The Constitution of the
Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland is the oldest in the growing family of Reformed Presbyterian Churches which can be found throughout the world. What follows is a brief overview of our history (particularly our origins) and our present position, which includes our current Basis of Faith and Practice.
As its name suggests, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland is a ‘Reformed’ church. As such, it belongs to the family of Churches which ‘re-formed’ out of Western Roman Catholicism in the 16th century. It is also ‘Presbyterian’ in that it belongs to the particular family of Reformed churches governed by a plurality of Presbyters (Elders) ruling in parity. However, its roots go deeper than the Reformation, and, resting upon the ancient creeds of Christendom and, ultimately, upon the Word of God itself, it confesses itself to be a constituent member of the catholic (or’ universal’) church, which is the house and family of God, ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone’ (Ephesians 2:21).
More immediately, the origins of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, as a distinct denomination of Christians, can be traced back to the First Reformation in Scotland in 1560 and the original Reformed Church of Scotland from which it claims unbroken descent. Since that time, there are two highly significant and formative dates in the history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland;
In this year, after a period of tremendous upheaval and bloodshed endured by Presbyterian Covenanters as a result of the King’s attempt to impose Episcopacy upon Presbyterian Scotland, the Church of Scotland was re-settled by means of the Revolution Settlement. However, many men and women, who were Reformed and Presbyterian in their convictions, chose to remain outside of the newly settled Church of Scotland and formed themselves into Covenanting Societies. The reasons for this choice were as follows:
In general terms, they considered that the Revolution Settlement failed to protect and promote certain important attainments made by the Scottish church. These attainments, made in the period encompassing the First and Second Scottish Reformations (1560-1649), involved the elucidation and application of the doctrines of the exclusive headship of Christ over his own church and of the spiritual independence of his church. These attainments had found clear expression, and practical application, in the National Covenant of 1638, in the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, and in various important Acts of the Church of Scotland General Assembly enacted throughout the 1640’s. These attainments had been fought for, at great cost, by the ‘Covenanters’ prior to the Revolution Settlement.
In more specific terms, the Revolution Settlement, in its language and approach, was of an Erastian nature – that is, one which was made for the church rather than by her – and, in evidence of this, the following may be noted:
- The Settlement failed to establish Presbyterianism on the specific ground that it was the system of government mandated by the Word of God (which was the ground on which the Church of Scotland had originally legislated a Presbyterian system of government) but on a lower ground of being ‘agreeable to the Word’ as well as being the will of the people. This was done to please the King whose intention it was to bring the churches together under an Episcopalian system;
- The Settlement failed to revive many of the free acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland which had been repealed by the King;
- The Settlement failed to protect the Presbyterian nature of the church by admitting a considerable number of Episcopalians into the Ministry of the newly settled Presbyterian church;
- The Settlement failed to guard the spiritual independence of the church by allowing landowners the right, effectively, to intrude ministers into congregations;
- The Settlement failed to acknowledge the Covenants – particularly the Solemn League and Covenant, which bound the nations concerned, as nations, to promote and preserve the attainments of the Reformation in all the nations concerned.
Those men and women who remained outside the Revolution Church were not prepared to accept such a ‘settlement’ and established themselves into fellowships known as Covenanting Societies.
In this year, when a second Minister acceded to the Societies – another Minister having already joined the Societies from the Church of Scotland in 1706 – the Covenanting Societies were formally organised into the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland wishes to present a positive testimony to the gospel in general, and to Reformed and Presbyterian principles of religion in particular, in Scotland and throughout the world. In other words, the church is not, primarily, a protesting church – although it is that – but a confessing church: a church which seeks to be a living, positive, and witnessing church, striving to fulfil her mission which she understands as being nothing less than to ‘go and teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19,20).
In doing so, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland recognises that much of her testimony is shared by other members of other Presbyterian Churches in Scotland. As such, while preserving what it sees as essential to a full and genuine witness that is both Reformed and Presbyterian in nature, it wishes others who share the same vision to join with it in order to secure the existence of one established church, truly Reformed in doctrine, worship, government, and discipline, in each nation.
In seeking to attain this end, it wishes to do two things: First, to make significant statements regarding its view of its own past, and second, to present its constitutional Basis of Faith and Practice – one which is not merely presented as its own Basis of Faith and Practice but as a standard around which all who agree may gather.
Statements on Issues of Contention in History
First, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland acknowledges, with gratitude to God, the importance of both the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant in binding the nations of the British Isles to the Reformed and Presbyterian worship of God. The Reformed Presbyterian Church recognises and advocates a real and continuing obligation arising from those covenants, one which rests upon both church and state, to seek a truly national and established church – spiritually independent and thoroughly reformed in doctrine, worship, government, and discipline – working together with the state to secure the recognition of Christ’s Kingship in the Land.
Second, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland would point to the ensuing struggles within the Church of Scotland after the Revolution Settlement – particularly those concerning the landowner’s power of patronage which issued, most notably, in the Secession of 1733 and the Disruption of 1843 – as vindication of the decision not to accept the terms of the Revolution Settlement. However, while the defective nature of the Revolution Settlement has been the source of much strife in the church and in the land, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland also acknowledges the good work done by many who entered into the newly settled church then and the good work done subsequently by others in its various branches.
Third, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland also acknowledges, with gratitude to God, the attainments of the Second Reformation and both the importance and legality of the various Acts of the Assembly, enacted in the period of the Second Reformation (1638-1649), which adopted the various Westminster Standards as they were produced. These Acts adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Form of Government, The Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Directory of Public Worship. These acts, later rescinded by Royal Statute, were not recalled under the terms of the Revolution Settlement. This being so, these documents – with important qualifications (see below) – are given their rightful place and form part of the constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
These statements reveal a church which grants real and substantial recognition to the attainments of the First and Second Reformations without being bound to every decision arrived at in General Assembly. This is reflected in the following Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Basis of Faith and Practice to which every officer in the Reformed Presbyterian Church must give assent. This Basis of Faith and Practice distinguishes between what is fixed and what may be altered in the constitution of the church and the way in which such alteration ought to be made. It is important to note that the requirements for admission to the ordinary membership of the church are much less than the requirements for bearing office and these are detailed in theReformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Book of Government and Discipline.
Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland
Basis of Faith and Practice
The Word of God as given in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the sole and infallible standard for faith and practice in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland and must remain so for all time.
Chief Subordinate Standard
Westminster Confession of Faith
The supreme standard of the church is summarised and interpreted in the chief subordinate standard of the Church which is the Westminster Confession of Faith, adopted by the Church of Scotland as the ‘chief’ part of her standards in 1647. While this standard is always to be held as being subordinate to the Bible – as indeed are all historic creeds and Confessions however ancient and venerable – it is to be acknowledged that the unsurpassed excellence of this document as a comprehensive summary of the Christian faith; the extraordinary circumstances in which it was produced as part of a thorough and spiritual covenanted work of Reformation; the undeniable spiritual eminence of those who compiled it as is evidenced in the spirituality of the document; the role it was designed to fulfil and, indeed, the central and formative role which it has, in fact, fulfilled in Reformed life and thought, all entitle this Confession to be viewed as the Confession of this church for all time and not to be amended, far less supplanted, without such clear light from Scripture as to command universal approval among the office-bearers of the church. In the event of any controversy, the right to continue the name and testimony of the church will always remain with those who wish to remain in office and conserve the existing confessional position irrespective of how small a minority they may constitute.
To secure integrity, subscription to the Confession of Faith must always be carried out without qualification or mental reservation and no office-bearer of the church is at liberty to continue in office if he ceases to believe in any part of the doctrine of the Confession or teaches contrary to it. In the case of an office-bearer ceasing to believe any part of the Confession, it is his duty to inform his Presbytery of his difficulty. The Presbytery is at liberty to grant the period of a year to the office-bearer concerned during which time official friendly conference and instruction will take place in order to enable the office-bearer to continue in office with integrity.
In the case of an office-bearer wilfully teaching material which is deemed to be contrary to the teaching of the Confession, the Presbytery must initiate a process of discipline in conformity with the procedure stipulated in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Book of Government and Discipline.
Other Subordinate Standards
The supreme standard, and indeed the chief subordinate standard, are further summarised, interpreted, and applied in the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism, both produced by the Westminster Assembly for the purpose of Catechising and adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1648. Accordingly, these Catechisms are authorised and recommended for the same purpose by the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Although the church is at liberty to re-issue versions of these Catechisms in more contemporary language, in order more effectively to secure the end for which they were compiled, these documents may be amended substantially only in the event that they are found to be demonstrably inconsistent with the supreme or chief subordinate standards of the church. Such alterations are to be carried out according to the Rules Governing Alterations to the Constitution and to the Basis of Faith and Practice as detailed below.
Form of Government
Adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1645, The Form of Presbyterian Church Government is the current foundational subordinate document regulating government in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
It is to be noted that this document was originally received with qualification by the General Assembly and this fact, coupled with the fact that parts of the document are self-evidently relevant only to the times and context then prevailing, indicate that this document may be amended or added to – although this is always and only to be done in conformity with the supreme and chief subordinate standard of the church and may also be done only according to theRules Governing Alterations to the Constitution and to the Basis of Faith and Practice as detailed below. Amendments or additions to it must be carried out by means of Declaratory Statements appended to the document.
However, any amendments or additions, must be enacted with good Biblical reason and warrant, must preserve justice, decency, and good order and must always preserve the following features enshrined in the document and deemed by this church to be essential to proper Biblical Presbyterianism: that the offices of elder and deacons are the only two kinds of offices authorised and permissible in the church of Christ under the New Covenant; that the church generally, as well as each congregation particularly, is to be governed by a plurality of elders, some of whom are called by God and recognised by the church as being gifted accordingly, to labour in word and doctrine, but, nonetheless, all of whom are on a parity with respect to the power of ruling; the recognition, on the ground of there being a special calling, of a distinct ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament; the necessity of teaching elders as well as ruling elders functioning in every congregation; the arrangement of the church into a system of conciliar courts in which appeal from the Session may be prosecuted to the superior assembly; the recognition of the rights of the people as expressed in the document in electing their ruling and teaching elders; and the non-intrusion on the part of the Diaconate into the affairs of the Eldership.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Book of Government and Discipline used by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland is based on this document but has a wider scope and is always open to amendment although due weight must be given in that process to theForm of Presbyterian Church Government, natural justice, the value of use and wont, the practice of other Reformed Presbyterian Churches in the world, as well as to proven principles in church administration as well as government. Alteration to this document can only be done according to theRules Governing Alterations to the Constitution and to the Basis of Faith and Practice as detailed below.
Form of Worship
Adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1645, the Directory for the Public Worship of God is the current foundational document governing the conduct of public worship in the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Because of the nature of this document, not being of the nature of a prescriptive liturgy but rather that of a Directory, and being originally adopted by the Church of Scotland with qualification, the Directory for the Public Worship of God, in common with the Form of Presbyterian Church Government, is open to modification by amendment or addition. Such amendment or addition can only be done according to theRules Governing Alterations to the Constitution and to the Basis of Faith and Practice as detailed below, and must always be in accordance with the supreme and chief subordinate standards of the church and, particularly, must conform to the definition of worship contained in chapters 21 and 22 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
In connection with this, it is to be noted, in the light of the various controversies which have arisen in connection with worship within Presbyterianism, particularly since the 18th century, that this church believes that the definition of worship contained in these chapters of the Confession is an exhaustive one and believes, therefore, that the Westminster Confession of Faith, taken especially in conjunction with the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, authorises the exclusive use of the canonical book of Psalms, without the accompaniment of musical instruments, for use in the public worship of God.
Amendments or additions to the Directory for Public Worshipmust be carried out by means of Declaratory Statements appended to the document.
Rules Governing Alterations to the Constitution and to the Basis of Faith and Practice
Any amendment or addition to the Constitution of theReformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland must secure the approval of 80% of the eldership present at two meetings of the superior court of the church, which meetings must be separated by at least one year. Any proposed amendments or additions to the part of the constitution known as TheReformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Basis of Faith and Practice, having been approved in the required manner at the first of these meetings, must then be transmitted as a proposal to the Presbyteries of the church for their approval and only in the event of such approval being granted will it be lawful for the second meeting to authorise the alteration.
However, it is to be noted that all office-bearers are bound to some elements of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Basis of Faith and Practice by vows. These vows are found in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Book of Government and Discipline and are not themselves to be altered without the consent of all the office-bearers of the church.
Therefore, any amendment or addition to the Constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland must protect these elements bound by vow and must therefore safeguard the respective position of the Confession of Faith; other constitutional documents; vows taken by office-bearers; theReformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Book of Government and Discipline and the form of worship of this church precisely and insofar as their position is currently protected by the terms of the existing Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland Basis of Faith and Practice.
Declaratory Statement Regarding
Directory for Public Worship
The Reformed Presbyterian Church notes that in the preface to the Directory, a distinction is made regarding the contents of the Directory itself, between ‘things which are of Divine institution in every ordinance’ and ‘other things which we have endeavoured to set forth according to the rules of Christian prudence, agreeable to the general rules of the word of God’.
Similarly, this church notes that the prayers and addresses used in the Directory are not intended to be used verbatim, as in a liturgy, but that Ministers might be ‘directed’ by the additional ‘help’ which they provide so that, by meditation upon these, they may be able more easily to acquire and use other material in prayer and general ministration.
With this in mind, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland make the following Declaratory Statements regarding the various parts of worship dealt with by the Directory:
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland does not consider the Directory to be prescribing the precise order of service, number of readings or number of psalms to be sung in any service of Divine worship.
With respect to the public Reading of Scripture, although it may be considered expedient, it is not deemed necessary by this church to read through the whole books of the Bible consecutively in the weekly services of public worship. However, it is to be noted that the spirit of this directive is retained by the generally revived system of consecutive public exposition of the books of the Scripture, which practice this church encourages.
Further, this church notes that while exposition of the Word, as such, is not to be carried out during the reading of Scripture, it is deemed permissible to make occasional remarks in order merely to elucidate the meaning of language deemed obscure in the translation.
With respect to the sacraments and, first, to baptism, this church understands that the Directory’s prohibition against administering baptism in private places is merely a prohibition against dispensing the sacrament outwith duly constituted public worship. As such, provided due intimation is made and a regular Session constituted, there is no barrier to dispensing the sacrament in a home when that practice is rendered expedient by circumstances of illness or infirmity.
Further, the express mention made of the ‘father’ of a child as the one required to present the child for the sacrament of baptism is considered by this church to be on the assumption that the father is spiritually qualified to make such a presentation. If he is not, then, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:14, this church considers the mother, if she is deemed spiritually qualified, to make the presentation as the subordinate head of the family.
Singing of Psalms
This church does not consider the more extreme interpretation of this passage, one which states that it requires each line of the psalm to be read out before it is sung, to be a valid one. This would only become necessary if a significant portion of the congregation were either illiterate or had no access to the words in print.
This church notes that, for convenience, this Directory deals with matters which do not, in themselves, require public worship but may involve acts of public worship in association with them. These are marriage, burial of the dead, and visitation of the sick. On such occasions, the ‘directive’ rather than the ‘prescriptive’ nature of the Directory comes more plainly to the fore.
In connection with the burial of the dead, this church notes that while great care must be taken to avoid the superstitious practices warned against by the Directory – which clearly involve at least the appearance of undue veneration of, or invoking of, the dead – the mere acts of ordinary praying, reading of scripture or singing of psalms, without additional ceremony, at a graveside are not to be considered as falling into this category.
In connection with marriage, this church notes the Directory’s declaration that marriage is ‘no sacrament, nor peculiar to the church of God, but common to mankind and of public interest in every commonwealth’. If marriage is to be solemnised in and by acts of public worship, including the taking of vows before God, then while this may most profitably take place in a place appointed for public worship, this church does not consider that a marriage needs to take place in a church building. However, all acts of Divine worship connected with the event must always conform to the specific requirements governing the public worship of God.