One of the peculiar features of Presbyterianism, as an entity, is our capacity to separate and form distinct denominations. The contrast with Anglicanism, in terms of this characteristic alone, is most profound, because divisions are so rare within that body they are hardly recognisable.
Anglicanism retains the Roman Catholic concept of one mother church. This is the dividing line which helps us appreciate the tendency of Presbyterians to split and develop off-shoots.
For the Presbyterian, the Church is not the denomination. It is something deeper, an invisible mystical body encompassing all of God’s people, bound by the one Spirit. The denomination must reflect this invisible entity in its creed, its purity and its ministry for the body to be functioning properly. Therefore a group within the Church may break away and form a new Presbytery, and the name Presbyterianism, and more importantly of Christ’s Church, is validated.
Another factor, deeply influencing Presbyterianism, is freedom. This is a deeply treasured blessing, which we jealously prize, chiefly because it was purchased by the blood of the Scottish Covenanters. They chose suffering and death rather than worship within the Church of Scotland because the Government had taken away her independence. All true Presbyterians see themselves as the inheritors of this worthy band of heroes.
The array of Presbyterian bodies is bewildering for the casual observer to behold, particularly for the Roman Catholic and Anglican who see only one visible structure. Even for Presbyterians, however, the lines of demarcation defining one body from another can be difficult to keep track of. In Scotland, the home of Presbyterianism, there is the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland. In Ireland there exists the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church. As Presbyterianism has developed across the world the tendency to divide has become part of the ethos. In North America, for example, there are around twenty larger Presbyterian groupings with a considerable number of additional smaller denominations.
There is no doubt, that the propensity of Presbyterianism to separate arises, at least in part, from a certain Scottish dogged determination which some may call stubbornness. Such a characteristic, when harnessed by the power of the Holy Ghost and when employed for the glory of God equips the believer to stand firm without compromise.
Presbyterians worldwide trace their heritage back to Scottish settlers and missionaries, with Scotland leading the way in Presbyterian thinking. It took grit for John Knox and the Scottish Reformation fathers to develop a movement that was radically different from any other Protestant country in character. This dogged determination has persisted throughout Presbyterian history and has been responsible, at least in part, for the breaks that have developed.
There have been times when the splits were necessary and the abundant manner in which God has blessed those who ploughed a separate furrow bears testimony to this. The “Disruption” in Scotland, when the Free Church was formed, is an amazing story of sacrifice as a body of people decided that they must resist the encroachments of the Government, which threatened the independence of the Kirk. Congregations left fine buildings, with some worshipping in tents for the first year and hundreds of clergy leaving their livings and manses to embrace an uncertain future. It was a body which grew to become almost as large as the Church of Scotland herself. In Ulster the rise of the Free Presbyterian Church was a response to the theological liberalism, which was endemic in the larger Presbyterian Church and which so affected the clear and earnest proclamation of the Gospel.
We can certainly learn and take courage from the principled and lonely path that many of our forefathers trod to give us the heritage that we today enjoy. We can also learn from the splits, that were not so necessary and which time has proved to be so; stubbornness can also go wrong! The Secession Church illustrates this from both angles, because separatists themselves can eventually separate from each other!
In the 18th Century a Presbyterian body arose in Scotland, and which took root in Ireland, known as the Seceders. Under the leadership of the Erskine brothers, Ebenezer and Ralph, this grouping arose in response to “new light” liberalism that was sweeping the Church into a current of death. As with every compromise, the modernists portrayed themselves as progressive, in their questioning of the necessity of subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and their undermining of fundamental doctrines such as the deity of Jesus Christ. These “new light” preachers would eventually, in the 19th Century, form a grouping themselves in Ireland, still with us today, called the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church or Unitarians. The Seceders made an invaluable and necessary contribution to the story of Presbyterianism, on both sides of the Irish Sea, in a time of departure from the faith. Many congregations within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland today owe their origin to the Secession Church of this period.
What was particularly tragic, however, was the manner in which they themselves divided into two rather intriguing bodies, “burghers” and “anti-burgers”. We often find it difficult to recognise the lines which divide the Church from political life, and it seems that Presbyterians have always had this problem. In Scotland those who held public office were required to take an oath. Some within the Church objected declaring that none within the Church could take such an oath. Others saw it as a matter of personal conscience. The matter was only settled when the Seceders divided, with the two Synods being nicknamed according to their political views on this oath. The oath itself was not relevant in Ireland, but the Irish Seceders felt obliged to develop an opinion, such was was their affiliation with Scotland. Both branches of the Secession Church knew God’s blessing but after sixty years they saw the futility of the division, which over time had become so irrelevant that they set their differences aside to become one. Their story teaches us that while doctrine is inflexible other issues are less so, and we ought to be ultra careful lest we divide the body of Christ unnecessarily. History will judge us harshly if we do so.
Beyond all doubt, one of the most beautiful episodes in Presbyterian history occurred in Belfast when, in 1840, the Seceders formed one body with the older denomination, the Synod of Ulster. With the Unitarians, no longer within the Synod of Ulster, due to the determined and faithful leadership of Dr Henry Cooke, the reasons for separation no longer existed and so the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was founded. It is believed by many that this act of unity was one of the preparatory acts, paving the way for the revival in 1859, where Presbyterians reaped many of the blessings.
Divisions within Presbyterianism have much to teach us about the nature of the Church – faithfulness to doctrine, resistance to apostasy, the sin of natural stubbornness if left unchecked, the dangers of transforming opinions into dogma and the importance of grace and forgiveness.
These lessons must be learned and practised in this twenty-first century, as we too like our Presbyterian forefathers endeavour to pass on a spiritual legacy to our children.
Where separation is required because of a departure from core bible doctrines which directly affect the Gospel, such as the person and work of Christ, the necessity of the blood atonement and the new birth, the importance of justification by faith alone and the absolute authority of Scripture or for moral reasons where the body is Christ is irretrievably contaminated by the spirit of this age – let us not be found wanting. Choosing to remain in the denomination of our parents and grandparents is not a viable option where the truth and testimony is compromised. Presbyterian separation has been the means whereby truth has been maintained and the Gospel has been protected in times of spiritual darkness.
When separation must be maintained by a second and third generation let us continue to hold fast and continue in the faith once delivered unto the saints. This involves examining and re-examining the arguments, exposing falsehood and logically articulating the separated position within a biblical framework.
For the separatist to maintain his stance, however, he must strike a careful balance, speaking the truth but doing so with love and compassion. George Whitefield was by all accounts the greatest ever evangelist who preached using the English language. Where other preachers have enjoyed a brief outpouring of the Holy Ghost, Whitefield preached in the spirit of revival throughout his entire ministry, winning thousands of souls across two continents. He visited Scotland many times and as an Anglican was warmly received by many Presbyterians. He corresponded with the Erskine brothers and his natural inclination was towards their Secession Church. They espoused the same doctrines that he fervently believed in, and he too was not slack in exposing false teaching within professing Christendom. The Secession Synod, however, did not share in the Erskine’s enthusiasm for the English evangelist, because of his membership of the Church of England. In fact, among the long list of heresies they condemned were the “whitefieldonians”. As a consequence Whitefield moved principally within the Church of Scotland during his many visits north of the English border and his ministry was greatly blessed. A little more love for a brother who was filled with the Holy Ghost, would have benefited all concerned. I consider it significant that within the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, we have chosen to name our Bible college after George Whitefield, even though had we been alive in the 18th Century our natural inclination would have been towards the Secession Church; a tacit sign that on this issue our forefathers got things badly wrong.
The battle must never become an obsession, it is a means to an end. The Gospel must be all encompassing and this in turn will grant us a charitable spirit towards all of God’s people, some of whom, may have a differing perspective. Separatists at times, fall into the trap of protecting themselves by closing their doors to all who are outside their own fellowship and in so doing become introspective, not seeing the vision of the wider church. Such a tendency must be resisted.
An even greater danger is that posed by schism. Schism is dividing the Church for lesser reasons. It arises as a consequence of pride, for reasons rooted in personality or as a consequence of turning personal preference into principle. The Corinthian congregation was affected by needless division, which caused the Apostle to teach them that there were issues, such as eating meat offered to idols, which were a matter of opinion. Learning to respect those with differing perspectives is part of the tapestry of the Church.
If we never learn to accept that there are issues on which we must agree to differ, we will never develop essential characteristics such as tolerance, forgiveness and long suffering. Those who dismember the Church on such a selfish basis, become so inward looking the Gospel itself becomes overshadowed by their narrow perspectives. Historians who study the burger – antiburgher period of the Secession Church have noted this effect. The antiburghers, it is said, lacked the warmth of those who are nicknamed the burghers in their presentation of the very same truths. The only explanation for this is, that they were dominated by a narrow political perspective, that they permitted to divide the Church of Christ. Where divisions inevitably creep in among God’s people, let us take care, and guard our unity, lest we become guilty of damaging the body of Christ, in ways that may take a generation to heal.
Let us pray for wisdom to contend earnestly, to love fervently, to hold fast with grace and be faithful unto the end,