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Confessions of a Free Church Minister

For technical reasons we are not able to do the Quantum podcast this week – so instead I thought I would share this article that I wrote in 2005 – 13 years later it is fascinating to see that it has largely not dated – I think I would stand by everything in it – perhaps even more passionately today.  (its fascinating seeing some of the names – most are still faithful servants of Christ – some have gone to glory and sadly a few have fallen by the wayside)

Hill, Amelia Robertson, 1820-1904; The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland
Hill, Amelia Robertson; The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-first-general-assembly-of-the-free-church-of-scotland-138591

 Confessions of a Free Church Minister

It used to be that the second question one asked a stranger after ‘What is your name?’ was either ‘where are you from?’ or, (if you were from Lewis) , ‘Who are your people?’. Nowadays that has changed to, ‘What do you do?’   For many people our work has become the defining characteristic of who we are. It is our meaning, our raison d’etre. I thought about this recently when speaking to a friend who had just retired from his work and to be honest was finding life difficult. He was his job. And now that that was gone he was struggling with his identity, meaning and purpose.

I also thought about that a couple of weeks ago. Mainly because of two things – the Free Church General Assembly and Robert Murray McCheyne. Travelling down on the train to the Assembly I enjoyed a conversation with a scientist about the Bible, Behe’s Black Box and the disappointment of the English Standard Version. It made for a very stimulating and quick journey. It was also quite clear that those around who had the privilege of lugging into this conversation were somewhat perplexed as to who yours truly was. A minister? Without a dog collar? A Free Church minister? Aren’t they the ones who wear black, curse Sabbath breakers and hate Catholics? Ah well, I thought, public image and public prejudice – there is not much that one can do about that.

The Crack was Good

And then some of us met in the Outsider for a meal on Tuesday evening. As they say up North, ‘the crack was good’!   There was laughter, good food, animated conversation and a real concern for the Church.   Yes, I thought. I am quite happy to be identified with these men and it is a privilege to be a Free Church minister. After that I went to the Assembly. Not as a commissioner but simply as an observer.  And that was a sobering experience. This may be too subjective but I felt that there was something wrong. I am not sure what, but the Assembly felt flat. There seemed to be a lack of vision and life. And it was more than the usual dullness and boredom associated with much of the routine business. I felt like an Outsider. If this was the Free Church then it was not a good advert for the Gospel. I stayed awake at night, thinking about what was wrong, trying to identify it. Certainly there are financial problems. There are also problems with manpower. And I guess many people are just waiting for the court case to be over. But there is something more. And I was not sure what it was.


One thing is that we are not radical enough. Sometimes I think we are playing at being a church and we are not facing up to reality. One aspect of this was the welcoming of David Steele as the Lord High Commissioner. I could not believe that this man was invited to address the Assembly. I know he is the Queens Lord High Commissioner and I know all about the Establishment Principle. But that Principle requires us to be a prophetic voice to the nation. And we sat silent. This is the man who is responsible for the 1967 Abortion Act and as such is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Under no circumstances should he have been allowed to speak. I don’t care what meaningless platitudes he offered – I was not going to sit in the same building and have the shame of that man addressing our church and being honoured. We need to be a lot more radical if we are going to impact our society.

I did not return on the Thursday and Friday. I understand that they went well. Maybe things warmed up.

Lessons from McCheyne

Then I read some of the reports coming from the Church of Scotland Assembly and that depressed me even more. Scotland is going down the tubes and the church is fiddling while it burns. So on Friday I retreated to the Wellgate library in Dundee City Centre and into the 19th century and Robert Murray McCheyne. It was a tonic. Here was a church that was forward looking, concerned for the lost, passionate about the poor and innovative. McCheyne wore himself out – so much so that his elders employed an assistant minister to help do the pastoral work. There are so many parallels between the situation faced by St Peters and the Church in Scotland in the 1840’s and St Peters and the situation facing the Church in Scotland today.   McCheyne was criticised for being too involved with Church Extension (‘strengthen what remains’ he was told); for going abroad too often (Israel, Ireland, England); for starting a Sunday School; for preaching at services which used musical instruments and had an organ (ironically here he was attacked by the Moderates who were excellent at ecclesiastical law but awful at theology). He was rebuked for working too hard, being too political and for trying to speak to the wider church. An arrogant young man was the perception of some. He struggled with indwelling sin, personal temptation, relationships, depression, physical illness and despair over the state of the Church in Scotland. And yet he and his colleagues were on fire for the Glory of God and the spread of the Gospel in Scotland.

I read this in a letter from McCheyne responding to a call to go to a quieter, wealthier and healthier place – “ If my ministry were unsuccessful, if God frowned upon the place and made my message void, then I would willingly go, for I would rather beg my bread than preach without success; but I have never lacked success.” I thought back to what Donny G Macdonald, Convener or Church Extension, said in his excellent address on the Wednesday evening of the Assembly. “We have to get back to our core business and our core business is not the maintenance of ministers but the spread of the Gospel”. And then it hit me. One of the major problems with the Free Church is us – ‘us’ being the ministers. We need to take a tumble to ourselves.

Let me explain it in this way. Most of our money is spent on ministers. Much of our church government is entrusted to ministers. And of course the vast majority of our teaching and preaching is done by the ministers. Church Extension, Evangelism, Overseas Mission, Congregational leadership are all committed to or dominated by ministers. That is not all necessarily bad. Although I would argue that there is a strong case, indeed an essential need, for there to be wider involvement of elders, deacons and other members in all of these areas. The one man ministry needs to become a thing of the past and at the rate we are going it will be. The model of church as being a church building, a manse and a minister, will soon be extinct. However there are those who are called to the full time ministry of the Word and to a large extent the health of the Church is dependant upon us. We are the front line troops – or at least we are the leaders of the front line troops in this particular battle and it is time for us to face up to the fact that on the whole we are not doing a good job. Let us consider what it means to be a Free Church minister today. The Modern Free Church minister is (or should be) ….

What does it mean to be a Minister Today?

A Preacher – There is a growing trend in Scotland to despise the role of the preacher. And this is not just from a postmodern culture which regards preaching as essentially didactic, out of date, intolerant and boring. Sadly that is increasingly becoming the view in the Church. There are many churches where the minister dare not go beyond a ten minute sermonette. Ah – but not in the Free Church you say. That is true. However there are still those men who feel undermined in their work as preachers. Why? Very few people come to hear them, and often those who do display an indifference and lack of enthusiasm for the Word which is soul destroying. There is a crisis of confidence in preaching in the Free Church. Some of our preaching is poor. Long winded, rambling, , dull, irrelevant. How is it possible that we can make the living and enduring Word of God sound as dull as dishwater? And then we have the nerve to hide behind the excuse of the lack of spirituality (or the Holy Spirit) in the lives of our hearers.

We need to work at our preaching. We need to get our exegesis right and be able to apply what we learn from the Word. There is some excellent preaching in the church and we can learn from it. If you want to know how to do OT narrative preaching listen to David Meredith (Smithton). For contemporary exegetical pastoral preaching there is none better than Alasdair I Macleod (Leith). Evangelistic preaching? – try Neil Macmillan (Kirkcaldy), Kenny MacDonald (retired – Portree), Iain Macaskill (South Uist) or Derek Lamont (St Columba’s). Biblical theological preaching? It would be hard to beat Kenny Stewart (Dowanvale) or Prof John L. Mackay (Free Church College). Apologetic preaching – Alex Macdonald (Buccleuch). Practical theology – Iver Martin (Aberdeen). Doctrinal and theological? Prof Donald Macleod (Free Church College) or Iain D. Campbell (Back). All these men are excellent (which is not to say they could not improve). And I am sure there are others. But most of us really must learn from them and we have to work and work again at being preachers. We may think that this is an age which does not listen to preaching but that is not actually the case. What it does not listen to is poor preaching- preaching which does not connect with people nor expound the Word of God but becomes instead a monologue of personal prejudices and rehashed religious clichés.   We may like junk food but we cannot survive on a diet of junk preaching. We need real meat and real quality.

A Pastor – I find being a preacher hard enough. Being a pastor is even more difficult. You get involved in peoples lifes, with all their problems and their ups and downs. Being a pastor means that but it means a lot more. You are more than a social worker and more than the business manager of the Church. You want to talk to people about their walk with the Lord – they want to moan about the timing of the services or the colour of tie that the visiting minister wore last week! There are some men who are great pastors – who can get alongside people and really minister to them on a one to one basis. Perhaps we need to recognise that there are some men who are not all that good at preaching but are excellent pastors. It is fascinating to note that the St Peters Kirk Session, concerned with the ill health of McCheyne, appointed an assistant minister in 1841, primarily to help with the pastoral visitation.   The current vogue for team ministers is an encouraging development which I hope will help us use men’s gifts more wisely.

A Prayer Warrior – I always remember being amazed at the ability of Derek Prime, the minister of Charlotte Baptist Church in Edinburgh, to remember the names and circumstances of everyone in his congregation.   His church had over 600 in it so how could he do it? The answer was simple. He prayed for each person every month. The prayer life of most ministers in the Free Church is I suspect as bad as mine. We are too busy for prayer. And yet that is our business. There should be no sermon preparation, preaching or pastoral visitation without prayer. It is simple but we need to rediscover the power and place of prayer.

A Politician – I say this because a minister is a leader and I have a very positive view of politicians. They are Gods servants and they are meant to govern and lead in the interests of all the people. Likewise the minister is a servant of God and is meant to govern and lead in the interests of all the people of the congregation. This requires diplomacy, determination and dedication. Again it is not easy – mainly because so many of our people have such an appalling ecclesiology. They view the church as a supermarket (which they come to spiritual shop in), or as a social club (where they get to meet their friends) or a theatre (where they are entertained). As a result ministers are constantly threatened by those who say they will take their business elsewhere. Add to this the doctrinal thought police, the mischief makers, the power seekers, the awkward and the mentally unbalanced and it makes for real difficulties in leadership.  Furthermore we are in need of real spiritual, mature elders. Being the beneficiary of some excellent elders I cannot understand how some ministers continue without adequate fellow leaders. The state of the eldership is as important for the Free Church as the state of the ministry.

A Person – Free Church ministers need to remember that we are human. We are not super saints. We need to lead by example in having balanced, wholesome and persuasive lifes.  Many of the problems and splits within churches are not caused by doctrine or ecclesiology but rather by personality clashes and character defects. The ministry sometimes attracts the eccentric and the egotistical. We need to become more rounded human beings.

So that is what we are and what we do. But we need also to look at our faults. Let me suggest ten that we need to deal with.

Ministers come in all shapes and sizes! 

Ten Faults with Ministers Today

1) Jealousy – I remember the first time I came across ministerial jealousy.   A colleague spoke with some degree of contempt about another minister. I thought it was something personal and then I realized that it was in fact jealousy. The first man was struggling in a small congregation which was getting smaller. The second was being blessed and seeing his congregation grow. The first had a good psychological defence – he was not being blessed because it was a day of small things, therefore when he heard of blessing in other congregations he ‘knew’ it could not be real. Since that day I have come across numerous comments, innuendos, not so subtle put downs etc that seem to have been as much motivated by ministerial jealousy as anything else.  Free Church ministers can be as guilty of gossip as anyone else.

Why is it that we find it so difficult to rejoice when the Lord is blessing not you, but your colleague? Why is it that we hammer those who are ‘doing well’?   I remember phoning David Meredith every Sunday night. ‘How did it go today?’. The answer was always positive, encouraging and rejoicing! That was not always easy to take when your congregation was struggling. But what was the alternative? Would I really want Smithton not to be blessed? Of course not. It is really encouraging when God takes a tiny Free Church plant like Smithton and grows it to a congregation of some 300 people. And is the Free Church rejoicing? No. At least some of the ministers are not. I have heard more nastiness, snide comments and pettiness about Smithton and ‘mega churches’ in the past few months, than I have anything positive. Of course Smithton is not perfect.  But it has been blessed. And to speak of mega churches in the context of the Free Church is quite ridiculous. Are we so jealous that we would rather see the whole church reduced to our level rather than rejoice in the blessing of God upon others?

2) Laziness – The old joke is that of the minister working just one day a week. Chalmers in his unconverted days as a minister spoke of how the minister had plenty time to pursue other hobbies. Whilst most Free Church ministers work hard and indeed overwork, there are some who are just plain lazy. Whether this is justified theologically – (God is not working) – or by looking at others (I am a professional and I should not have to work more than 36 hours) – or by default (doing other things that are nothing to do with the ministry), does not really matter. It is the hard working farmer that reaps the harvest – not the lazy one. I can not understand how any man can expect blessing if he is not prepared to put his heart and soul into the work.

3) Activism – This is the sin that is almost the opposite of laziness. Some of us run around like demented rabbits or headless chickens. We are busy on the Lords Work and we run ourselves into the ground. The only problem is that sometimes what we are doing is not the Lords work. It is an escape into activism. We feel insecure. We want to be successful. We have problems at home or within ourselves and so we escape. We think that by being busy and especially in the ‘Lords work’ that justifies the neglect of our own souls/families/friends.

4) Small mindedness – What astounds me about this is how petty we sometimes are. We believe in and preach a great God but we, as his servants, sometimes are so small minded.   There is an obsession with the small, the trivial and the petty. How many times have you been in Presbytery and been amazed at the things we deal with? I am told that in a previous incarnation of the Edinburgh and Perth Presbytery the major item of debate one evening was the price of the tea and biscuits!   I recall a letter being written to one Presbytery which dealt with a very serious and personal matter. That Presbytery refused to accept it on ‘technical’ grounds.   Despite the departure of some of the worst of them we are still plagued with barrack room amateur church lawyers. Please guys – get a life. And if you want to know about church law – ask John L Mackay. And if you want to know how to use it effectively and spiritually watch Neil Macmillan in action! There is a real lack of vision and I suspect not a great idea of where we are going.   Does any one of us know where the Free Church is going? Do we have any idea as to where it should be going? Some people clearly have at least a hint and a grasp. Take for example Kenny Stewarts excellent article in the Monthly Record re education and evangelism. Will we dare to take it on board, pray about it and consider whether this is really something God is calling us to?

5) Gossip – Anyone reading the NT letters should realize just how serious gossip is.   It is one of the devils chief weapons in seeking to undermine the work of the Lord. A friend informed me during the Assembly about a letter he had received which suggested that yours truly was intent on closing all the churches in the Black Isle! Brilliant Rubbish! First of all the person concerned should have written me to ask about this ‘rumour’. Secondly it is pure mince. But how can one combat such ignorance?

6) Cynicism – This is the sin of unbelief and old age. Those who are older do not have the idealism of youth. We have been there, done that, worn the T-shirt and now we are worn out, we know that idealism does not work and we are deeply cynical of anything new, bold, innovative or anyone who dares to dream. Besides which the Free Church is a small church and we all know each other and so we can say “Who is he to write this? I kent his father!” Is it not possible for us to be realistic without being cynical?

7) Pride –This is the curse of us all. We all want to be the best preachers, writers, most loved pastors etc.  We object to preaching to small congregations of five people – surely we deserve more? We are in the paradoxical situation of needing encouragement and yet knowing that when anyone tells us that that was the best sermon they have ever heard, we may actually start to believe them. I find pride and inverted pride (false humility) my hardest sins to deal with. Is there a sin which has ruined more ministries than this? How much of our recent troubles were due to pride? And what judgment awaits us because of our view that we are the best and purest church? Is my fear of confrontation due to my peace loving nature or my pride that somehow I might not be able to cope?

8) Materialism – You know the story of the Deacon who told his minister – “God will keep you humble, we will keep you poor”. And you know the scriptural warning that there are those who think that “godliness is a means to financial gain”. But that could never happen in the Free Church you say. Ministers after seven years training get paid the princely sum of £16,000 plus a rent free house. It is not starvation wages and there are many people in our community a lot worse off than that. However it is also not easy to run a car, bring up a family and stay debt free on that wage. Which is why the vast majority of Free Church ministers wifes work. However being paid a low wage does not mean that you are free of materialism.   This is a weakness for some of us. We will go to places which offer large expenses ( I remember one church offering a potential new minister a car as an inducement, another was told we are going to build you a new manse. What are we? Football stars to be bought and bribed?). We are constantly looking for ways to increase our wealth. There have even been cases of ministers ‘moonlighting’.   One thing that the Church as a whole could do to help combat this may seem a bit strange. I would suggest that we need to increase ministers wages at least to the level approved by the General Assembly – 72% of the National Average Wage. And we need to find some way of rewarding men who have been loyal and faithful to the church over a number of years. The labourer is worthy of his hire.   Why would that help with materialism? In and of itself it would not but I would suspect that if most men could be assured that they could provide for their families they would be less concerned and less materialistic. It is certainly better than the solution of one Presbytery which argued that ministers salaries should be cut so that congregations which were not sending up the equal dividend would be able to do so and thus be declared viable. Apart from being unscriptural it was in reality a cop out – as if reducing the salaries of all ministers was somehow going to make their congregations more viable.

9) Hypocrisy – or dishonesty. We can be that too. How often have I preached a sermon and been convicted of being such a hypocrite! Preaching one thing whilst I have done the opposite. We need to be brutally honest – especially with ourselves. Else how can we preach to others? In my 17 years as a minister I have come across some horrendous situations and I have noticed that hypocrisy is often tied up with superficiality. For example I remember the time I almost did not make it into the ministry. It was the time of the General Assembly and I was still in the Free Church College. Two ministers from the Inverness Presbytery came to the Assembly with a motion which would have banned ministers from using paraphrases and from being involved with others who did so. If that motion had been passed I could not have taken the ordination vows and become a minister. Thankfully it did not. Yet I remember the passionate speeches, the anger of one of the men and the outrage that this had not been accepted. What did that have to do with hypocrisy? One of these ministers who was so concerned for ‘purity of worship’ has now left the ministry and the Free Church. Last time I heard him he was a leading spokesman for the Gay rights movement. Whilst he was getting all upset at the GA about singing other parts of Gods Word he was reading Gay pornography at home. How often have we seen men obsessed with trivia and minor secondary matters actually using that as a cover for not dealing with personal issues of far more import? When I hear a man loudly declaiming against women in tight trousers it is not the women I worry about.

And it is not just in these matters. There are those who are dishonest doctrinally as well. I have known good and honest men who are no longer able to accept the doctrinal standards of the Church and they either bring that to their presbytery or they resign. That is honourable and right. But it is wrong when men know that they no longer accept the teachings of the Church and yet continue to pretend as though they do. Hypocrisy.

10) Lovelessness –  There can be a lack of all the fruit of the Spirit. Remember McCheyne’s oft quoted statement “My people’s greatest need is my own holiness”. If the fruit of the Spirit is not cultivated in the garden of our own lifes then why should we expect it to blossom in the lifes of our hearers? When you are working with people you can sometimes be overcome by compassion fatigue and get into the position where you forget to love the people you are meant to be serving. This was brought home to me last week at your children’s club. There was one boy who was doing my head in. He would not listen. He was childish, rude, ignorant and badly behaved. To be honest I would have been glad if he had not returned. It was almost as though it had become a contest between him and yours truly. And then I was told something of his circumstances – both parents dead, living with his grandfather, struggling at school etc. It made me feel really small. Here I was concerned about my ego, my club and my comfort. Should my primary concern not have been his concerns. Did the Son of Man come to serve or to be served?

I suppose there are many more. Time will not permit me to write of legalism, or sexual impurity, lack of faith or greed. But of all people those of us who are ministers of the Word of God must be aware of our sins. “you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?…….You who brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans ch. 2 v.21-24)

What then shall we do?

Resign – Yes. You read it right. At a time when there is a shortage of ministers why should any resign?   There are men who should leave the ministry for what we can only call positive reasons. There may be nothing wrong except that they do not have the requisite gifts. What is the point of being in the preaching ministry if you cannot preach?   Perhaps you could at least consider a change of ministry? Remember McCheyne’s words “ I would rather beg bread than preach without success”. This is not suggesting that we should all give up just when things start getting tough, nor is it saying that the success is determined by numbers. Yet surely we must all want to be a successful preacher?

And maybe there are those who have reached the end. They are worn out and it is time to go on and do something else. That is not failure. Maybe they can serve the Lord and his Church in another sphere of service. We all know Free Church ministers who have gone on to do that. And there is no shame in that.

And then there are the negative reasons. If you are not prepared to work then get out!   The Free Church is far too small to carry passengers. We need workers and soldiers. If you are just going to sit round, lament the state of the Church, and how people are so unspiritual that they do not appreciate your ministry, then – get out. And if your idea of being in the ministry is to feed your own ego, build your own wee empire or have power over others then it is time to go.

Repent – Is there any minister in the Free Church who does not need to repent? To endeavour after new obedience? Have we become so Pharisaical that we can read something like this and think of others whom it applies to and yet never apply it to ourselves? There is something enormously liberating about applying the gospel to ourselves. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.   Genuine repentance within Gods people is surely the first sign of revival.

Renew – If we are going to continue this work and not just pick up our pay cheque until the retirement or revival comes, then each of us needs to take stock of our situation – repent of the sins that are holding us and our churches back, and renew our commitment to Christ, to his kingdom, his church, his people and his word. We are servants.   Maybe we should ask the Master what he wants? Without pre-determining the answer.

Let me finish by suggesting why all this really matters.   It is not primarily for the health of the ministers. Nor even for the health of the Free Church. After all do we not follow Chalmers maxim – ‘who cares for the Free Church compared with the Christian good of Scotland?’.   Scotland at this moment in time is not a closed society to the Gospel. Nor is it even an antagonistic society. People don’t know the Gospel. And they are spiritually open. What we need to do is somehow connect peoples obvious spiritual needs with the only true answer – the Good News of Jesus. The best way to do that is not through occasional evangelistic forays into the world. Nor will it be done by sitting round moaning about the state of the church/world. It will only be done as the Church of Jesus Christ is built up in its most holy faith, so that the Lords people are able to participate in the battle and the church is able to become what it should be – the witness to Jesus Christ and the pillar and foundation of the truth.   For that reason, if the Free Church, is to play a part in the re-evangelisation of Scotland, those of us who are called to the ministry need to be the best that we can be. As Paul puts it “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare Gods people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians ch. 2 v.11-13).

The Apostate Free Church?



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