Posted by: stpowen | November 28, 2010

The Great Reformed Evangelical Divorce

Psalm 133.  ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity!  It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down the edge of his garments.  it is like the dew of Hermon, descending on the mountains of Zion; for there the LORD commanded the blessing- Life forevermore.’

Luke 9:49.  “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.”

‘Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.  Yes, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.  One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, but that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends’ (Rogers & Hammerstein) 

A few weeks ago I was at the F.I.E.C. (1) Leaders Conference at the Hayes Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire.  Although I have been involved with an F.I.E.C. church for a few years, it is the first such meeting that I’ve attended.  I have to say that in most respects I was very impressed.  A decision had been take not to invite a ‘famous Christian’ to give a ‘keynote address’ but rather that all the ministry would be provided by F.I.E.C. pastors.  I believe this was the right decision.  The eagerness with which so many conferences in the U.K. tend to invite Don Carson or John Piper  to speak rather suggests that we have no teachers or preachers in our own country.  Ray Evans from Bedford gave the main addresses which were quite excellent and John Gilespie from Cornwall lead two very blessed devotionals.    There were very helpful seminars on serving the elderly in the churches, on the practical implications of church growth (who would have thought it could cause so many difficulties!) and a variety of other topics.  Those that I attended I found very helpful and thought-provoking.  We also had the FIEC’s vision for the future; how it can help the churches without becoming a denomination.  Again, most encouraging.

Although I find myself well to the conservative end of the FIEC, I am pleased that my church belongs.  It is clear from the New Testament that churches are not meant to be isolationist (cf. Rom 16:1-2; Col 4:16; 3John 9-10 etc.), though they are to be separate from false doctrine and practice.  I have found a real love of the Gospel and for solid Bible teaching among the members.

The one thing that I found depressing was the almost total rift that has developed between one the one hand the FIEC churches and other bodies that support Affinity (2) and those churches grouped around the Metropolitan Tabernacle (hereafter ‘Met Tab’) and Affirmation 2010.  I have written about the Affirmation elsewhere (3), but it seemed to me that the FIEC is becoming just as exclusionist in its own way.  At the Met Tab Summer School of Theology or at the Salisbury Conference, the platform party resembles nothing so much as a reunion of retired undertakers; dark suits and mournful expressions seem to be a requirement.  By contrast, at the FIEC meeting, as at the Cheltenham Bible Festival a few years back, the speakers looked without  exception as if they had been auditioning for a part in Oklahoma!  The dress code was open-necked shirt (usually checked).  No jackets were allowed on stage.  I suppose that this is done to show that the FIEC is ‘cool’ and ‘down with the kids,’ but since most of the speakers and most of the audience were in their 50s or 60s, it just looks rather silly.  What is wrong with a little gravitas?  Are the times not serious enough?  I myself have to wear a dark suit for my secular business most days so I tend not to wear one in church.  However, I do always wear a collar and tie when speaking.  If one has a serious message from the Lord to relay, I think one should look the part and not as if one was going to a hoe-down or a barn dance. 

The same divide  can be seen in hymnody.  At the Salisbury Conference, of course, one sings nothing but the 1650 Scottish Psalter, and at the Met Tab, only hymns by dead people are sung.  The reason often given for this is that many of the modern hymn-writers are charismatic or unsound in some other way, but if we applied this to dead hymn-writers, there would be precious few hymn left to sing.  Isaac Watts got himself in a knot over the Trinity back in the 1720s and Charles Wesley was an Arminian.  As Spurgeon said (4), we need to judge the hymn, not the writer of it.  The only living hymn-writer who seems to be acceptable to the uber-reformed is Vernon Higham.  Even Timothy Dudley-Smith, who to my mind is as superior to Higham as a hymn-writer as he is inferior as a preacher (5), does not tend to get a look in, presumably because he is an Anglican.

At the FIEC Assembly, a pleasing mixture of old and (good) new songs were sung.  A small ‘combo’ provided the accompanyment to which I had no real objection since it did not obtrude onto the singing of the words.  But if drums are acceptable in the modern songs, why on earth do we have to have them banging along to the older ones?  To my mind they were totally out of keeping and certainly quite unnecessary.  The only reason that I can possibly imagine is that having paid the drummer to turn up the organizers were determined to have their money’s worth out of him.

The third divide is of course, Bible versions.  At the Met Tab and Salisbury Conferences, only the A.V. is used while the FIEC seems to have settled firmly for the N.I.V.  I find that I can follow a sermon perfectly well in either and I am happy to preach in either if asked, though my personal preference is for the N.K.J.V.  The scholars are on both sides of the Great Translation Debate and I’m certain that there will be no final consensus until the Lord returns.  Until then,  ‘Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.’ (Rom 14:5)(6).

This would not be important if only the two sides would tolerate each other’s point of view, but, alas, there seems to be a growing separation between the two sides.  It’s not too many years since Vernon Higham spoke at an FIEC conference; Idoubt he will be invited again unless he agrees to use the NIV (not likely to happen!).  Phil Johnson used to speak at the Met Tab Summer School of Theology, where I have been greatly blessed by his ministry, but he is now apparently black-listed because of  Grace Community Church’s use of modern worship music.  It wasn’t that he insisted in having the music played at the Met Tab, but the very fact that it was being played 3,000 miles away in California was enough to get him discontinued as a speaker.  To my mind, no one of his calibre has been found to replace him.

Each side also regards the other as doomed to extinction.  Dr Masters at the Met Tab firmly believes that churches who tolerate even the smallest amount of modern music in their churches are certain to be dragged into a downgrade and lose their Reformed distinctives.  I have heard him say as much on several occasions.  On the other hand, the FIEC is committed to ‘contemporary Christianity’ and there is a widespread belief among the leadership that churches that keep the A.V. and old-fashioned hymns will be gone in ten years.  There is some truth in both these views:  some congregations have gone down the road of hectic trendiness and have ended up as bland social clubs rather than vibrant churches.  I think though that Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church and other church-growth books may be more to blame than Bible versions or music.  Likewise, there are some conservative churches that I visit which have become moribund and are certain, humanly speaking, to disappear in the next few years; but some of these, in an effort to ‘modernize’ have ditched the A.V. for the N.I.V. and have brought in the Mission Praise hymnbook, but it has made no difference whatsoever.  It should also be said that when Dr. Masters took on the Met Tab in 1970, there were only 35 or so attending and it was generally thought that the place would close.  Today there are around 800 there every Lord’s Day, although the A.V. is the only Bible version used and, to the best of my knowledge, no hymn written by a living person has ever been sung there in Dr. Masters’ time.  I do not believe therefore that either Bible versions or hymnody (within a generally conservative context) has any clear relationship to the blessing that an individual church receives.

I can only think that the devil is hugging himself with glee at this rift within Reformed evangelicalism.  Palm 133, quoted above, makes it clear that the Lord gives His blessing to His unified people, and that the Holy Spirit- the ‘precious oil upon the head’- only comes in abundance upon God’s people when they ‘dwell together in unity.’  It is therefore very much in Satan’s interest to place secondary issues to the fore among the churches.  I am not saying that every Reformed church has to be like every other; the unity of which I am speaking is the unity of the Spirit, not an artificial organizational unity.  ‘Let each be fully convinced in his own mind……..But why do you judge your brother?  Or why do you show contempt for your brother?  For we shall all stand before the judgement seat of Christ……..Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling-block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way’ (Rom 14:5, 10, 13). 


1. Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.

2.  Formerly the British Evangelical Council.


4.  In his intoduction to Our Own Hymn Book.

5.  By this, I do not mean at all that Higham is a bad hymn-writer or Dudley-Smith a bad preacher; only that Higham excels at preaching and Dudley-Smith at hymn-writing.

6.  I do believe that some Bible Versions are quite beyond the pale.  The NIV is as far down the road of Dynamic Equivalence as  I am prepared to go.  The new NIV 2011 seems to me to be a step too far in relation to paraphrase, political correctness and bad grammar.  Other translations like the GNB, CEV and Message are definitely to be avoided.



  1. A little bit hyperbolic and misleading. An uninformed reader would think that the ‘Affirmation’ is something to do with the Met Tab. It isn’t.

    A very picky point on Hymns at the Met Tab – hymns by living authors have been sung and continue to be so. They are just anonymous!

    I don’t think that you are being quite fair regarding ‘dark suits and mournful expressions seem to be a requirement’. Dark suits perhaps. I see plenty of smiles at the School of Theology and in other places. Could you be confusing mournfulness with solemnity?

    One other point regarding the groups you contrast with the FIEC – they are soteriologically reformed. The FIEC is not – further, it is simply not true that a church’s isolation or lack thereof should be judged by whether they belong to the FIEC or any other ‘denomination’.

    You make some interesting points and I hope that people read this post through and consider it carefully.

  2. I absolutely agree with all your comments (with the exception that I do not quite share your esteemed view of VH’s preaching and I do prefer some of his hymns to TDS’s!). Nevertheless, this division – which as you suggest seems to be worsened by both camps – is something that has concerned me for some time and I fail to see why good Christian people on both sides can be happy with the way things stand. Sadly, your suggestion of greater tolerance may fall on deaf ears as, for many reformed Christians, ‘tolerance’ is a byword for allowing heresy to creep in to the church.

  3. just a small side note. Many people have been led to believe that Watts had some sort of problem with the Trinity. Many have even said that because of this Watts was not even a Christian. But I would direct you to his official biography found at:

    I read it over the summer and it explains briefly the misunderstanding and I was encouraged to learn that Watts in no way rejected the orthodox understanding of the Trinity.

  4. Hello Jonathan,
    Perhaps I have allowed myself a little bit of poetic licence, but not much. I agree that Dr Masters and the Met Tab have not signed up to Affirmation 2010 and that Dr Masters is somewhat more relaxed about Bible versions than most of the Affirmation signatories. Yet on the subject of hymnody, you can’t separate them.

    With regard to the FIEC, you are correct that the member churches are not required to be Reformed so long as they comply with the FIEC Statement of Faith, but I found all the teaching at the Leaders’ Conference to be compatible with Reformed theology.

    My post was not intended to take sides but to poke a little fun at each party and ask why there has to be such a rift between them.

  5. Hello Rich,
    I have David Fountain’s biography of Watts and thoroughly recommend it.
    I am a big fan of Watts and don’t for a moment suggest that he was a Unitarian; if you go to my post ‘Psinging the Psalms,’ to be found under ‘worship,’ you will see that I defend him against just that accusation.

  6. Thoughtful piece which I have enjoyed reading. I would have a difference in a few places to each of you, but would agree with the thrust. Perhaps that is the point of the post
    In some places there is a lack of joy in believing and in others a lack of awe for Almighty God. In some hymns the words are so heavy they are unintelligibility to all but those with a PHD in english, or so light they have less meaning than a one line nursery rhyme.
    Some christians never seemed to have come out of the world – some never seem to have no Christ like love for the world.
    I know one place the balance is right – around the throne of God in heaven.
    I look forward to worshipping with you there.

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