One of my favourite books of 2022 was the republication in one volume of three works by the nineteenth century Irish Presbyterian Thomas Witherow, under the title I Will Build My Church. (For my review, see the Feb 2023 Banner of Truth magazine).
After training in Scotland under Thomas Chalmers, Witherow spent his whole ministry in my home county of Londonderry, first as pastor of a small-town church of 2,000 people and then as Professor of Church History and Pastoral Theology Professor at a new Presbyterian seminary – Magee College, Derry.
The three republished works are on Presbyterianism, Baptism and the Lord’s Day. In among them is a warning about majoring on the minors to which we would do well to pay attention.
Witherow gives the illustration of a painter painting a man and exhibiting some feature of his face in enormous disproportion to any of the others. ‘This one defect’, he says ‘would mar the beauty of the painting’. No matter how true to life the painting might be in other respects, ‘this alone would destroy the harmony of all. The eye of the spectator would rest upon the deformed feature, and pass over all the other parts of the picture’.
He then makes the application: ‘Christianity, as it is in the Old and New Testaments, is the figure that sits to have its likeness taken. Every sect [by which he means denomination] undertakes to give a more correct representation of it to the world than any sister sect. But if, instead of exhibiting the Christian religion in all its relative proportions, and thus leading people to see every doctrine, and practice, and principle of the system in its proper place, whether primary or subordinate, any sect [that] shall adopt some subordinate principle, and put it into the foreground, and make it so important that it overshadows truths vastly more important than itself, presents to the world a distorted and deformed Christianity’.
Let us now ask the Professor a series of questions and hear him elaborate on his theme.
Q: What impact will that have on the individual?
A: ‘A mind that, perhaps, originally was susceptible of cultivation and development allows itself to be occupied so much about rites, and forms, and petty little things, that, at last, it becomes like the thoughts which harbour in it, little and petty’.
Q: What will it do to our relationships with other Christians?
A: Rather than ‘the better feelings of his heart’ rising upwards and then outwards to all fellow believers on earth, they became narrow, and ‘gradually centre around and fix upon them, only, who cherish a crotchet [oddity] similar to his own’.
(As Thomas Manton put it many years before: ‘It is the nature of man to confine all religion to their own party, and enclose the common salvation.’)
Q: Are such people holier than other Christians?
A: ‘The conduct that we expect to find in one who lays claim to a purer religion than his fellow turns out to be no better than what is exemplified by many others who make smaller professions.’
(As Herman Bavinck once said about his own denomination: ‘There is so much narrow-mindedness, so much pettiness among us, and the worst thing is that this is regarded as piety’).
Q: What will be the long term influence of being part of such a church (or perhaps we might add, facebook group?)
A: ‘After being subject to such an influence for a series of years, a man, who once gave promise of becoming a genial and generous Christian, sinks down into a mere fault-finder – a theological cynic, whose mind is soured against every sect except his own – snarling at everything, and pleased with nothing’.
Q: It can’t be that bad, surely?
A: ‘…It is a more serious misfortune than most people know, to belong to a sect which ever wrangles about rites and forms, and delights to split theological hairs. To be in its membership is to imbibe its spirit, and to breathe its unwholesome air.’
Covenanters at their worst – and best
Witherow’s description isn’t too far removed from the condition of my own denomination at some of the lower points in her history.
Roy Blackwood, writing about the brothers Andrew (d. 1853) and William (d. 1862) Symington said that ‘they led the RP Church out of an attitude of narrow provincialism focused on self-preservation and into a sense of missionary responsibility for the Church in Scotland and throughout the world’.
Such attitudes easily creep back in, however. Giving the ‘Charge’ to a congregation upon the ordination of their new minister, the Revd J. P. Struthers (d. 1915) said:
‘Let me affectionately warn you, my brethren, against the sin of fault-finding. Maintain your own testimony; be loyal to your own church; keep your own banner floating high; but remember you are but one regiment, or one little troop, in the army of the Lord. Testify against every error, but don’t lose a sense of the proportion of things. There are some things greater than others; some truths more important than others—infinitely more important. And if you must testify, remember that a witness has to tell not only the truth, and nothing but the truth, but the whole truth as well. The people who disagree with you in some things, agree with you in the main thing’.
Struthers then spoke about his own experience growing up:
‘I was brought up in a little congregation and heard all my boyhood about defections and inconsistencies and departures from the truth. But since I became a man I have found out that there were saints in the next street; heroes in the neighbouring churches; missionaries who afterwards laid down their lives for Christ—who came as visitors to our city. I never heard one word about them. It is not pleasant for me to say that; but it would be wrong in me on such a solemn day as this not to open all my heart, and if I cannot in any measure deliver you from the narrowmindedness and censoriousness and spiritual pride that are, not as some imagine, the great principles of our Church, but have been the curse of our Church—if I cannot save you from them, I can at least protest against them’.
At its best, the worldwide RP Church has grown through the proclamation of the gospel. In Ireland in the early 1800s, the Covenanters gained members when the mainstream Presbyterian Church, and then the Seceders, accepted government financial support. However according to the Presbyterian historian James Seaton Reid, ‘the fidelity with which their ministers preached the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel was unquestionably the grand secret of their progress’.
As Struthers would remind the congregation which had just received a new minister:
‘You don’t fill one church by emptying another; but by compelling the people in the highways and hedges—that is, those who are in no church—to come in. Raise the temperature, natural or spiritual, in any part of the town, and the whole town will be the gainer.’
What is it that excites you?
And surely our proclamation of the gospel is what we want to be known for today. I’m as convinced an exclusive psalmist as anyone. My undergratudate dissertation was on mainstream Irish Presbyterianism’s abandonment of that position, six years after Witherow’s death. The worship of God is far from a ‘minor’ doctrine. (Witherow is concerned not just about ‘theological hair-splitting’ but about exhibiting any part of the picture out of proportion. The quotes come from his book on Baptism, which is clearly not a minor topic.) And yet if I were to hear of a minister preaching the first sermon after his ordination on ‘Why we sing psalms’, alarm bells would be ringing.
What do those of us who are ministers want to be the keynote of our ministries? Because make no mistake, the things that we get most excited about are what our people will think most important. They will be the things that the watching world thinks we stand for.
For example, do we get more passionate about how we administer communion, than about what communion symbolises? Would it be possible in our churches for someone to preach a whole sermon on why we don’t celebrate Christmas, but leave out the gospel?
Don Carson, who like Witherow is a seminary professor – and whose father was from Ireland – writes:
‘If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don't learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel.
If the gospel – even when you are orthodox – becomes something which you primarily assume, but what you are excited about is what you are doing in some sort of social reconstruction, you will be teaching the people that you influence that the gospel really isn't all that important. You won't be saying that – you won't even mean that – but that's what you will be teaching. And then you are only half a generation away from losing the gospel.
Make sure that in your own practice and excitement, what you talk about, what you think about, what you pray over, what you exude confidence over, joy over, what you are enthusiastic about is Jesus, the gospel, the cross. And out of that framework, by all means, let the transformed life flow.’
Carson warns elsewhere that ‘Spiritual one–upmanship is not a Christian virtue’ and that ‘Sustained negativism is highly calorific nourishment for pride’. And surely one of the great dangers of being convinced we’re right about something that most other Christians get wrong (even if we are right!), is that it so easily leads to pride.
John Newton warned of this danger 250 years ago. He wrote a letter to the Calvinistic Gospel Magazine in which he pointed out: ‘Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as works’. He warned: ‘Though you set out in defence of the cause of God, if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God’.
One of the ugliest sights for Newton was ‘a proud and self-sufficient Calvinist’:
‘The doctrines of grace are humbling, that is in their power and experience, but a man may hold them all in the notion, and be very proud. He certainly is so, if he thinks his assenting to them is a proof of his humility, and despises others as proud and ignorant in comparison of himself’.
Holding our Convictions with Grace
None of this is to say that we should be ashamed of our distinctive principles, if we believe they’re Biblical. We must hold our convictions – but we must hold them with grace. We particularly have an obligation to try and pass them on to our young people. In fact, in ten days or so our congregation will be holdings its second Firm Foundations weekend for young people in their late teens and early 20s. It’s an opportunity for them to discover why we believe what we believe. One of the Jerusalem Chambermen will be speaking and the subject is: ‘Discover how Christ the King rules in his church and leads in worship’. One of the four talks will be devoted to ‘Reformed Presbyterian Distinctives’. Just as with the last time we held it, there will be those there from outside our denomination present. We want to cultivate an atmosphere where we are clear about our convictions – but with the aim of convincing people, not beating them over the heads. Yet if we can't, they’ll still be our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In fact, the big question may not be whether those who don’t hold our convictions are Christians – but whether we are.
To give the last word to Struthers:
‘By this, and by this only, do we know that we love God, because we love the brethren. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, you may call him a man true to his principles, a sound faithful man—the apostle John calls him a liar [1 John 4:20]’.