Are denominations dying gods?
A survey of the ecclesiastical landscape reveals a scene of denominational disarray. For one denomination (another) hour of crisis will reveal the extent to which the monolithic religious structures of our age will tackle the real issues lying behind the matters of secondary import.
AS things currently stand, by this weekend the Free Church of Scotland will have come to a decision on one of the most critical issues currently facing the denomination – whether or not to move away from a unaccompanied psalms-only form of praising God in song.
Whatever the outcome, the debate has raised – or if not, should raise – a host of other and much more fundamental questions.
In no particular order there are the matters of –
- whether we interpret God’s will as allowing everything that is not proscribed or, alternatively, banning everything that is not explicitly permitted?
- who or what ultimately governs local congregation: elders, ministers, presbyteries or a general assembly?
- to what extent are many church laws based on tradition?
- should what we commonly call ‘ministers’ have any greater decision-making powers than the rest of the eldership?
- Is there such a thing as ‘public’ worship as distinct from personal or family worship?
- should the term ‘worship’ (as it is commonly used) be employed to create a distinction between formal assembly and informal fellowship, testimony or other spiritual activities?
- is ‘public’ worship defined by and constrained within what happens in one holy building on one holy day during one holy hour?
- are denominations part of God’s plan for the body of Christ?
- should the Westminster Confession of Faith (with all its omissions, anachronisms and extra-biblical mandates) continue to be seen as the ‘touch stone’ for all important matters; and apparently held in a parity with God’s word?
- have the traditions of men become elevated to the point of quenching the Holy Spirit (or at least causing Him to depart from the midst)?
Will the nettle be grasped?
Of course these issues are not unique the Free Church, but it remains to be seen whether the Free Church at this juncture will tackle the root of matters which are much weightier than the those relating to whether or not to use hymns and instruments in the praise of God.
Any organisation so exercised by an issue which must surely be of secondary status in order to preserve denominational unity suggests that there are much weightier issues underlying. To merely address the superficial symptoms is seeking to maintain a structure built on sand. And for the Free Church, even if some semblance of unity is maintained, there will be serious – perhaps even fatal – fault lines remaining.
On the one hand, an imposed uniformity in a situation of significant diversity will merely paper over the cracks – awaiting exposure at the next seismic shock; whenever and whatever that might be.
Alternatively a free-for-all with each local congregation effectively permitted to ‘do its own thing’ will fuzzy the only clear distinctive which separates the Free Church – and others in that particular tradition – from (say) the Church of Scotland (in all its eclectic disarray). To move from a defining stance on a principle that is central to its self-image will effectively render the denominational branding and identity meaningless.
For the Free Church the current question is whether or not to use hymns and instruments; for the Church of Scotland next May it is the matter of human sexuality. These are very different issues and of markedly different import but, for both of these respective denominations – and most others beside – the scene boils down to a much bigger series of questions. And perhaps even an ultimate question.
In the marriage ceremony the stern warning is made clear: ‘What God has joined let no man put asunder’. Neither should man seek to maintain what God may be allowing – even causing – to fail.
In terms of our human inclinations and failings an earlier saint wrote to the church:
What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ." (1 Cor 1:12).
Faith, like politics and other spheres of life, involves strong convictions and deeply held opinions. Often this leads to strife and schism. The key to sprititual vitality is to draw away from factionalism and draw nearer to Christ. The alternative is most likely a route to oblivion.
The Free Church of Scotland is meeting on 18/19 Nov. 2010 to discuss in an extraordinary general assembly the issues of sung praise referred to in this article. The Free Church was formed by a secession from the Church of Scotland in 1843. Since that time the denomination has varied its position on singing 'uninspired' praise.
For further details of the debate see Free Church Plenary Assembly and Report on Worship
On-line updates can be found at the Free Church website.
See also: "The Primacy of the Local Church"