I’ve respected the writing of David Roberston (the Wee Flea) long before before I ever joined the Free Church. I’ve come to respect the writing of Professor Macleod (Donald Foot) since joining the Free church in 2013. Recently, both of these leaders have crossed swords – or at least pens. What’s it all about? Well Roberston wrote a couple of posts in favour of Infant Dedications (see here) then someone in Wales got upset about it and wrote a blog against the practice – then Robertson responded – and then MacLeod weighed in with a very strong rebuke against Infant Dedication – and then Robertson responded to the rebuke with his own rebuke.
You can read the posts for yourself – my aim is not to regurgitate them here. What I do want to do is try to see what we can learn from this interaction. When two respected and controversial leaders disagree passionately – it’s worth taking note. I’ve read both articles a number of times now and each time I encounter the same problem – that is, I end up agreeing with both of them on so many points.
Anyone who has been paying any attention to the message coming from Free Church Headquarters will have encountered the phrase “unity in diversity”. This is the idea that the Free Church is an increasingly diverse denomination – but united at the core by a common creed. It’s not a new idea or expression – we even have a book on Free Church History with that title.
So what are we to make of the disagreement over Infant Dedication? Are these two views simply an expression of the diversity that is found within the current Free Church? Or are they symptoms of continuing schism within the ranks? Is Infant Dedication a sign that the Free Church is suffering from downgrade? Or are the complaints against it evidence that old-school religious legalism still holds sway within the denomination?
For what it’s worth, here’s what I think.
Robertson’s approach to ministry is primarily that of an evangelist in a multi-cultural context, and MacLeod is a theologian who is deeply shaped by his Hebridean Presbyterian culture. Robertson has built up a beautifully diverse Free Church in the City of Dundee and MacLeod’s influence upon leaders and laymen is global in its scope. Robertson’s concern is simply, how can he reach people, and how can he see these people included and empowered in the life of the church. He’s not ministering in Presbyterian Lewis, he’s ministering a city of cultural diversity. The fact that non-Presbyterians go to St Pete’s is a good thing. That being said, MacLeod’s concerns are about the future of the church. He is concerned about ecclesiastic integrity. He’s concerned about the preservation of Presbyterian practice and theology.
As one who is reasonably new to the Free Church – I’m encouraged by what I see at St Pete’s. In fact, I love what is happening there so much, I almost agreed to move there and get involved with church planting. It’s a great contemporary reformed church. I can remember being invited to the manse for lunch, and there was a Baptist couple with a new born baby – I can still remember David jokingly saying to the bairn in front of the parents “When are you going to get your mummy and daddy to baptise you?” It was all done in a good spirit – and a subtle point was made. David believes in Infant baptism – through and through.
However, I can also see MacLeod’s concerns. I can see that there are dangers within the Free Church of a loosening of convictions. I can see leaders flirting with seeker-sensitive philosophy. As a former teacher, I can see the potential for the Christian education of children becoming so diluted that it becomes useless. MacLeod notes regarding Sunday Schools:
First, it must be rigorous, and unfortunately this goes against all our current thinking. Our Sunday Schools have had to be renamed ‘Junior Church’ or even ‘Kids Church’ because the idea of a school would put the kids off. Everything has to be fun, reminding me of a line in one of Ibsen’s plays, ‘I’ve never been happy. I’ve just had fun.’ Surely the important thing is that the children should learn, and learning can never be primarily fun. It implies rigour, and the church should apply the same rigour to the religious education of her children as day-schools to apply to secular education.
John MacIntosh, in his retirement speech issued a similar warning. We would be fools to ignore the pleas of the fathers in the faith. There is a danger of downgrade – and whilst I don’t think it is to be found at St Pete’s (I mean c’mon, one of the world’s finest reformed theologians, Sinclair Ferguson, is a regular preacher there!) signs of it can be seen within the movement – and people are noticing.
I came into the Free Church partly because I was sick of seeker-sensitive shallowness. That kind of stuff killed classical Pentecostalism. Make no mistake about it, it will also kill Presbyterianism. That being said, we are indebted to Robertson and guys like him – without them the Free Church would be a dying sect. They have blazed the trail – as has MacLeod – in placing reformed Presbyterian churches back on the Scottish evangelical map. However, let’s lead the way to higher ground, let’s not try to be like the other evangelical churches that are happy to settle for gospel-light. Let’s be unashamedly Presbyterian. Let’s be devoted to doctrine, let us without staggering proclaim the wrath absorbing cross of Christ – but let us do it in a way that seeks to build bridges, include as many as we can, and in a way that honours the church which is the body of Christ and which transcends all denominational barriers. As Robertson says, “I’m an 1843 Free Church man – biblical in theology, radical in ministry, evangelistic in outlook and ecumenical in spirit. Truly and openly Reformed.”