Debate, Discipline, and Disorder
The Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland is well known as an enthusiastic evangelistic apologist, unafraid to engage both secularists and theological liberals in debate. His recent debate with a leading liberal in the Church of Scotland, in which he ably defended the biblical position on the atonement is an example of his insightful style. Unfortunately, it was also a first-hand experience of the duplicity of the liberal church establishment, who prevented others making a recording with the assurance that the Church of Scotland would make available its own recording, only to find that they had destroyed the recording to prevent its distribution. (I wonder why they did not wish people, perhaps their own people, actually hearing what their leading liberal ministers are teaching.) You can read the full story here:
What I find interesting is the response of some evangelicals to this debate. One response in particular caught my attention. It claimed that, though error may be prevalent in the denomination, it is not yet apostate. Part of his reason for this is that the church still has the Westminster Confession of Faith.
I must admit that I missed “possession of the Westminster Confession of Faith” as one of the marks of the true church. These marks are three: the biblical preaching of the Word of God, the correct administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of godly discipline.
They are summed up in the Belgic Confession (Article 29) on the "Marks of the True Church":
“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church-- and no one ought to be separated from it.”
Where does the WCF fit into these marks? If a denomination has a confession of faith, but no-one is required to believe it or preach it, then it is merely a historical document without force or influence. In evangelical denominations which hold to the WCF it is required that men clearly state exceptions they may have to the Confession before they are ordained, and they promise to inform their presbytery if they change their minds and come to reject aspects of the Confession.
I know that when I trained for the ministry of the Church of Scotland not one in twenty of my fellow students had read the WCF, and not one in forty sincerely believed in what it taught. That did not stop the others affirming their belief in the Confession at their ordination, hiding behind the statement “with liberty of opinion on such matters that do not enter into the substance of the faith.” Of course, there was no definition of the substance of the faith!
So, to say that a denomination still has the WCF, when it does not enforce the teaching of the Confession is a meaningless platitude. When a man can teach against the Confession and no discipline (the third mark of the true church) can be exercised against him, it proves that the WCF is a dead letter. What Church of Scotland men must explain is why they think a church that does not enforce the preaching of the truth, that tolerates and promotes those who refute the Confession and deny the clear teaching of Scripture on doctrine and ethics, and that no longer has any enforceable system of discipline can be seen as a true and not apostate church.
On a positive note, we should explore together with these evangelical men what the Scripture teaches on apostasy and how the church should deal with heretics. Sadly, that is one debate they do not seem prepared to have either in writing or in public discussion. I would love to see David Robertson engage in that debate. I think, perhaps, he would be somewhat more irenic than those of us who have left the Church of Scotland He would be a good man to build bridges, if our evangelical brothers have any desire to have such bridges built.