I received such an overwhelming and varied response to last weeks article that I have decided to follow it up. I am not going to name any of my correspondents (and there is no point in reading between the lines and trying to guess who I am referring to!) but suffice it to say that they have come from Church of Scotland ministers and elders, Free Church men, Baptists and Independents. Most of the response has come from Church of Scotland men, some of whom are leaving, others are staying and others don’t know what to do. Some of the questions and comments are heartrending – this issue really is tearing some people apart and causing them to question every aspect of their ministry. It is certainly a shaking up of the church and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Can I also offer an apology for anyone who has been upset by what I have written. I did open myself up to all kinds of comments, many of them true. I honestly do not think I am some kind of guru with all the answers, nor am I a prophet with a Word from the Lord to tell everyone what to do. Nor do I have a personal agenda to promote either myself or some kind of particular grouping. And I know that I lead no group and have no academic authority, or even ecclesiastical (I do not for example speak on behalf of the Free Church – we are now so sensitive and concerned about controversy and upsetting people that I very much doubt this kind of reflection would even be allowed on the Free Church website – we can’t go around upsetting people can we?). And yes I agree that to some extent it is none of my business. So why bother? Why not just put my head down and get on with the work that God has called me to? The answer is that I feel this is the work that God has called me to – the bringing of the Good News to the whole Scottish nation (and beyond). And I don’t have the arrogance to think that I can do even a fraction of this, nor can my congregation, nor the denomination to which I belong. The whole church is needed. I write because I care about the Church in Scotland and because I care about the Church of Scotland (and the Free Church, charismatics, etc.). I want to see the Gospel progress and the Church be renewed in this my native land. To me it’s a bit like the Rangers football saga for Scottish football – this could either be the beginning of the end for Scottish football, or it could be a new beginning.
I was given a row by one man for not offering answers – but I cannot offer what I do not have. I too am trying to work this one through. For what it is worth I offer the following in the hope that we will be provoked unto love and good works! Some of this is a result of I hope prayerful reflection in the past few days, and some is part of an article I wrote on coming out of hospital but I did not really have the courage to publish.
Most of the responses I have received fall into the following headings: it would be far too simplistic to neatly divide everyone into one or other of these categories (I find myself in several of them!), and I do not intend to stigmatise or demonise any particular group, but like Augustine I speak in order not to be silent.
Perfectionists and Purists – These are the people whom I have real difficulty in having any sympathy with. They really do seem to think that there is such a thing as the perfect church and that they are pretty close to it. By definition they cannot understand how any Christian would not join them and leave the synagogue of Satan they are currently in. As it happens this week I was sent a dreadful booklet on this subject endorsed by several independents and FCC men, whose purpose seems to be attacking ‘Affinity’ (the former BEC – an alliance of evangelical churches not in mixed denominations) for not being sound enough on this question of separation. I was also sent a dreadful article/discussion about how Tim Keller is a heretic and fundamentally unsound. I’m afraid these kind of things depress me as much as the pseudo-Christian liberal nonsense so often portrayed as Christianity (again this week I had a fantastic example of this in extremis – an Anglican vicar publically declaring that he was a Christian who did not believe in God!).
Having said that I have a great deal of sympathy with the idea that the Bride of Christ should be pure. It’s just that I cannot equate that solely with a correct doctrinal statement (important as that is) or one particular denomination or grouping (the Holy Spirit keeps surprising us!). And I do want to belong to a church that I can honestly submit to as the Body of Christ. Of course we want to argue that the church should be as pure as it can be – the difficulty is when we start claiming that for our own wee group and exclude everyone else. I sometimes wonder if this mentality is more about power, control and frustration, rather than any real passion for Christ, his Church and the lost world. In other words it reflects more a personality disorder rather than a passionate love for Christ.
Pietists – Some are wondering what all the fuss is about. To them the issue is simple. They say they don’t really care for denominations and that no church is perfect anyway so what is the point in jumping ship. We need to get on and build the kingdom now. Spurgeon’s words “don’t join the perfect church, you will only spoil it’ are apposite. The Lord is going to return soon and we just need to work at what is most important. And of course this resonates with so many people because it contains a great deal of truth. It resonates with me. A heartfelt love for Jesus Christ and a desire to know him better and to serve him lovingly is something that I so desperately want. The trouble is that this is a false dichotomy – setting love for Jesus apart from love for his church. Those who say that denominations are not that important still belong to them and still get their wages, job supervision, funding etc. from that denomination. Furthermore as honest Christians they have sworn vows and oaths to submit to the government of that church. I suspect that there is a deeper influence of an individualistic cultural narrative than many of us are prepared to admit. Pietism lets us do our own thing, avoid the fight, and all justified in the name of loving Jesus. Rather than being liberating it can handcuff us and severely limit our work for Jesus.
Perplexed – Some just really do not know what to do. They feel pulled in different directions. One man spoke of how he was concerned about the break down that could easily happen between stayers and leavers. And we have to have every sympathy with those who are seeking guidance. It is not as simple as either the perfectionists or the pietists seem to think. A few people got in touch who do not want to leave the church they have served for many years but neither can they see how they can stay in a church which has so deliberately and scornfully mocked and disregarded the Word of God. Yet they also want to be a biblical oasis in the midst of what is gradually turning into a wilderness. They are unsure what to do. And again I can identify with that perplexity. I was particularly struck by one older man who had once believed in the policy of ‘slow infiltration’ as taught by older evangelicals but who now accepts that this policy has failed. Incidentally what puzzles him just as much is the fact that some of the old ‘liberals’ in his presbytery are opposed to same-sex marriage whereas some of the younger evangelical men seem to have caught the spirit of the age and either regard it as not being of particularly great significance or even a matter of personal lifestyle choice.
Politicians – The third group are people who see that there is a battle but unlike my friend mentioned above they believe that the policy of infiltration is working. I think this tendency is perhaps best summarized by an astonishing address given by Dr Andrew McGowan on the 19th of August. You can find this at http://sermons.invernesseast.com/21-46-post-assembly-meeting-19th-august-2011.mp3. Andy is a good man who has had and continues to have a significant ministry. In the course of this lecture he makes some good and interesting points. But there are aspects that are completely unrealistic and could actually do harm. Allow me this diversion to deal with some of these points as they directly impinge upon the current situation.
Firstly in his summary of the current situation he again repeated the claim that no final decision had been made and that it was only a ‘trajectory’ that had been set. This is true insofar as the C of S has been influenced by the post-modern destruction of the English language, but in real terms it is nonsense. I know of ‘liberals’ in the C of S who were astonished that they managed to get so much at the 2011 Assembly. The C of S has made a decision and it will take a miracle to reverse that decision. Of course we believe in the God of miracles and if the Lord uses Andy and others on the commission to help reverse the situation then we will all rejoice. I should also point out that as several evangelicals have noted, this is not the first time that the C of S Assembly has gone against the Scriptures – so why leave over this particular issue? It is a fair question and one which I guess each has to answer to their own satisfaction.
Another statement that astounded me was in defence of the whole national parish church system. Andy argued “no door is shut to me in my parish”. Whilst there may be certain advantages in being perceived as an establishment minister (as well as disadvantages – i.e. spending a great deal of your time burying people who had little if any connection with the church) it is an incredibly out of date perception to think that every door is open. 21st Century Scotland has secularized faster than any nation in the West. Less than 8% of the population will be in the National Church on any given Sunday (and that is being generous). There are many doors that are closed to all ministers, and even when our own doors are open there is little sign of many people walking through them. Sure some ministers are given a kind of wet social work/civic dignitary role – but does that really help the Gospel? How can we be radical if we are so tied in with the Establishment – especially when that Establishment openly rejects the Gospel? Civil privilege, power and influence often come at a great cost to spiritual privilege, power and influence.
“The church in Calvin’s day was a thousand times worse than the C of S today. “ This too is an astounding statement. Is Dr McGowan speaking of the Roman Catholic Church, or the Reformed Church in Geneva? If the latter then it is one of the most extraordinary revisions of history I have ever come across; is it really the case that the Reformed church in Geneva was worse than a church which encourages ministers who live in adultery and pastors who deny that the bible is the Word of God. If the former then it is an argument against the Reformation and an argument for all of us returning to the RC Church.
Dr McGowan then speaks of the importance of national churches in Scripture (although apart from the OT theocratic state of Israel, there is no mention of concept of such) and of the sin of schism. “We are no where near the situation where separation is required.”. Schism is a serious and emotive charge. If Andy were right in his analysis (that the number of evangelical ministers is rising and that they will eventually take over – as though the rise of liberalism was just a passing aberration), then those who have left, or those of us who cannot join, would indeed be guilty of a serious sin. Protestants need to take a lot more seriously the sin of schism. But is this a fair charge? On what basis is it made? If I were to join the Church of Scotland in my own city I would be swearing submission to a Presbytery, which though it includes many fine Christian leaders, also includes those who reject the basics of the Gospel. I could not in all honesty do that. Plus I would have to submit to an Assembly that tells me that the Bible is wrong in its teachings about homosexuality – amongst other things. Is it schismatic to be honest? Of course there are men who find that they can be honest and remain within and look after their flocks. I cannot and will not make any comment or judgment upon them. All I can do is wish them well, pray for them and seek to help whenever possible. But please don’t accuse those who find themselves in the position where they cannot stay as being schismatic.
Besides which it is a bit of a fantasy to think that evangelicals are on the verge of taking over the whole denomination. I was told by a leading evangelical in the C of S a number of years ago that there were 400 out of 1200 ministers who would call themselves evangelical, that perhaps 100 of them would be reformed evangelical (to the extent that they would be accepted by the Presbyterian Church of America), but that there were less than 60 evangelical congregations. Whether or not those figures are currently accurate is not the issue. What Scotland needs is not just more evangelical ministries (although we do need that) but we need more biblical congregations. The one man-preaching model is outdated and unbiblical.
Andy then went on to state that the established church is the best hope for evangelising Scotland. “In terms of reaching Scotland the Church of Scotland is the only game in town”. I had to relisten to that one several times. The Church of Scotland is important. In many communities there are faithful Christians within the Church of Scotland who are doing a wonderful job. But the only game in town? Tell that to Charlotte Chapel, Destiny Church, Smithton Free Church, Niddrie Community Church, Deeside Christian Fellowship, St Paul’s and St Georges, Morningside Baptist Church, Stornoway Free Church, etc. If the Church of Scotland is the only game in town then it is a game that we will all lose.
Finally there was the declaration that staying does not depend on 2013/14. And so a green light is given to those who wish to continue to follow the trajectory. As a liberal colleague puts it – the majority of evangelicals will never leave and they will deal with those who do.
The fact is that as another minister pointed out “there is an astonishingly deep-seated institutionalism that trumps doctrine, exegesis, courage and the three ‘R’s of your blog.” (real, radical and relational). Perhaps those of us who are more inclined towards an institutional mentality need to be shaken out of that?
Pragmatists – In one sense these are very close to both the Politicians and the Pietists. Basically whatever works is what we should go with. In this respect as one man wrote “Relationships and Networks are more significant than denominations. “ In some ways this is true and yet we need to be careful with this. Networks are very 21st century but I am not sure how biblical they are. The trouble is not in the idea that we need to relate to all our brothers and sisters in the Lord, but rather to the personality aspect of so many of these networks – being focused round one individual, or a group of people in the know. The right sort of people. A leading evangelical once asked me what network I belonged to. After a moment of thought I felt very inadequate as I had to answer – none. He identified two that he was part of (reformed and charismatic) and said that my position was both a weakness and strength – a strength because it meant I was not beholden to any one grouping; a weakness because he thought it would limit my ministry. Replacing denominational discipline with gossip, personal words and being in the know, is not something that I could advocate. However I do agree with those who say that the local church should have priority rather than denominational structures – but not to the extent of encouraging larger churches to be selfish and ignoring the needs of others.
One Free Church man thought the idea of having a good evangelical reformed church within 30 minutes drive was a bit unambitious suggesting instead the target should be ten minutes walk. The trouble is what I would define as good – that is a church that is able to have plural leadership, resources to evangelise, quality praise, great contemporary biblical preaching, mercy ministries and a church which by definition replicates itself through church planting. I know of very few churches in Scotland like that. We have a long way to go.
Presbyterians – `Do I have an agenda for facing the problems. Yes. It’s called Gospel Presbyterianism. I believe in the marks of the church as taught by the Scottish Reformers. Wherever we are to have a true church of Christ we need to have the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, church discipline and what was called distribution (that is concern for the poor). I do not think that independency is the best way to get those things – even with all the networking in the world. I do not believe that a highly centralized bureaucratic denominational system is the best way to get those things either. And as already indicated the vision of a national parish based church has long disappeared. But a contemporary Presbyterian system can be the way forward. What does that mean?
Firstly it means that we could really do without yet another Presbyterian denomination in Scotland. Presbyterians are brilliant at speaking about church unity and using lots of fine sounding words. But boy are we good at setting up new denominations in the name of unity! Moving away from Scotland I was astounded to read about yet another Presbyterian denomination being set up in the US – (have a look at http://www.wrfnet.org/c/document_library/get_file?folderId=20&name=DLFE-94.pdf and http://www.wrfnet.org/c/document_library/get_file?folderId=20&name=DLFE-87.pdf ) . So what is wrong with the PCA, RP’s, EPC, ARP, and OPC etc.? But for once we Scots can outdo the Americans. In my ministry lifetime, at a time of decline for the church as a whole, I have witnessed three new Presbyterian denominations being set up in Scotland (the APC, the FCC and ‘Reformission’) and now the IPC. In addition to this we are finding that in places like Stornoway the insanity of Church division is being increased in the name of Church unity. So now we have yet another new church there – the RP’s. Incidentally I read a ridiculous report in the American RP magazine about mission opportunity and RP expansion in Scotland. What they really mean is that there are some disaffected Free Church people who can start new church plants in Edinburgh, Stornoway and Glasgow. You have to laugh or cry at the unreality and dishonesty of that approach.
Meanwhile it looks as though the IPC is going to be the new home for C of S congregations that leave. The danger is that this will just be set up as a home for disaffected people from the C of S then it really is a case of just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The impression moreover is given that those evangelicals who are leaving cannot stomach the thought of connecting with any other group and would prefer to go it alone – which is where Dr McGowan’s criticism becomes more valid.
Does this mean that everyone should join the Free Church? No. Not necessarily. For that to happen the Free Church would need to continue to change, loosen up (though not in a doctrinal sense) and become much more outward looking. Take for example the case of Skye. Several office bearers and members have left the Church of Scotland there. And, much to the discouragement of a couple of Free Church ministers, almost the last place most will go will be the Free Church. And I can understand why – both good and bad reasons. The bad reasons can be summed up in two words – pride and prejudice. Sadly (although not so much in recent years where co-operation between the churches has been a model that the rest of Scotland would do well to follow) the churches have often been in competition with one another. You know the old story of the Scotsman marooned on a desert island. When he was rescued, his rescuers asked why he had built two churches on the island. ‘Well, the first is the one I go to. The second is the one I do not go to…”!
However there are good reasons for people not coming. For example in the Skye situation would the Free Church be willing to accommodate those from the C of S by having mixed praise styles? If not why should we expect the C of S folks to join with us? And there is the whole question of our mindset and ethos. Does being Free Church mean being ‘Highland’? That is the perception. I recall when we started the Free Church plant in St Andrews we were allowed to use one church building there because the then minister perceived us as being an ‘ethnic’ group who had as much right to a church as the Germans and the Poles! The trouble is that once you even mention this there are some within the Free Church who immediately start shouting ‘racism – you are anti-Highland’ etc. That of course is ridiculous. We should not be Highland or anti-Highland as some kind of ethnic church division. There is a good place for the Free Church (or any church) to be Highland and that is in the Highlands. A basic biblical principle is that churches should reflect the communities they are in – therefore in most of Scotland’s cities and towns our churches should be multi-cultural and multi-ethnic.
And does the Free Church still operate on the ‘faithful minority’ principle? We need to recognize that we are all a minority now. And that there are other Christians in mainstream denominations who are faithful too. There are other structural and cultural barriers – but I think the biggest of all are to do with personal issues. I am not speaking here of Skye, but rather of a more general feeling that people have that they do not know the Free Church and that the Free Church is not really them. One man wrote and told me he had never worshipped in a Free Church and did not know any Free Church ministers. Here we are back to the relational thing – can I suggest something simple? Why don’t we invite one another round, eat together and pray together? That would be a start.
And for those Church of Scotland congregations that are going to leave and yet cannot yet join with the Free Church, why not hang fire and instead of setting up yet another Presbyterian denomination why not remain as Independent churches until you see how things are going? What practical difference does it make for you to join a Presbyterian denomination which is in reality a handful of congregations around London and which will mean very little except that you have an ‘official’ connection with one another. By the way if I was the IPC I might be a little concerned at being swamped by a horde of Scots! Personally I would be quite happy to give up the Free Church if it meant that we could all be together. But that is a story for another day…or maybe we should all just join the IPC?!
I would strongly recommend that all of us read or re-read Francis Schaeffer’s The Church Before the Watching World and Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. And of course it is a truism, and a necessary one, that we continue to be much in prayer and study of the Word. And let us not forget to keep going with the work of living for Jesus, proclaiming the Kingdom and being salt and light.
Finally. I was greatly impressed by something that Dominic Smart wrote concerning the ministry of Gilcomston in Aberdeen. I understood him to be arguing that rather than building a large city centre congregation, Gilcomston should be seeking to have several ‘church plants/gospel communities’ throughout the city. It seems to me that this is a realistic, radical and relational vision. It is my hope that whatever our denomination (or lack of it), we should all be seeking to enact that vision. I once read that it would take 7,000 new churches of 100 people each today to get us back to where we were 30 years ago. That is the crying need of the hour, more Good News churches and many, many more Good News Christians. If having faithful Good News churches means that we upset the religious, political or cultural elites, so be it! We have so many things to develop. Good biblical theology, good biblical contemporary preaching, persuasive apologetic evangelism, mercy ministries, prayer as the workhouse of the church and the witness of the love that all believers have for one another. We don’t have time for church politics or denominational self-justifications. Let each be persuaded in their own minds and let us all work for the glory of Christ to be revealed in Scotland once again.