This months editorial in The Record – plus index and poetry page
It’s General Assembly month. And probably the last time I will write an editorial for this august publication. As I look back over the past years it seems that nothing ever really changes. In 2016 we made a last-minute plea to the Church of Scotland not to change its, and the biblical, definition of marriage. Of course if they were not going to listen to the evangelicals within their own church, or the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, they were certainly not going to play a blind bit of attention to the Free Church.
Last year in Assembly month we looked at what John Owen has to say about the apostate Church and tried to apply some lessons not only to the Church of Scotland and the Free Church, but also in a wider context. This year as we head to the Assemblies again there is one image that sticks in my mind – the cathedral of Notre Dame – ablaze in Paris. Whilst at the time of writing the causes of the fire are not yet known, it appears unlikely that it was done deliberately but was rather the result of an accident during renovation work. However, the fire was able to take hold so quickly because of decades of neglect. It is a parable of the whole church in the Western world today – and a parable of the Church in Scotland.
Apart from a few militant fundamentalist secularists, no one in Scotland is deliberately setting out to destroy the Church from outwith. No – it is the neglect and attacks from within that are doing so much harm. This is seen in different ways.
The Destructiveness of Liberalism
This Easter, Morningside Parish Church – the church of the former moderator Rev. Dr Derek Browning – had the ex-bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, lead their Good Friday services. Richard Holloway is now an agnostic. He does not believe in any sense in the God of the Bible. So here we have a major church in the denomination having a man who does not believe in the cross, the resurrection or even Jesus as the Son of God – leading the Easter services. And not a squeak from anyone in the Church? And yet if any outsider were to dare to make any comment, some evangelicals seem to get more upset that heresy is questioned from outwith the church than they are that it is practiced within.
There is a more subtle ‘liberalism’ that creeps into the Church as well – including the Free Church. It’s when we are infected by the values of this age and absorb them almost unwittingly. The idols and ideologies of this world quickly become ours – only with a Christian cloak. Materialism, greed, power and identity politics are as cancerous to the Church as they are to the society.
I have no doubt that the Church in Scotland will continue. But do we really just want to be a middle-class heritage club acting as a social work agency with no sense of the radicalness of the Gospel? Unless we wake up and repent we will find that it is Christ himself who fights against us as he warned the church in Pergamum. We must not tolerate false teaching in our midst – of any sort. There is almost nothing that is more harmful to the cause of the Gospel and the health of the Church.
Nevertheless I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. -Revelation 2:14-16
The Deadliness of Legalism
Whereas liberalism takes away from the Gospel, legalism adds to it. Like liberalism it is often done with good intentions. Legalists see the antinomianism and the destructiveness of liberalism and so want to protect the castle of the Gospel by building our own walls and moats around it. Sometimes we turn cultural expressions of faith into non-negotiable shibboleths. At other times it’s as though we have fallen into a deep sleep and have stopped working. Our legalism is tied in with preservation and maintenance, rather than challenging and building up. Sadly, all too often personal self-preservation and pride mean that we will look to the rules before we look to the Ruler. Christ warned the Church in Sardis:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. –Revelation 3:1-3
The Denial of Life
Both liberalism and legalism lead to the denial of life. Sometimes I wonder if those of us who are aware of the dangers of either taking away from, or adding to, the Gospel nonetheless fall into the avoidance trap. What is that? It is when, aware of the dangers, you are just looking to survive. It is a kind of bunker mentality – hanging on until Jesus comes. But we are not meant to live like that. We may be satisfied that at this moment in time there is no major heresy in our church, or great scandal. But that’s not enough. If there is no life, then heresy and scandal will inevitably follow. If there is life – sometimes that life will shine its light and illuminate the heresy and scandal that is already there.
In the midst of a tepid culture – which is slowly turning up the heat, almost imperceptibly, so that we are slowly boiled like frogs – there is a danger that we ourselves become lukewarm. Passionate about religion – in this culture? We dare not. And yet we have to be passionate about Christ. He does not want, deserve or accept a lukewarm reaction. As he told the Laodiceans:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. –Revelation 3:14-16
The Deliverance of the Lord
It does not have to be this way. We don’t have to reflect the values of the culture. We don’t have to play the games. We don’t have to give up on the idea of holiness, beauty and love. God did not give us a spirit of timidity and fear but that of power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).
Power, love and self-discipline – this triunity of godly qualities are so desperately needed in the church today. How and where can we get them? The answer, as always, comes from Scripture. Paul tells Timothy it is God who gives these things. That does not mean that we passively sit back and wait for the Lord to do the work. In fact, the opposite is stated. We are to fan into flame the gift of God. We are not to be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. We are called to live a holy life. We are to know whom we have believed and grow in that knowledge. We are to keep the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. We are to guard, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the good deposit given to us. We must not throw it away. We must not sell our birthright for the pottage of this world.
The opposite of power, love and self-discipline is weakness, hatred and indiscipline. We need to be on our knees in the private place, bearing witness in the marketplace and listening with open and obedient hearts in the school of the Lord. The crisis facing Scotland’s sinking churches will not be dealt with by rearranging presbyteries, developing new methodologies or creating new excuses for our pathetic disobedience. The demons are in too deep. This crisis can only be dealt with through prayer, renewal and repentance.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. -Revelation 3:19-22