Is the Free Church an 'non-cessationist' body?

It’s probably fair to say that the Free Church is no longer a self-consciously Reformed church.  Instead, it sees itself as part of world-wide Evangelicalism, and the discipleship of its younger people is formed, not in the Church, but in Christian Unions and other inter-denominational and para-church organisations.  It would be perverse to deny the good done by these organisations, and even more perverse to deny that we could learn from them, but it would also be naïve to ignore the fact that their guiding principles are very different from those of historic Scottish Presbyterianism.  Modern Evangelicalism is largely Baptist, largely Dispensational, largely individualist and largely Charismatic, and it is hardly surprising that Free Church folk who are drawn to it soon begin to find these positions attractive.  If something is ‘Evangelical’ it must be good.

Take, for example, the recent claim that, ‘the Free Church is not a cessationist body.’  Fortunately, its meaning is not immediately obvious. The word ‘cessationist’ was coined to describe the position of those who deny the Pentecostal claim that such gifts as prophesying and tongue-speaking have not ceased, but are still key parts of God’s will for his people.  Pentecostals and other Charismatics are thus non-cessationists, and those who disagree with them are cessationists. 

I’ve always believed that this latter was the constitutional position of the Free Church.  But was I wrong?  Or is there, perhaps, no official Free Church view?

There certainly is, and it is set down in the very first paragraph of our Confession of Faith, which states that God’s former ways of revealing himself have now ceased.    

The statement was carefully crafted and it deserves to be carefully interpreted.  It does not mean that revelation has ceased.  We still have revelation, but we now have it in writing, in what St. Paul called the ‘sacred Scriptures’ (2 Tim. 3.15).  In these we still enjoy the ministry of prophets and apostles and also, of course, of the incarnate Lord himself;  and it is a revelation which, far from being a dead document in an ancient language, is the living Word of God, searching, nourishing, comforting and energising the church, and bringing life to the spiritually dead.

So: it’s not revelation that’s ceased.  God is still speaking to us.  What has ceased is God’s ‘former ways’ speaking to us.  These took many forms: theophanies, dreams, visions, voices, stone tablets, prophecies, tongue-speakings and, not least, the living voice of Jesus himself.  These, according to the Confession, have ceased. 

But why?  Because the Bible is a perfect, final and sufficient revelation of the will of God, and to it, according to the Confession (1.6), ‘nothing is at any time to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.’ 

What we have here is neither more nor less than the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura.  Roman Catholicism had felt it necessary to supplement the Scriptures with its own traditions.  The sectaries who abounded in 17th century London were supplementing it with their own ‘new revelations of the Spirit’: exactly the claim being made today by those who stand up in Evangelical congregations and purport to have a fresh word from the Lord.

Speaking, then, from a Free Church point of view, Is the Pentecostal or non-cessationist position heretical?  Yes, if by that you mean, Does it contradict our Confession of Faith?  It was precisely because he encouraged the use of prophecy and tongue-speaking in the worship of his Church of Scotland congregation in London that Edward Irving was removed from the charge in 1832.

But non-cessationism is also heretical in another sense.  Our word ‘heresy’ comes from the Greek word hairesēs, which means a sect or a party, and it is in this sense that Paul includes ‘heresy’ in his list of the works of the flesh (Gal. 5.20).  There can be no denying that modern Pentecostal claims to possessing the extraordinary gifts of the apostolic age have been deeply divisive. 

We must remember, of course, that there is a difference divisiveness and diversity.  The church still depends on spiritual gifts (charismata), and God still gives us these in rich profusion and diversity: wisdom, knowledge, utterance, discernment, helping, administering, teaching, pastoral care, faith, love, to mention but the more obvious examples.  No member of the body is without gifts, no two have the same gifts, and no one has them for their own private use.  All are given for the common good, to build up, support, encourage and nourish the body of Christ: in a word, to enable us all together to serve Christ and to keep in step with the Spirit.

But modern claims to such gifts as tongue-speaking, prophesying and even the apostolate, have bred not diversity, but division and confusion; and that would certainly be the result if , for the first time I her history, they were to surface in the Free Church.

The immediate impact would be on the worship of local churches.  The problem ws already evident in the church at Corinth when Paul wrote them his First Epistle.  A prophet would speak even when another was in full flow, or a tongue-speaker would speak even when there was no one present who could interpret , and the effect, says the Apostle, was that any unbeliever who strayed into their meetings would think these people were out of their minds.  The problem was not the gifts in themselves, of course.  In these days when there was no New Testament, and prophecy and tongue-speaking were still important channels of communication between Christ and the church.  It is clear, however, that even while the church was still overseen by the apostles the gifts were being abused, often because those who exercised them claimed to be in a state of ecstasy, and ‘when the Spirit came, they couldn’t hold back:’ to which Paul replied that the Spirit does not, like wine, destroy self-control.  The prophets should control their own spirits. 

But at Corinth there was a deeper problem.  What mattered was to be known as a ‘spiritual man’, which was all very well.  But what was a ‘spiritual man’?  Many clearly defined it not in terms of holiness and love, but in terms of the more public and spectacular gifts.  The ‘spiritual man’ was someone who frequently spoke in tongues or frequently prophesied; or someone who, when he preached, had great presence and was a brilliant communicator. 

The same problem is with us still, and even Scottish Presbyterianism wasn’t free of it.  Dr. John Kennedy in The Days of the Fathers in Rosshire extolled those who had ‘the secret of the Lord’: the ‘Men’ who got verses from Scripture which they took to be personal communications from God; supernatural discernment which enabled them to know whether an applicant for Communion really was born again; premonitions warning of death or disaster; revelations guiding them to the right minister for their vacant congregations; direct divine calls to the ministry or to moving to a new congregation.  Such in the Christian world was ‘the secret of the Lord’; and its affinities with what the secular world called ‘second sight’ were too close for comfort.

Modern Evangelicalism still warms to such ideas, especially when it comes to questions of guidance.  There is still kudos in conveying the impression that in your life the veil between the seen world and the unseen world is a very thin one.  Claims to have the mind of the Lord are hard to falsify, whether with regard to choosing  a husband or wife, deciding on a career, becoming a minister or a missionary, or accepting a Call to one congregation rather than to another. 

The kudos is great, but then so are the risks.  Such ‘spirituality’ assumes not only that special revelation has not ceased, but that God remains in direct contact with ourselves personally, and reveals to us exactly where to go and what to do.  But what about when we make mistakes?  Do we blame God, or plunge into despair, concluding that we deceived ourselves and were completely wrong about our relation to God? 

Far better to take our cue from the Confession of Faith (Chapter 1:6) which lays down that there are some circumstances in our lives which are common to all human lives and all human organisations everywhere, and on which the Bible gives no specific guidance.  It doesn’t tell us whether we should hold our services at 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock, or whether we should use the NIV or the ESV;  and it certainly doesn’t tell us whether we should marry Maggie Smith rather than Delia Smith.  What it does is lay down general principles such as that we must not marry an unbeliever, or take on a job which involves unnecessary Sunday work, but when it comes to applying the principles to specific situations we have to rely on our ‘Christian prudence’.  In other words, rather than expecting the Holy Spirit to guide us without any thinking on our part we have to pray that he will guide us through our thinking; and precisely because so much thinking of our own has been involved we will hesitate to make the boast, ‘I am sure the Lord put me here.’  Any mistakes are mine.  And when I recognise that, I recognise that the road to glory starts at my feet, even when I shouldn’t have put my feet there in the first place.