Post-Presbyterian Scotland?

The Church in Scotland in 2015 – Part 2

Last week we looked at the reason for the continuing decline of The Church of Scotland.   (https://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/ten-reasons-why-the-church-of-scotland-is-in-decline/)

This week I want to reflect on what some are terming ‘Post-Presbyterian’ Scotland. This idea behind this is that Presbyterianism has traditionally practiced in Scotland is now past its sell by date and its time we move on to a new expression of church. It is of course understandable that those who have experienced the dreadful church politics, the stifling bureaucracy and the endless meetings with church ‘legalese’ being the main language, should not wish to return to that. But what does post-Presbyterian mean?

Multi-Presbyterian Scotland

The idea is that in a post-modern, post-Christian secular society, the concept of a national Presbyterian church, with one congregation in every parish, is no longer a viable one. Indeed the trouble is that it has not been viable for many decades, with several Presbyterian denominations claiming, at least in theory, to be that national denomination, with the result that in some areas of the Highlands you had small communities with four or five Presbyterian churches all claiming to be the Church of Scotland; the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, The Free Church (Continuing) Church of Scotland, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland etc. To say nothing of the APC, IPC and of course the Church of Scotland.

Some people of course rejoice in this multi- Presbyterian Scotland but I am more inclined to despair at the increasing plethora of denominations. To paraphrase Solomon, of making many churches there is no end and much church politics wearies the soul.  My sympathies are with those who have had enough of Presbyterian Church politics and who just want to get on with the work of the Gospel. So what is their solution?

 Network Presbyterianism

They want to retain the basic Presbyterian structure of the local congregation (with ministers, elders and deacons) but to exchange the more national structures of a Presbyterian church (Presbyteries, Synods, General Assemblies along with their attendant committees, administration and church ‘courts’) for a more loosely defined ‘network’. The idea is that we all as brothers and sisters will all share, conference, communicate, discipline and love one another, as we work together to advance the Gospel. It’s a very attractive notion.   But it is a realistic utopian concept that in my view will not work.    Why?

 PLUS churches 

On the negative side it is highly likely that we will just end up exchanging official bureaucracies that get in the way of the work of the Kingdom, for unofficial networks based on personalities and individual ambitions and foibles, which will get in the way of the work of the kingdom. In such networks we inevitably will only work with PLUS (People Like Us).   Thomas Chalmers in his wonderful six lectures on the Establishment Principle given in London explained that one of the reasons for an establishment was that if you left individual churches to just follow their own path you would end up with plenty churches in Broughty Ferry, Morningside and Bearsden, whilst the poorer (and more receptive?) areas of the country would largely be left alone. My fear is that we will end up creating middle class networks that import grand ideas from outside (primarily England and the US) but will do little for the vast majority of Scotland’s population. We need the city centre churches and the leafy suburban churches, but we need them to be in alliance with the small town churches, the scheme churches and the rural churches.   I don’t believe that ‘networks’ based on PLUS will achieve that.

The problem is that no matter what network or systems we have we are all still sinners. And sin really has a habit of getting in the way. Which is why I can so identify with Martin Luther’s idea that we need to repent every day!   Because we are sinners we need structures.

Biblical Presbyterianism
I agree entirely that we don’t need the kind of Presbyterian structures that revel in bureaucracy, legalise and formal procedures that seem designed to suck all innovation and life out of the local church. But does it have to be that way?   Often those who advocate the Post-Presbyterian concept come from a background of Independency or the type of Anglicanism that seems to regard the denomination solely as a property manager.   But I am a convinced biblical Presbyterian and I am reluctant to give up on an ecclesiology that I think is mandated by the New Testament. I realize that there are my brothers and sisters who will disagree with that, and therefore we will just have to agree to disagree on what is after all a secondary issue.   It is true that there will be no presbyteries in heaven; it is also true that there will be no marriages! That does not mean that we have to do away with either on earth!

I believe that what post-modern, post-Christian Scotland actually needs is more churches and a renewal and reformation. And I believe that a renewed Presbyterian system could be one of the key factors in achieving that. In fact, Presbyterianism is uniquely placed to be used in that process. Why? What does it offer?

Firstly it offers collective leadership. We really don’t need the kind of mega-church (or for that matter mini-church) based on an individual leader. Just because we have suffered from Presbyterian Popes in the past in Scotland, does not mean that we have to exchange the whole system for Independent ones! Collective leadership in a local congregation is essential, and collective leadership at a regional, national and international scale is also a necessary condition for a biblical ecclesiology. Do we really think that a situation in which ‘each does what seems right in their own eyes’ is a recipe for anything other than anarchy, factionalism and fragmentation?

Secondly we need connected congregations. I know we say that we will do that in terms of networks, friends and so on. But will we? Will that not be subject to the pressures of time, finance and whether we actually like or get on with those who we want to connect with? What I like about the local church is that I don’t get to choose its members – they are not just my friends or people I agree with. We are a mixed and varied bunch (with all the problems that creates). Why can’t that be the same at a regional and national level? People say they don’t want to be tied. I do. St Peters is a local city centre, university type congregation. I want us to be tied to churches in Perth, St Andrews, Broughty Ferry, Charleston, Kirkton, Alyth etc. And I do want to be tied to churches in the rest of the country. I want us to share resources, pray for one another and work together for the good of the kingdom.

Thirdly I think Presbyterianism can bring what I would call community cohesion. We are not all one age, race, gender, social class etc. We come from many different backgrounds and sometimes local churches will reflect that. But often the danger is that a local church will just reflect one main background and will then naturally link with those who are similar to them. This is not good for the health of the body. It is not good for the Christian community and it is not good for outreach to the wider community. In a vibrant biblical Presbyterian system you would have a denomination with, for example, a large youth conference, which would help those young people who are in small churches with little or not fellowship amongst their peers. You would be able to offer ministerial training, youth camps, missionary outreach, church planting, discipleship courses etc. that would all be consistent with and subject to the churches doctrinal standards. If the price of this is a little bureaucracy then so be it. I have noticed that some individual large churches which are very strong on their own independence, themselves have significant administration and bureaucracy (which is probably needed because they have a lot to administer!), but that cannot apply to the vast majority of churches.   Presbyterianism allows us to have the advantages of good administration without us all having to be mega churches to afford it.

Fantasy or Reality? 

I suppose that there are those who think that all the above is either trivial or fanciful. That having critiqued others for putting forward an unworkable system, I have just done the same thing! Maybe they are right. However I believe it is workable, not because it will deliver a perfect church (not possible this side of glory) but because it is based on biblical principles and seems to be ideally suited to the current state of our wider society.   Churches which are well led, connected and have a community cohesion will, by Gods grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, be used to glorify Christ in Scotland once again.

Let it be!


  1. Hi David. I am by background from an independent Charismatic church in England where I was in a leadership role mainly with children and youth (200 + children). When I moved to Scotland I started attending a Baptist Church, part of the Baptist Union of Scotland. It was from there that I started my training for the Ministry by attending University for 4 years in a Baptist College and later in a Methodist College in England. In amongst all of that I also attended an independent Pentecostal church for a time and a couple of ‘house churches’ and most recently a Presbyterian church in the form of the Church of Scotland. Quite a variety and all very interesting. But more importantly all very Christian. Of course there were slight differences in theology but by and large they fitted well my my own which fits somewhere around Evangelical Conservative but a bit to the left. I have learned a tremendous amount over these years, through academic study and personal experience. And one thing I have learned which is vitally important is that there is no church or denomination anywhere on this planet that has and abides by the whole of the Truth of God. So for you to suggest that a Presbyterian system of church is likely to be the only one for the future is unbelievable. Most of the churches I have attended have utilised the Biblical framework of Deacons and Elders or their equivalent titles but that does not make them Presbyterian. Unlike you I love the idea of many different denominations and independent churches. They offer something fresh to the seeker, something different, perhaps something traditional and perhaps something very modern. But what is most important is that they offer Jesus Christ as Lord. Yes, some will be a bit too far to the left for you and possibly for me, but there are also many who are much further to the right than I could ever be comfortable with (Fundamentalism for instance). But together all of these groups know the Truth of God! It hurts me, and I believe that it hurts God, when I see commentators criticising other churches or denominations because they believe slightly different things or do things in different ways. As an individual and as a Minister of the Church I can say with all honesty that I love the Church of Christ! I love it with all of its foibles and mistakes. With all of its arguments and failings. And I genuinely believe that God loves His Church as well, just as she is.

  2. I found this fascinating. The theory sounds great to me, but presumably that is what the Free Church of Scotland is trying to achieve? Going to an independent Church in England there is much I admire in Presbyterianism – at least the theory of it ( I’ve never actually experienced it). But it is worrying that there are so many reformed presbyterian denominations in the highlands. Is that some sort of ‘independent Presbyterianism?’ Can’t get our own way so we’ll split and form another denomination? it’s that spirit that undermines your vision.

  3. “I am a convinced biblical Presbyterian”

    I do like what you say about this and the principles that you are adhering. Being a historian, I wonder David if it might appeal to you if I mention little about what happened in Glasgow at the time of Chalmers and Naismith with the latter taking an ecumenical approach with the birth of the Glasgow City Mission with the aim of addressing the needs of the poor.

    It seems then, as now there was encroaching secularism, a response to the church not meeting felt needs. Inevitably, clerics were of middle class and therefore seen by factory workers and labourers in the same light as the landlord or factory owner. Seccularisation of the city was a consequence of this where religion was perceived by many to be an instrument wielded by the hands of an oppressor. Middle class approaches were, generally, to deny relief to the plight of the average working class person in order to force the population out of “Intemperance, idleness, and moral degeneracy” which were regarded solely as character defects and not symptoms of social ills. When in the 1860’s the minister of Cambridge Street United Presbyterian Church in Glasgow led wealthy merchants and manufacturers to a more palatial church in the west end, a scribe chalked on the door of the new building on the opening day:

    This Church is not built for the poor and needy,
    But for the rich and Dr. Eadie.
    The rich may come in and take their seat,
    But the poor must go to Cambridge Street.

    What you say about church politics resonates with me, Also I agree that the parochial modeling of church that Chalmers took is not going to work, if it ever did work in a city with the kind of challenges I describe. I’m not quite sure what this form of Presbyterian modelling of church can work but I think in agreement with you that anything that takes a step away from emphasis on church politics and the bewildering number of denominations has to be a step in the right direction. Somehow making the main thing the main thing with being well led connected with community cohesion in the Grace of God and power of the Spirit that you mention.

    Oh and lets not forger the most important thing of all, love?

  4. Just read your article David and wanted to say how much sense it makes. I like you, I believe presbyterianism is Biblical and I like what you have written. Thank you!

  5. I almost went to Presbyterian seminary in Edinburgh 40 years ago. But I was really not clean of heart and destiny was another course for me. I became a school teacher and have grandchildren and children. Seems everything worked out the way it was supposed to. It always does.

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