It’s a sair fecht – as we say up here in Scotland! And that is certainly true of the Christian life and especially ministry. We expect opposition from the world, the devil and indeed from within the darkness of our own hearts – but what discourages me the most is when you get shot at by your own side. A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from the editor of Evangelical Times giving me advance notice of a piece they were going to carry in their August edition which attacked me for betraying the Reformed Faith and confusing Christians. I responded by asking for the right to reply in the same edition as the offending article was to be published in. This was refused. I then wrote a piece for their September edition, which they also refused to publish – as anything other than a much shortened letter. I was asked to reduce the word count and I simply said they would have to do that, as, given the damage their ill-informed attack could do, I felt the very least I deserved from a Christian newspaper was a full reply. Today I got the September edition and to say I am disappointed at what they have done with my article is to put it mildly. You can judge for yourself. The parts in bold are the parts they left out.
Letter re the Funeral of Gordon Wilson
I was more than a little disappointed to read the article due to be published in the August edition of ET. Whilst I appreciate being given advance notice of it, I would have thought it a basic courtesy before writing critically about what a Christian brother is alleged to have done, that any journalist would have had the courtesy to ask me first. I have had many dealings with the secular media and they generally tend to ask your point of view before they print any story. Yet you did not hesitate to rush into print without knowing the full information. You are aware of course that this kind of thing is used by enemies of the Gospel to blacken the names of those who are seeking to faithfully serve Christ. I am regularly sent what can only be described as ‘hate mail’ by those who call me Romanist etc. Your report does not help.
What you were unaware of and would have been told if you had asked, was that Bishop Vincent Logan was there at the funeral because it was specified in the will and funeral arrangements made by the late Gordon Wilson. My choice was simple – did I refuse to bury a faithful Christian and public servant of the Lord who was a member of my own congregation and who had paid a considerable price for his faithfulness in the public sphere, or was I prepared to fulfil the terms of the will and take the risk of a Roman Catholic Bishop praying? I decided on the latter. I find it somewhat disappointing that ET chose to report this in the terms that you did and I cannot but wonder if you would have reported the funeral at all if it were not for this. In the event Bishop Logan prayed a prayer that showed up precisely the difference between the Biblical certainty that the believer has, and the false hope that RC theology provides through its teaching on purgatory. It was a difference that was clear in the service itself and one that I made equally clear to my own congregation the following Lords Day and in my reporting of the service.
It may be that ET adopts a strict secondary separatist position and that you would also have joined in condemning Lord Mackay for attending a funeral mass of a fellow judge, and that you condemn all those who share in Remembrance day services with RC priests, or school and university chaplaincies. That may be your position, but it is not mine. And it is not for you to condemn or suggest that I am causing confusion about the Gospel. I have always been absolutely clear about the Gospel and was so at Gordon Wilson’s funeral as well. Can I suggest that you are far more likely to cause confusion and sow the seeds of doubt by this kind of irresponsible and uncharitable journalism?
What disturbed me even more in your report is your comments about my welcoming on the BBC, Pope Benedict to Scotland as a ‘fellow Christian’ in 2010. It appears that whilst love keeps no record of wrongs, Evangelical Times does! What bothers me is the theology behind your statement as well as the lack of understanding of the context in which the word Christian is used. When it is reported that Britain is or was a Christian country because 55% of the population still claim to be Christian, we all understand that this does not mean evangelical or biblical Christian. But what is even worse is your view that the Pope could not be a Christian simply by virtue of his office. I don’t share that view and regard it as unbiblical nonsense and ironically a tacit denial of both the Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of justification by faith. When I read Pope Benedict’s books on the person of Christ I was enormously impressed by his Christology, view of the Bible and his clear personal faith in Christ. Of course I don’t agree with him on many things – not least the evident Mariolatry, nor even that the office of Pope should exist, but on the basis of what he wrote in those books, insofar as one is able to judge the personal faith of another, I had little hesitation in speaking of him as a fellow Christian.
The rash statement was not mine – but yours in seeking to attribute motives and wrong teaching to me. I wonder what you would have made of McCheynes far more ‘rash’ statement in a newspaper when he declared that he would rather have Pastor Martin Boos ‘preacher of the Church of Rome though he was, than some frigid evangelical from my own denomination’?! At least I only had a priest pray – not preach! What undermines the biblical gospel is not my pastoral concern for a widow, her family and a departed brother, nor my attempts to engage positively with the secular media and that Catholic Church, but your apparent desire to cater to the gossipmongers, the eccentrics and the heresy hunters that have plagued the Reformed Church for centuries. ET is a paper that serves a useful function, but it seems to me that in attacking myself and others in this way, you are catering more for the ‘frigid evangelicals’ than you are for those are right in the centre of the battle and bearing the heat of the day. I am sorry to have to be so strong in rebuke – but as I suspect you are well aware, your ill advised and unhelpful piece, has the potential to do a great deal of damage to my own ministry and church. I answer to God, and my own denomination. I don’t answer to even well meaning critics from outside. Who are you to judge another mans servant? If someone has a complaint about me or my theology they should use the proper biblical procedures and not act as judge and jury, even through a Christian newspaper.
I thank you for the opportunity to respond to your article and despite all of this I pray that ET will flourish and be used by the Lord to inform the Church (accurately) and help us as we seek to turn back the tide in this benighted land,
Yours in Christ
It is disappointing when a Christian newspaper behaves in a manner more worthy of sensationalist tabloid journalism than Christ. Normally if a secular newspaper is going to write a story which involves me, they usually have the courtesy to check with me first. (Ironically that has happened even as I type this – the Daily Mail have just been in touch about a story). Not so ET. When the Sunday Herald wrote a piece which attacked me and the Free Church I was allowed a full reply. When a gay online newspaper did an attack piece on me, I complained and they allowed me to write a full reply. Not so ET.
Another example of their unprofessional and uncharitable approach is when they cite the phrase ‘frigid evangelical’ but leave out the source (Robert Murray McCheyne) and the context.
A Despairing Tone
But I think most disappointing of all is the negative, censorious and to be frank, pharisaical tone of ET. Not for them the rejoicing in the good the Gordon Wilson did and the challenges that Solas have been able to make to the militant secularism of our day. I doubt they would have covered the story at all if it were not for the opportunity to point out some heresy or ‘confusion’. They make me despair. They are representative of the kind of Christians who circle the wagons, shout at those outside the fort (forgiven the mixed metaphor) and shoot their own colleagues in the back just because we don’t adopt the same methodology or dot the ‘i’s or cross the ‘t’s in the same way.
In the same September edition of Evangelical Times they have an article by Rev John J Murray of the Free Church (Continuing) which also warns about the downgrade in the Free Church “on the other hand there have been some ministerial casualties in her ranks in recent times and there is a worrying trend of laxity in dealing with those who step out of line”. The fact that every denomination I know (including the FCC) has ministerial casulities seems to have escaped Mr Murray. Again if ET really is about evangelical union then perhaps they should have asked us first before printing what is an untruth) (I believe that is quite a serious breach of our reformed standards) – there is no ‘laxity in dealing with those who step out of line’. But I guess people will believe what they want to believe. Mr Murray goes on to suggest, apparently without a touch of irony, that it would be good to have those who hold to evangelical and Reformed convictions “showing a more united front against the liberalism of the mixed denominations and against the growing humanism and secularism of a nation, once so richly blessed by God” . Given that that is what I spend much of my life doing (and have the bruises to prove it) I find his words somewhat hollow. Again careless talk and gossip costs lives.
Reformed and Petty
It’s the thing I hate most about the Reformed constituency – for people who profess to believe in such a great God, we can be really petty. ET is sadly, despite the good things it does, all too indicative of that petty and parochial spirit. Someone said to me, ‘don’t bother, nobody reads ET nowadays anyway’! Thats all very well but as soon as I read the article I braced myself for the inevitable tweets, blogs, calls for me to be ‘disinvited’ from conferences, churches etc; from those who are all too willing to believe bad and to engage in schadenfreude. It matters because I once went to speak at St Andrews University CU and the president afterwards approached me and said with a tone of some surprise “that was really good, to be honest I was a bit worried, because I had heard you were a bit of a heretic’! This fine young man, an Arminian charismatic, was worried because of some gossip he had heard about me from ‘Reformed circles down south’! It matters not in the sense of my own good name – that was thrashed amongst their constituency anyway, but because I don’t want others to be intimidated and bullied by such behaviour and because I want people to know that it is possible to be Reformed without the narrow pettiness. The gossip of ‘the godly’ is as poisonous as the gossip of the godless – and the internet makes it all the more dangerous.
Bill Edgar the Universalist
Another example in this September’s ET is a review by James Clark (from the FCC ‘Seminary’ in Inverness) of William Edgar’s wonderful book Created and Creating where the reviewer just simply states that Edgar is a universalist. He isn’t. Such talk is at best gossip based on ignorance. But it is harmful. How disappointing that it seems as though ‘fake news’ is not just confined to secular publications….
What’s the Real Story? Where’s the Real Battle?
Here’s the deal. Maybe I was wrong to take Gordon Wilson’s funeral. Maybe I should have told his widow, a member of my congregation to go elsewhere, because we could not countenance an RC bishop praying. I don’t think I was, but that’s not really the issue, is it? Even if I was wrong (and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong) – so what? Whats the story? Haven’t we got a better story to tell and bigger battles to fight? Or is that we are reduced to?
Lord, have mercy!
PS. Tomorrow I wil take part in what promises to be a wonderful service in the same building that the funeral service took place. The ordination and induction of my son, Andrew, to be the minister of a new Free Church plant in the urban housing estate of Charleston, here in Dundee. That is of far more importance and significance than any confused and messed up prayer prayed at a funeral service. I wonder if ET will give it as much coverage to the latter as they did to the former?!