The May edition of The Record is now out….I love the cover and I hope that the content within is improving. (you can purchase the whole magazine from the Free Church Bookshop in Edinburgh or from your local Free Church). The following is the editorial.
A Last Minute Plea to our Brothers and Sisters in the Church of Scotland
The Free Church is the Church of Scotland, Free. Ever since 1843 we have been separate from our brothers and sisters in the Church of Scotland, but as Thomas Chalmers declared, we quit a vitiated Establishment but would long to return to a pure one. In a time of increasing secularisation and the challenges of the confused and confusing contemporary world, we can ill afford the divisions of previous centuries. Scotland doesn’t need the Church of Scotland, any more than it needs the Free Church. Scotland needs the Church of Jesus Christ, one that is faithful to him and his Word. But it would be wonderful if the Church of Scotland, with all its resources, were to be that church. If that happened, I for one would be glad to return to the Kirk. Indeed, for a number of years I worked with some to explore how that could happen, but sadly it looks as if the longed-for renewal and reformation of the Church of Scotland is not coming to pass. Even as you read this the General Assembly will be meeting to put the final nails in a process which began at the 2009 Assembly when the Kirk upheld the appointment of Rev. Scott Rennie, a minister in a gay relationship, to Queens Cross Church in Aberdeen.
At the time there were those who felt a Rubicon had been crossed, but we were assured by many evangelicals, including those allowed to participate in various inquiries, theological commissions, etc. that the matter was not settled. Every couple of years another decision was made, and every couple of years we were told by the evangelical leadership to hang on because the crucial decision was yet to come.
Meanwhile individual Christians, elders, ministers and congregations (including well-known and large ones such as Gilcomston in Aberdeen, the Tron in Glasgow, Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh and St Catherine’s Argyll in Edinburgh) left.
And then in 2014 the General Assembly came up with this very clear statement:
The historic and current doctrine and practice of the Church in relation to human sexuality and their application to the ministers and deacons of the Church are hereby affirmed (for the avoidance of doubt, the Kirk understands this to mean that human sexuality is to be expressed in the relationship of one man and one woman in a committed union called marriage and its ministers, etc. are bound to follow that);
But this was immediately contradicted by a declaration that ministers and Kirk Sessions were free to go against what the Church ‘affirmed’.
In 2016 the General Assembly then legislated for ministers to be allowed to be in same-sex marriages – whilst ‘upholding’ the traditional biblical position and preventing them from conducting same-sex marriages.
“We are not interfering with our theological definition of marriage”
Speaking after the vote, the Very Rev. John Chalmers, Principal Clerk, declared: ‘We had a debate which made very clear that we were not interfering with our theological definition of marriage and were not going to the place where ministers or deacons could themselves conduct same sex marriages…. It is an entirely different discussion.’ He even said that those who were upset by the decision should ‘hold on and wait to see how this plays out’. Well they have held on, and now we know. Although anyone with eyes could see the ‘trajectory’ on which the Church was firmly fixed.
A Familiar Pattern
The pattern was by now of course well established – the Assembly moves a further step away from the biblical teaching and then seeks to keep evangelicals on board by promising an inquiry and ‘respect’ for their views. This year’s proposed deliverance is no different. It recommends that they permit same-sex marriages within the C of S and apologise for the discrimination against homosexual people, but it also asks the legal committee to ensure that those who want to can continue that discrimination!
The problem here is not same-sex marriage. Nor the convoluted church politics, deceit and legalistic bureaucracy which try to follow the culture and yet keep on board those who wish to follow the Bible. The main problem is the theology and reasoning behind the report.
The New Doctrine
The report, recognises that this is a question of scriptural interpretation, but then goes on to provide a (somewhat biased) description of the two sides. On the one hand there are those who just take the words of the Bible, accept them as the words of God, and expect them to be applied today as they were in the past. They are clearly the ‘exclusives’. On the other there are those who are more ‘inclusive’, who recognise the differences in culture, know history (eg that the Apostle Paul didn’t know anything about homosexual relationships), and are much more in touch with the Holy Spirit as well as contemporary society. Jesus is the Word made flesh and we know this, not so much by his word the Bible, but by our feelings, ‘the Holy Spirit leading us into further understanding’ and a new ‘contemporary form of obedience’. God speaks to us in the whirlwind as well as Scripture – for example, when we see the ocean choked with plastic bags, this is God telling us we are misusing the created world. ‘And there are times when God speaks to us through the cries of God’s people who long for inclusion and dignity.’ The report is basically saying that those who take the Bible as being the word of God, as well as containing it, are not really listening to God or the Holy Spirit and are against ‘inclusion and dignity’.
This biased report seems to be based more on the work of Professor Robert Song of the University of Durham than it is on the Scripture. Professor Song has apparently been led by the Spirit to receive a new revelation that we are moving from the position of seeing the argument about marriage as being homosexual vs. heterosexual to now being about procreative vs. non-procreative. The latter is seen in Christ and afterwards. As a result it would be ‘unjust’ to deny marriage to same-sex couples just because they can’t procreate!
The report recognises that there could be a problem with applying this way of understanding the Bible to other relationships, so we are told, ‘We do not believe that extension of marriage to two persons of the same gender opens the door to a rights-based argument that marriage should be extended to polyamorous unions. Nor, for example, do we think the door should be open to marriage with robots.’
Well, that sounds fine until you remember that last year we were assured that the church’s understanding on marriage was still the same. The report admits,
‘We understand that theological reflection has moved on since the report Believing in Marriage which was presented to the General Assembly in 2012 and we have tried to take account of that thinking.’ You could say that again. If a generation is a short time in Scottish referenda, it is an even shorter time in Scottish theological thinking! So the assurance that polygamy will not be included is about as reliable as the assurance last year that the Church still holds to the traditional view on marriage. As for Robophobia…!
Is it just Interpretation?
What is very confusing for some people here is the claim that both sides are appealing to and following Scripture. And so then it just becomes a difference about interpretation. But is this really the case? The fact is that when you say you believe in Scripture, but then say it is just a witness to the truth, but not the truth itself, you may sound clever, but in reality you are contradicting what Scripture says about itself and you are leaving Scripture open to your interpretation, passing fades and whatever you or your friends ‘feel’ is the right thing. God gave us a more sure and certain word. The worst thing the General Assembly is doing is not legitimizing Same Sex Marriage, it is that in so doing they are taking away the Bible as the Word of God from the people and the Church.
The trouble with this understanding of guidance is that it utterly destroys the Bible as the ‘only rule of faith and life’. Because, despite the lip service paid to the notion of God speaking through his Word, if you can reinterpret that Word according to your feelings and the culture of the day, and have the General Assembly pronounce itself as the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, the Bible then becomes little more than a source book for stories and proof texts for whatever we happen to believe that particular morning. It is not for nothing that we are warned at the end of the Bible not to add or take away from the Scripture that God has given.
As Jerome, a C of S minister, commented on his blog: ‘And where now will it end? Having crossed this line, it is on its own. It has made as its standard the truth of whatever the world says is now right, and it shall be guided by that. Having crossed this line, it can no longer be trusted to speak or know or live by what is revealed Truth. I foresee that any new fad, deviance or trend will ultimately become embraced by it.’
Even at this last-ditch moment we plead with the faithful brothers and sisters who remain within the Church of Scotland to stand up, fight and vote this abomination down. I say this to all who care for the future of the Church, not just the evangelicals. Continuing to go on this ‘trajectory’ is the road to the end of the Kirk. And I say that with great sorrow – for the sake of the Gospel and for the people of Scotland.
For evangelicals who remain: the game has been played out. And they have been played. Sometimes by their fellow evangelicals. The Establishment are relying on them to stay and put up a token fight, as long as they continue to fund the denomination. But for how long will the evangelicals be able to retain the biblical position? Whilst ‘the Holy Spirit’ is currently telling the GA that SSM is permissible, and that they are to be tolerated, who knows what will be ‘revealed’ in the years to come. I know and empathise with the fact that many must be torn between ministering to their congregations and communities and standing for the truth.
Is this about the Gospel?
It will be argued that the evangelicals still currently have freedom to preach the Gospel and that this is not a Gospel issue. But is it that simple? What if this is about the Gospel? Surely it is about how we understand and know the Gospel and how we are faithful to Christ. When the early Christians were asked to bow down before Caesar I’m sure it could have been argued – ‘this is not a Gospel issue, you can continue to preach the Gospel and live in your Christian communities….why create a fuss about this? Why not just acknowledge Caesar and continue to try and reach out to your communities?” But the Lord calls us to be faithful at precisely the point where the culture/world/devil is attacking us. For us to compromise at that point and to take the easy ‘culturally sensitive’ option is surely for the church to be defeated.
‘For a Christian, there is only one right way to use the gift of sex: within marriage between one man and one woman. This is heresy to the modern world, and a hard saying upon which hearts, friendships, families, and even churches have been broken. There is no core teaching of the Christian faith that is less popular today, and perhaps none more important to obey.’ (Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, p196)
The desire of the report’s authors to see ‘mutual flourishing’ is a noble desire. But we need to remember that Glasgow’s motto is not ‘Let Glasgow flourish’ but rather ‘Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the Word’. I pray that the Church of Scotland will flourish, but it won’t. Not if God’s Word is to be so traduced, mocked and abused.
The Church and its Authority
When we had our discussions about the Free Church rejoining the Church of Scotland, they collapsed not because of tradition, personality or culture, but because at core there was a fundamental difference in our views of the Bible. The Church gets its authority from the bible; the bible does not get its authority from us. We are faced with the stark choice of being guided by the Word which the Holy Spirit infallibly breathed out, or the General Assembly moving along with the cultural trends of the day. When the two contradict each other we cannot have both.
Where is the Free Church in all this? Standing on the side beaming with pride and glowing with barely concealed schadenfreude? God forbid. The Free Church is not the answer to Scotland’s woes. I don’t believe that we have compromised on this issue and in theory we do accept the authority of the Bible. I am profoundly thankful to be in a denomination where the bible is the authority. But we have much repentance to do and problems of our own. It is one thing to accept the authority and sufficiency of the Bible and another to act upon that. Traditions, cultures, personality and our own sinfulness often leads to a different kind of compromise. We need humility, renewal and repentance as much, if not more than the Church of Scotland.
“O God, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech you for all sorts and conditions of men; that you would be pleased to make your ways known to them, your saving health to all nations. More especially, we pray for the good estate of the Catholic Church; that is may be so guided and governed by your good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.” (Book of Common Prayer).