With the General Assembly only hours away, the excitement is [doing something, we're not sure what exactly: probably slowly dying in the corner perhaps? This year, nobody is thrilled to be facing the tough challenges of the day, be they financial or doctrinal]. Over the last few weeks I’ve read a few blogs about the forthcoming events on the Mound next week.
Church of Scotland minister Louis Kinsey writes at his blog about the problems with the “broad church” logo the Kirk seems to present as a good thing. It could be, if “broad church” meant different dress codes, or bible versions, or even styles of worship (at a push) – but when “broad” refers to hugely divergent systems of doctrine sheltering under the umbrella of one body, you have a problem.
Meanwhile, Free Church theologian Donald Macleod’s column in the West Highland Free Press is worth a read – it’ll appear as a blog eventually, much like his piece on the Theological Commission’s Report on Same-Sex Relationships.
Free Church ministers David Robertson (with a piece over at St. Peter’s blog) and (retiring Free Church Moderator) Iain d. Campbell come back to the need for a reorganisation of Presbyterianism in Scotland, to establish a clear and distinctive voice promoting God’s Word in our society today.
Is any of this schadenfreude on the part of the Free Church?
I’d say not – but maybe I’d say that anyway? It would be easy to think the Free Church, (much maligned as tiny and largely an irrelevant Highland Denomination) are just cheering from the terraces, delighting in the demise of a competitor in the Scottish Presbyterian ecosystem. Only, we’re not. We care deeply for the good of all Scotland – with congregations all over the country. And while smaller, we are conditioned to not see the Kirk as the only game in town. Those accusing us of schadenfreude forget that we pray for, have good relationships with, and want to bless healthy Church of Scotland congregations up and down the length of Scotland. We’re not the denominationalist fiends you think we are. Please look again, and see what is, rather than the caricature.
Over the last few years we have really taken to heart the oft misquoted message of Thomas Chalmers – “Who cares for the Free Church, except as an instrument of Christian good?” The Free Church has quietly abandoned much of the stuffy traditionalism that characterised our denominational identity, but has done so without losing the distinctive message of the Gospel, and largely without threat to our Presbyterian heritage. In my estimation we are an example of the good broad church Louis Kinsey speaks about.
Maybe it’s time for the Evangelicals in the Kirk to ask themselves the same questions of their own denomination? Who cares for the Church of Scotland, except as an instrument of Christian good? It’s not Schadenfreude to suggest an alternative to the Kirk, as it fast becomes an instrument opposed to the Christian good of Scotland – as a growing number of ministers leaving her ranks will testify.
The Christian good of Scotland would of course be served by a Reformed Kirk. I’d love to see it, and I’ll continue to pray for that. But in the absence of Reform, and in the presence of serious advances towards the Kirk further conforming to the world, how is the Christian good of Scotland best served?
Meanwhile, across the road…
The Free Church Assembly, meanwhile, has to keep that question front and centre as we struggle to face our own challenges. How is the Christian good of Scotland served by the Free Church in times of austerity? We’re certainly not going to do it cutting back on theological education – or jettisoning solid doctrinal teaching for a more exclusively vocational curriculum. I’m persuaded the job of the pastor-teacher is to equip their congregations for ministry – not do mercy ministry in the place of their congregations. The only conceivable reason Christians don’t do mercy ministry is because they don’t understand the love of God. So skimping on doctrinal training for a different model will actually make the work of the Church harder, not better – don’t we need better preaching, accompanied, of course, by the work of the Spirit? I’d have thought academic training for the pastor-teachers in our pulpits is therefore vital, along with vocational training for people doing other jobs in mercy ministry – a “both not either” approach. That’s an expensive aspiration, so I should probably shut up.
And how is the Christian good served in times where Scotland lacks a distinctive Christian voice speaking to the moral and spiritual decay in our nation? I suspect being distinctive is not something the Free Church will find hard – let’s pray and hope we sound a distinctive note for the right reasons.
This morning I’ve been thinking about Paul’s instructions to “young” Timothy.
Rather train yourself for godliness… Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practise these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
What you realise reading Paul’s letters to Timothy is that in Christian ministry there are no shortcuts. There are no easy solutions. No magic bullets. If we want a God-focused worshipping church, a doctrinally sound church, a church where relationships bless God’s people, and also faithfully presents Christ in her community, there is no shortcut around ministerial hard graft.
The same holds true in the life of the individual believers who are part of the Church. If we want to engage in worship, we need a hunger for God that will not be satisfied an hour on the Lord’s Day. If we want to appreciate God’s glory, we need to really invest time and effort in grappling with Scripture. If we yearn for good fellowship, we can’t fritter away our time together in just talking about what the church needs to do to be better, we have to share in the life of faith in the Church. And if we want to see the Church grow, and Christ be honoured by the nations, our blood and treasure must be for it, not just our sincere best wishes.
There are no shortcuts. It is not by mistake that the Christian life is pictured like warfare.
Over the last couple of days I’ve had some interesting discussions about how the Church should deal with false teachers. This evening this has left me wondering about the purity of the Church, and how this really matters to God.
OT – Death Penalty
The starting point is the Church in the Old Testament. Here, there were a fair few offences that carried the death penalty – adultery, murder, homosexuality, bestiality are the moral types of sin that demanded this. But blasphemy, offering children to Molech (arguably child sacrifice) and necromancy – all worship or doctrinal types of sin – carried the same penalty.
We have to ask the question, why did God insist on this? The answer seems to me to be the purity of his people. Given that his people were primarily ethnically identified at this point, and the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles had not yet been torn down in Christ, you can actually see why the death penalty was warranted. Exile was probably the only other realistic option, but that would often mean creating a greater tear in the fabric of the people, as family heads so exiled would take many others out of the covenant community with them.
The point of this harsh and uncompromising penalty seems to have been designed to preserve the purity and identity of God’s people. Killing offenders cut the rot out immediately. In this way, God’s grace was given to the people, who were protected from further enticement to sin.
NT – Separation
Flash forward into the New Testament, and the purity of the Church no longer demands the death penalty. The New Testament Church is not identified along ethnic lines, but rather along much more open profession of faith. Those who confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour are welcomed into the fellowship of the body of the Church.
But necromancy, child sacrifice, blasphemy, adultery, murder, homosexuality and bestiality all still happen. The apostolic pattern for dealing with such people was firstly to seek to correct. God’s grace to the individual seems to have become greater in the New Covenant period, as you’d expect. But suppose the offender refuses to repent, or worse, entices others? What then?
This is the point where there is great danger for the Church, because now some sort of separation has to occur. The risk is not to just the offender, but to others who might be enticed to join in the immorality or follow erroneous teaching. God’s grace operates not only to the individual (who has been lovingly been given the opportunity to repent), but it also extends to protecting the wider covenant community from sin.
Who goes “away”?
This is the point reached in Corinth where Paul clearly instructs the leadership of the church there to “Purge the evil person from among you.” The point of this is to preserve the purity of the church, through separating immoral or false teachers from among the people. But how do you do this? Do you drive them away with sticks? No! Even ordinary Christians are urged to not associate with such a person. It was community of believers who are told to cut the ties – not the person ejected warned off, but Christians told to keep their distance. We are the ones who go the separate way. Again, grace is displayed, because even in separating from false teachers, it would seem to be the Church who bears the cost. (Curiously, in the OT, the death penalty had a communal slant – stoning meant the community had to bear the cost of purging the sin away… separating from false teachers is meant to be costly, maybe so that we’ll not be so easily swayed to tolerate them in future?)
These methods – the OT death penalty, and the NT separation – are entirely analogous to my mind. God’s purpose in both is to provide a means to graciously protect his people from error. In both, the separation is meant to be complete. But under the New Covenant, there is extended room for grace – the separation need not be final. How so?
Delivered to Satan
Those separated from the Church are, according to Paul, not simply ejected from the Church, but are “delivered to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20). This is a really difficult phrase to exegete, but the only explanation that really fits is the account of Job being given over into Satan’s hand for God’s ultimate purposes to be fulfilled. This kind of separation is terrifying – because God may well allow Satan to do his worst in the life of someone, in order to accomplish his purposes. Hopefully they will repent.
Separation from false teachers is fully warranted Biblically. But it must be covered in gracious ways of acting, giving plenty opportunity for repentance. And it must be done in the fear of the Lord, because when the Church separates from someone, God’s means of restoring them might allow Satan tremendous reign in their lives.
The editor of the Church of Scotland's monthly magazine, Life & Work, in the May edition, defends and promotes the notion that the Church of Scotland is a broad church, and that to be a broad church is a good thing. She does that with the best of intentions. I don't doubt her wish to see unity and peace in the Church of Scotland, and I commend that.
Ravi Zacharias is a Christian philosopher and apologist. In this interview, he analyses the mocking tendencies of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. He points out that the antagonism and mockery Dawkins encourages, reveals a deep-rooted hatred, and correctly points out such behaviour has no place in civil society.
Its worth remembering this lesson - ideas can be discussed, but people, even those we disagree with, should not become the butt of jokes or animosity.
After scribbling some notes yesterday about the five solaes of the Reformation – Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, To God Alone be the Glory – Pope Francis has helpfully come along with a tweet demonstrating why these points remain vital today.
Mary is the one who says “Yes”.Mary, help us to come to know the voice of Jesus better, and to follow it.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 23, 2013
At his election, there were many, many evangelicals around the world claiming that this pope was a friend to evangelical Christianity, possibly even open to dialogue with the Reformed or Protestant types. I wonder where these voices are on a day like this?
Mariolatry is dangerous because it invests faith in someone other than Christ to intercedes for us and help us. Mary is of course blessed, and we ought to thank God for her – the role she played in rearing Jesus is incredible, his human knowledge, his experience of learning, was at her knee. It is probably not unfair to say that her motherly influence will have shaped parts of Jesus’ character. She had incredible privileges.
But a mediator she is not. An intermediary between us and God she is not. Christ alone carries out these roles. He alone is the one in whom our faith must be rooted.
The idea of being a “reformed” church crops up in the Church of Scotland’s Theological Commission Report on same-sex marriage. But after reading the whole report now, I’m left wondering whether the “Reformed” credentials are valid.
What is “reformed” and does it matter much?
Labels can be a killer – being labelled homophobic is like modern day leprosy, nobody will hang out with you. It seems, reading the report, that the Church of Scotland is working really hard to present itself as being reformed, or within the reformed tradition. Clearly the label matters a great deal to the report’s authors – irrespective of whatever value people in the pews attach to the term.
So what does it mean? The idea of being reformed, unsurprisingly, harks back to the Reformation. Before 1560, the Church in Scotland was formally Roman Catholic in character. But Scotland was happily influenced by Europeans (proving that not everything Europe offers us is bad), particularly John Calvin. Calvin was one of a party of men who could no longer accept Roman Catholic doctrine in a wide range of areas. Some of them were ejected from the Roman Church; some left the Roman Church to join those ejected, but did so taking as many with them as they could. Whatever their path out from under Roman Catholic doctrine, the new scheme they moved under was characterised quite distinctly from the Roman Catholicism.
Is there a “reformed” litmus test?
The Reformers held five solae statements – the “alones”. These are perhaps the key test of a reformed church – how do we relate to the solae of the Reformation? These are:
- Sola Scriptura – the Church and the path to salvation is governed by Scripture alone. In Roman Catholic doctrine, Scripture is not alone in providing a rule of faith. Alongside Scripture, the tradition of the Church is a rule, and the pope speaking ex-cathedra carries authority. The Reformers stripped away all the peripherals, and left Scripture as the only rule of faith.
- Sola Fide – we are justified by faith alone. In Roman Catholic teaching, good works co-operate with faith, to secure justification for us. The Reformers taught that good works were a necessary evidence of faith, but that in themselves add nothing to our salvation.
- Sola Gratia – we are saved by the grace of God alone. Related to Sola Fide, Roman Catholic teaching implies a degree of cooperation with grace, for example in receiving grace through rightly observating of the sacraments, or other meritorious good works. The Reformers taught that salvation was entirely the free gift of God, for which any merit would add an element of purchase, and mean in was no longer free.
- Solus Christus – we have only one mediator between God and humankind, i.e. Christ alone. Roman Catholic doctrine establishes a sort of series of subordinate mediators: Mary, the Apostles, the Saints in glory. The Reformers, while not seeking to dishonour Mary or the Apostles, taught that they had no role in interceding for the saints on earth, but that only through Christ’s intercessory work, in his life, death and resurrected life, can we have access to God.
- Soli Deo Gloria – God alone is due the glory. The Roman Catholic teaching of “sainthood” is that some Christians are elevated to particular status, or canonized by the Church – that the Church on earth has authority to elevate men to some glorious higher status. The Reformers recoiled from this, and taught that no believer – all of whom are “saints” – can be elevated in this way, but that all believers give all the glory to God.
These five points were the key distinctives of the Reformation Church. A Church today that wants to call itself reformed can of course talk about “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” (A reformed church, always reforming – i.e. always re-examining itself to ensure it is faithful to God’s purposes). But a reformed church would have to be really bold if it were to depart from the five solae (like Federal Vision, or New Perspective on Paul acolytes, you’d have to argue that the Reformers essentially misunderstood Christian doctrine).
Yet, here’s what we find in the Revisionist position in the Commission’s Report (emphasis mine):
“Nowhere is this subtlety and complexity more evident than in the crucial area of the interpretation of Scripture. As Reformed Christians, as members, Elders, Deacons and ministers of Word and Sacrament of the Church of Scotland, we take as our starting point the recognition of ‘the word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament’ as our ‘supreme rule of life and faith’, but within that deliberately ambiguous formulation there is room for many different approaches to discerning the will of God, using the many different resources which an infinitely imaginative Creator has provided; the written words of Scripture; the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit; human reason and experience; Church tradition, to name but a few.”
I don’t fully understand all the ins and outs of how the Church of Scotland got to a point where an office bearer can suggest that there is a rule of faith besides Scripture, but that is exactly what this passage is arguing.
Bear in mind, we’re not talking in this report about how an individual Christian discerns God’s will. Answers to individual questions, like, “Where should I work?”, or “Who should I marry?” don’t bind the conscience of all office bearers within the Church. So it is quite legitimate to come to your own understanding of God’s will, based on “the written words of Scripture; the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit; human reason and experience” – if you’re in a charismatic fellowship, you could even add in words of prophecy!
But we cannot formulate binding rules for the Church in the same way – ours is not a God of such confusion, as would inevitably result. To suggest the Church rely on tradition as a help to settling matters of doctrine flies in the face of the Reformed principle of Sola Scriptura. If anything, such a step is not Re-forming, but De-forming: a retrograde step back into Roman Catholic doctrine.
The point of highlighting this is not to poke holes in the Church of Scotland. Thankfully, the Traditionalist case fits snugly into the Reformed characteristics outlined above. But it does show that there are some, probably many, within the Church of Scotland who do not share these Reformed credentials. Given the trajectory the Church of Scotland is on, not just recently on this issue, but for many years on many issues, it is impossible to claim the Church of Scotland is entirely within the Reformed tradition.
A Broad Church?
But, the Church of Scotland is a broad church. Aye, good and well. But the Reformed Church in Scotland helpfully established a few other characteristics of a healthy church – and presumably we take “reformed” to at least share healthy characteristics.
A true, or healthy, church will hold to the correct use of Scripture, the Sacraments and Discipline.
That final point is really important. Discipline matters. A denomination must deal with particularly office bearers tenaciously holding and vigorously teaching heterodoxy (teaching which isn’t characteristically “Reformed”). If you can’t remove heterodox teachers from office, at the very least in order to prompt repentance, but more importantly to protect the flock of God from wolf-like false teachers, then you are not a healthy Church. And if the heterodoxy cannot be successfully challenged, can you call yourself a “Reformed” Church? Doesn’t unchallenged heterodoxy become the new orthodoxy?
I don’t doubt there are many people holding to Reformed Christianity within the Church of Scotland. But there’s something else lurking in the church alongside them. My colleague Paul Gibson, at Perth Free Church (a former Church of Scotland minister) has said,
“I think evangelicals will feel the report simply demonstrates what has been known for a long time – namely that within the Kirk are not two Christian perspectives but, in fact, two distinct religions, both of which are incompatible with the other. One is called Christianity and submits to the Bible as the word of God and the other is called ‘liberalism’ and does not.”
What to pray for?
So, back to my original question of last week, what to pray for? For one, I want to see a reformed church in Scotland. I’d love to see a Church that’s serious about its reformed credentials, not one that plays the game of pretending to be something it isn’t. And I love to see what such a church could do for the national spiritual and moral health of Scotland. My concern is that if the reformed don’t triumph in reforming the Church of Scotland, but also stay within the broad church, Scotland is going to be bereft of the essentially reformed church she needs to prosper spiritually into the days to come. A Church of Scotland which is not characteristically Reformed is as bad for Scotland as a resurgent Roman Catholicism – yes, there might be good somewhere within, but wolves hiding under the umbrella of “the Church” are particularly dangerous – hence vast tracts of the New Testament epistles refute them, and address how you deal with them.
Is it wrong to pray that the Church of Scotland will either reform or perish (was that what Paul suggested when he wished the false Galatian teachers would emasculate themselves Galatians 5:12)?