I recently read an article entitled “Thomas Chalmers and the Communal Ideal in Victorian Scotland” (1992) by Stewart J. Brown, a recognized Chalmers scholar. In it, he traces the development of the territorial mission program from Chalmers into the Free Church and, even somewhat surprisingly, back in the established Church in the late 1800s.
Brown makes an observation about the waning of the Free Church of Scotland’s vigor for the territorial ideal in the 1870s and on. According to him, after a renaissance of Chalmersian territorial missions in the Free Church during the 1850s and 60s, the body slowly moved away from the ‘godly commonwealth’ ideal. Writes Brown, “It began ceasing to perceive itself as a national Church, with responsibility for the spiritual and social welfare of the whole people of Scotland, and increasingly viewed itself as a gathered Church of believers. In part, this was the result of the passing away of the older Free Church leadership, especially Robert Candlish and Thomas Guthrie (strong supporters of the territorial ideal)” (73).
Now, I’m no expert on the history to judge whether in fact this was the case. But if it was, then I think it certainly reflects on a connection between ‘gathered church’ ecclesiology and the dangerous tendency to retreatism. The territorial – or parochial – ideal envisioned the Church as at its core a society of the faithful, but ever reaching out to the perishing community beyond itself. Its best expression did not confuse believing congregation and unbelieving community. Yet it heartily embraced the unbelieving community under the obligation of its ‘cure of souls’ mandate (evangelism). Sadly, when the Church loses that perspective, it will subtly morph into a mere asylum for escapists. That is both unfaithfulness to Christ and a sure path to spiritual extinction.