Number crunching the Kirk’s Assembly votes

Over the past week now I’ve had some interesting conversations with Evangelicals in the Church of Scotland.   Some have seen last Monday’s vote as a disaster, others are genuinely perplexed and frustrated, and some are telling me that the press and other outside observers have it all wrong – that Monday’s vote wasn’t a disaster for Evangelicals, that really nothing’s changed, and in two years time we’re going to see the Presbyteries fix this mess instead of the General Assembly.   What I’m asking now is simple: What is going on in the Kirk with regards the ordination of people living in homosexual relationships?   And where is Scripture in this mess?

Historical Trend

The first step in understanding what’s going on in the Kirk is the voting numbers over the last few years.   The Kirk’s General Assembly has some 750 commissioners, which may or may not be representative of the opinion of the whole church.   About 650 have voting rights.   In the votes in 2009, 2011 and now in 2013, there were not many abstentions.   Three times in five years now the Kirk has voted on ordaining gays:

In 2009 Scott Rennie’s induction (as an openly gay man, in a same-sex relationship) was effectively put to the vote on the floor of the General Assembly.   The vote was 326 to 267 (55% to 45%) in favour of ordaining gays, although I’m sure there are those who’d argue that wasn’t what this vote was about at all.   Some might say it was about church procedure, and not the ordination of gays.

If 2009 may not have been about gay ordination the 2011 vote definitely was.   Then (across two votes) the Assembly first rejected a compromise (53% to 47%) and then voted overwhelmingly for gay ordination (61% to 39%).

What happened on Monday last week was in keeping with this trend.   Last week’s vote was the first time a three way vote was allowed, with three motions (pro-, anti- and compromise) being allowed to go head to head.   The key figure is the percentage voting for the Kirk’s traditional position to be retained, with no exceptions.   This was only 26% (pro- 43%, anti- 26%, comp. 31%).

That’s a really clear trend – in 2009, 45% were opposed to ordaining gays to the ministry, in 2011 that had dropped to 39%, and this year, the figure was 26%.   The trend in the numbers favourable to a blanket ban on all gay ordinations shows collapse – I was going to use the word “softening” but a drop of 20% in 5 years is collapse.

The other trend that we see over the 2011 / 2013 votes is that the number willing to come to a compromise is increasing.   In a straight choice between full acceptance of gay ordination and some sort of compromise deal, the figures climbed from 47% in 2011, to 55% in 2013.   There has been a slight swing from pro- to comp.   But the real swing here has been from the collapsing anti- vote, to the compromise position.   So when we talk about a change in the Kirk, one thing we can demonstrate is a massive change in opinion.   Gay ordination is becoming acceptable… not just with Liberals, but increasingly on the Evangelical wing of the Kirk.

The Tolerating Compromise Itself

Still, this weekend some of the Evangelicals I was speaking were attempting to paint last weeks development as not so bad.   According to the men I spoke with, this buys the Evangelicals two years to firm up opposition at the Presbyteries.   But I don’t entirely buy this.   The architect of the compromise motion, former moderator Albert Bogle, is generally recognised as an Evangelical.   So I’m struggling to understand the strategy here.   Whatever his motion’s goals, what it does is open the door for a Kirk Session to opt out of the traditional position of the Kirk, while still being part of the Kirk.

Leaving aside the logical fallacy of such a provision, does the fact than an Evangelical proposed this tell us anything?    I suspect you can link this Evangelical motion to the voting trends which show Evangelical feelings towards gay ordination switch from anti- to compromise.   Bogel’s plan is just the outworking of the trend – Evangelicals are willing to accept the ordination of gays, in exactly the same way they were willing to accept the ordination of women 30 years (44 years, it was that long ago! – Ed.) ago.   This is simply Evangelical NIMBY-ism – they’re happy to tolerate it (for the sake of a united Kirk?), just not in their congregations or Presbyteries.

What it also suggests is that Scripture plays almost no part in the decision for the Evangelicals who support compromise.   I can see Andy McGowan’s frustration here: he – and the Theological Commission – spent nearly two years carefully outlining the arguments.    A compromise, sketched on the back of a fag packet over lunch, gained the support of more commissioners.   No Biblical basis for the compromise has been laid down – in fact the theologians on both sides conceded in the Commission’s report that this was an issue on which no Biblical compromise could be reached.   Whatever shaped commissioners opinions, we can be sure it wasn’t Scripture.

Looking Ahead to Barrier Action

Still, we’re supposed to believe that change is now at worst two years away.   Are the Evangelicals really saying that the compromise is going to be opposed by the Presbyteries?   Let’s look at the numbers again.   On Monday, in the three-way vote 43% were pro-, 26% anti- and 31% comp.   I appreciate that the Composition of General Assemblies probably doesn’t match the opinion of all the Presbyteries combined on this issue.   But still, the 43% pros are going to be a loud voice graciously willing to accept the compromise, and 31% have already shown their support for compromise over against the anti- option.   That suggests something like three quarters of the Assembly’s commissioners are going to be arguing for the compromise Bogle has proposed.   And as I’ve shown above, a good number of those already committed to the compromise are Evangelicals.

Conclusion

The reality is that opposition to gay ordination in the Church of Scotland is declining.   It seems there are a growing number of Evangelicals willing to compromise (probably for the unity of the Church).   And it looks like some care very little for the Biblical arguments around the issues.   As society has grown more “tolerant” so has the Kirk.   The evidence is that this is an area of the Church’s life where, overwhelmingly, the drift within the church is with culture.   That means, simply, the Kirk is not counter cultural.   The big question for Bible-loving believers is, What is God saying to the Church now?   Revelation 2:18-29 seems apposite.   There are still about 25% of the Assembly’s Commissioners to whom the Lord is saying, “I lay no other burden upon you.”   Your burdens are enough – I know we in the Free Church will do what we can to support you.   I know many will be tempted – for the sake of peace – to give in to the temptation to tolerate the sinfulness in your midst.   Jesus is calling you to stand fast for the crown, and the morning star!

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General Assembly 2013 Review – Great People; Greater God

This year I had the privilege of presenting a report to the Free Church General Assembly (#fca13).   The Personnel Committee Report is not even remotely the highlight of the week, but for me, the personnel we look after – our people, particularly our paid staff and office bearers but also the thousands who serve God volunteering in our congregations – are one of the greatest blessings enjoyed by the Free Church.   This year’s Assembly was, for me, great because of what it demonstrated: we have great people, and a greater God.

Our paid staff

I don’t mean our ministers!   We have many excellent auxiliary staff – youth workers, alcohol workers, family workers, and so on.   But the work and witness of our Church would be severely curtailed if we weren’t supported by a team of really profession and dedicated staff in the Offices.   These are not front line ministry workers – but they administer camps, manage denominational finances, answer the phones, talk to the press, and so on.   We’d really struggle without them.   This year, Calum Ferguson reached the end of his full time service with the Church.   It was a pleasure to join in one of the longest standing ovations I remember at Assembly.   His work as International Missions co-ordinator has been incredible – to God be the glory.   I was also really impressed with Sarah Macleod’s introduction to the Assembly.   She’s an incredibly gifted young woman, and I pray God’s blessing on her work as Mission Co-ordinator, “looking after” both Home and International fields.

Our members

I wish I could share some more detail of the International Missions speakers we heard.   Some of these men and women serve God in really dark places, and their security is paramount.   But their vision is glorious.   They are not going to do it alone, but they want to see the world change, whole nations transformed – one life at a time.   One I can mention is Clive Bailey, who has just returned from Peru.   He has done sterling work in securing a long term future for a Christian school in Lima. Our people are doing great work, all over the world.   To God alone be the glory.

Our elders (and deacons)

I was so impressed with the elders at this year’s Assembly.  If we have guys like Tom Muir (championing discipleship and training for young men and future office bearers), David Kirk (articulating a vision for excellence doctrine, training, and ministry) or James Fraser (Principal of UHI, who still finds time to be chairman of our Board of Trustees) in our ranks, I have huge optimism for the health of our Church.   The Assembly was also full of a good number of older elders, few of whom spoke.   I made a point this year of hanging out with them at meal times – and their chat showed just how engaged they were with the sometimes difficult issues we faced.   To God alone be the glory.

I just wish we had ways of bringing deacons into some of our Assembly deliberations – maybe a day where diaconal work is dealt with in full, and deacon commissioners could deliberate the practical ministry of the Church?

Our ministers

We have some excellent ministers.   I have never suggested people watch Assembly speeches before, but this year there were some outstanding contributions: Angus Howat’s Moderatorial Address; Iain D. Campbell’s Ecumenical Relations Report; Iver Martin’s vision for the Edinburgh Theological Seminary (the Free Church College); Derek Lamont’s Home Mission Board Report.   Watch them if you are able – these are Free Church leaders with vision, and ambition for the glory of God.   We have men like Alasdair MacDonald, Angus Macrae and Jeremy Ross, whose contributions were full of deep pastoral concern.   We have some really impressive young ministers too – Hugh Ferrier is a wee star, I think the youngest minister in the Church, but insightful, and worth keeping an open ear for in the future.   And we have gracious and patient men too – the nomination to the Chair of Old Testament crystallises the Free Church’s financial dilemma in one guy, and Daniel Sladek deserves a medal for the way he has conducted himself throughout.

The #eFrees

These guys – led by the excellent Gordon Bell (like a herd of cats? – Ed.) –  just get a mention for being #epic and #madeofwin

I can’t mention everybody here – but we have great people in the Free Church.   But we have greater God, and I thank him for the great gift he has given our Church in our people.

General Assembly 2013

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 [it has], 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.

No shortcuts

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.

The Need for Gracious Discipline

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.

Paul the Apostle would not have liked a ‘Broad Church’

Praise God for Church of Scotland ministers who get the problem I was highlighting last week. Wish they were all like this, but I suspect two things: Many evangelicals tolerate the “broad church” idea; and the collision course with the Church Courts that Louis Kinsey talks about here will mean this kind of faithfulness is increasingly a rare thing.

Ravi Zacharias on Atheism

Sleat & Strath Free Church

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.   Worth a watch.

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