SCRIPTURE leaves us in no doubt about the obligation of the believer todistance himself from the world. Of course, we mean “the world” in the ethical sense: the world of ungodliness, alienated from God and bent on its own pursuits and pleasures. “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing” (2 Cor 6:17).
When we say that the church is to be separate from the world, we are not advocating an ascetic, hermit-like existence, but we do say that we must constantly resist the alluring pull of the world and not become involved in worldly pleasures. Says the Apostle John, “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). The godly man is one who says, “Although I am in the world, I must not be of the world.”
That is not to say that the church is to so distance itself from the world as to be indifferent to its spiritual needs it must present to the world the only remedy for its ills: the gospel of the grace of God. But as someone has said, “Identification with the world in its need is one thing; imitation of the world and its foolishness is quite another.”
Some in the Christian church think that one way of reaching out to the world in its spiritual need is to adopt some of the ways of the world. This is seen even in the Free Church of Scotland. It professes to adhere to Reformed practice as well as doctrine and worship, but it is a sad fact that there is increasing worldliness in it. This is not surprising when some of its ministers present a view of certain sinful worldly pleasures which makes them appear allowable. We refer to an article on the Free Church website by the minister of St. Peters Free Church congregation in Dundee, the Rev. David Robertson.
Writing of the fact that no city in Scotland spends as much per capita on public arts as Dundee, he says, “One result of this has been the . . . blossoming of new theatre and dance groups. It was an invitation to one of the latter which set me thinking. What should the Christian attitude be to dance?” After referring to dancing that was not sinful (“We even have a psalm,” he rightly says, “that tells us we should praise him in the dance”), he mentions some forms of sinful dancing.
“However,” he adds, “it would be hard to find a case against what might be termed spontaneous congregational dance as an expression of praise.” Also, he asks, “Is folk dancing at weddings automatically sinful? What does the Bible say?” and then refers with apparent approval to “the pleasure that so many of our young (and not so young) people get from dancing”. His question not only suggests that there is nothing wrong in such dancing, but also condones it. He also asks the question, “But what about dance as a form of theatre? Or ballet? Or dancing for pleasure?”, as if to suggest that these are acceptable. One has only to glance at some of the reviews of theatre dance and ballet to see that many of these events are erotica, and that in any case they stink of the world.
It is indeed deplorable that Mr Robertson, a minister of the gospel, should so write about a patently sinful pleasure as to condone it. He is doing no service to the church of Christ by his subtly worded article, but rather aiding the world in extending its influence in the church. Those who look for arguments to indulge in this worldly vanity, while continuing a profession of Christianity, will be pleased with his article and find it helpful in excusing themselves. As was mentioned in the October 1997 issue of this magazine, “It has now become fashionable for some ministers, office-bearers and members in the Free Church and the APC to take to the dance floor at weddings. Recently, for instance, on the Island of Lewis, where the Free Church is regarded as being most conservative, one of its elders was on a Friday night, resplendent in Highland dress, cavorting on the dance floor; on the Sabbath night he was leading the praise in his church!”
Mr Robertson thinks he has the Bible on his side in his arguments. He writes, “When I see the pleasure that so many of our young (and not so young) people get from dancing; when I observe how naturally even the youngest of infants dance, it occurs to me that, rather than run away from it, we should seek to guide our people into a biblical theology of dance.” But he is at odds with the properly Biblical theology found, for example, in the article, The Dancing Question, by the great theologian R. L. Dabney (in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, Vol. 2, page 560). Mr Robertson in fact is stepping over the boundary into alien territory by condoning certain kinds of dancing. The boundary between the world and the church is well enough defined for those who have eyes to see. A minister of the gospel especially has to be very much on his guard against straying over that boundary, and should also be warning his flock against straying over it.
It would be well for us all to note what Dabney says in the above-mentioned article: “There is a truth usually overlooked which justifies special watchfulness and jealousy touching these worldly and sinful conformities. It is that they practically lie so near the dividing line between the penitent and the ungodly. When two rival kingdoms touch each other geographically, the boundary line is but a mark. A portion of the territory of the one, although as really foreign soil to the other as though it were in the centre of its own realm, must be within a single inch of the line, and so within an inch of the others ground. However sharply the boundary may be defined and established, this remains true. One result is that the king of either side takes much more pains to defend his frontier than his interior; his fortresses are built and his guards paraded almost exclusively along the outer edge, next his foreign and hostile neighbours territory. By the same reason, it is unavoidable and right that in Christs kingdom the frontier ground which borders upon the territory of Satans kingdom, the sinful world, should be more jealously guarded. Practically, that is the region where the citizens of the spiritual kingdom suffer incursions and are exposed to danger. The officers of that kingdom would be derelict to their duty if they did not bestow special watch at these points. Thoughtless people suppose that the noise made by presbyters of the church against cards and dancing is prompted by nothing but their puritanical prejudice; that being determined from censoriousness and pride to be righteous overmuch, they pitch on these practices as their pet horrors. But that this is entirely short-sighted appears from the simple view just given. . .”
Dabney makes this further important observation: “Another truth follows from this view: that however sharply the boundary line may be drawn between the hostile kingdoms, practically, the belt of land next the frontier must be debatable land as to its perils. Hence the man who desires to pay a righteous regard to his own safety will avoid occupying the space very near the boundary, even though he may believe that it belongs to his own king. His actual peril is about as great as though he were over the line. The analogy is just. The Christian who is successfully assaulted by Satan is the one who causelessly ventures near his boundary line. Usually men do not backslide by suddenly falling into some large and clearly acknowledged crime. . . . Christians are morally bound to guard themselves most against smaller sins lying next to the debatable zone; and those who watch for souls are bound to be most wakeful and strict in the same points.”
It is clear then that Mr Robertson, instead of drawing his article to a close with the words, “I am glad that Dundee has become a city of dance,” should be deploring the fact. Certainly, one of his predecessors in St Peters, the saintly Rev. Robert Murray MCheyne, would have deplored it. There was a day when MCheyne himself loved to dance, regarding it as an allowable recreation. His biographer says, “As the unholiness of his pleasures became more apparent, he writes, . . . April 10, Absented myself from the dance; upbraidings ill to bear. But I must try to bear the cross.”
We believe too that MCheyne would have banned from St Peters what Mr Robertson allowed: a religious meeting in which a so-called Christian band played and a woman preacher addressed the gathering from his pulpit. This is how one person present described the event to a concerned enquirer: “There was a meeting at St. Peters on Friday, the 31st of March, as part of build-up meetings to an evangelistic event called Festival 99 at MacDiarmid Park in Perth in which Franklin Graham (Billy Grahams son) is the speaker. At this meeting, the Christian singer Ian White played some of his songs and the gathering of people joined in. Then Billy Grahams daughter [the woman preacher referred to] spoke, the content of which I do not profess to know the full details of. I heard the first ten minutes, and that was very much an endorsing of her brother as a competent evangelist and encouragement in the work of the Festival. I understand your concern over a woman in the pulpit of a Free Church, but please let me assure you that this most certainly was not a Sunday service. The event was just a meeting during the week and not a proper Sunday worship service.” The same person also said later to the enquirer, “Ian White and his band (guitar, drums et al) were leading the people in the singing of his own songs. Unaccompanied psalms were not on the agenda.”
Mr Robertson himself replied to the enquirer, “We have never, and will never, have a woman preaching in a Free Church service. I did agree to a request to let the Festival 99 organisation use the Church for a rally. There were some things that went on at that rally that I personally may not have approved of and would certainly never allow in a Free Church service, but on balance I felt it was better to agree to the organisation using the building.”
The distinctions made between a “Sunday service” and “just a meeting during the week”, and between ” Free Church service” and “a rally”, are really red herrings. The fact is that a religious worship meeting (at least the people believed they were worshipping God) took place in St Peters with the ministers permission, in which there were unscriptural elements of songs of human composition, instrumental music, and, not least, the addressing of the people by a woman preacher.
It is a grief to the godly in the Free Church, we know, that worldliness is on the increase in their midst. While no doubt they are saying, as it were, to those who are straying, “Brethren, these things ought not so to be” (James 3:10), it is to be feared that the situation has got out of hand. It is a situation which says to us all, “Watch and pray, lest ye enter into temptation.”