I have come to a rather worrying conclusion – which I will share with you at the end of this article. I want to reflect a little on two things in the past week which indicate the state of the Church in Scotland. I recently attended a conference in St Andrews at which there was a considerable variety of Christian leaders. We heard a superb lecture from Dr John Webster on Creation from Nothing. It was brilliant, mind stretching, wonderful. I was so encouraged. And then came the questions and discussion.
Without Me God Cannot Exist
One minister somewhat rudely thanked the speaker for his talk because it had reminded him how ‘creation out of nothing’ should be way down the list of priorities, that it made God seem even more remote and that it was obvious that people had just made up God to replace eternal matter. Another suggested that God had to create because he is love and who else would he have to love (at this point I had to be restrained….I shouted out – ‘have you not heard of the Trinity? Its basic theology!’). Yet another declared “without me God cannot exist”. It was desperate stuff. And this from academics and church leaders!
Lord, Deliver Us From Nutters.
I know that theological legalism has slain its millions. And it is still with us. I have been stalked this week by a strange and unbalanced ‘pastor’ from the US who not only considers himself to be the heir apparent of Knox, Calvin, Luther and Spurgeon but also, slightly more plausibly, considers yours truly to be ‘anti-Christ’ to such an extent that he devoted a whole 90 minute sermon to me. Nuts. Yes I am only too aware that theological legalism has slain its millions. But theological liberalism has slain its tens of millions.
The Modern Chalmers Sermon
And then I listened to the sermon of the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Dr John Chalmers, as he was on his morale-boosting visit to what remains of Stornoway High Church (all the Session and 250 members have left to form a new Free Church because of recent Assembly decisions to go against the bible). From what I know of him, and the brief encounter I have had with him, John Chalmers seems a nice man with a pleasant and winsome manner and a genuine concern for people. I listened to his sermon with great interest – not least when he announced that he was going to tell us what the ‘true purpose of the church is” – you can listen to the whole sermon here –
Let me leave aside the political church stuff even though I was intrigued to hear the claim that “there is no other Christian church which is compelled by its belief in the Gospel and by its constitution, to the common good”. I suspect the Catholics, Baptists and even the Free Church would find that a somewhat arrogant and pompous statement. My concern is not with the Church of Scotland but rather with the Church in Scotland. All of us. And the Moderators sermon is a great indication of how much trouble we are in. Why?
At one level it was relatively ‘hermless’ (as Michael Marra would say). There was little to disagree with and even less to offend (I suspect it was designed that way). At a superficial level perhaps all could sign up to it. And therein lies the first problem – because Muslims, Methodists, Mennonites, Mormons and Mandeians could all sign up to it, as well as all the other letters of the alphabet. Apparently the purpose of the church is helping lonely people have friends. Jesus is with you in your loneliness, you are agents of his friendship and as you show friendship you cause people to experience the love of the Risen Christ. It doesn’t matter your theology (which is just about point scoring anyway), all that matters is that you are a friend of Jesus. It was consistent with the Moderators earlier message in Life and Work that you can belong to the church without having any doctrinal convictions.
And therein lies the problem. Part of what is said is meaningless waffle, the kind of twee nonsense exemplified in the worst Christian music video ever –
But part of it is very meaningful heresy. Here is why. If you say you are a friend of Jesus I just simply ask ‘which Jesus?’ If you refuse to answer that question you have just made a nonsense of your whole position. Jesus could be an historical figure, a mere prophet, the first communist or your pet rabbit! The minute you begin to answer the question you are into the realms of doctrine. Jesus is not your own personal Jesus, he is not whoever you want him to be, and he is not the ‘historical’ (i.e. mythical) Jesus beloved of some academics. He is a real, historical, living person. He is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the One who performed miracles, was crucified for our sins, rose from the dead and is coming back. The reason I wrote Magnificent Obsession was to introduce Jesus to modern people who have no idea who he is.
What really surprises me is that so many who are leaders in the church find it easy to use the word ‘Jesus’ but seem to have little idea of who he is, what he did or what he wants.
What is the Church for?
It is the pillar and foundation of the truth. It is the church of Christ built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself both as the Chief Cornerstone and Head. Of course we can sing ‘What a friend we have in Jesus”. That’s a great truth. Providing you don’t reduce Jesus to the level of your teddy bear, or imaginary friend. The Church exists to love, worship, serve and proclaim Christ. The trouble with the moderator’s sermon is that it was actually devoid of any meaningful Christian content and therefore in and of itself negated what the Church is actually for.
And that is where the conclusion I mentioned at the beginning comes into play. When I hear grown educated clergy asking how God could exist without us, or why do we need to believe in a God who is eternal, self-existent, uncreated, omniscient, omnipresent, almighty, triune? I despair. It’s as though the whole of Gods self-revelation in the bible and 2000 years of Christian theology is irrelevant. This is not progress – this is a reversion to pre-Christian paganism, in the name of Christ! My conclusion is that there are many ‘Christian’ teachers who do not teach God, because I suspect they do not know God and have little or no idea of who He is. They have a ‘form of godliness, but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).
Now let me take a pause here and deal with the inevitable objections that some of my friends will come up with.
1) ‘David, you are just engaging in Church of Scotland bashing’. No. You don’t get to hide behind that particular red herring. I don’t care two hoots whether that sermon was preached by the Moderator of the C of S, the Pope or someone in the Free Church. Whoever preached it would be wrong. This has nothing to do with the Church of Scotland – except to point out how deep the rot has set into that particular institution. I know that there are many fine C of S ministers who will teach the God of the Bible, the Christology and theology of the classic Christian creeds, but when an ‘evangelical’ congregation can sit in silence and listen to a sermon like that, it is clear evidence of at best a confused situation. Actually there was one other thing that the Moderator said which was specific to the Church of Scotland. He commented on the fact that Herod and Pilate, who had previously been enemies, became friends because of their common cause against Christ. This may have been wicked of me but it reminded me of the Church of Scotland and the Humanist Society becoming friends! A strange alliance indeed.
2) ‘You are being harsh and judgemental. How is all the above an example of the love of Christ?’. The reason I shouted out at the St Andrews conference was BECAUSE I love Christ. The reason I write this, with such deep concern and pain, is BECAUSE I love Christ and I love the people of Scotland and the Church of Scotland. I want them to hear about the Jesus who really IS, not the make-believe one of liberal theology. In Scotland we are in the midst of the great Independence debate just now. It sometimes gets a bit heated because people care passionately about their country. Why are people so passionate? Because nationality is very much part of their identity. And yet countries are really artificial human constructs that will not last. God on the other hand is eternal. We have an eternal destiny. Heaven and earth will pass away but the words of Christ will last forever. How much more passionate should we be about that?
Here is where I think evangelicals have lost our way. We have bought into the lie of the devil that ‘evangelicalism’ is just one part of the broad church and whilst we must fight for our corner what really counts is that we all belong to the same church and love the same Jesus. Except that, without the ‘evangel’ there is no church and there is no Jesus. What’s the point of boasting about belonging to a Church that claims to have a parish ministry in every inch of Scotland, if much of that ministry is not Christian ministry?! We need to grasp this. If you have never read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism go out and purchase it now! He demonstrates clearly that liberal theology is not part of the church and that any faithful Christian will do their utmost to remove its poison from within our walls – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Christianity-Liberalism-new-Gresham-Machen/dp/0802864996/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409295337&sr=1-1&keywords=christianity+and+liberalism
A Dangerous Anecdote
Whilst the moderator did not preach any explicit heresy, he did implicitly. He gave a moving example of his own personal loss and suffering and how people from different theological backgrounds had been able to help and console him and his family. Listening to that it is almost impossible to disagree and seems churlish and cold to do so. And that is why it is such a dangerous anecdote. I am sure that atheist, humanist and Muslim friends could and would have shown the same human compassion. The moderators point proves too much. It does not prove that there is no need for theology or doctrine; it proves that ultimately there is no need for God. It’s just us. I don’t believe that. I don’t accept that the evidence in our world today supports that faith. We are broken people in a broken world who need the real Jesus. I don’t just belong to one theological tradition that does not really matter. I belong to Christ and I want any minister, priest, bishop, pastor who preaches in any church I belong to, to preach Christ – not to tell me how wonderful the denomination is, or how lonely society is, or how God needs us.
The Mind of Christ
Any Christian worthy of the name of Christ is going to teach Christ. Those of us who profess to be evangelical need not only to have our hearts right, but also our minds engaged and we need some backbone and guts. We need to grow some! We need passion – for Christ. And please don’t be put off by a false humility…the kind that says, “oh we can’t know the mind of Christ, we are all groping in the dark towards a meaningful understanding”. If that’s the case, keep quiet. Don’t teach your groping in the dark. Paul asks, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” And he answers; “But we have the mind of Christ”. (1 Corinthians 2:16). The irony is that liberals think they have the mind of Christ, as they adapt him to suit their pre-suppositions and culture. You will hear them often speak about ‘what the Spirit is saying to the church’ by which they mean what they think and they are saying. Is it not arrogant and dangerous to claim the mind of Christ? Absolutely. Which is why we must not move beyond his Word. That’s why the C of S moving away from the Word of God on marriage is so important. Not because of homosexuality, but because of the blatant and deliberate rejection of the Bible as our authority. When you undermine Scripture you undermine the Church and you attack Christ.
It matters because of who he is, and for his glory. But it matters also in terms of communicating the Gospel. Augustine knew this problem many years ago: “The heretics themselves also, since they are thought to have the Christian name and sacraments, Scriptures and profession, cause great grief in the hearts of the pious, both because many who wish to be Christians are compelled by their dissensions to hesitate, and many evil-speakers also find in them matter for blaspheming the Christian name, because they too are at any rate called Christians” (City of God, Book XVIII, ch.51).
Let me return to those ‘preachers’ who thought that the notion of an uncreated God, independent of us, was somehow not relevant or worth there while. They need to listen to the Apostle Paul, who when faced with the rampant confusion and unbelief of the Athenians, did not say, ‘well all I want to do is show you the love of Jesus, and I just want to let you know he will be your friend, and he needs you”. Paul was a little more robust; “22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:22-25).
Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad
It is not a case of Meat Loafian theology of ‘I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no one I’m ever going to love you”. Two out of three ain’t bad. God does want us. He does not need us. And he most certainly does love us. Not because we are loveable or we can earn it or because he needs us, but simply because he does. The great and difficult doctrine of the Love of God is what needs to be proclaimed in our world today. In order for that to happen we need to get our understanding of who God is, sorted out…we need to marvel and wonder at his awesomeness. We need to be lost in wonder, love and praise. It is in Christ alone that our hope is found. Once we grasp that we will really begin to understand what it means to have Christ as our friend, sacrifice, lion, lamb, brother, Lord, saviour and all powerful-returning King. So can I make a plea to all preachers, of whatever denomination – please stop feeding us drivel, saccharine coated sound bites, legalistic lovelessness or liberal poison. Give us Christ. Give us His Word. We would see Jesus!