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The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is quite a mouthful of a title to give to any denomination. It doesn’t trip of the tongue very easily. If a team of advertising executives was given the job of improving the image of the Church the first thing they would probably do is suggest a new, snappier name. But, of course, that is the name that history has given us, and while it sometimes causes confusion – some people really do believe that non-subscription implies not making any financial contribution – it is still an accurate description of the position adopted by the Church. It is a Non-Subscribing Church in that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries its members refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. They held to the point of view that the Bible was the sole rule of faith and the imposition of anything from outside it was wrong. So the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church is an historical Church. Its roots go far back across the centuries indeed many of its churches date their origins to the 17th and 18th centuries.
But what of the faith of a Non-Subscriber in the world today?
Non-Subscribers have always emphasised both today and historically that they stand by the Bible. Of course, we understand the Bible in different ways today than we might have done one or two hundred years ago but the centrality of the Bible remains unchanged. This is reflected in the Constitution of the Church which with its opening clause states: “That the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Rule of Christian Faith and Duty under the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ”. This clause is followed up with two further clauses that emphasise the right of people to form and hold their own opinions as well as rejecting the imposition of human tests and confessions. So according to our own Church Constitution the Bible remains paramount, interpreted under the teachings of Jesus, but it is for each person to understand it for him or herself. It is interesting to note that if you look at the Constitution you will see that the fourth clause quotes a number of passages from the Bible. Someone of a particularly legalistic or pedantic mind might want to argue that in doing this there is an element of contradiction here, since it is in one breath stating that the Scriptures as a whole are the central documents of the faith and it is the right of everyone to search them for themselves, and then in the next breath it is selecting some portions that are presumably the most important and to be particularly noted. The clause actually cites three passages all from the Gospels, and all of them sayings of Jesus. But whatever we might want to say about the way the constitution is put together everyone would probably agree that the quotations are a good selection of verses which do say something about the general outlook of our denomination. I would like to look at one of these short passages and what it means in relation to our witness today. The passage comes from Matthew chapter 7 verse 21: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven”. This is just one item of the teaching of Jesus given in the Sermon on the Mount. It links in very closely with the earlier verse about being known by your fruit – “every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit”. Fruit is not what someone says but what they do, and we are judged by our deeds rather than words. This is a very direct and straightforward statement that almost needs no explanation. That is why it was included in the Constitution. There is a parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel which puts it even more directly: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” A great deal of our attitude is summed up in that statement – that we believe in the teachings of Jesus rather than the teachings about Jesus, that we believe that faith without works is dead. In the end I think it is good that that passage should be highlighted because to try and take it seriously is to move away from religion that is concerned only in saying the right words to one that is about living life as it should be lived in accordance with Jesus’s teaching. In the end religion has to be about life rather than statements and about faith rather than belief to be of any value at all. It was George Bernard Shaw who said: “You can tell a man’s creed not by what he says he believes but by the assumptions under which he habitually acts”. But also bound up at the back of this passage is the idea of judgement. Entering the kingdom of heaven is linked to being true. In the end any pretence or disguise will be stripped away. We might be able to deceive other people with our words but we cannot deceive God: “Thou discernest my thoughts from afar” says the Psalmist (Psalm 139 verse 2). But by the same token we shouldn’t try to fit a picture of judgement day to this but rather recognise that the judgement of God comes to us through ourselves.
As Emerson once wrote: Thus in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire…If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. Character is always known…The least admixture of a lie…will instantly vitiate the effect. But speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are witnesses, and the very roots of the grass underground there do seem to stir and move to bear your witness. But maybe, in some senses, this is to read too much into the passage from Matthew. At root it is most certainly a simple statement about religion being a practical rather than a doctrinal thing. A saying of Jesus that takes us away from creeds and written formulations of faith and points is to the way we live and are. But this isn’t the only way it could be understood. Other people might want to argue for a different interpretation. Indeed some see this section as entwined with notions of obedience not just to Jesus’s teachings but to whatever notions they have about his personal status with regard to God. They assume that to call Jesus Lord you must agree with the detailed creedal claims that are made about him. For them it does quite the opposite than it might do for us. Whereas I would suggest that passages like this show how unnecessary and unhelpful creeds are, they would see them as just strengthening their own belief in their church’s creed.
In the end though, to do this, I feel sure, is to read back into the original words of Jesus something that wasn’t there. His whole ministry exhibited a concern not for outward appearances but for inner experience and commitment.
All this is very adequately summed up in our Constitution: We, therefore, refuse to impose conditions upon the Church which He himself has not sanctioned, and we solemnly declare our allegiance to the principle, as the real bond of union among Christians, that the teaching of Christ himself must take precedence over the doctrines of a later time, and that unity is to be sought, not in uniformity or creed, but in a common standard of righteousness and obedience to the commandments which Christ himself laid down. This was written for our Constitution in 1910 although it reflects thinking that is much older. It seems to me that to be a very true and important observation that is plainly correct. However, the story of Christianity runs quite contrary to this – Churches have always been busy assembling creeds, very often to be used, not to promote unity, but to keep other people out. There has been almost an inevitability about this as the earliest statements or confessions of belief which were really very simple, possibly spontaneous remarks were gradually expanded into something else. It is interesting to note that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains what is generally regarded as the very earliest Christian statement of belief, namely “Jesus is Lord”. This phrase comes in the passage as Paul tries to explain the varieties of the gifts of the Spirit. As a confession of faith it could not possibly be simpler and it is thought to be the sort of statement that was made at a person’s baptism. However, statements such as this tended to get enlarged partly through the very reasonable result of people looking at the life and ministry of Jesus and reflecting on what it all meant in every aspect. They also got enlarged, though, because people started turning such statements into passages that could be used in worship by all the congregation. As one writer has pointed out they moved from passages that usually begin by saying “I Believe” to ones that said “We believe”. Once this had happened it was just a short step before some Church leaders started to punish those who could not join in with some parts of the creed. After that it was an even shorter step to go to a situation where people actually started drawing up creeds so that they could define certain brands of belief as being utterly wrong and heretical. And that is why we don’t agree with creeds. Not because we believe that the Nicene Creed, or the Apostle’s Creed for instance, is wrong necessarily but because they always end up as being yardsticks by which people’s faith are measured and this goes against the spirit of Jesus. In the end a creed can only be a sort of hypothesis about God which because of both our nature and the nature of God must always be expressed in cautious and also personal terms. A creed in this sense is clearly a good thing but when they are made into a fixed, unalterable piece of dogma then they become damaging to the cause which they seek to promote. In following this kind of approach we cast our faith in terms that are non-dogmatic and do not seek to impose forms of words on individual Christians.