At the risk of overgeneralization it seems to me that there is a Scottish/UK version of Presbyterianism that seeks (but does not often practice) visible church unity and does not accept the ‘market place’ mentality that Paul mentions. On the other hand in the US, the land of 1,000 denominations, there is a much greater market place mentality with the pros (greater initiatives, freedom etc.) and cons (disunity, less church discipline etc.). It seems sad to me that even as the number of Christians in the US declines, the number of Presbyterian denominations will probably increase – all owning allegiance to a Confession of Faith which was set up to prevent that happening!
In England there are hardly any Presbyterians and yet we have at least two denominations committed to the WCF. In Scotland the situation is embarrassingly worse. I feel bad that the Free Church has to exist. Because of the apostasy of the Church of Scotland, I think we do have to, but I would much prefer that we didn’t. At one point I was even part of a delegation from the Free Church that met with the C of S and looked at whether and how we could reunite. But it is even more shameful to me that after a lifetime devoted to evangelism in a declining church in a decaying culture, instead of the churches which adhere to the WCF uniting together we have further divided. In my time in ministry in Scotland we have even seen four new Presbyterian denominations, all adhering to the WCF, come into being. The Associated Presbyterians, the Free Church Continuing, International Presbyterian Church and Covenant Fellowship. We talk about church unity but actions speak louder than words. My hope and prayer is that one day the Free Church will cease to exist (that will certainly come true in heaven!). I would be even more radical than that – I would prefer to work in organizational unity with Baptists and others – not just networking but pooling resources and genuinely being the one Church of Jesus Christ.
Notice that he wishes the Free Church did not exist and that he would prefer to minister with Baptists. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Scotland, I suppose, like the United States is a free country (Free Church in a Free Country). But I’m not sure how confessional or Presbyterian that attitude is. It does explain Robertson’s attachment to Tim Keller. It also suggests a certain kind of naivete. Does Robertson really think that TKNY is not part of a market model, or that Keller has not become a brand? Either way, why be a Presbyterian when you could just as easily minister with Baptists?
Robertson may also explain why Keller appeals to pastors in small, out of the way, denominations (perhaps unintentionally):
When evangelicals in the Church of Scotland decided that enough was enough and began to leave – they of course looked for a Confessional Presbyterian Church that was faithful to the Bible. For doctrinal and practical reasons most could not join the Reformed Presbyterians, the APC, the Free Church Continuing or the Free Presbyterians – amongst other reasons they were exclusive psalmody. That basically left the Free Church. Now there may be theological reasons why some ex C of S ministers and congregations could not join the Free Church (e.g. those who had women elders and wanted to retain them), but what of those who subscribe to the WCF, are complementarian and Presbyterian? Many have joined but an equal number haven’t – why? Some of it may be the Free Churches own fault – not being welcoming enough etc., but is that the real or adequate reason?
I think that it is the religious market place that Paul so rightly complains about which kicks in here. The reasons are not doctrinal and theological but social, personal and historical. Some had an aversion to the Free Church because of past experience (love remembers no wrongs?), image or misunderstandings about our positions. I have heard others though express things in terms of what I could only call social and class snobbery. We are perceived as not sophisticated enough, too Highland, too working class. I recall a C of S man having what I can only describe as a ‘coming out’ dinner in his home – where he invited his middle class friends to a dinner at which he introduced myself and a couple of others from the church and then announced he was attending the Free Church. It was as though he had announced he was gay! In fact he probably would have got a more favourable response! That attitude may be extreme but in a more modified form it is still there. Is not wanting to be called ‘Wee Free’ a sufficient reason for setting up yet another denomination?
This part of Robertson’s post was intriguing if only because in the United States, conservatives in the PCA seem to have a similar aversion to the OPC — not sophisticated, too tacky, ugly buildings on the wrong side of the beltway. But instead of identifying with communions of like faith, practice, and awkwardness, Robertson instead regards Keller as the right kind of American Presbyterian.
This may make sense since with all of the writing for newspapers and speaking in public that Robertson does, he may regard himself as a kind of public intellectual after the fashion of Keller. He is certainly akin to Keller in the way in which denominational attachments rest lightly on his ministerial shoulders:
The parish and pastoral approach is one that I prefer. We are not engaging in the religious market place (ironically those who take the purist/polemical approach are much more likely to do that), but we are seeking to reach out to every one in the community where we are based. (I realize of course that most of us would claim that is what we are doing and I should also point out that I think that is what Paul’s church is doing in Ealing – I’m talking about the wider issue here – not having a subtle dig – I don’t do subtle!). This means that our primary identity is not that we are a Free Church, or a Reformed church, or the church with the best preaching in Dundee, or David Robertson’s church or any other claim we might foolishly want to make. We are a church of Jesus Christ.
This is the way of pietists, to claim the high ground and act as if denominational particularities are inconsequential in comparison to vision, mission, or devotion. What happens, though, when Robertson or Keller need to explain why another church, say the Church of Scotland or the PCUSA or the Methodists are not quite up to the status of “the church of Jesus Christ”? At that point, don’t arguments about purity and polemics and doctrine kick in?
And what happens when Robertson or Keller receive funds from Presbyterian sources that were given precisely to uphold Free Church and Reformed convictions? Don’t you have to explain the way you are going to use the funds? You will use them for generic Christian purposes, not for Presbyterian ones only?
That is the sort of equivocation that captured the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. before the Free Church and the PCA formed separate communions. Such a separate status is not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s why we have evangelicals. But evangelicals presenting as Presbyterian? That’s why we have The Gospel Coalition.