Its March and the time when Kings go to war. I don’t intend to go to war but I am very burdened for the state of the whole church of Christ in Scotland and so over the next few weeks as we lead up to the General Assemblies, I thought I would return to this subject (of which there have been other blogs!) and reflect on where we are at and where we might be going. I hope this is helpful rather than hurtful! We begin with (on) of the elephants in the room – the continuing decline in the Church of Scotland.
Ten Reasons Why the Church of Scotland is in Decline
The Church of Scotland is disintegrating before our very eyes. Despite optimistic noises from 121 and the sincere but doomed attempt by some to hold on to the notion of ‘the national church’ with a gospel ministry in every parish, there is no evidence that the slide into irrelevance is halting. It would be pointless to list the few stories of hope and growth (which their thankfully are) order to offset the many of decline and decay. And, for those of a more sensitive and conspiratorial nature, let me state again that anyone who takes any joy in this decline is perverse and sad. The state of the Church of Scotland is a cause for weeping not for Schadenfreude. Anyone concerned for the good of the people of Scotland and the cause of the Gospel should be concerned.
For the media and the wider world the issue causing people to leave at the moment is the issue of homosexuality and SSM. However, whilst that may be a catalyst, and indeed may be a reason for some, in my view it is not the issue at all. All that the current debacle on ministers in same sex partnerships has done, is shown how far the Church of Scotland has drifted from its biblical roots. The far more serious issue is the one that is illustrated in this sermon preached by Rev. Scott McKenna of Mayfield Salisbury Church of Scotland in Edinburgh.
It is one of the most astonishing things I have heard in a long time. Not simply because of its unbiblical heresy, illogicality, historical ignorance and dishonesty, but also because of its sheer unashamed brazenness. This was posted on YouTube by the Church and is apparently something they exalt in. It is far worse than any homosexual civil partnership. Let me just go through some of the lowlights, which help show us why the C of S is in decline. I do so with the caveat that there are still many fine Christians and churches within the C of S, and people should not take this personally – unless they hold to the views described by Mr. McKenna, or are prepared to excuse and justify them. But the overall picture is one of a church in great confusion. Here are the ten reasons why the C of S is in decline:
1) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about Biblical theology – – Scott was asked “Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?’ “With grace I replied, no, no, no, no…that’s ghastly theology…you don’t want to go there.” Lets leave aside the observation that if you speak with grace you don’t need to tell other people that you are doing it. This is not ghastly theology. This is the theology which is at the heart of the Bible. “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture” (1 Corinthians 15:3). So what Paul says is of ‘first importance’, Scott says is ‘ghastly theology’!
2) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about Evangelism – Jesus died for our sins, in our place. In my view this is an obstacle to our evangelism“. Evangelism is telling the good news. The good news is that Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification. That therefore there is forgiveness, renewal, hope, the fruit and gifts of the Spirit, heaven etc. Without that ‘good news’ we have no evangel. And that is why the C of S does not do evangelism. Yes there are congregations and individuals who do, but when this kind of sermon is not only tolerated but also encouraged within the Kirk you cannot help but think that the evangel has been lost. Sometimes I have been asked to do joint missions with C of S congregations and have been delighted to do so. But other times I have had to decline because the bottom line was that we could not actually agree on what the Good News actually is. Rev McKenna’s declaration that the view that Jesus died for our sins is an obstacle to our evangelism is even more ludicrous when you see the effect that that theology is having on the churches – it is emptying them.
3) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about History – The selective and ignorant misuse of history in the sermon is stunning. Scott states that Substitutionary atonement is especially prevalent in the Protestant Church – as if the Roman Catholic Church did not teach that Jesus died for our sins! That teaching apparently only came about because of Anselm of Canterbury in 1097. Clearly Scott has not read the early Church Fathers, nor the New Testament! And therein lies the major issue.
4) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about the Bible – It does not go back to the Bible…some of the words may be there…. He was killed by the powers that rule the world, not as payment for sin…its not there.
Scott stands up in his high pulpit, with his ecclesiastical frippery and that familiar Scottish presbyterian preaching voice – all of which would be forgivable (even if somewhat of a stumbling block to evangelism) – if he actually taught the Bible and took it seriously. He is ordained as a minister of the word and sacrament. If an engineer did not do his job as an engineer, if a teacher did not teach, or a nurse did not nurse, they would lose their jobs. Why is it then that ministers of the word within the Kirk manage to stay in post when they don’t teach the word?!
5) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about Faith – “Jesus never asked his followers to believe in a creed or in his divinity – instead he called them to faith….. Its time to ditch substitutionary atonement because it obscures the real meaning of faith – a forgiveness which is done to us is one which leave us unchanged…..” Here is yet another proof of the truth of the Bible. People, including religious leaders, are walking in great darkness. How else can you explain a minister of the New Testament who fails to grasp the most basic teachings of that New Testament? Christ specifically asked his followers to believe in his divinity; indeed you could not be his follower unless you did – because if you are not following the divine/human Christ, you are not following Christ. As for faith in that Christ leaving us ‘unchanged’ – has Mr. McKenna never heard of the new birth? The new creation? Apparently not. Instead he offers us some psychobabble waffle about inner transformation; as though it were something we could do ourselves! Without the new birth we cannot even see the kingdom of God – never mind transform ourselves.
6) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about the Cross – Apparently this was something that happened to Christ, rather than something he was in control of. He was just another victim of a brutal political power. He was not doing anything on the Cross. There was no sacrifice, no self-giving, no atonement – just victimhood which enables me to identify with our victimhood. This kind of ‘cross’ is not the cross that is the power of God for salvation…it’s a weak, pathetic, parody of the Christian gospel which is good news for no-one – except preachers who get paid to spout this non-sense.
7) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about Sin – “Sacrifice means to make sacred….sat at a table with God. That’s what sacrifice means. The idea that that lamb would be a scapegoat, a sacrifice for sin would be anathema to them. Sin was nowhere near it.” Again how anyone who has read the Old Testament (try the book of Leviticus if you want to see an association between sacrifice and sin), the New Testament (the gospels, Romans, Hebrews) or any of the early Church Fathers, can argue that ‘sin was nowhere near it’, is almost incomprehensible. It seems as though Rev McKenna has taken his theology from a children’s songbook, rather than the bible. Jesus is ‘coming to your house for tea’. ‘Cup of tea, vicar’ is the mantra of the modern liberal. In reality Christ does offer to come in and sup with us…he does invite us to the wedding feast of the Lamb…he does tell us to sit at his Supper, the Lord’s Supper, the covenantal meal. But he does so on the basis of his person (the God/man) and work (his life, death and resurrection). The Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal of a sacrifice which Rev McKenna explicitly seeks to forget!
8) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about Discipline – One of the problems here is that many of my friends in the C of S will say – of course you are right. We completely agree with you about Scott McKenna, but you should not judge, or appear to judge the whole denomination because of that. I don’t. But you are in a Presbyterian church and therefore if there is to be church discipline (one of the marks of the church) then how you handle such heresy being taught in your church, in your name is crucial. Rev McKenna and those like him are your ‘brethren’. You are sworn to be in submission to the church courts which he sits on. Is that vow meaningless? The Moderator of the Kirk had a very interesting piece in this months Life and Work in which he argued that liberals and evangelicals were all brothers and sisters who just had to get on together with the work of the Gospel. Is that what you feel? When you said that God was calling you to stay in what exactly was he calling you to stay in and do, if not to challenge and discipline the nonsensical, blasphemous and heretical teachings of people like Rev McKenna? What is more important to you – the unity of the Kirk? Or the unity of the Church of Christ? You are shepherds of the flock – is it not your duty to protect them from the wolves? Will anyone go to Edinburgh Presbytery or the General Assembly seeking to deal with the false teaching of Rev McKenna? Or will you continue your submission to him? I recently spoke to an older mature believer who had been a loyal and faithful member of the C of S all her days. It broke her heart to leave and yet she told me that now she feels liberated. Now she feels she can get on with the work of the Gospel without having to play church politics, or pretend fellowship with people she knew were not believers. Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not saying that every evangelical should leave the C of S. Those who stay within and stick with the Gospel will continue to have my full support. But that also includes questioning. It may be the case that you can do a great deal of good within, but might it not also be the case that you could do even more outwith – and be freer?
9) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about Love. Of course everyone is into love. Who could be against love? But what do we mean by love? The Bible says that God is love…it does not say that love is God. Is there a difference? Yes. And not to get that difference results in terrible confusion. When we say ‘love is God’ it all depends on what we mean by love. In reality what we usually mean is some kind of human construct, given meaning according to the current fashion and whims of our culture. We thus end up making both a love and a god in our own image. Which in our current sin-filled and confused world is about as useful as a wet paper bag. On the other hand if we accept God’s self-revelation as love, then we have incredible good news. “This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). By rejecting the atonement, Rev McKenna is rejecting Love. And although our ‘liberals’ talk a lot about love, they don’t define it and often they don’t practice it. I received a letter from a distraught member of a congregation that has left the C of S. She and all the other elderly people in that congregation have been told that although the parish minister will bury all and sundry in that parish, they will not bury anyone who has left the Kirk. That’s ‘liberal’ love in action! Strange…if a Free Presbyterian was doing something like that, it would be all over the newspapers and opinion columns. But this kind of petty lovelessness is all too sadly par for the course. Just ask anyone who has left how ‘the Church’ has treated them and you will see that all the talk of reconciliation is just that – talk. And sadly – evangelicals are far too often silent when it comes to their fellow evangelicals being mistreated and abused. Its almost as though they think the denomination is more important than the evangel?
10) The C of S is in decline because it is confused about Christ. “The central focus of all the worlds religions including Christianity is about inner change…change within us. Each world faith is about inner transformation….dying and raising with Christ are metaphors for personal and communal transformation.” Religion is faith, faith is pistis, pistes is inner and communal transformation”
What is stunning about this is that Rev. McKenna’s ‘Christianity’ has nothing to do with Christ. Faith is just inner transformation. I saw another astonishing example of this from sadly yet another Presbyterian church, the PCUSA, which has just voted to redefine marriage. This is what happens when you deny the scriptures – you end up denying God – ttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2015/03/17/im-a-presbyterian-minister-who-doesnt-believe-in-god-2/
According to this theology Christianity is just one of the many world religions which are about inner transformation (which shows that Mr. McKenna knows as little about Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism as he does about Christianity!). None of it has much to do with Jesus Christ. And there is my concern. If the Church of Scotland is just a social/political/religious institution or club then the sooner it dies the better. If it is part of the living Church of Jesus Christ, then it needs to start acting as such. It needs to be the pillar and ground of the truth. It needs to proclaim Christ and his atoning work. It needs to long for his kingdom to come and proclaim his life to the spiritually lost and dead.
Never mind the homosexual issue. If a minister of the Kirk can post such a sermon in public and remain a minister in good standing then it can truly be written over this once glorious Kirk of our land, Ichabod – the Glory has departed.
Psalm 80: 3 Restore us, O God;
make your face shine upon us,
that we may be saved.
4 O Lord God Almighty,
how long will your anger smoulder
against the prayers of your people?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears;
you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
6 You have made us a source of contention to our neighbours,
and our enemies mock us.
7 Restore us, O God Almighty;
make your face shine upon us,
that we may be saved.