Too little too late

January 8, 2015

The official confirmation for the Church of Scotland that the majority of their presbyteries have backed legislation which will allow the appointment of ministers in a same-sex relationship comes as no surprise. The legislation also makes clear that being in a same-sex relationship is no bar to becoming a candidate for the ministry. While the presbytery head-count of 54.6% to 45.4% may seem rather close, the final affirmation required by the 2015 General Assembly will be far more decisive. Assemblies tend to be more liberal than the church membership at large. We can also expect moves that will allow same-sex weddings in parish churches.

While radicals in the Kirk will be celebrating, what of the evangelicals? I was never one of those who predicted a mass exodus of congregations. Of those who left the Church of Scotland, only a handful have done so en mass. Most such congregations have split. By and large, there have been handfuls of members leaving on their own, disillusioned by the lack of fortitude shown by their minister. Anyone who imagines that a minister leaving the Church of Scotland is taking the easy option needs to think again. As well as losing their home and a job from which they could not be sacked (unless for some gross misdemeanour), there is a massive reduction in salary no matter what other denomination they go to. Those who have demitted their charges have acted with great faith and courage. Those who remain complain that we have left them to continue the fight. Our reply is, What fight? There was no fight to speak of. Rather there was only compromise.

And yet, what if there had been a fight? What if evangelicals had been better organised, more willing to raise the stakes if the radicals got their way? The closeness of the headcount at presbytery level suggests that Albert Bogle’s compromise might not have been necessary. If the Biblical principle for sexual union as being exclusively between one man and one woman had been as well argued throughout presbyteries and congregations as it was on the floor of the Assembly in 2014 there might have been a ground-swell against the radicals. We will never know.

Andrew McGowan has formed the Covenant Fellowship which allows church members to register their dis-satisfaction at the Kirk’s trajectory. Sadly this is fifty years too late. The fact that acting principal clerk George Whyte has welcomed the formation of this new group speaks volumes. They can angrily jump up and down like Rumpelstiltskin but they have surrendered their trump card—that they will never leave the Kirk; and that’s all 121 George Street cares about.


September 17, 2014

1 Timothy 2:1-8

Tomorrow we will take part in the most important vote in our life-time. Only once before in our country’s history has anything similar been done. That was 300 years ago and it wasn’t nearly as democratic as what will happen tomorrow. It is predicted that 80% of the population of Scotland will cast a vote—either for independence or for remaining within the Union.

It has been two years since the process began. But it’s only in recent months that the debate has really taken off. Sadly, it has often been acrimonious with friends and family falling out with one another. And the fear is that after tomorrow that acrimony will continue for it seems that approximately half the population are going to be bitterly disappointed by the outcome.

What about Christians? What has our role been in all this? It’s been good to see the churches hosting debates. Murdo Fraser and John Mason, both MSPs on opposite sides of the argument, have been models of how Christians can disagree on such a fundamental political issue, while remaining and behaving as brothers in Christ.

It has generally been agreed that there is no specific Biblical guidance as to how Christians should vote tomorrow. The Bible was written at a time when kings and queens ruled the nations, when empires rose and fell. What we are told is that whatever system of government we live under we are to be the best citizens. The prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon (Jer.29:7): seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it because if it prospers you too will prosper.

The Apostle Peter says (1Pet.2:13): Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king as the supreme authority or to governors who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

And here in 1Tim2:1&2 the Apostle Paul encourages us to pray for everyone: for kings and all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

I want you to note carefully why Paul says we should pray specifically for our political rulers:
that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

Our desire as Christians is for peaceful and quiet lives, the kind of lives that promote godliness and holiness. When he says peaceful and quiet Paul doesn’t mean a trouble-free life. If that were the case his own prayers were singularly unsuccessful! He’s talking about civil peace, peace in society. Freedom from the kind of civil disorder that prevents the gospel spreading.

We get a good example of what he is talking about in Acts 19. The location is Ephesus, and such is the success of Paul’s preaching that the local silversmiths, who earn a living from making statues of the goddess Artemis, fear for the future of their business. So they start to riot, calling for the Christians to be expelled.

The town clerk brings the crowd under control, reasoning with them, and dismissing them. We read in Acts 20:1: After the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, said good-bye and set out for Macedonia. It was only after the riot had been brought under control by the town authorities that the Christians could meet together in safety. But sadly Paul could no longer stay there, he had to move on.

We pray for our rulers because they have the power to enforce law and order which is necessary for society to function in general, and for the church to flourish in particular. That’s why our prayers for everyone, and especially our prayers for kings and those in authority, is good and pleases God our Saviour.

So what can we pray about for tomorrow? You have your preference—yes or no. To pray for one result over another is to pray for your will to be done. Not God’s—because God hasn’t revealed his will in this matter. Furthermore, to pray one way or the other would be to exclude others from saying a hearty “amen”. What can we pray that will allow all of us to say “amen”?

The Apostle talks about requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving. We can begin with thanksgiving—thanking the Lord for the many blessings that are ours, both temporal and spiritual. We can be thankful that we live in a country where the rule of law is observed. And that the decision about our future is in our hands and is not being imposed upon us.

I hope too that there will be an element of confession. As a nation we have wandered far from God’s righteousness, increasingly so in recent years. As the people of God in Scotland we’ve lost some of our saltiness. Our witness has grown weak and tired. Why is the church not listened to as it once was? Is it because we have lost credibility?

As for intercessions, let me suggest four areas to focus on:

First, we can pray for a peaceful acceptance of the outcome; that those who are disappointed by the outcome will not resort to violence.

Second, we can pray for reconciliation between family and friends where there have been fall-outs and fights.

Third, we can pray for godly government, whether as an independent country or as we continue part of the union. We want to be ruled by people who truly have the interests of everyone at heart, especially the weak and the vulnerable. We can pray for a fair and just society.

Fourth, we can pray that whatever the future holds politically, we will continue to be free to worship, to witness, to express ourselves without fear that the state will intervene to stop us.

Prov.14:34: Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a disgrace to any people.

Pray that Scotland would be characterised by righteousness—by a right relationship with God; a humble attitude that recognizes that our spiritual heritage is not the least of our many blessings. Pray that the people of Scotland would realize that the solution to our problems—our deepest problems—does not lie in politics or economics, not even in education, but in the Lord Jesus Christ.

A mixed-up economy

May 21, 2014

Why did the General Assembly decide overwhelmingly to pass legislation that will permit congregations to call a minister who is in a Civil Partnership?  It was not in order to glorify God.  It was not in order to be faithful to scripture.  It was not to keep the evangelicals happy; nor was it to give the revisionists what they want.  The evangelicals opposed the legislation; the revisionist tried to revise it to make calling a minister in a CP easier.  Commissioners passed this legislation because they are persuaded that this is going to put the debate to bed—at least for a few years.

Remember—most members of the Church of Scotland don’t really care one way or the other.  They just want everyone to get along as one big happy family. They are annoyed at Scott Rennie for stirring up a hornets nest in the first place; and they are annoyed at the evangelicals for making such a fuss.  What has been decided is “we are traditional, but you don’t have to be if you don’t want to be”; and to most kirk-folk that’s the perfect solution.  A mixed economy.

Alan Hamilton, Convenor of Legal Questions, is to be congratulated for a masterful performance.  He graciously but effortlessly batted away every ball bowled at him.  Finlay Macdonald (ex-Mod, ex-principal clerk) defeated 351:206.  New Testament scholar, Dr.Paul Middleton, defeated 424:165.  And Jeremy Middleton (no relation) defeated 369:189.

Alan’s committee offered the Church a mixed economy; conceded indeed that there already is a mixed economy in the Church.  He conceded that this brings with it legal risks.  The legislation is a form of discrimination and the only guaranteed way to avoid legal action is not to discriminate at all.  But the law, as it stands, allows Churches some lea-way.  But he could not assure the Assembly that a disappointed minister in a CP who was rejected for a charge might sue the Church successfully.

He was sure that this would not be the last word in the matter; in the future the Church could move in either direction.

During the course of the debate there were the usual plethora of silly faux-legal points and non sequiturs.  Moderator, John Chalmers, dealt with these in his usual patient manner.  One chap cited the recent case in Brazil of three women marrying each other in the one ceremony—had the committee considered how much more mixed the mixed economy might become?

The substantive debate began when Jerry Middleton stood to propose his counter motion which, in summary, sought to return the Church to an undiluted traditional/Biblical position.  I know Jerry, and have heard him speak on several occasions.  He is a formidable debater and clear thinker.  This was Jerry at his best.

He made several excellent points.  He said that we could be setting up candidates in a CP for disappointment: we train them for the ministry but when they seek a charge they could be met with a brick wall.  He feared that the legislation was not legally water-tight.  Fundamentally, it is just plain wrong.  It is illogical to declare one thing (the traditional understanding of human sexuality) and then affirm a practice that runs counter to that understanding.  This is not simply about people having different opinions.  Those who affirm what the Church says is its position (traditional/Biblical) regard as sinful what is being permitted, to be repented of, not a blessing to be celebrated.

There followed a rather good debate in the sense that it was a debate.  I heard Steven Reid and Mark Malcolm speak well in support of Jerry.  I was very sad to hear erstwhile evangelical Neil Dougall (now Convenor of the Ministries Council) oppose Jerry.  I also have to express a certain disappointment in some of what Alan Hamilton said, including that he was quite happy to envisage someone in a CP prayerfully considering God’s calling in their life.  If I had cherished sin within my heart God would not have heard my prayers, comes to mind.  In closing he said that what he and his Committee offered was new ways for new challenges in new times.

The legislation now goes down to the Presbyteries to approve.  If they approve it will come back to next year’s Assembly for final approval.  I am already hearing complaints among evangelicals who have remained within the Kirk that the fact that I and those like me have left will make victory on the floor of Presbyteries harder.  If I thought there was any mileage in winning the debate I would have remained.  It’s because I see no possibility of this legislation being rejected that I decided it was time to go.  Perhaps if those now complaining about our departure had been more vocal and supportive a few years ago we would be in a better place now.

This legislation is simply a way of giving a legal procedure for what is already the reality.  I wonder how long it will be before the revisionists try to liberalise it so that there is no need for Kirk Sessions to follow the complicated procedure.

Last Sunday I was introduced to Victor.  Victor was an elder in a Church of Scotland congregation which has a name for being evangelically minded.  Victor left the CofS late last year.  Why?  Because his minister and fellow elders refused to engage with the issue of clergy in a same sex relationship.  This was a shock to Victor.  He had assumed that his minister and fellow elders, who like him opposed the idea, would want to translate their opposition into action—some action, any action.  But no.

Victor is not the first former CofS elder to have had his eyes opened in recent months.  Another chap I met asked me back to his home so I could explain to him why his former minister—a second generation evangelical—wasn’t even willing to discuss the matter.  Again, this elder had assumed a mighty uprising of gospel preachers would take place.  Instead, he was told it was too divisive: there are more important matters with which to concern ourselves.

So for the sake of Victor and others like him, within or outwith the CofS, I offer these thoughts on why most evangelicals are not leaving the Kirk.  There may be other reasons—some honourable (a profound sense of calling to be a remnant), some not so honourable (the pay is very good).

Number One: Getting on with the job

The attitude of most evangelical ministers is that the issue of clergy in a same-sex relationship does not concern them.  Nor do they expect to be troubled by elders or members coming out of the closet.  As Czechoslovakia was to Neville Chamberlin (a country far away and of which we know little) so is the question of same sex relationships within the Church.  “It will never happen here,” and therefore let’s get on with the job of preaching the gospel.

They may well be right.  Though they ought to speak to Paul Gibson, now of Perth Free Church.  When Paul went to Tain Parish Church he was following on from a very long and faithful evangelical ministry.  Within weeks he discovered that his Session Clerk was in a homosexual relationship.  He assumed that the Kirk Session would back him when he tried to exercise discipline—it didn’t.  He assumed the Presbytery would support him when he took the matter there—it didn’t.  The advice he received was just to keep preaching the gospel.

It seems to me that at the root of this attitude is a theology of the church which is more congregational than Presbyterian.  I have heard it said in the same breath, “We like being part of the National Church but what happens in Aberdeen has nothing do with us.”  The vast majority of Church of Scotland ministers and members belong to that Church simply because it is the National Church.  If they had been born south of the border they would be Anglican; if they had been born in Sweden they’d be Lutheran; if in Italy, Roman Catholic.  In Scotland the Church of Scotland is the default church.

Very, very few of its members and ministers are Presbyterian by conviction.  Thus, the concept of connectivity which lies at the heart of Presbyterianism is by and large alien.  As long as we can do our thing in our parish then why should we leave?

Number Two: The best place to fish from

Related to Number One is Number Two, that the Church of Scotland is the best place to fish from; ie it is the best church from which to conduct mission.  Because the Kirk is the biggest denomination in Scotland, because it is the default church for Protestant Scots, it provides opportunities not afforded to other denominations.  To a certain extent this is true, particularly when it comes to funerals, though less so than in the past.  But school chaplaincies are no longer the exclusive domain of the parish minister.  Head teachers are more impressed with those who can communicate relevantly to children regardless of their denomination.  There are plenty of parish ministers who don’t get through the door of their local school.

I wonder how the average church member would react to this attitude.  Does she realize that her  minister does not regard her as a Christian but as a pagan requiring to be converted?  Are mourners attune to the nuance that the minister has not said anything about their dearly beloved departed having entered through the pearly gates?

My point is this, to remain within the Church of Scotland in the belief that it is the best place to fish from is self-deceiving.  If it is true, why, despite the increase in evangelical ministries, are there still so few evangelical congregations?  Why is Kirk membership plummeting?  Why are there so few candidates for the ministry?

Number Three: They have no-where else to go

All that said, there are evangelical ministers who are greatly distressed with the direction the Kirk is taking.  But what can they do?  Where can they go?

Those from outside the Church of Scotland need to understand that most evangelical ministers are not dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists.  Most do not hold whole-heartedly to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  They may have subscribed to it at their ordination, but most did so never having even read the Confession.  None of us ever received lessons in its theology.  We were told that the liberty of opinion clause was our “get out of jail free” card.  Most evangelical ministers in the Church of Scotland are, in practice, Arminian.  Most have ordained women to the eldership.  Most are happy to participate in ecumenical services.

Therefore, the Free Church of Scotland is not an option.  Nor is the United Free since they have too few congregations able to support a full-time ministry.  The International Presbyterian Church now has three congregations in Scotland but though Presbyterian in name, de facto they are independent.  Some have become independent and this is the route that Holyrood Abbey, St. Catherine’s, and St. James’ (Broughty Ferry) are taking for the time-being.  I truly hope they will soon return to the Presbyterian fold and join us in the Free Church.

Which draws attention to the fact that because there are so few evangelical congregations, even if a man were minded to leave the Kirk, he would be leaving to go to nothing.  Don’t under-estimate how hard that is.  Those who have done it are the bravest of the brave.

Very few of us are in the position to take a congregation with us.  In Kirkmuirhill it was half a congregation, and this was after 60 years of evangelical ministry.  Those of us in leadership there were genuinely shocked to hear members state that the reason they attend Kirkmuirhill Parish is because it is the parish church.  And I thought it was because they liked my preaching!!  This was their church and it mattered not one whit who the minister was or what s/he believed or preached.  It’s because of 60 years of Biblical ministry that half the congregation left; it’s because we were still a parish church that half the members remained.  And so far it’s only been churches with a similar history which have split.

Someone asked me if I knew of any other churches planning to split from the CofS.  After the three mentioned above, no.  That might be it.  The threat of one-third of ministers demitting was always a media myth.  I certainly never said that.  The truth is, most evangelicals will just get on with the job of preaching the gospel, hoping that the militant revisionists will leave them alone.  I wish them well.  My only question is this: if, by the grace of God, people are converted under your ministry, and you teach them that the Bible is the Word of God, our rule of faith and practice, what are you going to say to them when they start questioning you about what scripture teaches about sex and marriage?


The annual jamboree that is the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is underway.  Contrary to recent tradition, whereby years ending in an even number have been uncontroversial, this year the issue of clergy in a same sex relationship (from henceforth SSR) comes up.  The matter was supposed to be settled last year. The Assembly was presented with the option of either endorsing provisions to allow clergy in a SSR to enter their pulpits safe in the knowledge that no one would initiate disciplinary proceedings against them; or of rejecting the very idea lock, stock and barrel.  What actually happened was the biggest surprise since Ed Milliband won the Labour leadership.  Terrified that a victory for the revisionists (pro SSR) would force them to make an uncomfortable decision about their future in the CofS, some evangelicals came up with a compromise.  They claimed it was a last minute compromise, cobbled together that very morning on the train from Glasgow.  We now know that wasn’t exactly the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

The primary mover was outgoing Moderator, Albert Bogle, who presented the compromise in his usual stream of consciousness way.  Basically, he presented himself as the “weaker brother” (a la Romans 14) and begged stronger believers (ie those who have no problem with clergy in SSRs) to be patient with him and those like him.  The meat of the argument was presented by Alan Hamilton, a former advocate, and someone who, if not vocal in his opposition to SSRs, has identified with and provided succour to those who are.  Alan suggested that the Legal Questions Committee (of which he is convenor) be instructed to formulate legislation to come before the 2014 General Assembly which would satisfy everyone—to wit, that the Church would declare its adherence to the traditional Christian understanding of human sexuality (ie heterosexual) while finding a way to accommodate those in an active homosexual relationship.

Never mind that a Theological Commission had worked for two years on this project only to see their hard thinking trashed by something that was supposed to be last minute. Commissioners love putting off today what can wait till tomorrow and so grabbed this compromise with both hands.  Some evangelicals voted against it; as did some revisionists.  But as the old saying goes, they make Edinburgh rock, and Assembly fudge.

Earlier this year the Legal Questions unveiled their draft legislation.  True to their instructions, they have come up with something that says one thing but does another.  The draft Act affirms the Church’s historic belief in human sexuality.  Then swiftly moves on. 

Alan Hamilton’s evangelical finger-prints are all over this Act and he is to be commended for trying to make it as hard as possible for a congregation to have a minister in a SSR.  But one wonders if the convenor protesteth too much.  First, the decision to have a minister in a SSR can only be made during a vacancy.  Second, the decision is to be made by the Kirk Session, at two meetings, with a two-thirds majority both times.  Only then would a congregation be allowed to call a minister who is in a SSR.  Talk about hurdles. 

And that’s what makes me wonder.  If I were in the revisionist camp I would be fighting against this draft Act tooth and nail.  Why two Session meetings and not just one?  Why not a simple majority?  I’ve given up trying to predict what the Assembly will do, but I will be amazed if these draconian conditions are not challenged.  But even if they go through; even if they are passed by the Presbyteries under the Barrier Act; there is the Trojan Horse clause: that is shall be no bar to training for the ministry to be in a civil partnership.  The time will come when there will be people eligible for a call, in a SSR, who will cry foul, that they are being discriminated against.  Imagine the scenario—a Nomination Committee has identified the person they want to call; but now they learn this person is in a SSR; and their Kirk Session has never implemented the legislation.  What delays!  And what danger—another congregation, ahead of the game, could snap the candidate up. 

Who will be supporting the draft legislation?  I suspect the main supporters will be those evangelicals who want to be able to say to the rest of the evangelical world: We are in a Church that has a traditional understanding of human sexuality, so please don’t think ill of us. 

There are still evangelicals in the CofS who are thoroughly ashamed of the direction their denomination is taking and on Wednesday Jeremy Middleton, seconded by young John Kennedy, will present a motion that calls on the Church to return to her Biblical roots.  It’s a last-ditched attempt, but it has to be done if for no other reason than to demonstrate to the world at large, and the CofS in particular, that there are still evangelicals within her ranks who have not given up the fight.  I commend them to your prayers.

This time last year, my Kirk Session in Kirkmuirhill had already informed the congregation that if the revisionist argument won the day they would be recommending that we leave the Church of Scotland.  I presented the Bogle/Hamilton compromise to the elders and asked them if they thought it made any difference.  None of those who were previously minded to leave the Kirk thought that it made an iota of a difference.  Not theologically trained, but Biblically literate, they saw through the compromise, and were disgusted.  For to say that you believe one thing, yet work to allow another, is hypocrisy.  The fact is, in the Church of Scotland today, there are clergy, deacons, elders and members who are in active SSRs—some within a civil partnership, some not—and the thought of raising disciplinary proceedings against them is laughable. 

Supporters of this legislation should bear in mind that a fig leaf doesn’t cover up much.



April 21, 2014

What route will the Church of Scotland take to enable its clergy to conduct same-sex marriages?  There’s no doubt that there are ministers and deacons eager to do so; not mention those ministers and deacons already in a same-sex relationship and who wish to marry their partner.  There are clergy in civil partnerships, after all. 

 John Chalmers, the Principal Clerk, and now the Moderator Designate, has published advice on the matter, which I have had sight of.  He makes it quite clear that as things stand Church of Scotland clergy cannot solemnise a SSM.  To do so would require a decision of the General Assembly.  The General Assembly is now a month away—just enough time for SSM enthusiasts to put something together.  If they don’t do it now, they’ll have to wait a year for their next chance. 

 The Principal Clerk states that when the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 comes into force, there are two ways in which a Church of Scotland minister or deacon could become eligible to conduct a same sex marriage:

  • Route 1: The Church of Scotland could request the Scottish Ministers to prescribe it as a body whose ministers and deacons are authorised to solemnise marriage between persons of same sex, and the Scottish Ministers would have to consider whether to grant that request, or
  • Route 2: Rather than becoming a “prescribed body” under Route 1, the Church could nominate to the Registrar General individual ministers and deacons who wish to conduct same sex marriages as persons who it desires should be entitled to solemnise same sex marriages.

 Apparently, “the Scottish Government has indicated that it would not expect Route 1 to be used where a Church has celebrants who object to solemnising same sex marriage.  However, were Route 1 to be followed, so that Church of Scotland ministers and deacons generally became able to conduct same sex marriages, individual ministers and deacons would have to decide whether they wished to conduct same sex marriages and there would be a protection on grounds of conscience for those who did not wish to do so.”  

The 2014 Act states that its provisions do not impose a duty on any person who is eligible to conduct marriages between persons of the same sex actually to conduct such marriages.  Of course, no minister is obliged to marry anyone.  There are still some who will not marry couples who have been living together or who are divorcees.  Thus Progressives can push this agenda safe in the knowledge that evangelicals will not object, since no clergy can be forced to conduct a wedding—heterosexual or homosexual–contrary to conscience. 

As the Established Church, the Kirk seeks to bring the ordinances of religion to all of Scotland and to all Scots and now that the law will soon allow SSM, it would be anomalous if the Kirk excluded itself from this.  So we can fully expect moves in May to ensure that those who wish to solemnise SSM can do so.  But I can’t predict what route the Kirk will take.

Far more interesting is how the Kirk will deal with a minister who enters into a SSM. 




April 21, 2014

“So, did the liberals in the Church of Scotland think that what you were preaching was not the truth?” asked my new Free Church colleague.  It’s a question that only someone who has never debated with theological liberals could ask.  For as far as liberals are concerned there is no such thing as truth.  I mean, no such thing as religious truth.  Or better put, there is no right and wrong when it comes to matters of faith.  (They believe in truth when their kids are lying to them about who ate the last slice of cake.)

When I was in the Church of Scotland no one ever tried to stop me preaching what I preached.  No one ever condemned me for preaching penal substitution, or for asserting there is a heaven to be a won and a hell to be avoided.  I was never censured for teaching predestination.  I was never mocked for proclaiming the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of our Lord.  To be completely transparent, being minister of a large church in a small presbytery, there was never any danger of discipline for having no women elders.

But the quid pro quo for that freedom was that my liberal neighbours could expect that I would never challenge them for their universalism, or for claiming that hell was what you made of life on earth.  I could denounce in the pulpit unnamed ministers who denied the basic tenants of the faith:  I would never be so foolish as to raise a particular instance at presbytery.  That’s what being a broad church is all about.  We tolerate one another.  We’re all right. None of us is wrong. 

Friends who think differently might find this hard to believe, but it is my experience that after a hard fought debate at presbytery or the General Assembly, colleagues on the other side have approached me, put their arms around me, and said something along the lines of, “That was fun.  Isn’t it good we can disagree and still be part of the same church?”  That might well be the case when the issue is, say, a matter of administration.  But not when the Biblical truth is at stake. 

A long time ago, J. Gresham Machen identified liberal theology as non-Christian.  It is not Biblical Christianity. 


That’s why, whatever else they may pack in their suit-cases, commissioners to next month’s Church of Scotland General Assembly, can leave their Bibles at home.  Ifyou want to be sure of losing a debate, quote the Bible.  The Bible is irrelevant to the debates of a 21st century church. 

That’s not just my advice.  That’s the advice evangelical commissioners are being given as they prepare for the next instalment in the great gay clergy debate.  Rather than mustering scriptural texts with which to justify their stand, they should scour their ministries for stories of men and women of homosexual orientation who remain celibate.  After all, that’s how the liberals argue—tales that warm the heart and melt stony opposition. 

The time came for me when working for and representing an institution that said one thing but practiced another became intolerable.  I could no longer be part of a church in which authority, power and influence is held by men and women for whom the Bible is merely a starting point, never the finishing point.  As to why so many of my evangelical colleagues can remain in the Church of Scotland, that’s another blog.

April 19, 2014


Our God and our Father, we praise you for the empty tomb.

The man-made seal is broken; the stone is rolled away,

and the entrance is wide-open for all to see in:

He is not here, he has risen. 

Jesus is risen, just as he said.  Risen in power, risen in glory;

risen to reign; risen to save his people.

We thank you heavenly Father for the empty tomb,

And for the grave clothes so neatly laid aside.

Our Lord had no need of them.  They are surplus to requirements.

We thank you for the witness of the disciples who proclaimed,

We have seen the Lord.  Their message turned the world up-side down.

Because of the empty tomb we know that sins can be forgiven.

Because of the empty tomb we know that the burden of guilt can be lifted.

Love’s redeeming work is done.

Death no longer holds any terror for us: Where O death is your sting?

Death’s sting is drawn; its vice-like grip on us has been loosened and we are free.

Dear Lord, because of the empty tomb we want to be done with the old way of life,

lived in the gloom and the shadows.

We want to be done with sin and shame.

A light bursts forth from the tomb, joyful and liberating.

We want to live in the power of that light,

The light of Christ; the light that is Christ.

He is our King, he is our Head

Made like him, like him we rise,

So that if following him leads to a cross and a grave

we know that it also leads to the skies, to heaven, for Christ has opened paradise.

Stand up straight

April 8, 2014

Whenever we are counselling someone who admits to feelings of dissatisfaction in their Christian walk or to a drifting away from the faith one of the first questions we ask is about their habits of Bible reading and prayer.  Eugine Peterson says that he asks people about their prayer life for the same reason a therapist asks about their sex life—to get an insight into how they handle relationships.

Anyway, I was having such a conversation, and the person concerned admitted that the habit of daily Bible reading had been lost.  “After all, I know it all anyway.”  I wonder if your reaction is the same as mine.  My jaw hit the floor.  What an attitude.  What arrogance.  And I said so.  “But you must find the same,” was the reply; the assumption being that as a professional Bible student I must be so familiar with scripture that I hardly need look at it.  Nothing could be further from the truth and my preparation for last night’s Bible study is a case in point.

We’re going through Luke’s Gospel and have reached the story of the woman crippled for eighteen years (13:10-17).  I have several commentaries on Luke and read through them, though by and large they say the same.  Eighteen years represents a long time, yet this is no bar to Jesus’ power.  The healing is done on the Sabbath and the criticism of the synagogue ruler reveals the hypocrisy of our Lord’s opponents.  There’s also the element of “bound by Satan”.

JC Ryle takes the opportunity to praise the woman for being in the synagogue despite her condition.  There are many able-bodied people who use less to excuse their absence from worship.

I was familiar with all that I was reading until I picked up a new acquisition, the commentary by David Gooding, professor emeritus of Old Testament Greek at Queen’s University. Belfast.  Prof. Gooding makes a point that none of the other commentators I have read make.  Rather than speculate as to her exact medical condition he says “it had certainly robbed her of a significant part of her human dignity; she was permanently bent over and unable to straighten herself up.”  He goes on to say that standing erect “is something distinctively human, an appropriate physical expression of man’s moral, spiritual and official dignity as God’s viceroy.”

Likewise, to be bent double speaks of the burden-bearer, of slavery under a yoke.  Thus, her condition “becomes a natural and vivid metaphor for the effects of oppression and slavery.”

Our Lord declares her bondage to be induced by Satan “whose malevolence has always from the very beginning to rob man of his dominion and dignity and degrade him into a slave.”

Illness and disease as a metaphor for sin is a familiar one.  Blindness, deafness, paralysis, and ultimately death, speak to us of our spiritual condition without the power of the Holy Spirit: blind to the beauty of Christ, deaf to his call, unable to respond, dead in our trespasses and sins.  But I had never thought of this woman’s crippling state in the same light.

Gooding refers to Lev.26:13 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.”

This is what the Lord Jesus does for us.  He restores our humanity, our dignity as those created in God’s image.  Rather than looking down, he enables us to look up.  And our response, like the woman, should be to praise God.

A mistake

April 7, 2014

Walking back to my car having been rummaging around a couple of charity shops for books (you never know what you might find) I spotted a wayside pulpit.  The verse was Isaiah 53:5 and was in the shape of a cross—that’s why I noticed it.  I felt obliged to read it, just as I feel obliged to take a tract from anyone who hands me one—it’s what I’d want them to do for me if I were in their shoes.  Anyway, in order to encourage the poster I read it.  And was taken aback.  For instead of “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” it read “he was hurt for our mistakes.”  Our mistakes!

Is this dumbing down or is this making scripture more comprehensible to the lay-person, particularly the biblically illiterate lay-person?

You’ll not be surprised to learn that I am not a “dumbing down” sort of person.  I particularly hate this in the re-writing of well-known hymns.  This past Sunday, actually, some of us had a discussion about which version of “And can it be” to use.  For some strange reason the compliers of the Praise hymn book (a hymn book aimed at some of the most theologically literate congregations in the country) chose to re-write some of the lines.

Second verse:

What mystery here, the Immortal dies, who can explore his strange design?

In vain the highest angel tries to sound the depths of love divine?

 What is wrong with, Tis mystery all; and the first born seraph?

Credit where credit is due, though.  We’ve to thank the Praise compliers for scratching the questionable emptied himself of all but love, and allowing us to sing humbled himself in all his love.  But this is a theological decision.  Why Thine be the glory has to be changed to Glory to Jesus, is beyond me.  Schools don’t present their pupils with re-writes of Shakespeare or Burns.  The kids learn the meaning and are the better for it.  Worship leaders (ie the minister) should take a moment to explain an obscure phrase or allusion in a hymn.

 Likewise, preachers are always being told to avoid jargon in our sermons.  “Don’t talk about justification, sanctification, or the parousia.”   Let me confess—I do talk about justification, sanctification and the parousia; and I use the words too.  So I explain them.  I illustrate them.  People aren’t idiots and they like to be treated as intelligent, sentient beings.  And, they are Biblical words; words that any serious student of the Bible is bound to come across.

So back to “he was hurt for mistakes.” I tried to discover which translation this came from.  Obviously, my knee-jerk assumption was the Good News Bible or the Living Bible or even the Message.  I apologise. They are not guilty.

Guilty of what?  Guilty of more than just dumbing down.  Guilty of misleading.  The Hebrew words mean he was wounded or pierced, not just hurt.  You can be hurt with words; a slap on the wrist can hurt you.  Our Lord Jesus was more than hurt.  Sticks were used to beat him; thorns were twisted into a crown and forced upon his head; he was whipped within an inch of his life.  Pierced perfectly describes his crucifixion (nails through wrists and feet) and the soldier thrusting his javelin through our Lord’s side to ensure he was dead.  That’s a more than being hurt.

Our Lord suffered all this for our transgressions.  The root Hebrew word means “rebellion”.  Various translations say “transgressions” (the idea of going beyond a fixed limit), “iniquities” (contravening justice), “sins”, “wrong-doing”, “rebellion”.  All these convey the idea without dumbing down what Isaiah means.  Even the Good News version is good “because of the evil we did.”  I can’t find the translation that says “mistakes”.  I hope that’s because it is an obscure one.

What’s the problem?  The problem is that the idea of a mistake is morally neutral.  One can make a mistake in good faith.  You can’t sin or rebel in good faith.  So, what does the uninformed reader of that way-side pulpit conclude about the death of our Lord Jesus?

Does he conclude that Jesus’ death was a mistake?  An innocent person was executed by mistake?  And somehow I am implicated in that mistake?  How?

Or, because of a well-spent childhood, does he know that Christians believe Jesus died for our sins, and conclude that his sins are simply errors of judgement—he should have known his wife would have found about the affair sooner or later?  The ultimate sin: to be found out.

To err is human.  I made a mistake; so what, I’m only human.

I fear that whoever thought that this translation of Isaiah’s great exposure of human culpability would be helpful was mistaken.  It deprives sin of its core meaning, that it is rebellion against our Sovereign God, our declaration of independence from our Creator.  That sin is a mistake is undoubted.  But that it is only a mistake is to underestimate its seriousness.  After all, it was because of our sins and in order to deal with our sins, that Christ died.