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
Footnote: In an earlier edition of this article I stated that Alastair handed out copies of Eric Alexanders article to members of Logies. He assures me that he did no such thing. I got that one wrong and apologise unreservedly to Alastair (thanks for correcting me). If anyone else spots any other errors (it would not be the first time I have made mistakes!) then please let me know. Otherwise I stand by what is written above.