This month I am reviewing a magazine article. The article is found in fourth issue for 2010 of Peace and Truth – the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union. The article is entitled ‘The Right to Protest or Why we are Protestants’ and is written by the one-time Free Presbyterian minister and Editor of Peace and Truth, John Brentnall. When I read the article I was surprised on two counts.
My first surprise is that he left the publication of this article until after the death of the Rev. Donald Maclean. It seems that he has waited until the minister who defended the established position of the Free Presbyterian Church had died before he was confident enough to re-assert his position.
The second surprise is the statement in the opening paragraph that says ‘Over the years, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland has suspended four of its faithful ministers from their office in the denomination for claiming the right to protest’. What he neglects to make clear is that he is one of those four ministers that he describes as faithful. A rather remarkable designation for a man who took the Church to the Civil Courts after giving an affirmative answer in his ordination vow to the question, ‘Do you believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, as King and Head of the Church, has therein appointed a government in the hands of Church officers, distinct from, and not subordinate in its own province to civil government, and that the Civil Magistrate does not possess jurisdiction or authoritative control over the regulation of the affairs of Christ’s Church’.
The article offers four lines of proof to demonstrate the Free Presbyterian position constitutes a serious departure from Biblical and historic Protestantism. These four proofs regarding the right to protest are from (1) The evidence of church history (2) The views of accredited writers (3) The considered legal opinion of law lords (4) The authority of Holy Scripture.
Before we consider the main issue of the article, we have two preliminary observations:
The precedent protestations Brentnall cites in the section on the evidence from Church history are not original research by the author; they are lifted unacknowledged from a pamphlet issued in 1948 by a section of the Glasgow congregation that left the Free Presbyterian Church in 1945. The Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church issued a booklet showing that the true intent of these protestations was quite different from that posited.
In some of these so-called historical protests cited by the author, what is being referred to is in reality a dissent. On other occasions what is meant by the protest is a solemn affirmation. No one would deny solemn affirmations of this sort or the right of dissent. See the booklet by the S.Fraser Tallach, Ides of May, 1981, p. 65. Mr. Tallach was a Free Presbyterian minister that left to form the Associated Presbyterian Church in 1989 and took a widely different view of Protest from the Free Presbyterian Church, yet he saw the inappropriateness of some of these precedents.
What, however, I find most disappointing and misleading about the article is that he represents the view of the Free Presbyterian Church as being ‘in essence’ that everyone has to agree with all the findings of the final court of the Church. This is quite simply untrue - the Free Presbyterian Church does not outlaw dissent – it allows its ministers, elders, office bearers and members to dissent from the findings of its courts. The Free Presbyterian Church allows a minister who disagrees with a finding of its supreme court to dissent from that finding and if he chooses to add reasons to that dissent. The Church’s book of Practice states the effect of a dissent against the Supreme Court as follows, ‘The Synod being the Supreme Court of the Church, there is no room for any other procedure against its decisions except that of dissent with reasons. There is no room for Complaint or Appeal. By dissenting with reasons a man keeps his conscience clear from the responsibility of what he does not approve of. And his appeal goes up to the Head of the Church on high’.
The essence of Brentnall’s argument appears to be that Presbyterian Churches should allow ministers to disagree with the finding of its supreme court and by the means of a Protest not only to clear their conscience but then refuse to follow the findings of that court and still remain in the Church – and that such a position of anarchy is the ‘birthright of Presbyterians’. He cites Lord Guthrie and Lord Cooper in the Inverness Manse Case to the effect that the Free Church allowed the use of a Protest without it necessitating a separation.
I would argue that the position of the Free Presbyterian Church is consistent with both the Biblical texts cited in the article and the testimony of the Westminster Confession. I agree with the Free Presbyterian line of argument that when a minister dissents from the findings of the Supreme Court then he is faced with a choice as to whether he can dissent with reasons (and clear his conscience) or whether the issue is so serious that he will then disobey that finding which will of necessity involve the minister in a violation of his ordination vow to ‘submit yourself willingly and humbly...unto the admonitions of the brethren of his Presbytery, and to be subject to them, and all other Presbyteries and superior judicatories of this Church’. If a man is not satisfied with clearing his conscience with respect to the decision, but his objection to the action of the Supreme Court is so profound that he believes he must refuse to follow its finding he is in a position where he must leave that Church.
An illustration will make the matter plain. If a minister in a Presbyterian Church that has the Westminster Confession has its subordinate standard becomes convinced that the Bible contains historical errors and is not inerrant and is brought to Church Courts for holding false doctrine. Can he protest at the finding of the Supreme Court to discipline him and by his protest remain in the Church and propagate his false doctrine? Such a viewpoint is not the ‘birthright of Presbyterianism’ it is the highroad to doctrinal laxity where the only term of communion is the toleration of other people’s opinions.