Various responses to Free Church statement
Following the debate within the Free Church of Scotland over what can be sung and whether instruments can be used a statement was issue by the church. Responses to this statement have also come in.
The Free Church of Scotland is full of good people who have struggled long and hard to find a Biblical, peaceful and God-honouring resolution to the issues of what can properly be sung in God’s praise and whether instruments can be used as accompaniments.
A Plenary Assembly (the first since the year of its formation in 1843) was held on 18/19 November 2010 to discuss these issues. The Assembly decision was to allow local congregations to decide on the issues involved. The following comprises paragraphs from the Assembly statement with responses from the Christian community interposed.
1. The General Assembly receive and adopt the Report of the Board of Trustees, and thank the Chairman, members of the Board, the Chief Administrative Officer and his staff for their work.
2. The General Assembly, recognising the divisive nature of the issue dealt with in this Report, affirm their commitment to unity and urge officebearers and members to find ways of continuing in unity after the Assembly has determined the issue.
Consistently the use of the word ‘unity’ relates to structural unity within the denomination. However the unity amongst believers which Jesus prayed for in marked disarray in the number of different and disunited Presbyterian streams in Scotland. [Ed note: See article and chart Presbyterianism - Scottish style.]The issue of ‘unity’ can never be addressed from a purely intra-denominational or structural standpoint. It is pointless. Yet in terms of pan-denominational unity, the range of belief/unbelief, scriptural fidelity/error; biblical/worldly practice evident within even the presbyterian denominations would render any ‘united whole’ a ridiculous mish-mash.[Ed question: So what’s the answer?] There is none in the present setups of Presbyterian denominationalism. For as long as unity with others is viewed on denominational terms, and predicated on denominational boundaries and organisational structures, true biblical unity will be an elusive butterfly.What the recent decision in effect has done is to make reconciliation with (brothers and sisters within) the Free Church Continuing even more difficult (in human terms, impossible even) for as long as those within the FCC are bound by the strictures of that grouping. Surely in terms of unity this is the paramount issue that first needs to be addressed (by both groupings). Meanwhile – as an ‘aside’ – regarding any property disputes, the new ruling places the Free Church Continuing in a stronger position regarding its claims to be the ‘true’ Free Church maintaining a fidelity with the denomination’s pre-2000 roots. If the Free Church didn’t metamorphose in 2000 it certainly has now.
3. The General Assembly, recognising that, after consideration of the Biblical and theological questions and widespread consultation throughout the Church on the question of the form of worship presently practised, there are equally conscientious and Biblically grounded but differing views on the subject, ordain and enact in the following terms.
The above statement implicitly recognises that in spite of a long history of debate and examination of Scripture there is no clear biblical view on what can and cannot be sung, and whether or not to use instruments. Yet this issue has brought the Church to a point of crisis and division. Additionally the traditional practice in many cases has been an effective barrier to close fellowship with other parts of the body of Christ over decades.
Without wishing to suggest that the Free Church is the only denomination in which the dynamic is and has been evident, the issue has highlighted once again the problems that arise when church laws become tradition, which then become dogma and finally translate into becoming doctrine.
4. The General Assembly hereby repeal Act V, Class II, 1932; Act I, Class I, 1910; Act VI, Class II, 1910; Act VII, Class II, 1910; Act V, Class II, 1905; Act of Assembly, of date 31st May 1883, entitled “VII. Act anent Instrumental Music (No. 4 of Class II)”; and resolutions authorising and sanctioning the use of uninspired hymns, of dates 3rd June 1872; 27th May 1881; 26th May 1896; and 24th May 1897.
The repeal of these pieces of church law illustrate well the dangers of seeking to legislate the practice of, and control over a body of believers. Those in their day who authored the legislation would have been as conscientious and biblically-literate as any, and yet these laws are now being discarded. This is not to the discredit of those who wrote them, but rather to point out the dangers inherent in legalism. So what we have now is a merely a new set of laws.
[Ed note: The term ‘antinomianism’ applies to the discarding of God’s statutes. It does not refer to any critique of the laws that men enact; nor is it here suggested that Christians can behave free from licence.}
5. The General Assembly declare that purity of worship requires that every aspect of worship services, including sung praise, be consistent with the Word of God and with the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith approved by previous Assemblies of this Church.
Insistence on conformity with the Word of God is essential. However there has been a consistent inability to prove (one way or the other) what God’s word actually says (or doesn’t say) on the matter. Moreover, the inclusion of ‘the [Westminster] Confession of Faith binds the Church into yet another set of man-made rules. (The Westminster Confession of Faith is an historic document of great worth. But it is also deficient, anachronistic and – in some cases – unbiblical in its mandates.) [Ed note: See article on Westminster Confession: past help, present hindrance? The article contains a question put to the Free Church many years ago which has never received an answer.]
6. The General Assembly ordain that every service of congregational worship shall include the singing of Psalms.
7. The General Assembly ordain that, with regard to the sung praise of congregations in worship, each Kirk Session shall have freedom, either to restrict the sung praise to the Psalms, or to include paraphrases of Scripture, and hymns and spiritual songs consistent with the doctrine of the Confession of Faith; that each Kirk Session shall have freedom whether to permit musical accompaniment to the sung praise in worship, or not.
This restores to local groups of believers (governed by local elders) the freedom which they should have always enjoyed. However once this freedom is granted then in principle it should be applied to all areas of church life at local congregational level. If this is to be the case then it renders denominations and – in the case of Presbyterianism – presbyteries, synods and general assemblies redundant. And if freedom is granted on the points in question, perhaps the same licence should be given in other areas of church life. Some congregations might wish to look at the role of women? (What if anything does the law of the Church say on the issue?) [Ed note: See article The Primacy of the Local Church.]
8. The General Assembly advise that, notwithstanding the foregoing, no Kirk Session should agree to a change in sung praise or musical accompaniment against the wishes of the minister of the congregation, and that a visiting minister, presiding at a service in a congregation where the aforementioned freedom to use uninspired materials of praise and musical instruments has been exercised, may exercise that freedom or not as he sees fit.
Presbyterianism – in its fundamental form – means plural male leadership. [Ed note: Some presbyterian churches allow women to be elders.] The clergy/laity distinction itself is unbiblical and to allow one elder (even termed a ‘minister’) to adjudicate according to his personal preferences or convictions is not only unbiblical, but a recipe for contention and strife. The practice so outlined may be an expedient church law, but it would struggle to find scriptural support.
9. The General Assembly ordain that in meetings of Church Courts the use of uninspired materials of praise and of instrumental music shall be avoided.
This is the formation of church law and represents double-standards (presumably imposed to preserve the peace when those of differing views gather together for church business).
10. The General Assembly appoint a Special Committee (using consultants as required) to investigate the feasibility and desirability of producing a recommended list of paraphrases of Scripture and hymns and spiritual songs consistent with the Word of God and the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith, and whether the Free Church ought to produce a praise resource supplementary to the Psalter, and to report to the 2011 General Assembly.”
11. The General Assembly instruct this Committee to investigate, collect and, if necessary prepare from within the resources of the Church appropriate portions of Scripture, other than the 150 Psalms, in a form which accurately renders the thought of the original and is suitable for singing in public worship. The Committee is empowered to seek the cooperation of others with the requisite linguistic, theological, literary and musical skills and is required to report progress to the 2011 General Assembly.
There is nothing wrong in having a song book. But there are plenty of these already. If the leadership of local congregations can decide to include hymns, are the same leaders not capable of deciding what should and shouldn’t be sung? This is yet another device to ensure uniformity. Where is the freedom under the Holy Spirit?
What chance do us mere uneducated mortals have in the rules and regulations of the church if they actually cannot decide on psalm singing/hymns in the FC – the vote was certainly not a majority. 14 votes !
12. The General Assembly instruct Presbyteries to organise a day of prayer within their own bounds at a suitable date after the Church has determined the matter, to focus on maintaining the unity of the Church.
Prayer is not true prayer unless there is unity. Where there is meaningful unity the prayer point is to pray that the unity is preserved. Prayer for unity within a denomination is pointless (under God) when there is a disunity within and disassociation from others in the wider body who hold to the same essentials. What earthly father is happy when he sees some of his children in a good relationship whilst in continuing conflict with other siblings?
This should include “tidying up" the Prof MacLeod case that was squashed from all angles.
[Ed note: This refers to a matter of internal discipline which formed a very significant part of the last split in the Free Church in 2000.]
Ed footnote: Any further comments can be appended in the 'Response' section below or e-mailed to the Editor.
NOTE: A further article is in the course of preparation which will look at the implications of this recent decision.