Alexander Leaving? (Eric Alexander on leaving the Church of Scotland)

Eric Alexander on leaving the Church of Scotland

 If there is a Christian leader more gracious, wise and godly than Eric Alexander, I have yet to meet him.  The former minister of St Georges Tron has been a model of expository preaching and Christian kindness to me.  As well as being a fine preacher he has always had this extraordinary ability at a one to one level to make you feel honoured and valued.  When he lived in St Andrews after his retirement I found him to be a constant source of encouragement and wisdom.  He is someone who I can listen to without cynicism or suspicion.  So I was really interested to hear his take on the current situation in the Church of Scotland.  He has written about it here in the Trinity Possil church magazine and already this article has been doing the rounds. http://trinitypossilandhenrydrummondchurch.synthasite.com/resources/SUMMER%202013%20A5%20MAGAZINE.pdf So what does this wise elder statesman have to say about the question of whether people should leave the Church of Scotland or not?

Mr Alexander (sorry the old habit of calling him Mr, out of respect is one, I still keep!), sets out five reasons why he will not be leaving the Church of Scotland.

1)   Because of who God is and what He has done.

2) Because of what Christ has said and what he is doing.

3) Because of what I learn from the history of previous departures from the Church of Scotland.

4) Because of what I have observed, where there are splits and divisions in churches throughout the world.

5) Because of a disturbing lack of true and strong leadership in our time.

I have read and re-read what Mr Alexander has to say.  I have prayed and thought about the arguments and wondered whether I should change my position (which was that whilst there were some who would have to leave and should be encouraged as they do so, others would have to stay and also be encouraged as they did so).  Eric Alexander’s reasons though have got me thinking again and he certainly has effected a change in my thinking.  I believe that these five reasons Mr Alexander gives are actually reasons for leaving! They make it much more difficult to stay.  Let me explain.

1) Because of who God is and what He has done.

Of course this is where we must begin and end.  With the sovereign triune God. The church is His church, not ours.  He is the Sovereign Lord over all its life and work.  Ultimately we are answerable to Him and no one else.   All our plans must be obtained from Him.  He is the ultimate Shepherd of the flock and calls some as under-shepherds to look after the flock.  There are those who are not yet in the flock. As John 10:16 tells us there are “other sheep which are not of this sheep pen – I must bring them also”.   It is true that those of us who are under-shepherds are answerable to God for neglecting those who as yet are outside of the flock.  And Ezekiel 34 has a lot to teach us about being shepherds of the flock.   I went and read it again after reading Mr Alexander’s admonition and this is what I found –

We are not just to take care of ourselves and worry about our wages and our manses.  We are to take care of the flock.  We are to strengthen the weak, heal the sick search for the lost, not by being harsh or cruel but by bringing them the Word of the Lord.   God’s people are scattered because of lack of leadership and he holds us accountable.  The fact that we have allowed the church to become corrupted, that we hand over the sheep to the wolves who then feed them poison is a reason we will be judged.  God is going to look after his sheep and He is not dependent on us.  He is going to bring them out of all nations and ensure that they are fed good pasture.  He will shepherd his flock with justice.  He will judge between the rams and the goats.   We are not to muddy the waters.  He will send his servant, the one Shepherd who will tend them and be their shepherd.   This is the best reason for getting out of the Church of Scotland that I can think of.

Even the most ardent advocate of the parish establishment system cannot deny that the waters in which the Church of Scotland bathes have become increasingly muddy.  The Lords people are battered and confused, hurt and wounded, because the Church has mocked the Word of God and acted as though they have the right to amend and re-write it.   What shepherd is going to stay in a denomination that administers such poison?   Ah but, the evangelical will say, I don’t do that.  I feed my people the pure water of the Bible.   But you do so in a context where you have pledged submission to the courts of a Church that has deliberately gone against that Bible. You have accepted that you are just one ‘wing’ of the wider church and given the impression that being an evangelical is just a matter of theological opinion or personal taste.  It is little wonder that the flock are confused at the mixed message that is being sent out.

The other factor here is the question of evangelism and those that are not yet in the flock.  It may once have been the case that the Church of Scotland was a great boat to fish in (although I have always thoughts that boats should be fished from, not in), but that day has now gone.  Less than 4% of the population attend the Church of Scotland.  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.  I can think of one church that was not allowed to do evangelism in the street opposite its church because it ‘belonged’ to another parish.  Or another minister who had to cancel an invite to have an evangelical from another denomination preach at a joint Easter service because he felt obliged to have his ‘liberal’ colleague in the neighbouring parish.  I know that Eric Alexander does not think that the Church of Scotland is, as another minister stated ‘the only show in town’, but I am beginning to think that for most people they would be much freer to get on with seeking the lost sheep if they were unhindered by the bureaucracy, decline and liberal theology of a dying denomination.

I suspect that what Mr Alexander had in mind here were those who belong to the local Church of Scotland parish church and who are as yet ‘not of Christ’s flock’.  Would it not be wrong for a minister to leave them?  Perhaps.  But equally one should ask, is there not a time to shake the dust of your shoes and go to those who have not yet heard?  And is there not a time to actually lead the flock out of the wilderness?   Or are we always obliged to stay in the desert?
2) Because of what Christ has said and what he is doing.

It is of course true that as Matthew 16:18 tells us, it is Jesus and not us, who is building his church.  It is also wonderfully true that the gates of hell will not prevail against her. He knows exactly what he is doing, and what he permits others to do.  He knows the hellish origin of the opposition.  And we are to stand with him and not flee the battlefield.  We are to fight the good fight of faith (or the faith).    There is a great door that has been opened for us, and there are many who oppose us (1 Corinthians 16:9).     Which is exactly why evangelicals should leave. 

I think the confusion here is caused by the apparent equation of the denomination of the Church of Scotland with the Church of Christ.   Of course there are churches and individuals within the Church of Scotland who are part of the Church of Christ, but to equate the Church of Scotland with the Church of Christ is a category error (as it would be with any other denomination, including the Free Church). Incidentally it would also be a category error to equate the Church of Scotland with the synagogue of Satan.  Whatever happens there will still be Christian brothers and sisters, and congregations left within the denomination.  Those of us outwith are not to treat those within as otherwise.  The point is that it is Christ who builds his church, not us and our plans, strategies or commitments to the ideal of a national establishment.   I have to recognise my Christian brothers and sisters in the Church of Scotland, Elim, Baptists, charismatics, Catholics etc.  What I must not do is make my denomination so important that I end up equating it in practice with the Church of Christ.

We also need to ask where the battlefield actually is?  Although we have our fights within the church, surely the church is not to be the battlefield?  The battlefield is out in the world in an increasingly secular and pagan Scotland. The question then becomes whether the Church of Scotland is a suitable vehicle to be on that battlefield?  Or for that matter the Free Church?  I have wondered that for many years and whilst we have made many improvements, there is much yet to be done.  However we do have this in our favour, we do actually believe that the Bible is the Word of God and has to be our only rule to guide and direct us, whereas I honestly believe that the Church of Scotland as a whole has conceded far too much to the anti-Christian zeitgeist of the times. The battle to turn the established church into a predominantly biblical church has been lost.  Does the Lord really want us to continue to fight a lost cause?

I don’t want to spend my life fighting largely irrelevant battles on the Titanic; I want to be in one of the rescue boats, saving people.   There are many who oppose us.  Which is why we need to be crystal clear who is on our side and why we need to take the battle to the enemy, and not be continually fighting amongst ourselves, or allowing the enemies of the gospel to pervert and destroy the church.   It could be argued that the commitment of good men to an ideal of the National Church that belongs to a past age is in actual fact a hindrance to fighting the good fight of the faith, rather than the opposite.   I must admit that I do find it strange to think that men like Peter Dickson, Willie Phillip, James Torrens, Andrew Randall, Robin Sydserff, could even inadvertently be accused of fleeing the battle field!  The price that some of these men have paid, and will pay, is a steep one.
3) Because of what I learn from the history of previous departures from the Church of Scotland.

 It is true that division and secession is often a bad thing.  And it is true that Scotland is plagued far too much by divided churches from the past.  The insanity of villages with three or even four Presbyterian churches which all teach virtually the same is well documented.  And as I have consistently argued Scotland needs yet another Presbyterian denomination like it needs a hole in the head!   But is the choice only that we must stay in a declining and compromised denomination or have yet further divisions?  Why could we not have further unity amongst Bible believing Christians?

And yes there is a great deal we can learn from history.   But one thing we do not learn is that a church that leaves never lasts or does not have a positive effect.  In fact when I look at church history I cannot but thank God for the Methodist revival, the Disruption and the Reformation.  As our Catholic friends never tire pointing out, the Church of Scotland itself is a secessionist church!  In more modern times I am thankful for the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  These and many others prove that the statement that ‘churches which leave do not last more than a generation’ is not accurate.  Some churches that leave do not survive, but others do.  What is certain is that once liberalism infects a denomination it rarely recovers, and even if there is a recovery of biblical Christianity it is often the case that the old wineskins cannot contain the new wine.

Thomas Manton the distinguished Puritan said “Division in the church breeds atheism in the world”.  And he was right.  When biblical Christians fall out with another it does a phenomenal amount of harm.  But it is much more likely that toleration of heresy in the church breeds atheism in the world. Liberal Christianity would certainly turn me into an atheist. When 80 members of Glasgow presbytery voted not to affirm the Trinity as of the essence of the Christian faith, you know that the rot is in deep.

4) Because of what I have observed, where there are splits and divisions in churches throughout the world.

Division of course breeds harshness, bitterness, pride and self-interest.  That is in the nature of it.  Or it could be that harshness, bitterness, pride and self-interest breed division. The lack of love is probably the most off putting thing for a non-Christian to see.   However sometimes it is precisely love (for Jesus, his Word, his people and the people of the world) that will cause us to divide and separate from error.  And it is possible to leave without hating those you are leaving.  It is also not fair to set out the argument so that it appears that if you leave you are responsible for creating harshness etc. but if you stay you are peace loving and kind!  That is like suggesting that if you preach the bible you are responsible for causing division, bitterness and hatred.

Mr Alexander’s quotation of Justin Welby puzzled me. “If the people on the other side of the controversy are also Christians, then according to the New Testament I am obliged to love them. I do not have any alternative. I may correct them with gentleness …but I cannot hate them. It is not an option that God in Scripture has left me”.

This sets up a false dichotomy.  Who is arguing that we should hate anyone?  I may disagree with Muslims, Hindus and pagans but should I hate any of them?  Am I not to love my enemies?   And anyway is not the key question whether the people on the other side of the controversy are actually Christians?  I know many clergymen who I cannot regard as Christians.  If they deny the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, the virgin birth and the bible, in what sense can they be called ‘followers of Christ’?  Of course there are those who are believers who will disagree about many things (like whether they should leave or stay in the Church of Scotland), and we must learn to disagree in love and humility, as we should do with our enemies as well.

I know many of the people who have left the Church of Scotland and yes, whilst there have been some who have been hurt and perhaps express themselves in less than helpful ways and may have a hard and bitter spirit, (and doubtless there are some who just like a fight!), that has thankfully been the exception rather than the rule.  Most people I know who have left have done so with a heavy and broken heart and with a sorrow that a church they have served for many years has so departed from the faith that they feel they have to leave.  To be honest, I have heard a great deal more anger, frustration and bitterness from some evangelicals who have decided to stay and who seem to see the battle as being to try and keep as many evangelicals in the Kirk as possible, rather than against those who would deny the Bibles teaching.  Likewise there are of course those who stay who do so with a heavy heart, making the best of a bad job, and realising their unity with those who leave.

Evangelicalism used to mean that we saw our primary duty to our brothers and sisters who shared the same faith, no matter the denomination.  I have a fear that there has been a change whereby some now see their primary loyalty to the denomination they belong, with evangelicalism just being seen as a strand within that.  For me the day that I put my loyalty to the Free Church before my loyalty to the Church of Christ, is the day I will resign.   Chalmers mantra still remains apposite –  ‘Who cares for the Free Church compared with the Christian good of Scotland?!”
5) Because of a disturbing lack of true and strong leadership in our time.

It may be true that we are without outstanding leaders (although I note in passing that many leaders have not been considered ‘outstanding’ until they are dead and buried!).  It is also surely true as Mr Alexander argues that we need to cry out to God to raise up strong, godly, outstanding leaders.  However I think that there is a false dichotomy when he states ‘my call is for intercession, not secession’, as if these two were opposites.  What if, in response to intercession, God has called for and allowed secession?   What if the church of God is not dead but is in actual fact beginning to burst with new life, and that new life needs to be put into new wineskins?   In my view God did raise up strong, godly, outstanding leaders in James and George Phillip, Willie Still, Sinclair Ferguson and Eric Alexander himself.   The Church of Scotland and the Church in Scotland benefited enormously from that.   But it is noticeable that all but one of the main churches they pastored have now left or are in the process of leaving the Church of Scotland.   To those of us who worked with the Stillite position which had the Church of Scotland as the primary means for renewal and revival in Scotland and saw the rest of us as, at best, errant separated brethren, this is an incredible sea change.

I often hear people say that there were very few reformed evangelicals in the post-war Church of Scotland, and that if God changed that before, he can change it again.  They are right, but they are missing out one vital factor.  This is a very different Scotland.  In the 1950’s the Church of Scotland was at is peak with 1.2 million members; society saw itself as primarily Christian. Now the C of S has 400,000 and is in free-fall in an increasingly secularised society.  It is true that God can do as he pleases, but just because he can make me walk on water does not mean that I should not use the bridge!  I may be wrong but I just can’t see the kind of leadership Mr Alexander and us all want, coming out of a declining church in such a culture, with an increasingly centralised and compromised bureaucratic leadership.   On the other hand the Cornhill Trust, the Bonar Trust and other groups are far more likely to provide the training and churches for the new generation of Christian leaders to get to work with.  The bottom line is that the boat has sailed (or sunk)…we need something new or renewed.

It is the lack of leadership that has created this crisis.  And it is the lack of leadership that means that it would be far better for most people to leave and get into a situation where these committed and godly leaders could be trained.

Conclusion

As I write this, I do so not out of any combative spirit, nor because of any kind of schadenfreude.  My heart bleeds for my friends in the Church of Scotland, and especially for Eric Alexander who has had to watch what appears to be disintegration in so much that he worked for.  It pains me enormously to have to disagree with him in this way.  I don’t believe his work has been in vain. There is an on-going fruitful legacy, but it is increasingly outwith the Church of Scotland.  (Incidentally it is a source of great joy that many of Mr Alexander’s sermons are now available at http://www.ericalexander.co.uk/index.php).

The irony is that I am writing this in the Bath Street ‘Church’ where the Tron are now meeting.   As I walked here in the middle of the day I passed the St Georges Tron building.  Every time I have been in Glasgow before it has been an open and inviting place with a buzz of activity about it – tens of thousands of people walking past it and seeing a credible and exciting witness to Christ.  Today it was closed.  The doors were shut.  There was a rather pathetic notice stating that there was a service at 7pm on Sundays and lunchtime one on Tuesdays.  It really really upset me.  The Church of Scotland could easily have sold or let the Tron building to the lively and dynamic congregation that were using it.  But instead playing a rather horrible and expensive game, they insisted the congregation move and now they have a ‘church’ without people.  At least not enough to have a morning service.  They have a £3 million building at the heart of Scotland’s largest city that is shut 95% of the time.  What kind of pettiness allows that to happen?  To me nothing illustrates more the corruption at the heart of the denomination.  And it is beyond comprehension that some evangelicals supported this farce.

Yes, I know that there will be good people who will stay in and do what they can to preserve what remains and I pray both that they succeed and that I am proved wrong in my analysis (it would not be the first time!).   But because of who God is and what he has done; because of what Christ has said and what he is doing; because of the history of the Church of Scotland; because of the dangers of splits and divisions in Christ’s church; because of a disturbing lack of true and strong leadership, I believe the time has now come.  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.

David Robertson

August 27th 2013

PS. If you want a different view from another senior minister this from David Randall (senior) is excellent – http://coffeewithlouis.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/crisis-or-opportunity-by-david-randall-snr/

13 thoughts on “Alexander Leaving? (Eric Alexander on leaving the Church of Scotland)

  1. I was confused by Mr Alexander’s points, like you seeing them as providing cogent reasons to leave. I’ve never been to Glasgow and know ‘the Tron’ only by its reputation, but found your description immensely sad. How can God be pleased with a denomination that treats one of its most faithful congregations in that way? It really is tragic.

  2. David G – however complex David R’s description of the tragedy of the Tron, it is not nearly so simple!!
    I think we would be best served with a secession from public comment; by all means engage locally with those who have ears to hear.

    1. William – I love the fact that you describe my description as complex and then argue that it is not so simple as I portray! And equally I love the fact that you call for a secessation from public comment by making a public comment! You do realise that I was only responding to a widely circulated public comment by Eric Alexander, which he had every right to make and I have every right to interact with. This is a national church situation which affects the whole Church in Scotland and personally I think it is better to have this discussion in public than to leave it to gossip and innuendo. Feel free to join in – as you have already done!

  3. I think another dimension that needs to be considered here are the many challenges facing the western church at large, particularly those of engaging in a culturally relevant way and of the cultures tendency towards rejection of authoritarian structures in favour of authentic community. This article by Campbell Campbell-Jack (http://possil.wordpress.com/re-discovering-the-church/) articulates some of these challenges far better than I could. Assuming these challenges are accepted the question then becomes how can the church organisation adapt to address them?

  4. The Tron scandal revealed a lot about the CoS. It showed an organisation controlled by unbelievers, filled with spite and hate. If we had any doubts about who was in the right in the matter, they were answered by the behaviour of the presbytery officials. I mean, what kind of person can calmly send in bailiffs to rip the hymn books out of the hands of the worshippers who had paid for them? It showed the rottenness. And the lying about it afterwards … well, that showed what spirit was really in charge of the CoS Glasgow presbytery. People in the right don’t need to lie.

    If the CoS was sound, there would have been an enquiry. After all, even from the point of view of the presbytery, their actions were insane. If all you think about is money and power, you wouldn’t do what they did. The organisation gets funds from churches. You don’t preserve a church by booting out the congregation and closing the building! Most church splits blow over (they might have reasoned) unless … unless you get money and property involved. So what did they do? They seized the money of the congregation and behaved like Nazis. Will any member of Tron *ever* come back? Will any of them ever donate a penny further? Not likely, in both cases! It will never be forgotten. So the CoS itself took enormous damage, and will take more damage as it accelerates decline. Why wouldn’t a rational body investigate who caused this disaster, and fire them? Yet … nobody has been held to account. Nobody is admitting that they did anything wrong, even though all Scotland is revolted at them!

    Nobody can be in fellowship with such people.

    Of course there is always the “best boat to fish from” argument, and there is much to be said for it. But it does mean abandoning the idea of the church as being anything but congregations.

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  6. The description of those who meet in Bath Street halls “where the Tron are now meeting” is not accurate. St Georges Tron continues with a small but vibrant evangelical congregation seeking to live the life of the Kingdom in a way that is relevant to the dynamic city that it is at the heart of.

  7. I do not know the details of the CoS scandal at Tron and perhaps elsewhere, but that Eric Alexander and Sinclair Ferguson left that “building masquerading as a church of God,” likely after years of dismay and frustration, is an strong indicator of what is really going on. The Spirit of God doesn’t live in buiidings, and hence to leave such a sad tattered thing is the only righteous thing to do! These men of God left because what they stood and stand for in Christ was not and largely is in fact not understood nor appreciated.
    In other words, Eric, Sinclair, William Still, and the likes of Alistair Begg, Derek Thomas and others know full well that Satan has managed to take the focus off the essential fact of needing to be born again and of being regenerated in and by the Holy Spirit, and instead has got people caught up in the details of the scandal, the lumbering bureaucracy of the CoS, and in allowing tradition to dictate policy, among other critically-wounding issues. Hence that the true messenger does in fact move on, dusting his sandals of any traces of departures from the grace of the living God, who, incidentally, lives on in the hearts of men and women and certainly not in any ‘church’ institution, system, or building.
    Hence that the ‘venerable’ Tron should stand largely empty or be filled with enthusiastic evangelicals who don’t have a clue about the real issues facing God’s own true messengers.
    Alas, this is no new thing.
    Might the CoS do what it wants to do without the anointed ministries of these great Scots preachers…
    For, as they know, the sheep hear the Masters’ voice, and must flee that which has departed from the living God!

  8. I attended St George’s Tron as a student. I met and married my wife there (in 1997 – Mr Alexanders lasts wedding I think!). I encountered Our Lord there, and started to learn from Holy Scripture. I owe a sincere debt to Mr Alexander and the congregation at the Tron. In 2010 I was received into the Catholic Church. I have only two key points:

    1. The greatest tragedy in Christendom was the reformation – that was the first great leaving. There have been many since and there are no over 28,000 protestant denominations world wide. Why is this happening.? I absolutely believe the Bible is the hold word of God. But, Christ didn’t build the Church on Holy Scripture. We need to stop trying to do that. It is going to fail through all eternity.

    2. The centre of the Christian life is the Eucharist / Communion – re-read John Chapter 6

    The Catholic (universal) position is Truth. I would highly recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Evangelical is Not Enough by Howard Thomas.

    There is a lot of rot talked about the Catholic Church and most protestants that I speak to have views on the Church that are entirely based on prejudice. If we really are seeking Christ in all his fullness we must become men and women of study. The above two publications would be a great start. The fundamental answer to the problems raised in this discussion are answered in the Catechism. The text is full referenced back to Holy Scripture.

    God bless and enjoy the study!

    Campbell

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