Reconciliation (& Deprivation)

Scotland has decided.

Indyref results

That’s it.   As a nation we can be proud of the level of engagement the #indyref generated – in our age of apathy, and disillusionment with politicians, a turnout of 85% was impressive.   Once we go back to ballots to elect a person, I doubt we will keep the vote at this level.   I suspect the electorate do care about political debate, just not the ad hominem point scoring played by professional politicians.   MPs and MSPs: please take note.

But, there are now two big questions to address: Reconciliation and Deprivation


There is no longer a 45%, or 55%, or even an 85%!   There is only one Scotland.   Our nation has to come together as one to face the enormous challenges presented to us.   That doesn’t mean we stop caring, or speaking about the issues – but the debate has to move on from the referendum’s binary choice, to normal political engagement.

It can’t be a superficial change.   It has been refreshing to see how quickly my social media streams drained of political symbols after Thursday’s vote.   But changing your Facebook profile certainly isn’t costly.    Reconciliation can’t be done on the cheap.

That’s why I’m disappointed with Scotland’s foremost churchman.   I couldn’t believe my ears Friday morning (BBC coverage, about 7:20am) as John Chalmers suggested his plan for reconciliation: Go and find someone from the other side and take a “selfie” with them.   It’s a sad symptom of the Church in Scotland: she has forgotten her foundation, and embraced the cheap self-indulgence of the age.   The Church doesn’t exist to encourage people to be nice to each other – we exist to call people to radical discipleship: Take up your cross and follow Jesus.   I suspect many parts of the Church can’t call people to costly grace because they don’t believe in a God whose grace was costly.

God’s model of reconciliation wasn’t to send his Son to take a cheap selfie with fallen people; to show off a chummy picture on social media.   He came to die in the place of people who had rejected God, God’s ways, and the good of God’s world.   As Paul put it, himself he emptied, taking the form of a slave, and then he went to the cross and died.

If there’s going to be reconciliation, it’s going to be costly.   If Scotland is to move forward as one, both the 45% and the 55% are going to have to die to their division, and work as one.   Leaving the fight we invested so much in for the last two years is where the real cost is going to be found.   And I think – even for my Christian friends on both sides of the debate – that will be hard.

Never let it be said that Scotland’s Presbyterian ministers offered only empty ideals, or pious rhetoric.   Here’s a practical suggestion:

Today, there’s a lot of talk about a movement emerging: #the45.   I can see why galvanising a partisan movement like this might be good for a future Independence battle.   But there might be a more refreshing route.   What if the diverse elements of the grassroots Yes campaign were to open up to include the huge number of No voters who today share the desire to hold Westminster to account for more powers?   That can only be done if they forsake their identity as a vehicle for Independence.   Moving on from the fight that ended on Thursday will be costly, because the way ahead doesn’t represent the interests of the 45% over against the 55%.   It has to include all of us.

If you think that’s impossible, consider this picture:



This needs another post – but this is why reconciliation can’t be cheap: the problems we face are huge, and demanding.


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?

Thinking about Church leaders

Working in redeveloping a small rural congregation, one of our objectives has been to instil a sense of purpose to our church.   For a long time, we were “The Free Church”.   Being “Free Church” coloured everything.   For example, our worship was “Free Church” style.   Our teaching ministry was also “Free Church” style, as one dear person in my church put it, “Free Church preaching seems to really emphasise the Old Testament.”   There’s nothing wrong with the OT – I’m hoping to begin an evangelistic-focused series on King David this winter – but often that emphasis equates to a law-focused teaching, that doesn’t quite reach grace often enough.

The problem is, aside from that one person who thought “Free Church” means “Old Testament”, nobody was able to articulate what the congregation was really about.

We’ve put a lot of effort into trying to change this.   These days we have a very John Stott-influenced vision for the Church.   There’s a simple way to remember this vision – the Church is Christ’s bride, his W.I.F.E.   Sleat & Strath Free Church‘s vision is to be a church that serves God through:

  • Worship, focused on Jesus Christ
  • Instruction, based on God’s Word
  • Fellowship, around the Good News
  • Evangelism, showing God’s love in word and action

We’re now starting to tackle some of the ways this affects how we think about leadership – in terms of eldership, deaconate, Sunday School, our cafe work, and so on.   We want to identify leaders based on this way of thinking.   So today, I drew a very Abraham Maslow-esque pyramid.

Leadership Plan

The base tier is “Commitment to Christ” – basically, are you converted / born again?   This should really be a given in Churches.   Our desire to be a true worshipping community means Christ has to be worshipped by our leadership.   Operating on the Biblical assumption that without faith it’s impossible to please God, we need people committed to Christ to lead.

Building on that, we want people who shape their outlook on life from the Bible.   We want people who’ll submit to God’s way, revealed in Scripture.   Of course we’ll find people disagree about things, but as long as we have leaders proposing a way forward based on their understanding of the Bible, that’s got to be a good thing.

We also need people who’re committed to the Church’s fellowship.   The key to fellowship is of course, Philippians 2 – in a Christ-like way, think of others more highly than yourself.   We shouldn’t be interested in putting people with a “me-centred” attitude to church – who shun bible studies and prayer meetings because “I don’t get anything out of it” – into leadership roles.

Ultimately, this is because leadership is about service.   We want to cultivate leaders who serve, not leaders who demand.

So we’re thinking about this model – have we got it right?   We’d welcome any thoughts you have.

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.