We were not able to put up the sermons from last week because of holidays – we will get them for you next week. However yesterday I had the privilege of addressing the Intercessors for Britain conference which was meeting in St Peters. In effect I gave them a summary of my Assembly sermon from 2015. It seems to me that not only has it not dated at all – but that the analysis (prophecy?!) contained therein is even more relevant today. In it I take a broad look at where we are as a society today – the state of the churh in Scotland and our hope for the future. In general I think this analysis applies across the Western world – from America to Australia.
The text or at least notes are below – I never seem able to stick to a text completely!
Assembly 2015 – Scotland Turned Upside Down
There is a Chinese curse that says ‘may you live in interesting times’. It seems as though we are cursed in Scotland. The times indeed are interesting. They are a changing. And in the church we had better start understanding them, or we too will sink like a stone, in this relentless wave of change.
The Marxist historian, Christopher Hill, wrote a magnificent book about the 17th Century English Civil War, which he entitled The World Turned Upside Down. In it he examined the radical ideas of the English revolutionaries. Those who are familiar with the King James English version of the Bible will know that he lifted the phrase from Acts 17:6. I liked the idea so much that when I first became a theological student and had to travel the country preaching, one of the verses I often preached on was that one. And then I discovered the more modern NIV translation “These men who have caused trouble all over the world, have now come here”. Did I want to be known as a troublemaker? Do we? It seems to me that in modern Scotland those of us who want to hold to the biblical position are in danger of being regarded as, if not enemies of the State, at least troublesome undesirables from a past era. Is it not the default position of much of modern European Christianity, that though we talk about being radical, we prefer comfortable conservatism, the kind that never changes anything?
It was multi-cultural, although with a dominance of the Greco-Roman culture. There were wars and rumours of wars, pollution in the main cities, immigration problems, economic recessions, sexual confusion, power politics, media suppression, religious radicalism and a growing gap between rich and poor. It was in this confused, vibrant, stimulating, depressing, violent world that the Good News of Jesus Christ came, as the Romans supposed, as one religion amongst many. And yet it was this religion that turned the Greco/Roman/Pagan world upside down and led through the centuries to the modern Europe we know today.
Whether it was a Jewish teacher like Paul, a doctor like Luke, or fishermen like Peter and John, the early disciples turned the Greco/Roman/Pagan world upside down. The early church fathers, from Justin Martyr to Augustine, turned the Roman Empire upside down. The Celtic monks, early reformers like the Czech Jan Hus and the Englishmen William Tyndale and John Wycliffe, turned early modern Europe upside down. The Reformation was a radical revolution that affected every area of society. It was much much more than just a change of ‘religion’. The proclamation and living out of the Gospel turned the church, the economy, culture and the whole of society upside down. Sometimes things went wrong – especially when those who were intoxicated with the new freedom moved away from the Bible, or politicians and rulers sought to harness the Gospel for their own power hungry ends. But there is no doubt that modern Europe, especially in the West, would not exist without the Reformed and Lutheran churches as their foundation. Todays Scotland would be unrecognizable without the early Celtic church, the Roman Catholic takeover, the Reformation of the Six Johns, the Disruption of 1843 and other smaller Christian reformations and renewals. When I came into the Free Church in 1981 it was partly because as a history student I studied the Disruption and noticed how radical the 1843 Free Church was – a Church that did turn Scotland upside down.
We have secularized faster in the past couple of decades than any nation in history. The change has been phenomenal and the church makes an enormous mistake when it does not recognize that change. There are far too many of us who are trying to retain a Christendom that has long gone. Whether we like it or not we live in a secular society, in which at best Christianity is barely tolerated and at worst is pushed to the margins where religious freedom of expression and action is threatened.
According to the Pew Research Centre, Christians will be a minority in the UK by 2050, falling from around two-thirds at the moment, to 45% by 2050. The number of Muslims is set to more than double to 12% and those of no faith to 39%. And of course we know it is in reality much worse than that. Many of those who would self-identify as Christian have little idea what it means and are in reality nothing more than secular pagans with a cultural veneer of Christianity. And Scotland, a land whose people were once known as the ‘people of the book’, is as bad as, if not worse than most areas of the UK in this respect.
Five Societal Trends
The road to hell is paved with good intentioned ideologies. And in Scotland these are some of the main.
There are those of our fellow citizens who believe we are on the verge of entering a liberal, progressive utopia. It is a form of secularism that is largely atheistic and based upon the incredible faith that human beings are essentially good and are progressing towards a better world. The atheist philosopher John Grey, in his fascinating works, especially his book Black Mass, points out that secular utopianism based upon Enlightenment principles and perceptions has not led to a Brave New World, but instead has been largely responsible for some of the great humanitarian disasters of the modern era. No one believed in the inevitability of human progress more than the Nazis and the Communists. Grey cites Lewis Namier; “ Hitler and the Third Reich were the gruesome and incongruous consummation of an age which, as none other, believed in progress and felt it was being achieved”.
Our modern liberal ‘progressives’ have a more sophisticated ideology but that only serves to make it all the more dangerous. They of course are offended at any comparison with the extremist secularist ideologies of the 20th Century and neatly try to turn the whole question on its head. They retort that Stalinism/North Korea/Nazism etc. are just really examples of totalitarian religions. And thus we end up with the wonderful notion that any atheist who does anything bad does it in spite of their atheism, and any Christian who does anything good, does it in spite of their Christianity. Of course it is wrong for any Christian to automatically equate atheism with the brutal atheist regimes, but it is also foolish to pretend that atheism had nothing to do with them.
This secular utopianism, when it inevitably does not work out, has to find someone ‘other’ to blame. So we find that when things do not work out as they hope, such is their faith in their own doctrines (humanity is inherently good, humans are progressive, we all have enough reason so we don’t need revelation) that they have to have someone to blame. Religion is a good candidate. It is after all regressive, repressive and ridiculous. That is why whenever you go on a secularist website you will find that the vast majority of the posts are anti-religious. For example we surveyed the Scottish Secular Societies Facebook page over a period of six months and found that 96% of the posts were anti-religious. The tendency to blame everything on religion in general and Christianity in particular is becoming deep rooted in our culture. Witness the witch-hunt against ‘creationists’ who are just one step above Pedophiles, in the eyes of some, and the continual mockery and abuse of Christianity on mainstream media.
The other aspect of this secular utopianism is that its beliefs are not open to question. A curious and disturbing aspect of this is when this progressive, liberal secularism is mixed in with nationalism. Whilst it has been encouraging and good to see the level of political involvement in Scotland since the referendum, it is worrying that there has been an attempt to hijack the traditional nationalist movement and combine it with a more militant and emotive secularism. There is nothing wrong with wanting one’s country to be self-governing, but there is something profoundly wrong with believing that your own country has inherently better and more progressive values than any one else. The combination of new hopes being raised, emotions being stirred and self-righteous assurance of our own superiority, can lead to a kind of mass hysteria that is dangerous. We would urge the Scottish government to remain balanced, tolerant of other opinions and humble. Likewise we are concerned with a British Nationalism which speaks of British ‘values’ but is unable to explain what those values are or where they come from. Being British or Scottish is neither a value nor a virtue.
Religion is not the whole or even the main problem. But neither is it the solution. The truth is that religions can do a great deal of harm. In this I share the views of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens who argue that just because a belief or practice claims to be religious, does not mean that it should be afforded special status. We should be concerned with what is true, not with what is religious. The trouble is that secularism has already decided that every religion is essentially the same and all should be treated as privatized clubs – as though they were the equivalent of line-dancing clubs or Trekkie societies. Believe what you want, do what you want, just don’t do it public and don’t let your beliefs affect your public life.
This is why secular politicians cannot deal with Islam. As long as they continue to think that it is a variant of Anglicanism they will never understand nor cope with Islam. Britain will become the country with the third largest Islamic population in Europe, overtaking both France and Germany, by 2050 with 12% of the population being Muslim. 12%? That’s nowhere near a majority, so what’s the problem? Besides which in speaking in such terms is there not a danger of being Islamaphobic and failing to recognize that there are many different variants of Islam? As regards the latter that is true – not every Muslim, not even the majority of Muslims, can be seen as potential ISIS supporters and it would be crass and stupid to speak as though they were. However people need to understand the nature of Islam as a total system, which includes politics and religion. In the vast majority of Muslim theology there is no secular/religious divide. I was once asked to give a lecture at an Islamic Institute. My subject was the Islamic doctrine of tolerance. This was a ‘liberal’ Muslim establishment and so I thought I was on safe ground when I suggested that everyone present would agree that those who change their faith (Muslims who become atheist, Christian or vice versa) should not be punished by the State. I was dumbfounded when the vast majority of those present thought that leaving Islam should be punished by prison, fines or even death.
One Monday evening I visited a local Mosque in Dundee where I spoke on a panel with a Muslim, a Baha’i and a Pagan. What impressed me was that 150 men were present and it as clear that there was a societal and community cohesion that any secular and most Christian groups would envy. Here is where the 12% figure is important. Its not the majority that matters, it’s the influence that a coherent group can have. Currently Britain only has 5-6% Muslim and yet some 25% of the ‘changeable’ seats in the recent general election were seen as dependent on the Islamic vote. That is why Ed Milliband gave an interview to the Muslim media promising to make Islamaphobia a crime.
But what is Islamaphobia? Abusing someone because of his or her religion is wrong, but should it be a crime? If so the BBC is going to be in lot of trouble! It’s rare to listen to a Radio 4 comedy programme without Christianity or Christians being ridiculed in some way or other. Islam of course is treated differently, because it reacts differently. The Guardian or Times would have little difficulty in publishing cartoons that mocked the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, Moses or Christ, but they would of course not publish a cartoon of Mohammed. Is it Islamaphobic to even question or criticize Islam? In the Brave New World of Ed Milliband will this talk be considered Islamaphobic? However the danger is not so much in making something a crime, it is in the economic power and censorship wielded by those who have money. Newspapers, local authorities, universities dependent on money from Islamic sources will find it remarkably easy not to publish or allow criticism of their cash cow.
I have a great deal in common with many Muslims and am happy to work with them on social and community issues. I despise the racism and anti-religious prejudice of those who want to exclude Muslims from this country or marginalize them within it. But I reserve the right to be critical and question the ideology; philosophy and religion, without being accused of ‘hate crime’. Just as I reserve the right of those who want to critique and criticize Christianity, to do so.
As regards the church in this respect we have become pathetically weak. At a personal level I enjoy debating and discussing with Muslims many of whom tell me that the Christians they meet are largely weak and ineffectual who know little about what they believe. It astounded me that when I wrote an article about Islam as being the elephant in the room in the British General Election, it was Christians, not Muslims who most objected and accused me of ‘Islamaphobia’ and not being ‘nice like Jesus’. At a time when Christians were being beheaded in Iraq and Egypt, bombed in Pakistan and imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, there were those in the evangelical world who were more concerned that some Muslims might be upset if we asked hard questions about Islam.
Fascism in both its Italian and German forms was all about the power of the Corporate State. State control was everything. As people who have been brought up in a society with liberal democratic values of freedom of expression, diversity and equality, and with the belief that we are the ‘good guys’, it is hard for us to appreciate that it could be any different. But whilst British society has in the past flirted with the notion of a theocratic state, or an absolutist government, in general we have been a secular society that was founded upon Christian principles. Church and State were good neighbours and good friends. Neither had absolute power. The trouble is that with the removal of Christianity as the conscience of the nation, it is allowing the creeping absolutism of the State. The mantra ‘something should be done’ is like a drug for those who think they can do something. Every time something goes wrong, a government inquiry is promised and new laws proposed so that ‘this will never happen again’. In an absolutist state there is plenty work for lawyers, bureaucrats and bankers. We have moved from ten commandments to ten thousand regulations per year (and the regulators that have to enforce them). Whilst any reasonable society needs laws, the danger is that an increasingly powerful state will result in more abuse and corruption, without the checks and balances coming from outwith the State and within the heart. If you remove God and replace him with the State you will end up with some kind of fascist corporate all-powerful state.
Totalitarian states can only survive if the control mechanisms are strong and the populace satisfied. In the 20th century there were two books that prophesied the future, George Orwell’s 1984 which envisioned a Stalinist Totalitarian state where the population were controlled by force and censorship, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which foresaw a population divided and controlled by pre-determined social status, social education, and drugs. Huxley was the better prophet. People in Britain today are told they can be whatever they want to be, but for many that is just Disneyesque waffle. Drugs, 15 minutes of fame on reality TV, sex, smart phones, and widescreen TVs are the only things offered. Our elites don’t tell us to eat cake, they don’t offer us bread and circuses, but they do presume that we will be happy living dumbed down mediocre lives with the cultural crumbs from their table. Education has become more about training people for jobs and social engineering that it is about educating people. As we have moved away from a Christian view of education to a social engineering, collectivist mindset, we now tell children what to think, rather than teaching them how to think.
The danger is that we end up with this collectivist mindset where people are scared to think for themselves and just go along with the prevailing zeitgeist. I find this disturbing trend particularly illustrated in our party politicians. They must go along with party policy or they are out on their ear. Anyone ‘off message’ is deemed to be dangerous. We appear to be no longer governed by politicians who think for themselves but by those who look to the carefully selected ‘focus groups’ and opinion polls. Government by opinion poll is not democracy.
Of course there are those who ‘rage against the machine’. They don’t accept the certainties of scientific materialism, or the control of the State, and they reject totalitarian religion as much as they reject the totalitarian state. They want spirituality but the last place they expect to find it is in the Church. And so the old pagan religions appear attractive. Are they not after all closer to ‘nature’? Do they not offer more freedom? Do they not fit more with the ‘green’ agenda and the ‘sexual freedom’ philosophy? Be anything you wanna be. But Mother Nature without The Father is cruel, and paganism is an illusion that will only disappoint.
The sexual ‘liberation’ of the 1960’s has turned out to be anything but liberating for the vast majority of people. The historian Diarmid McCullough was recently given his own series on the BBC entitled Sex and the Church. His theory was simplistic but is the standard narrative now taught by our elites. Before Christianity came along we all lived in a kind of Greco/Roman/Pagan sexual bliss, where we did whatever we wanted and lived free and unrestrained lives. Then along came Christianity and the Church which made sex a sin and brought about a two thousand year repression. But now we are more ‘enlightened’ and we are returning to the Greco/Roman/Pagan view. I would agree with the fact that we are returning to a Greco/Roman/Pagan view – but this is not progressive. In the Greco/Roman world there was sexual exploitation, slavery, diseases, dysfunctional families, children born out of wedlock, child abuse and dominance of the poor by the rich.
Our Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that the redefinition of marriage was his proudest achievement. It is hard to think of a more apposite example of someone glorying in their shame. The British and Scottish governments will remain under considerable pressure to further ‘liberalise’ in this area. I was astounded to receive a letter from the Prime Minister’s office stating that he supported SSM because two people who loved one another should be allowed to express that love in marriage. By that logic a man should be allowed to marry his brother? And why just two people? Why should ‘equal’ marriage be denied to polygamists? Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green party caused a bit of a stir when she said that she would be open to consultation on it. I chaired a hustings during the recent election in which the SNP candidate also stated that he would be ‘open to consultation’ on it. And they are right. Given the criteria by which SSM was agreed upon there is little logical reason not to have polygamous marriages.
All this is part of a wider sexual philosophy self-identified as ‘queer theory’ whereby attempts are being made to reengineer humanity so that there is no specific gender or sexuality. We are going to move from the position where our gender and sexuality were perceived as fixed (born this way) to one in which we can freely choose to switch both (hence the current propaganda campaign to normalize ‘transgender’). Peter Tatchell is a most interesting LGBTI activist who I have enjoyed meeting and debating with. In a fascinating article ‘Goodbye to Gay” – Tatchell shows where his thinking is going.
“Overcoming homophobia will result in more people having gay sex but fewer people claiming gay identity. The medieval Catholic Church, despite all its obscurantism and intolerance, got one thing right. Homosexuality is not, it suggested, the special sin of a unique class people but a temptation to which any mortal might succumb.
It now seems fairly certain, in the light of modern research, that most people are born with a sexual desire that is, to varying degrees, capable of both heterosexual and homosexual attraction. Once homophobia declines, we are bound to witness the emergence of a homosexuality that is quite different from the homosexuality we know today. With the strictures on queerness removed, and same-sex relationships normalised and accepted, more people will have gay sex but, paradoxically, less of them will identify as gay. This is because, in the absence of homophobia, the need to assert gayness becomes redundant. Gay identity is the product of anti-gay repression. When homosexuality is disparaged and victimised, gay people understandably feel they have to affirm their desires and lifestyle. However, if prejudice is vanquished, and if one sexuality is not privileged over another, defining oneself as gay (or straight) will cease to be necessary and have no social significance. The need to maintain sexual differences and boundaries disappears with the demise of straight supremacism. Homosexuality as a separate, exclusive clearly demarcated orientation and identity will then begin to fade (as will its mirror opposite, heterosexuality). Instead, the vast majority of people will be open to the possibility of both opposite-sex and same-sex relations They won’t feel the need to label themselves (or others) as gay or straight because, in a non-homophobic culture, no one will give a damn about who loves and lusts after who.”
I suspect that many of the politicians who voted for the redefinition of marriage did so because of the political pressure, because they had not thought about it too much and because they expected it to be the end. But the reality is that the redefinition of marriage is just part of a wider philosophy which seeks to redefine humanity and create a world in which we can choose our own sexuality and our own gender, because ultimately they do not matter. In the beginning God created them male and female, in the end ‘man’ created them trans human.
In all of this we need to realize that it is the poor who will suffer the most. The wealthy can pick and choose what and who they want. The poor just live in and with the resultant chaos and dysfunction.
I came across this astonishing statistic last week. In the US between 2013 and 2015 the wealth of the 14 richest Americans saw their wealth increase by $157 billion, that is more than is owed by the lowest 128 million. There are numerous such statistics but what astounded me is that this occurred in Obama’s America. The Liberal Left has bought as much into this economic inequality as has the Conservative Right. Indeed much of the Conservative Right has also bought into the moral agenda of the Liberal Left. Blue and Red have merged into pink. Right on Corporations such as Google and Amazon may wax lyrical about the poor and boast about their impeccable liberal social credentials, but that does not stop them using every tax avoidance method they can find. These multi-billion Corporations receive more in government grants than they pay in business tax. The Guardian recently reported that corporate businesses were in receipt of some £85 billion in government subsidies. In an age of austerity perhaps the cuts should be more on the corporate subsidies that it is on the welfare benefits of the poor?
It is almost beyond irony that we have an “Equality Network’ funded by the Scottish government which almost has nothing to do with equality. The Left in UK politics has largely shifted from concerns about economic injustice to a society where the only ‘equality’ that really matters is a form of social liberalism. Never mind that the gap between rich and poor is increasing, what really matters is that we should be able to sleep with whoever we want, whenever we want.
But- enough of the philosophies and the culture we live in. What about the Church? Whilst within the Church we need to be aware of what is going on in our society, and indeed aware of how much of our society is in us and affects us, we need to realize that our primary problem is not ‘out there’. After all as we regress into the Greco/Roman/Pagan view of the world, rather than despair we should remember that it is precisely in that world that Christianity flourished. If we want to turn the world upside down we need to ask what is wrong with the church, not what is wrong with the world. We need to look nearer home for the main cause of the problem. It’s us. The Church. Its my view that in far too many cases we have ceased to be salt and light in our society, simply because we have become tasteless and the darkness within is too great.
I am not so much concerned with the numerical decline in the church, that is almost inevitable once there is spiritual decline. And do any of us doubt that there has been spiritual decline? We now have the church playing catch-up with the world, rather than the church turning the world upside down. Rather than being prophetic we have become pathetic. Compromise, infighting, lovelessness, complacency, despair, adapting Christ to suit the culture, rather than proclaiming Christ to challenge the culture, are the hallmarks of a decaying and dying church.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. We are always called to repentance, renewal and reformation. In the Free Church we cannot stand back and think of ourselves as ‘pure’. We are not. We are as sinful as any other group and we are as tempted to despair and turn inwards as anyone else. I am thankful for so much that the Lord is doing in and through the Free Church. There is a degree of optimism, hope and vitality within us now that I have never known in 28 years of ministry. However there is one area that I would like to challenge us. There is a danger of complacency in many areas but not least in the area of bridging this gap between the church and the culture. We need to think long and hard about how we connect with and bring the bread of life to a Scotland that is spiritually starving. McCheyne was concerned that in a parish of 4,000 there were 1500 people associated with St Peters, another 1500 associated with other evangelical churches, and yet he wept that there were a 1,000 out with the normal reach of the Gospel. As a fellow minister said to me, “I have seen people weep over the movement of a communion table, I have rarely seen people weep over lost souls”. Would that we had McCheyne’s passion!
I have been thinking about this a lot because of my work with Solas – we are sometimes asked can we train people and congregations to do outreach. I am not keen on training programmes but we are currently developing something along the following lines. (If you are interested in Solas helping you then please let us know).
Up Reach – Prayer – The first and last of our priorities has to be prayer. Eric Alexander in his wonderful new book on prayer (published by the Banner of Truth) reminds us that prayer does not ‘support’ the work, it IS the work. Tim Keller has been really helpful to me in his latest book on prayer. Get I suggest that you get it, read it and act upon it. I recall a Free Presbyterian ministers wife answering my question “How many people are in your church?” with the marvelous statement “we have 40 praying people”. How many praying people do you have? I don’t just mean prayer meetings as just a midweek service. I mean family worship, prayer triplets, housegroups, and elder’s prayer. We need a great renewal of prayer within the Free Church. Could you go home from this Assembly making that a priority?
In Reach – There are two ways that we need to reach in. Firstly we are reluctant to face up to problems we have within our fellowships. There is something toxic and we pretend otherwise. Sometimes we don’t know what it is. But we are aware that there is something not right. That can also be true at an individual level. McCheyne’s famous prayer “Lord make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be’, needs to be matched with his other observation “my people’s greatest need is my own holiness’. In order to reach other people I need to pray “Lord, draw me closer to you, that I may draw others”. The bottom line is that we are all sinners and when the Lord answers our prayer and ‘visits’ us, he will expose and would, in order to heal and restore. We need a restoration of biblical church discipline.
The other kind of ‘in-reach’ is to acknowledge that there are those in our chairs and pews, in our fellowships and homes, who are not yet believers. Whether the children or the elderly, the long established or the new comers, there is always an ongoing work to reach those who are already amongst us. Let us never be satisfied with coming people to Church who do not come to Christ. Our sermons, services and lifes must be persuasive.
Out Reach – We are all aware of the concept of peak oil – the point where the amount of oil in the world reaches its height and from there on begins to decline. I wonder if we have reached the point of peak secularism? A recent survey by Win/Gallup found that those under 34 are more likely to be religious than other age groups. The recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey showed that whereas the number of Scots identifying themselves as having no religion was 54% in 2013, this had fallen to 44% in 2014. Of course this does not yet indicate a trend but it is interesting. I have been in the ministry for 29 years and it is my view that people in Scotland are in some senses more open to the Gospel today than they have been at any period during that time. The question is, are we prepared to reach out?
And how do we reach out? Imagine that you are standing at the banks of a fast flowing river, and there are people in it who are floating downstream on their rafts, boats and life jackets? What do you do? Stand and yell at them ‘you’re all doomed”! Sit round in luxury chairs, sipping wine, chomping on steak and commenting on how terrible the flood is? No – you reach out. We need to desperately think about how to reach out to a people, most of whom don’t want to be reached. We need to think of creative, biblical, contemporary ways to reach people. One example of this could be the new Solas magazine which will be launched after this Assembly.
I am astounded at the number of churches and Christians who, although in theory committed to the Good News, seem to want to keep it to themselves. They are far more concerned about maintaining what we have got, than they are about reaching out to those who desperately need it. This is as true in the Free Church as elsewhere. Let me give one of many examples. One church leader stated that his congregation did not need an evangelist, but they wanted a minister who was going to take care of the flock. That is a shameful and unbiblical attitude. Why are these things set up as opposites? We need every minister and every Christian to be an evangelist/prophet/pastor. Of course there are different gifts and we should use them according to the faith the Lord gives us. But we deserve to die if we live in a bubble and watch people float by on their way to a lost eternity. Evangelism must be part of the DNA of our congregations. Or do we no longer believe that people are lost and that we have good news for lost people?
Reach Down – I don’t mean this in a patronizing way – as though we were the elite on the top, condescending to reach down to those beneath us. It is simply the case that we are starving beggars who have found a feast and want to share it with other starving beggars. It is essential that as churches we continue to reach the poor. There are so many practical things we are and could be involved in, Church planting through Twenty Schemes, Christians Against Poverty, Bethany and many others. We need to be involved in the fight to protect the dying and the unborn. The Free Church needs to stand foursquare with the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.
And there is one area that we really need to think about far more seriously, the role of education. We may not yet be able to set up Christian schools, but that does not mean we should not be involved much more in the current education system. We should honour and pray for our teachers, encourage our pupils and seek to educate the educators. As a Church we need to think about running after school clubs for all, but especially the poor. We need to educate church children in the Christian worldview and philosophy. And we need to lobby government for a more tolerant and progressive system of education in our state schools. If, as appears to be happening, the government is reneging on the promises of the 1872 Education Act, that our Scottish state education system would be a non-denominational Christian one, then we need to ask the government to endorse either a voucher system like the Swedes, or the Dutch system whereby churches are enabled to set up by faith based schools. Of course our current educationalists will scream ‘we want a neutral system, not a divisive religious one’, which simply means that they want a one size fits all system, whereby the only philosophy and ethos allowed is that of atheistic secular humanists. Let the secular humanists have their schools, and let the Christians have theirs, and let parents have the choice. Or maybe freedom, choice and equality don’t quite extend that far.
I cannot leave this without referring to what is going on ‘across the road’ at the Church of Scotland General Assembly, because what is happening there is in a sense seeing the church, not the world, being turned upside down.
Firstly let me congratulate Angus Morrison on becoming Moderator of the Church of Scotland. It is good to see a fellow evangelical in the post. In that respect we give thanks to God for his recovery from his illness and wish him the Lords blessing and courage in his role as moderator. We pray that God will give him the strength and courage to stand against the tide of unbelief, faithlessness and mockery both out with and within the Church, which threatens its very existence.
Of course there are those who say that we should say nothing about what is going on in a sister church, that we should be nice, mouth pious platitudes in public and hope that in the end everything will turn out right. But it is precisely because we regard the Church of Scotland as a sister church, and precisely because we believe in Christian unity that we must speak out.
Firstly let me make a simple offer. I would be happy to be the last moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. I would be delighted to see the Free Church coming back into our mother Kirk, the Church of Scotland. In the Free Church we don’t care so much for the Free Church, we care for the good of the Christian church in the whole of Scotland, and beyond. We want the Church of Scotland to prosper and grow. We want to return. As Thomas Chalmers stated, ”who cares for the Free Church compared with the Christian good of Scotland?” However we agree with Chalmers when he stated that we could not return to a vitiated Establishment. We will return to the Church of Scotland, if the Church of Scotland returns to its biblical and confessional roots. Then there would be no need for the Free Church to exist and we would gladly cross the road.
On the other hand if the Church of Scotland continues on its current ‘trajectory’ then, whilst we will try and support those of our brothers and sisters who remain within it, we cannot go along with a church which ignores the Word of God, compromises with the culture and is intolerant to those who want to uphold biblical principles. Such a church deserves to die. We want to be united with Christians of whatever denomination as we seek to stand together for the cause of Christ, but we cannot do so at the expense of truth. Our aim is the ‘world turned upside down’, not the superficial and shallow outward unity of the denominations. There will be no union and no co-operation between the Church of Scotland and the Free Church, as long as the former continues to ignore the teaching of the Word of God.
But being realistic there is little hope of the Church of Scotland returning to its roots. So what can we do in terms of Christian unity? I was at the 2009, 2011 and 2013 Assemblies. I listened with pride to the excellent case made by our brother and sister evangelicals within the Kirk, and watched with horror as the bible, reason and logic were completely ignored and the Church sold its birthright for a mess of potage. Each time leading evangelicals assured us that they fought on and that people should wait until the final decision. But the evangelicals were ‘played’. The whole scenario from 2009 was not about ‘discerning what the Scriptures say’, but rather about keeping the traditionalists and evangelicals on board. With a divided and rudderless evangelicalism it was easy enough to get most to stay by stringing out the process, make sure they got the message that those who leave will be treated badly and offer those who stay a seat at the table (as long as they don’t get to decide the menu and play along with the ‘we are all gracious nice people who differ on minors but agree on the majors’).
Well now that that decision has been made, what should the response be? It is not for me to tell other evangelicals what to do, but can I agree with the retiring moderator of the Church of Scotland when he urged people to ‘play for the team’. The question then becomes whose team do you play for? Is it the Church of Scotland? The Free Church? The Baptists? Or just simply Christ’s? The Church that he bought with his own blood? Is it a team with fellow players such as the Rev. Scott McKenna of Edinburgh Presbytery who posted a YouTube video of a sermon he preached in which he stated things such as “I was asked if Jesus died for my sins and I replied, ‘no, no, no, no – that’s ghastly theology, you don’t want to go there”. Or is your team one that includes Baptists such as Paul Rees of Charlotte Chapel, or the Free Church, or those who have left the Church of Scotland, or others who share the same evangelical faith?
There will be those who stay in the Church of Scotland for various reasons and I personally will want to support and encourage you for as long as you can. But can I offer this word of encouragement? Don’t stay in and fight believers in other churches. Stay in and fight unbelievers in your own. And we will be with you all the way. For example it was good to hear Rev Dr Andrew McGowan of Covenant Fellowship urging presbyteries to ‘disobey the GA”. Let me assure Covenant Fellowship and others that we will stand with you all the way in your ‘covenant’ disobedience. However if there are those ‘evangelicals’ who think evangelicalism is an ‘optional extra’, that it is the denomination that matters, that there is no other game in town, then I’m afraid you are on your own. Meanwhile for many others I suspect that they now realize the game is up and the situation is irredeemable. For the sake of the Gospel maybe it is time to go.
Like Martin Luther King I too have a dream. It is a dream where bible believing Christians work together as one, where we don’t just profess unity with our lips, but instead live it with our lives. By this, said Jesus, all men will know that you are my disciples. I am not naïve enough to think that it is either likely or desirable for all Christians to join the Free Church but can I at least plead for the following:
- Lets begin by recognizing and seeking to encourage and help all our fellow Christians in Scotland. Whether it is those who remain within the C of S, or those who don’t share our specific Reformed theology but nonetheless are ‘most in the main things’, let us love and support our brothers and sisters. I have enjoyed working with Charismatics such as those associated with CLAN even though there are some things I struggle with. We find the brothers and sisters of Christ in many unexpected places. One of my favourite McCheyne quotes is – “I would rather have pastor Martin Boos, preacher of the Church of Rome, though he was, preach in my own pulpit, than some frigid evangelical from my own church”!”
- But lets move in a bit. There are those who we have a closer tie with because we share the same biblical reformed theology, the same doctrine of Scripture and the same biblical view of ministry and the importance of the local church. Can we work with those of our brothers and sisters who are not Presbyterians, or who cannot bring themselves to formally align with us? Not just the pious platitudes about Christian unity but real practical help. Should we not seek to establish Gospel partnerships and coalitions such as have been established in Edinburgh and we are seeking to establish in Tayside? Can we not commend, support and work with our ‘independent’ brothers and sisters in the FIEC? A partnership between the Free Church and FIEC could have significant implications for church planting and gospel work in Scotland.
- There is a realignment of Scottish Presbyterianism going on just now, whether we like it or not. The question is whether we are going to shatter into a hundred different pieces or can we work for a united national Presbyterian biblical church in Scotland? We really don’t need yet more Presbyterian denominations. I have seen four new Presbyterian denominations start in Scotland in my three decades of ministry and expect to see another couple soon. Even those these are changed times this is surely not the vision of John Knox and the Scottish Reformers. Rather than the continual divisions could we not have some reunifications? I want to commend the example of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church from the USA who came to plant churches in Scotland and began with Grace Church Leith. When Athole Rennie and the congregation decided to come into the Free Church, the ARPC, recognized the changed situation in Scotland, encouraged and sent them with their blessing. Is it not time for the smaller Presbyterian, older or newer, denominations to reunite? Maybe its time for the Free Church Continuing to ‘discontinue’?
And for those who are leaving or will leave the Church of Scotland, I know that you are hurting and probably have had enough to do with Presbyterian denominations for a life time. I can understand why your previous experiences, the pain of leaving, your perceptions of the Free Church and the desire for freedom to do your own thing, would incline you either towards setting up your own denominations, or being independent, but will you not consider working with us, if not joining us?
Presbyterianism is not about networks based on PLUS (people like us), but rather about churches with people from all different backgrounds being committed practically and really to one another. My concern is not with the Free Church, my concern is with the Christian good of Scotland, and I believe that that good is better served by new churches being planted, and old ones revitalized, than it is by new denominations being started up. A united national Presbyterian church (with a variety of expressions and a diversity of congregations) would serve Scotland a whole lot better than a dozen ‘Presbyterian denominations/networks’.
- Let me move in a wee bit more. Within the Free Church I hope and pray that the bad old days of needless divisions and tribalism have gone. But we must always be vigilant. The key aspect must be unity in diversity and keeping both party and personal politics away from our denominational life and inter- church relationships. As in God’s providence we continue to grow and develop we need to be on our guard and seek ‘the peace of Jerusalem’.
- And finally let me make a plea for unity in our local congregations. I know of nothing that harms a church more than internal division caused by human sinfulness, pride, unreality and prayerlessness. Where there is peace and harmony, centred on Christ, then there is also the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and the life everlasting (Ps 133). Church discipline and speaking the truth in love are surely essential components of this unity.
And then lets move out again. Because ultimately its not about our local Church, the Free Church, Gospel Coalitions, Christian networks, interdenominational agencies, national or international churches. It’s about the Church of God which he bought with his own blood. We always need the grand vision of the Church Triumphant, the Bride of Christ, throughout all ages. The words of Samuel Stone’s great hymn, The Church’s One Foundation, are apposite to our situation:
The Church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish,
Is with her to the end:
Though there be those who hate her,
And false sons in her pale,
Against both foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed:
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, How long?
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!
I leave you with a passage of Scripture to reflect on:
We do not want the glory of the Free Church. We do not want the glory of Scotland. We do not want self-glory. All these glories will fade away. What we want is the glory of the Lord to enter the Church, and for the land of Scotland and indeed the whole world, to be radiant with his glory. Habakkuk 2:14 – 14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. Amen. Even so come soon Lord Jesus.