The Church of Christ today is a fragmented and divided body. While there is a unity between all true believers in Christ Jesus at a very deep level, it is not a visible unity. The world looks at the Church and is bewildered by its fragmented nature. Scotland is awash with so many different denominations. Yet, denominationalism is a concept that is not to be found in the New Testament. These have come to be formed by men who sincerely believed that they could no longer be part of the visible Church to which they belonged. It is deeply distressing to see so many different denominations leading to believers separating from one another to worship the same God and Saviour each Sunday in different buildings. However worthy the causes were, which separatists espoused when they established new denominations, they did not foresee the consequences of their actions for subsequent generations.
Is it the will of God that we should separate ourselves from those who are trampling his Word underfoot? Is it the will of God that we should separate ourselves from fellow believers who do not believe that separation is the only answer? Withholding money from the central funds of the Church is withholding money from aid-receiving charges, from mission and from all the good work done by Church of Scotland through caring for the vulnerable in our society – e.g. through care homes.
If we are going to disagree with the Assembly’s decision because it contravenes the teaching of scripture then our responses should also be based on the principles and truths clearly set before us in the New Testament. The evidence of the New Testament is clear – the Church is one body whose individual members need one another and that we should remain united.
The Biblical position on unity and separation.
In the New Testament secession was not commanded even from churches infiltrated by immorality (as at Corinth) or heresy (as at Pergamum and Thyatira).
In the Gospels, the example and teaching of Jesus on the importance of the unity of believers is quite clear. He came into this world into the Jewish Church. True believers were in a minority. Judaism was ruled by scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, lawyers etc. Jesus referred to them as ‘hypocrites’, ‘brood of vipers’, ‘whited tombs’ and with many other scathing terms. Yet he continued to worship with them in the synagogues each Sabbath and attended the great feasts of the faith in the temple in Jerusalem.
He also taught about the importance of unity. He described the kingdom of heaven (the visible church – Matt 13:24-30) as being made up of wheat and tares. The wheat represents true believers, the tares are the ungodly – they will be found together in the visible church on earth. Jesus teaches that they are to be allowed to co-exist in the church until the day of judgement. Those who attempt to separate the wheat from the tares – the true believer from the ungodly – will end up damaging the life and faith of the true believer. This begs the question – how much damage has been done to true believers and the cause of Christ by all the schisms and divisions that have plagued the cause of Christ during recent history?
In his great high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed for unity amongst believers as recorded in verses 20-21. I do not pray for these alone (the disciples) but also for those who will believe in me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that the world may believe that You sent me. Note the stress he places on the reason for unity. Is it any wonder that the cause of Christ is having such little impact on Scottish society in our day? Creating separation within congregations over this issue, is in effect working against this powerful prayer of Jesus.
In the early church, the apostles went on to be faithful preachers of the Gospel, while still subject to the authority of the Jewish courts. Despite being imprisoned and ordered not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18), Peter and John continued to preach Christ and him crucified. Despite the decision of this Jewish court, they continued to preach Christ without separating themselves from the Jewish church. As things are at the moment our freedom to preach the Gospel and faithfully expound the word of God is not in any way under threat as a result of the General Assembly’s decision. We may be in a minority, we may be maligned by Christians in other denominations – but we are not under any threat of persecution for preaching Christ and being true to his word. Even if we were, our response, like Peter and John’s, should be to do what is right in the sight of God, irrespective of the consequences from the courts of the church. It may soothe our consciences and ease our pain to leave the Church of Scotland, and move to a more comfortable denomination. It may avoid the cross-bearing that goes with remaining faithful to Christ and his word within the Church of Scotland. But does that justify separation from it?
The Corinthian Church was a mixed bag of believers. There were divisions amongst them, some were puffed up, some were sexually immoral, and some were partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. Paul urges the Church to discipline – to put out of the fellowship – those who are gross sinners. But he also urges unity in the fellowship. He describes the church in Corinth – despite all its imperfections – as a body whose differing parts need each other. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; nor again to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’. No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary…God composed the body… that there should be no schism in the body, but that that the members have the same care for one another. (1 Cor 12:21-25).
In 2nd Corinthians 6, there is a verse that is frequently used to justify schism and separation. In v 17 Paul urges the Corinthians – Therefore, Come you out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. It is so easy to latch on to the first sentence of this verse and use it in a way in which it was not meant to be used. Paul was addressing a particular problem in Corinth with this plea. Some believers there were in the habit of worshipping with pagans in their idolatry and sharing in their festivities. And he is urging them to cease those practices – Do not touch what is unclean. Since the Reformation, idolatry and pagan worship has not been a problem in the Reformed Church. And it is certainly not a reason for coming out of the Church of Scotland or for causing separation between true believers.
In his letters to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2 & 3), Jesus highlighted sins and faults and failings in some of these Churches. In his letter to the Church in Thyatira he faults the believers in that Church for allowing Jezebel to teach and seduce my servants to commit sexual immorality … which is what the General Assembly decision allows to happen. Jesus is giving her and her followers time to repent, and if they don’t they will be judged and punished by our Lord. His exhortation to true believers is ‘hold fast what you have till I come’. Jesus concludes each of the seven letters with an exhortation to believers to overcome the opposition that is against them. Not once does he encourage them to separate from their respective Churches or avoid the conflict that staying would involve.
It is worth noting that the epistles to the various Churches in the New Testament and the seven letters in Revelation are written to Churches that consisted of the whole body of believers in each city or community. In the New Testament there were no different congregations in towns and communities, organised and worshipping apart from each other. They not only believed in, but lived out the truth, that there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28). Again in this verse Paul is stressing the importance of unity.
Possible effects of evangelical believers leaving the Church of Scotland
We have to acknowledge that no single person or organisation has perfect knowledge of God’s will and purpose. The most eloquent preachers, the most powerful churches, the most saintly believers – are tainted by sin and prone to error. There is none righteous. That is why God’s word appeals to us – lean not on your own understanding. Human understanding, even in the most spiritual or orthodox of believer, is imperfect. He continues to bless and guide his own faithful people even if they are in a denomination which is losing its way. He does not withhold his blessing even when we err on matters like this. He has not abandoned his people in the Church of Scotland.
However, as we saw from the prayer of Jesus in John 17, unity of believers is one of the means God uses to help the world believe in Christ. As David says in Psalm 133 – it is when brethren dwell together in unity that God commanded the blessing – life forevermore. In the last 200 years, the Presbyterian Church in Scotland has become increasingly fragmented, to the extent that in the Highlands and Islands there may be as many as 5 or 6 Presbyterian denominations in some parishes. What a difference it would make if we could all gather together as one body. The great truths that unite us would become more important than matters which are not of the substance of the faith over which we currently disagree.
We become less and less influential as witnesses for Christ. In these past two hundred years, the cause of Christ has gone from being a powerful force for good in the land to being so irrelevant to the vast majority in our society. There are of course many causes for this decline – but it must be acknowledged that the divided nature of the evangelical cause has contributed to this decline. Liberals have stuck together and have remained a majority in the Church of Scotland because evangelicals have found it more acceptable to establish one new denomination after another. What a difference it would make in Scotland if evangelicals were united and had remained in the national Church.
The present conflict has created a huge distraction from the Christian’s true calling of being salt and light in the world. All that the world is seeing and hearing is much infighting and disagreement rather than hearing of the great commission we have been given to go out into the world with the Good News of the Gospel. The enemies of Christ are glad when Christians split and separate. While true believers, on both sides of a dispute, grieve over divisions in the visible Church, the enemy of our souls rejoices.
It will further weaken the evangelical wing of the Church. Some ministers and elders have already left the Church. Those who will continue to stand up for the Bible as the supreme rule of faith and life in the courts of the Church will have a much more difficult task to overcome the erosion of standards and values enshrined in scripture. This haemorrhaging of evangelicals down through the years has left the Church in the state that it is in now.
In his Institutes (Book 4; Sect 1: paras 13-29) argues very powerfully against schism and division within the visible church. It is a lengthy exposition of the biblical case for Church unity even when there is much to be faulted within its bounds. If we claim to be Reformed and Calvinist in our theology, then all who are thinking of separation should study and reflect on what he writes in the above-mentioned passage.
In a letter Calvin wrote to Archbishop Cranmer in April 1552 we learn of his vision of church unity. “Amongst the greatest evils of our century must be counted the fact that the churches are so divided one from another that there is scarcely even a human relationship between us; at all events there is not the shining light of that holy fellowship of the members of Christ, of which many boast in word, but which few seek sincerely indeed. In consequence, because the members are torn apart, the body of the church lies wounded and bleeding. So far as I have it in my power, if I am thought to be of any service, I shall not be afraid to cross ten seas for this purpose, if that should be necessary.” Accusations of lack of purity in doctrine and worship have often been cited as a reason for separating from a branch of the visible Church.
God is not abandoning the Church of Scotland because of recent Assembly decisions. We may be ashamed by the way our denomination is losing its way – but we are in good company. Remember what Jesus went through – for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame and has sat down at the throne of God (Heb 12.2).
Rev William Still of Gilcomston South in Aberdeen, responded to a criticism in the press of evangelicals in the Church of Scotland because they chose to remain in the Church over the issue of women ministers and elders. Referring to the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector, Mr Still wrote a brief response to a paper in which he said– I would rather be down looking up than up looking down. In Philippians 2:5-8, Paul exhorts all believers to have the mind of Christ – Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
Being faithful to Christ, his Gospel and his Word in the Church of Scotland involves a degree of cross- bearing that may be avoided in some denominations. It involves suffering for the greater good rather than doing what is right to soothe our own consciences. But God’s Word calls us to endure these trials and despise the shame we feel. The hymn-writer Frederick Faber put it like this in the hymn ‘Workman of God’ – Then learn to scorn the praise of men, and learn to lose with God; For Jesus won the world through shame, and beckons thee his road.
Divisions based on how men understand purity of worship and doctrine is leading the Church into a state where everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes.
Finally in the words of Paul to the Church in Ephesus (Eph 4:1-6) – I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.