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Sad departures

January 2016 | by Sinclair Ferguson

The Banner of Truth Trust has just published A sad departure — why we could not stay in the Church of Scotland, by David J. Randall (216 pages, £7.50; ISBN: 9781848716612), on recent upheavals in the Church of Scotland. Its foreword, by Sinclair B. Ferguson, is edited and used here with permission.

If you care at all about the Christian church you must brace yourself for a roller coaster of emotions as you read A sad departure. The title contains a double entendre. On the one hand it alludes to the departure from the Church of Scotland of about forty ministers and many members. On the other hand it refers to the catalyst of these actions — the departure of the Kirk [Church] from its moorings in the authority of Scripture by its decisions on ‘the gay question’.

Those who have loved and served (and may still be serving) the Church of Scotland, or who feel indebted to its history, will read these pages with a sense of sadness. Other observers, perhaps familiar with the last century and a half of the story of the Church of Scotland, will no doubt feel that the seeds of decisions recorded here were sown in the field many decades ago, even if the crop that is now being harvested could scarcely have been foreseen.

Author

I have known of and observed David Randall for some forty years, although it is only in the last couple of years that we have come to know each other. From a distance, he always seemed to be the epitome of a deeply committed, Christ-centred, congregation loving, faithfully teaching, Church of Scotland minister.

He has that combination of intelligence, seriousness, and graciousness that would have made him a good candidate for featuring as the beloved local minister in one of the old Scottish novels.

To reach back further into the literary past, I suspect his congregation could say of him what Chaucer wrote of the ‘poor parson of a town’: ‘Christ’s love and his apostles twelve he taught, but first he followed it himself’.

For nearly forty years he served the same congregation in Macduff, teaching God’s Word, and modelling for them Christian living and Christian family life. Feeding his flock and seeking the lost seemed to be the only ‘preferment’ he sought.

All this has simply been confirmed, and indeed enhanced, by coming to know him personally in recent years. It is evident that he has had a deep commitment to, affection for, and desire to serve in, the Church of Scotland in which he was reared, but from which he has now made ‘a sad departure’.

David Randall is not, then, a hot-headed, division-creating, young rebel. He is rather a man whose record of humble and fruitful service, matched by very few, has, as they say, ‘earned him the right to be heard’.

A sad departure tells a dark story, almost novelesque in character. A church’s theological commission reaches a unanimous conclusion on the teaching on marriage given in its ultimate authority, the Bible. But then its General Assembly acts in a way that ignores, demeans and rejects that teaching.

Authority

Thus behind these sad departures lies the prior and much sadder departure of the Kirk from its sacred constitution. What John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, noted in his written dissent from his Court’s 2015 decision on marriage, could equally be applied here: the Church of Scotland’s highest court has made decisions, not on the basis of her ultimately authoritative documents, but simply on the basis of the will of the majority of decision-makers.

What makes this unnerving in a professing Christian Church is in part the spectre of a lack of integrity that haunts the narrative. But what makes it so staggering is that the Church of Scotland has for all practical purposes declared herself and not Scripture to be the ultimate authority in a matter of both faith and life. Now vox Ecclesiae Scotticanae, vox Dei — the voice of the Church of Scotland is the voice of God!

When the human founders of the Church of Scotland reformed the great Scots Confession of 1560, they prefaced their work by saying that, if anyone disagreed with its contents, they would answer them ‘out of the mouth of God’. From this historic position the present Kirk has removed herself by a whole diameter. Effectively she has turned to Scripture to say, ‘Shut your mouth; it is our voice, the voice of the contemporary church, which is the voice of God’.

The decisions of the General Assembly of the Kirk have been made with ceremonial dignity and solemnity. There is talk of unity, of working together, of the broad church. All is suffused with the language of ‘grace’ (although, as some have found, when the issue turns to buildings and finances the language of grace immediately turns to the language of law). But grace can never be found without truth, and Grace Incarnate affirmed that God’s word is truth (John 17:17). To demean or refuse it then is a grace-less act.

Assembly

Perhaps the ‘power-players’ in the Kirk have had a quiet, and even in some instances cynical, confidence that one of the traits of evangelicals is to huff and to puff, but, because of other considerations, remain in the house rather than blow it down.

If so, then it seems safe to assume that one of the next evangelical boundary markers the Assembly will seek to remove will be the Westminster Confession of Faith. Again, heroic exertions to retain it may be made. The problem is — and what a painful one it must be for many ministers —‘If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ (Psalm 11:3). The answer may well be in many instances, ‘We do not know; we wish we did’.

True, those who have left the Church of Scotland are certainly in the minority in the way they have answered this question. They have done so one by one, many at great personal cost. But, in doing so, they have seen with fresh eyes that there is in fact a vibrant church in Scotland outside of the Church of Scotland.

Thankfully, many of them are now settled in new ministries, some with large numbers of their former congregations who have shared their convictions. But A sad departure also touches on major concerns that linger in the hearts of many who have remained within the Church of Scotland.

As these pages will make clear, even the present status quo cannot remain for long. For while the Kirk dwarfs other Presbyterian and independent churches in Scotland, already it seems the majority of those who sense themselves called to the ministry of the gospel in Scotland are going elsewhere. The number of evangelical candidates (on whom, in the past half century, the Church of Scotland has been statistically heavily dependent) is now tiny.

The new generation no longer feels the sense of loyalty to the Kirk that mine did; it sees no reason to be loyal to the biblically disloyal. The result will surely be, as the years pass, that fewer and fewer congregations will be able to call a minister in the mould of a David Randall.

Thus the key question cannot be reduced to, ‘What should we do now?’ It must include, ‘What of the future?’ Those who have left may seem small in congregational size; few in number, in some instances; without permanent buildings of their own; and much despised.

Application

But the issue raised by A sad departure is in part this: is it not better to be all that and free now to teach and apply God’s Word and build for the future,than to undergo a slow but progressive deterioration through the kind of famine of hearing the words of the Lord, that Amos described (Amos 8:11-12)?

For at the end of the day, unless God’s Word can be appliedas well as taught,the church withers. Famines of hearing the words of the Lord tend to come progressively, not suddenly, often because, although taught, the Word of God has not been digested and applied.

Where limits are placed on the application of God’s Word, people become accustomed to meagre diets and begin to regard them as normal. They do not realise they are starving until it is too late. And then the day comes when they realise they need food, but no longer know where it can be found.

A sad departure is a thoughtful, honest and solemnising book, written out of a deep personal and pastoral concern for the cause of the gospel. It cannot have been easy to write. But in its own way it is a heart cry that God would raise up leaders in Scotland like those from Issachar, ‘men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do’. Those who have Scotland’s best interests at heart will pray that it may be so.