“The Free Church is going to hell!” claimed a perplexed observer of all things Reformed Presbyterian. No reasons were given, and due to the simmering passion of the one making the claim, no reasons were looked for.
Ever since I heard the the words: “The Free Church is going to hell!”, they have been ringing in my ears. I found myself asking questions like, “Why would a person think that the Free Church is going to hell?” And “What grievous error has the church fallen into, that would merit such a condemnation?”
What causes a person to declare that the Free Church is going to hell? Well, assuming that there was a time when the Free Church was not “going to hell”, the answer can only be found in the fact that there have been some recent developments within the denomination. There have been a few changes in recent times. Over the last few years the Free Church has welcomed some Church of Scotland Congregations and Ministers into its ranks. These were churches and ministers whose conscience prevented them from remaining within the national kirk. A number of years before that, the Free Church changed its position on praise, allowing for the inclusion of hymns and musical accompaniment. Further, leaders of the movement have encouraged Free Church Congregations to re-evaluate how they perceive their identity and to shift from seeing themselves as a sectarian church, to seeing themselves as a parish church.
As a newbie to Presbyterianism, perhaps I’m not qualified to reflect on the matter, even more so perhaps because I come from the murky waters Independency (If the Free Church is “going to hell” what chance does the rest of the church have?) However, that being said, I’d like to highlight several reasons why I think the Free Church is most certainly not “going to hell” and why, the changes which have taken place in recent times, is actually an indication that instead of being on the road to hell, the Free Church is actually uniquely placed to pick up the baton for the gospel in Scotland.
Reasons why the Free Church is not going to Hell
No matter how much we may disagree with any church or denomination’s theology and practice, we should never damn a church to hell. Churches may do things differently, they may even be in sin and in error – but the Lord is faithful to discipline and restore his people. So here are, several strong reasons why the Free Church of Scotland, is not “going to hell”.
No True Church of Christ is Going to Hell
The church is Christ’s body – Christ’s literal body endured the wrath of God once, in order that his mystical body (the church) may never have to. While the head of the church is in heaven, his body will never suffer in hell. If a church is a true church, that church is sealed by the Spirit of God and preserved for glory. Branches of the visible church may wither and die, but the true church of Jesus Christ – those who are incorporated into Christ, will never perish.
“I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Matt 16:18
Such a judgement (hell) must be reserved only for the unrepentant and apostate churches who deny the faith
The strongest warnings of eternal judgement, within the scriptures are reserved for unrepentant sinners and apostate churches. Regarding the latter, perhaps the strongest inspired words, penned to any church are the words of Paul found in the book of Galatians.
Gal 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Here we have perhaps the severest warning from the apostle to any church – a warning of condemnation for those who distort or pervert the gospel. If a church wanders from the true gospel, it is essential that the church is warned of its danger. Paul pulls no punches; preachers of a false people will be condemned. Their condemnation will be even greater than the unrepentant because false teachers do not just damn themselves, they damn many who follow their teaching.
However, even in Galatia, where a false gospel is being tolerated and received, the apostle himself does not out rightly condemn the church. Instead he lovingly warns them of the consequences of departing from Christ. He says they have become alienated from Christ and that they have fallen from Grace.
You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. Gal 4:4
Paul desires that the church might be restored and that the people may exercise discernment and shut their doors to the false teachers.
If it is the abandoning of the gospel which invokes the severest rebukes from the Spirit of God, we are treading on very dangerous ground if we pronounce greater rebukes upon a church of Christ for less serious matters. Churches have evolved and changed for around 2000 years. Do we really think that the early church in the day of Pentecost looked like an 18th century Free Kirk or a 16th Century Church of Scotland? Divine revelation stays the same, but practice, procedure and culture are subject to change. What is essential is that the essential marks of the church are preserved:
Marks of the True Church:1. The preaching of the gospel takes place. 2. The sacraments are rightly ministered. 3. Church discipline is exercised.
The Free Church Preaches the True Gospel
This brings me to the central point as to why I can say with utter confidence that the Free Church is not “going to hell” – the Free Church is faithful in preaching the true gospel. In fact, this is one of the key characteristics of the Free Church which drew me to her in the first place. This is not something that is true of all churches. We are living in times when the gospel of Christ is being undermined, distorted and modified. However, this is certainly not true of the Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church is fully committed to preaching the gospel of Christ. The fall of mankind, Christ’s propitiatory atonement, the need for regeneration and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ alone (to name a few gospel essentials) are preserved within the church’s confession and proclaimed from her pulpits.
The Free Church Has a High View of Scripture
We are not living in times where churches, and even evangelicals, have a high view of Scripture. Churches may claim that scripture is their final authority, but the independent nature of evangelicalism, or the liberal commitments of the mainstream denominations, means that human opinion and not the Word of God is the final authority for all matters concerning faith and practice. The Confession states (and this is just a snippet) that,
“The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”
In a day when many Christians are selling out the truth of God’s word, the Free Church of Scotland is committed to the divine inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures.
The Free Church Teaches Essential Christian Doctrines
Further, we are living in a time when relativism, experientialism and pragmatism are the flavour of the day. Doctrine is considered irrelevant and outdated. We are told that “doctrine is divisive” and that “doctrine is dead”. Of course, those who are mature in their faith know that rejection of doctrine is the death knell of discernment and when discernment dies so too will the life of Christ in the church. Consequently the Free Church is committed to essential Christian doctrines such as the doctrine of God, the doctrine of scripture, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of redemption and the doctrine of the church etc.
The Free Church is committed to preserving the gospel; the Word of God; and the essential doctrines of the Christian faith by means of their commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith
Almost every contemporary ‘evangelical’ church has a Statement of Faith (except the really honest ones). However, very few evangelical churches have a statement of faith which functions in a practical manner within their churches. In other words, the Statement of Faith is a bit like a company policy, it’s there in case anyone one accuses the organisation of foul play. Should someone accuse the organisation of failing to comply with some aspect of employment rights; the management can pull out the inclusion policies in an attempt to defend their integrity. So it is with many ‘evangelical churches’, they may regularly preach error, and engage in unscriptural practices, however if anyone questions their orthodoxy, they can simply point to their twelve- point statement of faith in defence of their orthodoxy.
The Free Church, on the other hand, has a functioning Confession of Faith. A Confession of Faith which acts as a foundational and functional document for church doctrine, discipline and declaration. What will you find being preached within a Free Church? You will find it within the Confession of Faith. What is the basis of Free Church practice? You will find it within the Confession of Faith? How does the Free Church discern whether one of her ministers has wandered into error? The answer again is found within the Confession of Faith.
So, if the Free Church is faithful in these areas, what is the entire hullabaloo about? It seems to me, that many of the criticisms launched against the Free Church are based upon fear. Some people are afraid because we are living in times of change. Even in the Highlands and Islands, places that some might call the remnants of Reformed Christianity, the reverberations of secularism are being felt. The Sabbath is no longer safe-guarded by society. Church goers have voted with their feet. Congregations are ageing. Humanism and secularism are redefining the very laws of the nation. It is challenging, and the temptation is to baton down the hatches – to do what we have always done in the hope that the storm will pass. However, the storm isn’t going to pass. Consequently we can hide ourselves away, or we can get involved in the rescue mission. It is here, that I find the recent changes within the Free Church to be signs of hope and not of signs of despair.
The developments in regards to music and hymns, instead of being seen as signs of apostasy should be seen as signs of liberty. The shift from cultural withdrawal towards cultural engagement should not be seen as worldliness but should be seen as mission. The integration of other churches and ministers of other churches should not be seen as compromise but should be seen as a commitment to Christian unity (which is arguably what Presbyterianism should be about). This is not to say there are no dangers – if we are true disciples there will always be dangers – however, the times in which we live in are changing, and the church needs to culturally adapt in order to engage. However, in navigating the stormy seas of secular society, it is a living commitment to the Confession which will be the keel which keeps the church stable and sailing in the right direction.
Scotland needs a strong Christian voice. Roman Catholicism, many ways has put the protestant churches to shame when it comes to speaking out with Christian clarity, commitment and charity. The national church has embraced secular morality and philosophy, and as a result is unable to speak with biblical conviction and clarity. The charismatic movement, who claim the gift of prophecy, are so entangled with non-Christian culture that they lack the power to speak prophetic correction to the culture; the evangelicals are so divided by independency that they cannot speak with one voice as a movement. Rather than being on the road to hell, the Free Church of Scotland has an opportunity to pick up the baton of the gospel for Scotland. Why? As the Free Church she stands free from the moral dictates of the state; as a confessional church she is committed to the proclamation and preservation of the reformed faith; as a Scottish Presbyterian denomination she is able to speak out as a nation-wide church movement and as a missional church – far from “going to hell”, is attempting to rescue people from hell.