ROUTE 1 OR 2

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. 

 

 

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WHAT IS TRUTH?

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. 

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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

EASTER PRAYER OF PRAISE

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.

The Watchman

April 2, 2014

Dear Readers, It’s been a while.  Last year has been an exceptional one for me, my family, my congregation.  But things are beginning to settle down. I am now a fully fledged minister in the Free Church of Scotland.  I am pastoring the congregation of Hope Church (Blackwood and Kirkmuirhill) a congregation associated with the Free Church.  In due course we hope to gain full status.  You should check out our website.  

I am of a mind to start blogging again.  Keeping me back is (a) a lack of time (b) the lack of something worth saying and (c) the fact that there are other bloggers saying what I want to say better than I can say it.  However, we’ll give it a stab and if no one bites the cherry I’ll just put it back in the fruit bowl.  

The first thing I am posting is a short explanation for why some of us have left the Church of Scotland.  This is something I said to my new congregation on 2nd March.  

 

THE WATCHMAN
The story of how we got here is a long and difficult one and will be told at a later date. Suffice it to say it’s never easy when a church divides and there are a lot of hurts on both sides. And because the Bible places a great deal of emphasis on Christian unity the burden lies with us who have left to form a new church to justify our actions. That can’t be done in the space of 5 minutes. All I can do today is make a tentative start. Let me read to you from Ezekiel 33:1-9.

Ezekiel was the prophet to those Israelites who were in exile in Babylon. Part of his ministry was to help these people understand how it was they had ended up defeated by this pagan power; and to bring them hope for the future. In chapter 33 he tells them a parable, a parable of a watchman chosen by his fellow citizens to keep an eye open for the enemy. Obviously he had to have a good eye; but more than that he had to be trustworthy, someone who wouldn’t fall asleep on the job, someone who couldn’t be bribed to betray his neighbours. They needed to know that they could carry on with their every day business, safe in the knowledge that if an enemy approached the watchman could be trusted to give them plenty of warning—enough time for the women and children to be led to safety, enough time for a defence force to be mustered.

Ezekiel says that if the watchman does his job, blowing his trumpet at the first sign of danger, but his fellow towns-folk fail to heed the warning, then they only have themselves to blame if they are over-run by the enemy. However, if the watchman fails in his duty, fails to sound the trumpet, then the blood of his neighbours is on his hands. The Lord God says to Ezekiel: Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.

Friends, in August 2003 I was chosen by the members of Kirkmuirhill Parish Church to be their minister, a calling I hope I have fulfilled diligently. I believe I was called here because the church members recognized in me someone who would preach the whole counsel of God to them in a plain and straightforward manner. Certainly, that is what I have done these past ten and a half years. I have been in the watch-tower, with a vantage point that most church members do not have. During my 16 years of ordained ministry I have been very involved in the life of the Church of Scotland. I have served on the Legal Questions Committee and on the Committee to elect the Moderator; I was depute presbytery clerk for 5 years. I was very involved with Forward Together, the evangelical grouping, and spent an immense amount of time and effort trying to call the Kirk back to its Biblical roots.

From my vantage point I have been able to see danger approaching—the danger of the Church of Scotland adopting a stance on a variety of issues that is at variance with what the Bible teaches. For 15 years I had been warming up the trumpet. Last May it became apparent to me, and to others, that the time had come to blow that trumpet loud and clear. To change the metaphor, as a shepherd, as a pastor, I want to protect my flock from the danger of falling prey to wolves. Along with the elders, I called the congregation to follow me out of the Church of Scotland, before it was too late.

Those of you who are here today have heeded that warning. Those we have left behind believe that we are exaggerating the danger, or that no danger exists. They are now responsible for their own future. However, I believe that time will show that what we are doing is God-honouring and Biblically warranted. The Apostle Paul asked the Corinthians: if the trumpet does not give a clear call, who will get ready for battle? (1Cor.14:8)

A clear call has been issued—may the Living God bless us as we seek to be faithful to him and his word.