Musings of a ‘first time’ commissioner at Free Church of Scotland General Assembly 2016…
Following the recommendation of this year’s Moderator the Rev Dr John Nicholls, Sean Ankers (evangelist for Argyll - based in Mull) and I, are going to co-write some reflections on our time at this year’s General Assembly (GA). This is primarily for your benefit, your encouragement, and to give you fuel for your prayers.
In these blogs, we want to give you a holistic picture of what happened. We will do a series of blog posts, entitled, Musings of a first time Assembly Commissioner at #FCGA16. This is to help those of you who are not steeped in the traditions of the Free Church – and those of you who are not dyed-in-the-wool-Presbyterians – to understand and love our denomination better, with all its beliefs, structures and activities.
In this first blog, we would like to give you a background to Presbyterianism and the Free Church of Scotland of today. There are six sections to this first blogpost – each section’s heading will be bold and underlined.
1. Brief Biblical Case for Presbyterianism:
The way a church is organised and decisions are made is known as church governance. Other forms of church governance would include, for example, Congregationalism and Anglicanism. A Presbyterian Church is governed by elders (we get the name from the Greek word for an elder). A Congregationalist Church is governed by the congregation – all the members, deacons and elders. An Anglican Church is governed by the monarch of the country, archbishops and bishops.
The Free Church of Scotland makes use of the Presbyterian system because we believe it best reflects what the Bible says about the church’s organisation. For example, we understand from scripture that the Holy Spirit, through his apostles, has entrusted the servant-leadership of the church primarily to the elders (also called overseers). You can see this in Acts 20:28, where Paul gives directions to the elders in Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained through his own blood.”
It wasn’t just in Ephesus that elders were important. Paul ensures that every church have elders (Acts 14:23; see Titus 1:5). We shouldn’t think of elders as being in control of the church, though. That is reserved for the Lord Jesus, who is the head of the church (Eph. 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:19). This is why we also do not believe that a monarch or pope could be head of the church. In fact, in the 17th century the Covenanters were willing to die for this key biblical truth.
However, the Bible does show that elders lead the whole church, and not just the congregation they are a part of. Take a look at Acts 15:1-2: an issue arises which affects the whole church of God. Instead of each congregation making their mind up about matters, Paul and Barnabas and a few others take the matter to the apostles and elders for their decision – a decision which would affect the whole church. In that way it was a bit like the first general assembly.
We hope you see that scripture shows elders to be leaders of local congregations, and the whole church, too. For your own benefit, try searching the New Testament for other mentions of eldership.
2. A Delineation of the Biblical Principles that Undergird Presbyterianism:
Christ’s Headship: There is no one person or group within the church, who has more influence than anyone else. For example, there is no pope, archbishop, bishop, king or queen to lead the church (see the verses above).
Connectivity: There is only one head, and there is only one body, the church. Since the elders of congregations make up their leadership, they also hold each congregation of the whole church accountable. In practice, this is done through the meetings called presbyteries and General Assemblies. The fact that we are joined this way means we are to support the wider church in prayer and practical help, under the stewardship of its leaders.
Confessionalism: As one church under Jesus’ headship, we should be united in our beliefs about him. The eldership of the church ensures this in practice by subscribing to a statement of faith called the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Accountability: To make sure we stay connected and committed to the one faith, we hold each other accountable. The elders hold their own congregation to account; presbyteries hold their eldership to account; the general assembly holds the whole leadership of the church to account. Because everyone in each level of accountability is an elder, there is complete equality. We are still all one under Christ. To flesh this point out a bit…
3. The Three Levels of Church Structures in Presbyterianism.
• The first level is the local structure (like Cumbernauld or Mull Free Church). The structure that leads our local congregation is called the Kirk Session (a Scottish term, meaning church court). It is made up of elders and exists to oversee the life of congregation.
• The second level is the regional structure of the church - what we call the Presbytery (Cumbernauld and Mull Free Churches are part of ‘Glasgow and Argyll Presbytery’ within the Free Church of Scotland). The Presbyteries of the church consist of all the ministers (teaching elders) in the region and an equal number of ruling elders. There are 6 presbyteries in the Free Church of Scotland.
• The third level is the national structure called the General Assembly. The General Assembly consists of around 80 commissioners, both ministers and ruling elders, representing all the presbyteries.
4. The Historical Example of the General Assembly
We believe Presbyterianism was what Jesus and the apostles practised. But Presbyterianism as we know it today was first articulated by John Knox and his colleagues in 1560, in a document called the First Book of Discipline. Arguably, Presbyterianism is one of Scotland’s greatest exports to the world - every Presbyterian Church in the world has its roots here in Scotland. The first general assembly of the Scottish church was held in that year, greatly influenced by the Reformers in Europe who were leading the return to the Bible as the rule for belief and life.
5. The Practice of the General Assembly in Today’s Free Church
Our Assembly is shaped by the Scottish Reformed tradition espoused by men like John Knox. It continues in that tradition, shaped too, like its founding fathers in 1560, by Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) with its emphasis on mission to the country and the rest of the world.
The Free Church of Scotland has held a General Assembly every year since 1843, when the Free Church came into existence. The customary venue for the Assembly is St Columba’s Free Church of Scotland, situated at the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Around 80 commissioners (elders) representing Free Church congregations from across Scotland and further afield take part in the event.
What happens at the General Assembly? The 80 commissioners gather to worship God, and to discuss and debate the pressing business of the Church. The business that sets the agenda for the Assembly is determined by the five “Standing Committees” of the Free Church of Scotland. These committees are made up of Free Church elders - who look after the strategic running of the denomination. They meet throughout the year and their work covers aspects of ministry, mission, youth work, training, relationships with other churches, the General Assembly, finance and communications.
The five committees of our church are the Board of Ministry, Board of Trustees, Mission Board, Psalmody and Praise Committee, and Seminary Board. The General Assembly considers reports from each of the Church's committees, discusses issues of national and international importance and makes decisions that help set the Free Church of Scotland's direction for the coming years.
The General Assembly is also a public meeting. It is streamed live online and anyone from the public is free to walk in and view the proceedings from the public gallery.
6. Summary: The Free Church and Presbyterianism of Today, and Tomorrow
In Scotland there has been a very unfortunate caricature of Presbyterianism. Scottish Presbyterians have been and still are perceived as joyless, straightjacketed and inward-looking, and have a chronic problem of division. In the minds of many people, Presbyterianism is a byword for schism. If truth be told, ‘in every criticism there is more than a grain of truth,’ and aspects of these criticisms are justified in Scottish church’s history.
However, that said, the Free Church of Scotland of today is seeing renewal. For example:
• There is a desire for renewed and reinvigorated Presbyterianism • There is a recovery of passion for mission, and a resolve to reach the unreached at home and abroad • We are seeking to recapture the founding vision of Dr Thomas Chalmers of being a “national church” • We are determined to see greater visible unity with our fellow Presbyterian Churches in Scotland • We are committed to Gospel partnerships with our brothers and sisters in non-Presbyterian Churches
We would argue that the above is an increasingly becoming a fair description of today’s Free Church. This year’s General Assembly bore testimony to that. Some of our senior colleagues, namely, David Robertson and David Meredith, like to say that in today’s Free Church we are positively Presbyterian with a happy confessionalism and a contemporary Calvinism.
Well, beloved congregation, much more to follow this week. Please, start praying for our denomination. We must love the church that we belong to and always be humble about being Free Kirkers. We must also love and pray for the other gospel-centred Churches in Scotland.
Tomorrow, reflections will be on the outgoing Moderator’s address.
Andy & Sean Soli Deo Gloria