THE recent division in the Free Church has been the subject of much pondering by those who are concerned for the church of Christ in Scotland. “For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart” (Judges 5:15). The ongoing internal strife came to a head, says the Free Church, on Thursday 20th January 2000, when some 30 ministers, including 22 who were suspended that day, left the Free Church of Scotland to form a new denomination, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). The Free Church also states that, in dealing with the contentious issues troubling the Church, it has acted at all times with integrity, respect, and in accordance with the laws of the Church.
The view of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) is quite different. It states that the 22 ministers were unlawfully suspended. (The suspension was not disciplinary but “administrative”, until their cases would be further considered at the General Assembly next May). The Free Church (Continuing) adds that because the suspension of the ministers “was unconstitutional and unprecedented and resulted in an unwarranted denial of their right to preach, the ministers against whom judgement had been pronounced declined the jurisdiction of the Court, declaring that they would not be bound by the judgements arrived at”. Accordingly, those 22 ministers, we understand, do not recognise the suspensions as valid.
The immediate cause of their suspension was their refusal to give up their membership of the Free Church Defence Association (FCDA). The FCDA was formed in 1997, along the lines of the FCDA of the last century, because, as they said, “decisions of recent General Assemblies and Commissions have paid scant attention to constitutional procedure.” Its main aim was “to defend, maintain and promote the Biblical and Confessional doctrines and practice of the historic Free Church of Scotland.” We may add that the Free Church (Continuing) decided in January that the FCDA “should go into abeyance”.
Behind the immediate cause of the suspension of those ministers were their endeavours to have allegations of a serious nature against Professor (now Principal) Donald Macleod more fully examined by the Church, and also to prevail upon the Church to rein in the liberalising elements in its midst, not least Principal Macleod himself. They claim that their attempts, before and after the FCDA was formed, to remedy matters through the Church courts were frustrated repeatedly, and that church procedures were manipulated against them.
The stated reason, then, for the formation of the Free Church (Continuing) is to preserve the Constitution of the Free Church. (By the Constitution is meant not only the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Formula signed by all ministers, probationers, and office-bearers, but also the Claim of Right of 1842; the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission, signed by those ministers who separated at the Disruption in 1843, and the Protest read by the Retiring Moderator, Dr Welsh, in May, 1843 – all of which, of course, is the constitution of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland also, with the Free Presbyterian Deed of Separation of 1893 as a further element). The present Free Church asserts that it has not departed from the Constitution. And officially it does adhere to the Constitution – it has not, for example, like the Free Church in 1892, passed a Declaratory Act vitiating the Constitution.
However, the Free Church (Continuing) strenuously maintains that the Free Church has indeed departed from the Constitution. In its Declaration of Reconstitution of the Historic Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church (Continuing) states that Free Church Commissioners have “passed acts and resolutions under which the Constitution and standards of the Free Church of Scotland can be, and are, violated”. Judging also by FCDA statements, the Free Church (Continuing) believes also that in practice the Free Church has countenanced views which contradict the Constitution - for example, that the Pope is not the antichrist, that the Creation did not take place in six literal days, that forms of praise other than Psalms are admissible in the public worship of God, and that the Church legitimises worldliness by permitting even some of its office-bearers to participate in worldly vanities.
It is not surprising that division has occurred. For a long time there have been two factions in the Free Church, which for convenience may be labelled as liberals and conservatives. (We do not, of course, imply that all the ministers who remain in the Free Church have liberal tendencies; nor do we mean liberal in the radical sense). The liberal wing, led by Principal Donald Macleod, makes no secret of its intention to further modernise the Church. The conservatives state that they have been endeavouring to prevent a modernising of the Church that goes beyond what is warranted by Scripture. But the modernising party gained the ascendancy and the conservative elements were marginalised. Having got the upper hand, the majority could hardly wait to see the back of the FCDA men. The editor of The Monthly Record accused them of “speaking with a forked tongue” and urged the Commission of Assembly “to grasp this thorn in our flesh”. “It is time,” he added, with scant respect for the Scripture use of these words, “to cast out the bondwoman and her sons”.
The direction in which the Free Church is going may be gauged from the teaching and conduct of the man who has the greatest responsibility for teaching the future ministry of the Church – Principal Donald Macleod. In an article denigrating the FCDA, and entitled, A Threat to the Church, he says: “We . . . refrain from the use of hymns and instrumental accompaniment [which, we interject editorially, was not the case in their church in Aberdeen at least]. We will continue to do so until the General Assembly itself changes the Church’s practice [Does this suggest that a change is in the offing?]. . . The Constitution does not define Public Worship and any attempt to define it at this stage would itself be a radical constitutional change. It is good to have some vagueness and ambiguity because it allows for flexibility. . . The Defence Association seems to be aligning itself with those who argue that the King James Version is the only admissible translation of the Bible and the so-called Received Text the only admissible text [Unreliable versions of the Bible are used throughout the Free Church]. . . Take, again, the question of Genesis and geology. We are being asked to believe that the real Free Church view is that geology is totally wrong about the age of the earth and that in fact it was created a mere 6,000 years ago in six literal days. That view may be correct. . . Hugh Miller, himself a pioneering palaeontologist, ridiculed the views of so-called Flood Geologists and argued for the ancient Patristic view that the days of Genesis were God’s days, not man’s days.” How contrary this is to the fact that “man’s days” of 24 hours are, in the first instance, God’s days, and that these include not only the first Sabbath of 24 hours in which God rested, but also the six days of creation.
As to consistent Christian behaviour, one would expect that a principal of a theological college would be an eminent example to his students and other professing Christians, but we see that Principal Donald Macleod participated recently in a public function of the Inverness Gaelic Society, in Eden Court Theatre. Besides Principal Macleod’s talk, the programme featured “Dr Angus MacDonald, piper to the Society; musicians Blazin’ Fiddles, Mod gold medalists Kenna Campbell, Alyth McCormick and Donnie Murdo Macleod; and the Gaelic choirs of Inverness, Dingwall and Nairn”.
But to return to the erstwhile FCDA and its supporters and sympathisers in the Free Church – what were they to do when they saw there was no redress for them from the courts of their Church, and when they felt they could no longer continue in the Church? Obviously, many of them believed they had to either form a new Church or join another. Very few of them chose the latter option. Those who did make that choice saw that the forming of yet another denomination was not the answer, and that their duty was to join a Church that had the Scriptural doctrine, worship and practice which they themselves were seeking to “defend, maintain and promote” – and so a few of them joined the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
The majority of them, however, did not look in the direction of the Free Presbyterian Church. This is not surprising when the FCDA, in recounting the contendings for the Reformed Faith in Scotland last century, has studiously avoided referring to, let alone commending, the historic stand made in 1893 against the attempts in the Free Church to overthrow the Westminster Confession of Faith as the subordinate doctrinal standard of the Church. It seems that, in their eyes, the separation of 1893, which resulted in the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church, was irrelevant, and apparently they did not consider the Free Presbyterian Church to be a suitable ecclesiastical home for them, in spite of the fact that in 1893 it was the founders of the Free Presbyterian Church alone who preserved the constitution of the Free Church of 1843 – what the Free Church (Continuing) claims to have done today.
In which direction will the Free Church (Continuing) go now? As the term “Continuing” indicates, they see themselves to be the legitimate successors of the Free Church of 1843. “We are not creating a new church,” says their statement to the public, “but are continuing the one we have known and loved.” But the fact remains that yet another denomination has appeared in Scotland, and frankly, we are unable to see the need for it. However, we are aware that some of the Free Church (Continuing) ministers and people would not be at home in the Free Presbyterian Church, which, by divine grace, adheres closely to the Scriptures in its doctrine, worship and practice – perhaps too closely in the judgement of, and for the comfort of, some of them.
While we sympathise with those who tried to prevent further declension in the Free Church, we are bound to say that the situation faced by the Constitutionalists in 1892 was very much more serious than the situation faced by the FCDA in recent times. The Declaratory Act of 1892, with its direct but subtle attack against cardinal doctrines of Scripture, as these are systematised in the Westminster Confession of Faith, radically changed the Constitution of the Free Church. But no doubt the Free Church (Continuing) is of the same mind as the Church from which it has come, in thinking that the Constitutionalists were justified in remaining in the Declaratory Act Free Church. As the Rev. James Sinclair, a former editor of this magazine wrote, “It may be proved beyond controversy that if there were reasons to come out in 1843, there were ten times as many to do so in 1893.” Now that the Free Church (Continuing) has been formed because of circumstances which are very much less serious than those of 1892-3, how can it continue to justify both the Constitutionalists who remained in the Free Church then, and themselves coming out now? Too long they have followed the lead of, for example, the late Professor Collins. It was of him that the historians Bulloch and Drummond wrote, “The historian of those who stayed in after the Act of 1892 but took second thoughts and went out after the union of 1900 [between the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church] showed marked discretion in his account of 1892 and 1893.” The Free Church (Continuing) refers to “the noble stand” made in 1900 by the constitutionalists who refused to go into the union. Let us not forget that 1893 was the time of decision, when a final stand had to be made for the fundamentals of the faith, and that the Constitutionalists who continued in the Free Church gravely compromised themselves by remaining under the Declaratory Act. And they would have remained under it if the 1900 union had not taken place. The stand of 1893 was an eminently noble stand, and it was manifestly by the grace of God that it was taken.
However, we have no reason to think that the Free Church (Continuing) has a view of the Free Presbyterian Church which is essentially different from that of both the present Free Church and the now defunct FCDA. Honesty demands that they acknowledge that if any Church has a right to the title of “true successor to the Free Church of 1843”, it is the Free Presbyterian Church. The Free Presbyterian Church in 1900 expressed its thankfulness that so many ministers and people of this country refused to enter the United Free Church, but at the same time cherished the hope with regard to them – which we cannot but echo it with regard to the the Free Church (Continuing) – that those ministers and people would ultimately be led in the mercy of God to be fully of one mind with the Free Presbyterian Church.
But what of the future of the Free Presbyterian Church itself? We acknowledge that it is only because we have obtained help from God that we continue to this day, and our hope is that as the Lord has helped us hitherto, so He will still bless us. Of this we are sure: if we turn aside from the old paths the Lord will visit our faults with rods and our sins with chastisements. Only the Keeper of Israel can preserve us and bless our witness.
What is urgently needed in all our Churches, and in the nation, is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord condescend to answer the prayers of His people, not only in the Free Presbyterian Church, but also in other denominations, as they seek the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” in the visible church. Until that blessing is poured down upon us from heaven there can be no seeing “eye to eye” in the church of Christ as a whole. “Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the LORD shall bring again Zion” (Isaiah 52:8). “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”