Answering questions

April 28, 2009

Dear Reader, I want to apologise that I am not in a postion to answer specific questions at the moment.  I do welcome constructive criticism and am happy to allow other points of view as long as they are reasonable.  I direct you to the web site of Kirkmuirhill Church where I have placed a talk I gave on Saturday to the FT AGM.  It’s entitled “The Bible and Sex”.  It states clearly what I believe to be the Bible’s teaching on the subject.  It’s not exhaustive but I hope it’s enough for the time being.

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More links

April 26, 2009

A couple more links for you.  The first is a link to an interview on Radio Scotland this morning with Muriel Armstrong.  The interviewer is Sally Magnuson, one of our foremost broadcasters.  The second is to today’s Sunday Times. 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00k172g/Sally_on_Sunday_Series_6_Episode_4/

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article6169135.ece

Today’s Sunday Times

April 26, 2009

From today’s Sunday Times.  This seems to be a bit more favourable to us in that they actually spoke to four evangelicals!  Alot of the facts are wrong – especially in the potted history of the Church of Scotland at the end. 

 

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article6169135.ece

Sermon 1

 

INTRODUCTION

From time to time people ask me how I decide what to preach.  Journalists and social commentators obviously take their cue from what’s going on in the news.  Is it the same for ministers?

 

I hope you know by now that I’m not the kind of minister who scours the newspapers looking for sermon themes.  I do keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the world but I do so in order to illustrate the Word of God.  The times may change, the landscape may change; but people and their problems, people and their needs are the same now as they were a hundred, a thousand, years ago.  The Bible is about real people living real lives; and God’s Word is as relevant now as it was for them.

 

So, no; I don’t look to the newspapers to tell me what to preach.  By and large I take a book of the Bible and work through it verse by verse, chapter by chapter.   That way I know exactly what I am to preach week by week.  Whatever theme presents itself is what I preach.  It saves me wracking my brains, searching for a suitable to text to match the week’s headlines. 

 

It also prevents me from returning to my favourite themes, those subjects with which I feel safe and comfortable.  It saves you from having to listen to me banging on about my pet obsessions. 

 

If I did that; if I stuck to my pet obsessions, what would they be?  Well, it wouldn’t be much different from what I preached when we were going through John’s Gospel.  I love preaching about the Lord Jesus.  I enjoy the challenge of proving from the Bible that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was none other than the True and Living God. 

 

I really enjoy making the connections between the Old and New Testaments; how unless we understand the Jewish sacrificial system we’ll never fully appreciate how Jesus is the Lamb of the God who takes away the sins of the world; how the prophets predicted Christ’s birth, his life, his death and resurrection hundreds of years before he was born.

 

Most of all my whole purpose in life, the force behind my call to the ministry, is to preach Jesus as Lord and Saviour.  The epitaph on my grave should quote Charles Wesley’s great hymn:

tis all my business here below/to cry “Behold the Lamb.”

 

Pointing sinners to Christ as the only Savour; encouraging down-hearted saints to look to Jesus as the captain of their salvation.  That’s what I’m about.  That’s why exist.

 

So, having completed our studies in John’s Gospel; and Easter now being past; what am I going to preach?  What do I believe we as a congregation of God’s people need hear?

 

Let me tell you in all honesty: I would like to be preaching more about Jesus.  Ideally, I could just go back to the beginning of John’s Gospel and start all over again—and do it right this time.

 

Like Jude I am eager to speak to you about the salvation we share (v.3).  I want to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ; I want to commend him to those of you who don’t know him; and those of you who do, I want you to get to know him better.

 

I want to preach his incarnation:

our God contracted to a span/incomprehensibly made man

 

I want to preach his love and compassion for the weak and marginalised of his day.

 

I want to preach his death on the cross; an atoning death, a death that reconciles sinful men and women with the God they have offended and provoked.

 

I want to preach his resurrection:

up from the grave he arose/with a mighty triumph o’er his foes.

 

I want to preach the hope of his coming again, to judge the quick and the dead.

 

I assure you, these are the themes I’d rather be addressing today.  But like Jude I can’t.  For like Jude I feel compelled to preach about a particular situation that faces the Church today; a situation which has been in the news; and which I myself am heavily involved in. 

 

We know almost nothing about the church Jude was writing to—where it was located, whether the congregation was predominantly Jewish or Gentile.  We don’t even know when he wrote his letter.

 

What we do know is that Jude was concerned about them for they had been infiltrated by certain “godless” men who were in danger of destroying the faith of the believers.  And not by teaching false doctrine, in the sense that they were questioning the existence of God, or denying Christ’s virgin birth.  In fact, as we’ll see later, they were adept at using the teachings of the apostles to support their cause.  In modern terms, they weren’t rejecting the Bible.  That wasn’t the problem.

 

The problem was first and foremost one of morality, one of lifestyle.  As v.4 says:

They are godless men who change the grace of God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.

 

The problem was immorality—sexual immorality.  Jude was fighting truth decay; the teaching that how you live your life is irrelevant to your relationship with God. 

 

This is what was causing Jude concern; and as a result he wrote a letter he didn’t really want to write.  Just as I am going to be preaching some sermons I don’t really want to be preaching.  But the day requires it. 

 

I think I owe it to you as my congregation to explain why it is that in the past week I have been interviewed by some of the national newspapers.  One of them even printed an old photograph—I have no idea where they got it.  I want to assure you that this isn’t something I have sought; but nor is it something I’m going to run away from.  I’ve always taken the view that if no one else is saying what I want to say or saying what I want to hear, there’s no use complaining about it: I should say it. 

 

So for the first time in my career as a minister I am led to base what I preach on what is going on in the newspapers.  And just in case any of you think I’m going to give an analysis of Alistair Darling’s budget, or enter the debate on policing tactics—that’s not what I’m talking about. 

 

CONTEXT

Let me briefly tell you what’s been going on.

 

In December last year Rev. Scott Rennie, the minister of Brechin Cathedral, was called to be minister of Queen’s Cross Church, Aberdeen.  Scott is a divorcee, and has a young daughter.  In a spirit of openness (which is commendable) Scott informed the congregation that if they elected him their minister he would be living in the manse with his male partner.  They accepted this.

 

As far as we know, this is the first time an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland has been open about the fact that he is engaged in a homosexual relationship.  As far as we know it’s the first time a minister has been open about wanting to share the manse with his homosexual partner.

 

The law of the Church requires that a minister’s call be ratified by the Presbytery.  It’s part of what being Presbyterian is about.  We are not Congregationalists, who stand independent.  Presbyterianism is about being mutually accountable to one another.  Normally, this ratification is a simple matter and is done by a Committee of Presbytery.

 

Unusually, the relevant committee of Aberdeen Presbytery decided to take the matter to a special meeting of the whole Presbytery.  This in itself suggests that they had an inkling that the call was bound to be controversial.  This was on 6th January. 

 

In the end, the Presbytery of Aberdeen voted to sustain Mr. Rennie’s call, and by a large majority.  However, a small number of them appealed the decision.  They believed the Presbytery had made a mistake and as is their right they wanted the mattered heard by a higher court.  A minster promises to live a godly and circumspect life and their argument is that the homosexual lifestyle is in breach of that promise.  We’ll look at what the Bible says about homosexuality another time.   

 

It’s interesting how these dissenters have been vilified as a small group who are out of step with the majority.  They should just toe the line, we’re told.

 

Yet Aberdeen Presbytery itself is in a minority.  They are one of only nine presbyteries that voted to allow the blessing of civil partnerships.  Thirty-six presbyteries voted against that proposal.  Aberdeen Presbytery is the one that is out of step with the vast majority of other Presbyteries.

 

There was some press interest at the time, but it quickly died down.  Then in March Mr. Rennie’s case was brought to the Commission of Assembly.  This is the body that acts on behalf of the General Assembly during the rest of the year, and is about a tenth of the size of the full Assembly.  Having heard the arguments, the Commission decided, by just one vote, that the issues involved were far too important to be dealt with by such a small group of people.  Whatever way the case was decided would create a precedent for the whole Church and therefore it ought to be heard by the whole Assembly in May. 

Again, there was a flurry of press interest, and again things died down.  Until this week when ministers received their advance copies of “Life and Work”, the Church of Scotland magazine.   The editor, Muriel Armstrong, has written a piece strongly supporting Mr. Rennie, and calling on the “dissenters” to agree to differ. 

 

In manses all over Scotland there were howls of protest.  We expect “Life and Work” to be balanced and unbiased in Church debates.   Not only was Ms Armstrong’s piece biased, she mocked the position of those who take the Bible seriously, accusing us of basing our arguments on a few verses in Leviticus.  If we’re being consistent why don’t we stone adulterers and practice polygamy, she asks.  I wonder if she has ever read the book of Leviticus. 

 

The press got hold of the piece and so the headlines appeared giving the impression that the Church was backing Mr Rennie.  That’s when I had to redress the balance.  Speaking on behalf of Forward Together I pointed out to the members of the press that far from basing our arguments on a few Old Testament texts, we respect the whole of Scripture; and that whenever the subject is addressed in the Bible, homosexual practice is named as sinful. 

 

Thus, this is not just about not liking how someone lives their life.  It’s a Gospel issue.  Sin is what alienates us from God: all sin, any sin.  This is why Jude wrote his letter.  The behaviour of those who had ingratiated their way into that congregation would ultimately lead to their condemnation.   They were in danger of coming under the same judgement as those Israelites who rebelled against Moses in the wilderness; the same judgement as befell the fallen angels; the same judgement suffered by Sodom and Gomorrah. 

 

That’s what’s at stake.  These godless men Jude writes about were trying to sanctify sin.  That’s exactly what is happening in the Church today.  And I, along with many other pastors, will not idly sit by and let this happen.  Remember Edmund Burke’s famous dictum:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

 

Doing nothing is not an option.   We must let the world know that despite what they may think, we march to the beat of a different drummer.  Jesus Christ is our only Sovereign and Lord.  We must let the worldwide Church  know that despite appearances, there are still many within the Church of Scotland who are willing to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For remember, our brothers and sisters throughout Africa, Asia and South America are horrified that we’re even having this debate. 

 

And we must assure the members of our dear Church of Scotland, baffled and confused, that the battle is not lost, that there are those willing to give voice to their concerns. 

 

That, then, is the context of the current debate.  Over the next month, in the run up to the Assembly, we expect things to heat up.  I can tell you that the Presbytery of Lochcarron and Skype has lodged an Overture to be debated at the Assembly.  They are asking the Assembly to make a decision on the principle of the matter, rather than on an individual case, which is so personal.

 

In summary they are saying that the time for debate is over, and that there must be consistent practice among Presbyteries throughout the land.   So they are asking the Assembly to say that the “Church shall not accept for training, ordain, admit, re-admit, induct or introduce to any ministry of the Church anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of faithful marriage between a man and a woman”.  That’s any sexual relationship outside of marriage—heterosexual as well as homosexual. 

 

They are drawing a clear line in the sand.

 

TEXT

Now I am under no illusion that by engaging in this debate—this battle—I am laying myself open not only to criticism but also to spiritual attack.  I’m well aware that if I try to do this in my own strength I’ll soon fall prey to one of Satan’s traps.  The Lord is our only strength, our only shield, our only help.

 

And therefore what Jude says at the very beginning of his letter is immensely helpful.  He is writing to those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father, and kept by Jesus Christ.

 

It’s so important to know who were are as Christians.  A Christian is someone who has been called by God, who is loved by God, who is kept by the Lord Jesus Christ.  That takes everything out of my hands—my salvation, my safety, my future—and places all of it in God’s hands. 

 

First, a Christian is someone who has been called by God to himself.  Philosophers and theologians like to talk about man’s search for God.  CS Lewis, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, says that is a ridiculous idea.  Talking about his own conversion he says, they might as well talk about the mouse’s search for a cat…God closed in on me. 

 

Earlier we read from Isaiah 42, where the prophet speaks tenderly to God’s people. 

v.6 I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. 

 

The father takes hold of the child’s hand; and will not let go, even when the child struggles.  For the father knows the way; and he knows what dangers lie ahead too. 

 

God has chosen us to be his people; we didn’t choose him to be our God.  Unlike us, God isn’t fickle.  He doesn’t change his mind.  The call of God is an anchor so that when the waves of doubt come crashing over us we know our relationship with him is secure.

 

Second, a Christian is someone who is loved by God the Father.  Better, loved in God the Father.  Of course we are loved by God.  But to be loved in God speaks of intimacy. 

 

Sometimes when we are speaking about our conversion to Christ we’ll talk about “asking Jesus into my heart or into my life.”  Curiously, the Bible very seldom speaks about Jesus being in us.  Far more often it speaks of us being “in Christ.”  Our location, our spiritual location, is in Christ. 

 

Think of a family, a good family.  Without question we are loved by the other members of our family.  But we are also loved in the family; loved not for what we’ve done or achieved, but simply because that’s where we belong.  The family rallies round us in times of trouble.  They also keep us in our place when they think we’re getting too big for our boots.  We are enfolded within this family.  Again, there is that sense of safety and security.

 

The Christian is loved in God.  Loved, not from a distance; not theoretically, in the sense that we might say to the children, God loves everyone.  But loved as a chosen child of God who belongs in his family.

 

And thirdly a Christian is someone who is kept by Jesus Christ or (as the footnote states) kept for Jesus Christ.

 

The Christian is a kept man, a kept woman.  But not in the sense that we live the life of Reilly at someone else’s expense.  Once again the idea is one of safety and protection.  In the Garden of Gethsemane the Lord Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father (John 17:11):

Holy Father, protect them/keep them by the power of your name

 

The Apostle Peter says much the same.  At the beginning of his first letter he talks about our inheritance in heaven being kept safe for us; it will never perish, spoil or fade.  But similarly, we are being kept safe for the inheritance (1Pet 1?5):

who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

 

Like the father of the bride, who is expected to deliver his daughter safe and sound to her future husband, God the Father is keeping his Church safe for her bridegroom, the Lord Jesus himself .  The promise spoken to God’s ancient people holds good for us too (Isa.42:6):

I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.

 

We wonder if we will ever withstand this onslaught against the Church of Jesus Christ; doubly dangerous because it comes from within rather than from external forces.  Jude assures us that we are called, loved and kept: a three-fold cord that cannot be broken.  

 

So we need not fear our weakness; we need not fear being mocked by the world or reviled by others within the Church.   We are in the Father’s grip and he will never let us go.

 

CONCLUSION

Strangely, then, having expressed my frustrations at the start of the sermon of not being able to preach what I really want to preach; I actually find myself declaring the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ after all.  

 

For these assurances are not just applicable to ministers who find themselves in the thick of ecclesiastical battles.  They are for every struggling child of God.  

 

How firm a foundation you saints of the Lord/is laid for your faith in his excellent word

What more can he say than to you he has said/to all who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

In every condition—in sickness and health/in poverty’s grip or abounding in wealth…

When through the deep waters he calls you to go…

When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie…

The soul that in Jesus has found its repose/he will not, he cannot desert to its foes

that soul though all hell should endeavour to shake

he’ll never, no never, no never forsake.   

 

Redressing the balance

April 22, 2009

This is from today’s Times.  The story also continues in the Herald and the Daily Mail.  There’s an old photo of me in the Daily Mirror!  I don’t recognize it.  The kids wonder if they got it from mum.  The reports are generally fine, though the Daily Mirror thinks that if Mr Rennie loses, it will be the first time a Church of Scotland minister will have lost his job because of his life-style.  It may seem like that, but that’s not true. 

 

I’ve found out that Murial Armstrong retires as editor next week.  So this is her parting shot to the Church. 

Evangelicals fights back in row over gay clergy

The appointment of Rev Scott Rennie has provoked fierce debate in the Kirk

 

The dispute over homosexual relationships and clergy threatening schism in the Church of Scotland worsened yesterday with the evangelical wing of the Kirk accusing its house magazine of an ignorant attack which mocked their faith.

The Rev Ian Watson, of the Forward Together group, said he was deeply offended by the leading article in the latest issue of Life And Work which supported the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister, to a church in Aberdeen.

He added that Muriel Armstrong, the magazine’s editor, had deliberately misrepresented the debate, made prejudicial comment on church court matters which were sub judice and failed to provide balanced coverage of “a decisive issue” for the Church.

Mr Watson said that he was outraged by Ms Armstrong’s suggestion that traditionalists only selectively quoted Biblical law, specifically “anti-homosexual laws in the Book of Leviticus”.

“We respect the whole of scripture, there are Old Testament and New Testament texts which are hostile to homosexual practice. She [Ms Armstrong] has not just been unbalanced, she has mocked the evangelical position,” Mr Watson added.

Ms Armstrong – who is set to retire from her post – called for Mr Watson to join with her in a broad church. “It is a shame to talk of schism. One of the great strengths of the Church of Scotland is that it is a broad church and that we can have different points of view,” she said.

Senior figures in the Kirk fear that the issues of civil partnerships and gay ministers, could prove as damaging to the Presbyterian ministry as the row which almost caused schism in the Church of England at last year’s Lambeth Conference.

The row over homosexuality in the Kirk has festered since the appointment of Mr Rennie to Queen’s Cross Church in January. Mr Rennie, a divorced father of one, lives with his male partner. His appointment was challenged by a minority in the local presbytery who took the matter to a Kirk commission which referred the matter to the annual General Assembly in Edinburgh for a decision.

Both sides in the debate see next month’s debate as decisive, with liberals determined to defeat traditionalists, forcing them to accept the will of the Church or quit. Even Ms Armstrong’s supporters admit she deliberately intended to influence the debate, while her critics accused her of interfering in the “due process” of Kirk administration.

Ms Armstrong said that traditionalists in the Kirk had over-ridden established practice. “Queen’s Cross Church called Scott Rennie by a substantial majority and the Presbytery of Aberdeen sustained that call. A group of people chose to challenge that,” she added.

The Forward Together group is confident that it represents the majority view. Its supporters are expected to submit a motion to the General Assembly, which will seek to establish the centrality of heterosexual marriage within the Kirk.

“I am confident that if Presbyterians are allowed to debate the issue they will endorse the traditional Christian values of sexual faithfulness within marriage and abstinence outside marriage,” Mr Watson said.

“I believe homosexual practice is a sin and will keep you out of heaven, just as adultery is a sin. For me it is a Gospel issue. It’s like playing football and picking up the ball and running. It’s not the same game. That’s how I see it and that’s how the vast majority of Christians see it.”

He added that if the Kirk accepted practising homosexuals, it would be out of step with the World Church.

From the BBC

April 21, 2009

Just one more news link for you before we call it a day.  This time from the BBC.  This is the first time I am aware of them showing an interest in the story.  It’s the Life and Work article that is making the news.  The interesting thing about this story is that we get a quote from the our “sexuality” man, Peter Donaldson, who says that the Church is not ready to endorse gay relationships. 

< http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/1/hi/uk/8010975.stm >

This article appears in today’s Times.  It’s about the editorial in this month’s Life and Work, the editorially independent magazine of the Church of Scotland.  The editor, Murial Armstrong, is well known for her “progressive” views.  It gives the impression that the official view of the Church is pro gay ordination.

I have spoken to the Times and given a different slant on things.  I’ll post the response tomorrow if it’s published. 

Here’s where you can find today’s article:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article6136167.ece