Free Church Ministers & their Consciences

Ever since the Plenary Assembly the Free Church seems to have sprouted a remarkable number of consciences, and each one, sadly, seems to think itself more important than either the collective wisdom of the Church or the unity of the denomination.

The latest claim is that as a result of the Act passed by the Plenary Assembly many can no longer in good conscience assert, maintain and defend the form of worship authorised by the General Assembly.  This set me thinking: to what, exactly, are the consciences of Free Church ministers bound?

We are bound, first of all, to the supreme and final authority of Holy Scripture as the only rule to direct us.  Oddly enough, the question, ‘What saith the scripture?’ has scarcely figured in this sad debate.  ‘Ordination vows’ have been invoked to proscribe all appeal to the Bible.


Secondly, we are bound in conscience to own as a sincere profession of our own faith the whole doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  In this respect the Confession has a unique place in the Formula which we signed on ordination.  We are not bound in this sense to every doctrine set forth in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, nor to all the regulations set forth in the Directory for Public Worship or the Form of Church Government. As is asserted in the 1851 Act and Declaration anent the Publication of the Subordinate Standards, the Confession, and the Confession alone, contains the Creed to which every office-bearer ‘must testify in solemn form his personal adherence’.   This is both a restriction and a liberation: a restriction in that we have no freedom to deviate from Confessional teaching; a liberation in that we have liberty of opinion on every doctrine on which the Confession has not pronounced.  We must also note that on some matters (such as the reference to Supra- versus Infra-lapsarianism in Chapter III.VI)  the Confession is deliberately ambiguous, so that everyone may, in the language of George Gillespie, ‘enjoy his own sense.’  (Mitchell and Struthers, eds., Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, p. 151).  In the modern context this would also apply to, for example, our interpretation of the ‘days’ of Genesis.   On the other hand, the Confession, strictly interpreted, is not neutral on the question of Premillennialism.  On the contrary, it clearly disowns the Premillennial doctrine of two resurrections, laying down instead that ‘at the last day’ all the dead shall be raised up (Chapter XXXIII:II).  This has been generally overlooked, and men like Horatius Bonar, Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray McCheyne accepted unquestioningly despite their Premillennial views.

We are bound in conscience to submit to the jurisdiction of the General Assembly.  Those who insist so strenuously that our form of worship is ‘founded’ on the word of God tend to forget that our Presbyterian government is also based on scripture; and that in accordance with this we have all signed a Formula in which we have undertaken to submit to this government and jurisdiction.  This willingness to submit our own personal judgement to the judgement of the General Assembly is the indispensable foundation of our unity. Indeed, in an important sense it is our unity, and even our identity.  The Free Church of Scotland consists of people who recognise the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland as their final earthly authority on spiritual matters: that is, on matters of faith and doctrine.  Early church fathers such as Ignatius asserted that the basis of unity was loyalty to the ‘bishop’, and in some respects that is still a crucial element: at the local congregational level the Minister of the Word is the focal point of unity, corresponding to Ignatius’s ‘bishop’ (who was probably no more than our ‘Minister’).  At the national level (what the original Scottish reformers called ‘the Universal Kirk’), the General Assembly is invested with episcopal authority: every Presbyterian Minister owes the Assembly the same (and even greater) loyalty and compliance as Anglicans promise to their bishops.  This does not extend to our agreeing with every Assembly decision.  But it does mean that we are bound in conscience to comply with all its directives, abide by all its regulations and acquiesce in all its judicial (disciplinary) findings.

We are bound in conscience to feed the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made us overseers (Acts 20:28).  Each of us at our induction solemnly undertook to become pastor to this congregation, and to perform ‘all the duties of a faithful minister of the gospel among this people.’  Only death or the ‘bishop’ can loose us from this bond (the ‘bishop’ being in our case the Presbytery, and the ‘loosing’ normally taking the form of sanctioning a translation to another congregation).  This was something which the early Scottish Reformers took exceedingly seriously.  At the General Assembly of 1596, the revered John Davidson drew attention to ‘defections from the ministry’ and the Assembly agreed to ‘make solemn promise before the Majesty of God and make a new Covenant with Him for a more reverent and careful discharging of our ministry.’ (G. D. Henderson, The Burning Bush, p.62).  We are ‘married’ to our congregations; and what God has joined no minister can unilaterally put asunder.

We are bound in conscience to the Regulative Principle, which John Calvin in his tract,  The Necessity of Reforming the Church defined as follows: “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.”.  This Principle is an integral element in the Confessional commitment of every Free Church office-bearer: God may not be worshipped in any way not prescribed in holy scripture (Confession of Faith, Chapter XXI:I).  All of us are bound to it.  The only question is, oHHHow are we to apply it in practice?  Calvin and his successors are much clearer on the negative side of this principle than they are on the positive.  Things like the use of images and the worship of saints are forbidden.   But when it comes to working out what is prescribed, we are very short on detail because the New Testament gives us little information on the worship of the apostolic church.  On the face of things, the singing of hymns and spiritual songs, far from being forbidden, is prescribed (Ephesians 5:19),but opinions will differ on this, of course.  This confirms Cunningham’s observation (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 32) that we have to interpret the Regulative Principle in a common sense way, allowing for difficulties and differences of opinion over matters of detail.  This is already hinted at in the terms of the Formula.  Our form of worship is ‘founded’ upon the word of God.  It is not derived from it in all its details.

We are bound in conscience to comply with such regulations on worship as may be laid down by the General Assembly from time to time.  These regulations do not, of course, carry the same authority as the prescriptions which are derived from scripture in accordance with the Regulative Principle, and may be amended, dropped or added to as the Church in its wisdom may seem best.  The regulations are also to be distinguished from recommendations.  Knox’s Book of Common Order, for example, recommended that Communion be celebrated once a month, but this was never a regulation.  Similarly, the Directory for Public Worship recommended the use of the Lord’s Prayer and also the use of a Lectionary (reading one chapter from both the Old and the New Testaments each Lords’ Day, beginning each reading where you had finished the previous Lord’s Day).  But again, neither of these was a regulation.  Yet there were clear regulations.  There is an Act of Assembly (1649) authorising the use in public worship of what we now know as The Scottish Psalter; another (1645) prescribing that communicants must be seated at a table; another (1690) forbidding the administration of baptism in private; another (1826) ordaining that the Quarto edition of the Gaelic Bible ‘and no other version’ be used wherever public worship is conducted in  Gaelic (and also prescribing the use of the Paraphrases attached to this version); and yet another (a Free Church Act of 1910) declaring that we are to stand for public prayer.  The 1932 Act anent Requirements at Ordinations and Inductions sought to regulate the Church’s sung praise, forbidding the singing of ‘uninspired materials’, and precisely because it was an Assembly regulation even those of us who did not believe in exclusive psalmody felt bound in conscience to comply with it.

All of these regulations have the authority of the General Assembly, though some are widely disregarded (for example, the 1910 Act anent Postures in Public Worship).  On the other hand it is interesting to note the matters on which the Assembly never thought  it necessary to enact regulations.  These include: clerical dress, the versions of the (English) Bible to be used in public worship, the use of a ring in Marriage Services, the frequency of the Lord’s Supper and the distribution of the elements by elders at the Lord’s Supper.

We are bound in conscience to comply with the terms of the Act of the Plenary Assembly of 2010.  This Act is being described in some quarters as ‘permissive not prescriptive’.  It is certainly not merely permissive in the sense that people are free to decide whether  or not to comply with it.  Its effect was to devolve to local congregations the decision which ‘psalms hymns and spiritual songs’ to use in their public worship.  Every minister is now bound by this: that is, he is bound to recognise the right of each local church to decide whether or not to sing hymns as well as the canonical psalms.  If we are to avoid confusion, the Assembly must jealously safeguard this devolved authority.  Local churches now have the same right to decide what spiritual songs they will sing as the Scottish Parliament has to decide whether or not students shall have free university tuition.

It is against this arrangement that voices are being raised in protest, declaring that they cannot ‘in good conscience’ comply with the terms of the Act.  However:

  1. We are not at liberty to plead conscience as an excuse for refusing to comply with an Act of the General Assembly: we have already given a solemn undertaking that we will submit to its government and jurisdiction.  The Confession of Faith (Chapter XX:IV) is explicit on this: ‘they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God.’
  2. If any moral turpitude adhere to the decision of the Assembly the guilt also adheres to the Assembly itself.  Those who opposed the motion, and particularly those who dissented from the finding, have cleared their consciences, and may invoke God as their witness.  Further, their consciences are also clear if, despite their own personal opinion, they comply with the terms of the Act out of respect for the Assembly and as an expression of their obedience to the supreme court of the Church.  This is exactly what those of us who do not believe in exclusive psalmody have had to do for all those years when the 1932 Act restricted the praise of the Church.
  3. Many matters of our public worship have already been devolved to the local level.  This included the interpretation of the 1932 Act, which left it to particular churches to decide whether or not to sing Paraphrases.  But it also included such questions as which versions of the Bible to use, how frequently to have Communion and whether infant baptism should be granted to parents who are not in full communion with the congregation. Besides, far from having a Common Order for Baptism, Marriage and the Lord’s Supper , as was universal among the churches of the Reformation, we now have so many local variations (simply on the discretion of the minister) that John Calvin, John Knox and Alexander Henderson must be turning in their graves.
  4. The Act of the Plenary Assembly provides appropriate safeguards for individual consciences, particularly for those who were ordained under the 1932 Act and still feel bound by its terms:
    • No minister can be required by his Kirk Session or by any other court of the Church to use hymns in public worship
    • No congregation can be required to sing hymns simply on the whim of the minister.  Hymns can be introduced only with the consent of the Kirk Session
    • Those who believe in exclusive psalmody are still free to assert, maintain and defend that position, using all appropriate means to persuade others to their point of view
    • Congregations are fully entitled when calling a minister to take appropriate informal steps to ascertain his views on the question of the form of sung praise
    • Presbyteries have perfect discretion to refuse to sustain a Call if there is significant dissent in the congregation overt the nominee’s views on the question of sung praise.

However, while no Act of Assembly can dictate what people are to think, the Assembly has authority to regulate outward practice.  Until the Plenary Assembly, that practice was regulated by the 1932 Act.  It is now regulated by the 2010 Act, in terms of which the decision on the form of sung praise is to be taken at local, congregational level.  This has the following implications:

  • No office-bearer or candidate for office may be discriminated against by any court of the Church on the ground of his personal views on the form of sung praise.  We are required by the General Assembly to tolerate alternative views. This means:
    1. No one can be debarred from licence, ordination or induction on the basis that he believes in exclusive psalmody
    2. No one can be debarred from licence, ordination or induction on the basis that he favours the use of hymns and paraphrases
    3. Neither a Kirk Session nor a Presbytery can receive a dissent against a licensing, ordination or induction on the ground of the individual’s personal views on the form of sung praise.  Whether for or against exclusive psalmody, neither position violates the Practice of the Church
    4. There must be no formal requirement that prior to licensings, ordinations and inductions the relevant courts of the Church must ascertain the views of candidates on the question of the form of sung praise.  This would be to give this question a status out of all proportion to its importance and open the door to a long list of such ‘ascertainings’: for example, a candidate’s views on clerical dress, women praying, the use of ‘you’ in prayer.  These are matters, surely, for common sense and informal conference.

There cannot be separate forms of ordination, using different declaratory statements to accommodate the personal views of individuals.  This would lead to a liturgical shambles, making the Church look ridiculous in the eyes of visitors.  More fundamentally, it would strike at the very heart of our unity, institutionalising the idea that there are two churches in the Church.  All must be ordained on the same terms, recognising that the question of the form of sung praise is now a matter for local congregations.  We certainly cannot acquiesce in a position where some make it a condition of their remaining in the Church that we accommodate their consciences with a specific form of words tailored to their individual consciences.   People cannot lay down conditions for unity.  They are sworn to it; or, as James Durham puts it, ‘there is an absolute necessity of uniting laid upon the church, so that it falls not under debate whether a church should continue divided or united’ (Treatise on Scandal, p. 262).  Four points should be noted here:

  • While it is true, and of paramount importance, that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19), there is nothing in the Act of the Plenary Assembly which requires us either do what we believe God forbids (for example, singing hymns) or to refrain from doing what God commands (singing hymns).  We have total discretion over our practice.
  • Being a party to a man’s ordination does not make me a party to his errors.  For example, those who ordain a man who believes in divine passibility (the doctrine that God can suffer) are not themselves parties to that error (if they consider it an error).  Similarly, those who ordain a man who believes in hymn-singing are not parties to his ‘error’.  They dissociate themselves from it by their own public practice.
  • The only thing (if any thing) that can justify secession from a church is heresy: a persistent denial or perversion of a Christian truth so fundamental Christian that the church ceases to be a church.  No one can pretend that either the singing of hymns or the not singing of hymns constitutes such heresy, and anyone who left a church on such grounds would be a schismatic: a sin far graver than modern Evangelicalism is prepared to admit.
  • There can be unity where are divisions.   Indeed, there have been divisions ever since the day when Saul and Barnabas separated over John Mark.  Similarly, there have always been divisions in the Free Church: between, for example, Premillennialists and  Postmillennialists; those who wanted one Free Church College and those who wanted three; those who followed John Kennedy’s practice on infant baptism and those who followed Boston and Cunningham; those who followed Professor John Murray’s understanding of the ‘old man’ and those who followed the traditional understanding of, for example, Fraser of Alness; those who believed in exclusive psalmody and those who did not.  The Church of Rome and the Church of England exhibit even greater divisions, yet both have managed to maintain their institutional unity.  It is a sad reflection on us that we cannot do the same.  The Church of Rome is bound together by common submission to the papacy; the Church of England by the Book of Common Prayer.  We in the Free Church are bound together by a common preaching, as epitomised in our Confession of Faith.   The test of our unity, and of our integrity as a Christian church, lies in our ability to love each other and to work together despite differences of opinion on matters which the Confession has left open.  ‘Charity suffereth long, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.’

Finally, we are bound in conscience to acquiesce in the finality of the Church’s jurisdiction.  This was the fundamental principle of the Disruption: the decisions of church courts on spiritual matters (matters of faith or worship) cannot be subject to review by the civil courts, and each of us recognised this when we answered the questions put to us before our ordination, affirming our belief that church government is distinct from civil government and, as far as spiritual matters are concerned, not subordinate to it.  No civil court can overturn a decision of the General Assembly on questions of doctrine, or worship or discipline.  This means that every Free Church minister, elder or deacon is precluded by the terms of his ordination from appealing to the civil courts against any decision of the General Assembly; and any office-bearer who breaches these terms by raising an action (or threatening to raise an action) against the Assembly in the civil courts is liable to instant deposition.