WHEN the Free Church Assembly of 1893 refused to repeal the Declaratory Act of 1892, which basically was an attack upon the Word of God, the only minister in that Assembly who formally and solemnly protested was the Rev. Donald Macfarlane, minister in Kilmallie, who was 59 years old. He thereby separated himself from the Free Church, but only after much prayer, and in humble dependence upon the grace of God. That courageous stand (for he was of a naturally timid disposition) resulted shortly afterwards in the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Certain other ministers in that Free Church Assembly had strongly condemned the Act up till then, and stated their intention to leave the Church if it was not repealed. In the event, they remained where they were. Did Mr Macfarlane, then, do the right thing? One answer to that question is given by historians Andrew Drummond and James Bulloch: “Deeply unhappy, they (certain of the ministers who remained) felt in their hearts that the Free Presbyterians had been right and that they had allowed themselves to remain in a Free Church which had slipped its moorings and was adrift in uncharted seas,” (The Church in Late Victorian Scotland 1874-1900, p. 315).
One would expect that such a faithful servant of Christ as Mr Macfarlane would not evade his duty of contending for the faith, when necessary, and taking issue, despite his natural timidity, with professed ministers of the Word of God who called in question the Word. This he did before and after 1893, both by pen and in the pulpit, and, from what we have read and heard of his life, he did so in a gracious manner not in a belligerent and disparaging manner. “The noble stand he made in 1893,” says his biographer, Rev. Donald Beaton, “is not to be set down to natural courage. Neither is it to be attributed to mere ecclesiastical belligerency. . . . His most reckless enemies could not charge him with that.” (Memoir of the Rev. Donald Macfarlane, pp. 69-70). And so it was with regard to his later contending for the truth it did not arise from a militant rancour, nor could it be classed as vilification and denunciation.
It therefore surprised us to read otherwise in an article, “Pulpits and Parties” in The Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland. The article purports to apply “some lessons from history to some modern problems on the subject of pulpits and parties”. The purpose of the writer, Dr Ian R. MacDonald, a Free Church elder in Aberdeen, is to remind Christians to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, ready to forgive”. He therefore takes to task (and rightly so) the professing Christian “who vilifies his brother”. In particular, he deals with “disparaging another man’s ministry” and “pulpit denunciation”.
Dr MacDonald has in mind the present divisions in the Free Church, and no doubt is thinking of the several voices in the Church which have been raised in criticism of some statements of a doctrinal nature by modernisers in the Church. “Some defenders of the faith,” he says, “seem on occasion to have directed their energies more to undermining the good standing of their own brethren than to confronting the real enemies of the gospel.” He compares them to zealots, who, when they “find their co-religionists unwilling to endorse their extremism, . . . accuse them of disloyalty to the truth.”
Instead of citing some examples of pulpit denunciation from his own denomination, Dr MacDonald’s chosen example (to which he devotes more than half his article) is the preaching of the Rev. Donald Macfarlane, founding father of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland! Mr Macfarlane’s preaching in 1892-3, he says, was “the gentle gracious pleading of love”, and Mr Macfarlane himself was a “humble and gracious man”, “one who exemplified the brotherly love of the Gospel, and who truly sought the peace and felicity of the New Jerusalem”. But here is a preacher, Dr MacDonald would have us believe, whose winsome, earnest preaching afterwards degenerated into vilifying other churchmen, and who became a “militant” to whom “pulpit denunciation had become standard fare”. Why this condemnation?
Dr MacDonald’s contention is that Mr Macfarlane, in a sermon, rebuked Dr Norman MacLean, at that time minister of St Cuthbert’s in Edinburgh, for publicly airing his view that when a person dies, his soul enters into a probationary state. Furthermore, claims Dr MacDonald, because of Dr. MacLean’s “aberration”, Mr Macfarlane rejected his claim to be called a minister of Christ, described him as a minister of the devil, and said that he was likely to go to hell. Having been quite unable to find the source of this story, we cannot say how reliable it is. However, accepting it for the moment, we need hardly say that Mr Macfarlane was justified in speaking plainly against such a false teacher. Dr MacLean’s view was not just an “aberration”, it was a serious error. The person who holds such a view does not have the Christian’s “good hope through grace” and cannot be regarded as a believer. And the minister who teaches such error is indeed doing the devil’s work, for he deludes sinners into thinking that there is the possibility of salvation after death. Not only so, but such a minister is in grave danger of being banished to be with the devil at last, if he do not repent. To brand Mr Macfarlane’s rebuke of the errorist as “vilification” is most unjust.
But Mr Macfarlane was at fault also, implies Dr MacDonald, when he censured the author of Demonic Possession in the New Testament, Dr W. M. Alexander; also, when he spoke against the Free Church for receiving Dr Alexander with, as he said, “open arms, although his heretical book was known by at least some of them”; and when he criticised Archibald MacNeilage, a Free Church elder and editor of The Monthly Record, for approving of Dr Alexander’s book. There never was any question about the erroneousness of Demonic Possession, but to plead, as Dr MacDonald does, the author’s “public retraction of any unorthodox statements in his book”, is not good enough. Dr Alexander, by then appointed Professor of Theology in the Free Church, was never censured by the Church for his false views and teaching; nor, we understand, did he ever express sorrow for publishing his errors.
What was Mr Macfarlane’s purpose in warning against those who taught and preached error? Dr MacDonald says that he “is left wondering if the hidden agenda was not simply to give satisfaction to the groundlings,” as he derisively calls Free Presbyterians. We wonder that Dr MacDonald can attribute, by implication, such an ulterior and unworthy motive to an eminently faithful and honest servant of God, who was to the end what he was at the beginning of his pilgrimage: “a humble and gracious man” (to use Dr MacDonald’s own words). One has only to read the Memoir and Remains of the Rev Donald Macfarlane, and his published sermons and other writings, to see that his abiding aim and motivation was the glory of God and the spiritual benefit of souls. Would that there were more like him!
It ill becomes anyone, on the one hand, to besmirch the memory of those who were valiant for the truth, and on the other, to be an apologist, even in appearance or in effect, for those who taught error in the visible church. Of false teachers it must be said, “They bend their tongues like their bow for lies: but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth,” Jeremiah 9:3. It is patently untrue that Mr Macfarlane metamorphosed from being the winsome preacher of the gospel and gracious contender for the faith that he was at the age of 59, to being thereafter a dispenser of militant “pulpit denunciation” and “vilification”. Mr Macfarlane in fact continued as a humble, gracious and faithful minister to the end of his days, and received the reward that everyone who is valiant for the truth shall receive.