How Should Christians Vote in the #IndyRef

This evening I couldn’t let it slide – to the dread of many colleagues, I had to tell my congregation what God’s Word says about how they should vote in the #IndyRef.

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In 1 Peter 2:13-17, Peter takes some time to tell persecuted Christians how they are to relate to civil authorities – especially civil authorities they find they have little common ground with.   Polls are showing it’s going to be a narrow vote this Thursday, meaning about half of people – possibly half of Scotland’s Christians – are going to be disgruntled with the outcome.

So what does Peter say about how Christians should vote in the Referendum?   I suggest five things:

Submit to the result for the Lord’s sake

Peter urged Christians to respect the persecuting authorities in much the same way as Paul does in Romans 13.   Ultimately, they are appointed by God – a sovereign God who is working out a plan for his own glory, and the salvation of the saints.

There are going to be some Christians who really don’t like the #indyref result.   It’s important to therefore avoid bitterness, by walking into the polling booth with a heart resolved to submit to the result, because we love and trust a sovereign God who knows what he is doing.

Live as people who are free

Peter was writing to people who probably didn’t know a lot of freedoms.   Some were slaves, but even your average non-Roman had few of the civil liberties we take for granted today.   So why does Peter write to them, crushed under the heel of a persecuting government, to live as people who are free?

It’s actually because they were free.   They were set apart as a holy priesthood by God.   Christians need to grasp this – our unique status in Christ: as Jesus promised, free indeed.   The #Indyref can be dangerous for Christians, because it offers some sort of liberty (whichever way you see things!).   We need to vote on Thursday remembering this: the greatest liberty we want for our fellow Scots is freedom from sin and death.   We can’t go to the ballot box with confusion about this.

Have God’s heart for our nation

Along with living as free people, Peter (curiously) also reminds them that they are to live as servants – or literally, slaves – of God.   How are free people also slaves?   In Roman culture, the slaves was expected to share his master’s goals and objectives.   He was, to an extent, an extension of his master’s arm.   Christian freedom is actually a freedom to live the counter cultural agenda of the Sermon on the Mount.

One danger for Christians voting in the #indyref is to accept the world’s agenda and priorities.   While the whole world sees the debate framed in essentially economic terms, maybe Christians want to remember they have counter cultural priorities?   When we go to the ballot box we ought to bear in mind that we have been given the heart of a servant of God, and ask ourselves hard questions accordingly.

Honour the Emperor.   Fear God.

Peter concludes the section with four people or individuals worth special mention.   I’ll come back to the brotherhood of believers last, but note the extraordinary thing he says about the emperor: honour the emperor.   That was probably Nero – of fiddle fame, who scapegoated the Christians while he torched Rome.   Peter’s point seems to be that the emperor ought to be treated with same honour given to all men.  But God alone is to be feared.

For Christians voting in the #indyref, it is alarmingly easy to fall into disparaging remarks of David Cameron and Alistair Darling, or Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.   We need to treat them with honour and respect.   But also with the right sort of respect.   After all, it’s not to them that we will one day have to answer.   Our vote shouldn’t be cast to impress people, or to fit in with the approval of peers.   Whatever hopes we have for the outcome of Thursday’s vote, again, God alone is to be feared – for he alone can deliver.

Finally: Love the Brotherhood of Believers

Peter, like other New Testament writers, expresses a common concern for the unity of the Church.   Groups under pressure are always likely to implode into angry recrimination and blame.   But the chief guard against that is to recall the brotherhood – the family ties – shared by believers.

At risk of cliché, we know the vote is on a knife edge.   Scotland is divided.   We really don’t know how that will play out over the coming months, but we do know this: Jesus meant for a united Church to be a powerful evangelistic message.   If we can go to the ballot box on Thursday resolved to be united with our brothers in Christ, whatever the outcome, then Scotland will be considerably well served.   It’s not about being seen as the broker of reconciliation for the political classes: it’s about being seen as loving people who are themselves reconciled around the risen, loving, Lord Jesus Christ, who died for all his children.

That’s how Christians should vote on Thursday.

God willing, we’ll have a bloodshed free final four days.

Why is the Church of Scotland “Exodus” only large congregations?

1 in Chirst

A conversation yesterday about the “exodus” from the Church of Scotland got me thinking.   There’s a strong pattern of Exodus emerging across Scotland:

In Edinburgh:
St Catherine’s Argyle – no figures on attendance, but 700 affiliated folks, and a reported income of £200,000.
Holyrood Abbey – reported as a 200-strong congregation, reported givings to central funds of £215,000.
New Restalrig – a group of about 100 left to form a new congregation, previous givings to central funds = £115,000.

In Glasgow:
The Tron – the figure of 500 worshippers has been banded about, reported to be remitting £300,000 prior to the Exodus.

In Aberdeen:
Gilcomston South – a congregation of 350.
Hilton High – a congregation of 500.

In Dundee
Logie & St. Johns – no small congregation
Broughty Ferry – a growing congregation of 120+

In Falkirk-ish:
Larbert Old – no reported numbers, but giving £110,000 to central funds, so probably about the 100-120 mark too.

In South Lanarkshire:
Kirkmuirhill – a congregation of 130 or so.

In Stornoway:
Stornoway High Church – a congregation of 250.

These 11 congregations have a lot in common: all have left the Kirk over the same issue; all are Evangelical and on the more Reformed end of the theological spectrum; all have excellent and stable leadership.   They are (mostly) urban.   Few, if any, have been able to keep buildings.   But there’s a final factor: all are in excess of 100 people; meaning all are comfortably financially self-supporting.  Some have joined other denominations, some are going it alone – but in every case, they are doing it together.   Their fellowship’s self-identity has been preserved.

A few other congregations have emerged from the Exodus too: Grace Community Church, Kyle; and Highland International Church, Inverness.   I understand these congregations have grown from people exiting more than one congregation – people banding together, from similar backgrounds, to form viable fellowships, and support a shared vision for effective ministry.

Certainly families, ones or twos, have made their own personal exodus elsewhere – but in terms of organised groups making an exit, it’s only these congregations able to support a paid full time ministry, as well as rent space, etc.   

Across Scotland, especially outside our urban areas, there are smaller, less financially secure congregations, who share the Evangelical, Reformed character of those larger Exodites.      For them, leaving the Kirk means a completely uncertain future.  The options are stay and put up with the compromise; start a new fellowship, but probably be small, and unlikely to have a paid, full time ministry; or join another fellowship en mass.

As far as I can tell, this third option only happened with one whole congregation (Kilmuir, Skye).   Doing so implies a fellowship who have a long-standing shared identity have simply lost that, subsumed into another body, their history and contributions forgotten to human history.   Pastorally, I’m coming to understand the psychological strain that presents – and I realise how easy it is for people not facing that choice to be harsh in their judgement.  

It looks to me as if Reformed Evangelicals do want out of the Kirk, but are only able to do it in any meaningful way if their congregation is able to preserve a shared identity.

Which brings us back to the irksome issue of Christian Unity.   How do we express the truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus?   One hard truth is that in the Free Church we already struggle with this when we link two dwindling congregations under one ministry.   People don’t always pull together – and that’s when we come from the same background!

I’m growing more persuaded that Christian Unity in these circumstances isn’t about organisational change, leadership strategy, or the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men; but about gracious attitudes to fellowship in local settings.   Table fellowship.   Or, as I’d prefer we call it: dinner.

Outside your immediate congregation, what local Christians have you shared a meal with recently?

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.

In the last few days, I have been unable to find the words to respond to the news spewing from Iraq.   Jonah maybe has it.

It is not the first time in history that Nineveh has been the scene of atrocity and scandal.   The prophet Jonah, his tomb said to have been destroyed just days ago, was sent to that great city.   The word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

God’s sight was absolute: their deeds have come up before me.
God’s verdict was just: their deeds are evil.
God’s call to righteous Jonah was terrifying: Arise, go, call out against it.

Some find it comforting, in a world plunged into the darkness of sin and murder, to know there is a God who sees, who judges, and who will, on the great day, call out finally against the wicked.

So terrible was this knowledge, however, that Jonah rose and fled from the presence of the Lord.   Instead of heading north and east, he headed to the coast, to sail away into the West – abandoning his mission.   Some suggest he feared the people of Nineveh would repent, be spared, and still crush his homeland in Israel.   I think he just feared.

It is a fearful, terrible, thing to fall into the hands of the living God.   (Hebrews 10:31)

The reality of God’s judgement is the most terrible message to bear, and ministers of the word can never carry it flippantly, and without tears.

“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

But tonight, I find myself preparing to preach from Psalm 36.   These words have echoed in my ears all week, as we learned them at our Holiday Club:

Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O LORD.

They are words strangely like the end of Jonah’s story.   He had gone to that great city.   He had called out against it.   And they repented!   Judgement didn’t fall from the skies, like angels bearing death on fire-tipped wings.   Jonah was deeply unhappy.   But in this disappointment, God spoke to Jonah a second time:

“Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

The pivotal verse of Jonah is at the end of chapter two.   Jonah, repentant, in the belly of a huge fish, had remembered, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!”   Salvation for failed preachers like Jonah.   Salvation for the brutal, murderous people of Nineveh.

“Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

I can’t humanly reconcile the crying demands of judgement, with these incredible words.   I certainly don’t know if justice and mercy can meet in Nineveh at this time.   If my heart were laid open, I don’t even know if I want it to… so little do I grasp the words of Hebrews 10.

But I know somewhere God did bring justice and mercy together.   At the cross, the guilt, the shame, of all the great evil was fully and finally punished in Jesus, in a cry to utter anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”   The last drop of sin-earned wrath was poured out.   And salvation flowed like rivers.

I don’t know about Nineveh tonight.   I desperately hope someone will arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before God.   Will death fall on fire-tipped wings, bringing ruin to these men?

But I do know about my God.   Salvation belongs to him.   And I long to sing Psalm 36 – of the vast, incredible love of God.

 

Reconciliation

Three days after the national armistice (the close of polls on 18th Sept. 2014) there’s to be a service of reconciliation at St. Giles – High Kirk of Edinburgh, curiously referred to as a Cathedral, although the last time someone approaching a bishop sat there, it sparked a stool throwing…

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This is all, of course, patently absurd.   If there is war, you don’t seek to reconcile the parties once the war is over and the victor is seen – if you wait for that, you are too late, victor’s justice prevails – reconciliation must always be now!   Scottish politics is riven by sectarianism – SNP and Labour activists really loath each other, and the two left-of-centre parties rarely reach consensus.   A one-off service of reconciliation is naught by tokenism – Alex Salmond sitting in the pew alongside Alistair Darling Douglas Alexander will do nothing to take the sting out of Scottish Politics.   Regardless of the outcome, Labour and the SNP will still be at each other’s throats at FMQs the following Thursday.   The “blogosphere” will still be full of sectarian blogs.   Twitter-storms will continue for the foreseeable future.

But nobody will have died as a result (discounting the victims of: fuel poverty; Glasgow’s chronic health problems; Scotland’s affair with booze; adventurist wars in central Asia; etc.).   Scotland doesn’t need reconciliation.   We need a measure of respect returned to political dialogue.   We need consensus on more than just liberal shibboleths, like SSM.

While the need for a service of reconciliation is questionable, this story does tell us a lot more about where the “church” is headed in Scotland.   The Church has a role – look it up, start at Matthew 28.   But it looks like someone in the heart of the Kirk’s structures isn’t satisfied with that counter-cultural mission.   There’s a growing list of issues where the Kirk is being aligned to the liberal, secularist, cultural consensus in Edinburgh.   The Anti-Semitic bias in last year’s report on Palestine is one example.   So too the botched deal with the Secularists to abolish Worship Assemblies, and replace them with the blander “Time for Reflection”.   There’s the trajectory to embrace SSM.   Not one of these strands has anything in common with the Biblical Christianity of Jesus.

There are of course many “private” Christianity things the Church does well: alms-giving, mercy ministry stuff – but alms-giving is no basis for a publicly recognised national Church.   Public recognition for the church should permit counter-cultural engagement.   This is why many of my colleagues in the Free Church suspect Scotland’s, and indeed the UK’s, future will have no space for public Christianity – counter-cultural Christianity is dissonant, it doesn’t chime with the gong of progressive liberalism.

But I see a different future.   The politicians seem happy to embrace the service of reconciliation.   Of course nothing counter-cultural will be said there.   There will be the somewhat bland Jesus of the “turn the other cheek” variety, but that is a Jesus without offence.   It seems the acceptable face of public Christianity is in danger of forgetting that Jesus didn’t encapsulate his message with just “love thy neighbour as thyself.”   He called for a total, heart, body and soul love for God, who in turn defines what true love for one’s neighbour really is.   In the absence of our evident ability or desire to do so, God sent his Son to reconcile us to him, through his death at the cross.   He didn’t wait for the end to bring reconciliation – he sends it today!   But I have my doubts that this radical counter-cultural call to faith and repentance will be heard at St. Giles, four months from now, and three days after the armistice.

There are now two versions of the “church” in Scotland.   By “church” I don’t mean institution, but “gathering” of people.    One is aligned with the counter-cultural message of Christ, the other is aligned with the liberal agenda of the age.   I suspect that in the not-too-distant future one of these will be suppressed, and the other will be embraced as the accepted face of public Christianity in Scotland.

Does it matter?

Four Free Church guys writing about the future of the Church in Scotland after the independence referendum.   Hmmm, bored much?   Except this really matters… and here’s why:

Christianity is inherently public.   Christians are called to make a public declaration of their faith, and to live their faith in daily life.   You can’t do that if you buy into the myth that Christianity is a religious liberty to be kept for Sundays at church.   Think about Paul’s life, as it’s recorded in Acts.   When he preached, there were crowds.   When he was put on trial, there were crowds.   When he was beaten, there were crowds.   Christianity makes the public news.   It did over the last month as people debated whether or not Britain is a “Christian” country.   But this creates a tension between the private right to worship, and the inherently public right to practice your religion.   The future liberty of the Church in Scotland (in our papers we call this “spiritual independence”) will matter not so much at an institutional level, but more so at a personal level – will you as a Christian be free to live out your faith at work, in your child’s education, in how your life is valued in old age?   Most of us feel far more connected to Holyrood (who have the say in all these matters) than we do to Westminster, and I believe it will be easier for Christians to have a say in society in an independent Scotland.

Religious liberty needs public Christianity (and vice versa.)   The alternative to having some sort of healthy relationship between Church and State is to suppress Christianity.   There is no easy middle ground, and secularism is certainly not neutral on questions of religion and religious liberty.   The choice for politicians is to give liberty to public Christianity, or to suppress it.   Historically, the Scottish solution has been a very formal Establishment – the Church of Scotland enjoys a few privileges, and has a few duties to carry out in return.   She is otherwise free to get on with her mission – along with other churches – as she sees fit.   Again, it’s spiritual independence in action.   But, as my good buddy Neil DM Macleod points out, spiritual independence is not guaranteed by anything – it can go on slipping away at Westminster, just as it is at Holyrood.   Whilst it could be argued that a ‘yes’ vote would lead to a secular Scotland, similarly a ‘no’ vote will leave us with a secular Britain.   We can only call for spiritual independence if we have an organised public voice – and I’m not sure we’ll be heard above the cacophony of the money traders in Westminster.

Scotland needs a free public Christianity.   A free public Christianity has a couple of jobs.   Firstly, we preach that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.   But the Bible has a lot to offer on matters of public policy.   Scotland has problems, but we have a lot going for us.   We may well be the 14th richest nation on earth, but we still have significant social and moral problems.   I’m not saying our politicians can’t find answers, they are smart people, they will.  The Evangelical Alliance, Solas, and others are going a good job of speaking publically.   But we are only able to do so as part of the Church in Scotland enjoying its spiritual independence.   If Scotland becomes independent, the Free Church and others should be there from the beginning seeking to be salt and light.   That’s why these papers matter – because Scotland may be independent in a few months time, and our response must be more than “No, we don’t want that.”   We have to shape how that will work out, and we can only really do that through positive engagement.

What Kind of Nation?

Blogging hiatus over.

The last few months have been busy with physiotherapy, so bloging’s been on the back-burner.   I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about Christian engagement in the debate about Scotland’s Future.   Whether or not we see an Independent Scotland, it remains true that the Church in Scotland really needs to articulate, in a positive and engaging way, what the Bible says on a range of public policy areas.

I’ve found a lot of David Robertson’s stuff over at Solas very helpful, especially on the shibboleth issues – abortion, sexuality, euthanasia, etc.   Worth a look.

Last night I was directed to this manifesto from the Evangelical Alliance.   It’s worth a read.   They’ve identified four principles (Biblical, God-honouring) that they apply to a very wide range of public policy:

  • Wisdom: “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception” (Proverbs 14:8)
  • Justice: “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream” (Amos 5:24)
  • Compassion: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor” (Zechariah 7:8)
  • Integrity: “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9)

When I think about Church and State, this is what we need more of: the Church articulating Biblical values into a broken society.   Yes, of course we need to articulate the Gospel, but we also have to teach our nation to observe all that Jesus has commanded us.   This is a good start.

[[Note: What is the Church in Scotland?   We need to start seeing past the institutionalised role for "The Church" - that view grows out of a hierarchical view of the Church, as if the Church were a political party, where the members follow the lead of appointed figureheads.   We have one head, Christ - and he takes the lowest place in serving (dying, tasting the hellishness of God's wrath, for us) and invites his under-shepherd to serve also.   The articulation may fall, from time to time, on ministers, but our chief task is to articulate the truth to our fellowships, so that they will be equipped to articulate the same in their lives.]]

A Perspective on Suffering

The Church suffers.   Every day, Christians suffer.   It seems at times relentless.   It is so often an experience accompanied by perplexing, agonising thoughts about God.

But for the Christian, we must get an eternal perspective on suffering.

In 2 Cotinthians 4:17, Paul expresses this thought:

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…

I’ve often wondered about this, and today I was brought back to Philippians  3 – the passage about becoming like Christ in his death, having fellowship in his sufferings.

The incredible truth is, for Christians, our experience of pain is only ever limited to a few years in this world.   ETERNALLY.   We will never again be able to experience suffering.   Never again will we be able to taste that bitter anguish, not just of physical and mental illness, but of emotional disjunction – of betrayal, abuse or neglect.

And yet, Paul describes these things as a fellowship with Christ.   In these horrible experiences, we taste just a fraction of the experience of Jesus – our experiences today taking us back into the days of the Messiah (in a way, like David’s experiences, penned in the Psalms gave him a foretaste of the Messiah’s work).

And ETERNALLY, for the whole of everlasting life in the resurrection, these few years of pain will be our only first-hand access into grasping the Messiah’s pain for us.  Little wonder Paul says it is preparing an eternal weight of glory – in insight of these painful years turned, in the power of the resurrection, not just into a memory, but into a dynamo of everlasting awe and worship.

That pain WILL morph into singing.

It doesn’t take the pain away, but it does mean we do not lose hope.