The Church in Scotland

A Gentle Decline and an Acts 20 Situation!

The response to my article on the Church of Scotland’s own figures and reports has been interesting – if a little predictable.  I am thankful for people like Alan Williams who remarked that it was a fair and measured comment.  We continue to pray for people like Alan who are seeking to turn the tide.

But there were two other responses which intrigued me.  The Assembly Clerk’s office put out a statement which was very defensive and accused me of getting it wrong.  Apparently losing 16,000 members per year and 25 ministers is a ‘gentle decline’.   One hardly knows where to begin! I attempted in my latest article on the Christian Today website.

But there was one article in this months “Life and Work’ which offered both some light and further confusion.  The Rev Sandor Fazakas, the minister of Portree in Skye writes of his experience of being the only active  C of S minster left in the Presbytery of Skye and Lochcarron.  Its interesting to read of his efforts and encouragements.  But what struck me most was the following: “At the beginning I was struggling to understand the claim of those who have left the Kirk and said that ‘their theology’ is not comaptible any longer with that of the Church of Scotland. Then I realised that my (?) theology has probably always been that same as Paul’s vision of ministry, shared with the elders in Ephesus, (Acts 20:28” Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

This is surely a right view of ministry but what does it mean in practice?   What was Paul concerned about?  The context makes clear.

27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

He was concerned about false teaching which distorts the truth rising from within the Church.  He is so concerned that he warned them night and day with tears for three years!  But the Church of Scotland has said, not only will we not warn against false teaching, but we will welcome the wolves into the flock!   If our theology really is that of Paul’s then perhaps we need to take false teaching a lot more seriously…and not just say ‘this is the official teaching of the Church, but we will allow the teachers to teach and practice differently’.  That is far removed from the theology of ministry of Paul. Maybe it is not those who have left who are the false shepherds, but those who stay and endorse such false teaching?


  1. Note how the C of S is seeking to redefine membership to effectively include anyone they have “provided services to” or had any contact with. I suspect there is a longer term aim to move to an element of state funding for funeral services and other activities.

  2. Correct me if I am wrong David but what you write “this is the official teaching of the Church, but we will allow the teachers to teach and practice differently” is an allusion to the stance of the CofS on SSM and practicing gay clergy.You mentioned problems in the Free church recently here. Surely by that same standard it must be true that false teaching exist there too or at least false practice. .

    I find it very difficult when things become tribal and there is lack of sensitivity towards one another in different factions. I grieve when this takes priority over the goodness that is in the gospel. We would all be in a better place, Christian community would be more attractive to outsiders and the gospel would be heard more if emphasis was more on the good news of the gospel.

    Someone once said that in order to eliminate the darkness all you have to do is turn on the light.

    1. No – I don’t think there is false teaching in the Free Church on SSM or indeed anything else. Of course there is ‘false’ practice in that we are all sinners. I agree about grieving over the lack of priority of the Gospel. That was my point. The Gospel is not factionalism. It is the core of the Christian faith – which is why it needs to be proclaimed and protected. When you turn on the light you illuminate the darkness…and people don’t like it!

      1. Ok so you don’t see there being any false teaching in the Free church but see there being false practice as with all. Do you accept (in keeping with what you say about one of theach problems in the Free church being pride) that one example of this is lack of grace at times?

        Obviously noone and no denomination is without sin otherwise there would be no need for a saviour. However I perhaps would not see things as you do with us all having the identity as sinners. I understand nt use of the term either as hyperbole or how religious hypocrites referred to others. I see us as in humanity as being created good, born into a world that ha sin in it and nor being without sin, that is covered by grace in Jesus.

        I am glad we agree and feel the same way about the gospel and I agree about it not being about factionalism. You are right to say that people don’t like it when you turn on the light but not all times. Sometimes it is received well and enthusiastically, sometimes with ambivalence and everything inbetween.

      2. Adam….Of course there is lack of grace…to say otherwise would be to claim sinlessness! The difference in terms of teaching is that in the Free Church if you move away from the teaching of the Gospel you will be disciplined. Your understanding of sin does not seem to fit with the biblical teaching by the way, but I may be confused by what you are saying. Are you denying that we are all sinners?

  3. Are there any historical examples of a denomination that has gone liberal being brought back to biblical faithfulness? I can’t think of one. If that’s the case what is the point of evangelicals staying within the CofS? However if they’re are any examples I’d love to hear of them. (And I don’t think the OT example of the nation of Israel going through cycles of spiritual decline and renewal is a hermeneutically justified model). David – do you know of any examples? Or do you, like me, think that once a denomination has gone liberal/refused to exert doctrinal discipline, then it has passed the point of no return and it’s time to start something new or jump ship to a denomination that is still biblically faithful?

    1. Hi Richard, No I don’t think there are any – although some would argue that the Presbyterian Church of Australia or the Sydney diocese of the Anglican church would be examples…

    1. Brent – I have NEVER bragged that the Church of Scotland was growing – in fact for years I have been pointing out its decline (and unlike you I have given facts and figures). Sometimes it pays to read and think before you comment? It certainly helps you avoid looking foolish….!

  4. I’d be interested in your reasons for thinking that my approach to the term “sinner” does not fit in with biblical teaching David. I hear what you say about possibly being confused about what I am trying to say. I’m not sure to what degree we can be understood and understand in short comments but I will try and explain and try to understand where you are coming from too.

    Firstly I’ll mention this. Ok so you accept that there is lack of grace in the context of the teaching in the Free church, just as you say there is false teaching in the CofS. So do you accept that there are things that the Free church can learn from the CofS about grace and things that the CofS can learn from the Free church about teaching, I.e. that we need each other, that we are interdependent and our flourishing as the church in Scotland is dependent on us both flourishing?

    What comes to my mind with the term “sinner” is “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”” Lk 15:2 with the religious hypocrites looking down on others. With the hyperbole, one example being of the apostle Paul “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience” 1Tim 1:16. Paul being an expert in rhetoric, often using hypebole, an exaduration to make a point, in this case about Jesus’ patience,

    The truth is we all are part sinner, part saint, part hero, part villain. When God created humans he saw it was good. So, we have original goodness. Sin has spoiled that yes, and sin should not be trivialised. However in our being as God created us, we are good. In Christ we are new creations, the old has gone. Christ’s sacrifice has covered the sin. The good news of the gospel. So in Christ there is no condemnation. What confuses me is why there is an identification as a sinner rather than being “in Christ” very often in Christian circles. I think honouring Christ and showing gratitude for what he has done, his purpose being that you may have life in its fullest (Jn 10:10) is for a Christian to see ones identity as being “in Christ” primarily rather than being a sinner in practical terms. This is not to be opposed to scripture, but to apply it I think.

    This is just my take, and I see things dimly. The whole issue of salvation is more that I can imagine and it does interest me and fascinate me how we all come to this form different angles.

    I hope that wasn’t too wordy and explains why I have come to the position that I have as perhaps not seeing things as you do with us all being sinners. I’m interested in hearing your take on that and am open to correction if I am in error as I trust are you.

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