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Crisis in the Church of Scotland

August 2014 | by Richard Buckley

Evangelicals in the Church of Scotland, as in many other mainstream denominations, are facing a crisis. The crisis has arisen over two issues.

The first question is whether those in civil partnerships may be selected for, or continue in, Christian ministry. The second is whether same-sex marriage, as defined by the State, is acceptable for church ministers and members.

Evangelicals have responded to these issues in three different ways. The first response has been immediately to leave a denomination considering redefining sexual relationships and marriage, in a way so patently contrary to the Bible.

The second has been to stay in the denomination until the issue is decided one way or the other, intending to respond in a way that maintains a scriptural outlook on human sexuality. The third is to stay, no matter what happens, in order to contend for the faith from within the denomination.

God’s ways

It might seem as though the correct response is obvious, but the Lord’s ways are never so simple. For example, in 1 Kings 18, Obadiah served in the palace of Ahab and hid and provided for 100 prophets of the Lord in caves, even as other prophets were sought out and killed by Jezebel.

It was not that Elijah only was left as God’s servant. The Lord had placed other servants in the palace of Ahab or hidden them in caves. It would be quite unfair to the Lord’s servants and the hidden ways of the Lord, who guides his people in his own way, to say that no one then except Elijah was serving the Lord.

Remember Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, Esther in Susa and those of Caesar’s household. They were placed in the midst of the enemies of God’s people by God himself, just as Paul was sent on missionary journeys to face all kinds of hardships, while others were called to serve in one particular church.

We are, and always have been, in the midst of a spiritual battle. The most important question is not exactly where God has led us to serve him or how we respond in a particular crisis, but whether we know what we are fighting for and with, and whether we are fighting the good fight of the faith with the wisdom and courage the Lord gives us.

He equips and fits us for that warfare. We possess the evangel that the world needs to hear and he will require of us an accounting for the way we proclaim that Word.

Evangelicals want to make a stand, but ‘how’ and ‘where’ are issues that divide us. The history of the Presbyterian church in Scotland is one of division and secession, and we are facing the same all over again.

Interpreting Scripture

To discern the Lord’s will, evangelicals take Scripture as their starting point. Some orientate their response around the words, ‘Come out from among them and be separate’ (Revelation 18:4); others from what Jesus teaches in John 10:12ff, that a shepherd never abandons the sheep entrusted to him by God.

Yet others point out that, according to Jesus’ parable, when an enemy sows tares in the midst of true wheat, the wise response is not to weed out the tares but to wait until harvest, when God himself will distinguish between the wheat and tares.

Calvin wrote: ‘If the Lord declares that the church will labour under the defect of being burdened with a multitude of wicked until the day of judgement, it is in vain to look for a church altogether free from blemish’ (Institutes, 4.1.13).

But the Lord also said that, when a certain place does not accept the gospel, his disciples were to shake the dust off their feet and move on to another place where the evangel will be received. Wisdom is needed to know which of the twin parts of our Lord’s instruction applies to our present circumstances.

Some who have been troubled by the direction the denomination seems to be taking away from biblical orthodoxy have decided to leave. Some ministers have left their charges; others have sought to take their congregations with them.

Some congregations have agreed with their elders and left; other congregations have split in two so that only part of the congregation has stayed within the denomination.

The reputation of evangelicalism left behind has not been uniform: some have left a good reputation of graciousness; others, having been less wise and gracious, have given denominational leaders the excuse they were looking for to say how glad they are to see the evangelicals go.

Many questions arise about the response of leaving, not the least of which is, ‘Why leave now, since the shift away from orthodoxy began, not with this present moral issue, but many years ago with the drift away from the essence of basic Christian theology?’ — a more fundamental drift that seems to have gone unopposed.

Final decision

The significant point though is that no final decision has yet been taken by the Church to depart from orthodox Christology or the essential evangel.

In the Church of Scotland, there is what is called the Barrier Act to the Church’s legislation. It works in this way. If a major departure from Church belief or practice is placed before the General Assembly and there is a vote in favour of it, before any departure may be finally accepted by the Church and legislation set in place, the matter is remitted to each presbytery and kirk session, to discuss and vote for or against it.

Then the matter is referred back to the next General Assembly for the whole denomination’s decision to be declared. The Barrier Act has been necessarily invoked on this occasion and in the autumn the issue will be discussed and voted on in presbyteries and kirk sessions, and the decisions will be known shortly thereafter and brought to the General Assembly of 2015.

Needless to say, the departure of so many has significantly weakened the vote’s prospect from an evangelical point of view.

The problem with this present departure is that it might be easy for unbelievers to perceive evangelicals as merely against a certain manifestation of sin (that we are ‘homophobic’), and not as for the proclamation of the cross and resurrection of Christ for the redemption of repenting sinners. Rather than clarifying the gospel, this might reinforce a misrepresentation of what evangelicalism is all about in society as a whole.

One consequence of leaving the denomination is that all the assets in the possession of the denomination must be given up — manses, church buildings and bank balances. Some who have left the denomination with nothing have experienced God providing for their needs in both ordinary and miraculous ways, and seen great blessing in their evangelistic efforts and ministries; others have experienced real hardship and difficulty.

Some ministers and churches are prepared to work, argue and vote their case in the denomination’s courts until the final decision is made; in the meantime, doing everything to keep open lines of communication with other congregations, working together to offer a unified response to the results of the decision.

Forward Together

It is easy to feel as if there are few working together, but that is not the case and many members of the Church have worked tirelessly, through many difficulties, so that evangelicalism would not be eroded from our denomination.

Particular mention may be made of Forward Together, under the leadership of Kenneth McKenzie, a businessman and member of the Church of Scotland. He has expended much time and energy bringing together many who are seeking to restore the Church to its Reformed and evangelical roots.

Likewise, we should mention Rev. Jeremy Middleton, chairman of the Crieff Fellowship, who proposed the counter-motion against the suggestion of a ‘mixed economy’ (adhering to a traditional view of marriage as the Church’s default position, while allowing some in same-sex relationships to continue in ministry).

All evangelicals agree that he spoke at the General Assembly in a most gracious, God-honouring way and that the unction of the Holy Spirit was upon him as he reminded the Assembly what the Word of God plainly teaches.

The Assembly chose to react to the Word of God through Mr Middleton as Jehoiakim did to his namesake Jeremiah (Jeremiah 36).

Voting figures suggest that even some who are genuinely evangelical voted against Jeremy Middleton. This will have been for denominational unity and the preservation of their place within it to continue working there for the cause of Christ. But it is difficult to see logically how one can be serious in fighting for the cause of Christ, while voting against the Word of God, even if one does want to remain in the denomination.

Priorities

It might seem as if those who are waiting to find out what the future voting holds are dithering and uncertain. But this is far from the case. We have not budged an iota from the essential principles of the Church’s supreme authority (the Bible) or its subordinate standard (Westminster Confession) and see no reason why, at this stage, there is not still something worth saving.

We are particularly concerned about members of the Church who are confused about what to believe and how to think about this present crisis.

Some have decided that no matter what the end result is they will stay in the denomination to continue to preach the gospel, despite the pressure to conform and the discrimination they will inevitably face.

They have vowed to work for a return to gospel standards and never to leave the Church God has called them to minister in. Evangelicals who respond thus include those with conservative and Charismatic views, as well as those whose evangelicalism is more flexible than some might be happy with.

It is difficult to predict what any evangelical would need to tolerate within the Church in order to stay in it, once it has moved so far from its doctrinal standards that just about anything goes. It will be all too easy to completely give in to the pressure to conform.

At a time of such diversity of response, one can only hope and pray that the claims of Christ in the evangel will be brought into sharp relief, and that all who are Reformed and evangelical will continue to preach the Word and increasingly experience in themselves, through the gospel, the power of God to salvation.

We pray that all will not be satisfied with mere denominational peace, but will give themselves unstintingly to gospel work, so that many others may come to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Richard G. Buckley

The author is minister of Trinity Possil and Henry Drummond Church, Glasgow.