Below is an article by Catherine Dickie, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It originally appeared on the "Our Confession" website, a site devoted to dialogue between Scottish Presbyterian churches. Catherine runs a blog called ninetysix and ten.
Faced with the astonishing proliferation of presbyterian denominations in Scotland, some people may be tempted to stop trying to find a rationale for divisions and new start-ups altogether, and instead focus on the spiritual unity which believers share regardless of denomination. Since we’re all believers, can’t we just make allowances for each other’s tastes and preferences? I don’t really understand why this latest split had to happen, but isn’t there room for all of us?
Clearly, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the spiritual unity which all believers share in Christ. Although it’s ‘spiritual’ and ‘invisible’ and ‘mystical’, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it’s so abstruse and ethereal as to be unreal or worthless. When the Holy Spirit unites a soul to Christ in their effectual calling, that soul is united to the whole body of other believers also united to Christ. In Christ each individual believer finds his or her ultimate identity, and so do all believers collectively. Belonging to one denomination rather than another can do nothing whatsoever to weaken or impinge on this union or this identity.
But at the same time we need to guard against disparaging the external, visible, concrete expression of this spiritual union. The mystical oneness which believers share in Christ by definition should (according to Scripture) be expressed in visible form: it should be reflected by the oneness of the visible body under Christ the mystical head. If I’m spiritually united to my neighbour along the road, how come we attend a different place of worship on the Lord’s Day? sit with different groups of people at the Lord’s Table? contribute to a completely different Sustentation Fund? why isn’t our spiritual oneness better reflected in concrete, practical oneness?
This is all the more important to remember when we identify ourselves as presbyterian. The terrible reality about splits in presbyterian churches is that each of the groups involved in a split is by definition accusing the other of not really being a church at all. This is the appalling implication that attaches to any church split, whatever mitigating factors one side might be able to cite in terms of the justice of their cause or the godliness of their people.
That’s because, within the presbyterian system, kirk sessions are meant to work side by side, answering to presbyteries which work side by side, answering to synods which work side by side, and so on.
But after a split, my congregation is supervised by a kirk session which competes with yours instead of cooperating – my local presbytery stands in opposition to yours – my synod can freely ignore yours – the decisions and declarations of your general assembly have no bearing on the courts and believers under mine.
Even as I recognise the reality of the Christian professions made in your congregation and value your minister’s preaching gifts and appreciate the witness that you make for the truth, at the very same time your church courts and mine are antagonistic to each other – they each refuse to recognise the other’s authority and jurisdiction.
This is entirely incompatible with the Scriptural way of how the Church should be run. And this is why we cannot duck out of acknowledging that the current situation in Scotland, with our multiplicity of competing denominations, is unsustainable. The Church was never meant to be like this, and we cannot hope for the Cause to flourish if we turn a blind eye to the wrongness of the situation, or paper over the cracks by using informal ways of exploiting the spiritual unity at the expense of sorting out the concrete disunity. This place just isn’t big enough for all of us.
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