The Crisis in the Church of Scotland
Long-time readers of this magazine1 will have noticed that comment on church conditions in Scotland is almost non-existent in these columns. One reason for that has been the complexity of the situation. It is far easier to see the providence of God in events that happened many years ago than it is to understand our own times. Another factor contributing to our silence has been the involvement of denominational differences in the interpretation of the existing situation. Unlike some parts of the world, the dividing lines between denominations remain marked, even between those who come under the heading of ‘Presbyterian’. There are at present about six separate Presbyterian denominations in Scotland – the Church of Scotland being by far the largest – and the comings and goings of ministers or people between them is usually small. Loyalty to one’s ‘Church’ has been a more potent influence than any over-riding evangelical unity. A seeming permanency has characterised most of the denominational groupings.
But events are now occurring which may change this situation. For one thing, a national spiritual decline is compelling attention to fundamental questions. The day has gone when a Scot was likely to be an honest, hard-working, religious man. The characterisation of present-day Scotland, given in Patrick Johnson’s valuable book Operation World, is severe but painfully close to the truth. Our era is one of closed churches and moral degeneration. As in Malachi’s day, it is a situation which calls for a drawing together of those who fear God: ‘Then they that feared the Lord spoke often one to another’ (Mal. 3:16). Dark times direct Christians to return to greater brotherly love and to a right order of priorities. ‘I am first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist’, said John Duncan; with ‘a Presbyterian’ fifth on his list. An unbiblical ordering of priorities has been one cause of the existing spiritual weakness.
This month’s (May 2011) decision in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland comes as another indication of change in the church scene. Two years ago the Aberdeen presbytery of the Church of Scotland upheld the appointment of the Rev. Scott Rennie, a divorced father-of-one, and a homosexual with a male partner, to a church in that city. The appeal of a minority in that presbytery led to no suspension of Rennie by the General Assembly, but instead the imposition of a ‘moratorium’, supposedly prohibiting debate on the homosexual issue for a two-year period. The two years having now expired, at this year’s Assembly, convened on May 23, the issue came forward for settlement. As most readers will know, in a vote of 351 to 294, it was determined that no action be taken against ministers who were in ‘same-sex’ relationships before May 31, 2009, thus including not only Rennie but an unknown additional number (perhaps forty, according to the estimate of one Church official). But to modify disquiet, a ‘theological commission’ was appointed to consider whether the homosexual or lesbian lifestyle be allowed in the case of future candidates for the ministry. This commission is to report back in another two years and in the meantime a ‘moratorium’ of silence is again imposed. (Why such a commission was needed, given that the Assembly has already found no bar to the ministry of such persons, was not explained. As one Church official has said, the decision already made is ‘irrevocable’.)
To our mind this event highlights certain vital truths:
1. The overruling hand of God is in all things. Evil does not overthrow his sovereignty, but he controls it without in any way being a partaker in it. Scripture teaches plainly that God is not a passive onlooker where homosexual behaviour is followed (Rom. 1:28). The May 31 decision was a judgment of God.
2. The real issue between the so-called ‘progressive’ majority and the ‘traditionalists,’ is not about homosexuality but about the gospel itself. Christ met the power of Satanic temptations by the authority of Old Testament Scripture, of which he asserts, ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’ (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; John 10:35). Now the whole Bible is unmistakably definite that sexual relationships belong to the union of male and female. An attempt to argue that a person can be a disciple of Christ and be in a homosexual relationship is an attack on Christ himself. As Samuel Rutherford once pointed out, when the risen Christ could have rebuked his disciples for not believing his word, he charged them with not believing what was in the five books of Moses (Luke 24:25-27): ‘The reason of this is to teach us that Christ and the Scriptures they have but one tongue, and they who believe not the Scriptures they believe not Christ.’2 It is those same books of Moses that teach, ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination’ (Lev. 18:22; 20:13).3 Divine authority belongs to all Scripture: ‘He that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error’ (1 John 4:6).
When homosexual practice is debated with those who own no allegiance to Christ, it is legitimate to argue that the practice is against nature, the human body being designed for no other union than that between male and female. But for a General Assembly to take a decision that is patently contrary both to nature and to Christ – to treat as innocence a practice of which ‘it is a shame even to speak’ – is an appalling thing.
3. If the homosexual issue is treated in isolation, as though it is a distinct problem, it is possible for some Christians to be confused as to its seriousness. The ‘progressive’ opinion of the day is that people are born with differences in their sexuality, and that homosexuals have the same right to equal acceptance as anyone else. To deny that, it is said, is to be a promoter of intolerance and a denier of love. But it is not the equality of persons that is being denied, it is the equality of lifestyles. We are all born sinners. In some there may be particular disorders in their make-up which make them more susceptible to homosexual temptation. But the same answer to temptation is offered to all in the gospel, and on the same terms, namely, ‘Repent and be converted.’ The verdict of the General Assembly is that homosexual practice is not a sin and has no need of repentance. Worse still, it is appointing men (and women) to ‘preach the gospel’ who ‘declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not’ (Isa. 3:9). This is not love to the needy but the very opposite. It is speaking ‘peace’ when there is not peace. It is shutting the kingdom of God against those who need to enter. It is the church misdirecting the way to heaven. ‘He that saith unto the wicked, Thou art righteous; him shall the people curse, nations shall abhor him’ (Prov. 24:24).
4. The response needed to this misrule in the Church of Scotland is not a one-by-one secession of individual ministers, but combined action on the part of faithful men.4 For only such action would be likely to achieve the support of numbers of people within congregations. At present those in the pews are by no means prepared for a disruption of the denomination, in part because no ground work has been done in preparation for such an event. ‘Staying put’ has long been treated by evangelicals as loyalty ‘to the Kirk’, and that outlook cannot be changed overnight. Clear teaching, along with a bold defiance of the abuse of authority, will be needed if a movement of any strength is going to succeed. The great need is not for a realignment of denominations but for a spiritual awakening – a work of conversion and a recovery of the power of godliness. To make that the need is not an alternative to present action, but it is to believe that without a return to God and his Word all hopes of better days will be vain.
Faithful evangelical ministers, who bear heavy responsibilities in the Church of Scotland, need the prayer and sympathy of Christians everywhere. The issues are as serious as at the time of the Reformation and are closely similar, namely abuse of church authority and opposition to the gospel itself. May God grant the faith that in times past has subdued kingdoms! ‘It is time for thee, Lord, to work: for they have made void thy law’ (Psa. 119:126).
- This article first appeared in The Banner of Truth magazine, issue 574 (July 2011).
- Quaint Sermons of Samuel Rutherford (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1885), p. 73.
- It is fatuous for anyone to argue, as was done by leaders among the ‘progressives’ this last May, that the Bible only forbids promiscuous same-sex relationships, not lasting ‘partnerships’.
- A second minister to announce that he is leaving the Church of Scotland is the Rev. Andrew Coghill, for nearly twenty years the minister of Leurbost Church, Lochs, Lewis. He is reported to have said to his people: ‘I do not expect, encourage, or require that any of you should follow me out of the Church of Scotland, for I have nowhere to lead you.’ These are sad words. Ministerial responsibility for people has to continue, even supposing it were forbidden, as in the Covenanting times.
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