‘Staying in the Church of Scotland’ – By Alastair Morrice
Alastair Morrice, who formerly ministered in Wester Hailes, in Edinburgh, has committed to writing some of his own thoughts on the question of whether or not scripturally-obedient believers should leave the Church of Scotland, and comes down firmly on the side of remaining within the denomination. His comments can be found on Dropbox here but I have Alastair’s permission to reproduce the entirety of the text, below. Alastair also does not mind if his article is reproduced and distributed to elders and members of congregations, or used in blogs and websites, if that is thought to be helpful:
STAYING IN THE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND
In recent days there have been several strongly worded expressions of opinion by those who advocate secession from the Church of Scotland. David Randall takes up Bonhoeffer’s image of what you do if you are in a train that is heading for a crash. There is no good running up and down the corridor. The only sensible thing to do is to get off. Not only is it sensible, he emphasises, it is the only right thing to do.
There have been calls for evangelical unity between those who believe it is right to leave the Church of Scotland and those who believe it is right to stay. This sounds good and “Christian”, and if it means accepting that people are entitled to hold their own views, fine. But it goes further than that and it breathes the post-modern air of “what’s right for you may not be right for me”. The truth is that the leavers are convinced that the right thing to do in relation to a church that has rejected Scriptural authority is to depart from it – not only that it is right for them themselves to do so. We believe it is the right thing – full stop. That is the whole point, and if it were a case of different people believing different things are right, if that were all that is at stake, then we wouldn’t be in this dilemma of separation; we could simply accept the mixed economy that liberals desire.
Although David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee is not a Church of Scotland minister, he has written frequently on various aspects of the present situation and in his response to an article by Eric Alexander printed in the church magazine of Trinity and Henry Drummond Church of Scotland where Eric is now a member, he writes:
The battle to turn the established church into a predominantly biblical church has been lost.
Having the crumbs of the remnant of civic religion is not worth the price of being shackled by an increasingly autocratic and centralised denomination that has turned against the Word of God.
Its time for more Gospel unity. Its time for a renewal of real Presbyterianism. Its time to remember and learn from our history. Its time for us to stop handing over our ministers to be trained by unbelievers. Its time for us to forget about maintaining and living off the churches legacy from the past. Its time to get on with the mission of the present and the potential of future. Its time for a new beginning. Its time to leave.
The conclusion of both David Robertson and David Randall is that the denomination has turned against the Word of God, and that therefore the time has come to leave.
An alternative way.
At the heart of the argument presented by those who advocate secession there is a conviction that the Church of Scotland as a denomination has so embraced a liberal theology and that theology is so dominant in the church as to make it irretrievable to an evangelical biblical stance. The case for leaving is incontrovertible not simply because of a number of bad decisions around a particular case of the induction of a practising homosexual minister but because as an institution it has now, they allege, abandoned orthodox theology particularly in relation to the authority of Scripture.
But is this so? Are there other perspectives from which things might look rather different?
Liberalism in the Church of Scotland.
There have been and are different kinds of liberalism.
In living memory of many of us was a kind of gentle liberalism which was defined not so much by what it overtly denied, but what it never preached. This was, of course, very dangerous…especially when it meant that there was no emphasis upon personal conversion. There was a widespread assumption that really everyone who went to church, and most who were outside it, were really Christians. It was universalism in practice if not in theory. This cut the throat of evangelism, but it was difficult to deal with in any meaningful way, because those who espoused this general attitude were not usually publicly denying the cardinal doctrines of the faith.
Since the 1990s a much more aggressive liberalism has come into existence.
In this form of liberalism the cardinal doctrines of the faith are much more openly under attack. The universalism which was assumed under older liberalism is now vigorously promoted. To suggest that someone might not be ‘in’ is itself tantamount to heresy because the doctrine of ‘non-judgmentalism’ and inclusion, has become paramount. Judgment is an alien concept, and therefore all traditional notions of the atonement have to be re-written. This is radical Christianity, and it is directly opposed to evangelical views. This was epitomised in the much quoted remark at a General Assembly when a commissioner said that we had outgrown the Bible. Such teaching affirms that the Bible’s teaching is there and is of value, but we are not bound by its authority.
The spear head of the attack of this more aggressive liberalism is focussed at present on the issue of sexuality, but the reality is, as has often been pointed out, that behind this is a much broader attack on the authority of Holy Scripture.
The question is, ‘Is this contagion of liberalism such that we must escape it lest we lose our witness to the apostolic faith?’
A historical perspective on evangelical work in the Church of Scotland.
Those who entered the ministry during the resurgence of evangelicalism in the 1950s to the 1990s entered a situation, particularly at the beginning, where the older form of liberalism was widespread, and they entered charges which generally espoused to varying degrees that older liberalism, and they were set upon ‘preaching the Bible’ in such a way that over time the minds of those who heard the truth would be persuaded, people would be converted, and nurtured through Bible Study and prayer so that they grew in a living faith and gradually the tone of a congregation would be changed.
There are many examples of this happening. Nearly all churches which are now regarded as evangelical were formed in that way…. And it happened throughout the country from Wick to Galashiels, from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Sometimes people speak as if the only such ministries were in St George’s Tron, Holyrood Abbey, Sandyford Henderson, and Gilcomston South. It is true that when Jim Philip went to Holyrood Abbey in late 1950s there were only a very few evangelical ministries in the Church of Scotland that could be recognised in Edinburgh. By the time I had my ministry in Wester Hailes from 1977-1987 there was a wide choice of evangelical ministry, in Newhaven, St Catherine’s Argyle, Barclay Bruntsfield, St David’s Broomhouse….and others! By the time I went to Rutherglen in 1987, it was possible to have an evangelical united witness in the Cambuslang/Rutherglen area where the predominance of ministry was evangelical. Across the city of Glasgow there were many evangelical ministries being exercised in widely differing contexts.
It is probably worth also bringing to mind that while we can talk of the broad liberalism of the period, there were always those who were clearly on side for the evangelical cause. They came from the group represented by Tom Allan, DP Thomson, Ian Doyle, David Orrock, Peter Bisset and people of that kind who represented a robust evangelicalism over against the Iona Community which tended to be more liberal theologically leaning to the social gospel especially in the housing estates that were arising at that time. We have to remember too that after outstanding ministries in Auchterarder, Aberdeen and Edinburgh James S Stewart occupied the chair of New Testament language, literature and theology in New College. The influence of Scripture Union particularly under ‘Boss’ Meiklejohn, a licentiate of the Church of Scotland also had a deep influence on men and women entering Christian service including the ministry. David Wright came to New College in the 1960s and continued to teach Church History in New College gaining widespread respect for his evangelical stance on church and social issues.
My point in writing like this is to bring out that all of this happened within a denomination that was broadly liberal. Liberalism did not spread a contagion that destroyed the Gospel. We were like leaven in the lump and the lump in our view of it was being leavened and decay arrested. Much Gospel work prospered. And often it prospered in strong fellowship with those from different church backgrounds. The various campaigns during these years with Stephen Olford, Luis Palau, Billy Graham and others took place on a united base, but very strongly supported from the Church of Scotland.
I don’t recall that during this period there were any of us who wanted to get off this train. The church as a denomination was predominantly liberal. We recognised that. But we could function… we could see people becoming Christians… we could over time see profound changes in congregations. We could live with the liberalism. In some ways it was not important to us because we could do the work of the Gospel unhindered and in large measure supported by the committees of the church in which many of us had some part. The work of Church Extension in the massive postwar housing estates was pioneered by the Church of Scotland and not a few of us became involved in that ministry. And there were those who took a significant part at national level in the committees of the church, Bob McGhee, Frank Gibson, Ian Doyle, Jim Philip…. and many more. There were efforts to see the Church focus on mission and evangelism. John Campbell as an Adviser in Evangelism was a great help to us in the West of Scotland and others served across the land in that kind of capacity.
So is there some kind of change that has taken place to reverse this attitude of positive engagement in the denomination? It has been pointed out that where there were the notable ministries of Holyrood Abbey, St George’s Tron, and Gilcomston South, these have been the very ones which now are exiting the church on the ground that the Church of Scotland as an institution is irretrievably corrupted and beyond renewal. But a multitude of those which were founded in the next generations from the nineteen sixties to the twenty tens, sometimes by those who came from these congregations have no intention at all of leaving. Indeed many of those who under God established these ministries, some now retired, are dismayed to find that there is a threat to these congregations which were faithfully and laboriously built up.
What has come in, and is it decisively new?
What came in to change the attitudes of some evangelicals within the Church of Scotland and lead them to think that the only course of action is to leave?
There is now, as I have described, a much more radical form of liberalism which has found its focus in the issue of the rightness or wrongness of allowing practicing homosexuals to be ministers.
Since the General Assembly’s decision to allow this in a particular case, two commissions have looked at this issue and have reported to the General Assembly. The matter awaits a final resolution constitutionally and legally, but meantime there are individuals and churches which feel that they cannot remain within the Church of Scotland because of its ‘compromise’ on this biblical issue.
Does this constitute something new and so radically unbiblical as to justify secession?
I would suggest that it is not so. Think of the situation vis-à-vis General Assemblies and their decisions with which many of us lived.
We knew that the church was broadly liberal and that if a vote was taken which would establish what the church believed on universal salvation, for example, then in all probability the evangelical view would have failed to gain a majority. In fact there nearly was such a vote at one General Assembly.
Had such a vote been taken and had the evangelical position been lost, would evangelicals have left at that point? The answer is ‘No’.
We knew that that was what the majority thought, but we were in the business of patiently working for the truth in the denomination, believing that doctrinal error would be corrected in the whole church over time. That was what we saw as part of our call.
And we understood something else.
In that earlier generation of evangelicals, we never regarded the General Assembly as the depository of truth, and disagreement with its pronouncements was never thought of as a reason for leaving. We would register dissent, go home, and get on with the work God had called us to do, submitting as we’d promised to such directives as came down so long as they did not clash with conscience. It was possible so to live and the fruit of such an approach was and remains evident.
I think we also operated with a broader understanding of the identity of the Church.
Is the General Assembly and its decisions to be taken as the determinative expression of the mind of the Church?
What about an alternative way of looking at it from the point of view of the church’s local embodiment, its rich local character in every community of Scotland. In reality every Church of Scotland congregation is mixed in almost every sense you can think of, but in many places embodies the reality of Christian life and witness in a community. Often it is the only such embodiment, but very frequently it bears that witness with others from different Christian traditions. Generally this is harmonious and constructive.
This local church, we do understand, is helpfully related to other churches through the Presbyterian government of the Church of Scotland, but that government is largely unseen day on day. These are the mechanics, but the life of the Church is the life of Jesus working by His Spirit in a community.
Suppose then, that is your view of the Church of Scotland and a decision is taken at the General Assembly about the rightness or wrongness of the induction of a practising homosexual minister.
Does that materially affect the Church of Scotland in your community?
It might in time have some effect when your church becomes vacant and you have to think about whether you would wish such a minister in your church. But you will choose! That is the long standing tradition and constitution.
Does it affect your fellowship, your service, your witness as a local church? Probably not at all.
Does it affect the way your minister preaches or pastors? Probably not at all. It may indeed provide some material to raise in teaching ministry about the nature of sexuality and what the Bible teaches.
Unless, of course, he or she becomes conscience stricken about this issue and wants to leave over it. This will distress you because you love your pastor and will feel abandoned if he or she takes this course.
Worse still it will cause distress if the minister wants, because the church where he or she erstwhile ministered now seems to him or her apostate, to take that church out into another denominational structure, or into an independent fellowship. Then you will be distressed, divided and probably confused. Why? You were seeking to embody Christ in your parish, and you were succeeding at least to some degree, but now everything is being dictated by this one issue which suddenly seems to assert that the whole church in all its local manifestations has somehow become newly corrupt and incompatible with any form of Christian witness and therefore must be abandoned.
But have you wrongly isolated the General Assembly as the main or only expression of the Church’s mind? What is this General Assembly? We know it is very fallible, only in a vague sense representative of the membership of the Church, composed with different people in it from year to year, often dominated by those who for one reason or another have the right to be there every year. Are we going to let that body determine our whole understanding of what is the mind and the life of the Church?
And now suppose you do decide on the basis of a General Assembly’s decision that the Church of Scotland is apostate and you are going to leave, how will you do so?
Will you quietly leave yourself and join a suitable alternative denomination? People have always done that honourably over various issues in the past.
Will you, if you are a minister, try to take your congregation with you? That may be possible if all are agreed with you. Occasionally it may happen, but let it be granted that all kinds of other issues will arise at this point. How easy it is for loyalty to a minister to complicate things, or loyalty to the majority, or fear of being a small remnant who are left.
And if you can’t take them all, are you prepared to in effect force a division along the lines of your understanding of the only right thing to do? What of those who come with you? Will you join Free Church or International Presbyterians, or become independent? How will you cope with the consequent lack of support? And what will happen to those who ‘in conscience’, wrongly of course in your judgment, stay? They have to in effect restart the church impoverished of some of its best leaders and most generous givers? And what spiritual attitude is likely to be fostered among those who have come out with you? They are doing the right thing, so by definition, others must be doing the wrong thing. Is that not a breeding ground for the worst kind of spiritual pride, and possibly lead to other separations further down the road?
The underlying assumption of those who leave is that the Church of Scotland is beyond rescue. ‘The battle to turn the established church into a predominantly biblical church has been lost.’ So writes David Robertson.
In this judgment it may have been possible for God to breathe life into the dead bones of Ezekiel 37, but it is impossible for God to breathe new life into the Church of Scotland.
Alternatively, is it possible to view the disastrous decisions of the last few years as but a greater threat to the work of God in the Church of Scotland, but not different in their essential nature from what preceded it and in the context of which so much good was done?
If so then the answer stays the same as many of us lived with throughout all our ministry. We remain and seek to be faithful to God in life, witness and ministry trusting Him for the fruit in our congregations, communities and the life of the denomination.
If this radical and even aggressive liberalism is something new and so powerful that it truly permeates the whole church in a way to render it apostate, then it seems to me that it would have to express itself throughout the church as a whole and be evidenced everywhere as a profound antagonism to the biblical Gospel. I do not think that it does so. In fact, all across the land, God is clearly working in the Church of Scotland, sometimes outstandingly and obviously so. There are liberal voices and liberal churches, but are they stopping the preaching of the Gospel? In many places and sometimes notably there is Gospel work taking place, new initiatives in reaching communities for God, and God is clearly blessing with conversions and people growing in grace and in the knowledge of the love of God. What possible grounds for leaving these situations, or dividing them and fragmenting further our witness?
What if, by contrast with the negative view which would lead to secession, we were to grasp in a new way the calling to faithfulness within the tradition of those who have established and developed an evangelical testimony within the Church of Scotland despite recent setbacks?
As one minister has commented, ‘The vast majority of evangelicals in the Church of Scotland will not be persuaded by secessionist arguments because God has placed on their hearts a deep settled desire to be faithful to what His call is personally, and what He has done and is doing and we trust yet will do within the Church of Scotland’.
Secession or Being Faithful – is this the real choice facing C of S Evangelicals?
A response to Alastair Morrice
Alastair Morrice, one of the most senior and respected evangelicals in the Church of Scotland, has written a fascinating article on why he believes that evangelicals should stay within the Kirk. Alastair is happy for his article to be widely distributed and I am more than happy to help with that. You can read it on Louis Kinsey’s blog here – http://coffeewithlouis.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/staying-in-the-church-of-scotland-by-alastair-morrice/
At first glance it is a convincing and well-written piece. One that will appeal to those who are going to stay in whatever, and one which will cause those who are thinking of leaving to think again. Alastair in particular takes issue with the analysis given by another senior evangelical who has just left, David Randall, and with yours truly. Perhaps he will not mind if I challenge what he is saying (I hope my membership of Crieff will still stand as well!). I recognise entirely his good heart and motivation and his passion for the Gospel and for the Kirk. However his article is I believe profoundly mistaken at several important points – and he is danger of confusing the two.
Firstly I must apologise again for commenting on this. Alastair points out that though I am not a minister of the Church of Scotland, I have written frequently on this issue. I know that that really annoys some people who just basically wish I would go away and mind my own business. Sadly it is my business. I am not particularly concerned with the Free Church, although that is the denomination to which I belong. My desire is neither to engage in schadenfreude nor to put down the Church of Scotland at the expense of others. In fact it is a source of sorrow for me that there are several good people in my congregation who have felt compelled to leave the Church of Scotland and come to St Peters. They are very welcome. The reason for them coming saddens me though. My concern is simply this – the cause of the Gospel in Scotland, through whatever denomination. It is for that reason that I have a great interest in the Church of Scotland and why I belong to the Crieff Fellowship. I recognise the excellent work done by many C of S congregations both in the past and the present. I also have many friends who are Church of Scotland – some have already left, some are planning to leave, some don’t know what to do, and others are determined to stay, whatever happens. I don’t apologise therefore for commenting on this – but I do recognise the deep personal issues and feelings involved so I ask for forgiveness if anything I say causes hurt or upset.
Alastair’s case is straightforward and can be summed up in the following way:
1) The C of S has in the past been liberal but we still managed to work within it and prosper.
2) We were able to do so because we could just ignore the General Assembly and get on with the work of the local Church.
3) Those who leave are splitting local congregations and causing division within the body of Christ. They also foster a spirit of spiritual pride that will in turn lead to further divisions.
4) To leave is to doubt the sovereignty and power of God who can if he wishes turn the dry bones of the Church of Scotland into living ones.
5) Therefore to leave is to create unnecessary schism in the body of Christ. It is better to be faithful and remain.
It is a simple case, powerfully put. But I’m afraid it is completely out of date and does not take into account the current situation both in church and society. Let’s deal with each of these points:
1) We can live with liberalism
Alastair writes: The church as a denomination was predominantly liberal. We recognised that. But we could function… we could see people becoming Christians… we could over time see profound changes in congregations. We could live with the liberalism. In some ways it was not important to us because we could do the work of the Gospel unhindered and in large measure supported by the committees of the church in which many of us had some part.
No one denies that individual congregations have flourished and that great gospel work has been done. But looking at the overall situation, where are we now? Although there are perhaps up to 400 ‘evangelical’ ministries, one leading senior evangelical told me that he doubted there were even 60 evangelical congregations – and some of these are very weak. We have often been told that the continuing decline in C of S membership (from 1.2 million to 400,000 and losing 20,000 per year) was due to the ‘dead wood’ falling away and that soon we would be left with those who were really committed and the C of S would have become an evangelical church. Is there any sign of that happening? The ‘one more push and we are there’ school, are living in a fantasyland, failing to see the demographic, financial and doctrinal disaster that is happening to the Church of Scotland.
As for living with liberalism. Alastair says “we were in the business of patiently working for the truth in the denomination, believing that doctrinal error would be corrected in the whole church over time. That was what we saw as part of our call.” I’m afraid that that faith has been demonstrated again and again to have been misplaced. How ironic that today when I received Alastair’s article I also received this: The Herald is reporting that the Church of Scotland is preparing to welcome Bishop Jack Spong to Glasgow (you can read the full report here – http://coffeewithlouis.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/jack-spong-to-visit-congregations-in-the-presbytery-of-glasgow-herald/ ) Glasgow Presbytery came very close to denying that the Trinity was an essential part of the Christian faith a couple of years ago and therefore it is not to be expected that it will deal with allowing someone who denies the existence of God. Its not that they are incapable of acting. Today I also received (it has been a busy day) word from that Presbytery that they have asked lawyers to act in trying to get the ownership of the Tron Manse. So Glasgow presbytery is preparing to go to law to get an evangelical minister evicted from his manse, whilst preparing to welcome Jack Spong to a couple of its churches. Monty Python could not make this stuff up!
The question for me is – are or should evangelicals be prepared to live with this kind of liberalism? Do you really want to be part of a church that promotes heresy and persecutes believers? There comes a time when you have to shake the dust off your feet. For me promoting atheists as preachers of the Word is that time. The rot is in too deep.
2) We can ignore the General Assembly
“In that earlier generation of evangelicals, we never regarded the General Assembly as the depository of truth, and disagreement with its pronouncements was never thought of as a reason for leaving. We would register dissent, go home, and get on with the work God had called us to do, submitting as we’d promised to such directives as came down so long as they did not clash with conscience. It was possible so to live and the fruit of such an approach was and remains evident.”
Sadly it was precisely because an earlier generation of evangelicals bought into this ‘Presbyterian by name, independent by nature’ ecclesiology that the C of S is now in such a mess. The trouble with Alastair’s ecclesiology is that it does not fit with the nature of Presbyterian vows or church government. C of S congregations are not independent, able to determine what they wish to do, unaffected by decisions from wider church courts such as Presbytery and the General Assembly. Funds are not just sent from evangelical churches to gospel churches but to congregations that would deny the gospel. Do I think that my money should be going to fund Jack Spong coming to Glasgow to deny the gospel in my denomination? Is it really the case that evangelicals can just continue their work unaffected by wider aberrations in the denomination? I would suggest that to believe that is naïve in the extreme.
Remember when the ordination of women was decided? It was ‘permitted’, but within a few years it had changed from being permitted to being mandatory. Even then several congregations who did not think it was biblical were able to get away with it and were left alone to get on with their work. But one by one they were picked off, until this year the moderator after visiting one such congregation, warned that they were going to be dealt with as well. I remember visiting my local evangelical C of S in Tain, soundly Stillite, fantastic preaching. So I thought I was safe in taking my sceptical brethren grandfather along to hear that there could be great preaching in the C of S. Sadly it was a Presbytery service and the preaching was liberal rubbish. But the local church had to go along with it because that is what the presbytery wanted. Evangelicals may not regard the General Assembly or Presbytery as the depository of truth, but they have all sworn to obey them. Pietistic sound bites and theological truisms don’t change the reality on the ground.
3) Those who leave are guilty of schism and fostering spiritual pride
Alastair acknowledges that there are individuals (particularly ministers) who can no longer stay. He suggests that they should just leave quietly and not attempt to take their congregations. He throws up several warnings:
And if you can’t take them all, are you prepared to in effect force a division along the lines of your understanding of the only right thing to do? What of those who come with you? Will you join Free Church or International Presbyterians, or become independent? How will you cope with the consequent lack of support? And what will happen to those who ‘in conscience’, wrongly of course in your judgment, stay? They have to in effect restart the church impoverished of some of its best leaders and most generous givers? And what spiritual attitude is likely to be fostered among those who have come out with you? They are doing the right thing, so by definition; others must be doing the wrong thing. Is that not a breeding ground for the worst kind of spiritual pride, and possibly lead to other separations further down the road?
It is difficult to know where to begin with this. Surely those who are guilty of schism are those who promote and defend heresy? Surely those who do not stand up to those who administer the poison of false teaching are just as responsible? Alastair is writing out of a particular context. He is well aware of the situation in Logies and St Johns where the Session voted to leave along with the majority of the congregation. Indeed 15 elders stood up in front of the congregation and committed themselves to do so. But after a strong resistance from Presbytery led by the evangelical interim-moderator, the group that voted to leave has itself split. Some are now staying hoping to see a renewed evangelical Logies. Perhaps they will. I hope they will. Meanwhile the breakaway group had a good start as Grace Community Church in Menzieshill last Sunday (led by the aforementioned David Randall), with over 90 people at the morning service. But it could and should have been more.
If Alaister’s definition of schism and division is leaving the Church of Scotland then I guess Grace Community Church and others are guilty. But if you don’t equate the body of Christ with the Church of Scotland, but rather with all who seek and follow Jesus, then I would suggest campaigning against fellow evangelicals is a more schismatic act. Seeking to persuade and frighten people that the sinking ship will go down if they leave and thus divide brother from brother, is a schismatic act. Perhaps even writing his paper accusing those who leave of being unfaithful and schismatic and hoping for its wide distribution to discourage others from leaving, is itself schismatic in the biblical sense? Who caused the schism in the group that were leaving Logies? Maybe evangelicals would be better off handing out leaflets at the Jack Spong meetings, and setting up an evangelical network to combat liberalism, rather than seeking to combat other evangelicals. Why do I get the sneaking suspicion that some evangelicals regard Willie Philip, Dominic Smart, Andrew Randall and even yours truly as a greater threat than Spong?!
Alastair is right to warn about the danger of spiritual pride and hubris amongst those who leave. But it is not just those who leave who have to watch out for that. When an evangelical can stand up and say that the only show in town is the Church of Scotland, when others can equate leaving with schism and staying with faithfulness, then spiritual pride is indeed not far from the door.
In the midst of all this though is one major reason why many evangelicals will not leave. It is the fear that Alastair expresses – ‘how will you cope with the constant lack of support’? If you go to the Free Church, or IPC or become independent you will not be supported. There is an unthinking arrogance here and a lack of trust in the provision of the Lord. How ironic that we are expected to believe that the Lord can and will revive the dead bones of a denomination, but we should not expect him to provide for his people who leave the secure shackles of that denomination! I suspect that the minister who made a stand against homosexual partnerships within his congregation and was told by ‘evangelicals’ don’t rock the boat, keep quiet; or the kind of ‘support’ given to Willie Philip and the Tron, is not quite what Alastair had in mind! It really boils down to the perfectly legitimate fear of losing job and manse. But to be honest I would rather take a pay cut and be in a denomination where there is gospel freedom and discipline (and yes, the two do go together) than continue to be well paid but be restricted by those kind of fears. Besides which I have known a great deal of spiritual support within the Free Church. I may have my frustrations with presbytery and some of the strictures but to be honest I know that we are all on the same side. And believe you me it is much easier to reform a church with a genuine commitment to biblical authority than it is to reform one that neglects or rejects the Bible. I have been amazed at what God has done in the Free Church over the past decade. Anyway I would rather be independent than vow submission to church courts that go against the Word of God. Freedom has a price.
4) God can revive the Church of Scotland
The underlying assumption of those who leave is that the Church of Scotland is beyond rescue. ‘The battle to turn the established church into a predominantly biblical church has been lost.’ So writes David Robertson. In this judgment it may have been possible for God to breathe life into the dead bones of Ezekiel 37, but it is impossible for God to breathe new life into the Church of Scotland.
This is somewhat disingenuous and not really worthy of Alastair. I of course am not denying that God is able to breathe new life into any situation. Can these bones live? Only the Lord knows. But that is a truism that does not really help. And it is one that proves too much. It is actually an argument for leaving the Church of Scotland, admitting the Reformation was a mistake, and re-joining Rome. After all if God can bring new life into the bones in Ezekiel 37 he can bring new life into the Roman Catholic Church. Given that the RC church is far more effective voice in the fight against militant atheism and secularism why would that not be the more attractive option? If God does bring renewal and revival to the Church of Scotland I will rejoice as much as if he brings it through any other group.
I know that God can heal. It does not stop me going to a doctor. I know that God can anoint my preaching. It does not stop me preparing sermons. I know that God alone can convert. It does not stop me proclaiming the Gospel. I know that God can speak through donkeys. It does not make me appoint them as evangelists. I know that God can bring dead churches to life. It does not stop me seeking to belong to a living one.
I had a friend who bought into this whole ‘I can be a living witness in a dead church which God can bring to life’ theory. After three years of struggling in a liberal C of S he moved town and immediately went to the Baptist Church. I teased him; ‘what happened to being a witness’? “I am never going through that spiritual desert again’!
5) It is better to be ‘faithful’ and remain
As one minister has commented, ‘The vast majority of evangelicals in the Church of Scotland will not be persuaded by secessionist arguments because God has placed on their hearts a deep settled desire to be faithful to what His call is personally, and what He has done and is doing and we trust yet will do within the Church of Scotland’.
The trouble with this is that it is also playing the spiritual pride card. The ‘faithful’ remain whereas those who leave are unfaithful secessionists (talk about loaded words!). That is as ridiculous as saying that the faithful leave and the unfaithful remain. I am sure that there will be those who are committed faithful believers who will stay, and there will be those who will leave. Let each be persuaded in his own mind.
Besides which it is a very strange definition of faithfulness which means that you swear allegiance to a denomination which has set itself against the Word of God and which is being used to spread the poison of a virulent liberalism. As Alastair himself states the situation has changed, from the nice ‘soft’ liberalism of those who just waffled meaningless pietisms to those who now aggressively promote anti-biblical doctrine. Mind you there has been a change in evangelicalism, from one which recognised that unity across denominational borders was key, to one which sees itself as just a ‘part’ of the church – the church being the Church of Scotland. Evangelicalism in the C of S has become increasingly soft and increasingly denominational.
What he does not seem to recognise and where he is really out of date is in his failure to acknowledge how much Scottish society has changed. Christendom has gone. The parish system has largely gone. The remnants of civic religion remain but bit-by-bit the last vestiges of that are being chipped away as well. And the Church of Scotland is proving as useless as a chocolate teapot in preventing that. Whether it is the debacle of appearing before the Scottish parliament and arguing that you are against same sex marriage for everyone, but for same sex partnerships for ministers; or the current pathetic attempts to retain the privilege of being school chaplains by promising not to promote Christianity, the C of S has become a caricature of what it once was. Less than 5% of the Scottish population attend the Church of Scotland. Maybe we all need to wake up and smell the coffee, before it is too late. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic is not what I want in ministry. I would rather be manning the lifeboats to rescue the perishing.
Conclusion: Take the Shackles Off
One phrase that Alaister used really struck home to me. Do I really want to be part of a church that just ‘functions’? That for me is the maintenance model of the church. I want the mission model. I want to be part of a church that is radical and revolutionary, that turns the world upside down. I don’t just want to ‘function’.
I was recently talking to an elder who has left the Church of Scotland. He spoke of feeling free and the shackles coming off. It reminded me of this song – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7eZD3TKn_M
It may be that you can operate with the shackles of a bureaucratic Presbyterianism in a declining church in an increasingly secular culture, desperately trying to relive the glories of the past and strengthening what remains and is about to die. Personally I have no interest in merely ‘functioning’ whether within the Church of Scotland or the Free Church. If you can be free within the Church of Scotland then go to it brothers and sisters. (I pray that Alastair and other friends within the C of S will know real times of Gospel refreshing and prosperity). But if not – get out. Don’t allow an unrealistic fantasy view of the Church, or the fear of what might happen, keep you from living in the glorious liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to take the shackles off my feet so I can dance! I just want to praise
David Robertson – September 2013