The Church in Scotland The Free Church

Back to the Future – the 2009 General Assembly


In 2009 I was the editor of The Record.  As such I wrote a commentary on the Church of Scotland General Assembly of that year in which I argued that it was the beginning of the end for the C of S.  I doubt that there is an article that I have received a stronger backlash to -especially from some evangelicals who thought it was way too pessimistic, out of touch and not recognising what they were doing to take over the Kirk.  Even some within the Free Church thought I had gone too far.  People wrote of how they had been ‘hurt’ and how I just did not understand, that I was being denominational and just plain wrong.   Much as it would have been humbling (not a bad thing!) to have been wrong, I had hoped that I would have been proved to be wrong.  But yesterdays events show different.  They are the fruits of the ‘trajectory’ set in 2009 and the tactics adopted by evangelicals then.   As I watched the 2016 GA yesterday that article came to mind.   I will write something about yesterdays disastrous proceedings tomorrow, but in a sense I feel I almost don’t need to.  The article from seven years ago almost says it all.    How things have changed in both the Church of Scotland and the Free Church since then – and indeed in Scottish society!   Anyway the following is from August 2009.   Deja Vu….

Ichabod – The Glory has Departed

The history of the Church in Scotland is full of ups and downs. The Romans, the Celtic Church, the darkness of the Pre-Reformation period, the Scottish Reformation, the Covenanters, and the Disruption are all indicative of that. Most of us have been proud of the effect that the Gospel has had in this small country on the North West tip of Europe, and the impact that Scots have thus had upon the wider world. There was something glorious about what God did in making this small nation become ‘the People of the Book’. No longer. Ichabod – the Glory has departed. Over a century of theological liberalism being taught in and through our churches has finally come home to roost. If anyone doubted how sick the Church in Scotland has become then the recent events in the Church of Scotland General Assembly have provided more than enough proof.

What happened? On Saturday May 23rd the General Assembly voted to approve the induction of the Rev Scott Rennie to Queens Cross Church in Aberdeen – even though Mr Rennie is living with his male partner. In terms of logic, reason and Scripture the debate was overwhelmingly won by those who sought to be faithful to the Scriptures. But logic, reason and Scripture were trounced by emotion, illogic, church politics, political correctness and sheer cowardice (there were over 250 abstentions).

It got worse.   On Monday the Assembly dealt with a petition from the Presbytery of Skye and Lochcarron which called for those who are ordained as ministers to be faithful in biblical marriage and to abstain from sexual conduct outwith. It beggars belief that such a motion would even have to be voted on but through the machinations of the liberal establishment, aided and abeted by those who claim to be ‘evangelical’, the motion had to be withdrawn. The Acting Principal Clerk behaved in an appalling manner – allowing a motion which was opposed to the Skye petition to be treated separately and then, when it was passed, insisting that the Skye petition could not mention homosexuality. Rev Ivor MacDonald was hungout to dry and compelled to withdraw.   Dr John McPakes’ and Rev Angus Morrison’s motion set up a two year commission and ordered all office bearers to be silent in public about the issue. An amendment from Rev Jim Stewart means that no further ‘gay’ ordinations should take place during this period. The whole thing was a shambles.

To hear a post-modern post Free Presbyterian tell the assembly that there “is great diversity of opinion on issues of human sexuality…but greater is our unity in Christ” was breathtakingly depressing. Mr Morrison went on to say “The commission is to uncover and discover this unity we have in Christ”. How do you have unity in Christ if you ignore the Word of Christ?

The proposal from Dr McPake and Rev Angus Morrison is not of course about ‘finding the truth’ or ‘discerning what the Scriptures have to say’. It is simply about damage limitation and trying to ensure that the evangelicals stay in and do not stop providing money for the rest of the Church. No one seriously believes that the 2011 Assembly is going to undo the 2009 Assembly.

The seriousness of what occurred on Monday is underlined by the reason the Aberdeen Presbytery gave for supporting an active homosexual ministry. The Presbytery stated in their reasons –

“The ‘Word of God’ is not synonymous with the Scriptures, but it can, in part, be discerned from the Scriptures through prayer and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

The Assembly accepted this. It is now the official doctrine of the Church of Scotland that the Bible is not the Word of God but only contains the Word of God. How then do we know which parts of the Bible are the ‘Word of God’? Through inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Does this mean that the Church of Scotland has gone all charismatic? No. This is a return to the pre-reformation Catholic church where the church determines what God is saying. The commission of nine is nothing less than a new magisterium. Presbyteries are only to be ‘consulted’ because they cannot be trusted. After all did Presbyteries not vote 36-9 against the idea of civil partnerships in 2007? Meanwhile the courts of the Church are ordered to be silent and not to discuss the matter. We have moved from the liberty of the Word of God (which is the Bible) to the tyranny of the magisterium.

And if you thought that Monday was the lowest – think again. On Tuesday the Assembly plumbed new depths. Rev Peter McDonald the new leader of the Iona community regaled the assembly with accounts of his pre-marital sexual activities.   This would have been bad enough, but not only was there not a word from the Moderator (who at the very least should have pointed out how inappropriate such language was) but there was lots of laughter and joking. At least one commissioner had to remove himself from the Assembly and be physically sick. A good friend walked out in disgust. Another commented

“I can hardly believe that fornication is being celebrated in the Assembly”. As one minister bravely pointed out to the Assembly – he would have been ashamed if any of his four daughters had been present. Was this really the same Assembly which Dr McPake boasted “we have redeemed ourselves by our dignity”?

So where are we? The Church of Scotland has declared that the Bible is not the Word of God, that active homosexuality is no bar to the ministry, that a magisterium is to be set up to determine what the Word of God is, and crowns it all by an unchecked stomach churning display of mockery and faux repentance. A rubicon has been crossed and there is no turning back.

In an irony beyond ironies, Alec Salmond addressed the Assembly and spoke about how the political institutions of the country were lacking in moral leadership. Was he really suggesting that such moral guidance would come from this Assembly?

I heard a Church of Scotland minister citing 2 Peter 2 as relevant to the situation. He was right. “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. “ 2 Peter 2:1-2

Where do we go from here? There was much speculation in the press about another split in the Church, and there have been murmurings from some quarters. But anyone with any real knowledge of the Church in Scotland knows that that is not going to happen. Why? For the following reasons:

  • Evangelicals are far too divided (as one evangelical minister put it – you get ten evangelicals in one room and you will get twenty opinions),
  • It is written deep within the DNA of most C of S evangelicals that one just does not leave ‘Mother Kirk’. The strategy for years has been to ‘reform’ the national church and no-one will want to admit that that has at one level failed (although at another level the establishment of good congregations and the preaching of the Word to tens of thousands has been wonderfully successful).
  • Whilst there are many evangelical ministeries there are far fewer evangelical congregations. Many evangelical ministers exercise faithful ministeries in congregations which are ‘mixed’ and which can take decades to turn around.
  • The centralized control of the Church of Scotland means that many men would lose their wages, their manses and their buildings.   This is a high price to pay and one which most are not prepared to pay. It is all very well for people to cite the Disruption – but the Disruption men were well organized, well financed and had ten years to prepare. They also operated in a very different culture.
  • There appears to be no suitable alternative. Even if a minister could take his whole congregation and hold on to, or obtain new property (and don’t expect the tolerant ‘liberals’ to share or allow property to go – they need to be able to sell it to maintain their own stipends and properties and why should they care about the proclamation of a Gospel they do not believe in?) where do they go? Independency may seem attractive but surely it is not suitable for a Presbyterian. The Free Church is not open currently to congregations which use musical instruments and sing hymns, and there is no one else. Scotland needs yet another new denomination like a hole in the head – unless it is to be one which involves the whole Free Church, APC and most C of S evangelicals (and then of course we would be two denominations less!).

So most evangelicals will bite the bullet and stay. Some will act as virtual Independents as far as the Presbyterian system will allow them to (and this will be a lot harder than in the Anglican church), others are happy just to wear the badge evangelical but in reality only consider it to be one shade in a multi-coloured Church, still others will form organizations in the hope of both retaining their own people and ultimately reforming the Church.   In this latter respect it is good to see men like Willie Philip and Peter Dickson and others, putting their money where their mouth is, forming the Fellowship of Confessing Churches and seeking to actually do something.   And there are those who will drift away. Some ministers will go to other churches, some will get out of the country and many members will look for alternatives. It is the real politik of this latter fact that means that the energy of many evangelicals will be taken up in trying to persuade Christians to remain within the Church. Whatever happens, barring an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Church of Scotland is crippled and dying and will find itself increasingly unable to bring the Living Water of Jesus Christ to a thirsty nation.

What about the Free Church? What should our response be?

We have to respond. This is the most significant event in the history of the Church in Scotland since the union of 1929. It affects us all. Again we simply list some suggestions.

  • We need to repent as well. There must not be even a hint of schadenfreude, delighting in another’s misery in order to indulge in an ‘I told you so’ kind of self-justification. How effective are we in reaching Scotland’s millions? Any form of pride or thankfulness that we are not as others, is utterly reprehensible and totally unjustified.
  • We must offer as much support we can to our brothers and sisters who are really hurt and suffering within the Church of Scotland. Not because we want to entice them to join us, but simply because they are our brothers and sisters. Many of them are faithful, hardworking and fine Christians who have served Christ for many years within and through the Church of Scotland. They are pained beyond belief. Now is not the time to stick the boot in. Now is the time to offer a helping hand. Including to those who will stay.
  • We need to provide a home for those who cannot stay. If this means for the sake of Christian unity that we have to allow them to worship God in the way they are used to – then so be it. It is surely not a co-incidence that the year before the Special Commission is due to report the Free Church will be debating and deciding on whether to amend what forms of worship will be allowed within our bounds. We should not do what is unbiblical or sinful in order to facilitate Christian unity, but neither should we allow disagreement on secondary issues (disagreements which we have amongst ourselves already) to prevent us from uniting with like minded brothers and sisters.
  • A renewed Free Church is the best hope for Scotland just now.

  • We also need to gently challenge the pre-suppositions and paradigms that many evangelicals within the C of S and many within the Free Church have. It is time for us all to recognize that we are no longer in the 19th Century, or even in the 20th. We are no longer a Christian society with a national church which just needs to be reformed. We are in a post modern secular society where the vast majority of people are ignorant of the Gospel, ignorant of the Bible and have little or no meaningful concept of the Church. For us this is a new beginning. We need new wine and for that we need new wineskins.
  • We need to inform the Church of Scotland that the stumbling block in our negotiations with them has just become a mountain. We always knew that the issue of scripture was the major one, but now that the Assembly has decided that Scripture is not synonymous with the Word of God, it is difficult to see on what basis we can have any meaningful official discussions. One leading evangelical informed us at one point- ‘you work with all of us, or you work with none of us’. One hopes he was speaking on his own behalf and not on behalf of others. Because our position is crystal clear. We will work with any Christians who acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the final authority of his Word.   We cannot work with or proclaim the Gospel with people with whom we do not share that same Gospel. The choice for evangelicals within the Kirk is simply who are you loyal to? Your brothers and sisters in Christ (whatever the denomination) or your denomination (whether or not they are your brothers and sisters in Christ).
  • I have heard men say that they need to stay in order to pastor their congregations. This is an admirable and worthy reason. But such men also need to ask whether it is good pastoring to ask people to remain in a denomination which rejects the Bible as the Word of God?

  • We need to seek realistic co-operation and build bridges to overcome years of prejudice and misinformation on all sides. At an official level Free Church presbyteries could offer associate status to Church of Scotland ministers, elders and congregations. We should seek to form Gospel partnerships in areas where we share the same theology and understanding of the Gospel. We would support rather than compete with one another and perhaps plant churches and worship together. Local congregations could have more joint services as has happened in some areas with the APC.

These are dark days and the worst is yet to come. But these are also days of great opportunity for the light of the Gospel to shine all the more brightly. Evangelicals must not back down from the stance bravely taken by the Fellowship of Confessing Churches. People are not stupid and they will smell a meaningless compromise a mile off. Neither is there any time, space or reason for self-indulgent, self-seeking disunity. We may all have to pay a price. And we should expect to.

Where is the passion of Knox who declared ‘give me Scotland or I die’? Where is the vision of Chalmers when he stated, ‘Who cares for the Free Church compared with the Christian good of Scotland”?

Those who share that passion and vision must unite – across denominations and make a stand to uphold and proclaim the wonderful full gospel of Jesus Christ. Who knows – it may be that these past days have been the shake up that a complacent church in Scotland has needed. May the latter days of the Gospel in Scotland be greater than the former.







  1. I wonder if the re-birth is being left out of the rebirth is being left out of the mix here. IF so, then little wonder that
    “the” church has gone astray. As one by the one the real messengers have vacated their stations against evil through the natural process of attrition or by choice, there are none ‘on the wall’ to stem the tide of filth that is worldly religion and the machinations of the devil. We need not be shocked, unless, the new birth has never been our privilege from the Lord. Ah but if the God whom we love is left out of this, the filth will continue to contaminate ‘the kirk’ year after year. Meanwhile, there are many wonderful Scots who still carry the true gospel forth. Just elsewhere. Bruce

  2. It’s all very sad. The Church of Scotland is barely distinguishable from the plethora of secular charities and NGOs with only a thin veneer of “God” over it. They’re dying on their feet and only the massive revival that their remaining evangelicals cling on for could offer any hope of averting total destruction.

  3. There are many biblical verses one could quote “for such a time as this” (Esther 4,12-14), but as so often is the case the Bard sums it up so well!

    “But man, proud man,
    Dress’d in a little brief authority,
    Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d—
    His glassy essence—like an angry ape
    Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
    As makes the angels weep”

    ― William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

  4. Thanks to the Magisterium of the Church I have full confidence that want I believe is true. Now, if you are a Protestant you must decide totally for yourself what the Bible teaches. Totally. You cannot accept anybody else’s word for it. You cannot even accept anybody else’s word for the contents of the Bible. You have to reach that conclusion totally for yourself. That means that you can’t just go into a shop and ask for a copy of the Bible. What’s in the shop is just what other humans have decided is the content of the Bible. And what authority do they have? Zilch. So you must read all the books that might be inspired and then decide for yourself which ones are inspired. And how many people have read the Epistle of Barnabas or the Gospel of Peter in order to decide for themselves whether or not they are inspired? And don’t forget that Luther wanted to delete the Epistle of James, Hebrews and Revelation from the New Testament. As one famous Protestant scholar declared, the best that can be said is that the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books. And then, having decided, for yourself – no taking the word of a minister for it – which books are inspired, you are then faced with a huge array of conflicting interpretations to sort through to decide – by yourself – which one is the correct interpretation. Give me the Magisterium any day. But it does, of course, have to be the Magisterium of the one, true Church.

    1. You are quite right, Mike,
      that the question of authority appears to be in a much greater state of flux in Protestantism, than it is in Roman Catholicism. This is why there is a small but persistent movement of serious and educated, even evangelical men and women into the Catholic Church. However, if Protestants were truly as exposed to guidelessness as you imagine we must be without the Magisterium, then that trickle to Rome would have become a flood long ago.

      Let’s leave it as a moot point that it was the Church that gave us the Bible and not the other way around; if our authority stems from the Œcumenical Councils then the Protestant confessions are at no further distance from the source of authority than is the Magisterium.

      To blame what crisis of authority there is in Protestantism on the Reformation is, if I may say so, a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. In Scottish Presbyterianism one might better blame those ‘declaratory acts’ which robbed the Westminster Confession of its authority but since confessions are recognised as subordinate standards, it is ultimately the authority of Scripture itself that is key to our Faith, our Obedience and our Salvation. This is true of Catholics and Protestants alike.

      We need not fear that the Scriptures themselves will fail or that our salvation might fail because of something outwith the Scriptures’ own authority:
      Romans 10:8-11 … “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

      So that’s all right then. We have it on good authority.


  5. I am angry and ashamed of the Church of the Church of Scotland. It is actually an organisation, not a church, but the organisation contains within it true people of God. However, they are a minority, and it seems to me that God has loosened his grip a little and given people up to their own sinful desires and those who support them. Who would want to be part of an organisation that is not distinctive? Why should anyone want to train for the ministry when they can be independent or a member of another church that actually believes and lives by what the bible says.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: