Thursday, 4 July 2013

Churches Built on Sand

 A Little Background

This is a weighty topic for my first blog in a long time but I thought it worth addressing.  This is written hopefully to both inform and challenge those who are considering where they stand in relation to the Church of Scotland after its recent decision at the General Assembly in May.  For anyone who comes to read this and is not from my corner of the world you may not be familiar with the situation facing the Church of Scotland.  Even for those who are from here, even for members of the Church of Scotland, the situation may still seem confusing and bizarre.  What exactly has happened?  Before I embark on an attempt to say something about this situation I will try to give, as briefly as possible, a summary of the crisis which has hit the denomination.

Our story starts in 2009 when an openly practising homosexual was appointed as the minister of a church in Aberdeen.  This appointment, being approved by the presbytery of Aberdeen, was objected to and brought before the General Assembly (the ruling body of the Church of Scotland) in 2009.  The objection was not upheld and a ‘special commission’ was set up to look into the matter and report in 2011.  Following this report, the general assembly decided to begin on a ‘revisionist’ trajectory, moving away from the plain word of God in scripture and from the Kirk’s historic position.  A theological commission was then established comprising both traditionalist and revisionist members.  This commission reported back in May 2013 (the report can be found here).  Two motions were proposed: the revisionist position would allow the ordination of ministers in a same-sex relationship, the traditionalist position would not.  Instead of either of these recommendations from the commission the Assembly chose instead to “affirm the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality; nonetheless permit those Kirk Sessions who wish to depart from that doctrine and practice to do so”.

This then, is the situation the church is now in.  The official governing body of the Kirk has de facto stated that the Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is no longer to be the supreme rule of faith and life.  Instead, the supreme rule of faith and life is the decision of individual kirk sessions.

A Fog of Myths

Before I get into commenting on this I do just want to dispel a few common myths.  Firstly, this issue is not about homosexuality.  It has presented itself in that context and sadly there will be some people who oppose the Assembly’s decision due to homophobia.  However for the majority the real issue is that of the authority of scripture. The general assembly’s decision was taken in the full realisation of what the Bible said in regards to human sexuality. Both the Traditionalist and Revisionist sections of the report made that very clear.  To quote just from the revisionist report: “Despite all these various considerations – some more widely accepted, some more controversial than others – the majority view among scholars is that most, if not all, of the Biblical texts which mention homosexual practice are against it.  However, that is not the end of the discussion…”  This is no issue of interpretation.

Secondly, many people take the view that if this is really about the authority of God in scripture then we should have left years ago when there were first ministers who denied the resurrection or other such major Christian doctrines.  However the reason a line is being drawn here by many is that this is the first time such a flagrant flouting of God’s word has become the official position of the Kirk.  There is a difference between a failure of church discipline and a failure of church doctrine.  As the press release of my own church puts it “the issue which we cannot accept is the Church's departure from its Scriptural foundation.  In the past individuals may have departed from this foundation, but now this change is endorsed centrally rather than being tolerated locally.”  Yes, more should have been done to deal with these problems over the last few decades but it wasn’t.  We need to learn from our past mistakes in that regard (and there is room for another blog on that alone), we were complacent and we are paying the price of that complacency now.

So on to deal with some aspects of the decision, and offer some thoughts on the future of the Church of Scotland.

Did we compromise or have we been compromised?

This I think is a key question.  The decision reached by the assembly has been lauded by many as a compromise which maintains the unity of the denomination. The Moderator of the General Assembly even said: "This is a massive vote for the peace and unity of the Church” and the minister whose appointment kicked off the whole shebang called it a "fair compromise".

Is it?

The analogy of the government setting a speed limit of 30mph but allowing anyone who wishes to drive at 60mph has often been used to describe the ‘mixed economy’ set out by the General Assembly.  To take that analogy further it seems to me the recent debate was like having two groups opposing each other about the speed limits.  One attempts to have the speed limit lifted so that they can drive at 60mph.  The second group claims that it would not be safe or right to do so.  After debate and discussion however they come to the position that the signs will all say 30mph but anyone who wants to drive at 60mph can do so.  The first group gets the ability to drive at 60mph as they wanted, and the second group?  Well they get the pretty “30 miles per hour maximum speed” signs to look at but in actuality, to use the colloquial, they get squat.  Is that a compromise?  Is it?  I fail to see how it is.

This is the situation the Church of Scotland has reached.  The evangelicals can sit quietly in the corner and admire their pretty rulebooks which still say that they are right.  Meanwhile everyone else can just get on with what they want to do because the rulebooks mean nothing at all.  Rules you can opt out of are just empty words.

So we, as evangelicals within the Church of Scotland, are left with a church position which is simply revisionist by another name.  In many cases, those who call themselves evangelical even voted for this revisionist position. Regarding an issue this crucial even a compromise situation is bad enough but the more I think about the decision and the options before the Assembly, the more I have to conclude that this ‘compromise’ position is in fact worse than the revisionist one and is functionally a bigger step away from the authority of God than the initial revisionist position was.  Why?

Allow me to summarise the three options again.  The traditionalist case was that, based on the Bible, it is clear that God does not condone any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage.  Therefore, as the church should not ordain those living in unrepentant sin, it should not ordain those in same-sex partnerships.  The revisionist position was that, despite the clear words of the Bible, God actually does condone committed homosexual relationships.  Therefore, the church should ordain those in same-sex partnerships.  Instead, the Church chose the following position: it is clear that God condemns any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage but, despite that, churches should feel free to ordain those living in unrepentant sin (and yes, the church still regards that as unrepentant sin before God, it just doesn’t care).  We have said as a denomination that we will permit and even encourage that which we know to be sinful.

Who can seriously call that a compromise?  The options were: God objects therefore don’t do it; and God doesn’t object therefore do it.  The Church of Scotland however chose “God objects, do it anyway” and called it a compromise.

Compromise?  You keep using this word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.  This is no compromise.  It is capitulation.  Capitulation to the revisionist agenda, to the prevailing spirit of the age and to those who value the wisdom of men over the words of God.

What now?

What then do we do in response to this?  What is the God-honouring and Bible-believing response to the crisis within the Kirk?  Some people think it is to stay, no matter what.  Others think it is to stay a while and fight this.  Others think that enough is enough and that we should not be part of a denomination not subject to the word of God.  Which option then is right?  It will come as no surprise to any who know me that I think the right decision is to leave as soon as possible.  But even then questions remain.  Where do we go?  What do we do about our building, our funds, our manse?

Every question in the preceding paragraphs is a worthwhile question to ask.  But if our criticism is that the Church of Scotland no longer listens to God, surely that has to be our main question.  What does God say about this?

Building our house upon the rock

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
Matthew 7:24-27

Thinking about the recent decision of the General Assembly, this is the passage that immediately jumps out at me.  Jesus says that the Church of Scotland, in hearing and refusing to obey His Word, is like an idiot who thinks that the shifting sands of public opinion are a solid foundation to build on.  Trouble will one day rain down, the flood of God’s anger will one day rise and the winds of judgement will one day blow unabated.  In that day, how will a church which has upped sticks and moved from the rock which it was built on stand?  You cannot build a house of men on sand, let alone the house of God!

This parable though does not just contain condemnation for the liberal element of the Church of Scotland, but also a stern warning to the evangelicals within that same denomination (and outwith it).  If we are to be wise, if we are to survive the oncoming storm, we must build our house on the rock.  We must hear the words of God and do them!  I have discussed and debated with many people over what the right path to take in this situation is and I have heard many objections to leaving.  Some of those objections are scriptural ones but sadly, of all the objections I’ve heard, those based on the Biblical text perhaps make up 10-20%.  And that is from talking to evangelicals!  Jesus is calling us here to base our lives, our churches and the paths we take, not on insubstantial practicalities and preferences, but on His word.  Regarding those other objections, I have addressed them in a separate post which can be found here.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?
John Rippon

A Biblical case for staying?

Despite the fact that other arguments are more commonly used it is worth touching on those verses which I at least have heard used to justify remaining in the denomination.  One verse which I have heard quoted as grounds for staying is 1 Corinthians 1:10 where Paul says:

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

But to take that verse and use it as an argument for remaining in a church which is divided on the very authority of God does not strike me as sensible exposition at all.  Paul calls for no divisions, yet if we remain in the Church of Scotland we are divided over the Bible itself.  He calls for us to be ‘united in the same mind’ and of ‘the same judgement’ and yet we cannot even agree on what sin is or whether it is God or us that would decide that.  How is that unified? My second issue regarding using that verse as an argument for staying is that it is by no means saying to continue putting on a united face despite deep doctrinal division. If you read the context of the verse you soon see that Paul here is talking of divisions over leaders within the church: some following Apollos, some Paul, etc. He is not talking of the substance of the faith.  In fact earlier in the passage, concerning the substance of the faith, he commends them for holding to it (something which I think he would not say of the Church of Scotland in our day). As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2 we should not quarrel over minor matters but major issues of life and doctrine must be corrected.

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Matthew 13:24-30

This parable of the wheat and tares is the other passage which has been referred to as being in favour of staying in the Church of Scotland.  The argument is that as it is God who separates the wheat and tares at the end of time, doing so now by leaving an unbiblical church is not the right decision. I believe however that is interpreting it completely wrongly. It seems most likely (in the light of the rest of Biblical teaching) that the field in question is the world (not the church) and that Jesus is teaching here that God will allow unbelievers and believers to live side by side in the world and that the church should not seek to 'uproot' the unbelievers by force. It cannot, however, mean that unorthodoxy is permitted in the church because that would expressly contradict the many passages which make clear statements to the contrary and it is to some of those that we turn to next.  In fact, since writing this my attention has been drawn to the rest of the passage, where in verse 38 Jesus says “The field is the world” – which seems pretty conclusive to me!  The field in the parable, according to the Lord Jesus himself, is the world – not the church.

A Biblical case for leaving

Criticising other people’s interpretation of the text is easy enough.  But is there really a biblical case for leaving the Church of Scotland?  I would argue that there is, and even if you disagree with me there is certainly enough in these verses to provoke some serious questions!  Consider the following verses:

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.
2 John 1 v 10 – 11

Is anyone seriously arguing that we can share a denomination with those who John expressly commands us not to even welcome into our homes?

Or consider that Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:14 that we are not to be yoked together with unbelievers in marriage because light cannot have fellowship with darkness.  If we cannot do so in marriage, how can we do so as a church? Or consider 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 which says:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Paul commands you not to even associate with those who call themselves Christians if they are guilty of flagrant, unrepentant sin.  Can you really argue that sharing a denomination is not in any way associating yourself with those who call themselves brother or sister and yet live in unrepentant sin?  What is this decision but idolatry on the part of the Assembly and a vindication of the swindlers who call good what God calls bad and the unrepentantly sexually immoral ministers that they wish to be ordained?  In another place Paul writes:

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.
2 Thessalonians 3:6

None of us are perfect; no Christian has it all together.   But, according to Paul, living (or at least striving to live) our lives according to the teaching of the gospel is a vital part of being a part of God’s family.  He also calls us to keep away from those who profess faith but do not try to live it.

Lastly I would return to Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish man.  Will we try to have our little rock-founded room in the house otherwise built on the sand or will we leave our comfort zone and build a house on solid ground?

But I’ve been in the Church of Scotland for 50 years!

I have not been in the Church of Scotland for long.  I have been at Logies for about eight years I think but that is nothing compared to some.  It is hard to understand the depth of attachment that some people feel as a result of their long years of service in the denomination.  But all I can say is to go back to that passage from 1 Corinthians 1:

What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

What is Apollos?  What is Paul? What indeed is the Church of Scotland? Is Christ divided? Was the Church of Scotland crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of the Church of Scotland? Given that the answer to all of those is no, the Church of Scotland is nothing. It's a denomination, a name, a history, nothing more. God calls us to fight for the Church in Scotland, to promote the gospel and to increase His glory here. I don't see Him calling us to compromise on Biblical truth in order to try and save one aspect of the Church because it's the one we happen to be part of.  It is hard to leave the familiar and it is hard to admit that the church many of us grew up in and came to faith in has strayed so far.  Our Locum Minister has been in the Church of Scotland for 68 years now.  For nearly 40 of those years he was a minister and since retiring he has been locum in 2 other congregations.  His father and grandfather before him were elders in the Kirk and both his sons have followed in his footsteps as ministers in the Church of Scotland.  All three, however, are now leaving.  I cannot imagine what that decision must have cost them to make.  To step out into the unknown, faithfully trusting God, having counted up the cost of following Christ wherever He leads and having determined it is worth any cost.  That is an example I can follow.

Paul and the Church of Scotland both have one thing in common.  They were not crucified for me and I was not baptised in their name.  But there is one who was crucified for me, and in whose name I was baptised. Jesus the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, who was oppressed and afflicted and by whose stripes I am healed.  There are many who love that Lamb and yet feel compelled to remain in the Church of Scotland.  I think they are wrong but may God be with them in that fight nonetheless, and give them the courage and the boldness to proclaim His word in the midst of darkness.  For me, I cannot be a part of a church which has broken its marriage vows to the God who loved it and gave himself for it.  

This is not a battle I want to fight, not here, not now.  There are so many better things for the Church to be doing than warring over this and I would much rather that the presenting issue was one which would not cause so much pain and difficulty for so many.  However this is the issue where the battle lines have been drawn and as Luther says:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

So we must echo the words of Shakespeare's Henry V:

The sum of all our answer is but this:
We would not seek a battle as we are,
Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it.

I do not know where this road will lead but no matter what the cost is, it is nothing compared to what he paid for me.  Therefore we stand.  Putting on the whole armour of God and firmly rooted in His word.  It will not be easy.  Following Christ never is – but He is worth it.

<<This was going to be a short post, given that it is my first in a long time.  Needless to say, it wasn’t…  Despite its great length, it is not comprehensive and may well have missed a great deal.  There are several other great articles on this.

And I have also written another post on some of the objections to leaving:


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