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.

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2 thoughts on “General Assembly 2013

  1. What would be your model for the college then Gordy? Enjoyed reading your article and I’m just curious as to what your vision is. In my opinion, I don’t think anyone would disagree about the importance of the academic side, but it needs to be rooted in real life. Also, the current standard of lecturing is mixed – I like the idea of bringing in people external to the free Kirk. I don’t think we can sustain 5 profs of the level we have had.

    • Vision – I guess a few things:
      A centre of Reformed Theological teaching that is broader than just a Free Church training institute – but still within a robust “Reformed” tradition.

      A place that offers robust doctrinal teaching that will equip ministers to feed their people, so that they in turn will do works of ministry, not just a place that offers what we as ministers should already be offering our people. What I mean is not somewhere that offers Porterbrook type training, but a place that produces men who leave college confident they can themselves offer that level of teaching to their congregations.

      In terms of personnel, I’d say a bare bones staff of three full timers – ST, OT and NT. All three must be given over fully to that role (i.e. not covering IT and Tech Support for the Free Church offices as well!). CH can be taught by part-timers in support of the other subjects – but we need to get biblical studies and theology right to a very high standard all the time, or we’re in trouble.

      They have to subscribe to the same confessional document our ministers do – because they are the ones training men to teach that doctrine. This is why I’m uncomfortable with farming training in hermenutics and doctrine out to Baptists or New Perspectiveists. We can agree with Baptists on the Gospel, but not the Covenant. We can agree with NPPs on neither of these categories. Why on earth would we want them shaping the doctrinal worldview what goes into our pulpits, and comes from them? Recipe for disaster really.

      They need to be academically out there in their field – so attending conferences, writing journals, and contributing to the defence of the Faith in international terms – particularly the European context, not the US context (the US already has 30-ish well endowed Evangelical training institutions, Europe has remarkably less.)

      That’s the academic side – and that’s got to be what we rely on to train men for teaching and preaching ministry. Alongside that, we need to start building the more practical subjects, where ministers doing equipping in congregational settings need help. I’d say youth ministry modules, counselling, alcohol/addiction work, debt support, etc. are all options. These are the areas where to begin with, part time specialists can be brought in.

      The under lying argument is what do we a) want our ministry to look like, and b) what we want a training institution to provide.

      My feeling is that we need ministers who can equip their congregations – not ministers who want to be social workers. That’s not to say the Church has not place for people doing mercy ministry, we do, but their place obviously isn’t in pulpits. And we need an institution that can train these men – but also offer more specialised support to train the people we have who want to engage in mercy ministries in our congregations.

      I would appoint Dan just now, and take the hit financially on keeping four full time staff until John retires from CH in a few years time. In the mean time I’d get him to work with the HMB to identify part time staff to begin providing full modules in these mercy ministry areas from 2014 if possible.

      In terms of principle-ship, I’m comfortable to have a non-teaching post, someone not nessesaerily a Free Church ministry doing it, but ideally with some experience of ministry, and most importantly experience within the academy. Clive Bailey could, but I also hear Sinclair Ferguson’s coming back to Scotland soon. I hope someone has had a conversation with him about his vision for training men in a Scottish, UK, and European context – his opinion would be worth listening to – far more than mine.

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