Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley is to step down from active church ministry. The 85 year old former moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster has announced that he will be preaching one more sermon in the Martyrs’ Memorial at Christmas but is going to devote his time to writing his memoirs.
Dr. Paisley has always been a politically controversial figure and frequently also religiously. The Free Presbyterian Church was initially founded in Crossgar when there was a dispute over holding a gospel mission in Lissara Presbyterian Church to which Ian Paisley was invited as preacher. The denomination gradually grew from there especially in the mid 1960s and has 12,000 members in Northern Ireland along with churches in the rest of the UK, RoI and Australia and a sister church in the USA (it is not related to the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland).
Clearly Dr. Paisley has been a religiously (let alone politically) controversial figure who was briefly gaoled in the 1960s after protests at the General Assembly of the mainstream Presbyterian Church. Under Paisley the Free Presbyterian Church, although always relatively small, did have a profound effect on evangelical Protestantism within Northern Ireland. The FPC’s objection to the Presbyterian Church centred on the latter’s move towards ecumenism and membership of the World Council of Churches. These positions by the Presbyterian Church have subsequently been at least partially reversed (the Presbyterian Church is no longer in the World Council of Churches and ecumenism remains very much a minority position within the mainstream Presbyterian Church – albeit one advocated by some prominent Presbyterian ministers).
The Free Presbyterian Church is not, however, quite as simplisticly strict as it might appear. On the issue of “standards” it not the most hard line of fundamentalist Protestant denominations. Although it does not have women ministers, women do actively participate in leadership positions during services. In addition there is less obsessing about clothing (mainly women’s clothing) than there would be amongst the Brethren or in the Independent Methodist church.
Whatever about Dr. Paisley’s politics or his views on ecumenism he has always been a truly classic evangelical Christian preacher, combining booming denunciations and exhortations with wit and humour. In addition at funeral services he can provide a remarkable degree of comfort and can impress even some amongst mainstream Protestant church goers who would normally have little time for him or his views.
Dr. Paisley is also respected as a fundamentalist theologian. His Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans is regarded as amongst the best recent works on Paul’s book; itself one of the most fundamental building blocks of Christian theology which has been analysed at length by Luther, Calvin and very many other theologians. Paisley was given his honorary doctorate by the Bob Jones University in 1966 and although not specificly for his work on theology he has produced more serious theological work than most Presbyterian moderators who are also always given doctorates (by Queens University).
Dr. Paisley retires as an extremely complex individual: I have previously referred to his political retirement but religiously he has also been involved in controversy with some now claiming he has somewhat moderated his original religious positions. That is probably something of a misunderstanding: as mentioned above seeing Paisley and the Free Presbyterian Church as simply the most hard line Protestant denomination possible is inaccurate and betrays a failure to understand the evangelical subculture of Northern Ireland. Ian Paisley in religious terms has always been a man who believes in the central overwhelming necessity of individuals personally to make a Christian commitment and has always adhered to a standard fundamentalist evangelical position. Even some ministers I know who are highly critical of him (and have been for decades) regard him as amongst the greatest preachers of the gospel that Northern Ireland Christianity has ever had.