Christian Life 

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.

by Watchman 

hymn bookAS 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.

collapsed buildingAny 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.

Ed footnotes:
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"

Watchman, 18/11/2010

Peter Carr 18/11/2010 19:04
Denominations are really no more than groupings of sinners meeting together, with a mix within each which shows our frail humanity for what it is.

However, although in decline, they seem to enjoy God's favour, evidence of His grace and not our cleverness. Better not throw the baby out with the bathwater!
Rosemary Cameron 18/11/2010 21:52
I've just read the Report on Worship and the update on today's meeting on the Free Church website and can sum up my feelings in one word - depressing.

Is this really the most pressing issue confronting the church today?
Martin Lisemore 18/11/2010 23:49
Better not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

Wise words Peter, which is why in a post on another thread I suggested the churches, of whatever denomination, or none, study the New Testament model much more closely, and begin to implement it.

I agree, denominations may be in decline, but where we find a Godly man leading a fellowship, prayerfully waiting upon the Lord, then we see prosperity.

As an Englishman, albeit married to a Scot, I really shouldn't get rowed in here, except to say each of the bulleted points above applies to the Church of England, Methodists etc down here. Watchman could easily be writing for us. It's so sad Watchman felt the need to write this piece.

Editor 19/11/2010 08:58
Some 'sound' bites from Thurday evening's discussions at the Free Church extraordinary General Assembly:

"We all love psalms and agree that we should sing them.
We agree indeed on a vast amount."

"Impossible for us all to get what we want."

"We hope that there will not be hint of separation!! But overblown rhetoric might cause disunity."

"Cant put [the present issue] off any longer."

"Strong historical views are that instruments were not used in NT"

"Has been hinted that change will save us from decline: that has not been shown."

"We do tolerate more than the psalms although lots assume psalms only."

"...musical instruments are the less important issue. We agree."

"Public worship? The 1910 and 1932 acts make clear that we are speaking about pblic worship - this allows flexibility. If a minister organises outreach etc that in his view do not amunt to PW then why criticise the minister for dong that?"

"The basic question at issue: divine authority. What are we authorised to use ? What has God authorised? We find answers in scriptures we find answers. but there are differences in opinion. How does church act when there are difference? Not by personal preference."

"Where does a paraphrase end and a hymn start?"

"Unity of the church which is threatened by [this] ongoing issue."

"Do you believe that ministers and elders can hold views contrary to agreed practice? It is - as a matter of personal conscience."
"If in 20 years time every minister changes their position could they change the position of the church?"

"[He had] serious misgivings about not being able to sing the name of Jesus. He also wondered about why [the] church allowed diversity in other things such as Baptism but not in this matter?"

"Despite the potentially contentious nature of the issue, there was a good, harmonious atmosphere at the assembly which we hope and pray will continue throughout."

Peter Carr 19/11/2010 11:27
...and in the meantime the world is dying and decaying due to sin and rebellion, and in desperate need of God's love and grace to be shown through those who already know the value of peace and reconcilliation with their Creator!

Jesus says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

Editor 19/11/2010 11:46
General Assembly update:

One minister says:
"The report [of the Board of Trustees on 'Worship'] says that we will back the current practice because the majority of Kirk Sessions say so. There are few of us who think that singing hymns and using musical instruments is sinful – hence the repeal of the Act. It if it sinful we should not do it anywhere. How can worship be acceptable to God in another church but not in the Free Church?"

Ed footnote:
The Act of 1910 about Public Worship states that "evil effects arose from the introduction of uninspired materials of praise at variance with the Scriptural principles and usage regulating her worship, as also of instrumental music" and that "any attempts made for the introduction of innovations in the worship of God therein have been of fatal and dangerous consequence.."

"such innovations are dangerous to this Church, and manifestly contrary to our known principle, (which is, that nothing is to be admitted in the worship of God but what is prescribed in the Holy Scriptures)"

Further stating:
"and does require and obtest all the ministers of this Church, especially those in whose bounds any such innovations are,or may happen to be, to represent to their people the evil thereof, and seriously to exhort them to beware of them, and to deal with all such as do practice the same, in order to their recovery and reformation; and do instruct and enjoin the Commission of this Assembly to use all proper means, by applying to the Government or otherwise, for suppressing and removing all such innovations, and preventing the evils and dangers that may ensue thereupon to this Church.”
Penny Lee 19/11/2010 12:58
All of this is so incredibly silly. Musical instruments are mentioned in the old testament and encouraged for use in worship, and from King David himself (remember, he was a harpist) and on whom the Psalms were based. The Israelis sang their own songs of worship after deliverance from Egypt and the psalms weren't even written yet! The Israelis songs were made up spontaneously at the time for the situation they were in.

The musical scale we use today is the result of a perfect mathematical formula and someone who was blind, deaf and dumb could produce a perfectly tuned whistle if they knew the formula. This shows that even music conforms to God's creative precision and perfection. However, the scale used in Asian music does not conform to this formula and is probably why, to our ears, it sounds distorted and out of key.

I'm sure there are probably some lovely and sincere people within the Free Church who genuinely are trying to keep the church as close to scripture as possible, and I applaud them for that, but they have got it badly wrong on this one. Music is scriptural. To say that there is no evidence of it in the NT is silly. The Christian church then generally met in houses. How many ordinary people would have had musical instruments in their homes? - very few, if any, I would imagine.

Music stirs the soul and, used appropriately, is a valuable asset in worship.
Martin Lisemore 19/11/2010 14:20
We're talking here about dead formalism, the very thing Jesus was so eloquent, and forceful, about.

We're talking about religion, where outward practice is more important than inward purity.

We're talking about a church were repentance and faith have no place, so long as form is observed.

We have just the same thing here in the Established church. Outward appearance matters more than inward purity.

King David danced naked in the streets, such was his joy! I wonder how our church institutions would view that!

It's probably good for everyone I'm neither a king nor minister!
Editor 19/11/2010 18:27
The Free Church of Scotland has voted to relax its rules to allow hymn singing and the use of instruments in its churches for the first time in almost 100 years.

The vote ended with the commissioners of the church, splitting 98 to 84, with a majority of just 14 ministers and elders in favour of allowing hymns and instruments.

The church split as recently as 2000 over doctrine and observers have said it is not impossible that it could happen again.

Read on...

Footnote: The Plenary Assembly also decided not the invoke the 'Barrier Act' which - in normal circumstances - obliges major decisions to be first ratified (or not) by congregations and presbyteries before church law is changed.
The reason given for not applying the Barrier Act in this case was that as the Assembly was convened for the sole and stated purpose of dealing with the issue in question it was not necessary to have the final decision made at grassroots level.

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