Here in the Highlands, church culture is very different from the culture of the big cities and wild modern living of the rest of Scotland (islands excluded). Believers here fall into three main categories: Church of Scotland, the Free Kirk, and Everyone Else.
This is a simplistic view, as anyone who has lived here any amount of time can tell you but this is not a heartbreaking account of Scottish church history with its splits and counter splits, it is a guided glimpse into the deepest, darkest, least explored corner of Everyone Else.
If you are already familiar with the Scottish church, bear with me a moment but a little explanation is needed for this choice of subject.
There used to be the Church of Scotland and that was exactly what it said on the tin. Then, as is sadly so often the case, there was a split and the Free Kirk was born (this happened over objections to patronage but since then several more splits have occurred over a variety of issues leading to a variety of Free Kirkers but on the whole they don’t mind you lumping them together). Since then, these have been the two dominant denominations, although various other kinds of Presbyterian churches are pretty strong too. It would be amusing if it weren’t so sad to see a quarter of the town filing into the local CofS and a quarter of the town filling into the local Free Kirk of a Sunday morning (cold-shouldering one another all the while) while the other half of the town are at home sleeping off a stupor and wanting nothing to do with those hypocrites.
Yes, this is a stereotype but it is not so very far from the truth. Thankfully there are a few places like the town where I live where the CofS is relatively evangelical so they work together with the Free Kirk for various events. You know deep down that the congregations are, in part, still judging each other though.
And then, many years ago, something came to Ness which was puzzling in its completely otherness. It was strange and it was rare and it was definitely not Presbyterian:
I am currently finishing up a degree in Theology and if I’ve learned anything in my four years here it’s that people just have no clue about independent churches. It makes for fascinating but frustrating conversation.
The students here are from a variety of backgrounds and maturity levels but they are most often CofS background with a few Free Kirkers and some miscellaneous odds and ends. However, even the ones from as far south as Glasgow, Edinburgh, and south of the border seem to have trouble getting their heads round the idea that you can be biblical without being Presbyterian. There are recurring themes in their arguments about why independent churches are not the way to go but a lot of it is based on ignorance and assumption.
If you’re a convicted Presbyterian that’s great but I’m a convicted Baptist and I think you’re wrong. But allow me to help you strengthen your convictions through building a more knowledgeable foundation by helping you understand five common misconceptions about independent churches.
1. Independent means we don’t need no one.
I love John Donne’s poetry, especially his Holy Sonnets. It was he who said that no man is an island.
He’s right. And the same can be said of churches.
As an aside, I had better clarify that it is *healthy* independent churches that are under discussion here. There will always be exceptions which can be cited to justify our wrong beliefs because where else would our misconceptions come from? It is never the good things that make the headlines. There will be independent churches which are all of these things but they are not generally healthy.
Back to John Donne.
No man is an island. No church is an island. Nor should they be but some look that way from outside.
It’s always awkward when people ask you what denomination you are when you’re not. I tend to just say Reformed Baptist but that’s more a set of beliefs than a denomination. No, it’s not BU or FIEC or anything like that. It’s independent.
This can cause quite the knee-jerk reaction. Why is it independent? Did you have a bad experience that means you’re embittered against denominations? Do you hate Presbyterians because of the state of the CofS? Are you too good to work with anyone else? Are you some sort of pietistic cult?
Independence doesn’t equate with a siege-mentality. It’s to do with church governance, not snobbery or pride. We believe in congregational rule, not presbytery. I know that sets some people’s teeth on edge but if a congregation is well taught and biblically grounded then they are capable of seeking God’s will for the church and coming to an agreement on a course of action. This is beginning to stray into my next point so I’ll leave it there but I’m coming back to it later.
Independence is to do with governance. It does not mean that we do not need or want anyone else’s help or involvement, as the modern use of the words suggests.
Presbyterians believe in presbytery, we believe in partnership. There is nothing sweeter than working together with others for the furtherance of the gospel. Independent churches should not be islands but an archipelago, an interconnected network based firmly on the same Rock.
My home church has partnered regularly with churches all over the UK and even as far away as Spain, Nigeria, the USA, and the Philippines. We work together, we help and support one another in any way we can, we pray for one another. And we are not a closed group, we’ve worked with believers from all sorts of churches and backgrounds.
The difference is that we don’t have a ready-made network through presbytery but that can be a good thing because it forces us to be more active. We might be independent but we need help and we need to help and we know it. We believe strongly in gospel partnership.
Ironically, despite being one of the few at college who belong to independent churches, my fellow students are often astounded at the breadth and strength of my network.
Independent is not the same as isolationist (See the Baptist Confession of 1689 27.2 for better clarity).
2. There’s no accountability for leaders.
This links back to my previous point.
A friend of mine once remarked that they’d rather be Presbyterian because at least they’re not in trouble if there’s a problem with the pastor. This is only true if you have a hierarchical view in which each person is accountable to the next person up. Independent churches don’t work that way (again, see the 1689 Confession 26.15 for a helpful explanation).
The congregation is accountable to one another and to the pastor and elders who have authority because they are the leaders. But! The pastor and the elders are also accountable to the congregation. This may sound strange but churches can discipline and even fire their pastors and elders (sorry if this sounds patronising but not everyone realises this). As far as possible the issues are dealt with within the local church but on the occasion that it can’t be, elders are called in from other local churches to help resolve the matter. Thankfully it’s very rare.
We keep one another right and it is hard but it’s an excellent recipe for strong community and spiritual growth. We are careful in choosing our leaders and should be careful to keep one another accountable. It is part of the covenant of membership.
Sadly I’ve been blessed to see proper church discipline exercised (as it should be) in independent churches without the tension and delay that sometimes comes with awaiting presbytery’s decision.
3.We’re all super conservative/super liberal/hipsters.
Ugh. Denominations are so mainstream.
Just kidding. We’re as mixed a bunch as you’ll find in any pews. Of course we are, we’re human.
Although you’ll find people in independent churches who are there because denominations like the CofS or the Free Kirk are either too straight-laced or too wishy-washy for them, that’s not the issue for most of us (although practically everyone in Scotland has an opinion on the CofS).
Most independent churches are pretty normal – whatever that means. I can’t think of any that are unaccompanied Psalms only or who are Jesus-is-my-pal types. In a healthy independent church the teaching is sound, the members are Christ-centred and striving for holiness, and the church is reaching out with the gospel. Not unlike a healthy church of any affiliation really although I guess you could say we tend towards the more conservative side of things if conservative means taking the word of God seriously and living by it.
I know members of independent churches who are just as Calvinistic as any staunch Free Kirker and I know members who listen to Lauren Daigle and use Shai Linne’s music to help their children learn the catechism.
Being a member of an independent church doesn’t mean there’s something shallow or cultic about your theology, just as adhering to the official beliefs of your presbytery doesn’t necessarily make you sound.
4. Independent churches are non-confessional.
Admittedly there is a growing trend in non-confessional churches so I understand where this comes from.
It’s not ok.
Churches have to be clear on what they believe otherwise they’ll end up blown about by every wind of doctrine, chasing after every new trend. It also leads to disagreement among members, which can be difficult to solve.
The Bible is sufficient but creeds and confessions are of great help because even though people may agree that the Bible is the final authority, they often disagree about what it actually means.
We need to be clear on what we believe and so independent churches usually have a statement of faith of some kind at the very least and often refer to something like the Westminster Confession or the 1689 Baptist Confession. We understand that they are fallible but we appreciate that they are a valuable tool and many churches, independent and otherwise, use them.
It’s all the more important to be clear on what we believe as independent churches because we do not have presbytery as a fallback to guide us. Besides, if someone walks in off the street and asks what the church is about, it’s always good to be able to explain. Knowing what you believe makes it so much easier to answer questions.
5. All independent churches are Baptists.
No. But a lot of us are. Reformed Baptists in particular tend to be independent churches although we network. But basically no. There’s not much else to say about that other than a lot of independent churches are Baptist but you don’t need to be a Baptist to be independent and you don’t need to be independent to be a Baptist.
x x x
So there you are, a brief glimpse into the strange world of independent churches. Some of you will know these things and that’s great. Some won’t but either way it does no harm to be reminded. Highland culture struggles with the world around it, trying to make sense of all the changes, all the things it isn’t used to and to be fair it does not too shabby a job. Healthy independent churches are still unfamiliar territory but they are not a threat.
They are not lawless self-pleasers who started a church to suit their own fancies. The threat to the church does not lie in us, but that is a conversation for another day. Please love and encourage your independent brothers, we’re not so very different as you might think. Do not base your understanding on hearsay, assumption, and tradition. Just like you, our desire is to bring the gospel to a dying world and to see God glorified in his beautiful bride.