April 27, 2013

Why Would a Baptist Want to Help Build Healthy Presbyterian Churches?

I am a (very convinced) Reformed Baptist, ministering and working in an independent Evangelical Church. I have even written a short book on preparing people (confessing believers) for baptism (see here for details). Since my move to Scotland six years ago, I became aware of ‘Presbyterians’ of all shapes and forms.

Free Church, C of S, Continuing Free, United Free Church of Scotland, Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Are there more? Probably. Now, I have to confess my complete ignorance of all things Presbyterian before my arrival. My only experience of this denomination was in Brazil where, I have to say, they are doing a fantastic job in producing serious theological study. In Scotland, however, the reputation was of people not allowed to get the bus on a Sunday, who don’t celebrate Christmas and don’t like musical instruments. So, not very ‘free’ at all then.

So, what have I learned during my stay here? I have discovered, firstly, some very good, and supportive, friends within Free Church circles. I have met several outstanding men who reached out to me in the early years here and continue to be a real encouragement to me when we (all too rarely) meet up. I have been reminded of this over the last few days as my wife and I spent three nights with a group of men and their wives in Prague. I can honestly say that I have not had such a good laugh and enjoyed the company of fellow ministers so much in my life. It was good to have serious discussion, enjoy each other’s company, eat together, and have some fun. An all too rare experience in the cut and thrust of ministry.

During my time in Scotland, I have met men committed to the spread of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ around our nation. I have met serious men with solid theological foundations. You know, I am sure there are some clowns in the Free Church, but let me guarantee that I know there are some clowns in the Baptist Church (and independents). People who want to fight over the last vestiges of tradition and wrap it up under the term‘conviction’. People who want to shoot theological arrows across the denominational divide whilst Scotland sinks into the spiritual mire. But, in the main, and in my experience, they are men with whom I’d gladly take my stand in the fight for souls in this nation.

Why am I writing this article? I actually wrote it a year ago on another blog site but was reminded of it by the time spent together in recent days. Originally, I did it because I was reminded by an article on The Gospel Coalition blog—written by Kevin DeYoung—about just how gracious and thoughtful debate can be between Baptists and Presbyterians. Entitled, ‘Putting in a good word for Presbyterianism’ it argues the case for Presbyterian church polity. As a congregationalist (of sorts), I found the following paragraph quite enlightening and thought provoking.

I wonder if a latent Presbyterianism is already present, in practice, in many Congregational churches. Is there not an assumed intermediary step whereby the disciplinary matter is brought to the elders before it is told to the whole church? Few churches, I imagine, ask for conflicts and sins to be aired ex nihilo before the whole congregation without first having been handled by the elders. And yet that’s what Matthew sounds like if ekklesia means the whole gathered assembly. Even in Congregational churches the “tell it to the church” step usually means “tell it to the elders, who deal with the case for several months or years and then at a later juncture will bring their recommendation to the congregation to ratify their decision.” The Congregational process is similar to the Presbyterian process except the former ends with a congregational vote and includes an extra step in the discipline that, on their understanding, Jesus makes no mention of in the text.

Yes, I know it’s about polity but it did get me thinking (at least in my own case) about how close I am to my brothers in so many areas. Yes, I know wars have been fought over this stuff, but that was another time. If the Tron debacle (and the ongoing C of S struggle) is going to teach us anything, it is that we evangelicals of all stripes are going to have to start playing well together, and that means more than just sitting around a table and calling one another brother.

Am I saying ‘let’s throw our convictions out the door’? Of course not. But I am saying the (metaphorical) Indians are circling the evangelical wagons in our country and they are picking us off with every attack. How ridiculous it sometimes seems to be that we are still trying to sort out who wants to use what weapon, what armour should we wear, and how best to organise the defences. If you click on the TGC link to DeYoung’s paper and scroll down to the comments, you will find the usual suspects turning it into a theological war across the denominational divides. But if you look closely, toward the top, you will see a two-line comment from a certain well-known Baptist that gives me hope for a continued spirit of mutual respect and collaboration. This is a great example of how we can love and support one another without feeling like we’re selling out.

20schemes was not brought into existence to strengthen the work of Niddrie Community Church or any one denomination but, rather, to help the spread of kingdom work in Scotland’s neediest places. One conviction driving this Reformed Baptist is that I want to serve, love, and find resources for any and all congregations committed to planting and revitalising a gospel centred, biblically healthy church. I know for a fact that this is going to mean working with Presbyterians of all stripes, because many such congregations straddle schemes in this country. What will this collaboration look like? I have no idea. Will it work? I have no idea. I hope gospel love wins out over tradition and denominational suspicion. We are already running into some difficulties.

Let me be clear, I want to plant Reformed Baptist churches, and I will if I have to. But, I would prefer by far to strengthen existing gospel churches of all stripes and denominations. This is going to cause us a huge headache. The easy option is the planting option. But I am hopeful and prayerful that with a spirit of generosity and mutual grace’, we can bring and/or strengthen gospel light in many dark communities around Scotland.

Pray for us. Pray for Scotland.

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