; I will not give sleep to mine eyes, or slumber to mine eyelids, until I find out a place for the Lord, an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob” – a promise to build a permanent dwelling place for the ark. Then in verse 13 we have this brought before us: “The Lord hath chosen Zion; He hath desired it for His habitation”, which tells us of God’s choice of Jerusalem, and of Mount Zion in particular, for His dwelling place. Though this is particularly a reference to the literal Zion, we cannot confine God’s promises to the Church of the Old Testament. God’s relationship to His Church in the world is still the same – as we were singing: “God in the midst of her doth dwell” (Ps 46:5). That was true in the Old Testament and, however mysterious, it is still true of God’s relationship to His Church in the world today.
In these two Psalms we have abundant proof of God’s special care for His Church till the end of time. We are to remember that these promises belong first and foremost to believers, who are indeed the Church. You know that the word Church is never applied in the New Testament except to the people of God. The Church are the people who are called out – those who, by the grace of God, are called out of the world. They are called out of the darkness and unbelief of Christ-rejection. The Lord found all His people among those who like sheep had gone astray, who had turned everyone to his own way. But out of that situation He has called them to be His people in this world. More wonderful still, He has them to be with Christ in eternal blessedness in heaven when time shall be no more!
These people are to be found within what we call the visible Church, which, as you know, is defined in our subordinate standards as “all those throughout the world who profess the true religion, with their children”. Let us just for a moment think of this: whatever our standing, we belong to the visible Church, which has the ministry of the Word and the sacraments, which has the ordinances which God is using to gather in His elect, those who were given to Christ by the Father. Even in our day, when we say, “Our signs we do not now behold”, God is using His Word. And the Lord’s people in the world are being fed. This is taking place continually because the visible Church will go on until the end of time.
That brings me to notice the great duty of the Church to maintain the truth as the truth of God, to contend earnestly “for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints”. This is the truth to be proclaimed, as the Saviour said to the early New Testament Church: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). It is appropriate for us to think of these things tonight when we are met as a Synod, the supreme court of this branch of the visible Church. I make no apology for addressing my remarks particularly to the fathers and the brethren, for it is right and proper for us at the beginning of our deliberations to think of some of the responsibilities which God has placed upon us, both individually and collectively. In our text there is a call for unity among the brethren, and the Word of God declares that such unity is good and pleasant. Surely this is a blessing which we should seek when we are met together: that we would be enabled to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, as we deal with all the matters that will come before us, if it is the Lord’s will to spare us.
I should like to bring four things before you briefly:
- The brethren.
- The unity of doctrine.
- The unity of practice.
- This unity is good and pleasant.
1. The brethren. The word brethren quite simply means brothers. It is often used in the New Testament for believers. In fact, we could say that, in the New Testament, the term brethren is equivalent to disciples, those who follow Christ because they recognise and acknowledge Him to be who He claims to be: the Son of God, the Saviour of sinners. The brethren are those who have in their hearts Peter’s testimony: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).
Remember that the Saviour told His disciples, “All ye are brethren” (Matt 23:8). This had reference to the use of different titles, but it declares to us an important New Testament principle: the equality of the brethren. If you think for a moment of natural brothers, they are sons of the same father. This has, I believe, a spiritual application, because we read of the union that believers have to Christ: “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26). They are all members of the same family. There is a further expansion of this in the doctrine of adoption; those who are adopted are “received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God”.
This also brings before us the continued responsibility of each of them, one which lies on me and on you this evening: “Love as brethren”. It is no small responsibility. It is common for natural brothers to love one another, to be careful of each other’s good, and of each other’s reputation. This should be obvious as we are here together as fathers and brethren on this occasion for the special purpose of ordering the affairs of this Church. At these meetings, brotherly love should not only exist among us; it should be exhibited; it should be clearly seen in our midst. It is sad to think that anything would cause us to lose sight of this relationship.
It is very solemn to have rule in the Church of God, for it falls upon the fathers and the brethren to take decisions which may have eternal consequences. This ought to weigh heavily upon us as we are gathered together. Do we always bear this in mind? Do you and I have this in our hearts as we think of the matters which are brought before us?
The rule by which brethren are to work is made quite clear to us in the Word of God. “What saith the scripture?” (Rom 4:3) has to be our consideration. Surely this was the consideration which motivated the Disruption Fathers in 1843, when they separated from the Church of Scotland. They were prepared to take their stand on this: “What saith the scripture?” Surely that was what motivated the founding fathers of the Free Presbyterian Church also, in 1893. And surely what caused a division among us in 1989 was the refusal of the brethren met in the Synod, even as we are, to accept any other standard than the Word of God.
It is easy to be wise with hindsight, but we are to remember that these divisions have come about because there were those who did not wish to follow the Scripture. We, as a Synod, are not to accept any other standard; to consider each matter in this light is a duty that rests on the brethren personally first of all, but also on them collectively. It is for the brethren to remember their responsibility to their Heavenly Father, whose sons they are. This has to be the first consideration, not what any other person is doing or what any man expects from me. The brethren are so called also because of their office, which has to be discharged from the heart as to the Lord. Our actions could affect the cause in our midst for many years to come and we are to consider them in that light.
2. The unity of doctrine. This a matter that we perhaps take for granted. Perhaps many would say, Of course we have unity of doctrine; that is why we are here; that is why we are not somewhere else. We would do well this night to remind ourselves of our solemn ordination vow: “Do you sincerely own and declare the Confession of Faith to be the confession of your faith?” This is a vow every one of us has taken and all it says is this: Is this what you truly believe?
There is nothing in our Confession of Faith – the Westminster Confession of Faith – but what is based on the Word of God. And without this unity of doctrine, brethren cannot really dwell in unity. It will soon become obvious that something has changed if some in our midst do not fully follow this doctrine. And let me just say that I see this unity of doctrine as what cements the unity of the brethren. We are a confessional Church, with the Westminster Confession as our subordinate standard, and that is not meant to be a restriction at all. The Westminster Confession of Faith, as you know, is a clear and orderly statement of the doctrines of the Word of God and, because we are a confessional Church, we differ from others, and we must differ. We are separate, and we must be separate, from those who have another form of subscription, or none at all. There are those who subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith with the proviso: in so far as it is in agreement with the Word of God. Now this is to suggest that there is something in the Confession of Faith which is not in accordance with the Word of God. It appears to me at any rate that this is quibbling with words so that men may do as they wish.
Our unity of doctrine cannot lie merely in an intellectual acceptance; it will inevitably affect our actions. These are not vows which can be taken lightly; these are not simply words we have to agree to in order to enter into office but which we may then lose sight of. These are vows taken before God, and it is a most solemn matter for any to turn away from them, or even to let these slip from their minds. These are binding obligations, and it would be to our benefit to remind ourselves of what we have vowed to uphold. It is only as we are concerned about the scriptural nature of the doctrine that we will adhere to it, and this has to be the foundation of the unity of the brethren.
The Word of God is to be the rule of their lives in doctrine, worship and practice, taking nothing from the Word of God and adding nothing to it. Most of you are aware that the Church of God is under a constant temptation to lower the standard – in, say, accepting members. You know, and some of you know better than I do, how our adherence, for instance, to Sabbath observance has lost us many people because, as a Church, we have maintained that it is unscriptural to use public transport run on the Sabbath day for profit. Many have said regarding that very matter: “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:60). There is the temptation to relax certain rules so that we would have more members, so that we would have a place in society which at the moment is denied to us. You may think this is something trivial, but let me point you to the fact that it has been the downfall of many denominations in the history of Scotland. Many denominations have sprung up since the beginning of the eighteenth century, and the large majority of them have disappeared.
People speak at times in a very disparaging way about doctrine as if it was something merely intellectual, using expressions like “dry doctrine”. Just think of what doctrine means: a chief teaching of the Word of God, one of the great revelations that God has given. Here is a doctrine from the Word of God: “Our God is the God of salvation” (Ps 68:20). Is that something that you and I can pass judgement upon? We have heard such teachings all our lives, and they are doctrinal statements, statements which give a revelation from God. For instance: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Can we dismiss that as something purely intellectual? “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Surely that is a doctrine which we ought to embrace?
These are the glorious teachings of the Word of God, to which we should give heed. These are heart-stirring doctrines which, in a measure, we know by personal experience – as lost, ruined, undone sinners who can contribute nothing to our own salvation. Yet what we also find in the Word of God is: “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8,9). It is God’s work from beginning to end. Surely there is comfort here for anyone who is conscious of his or her sin, of his or her inability. These are not only heart-stirring doctrines, they are soul-saving doctrines, which the Church must continue to proclaim. This is the message we have for the twenty-first century, as it was the message for the first century: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Cor 5:19). That has to be at the very centre of our preaching. These doctrines have to be preached again and again throughout the length and breadth of our nation if it is to be set free from the chains of spiritual darkness.
I need not dwell on the point that the doctrines which are able to make sinners wise unto salvation are not generally known in our land. It is not that they are not generally known in Africa or India, with all due respect to Africa and India; it is that they are not known in Scotland. The vast majority of our fellow sinners in Scotland do not know these truths. Last week I read in an article written in view of next week’s meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland that only 12% of people attended church at some time during the past year. What does that tell me? That 88% of the people of Scotland did not attend church at any time during the past year. You will see the importance of doctrine – the gospel truths which we hear Sabbath after Sabbath, year after year, while many others are ignorant of them.
3. The unity of practice. Practice in ecclesiastical terms, in a church context, often refers to form – how things are done. You have it on the cover of our magazines: “doctrine, worship and practice”. Practice in its fullest meaning must include relationships between the brethren. It is not just how brethren do things outwardly which here comes under the heading of unity, but spiritual relationships between them – how they behave toward each other, how they speak to each other, and how they speak of each other. And perhaps we do not emphasise this as strongly as we ought.
The Saviour told His disciples: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way. First be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer up thy gift’ (Matt 5:23,24). The Saviour is here giving us a right view of the relationship between brethren; they were even to turn away from the very altar where they were going to give a sacrifice if they were aware that there was some discord between them and a brother.
We ought to ask ourselves, Do we always strive honestly for this? The words, “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”, indicate forcefully that we must be careful to preserve Christian love with our brethren. Nor is this spirit of unity something to be reserved for the days of the Synod; it ought to be practised continually, and this unity ought to be based on brotherly love. The Saviour says, “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
This is not something mystical; it is a very practical requirement and the most direct and simple way I can express it just now is: Be brotherly; act as brethren; be brotherly in speaking to the brethren; be brotherly in listening to them; be brotherly in judging what they say; be brotherly in rebuking. Does that come in? Of course it does! Paul says of the time when Peter dissembled: “I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal 2:11). Paul rebuked him. Now surely it would be an evidence of brotherly love among us if there was more of this private and personal rebuke. Paul did not go away and ask John, Do you know what Peter did? He withstood him to his face. He exercised brotherly love towards him.
Let us not think it is something simple; it takes the grace of God to rebuke a brother, and it takes the grace of God to accept a brotherly rebuke. Surely we should desire, as we are met together, to have this grace in exercise. It is not something we can leave aside as of secondary importance. That is not the emphasis the Word of God places upon it. The spirit of the other disciples was: “Men took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus”. One writer, in commenting on that passage, said, “Would that the same could be said of their successors!” It was seen among the disciples in their regard, first of all, to the Saviour Himself and in obedience to His teaching, but also in their love to the brethren. It is an example of what I have before my mind when I am speaking about unity in doctrine and practice.
Paul tells Timothy exactly why he is writing to him: “That thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God” (1 Tim 3:15). Surely this brings before us that there is a particular way in which we should behave in the house of God, especially when we meet as courts of the Church. Part of what Paul lays before Timothy is: “Doing nothing by partiality” (1 Tim 5:21). We are a small branch of the visible Church, and there are many points of contact, many relationships among us; yet we are to act without partiality. You are not to say as an elder, “I am not going to vote for that because I know my minister is against it”. If that is your reason, you are being partial. You are not to say, “The man who is at the bar here is my natural brother; I cannot possibly vote against him”. The Word of God says, “Without partiality”.
We also are directed to “love as brethren”. How often, naturally, brethren care for each other; how they will seek to comfort a brother in trouble; how they will lift up the brother if he has stumbled; how they will defend a brother; how they will hide a brother’s fault! These should serve as examples to spiritual brethren seeking to dwell in unity. The Truth says: “Add to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity” (2 Pet 1:7). There is a danger, when brethren do not dwell in unity, do not work in unity and do not endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit, that there will be disunity instead. Again let us hear what the Word of God says about this very matter, and let us not put it away from ourselves and say that it doesn’t happen among us: “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work” (Jas 3:16). How important it is to have brotherly unity! How important it is that we would not let our enthusiasm to have things done, especially to have them done in our way, interfere with brotherly unity. It would be good if we could say at the end of this meeting of Synod that it was a brotherly meeting, and nothing less is required of us by the Word of God.
4. This unity is good and pleasant. It is so good and so pleasant that we cannot fully express it. We have just to say, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is”. It is good in itself; it is pleasing in the sight of God; it is something to strive for. The fathers and brethren are to pray that the Lord would give us that unity at this time.
You have an example at the very beginning of the New Testament. At Pentecost, the brethren were together with one accord in one place. Now I know that it was a unique day in the history of the Church and of the world, but that accord was given by God. And should we not pray for it in our own midst, remembering that the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, neither is His ear heavy that He cannot hear? As we see it to be desirable, so we will seek it – so we will desire it – for ourselves.
In a world of turmoil, in a world of strife, in a world of self-seeking, brethren dwelling in unity should bring all who look on to wonder. And this would be the proof to the world of the reality of the grace of God. It is good to see the brethren who are ordering the affairs of God’s house working in unity having as their one aim the good of the Cause in the world. The writer whom I have quoted already says, “The highest unity is that of brethren in Christ animated with love to one another, and with a common pious zeal for truth and holiness”. That is the standard set before us in the words of our text; nothing less is required of us at our meeting. And it is the scriptural view of unity among the brethren. It is altogether different from a worldly view, and we should seek to bear it in mind, for this is the Saviour’s requirement: “Have peace one with another” (Mark 9:50). The Church is Christ’s; it is our great business to commend Him. And we can best do it as a Synod if we seek grace to dwell in unity. Let us seek to keep that before our minds in the days that lie ahead.