The Wee Frees are famously not big on symbolism. Step inside one of the denomination’s churches and your nostrils will not be assailed by the aroma of incense, nor your eyes by art and effigies. There may be coloured glass in the windows, or there may not, but there is no gilding on display, no costly baubles adorning the walls.
Yet, it is not without its idiosyncrasies. It is like every other community in the sense that it has its own unwritten codes and customs which only those who belong to it ‘get’. Those who belong to it feel great affection for it; those who do not belong to it may be a little nonplussed. I’m speaking here of the Lewis incarnation of the Free Church, of course.
Communities frequently have their own language. Elsewhere, I have spoken of the inelegant description of regular churchgoers as being ‘out both ends’. At a conference some months ago, one of the speakers mentioned the confusion that might be experienced by those not ‘in the know’ when their Free Church friends declare with delight that, ‘Margaret came out on Wednesday night’. And, recently, I confused a friend who is still new to worship in our congregation by casually alluding to a ‘retiring collection’.
All of this just witnesses to the fact that our denomination has a long history; that we function as a community with a rich culture all its own. Our roots go deep in this corner of the world. Yet, somehow, the Free Church remains a mystery to those who only view it from outside. They see their friends, neighbours and even relatives trot off to church each week and still have an incredibly warped notion of what goes on inside these edifices.
In recent months, the non-church (honestly, it’s the only label I feel safe to use) section of our community has displayed a woeful ignorance of, and sometimes incredibly imaginative take on, Free Church practice. From what I can gather, they think that women of this denomination are weak, biddable, suggestible automatons, who allow their menfolk to tell them what to do,read, think, and even how to vote. The men are bullies with a very 17th century take on marriage. Kirk sessions instruct their congregations in political matters and hold secret, sinister power over the local council (though not, apparently, the Licensing Board). And, let me say again, those who take this view are people who know us personally: our friends and our neighbours. They know us in our villages, our schools, our workplaces, our clubs and our committees. Their children and ours play together. Yet, despite all those real connections, they seem to believe this utter nonsense about people who have given their lives to Christ.
I have something I’d like to say to such people:
When you live next door to someone who is a Christian, regardless of denomination, don’t you take them at face value? If they seem nice, reasonable, ordinary . . . isn’t it just possible that they are? And, if they are, what is your hostility about? Might it be something in you? Couldn’t it be that you have created a foe to despise because, to see things as they really are might be dangerous? What if something in their lifestyle appealed to you?
There is absolutely no point in attacking a denomination, for the same reason that there is no point in me defending one. They are all made up of people – individuals whom you know. Turning your attention onto some outdated Iain Crichton Smith meets Lars Von Trier meets the Wicker Man parody of the Free Church is a painfully obvious, nay, childish tactic. Don’t do that to yourself. You are worth more than that. Instead, get to know someone who lives for Christ, and ask them why. Ask them why they follow Him, and why He rules their lives, instead of why they won’t compromise over Sunday openings. Once you understand their faith, I guarantee that their obedience will make more sense.
I heard a story of a man who had a dream, in which he saw buses arriving at the gates of Heaven. The first, marked, ‘Church of Scotland’, was waved away. Then, the second, labelled, ‘Free Church’, was similarly dismissed. Being a Free Presbyterian, he was surprised when their bus met with the same response. Then, though, one arrived, bearing the legend, ‘Church of Christ’, and the gates opened wide to admit it.
Do not, in your fear, try to make Christ small. He isn’t interested in denominations; and He isn’t in one more than another. Come to ours, come to any – but do come. Please, in the words of the hymn, ‘turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of this world will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.’
Follow Christ, not Christians. We will let you down; but He never will.