Is There a Case for Staying In?
The present state of the Church of Scotland should be a cause for Christians everywhere to cry to God for mercy. For a professing Christian church to pass legislation that permits a congregation to call a minister (man or woman!) who is in a same-sex relationship is a theological scandal and a moral monstrosity. No Bible-believing Christian would think otherwise, surely.
Because of this, a growing, though as yet small, number of ministers and elders, have decided to leave the Church of Scotland.1 They can no more tolerate that Church’s wilful, open-eyed defiance of the Word of God. For many the decision to leave is a ‘no brainer’. How could men and women who claim faithful allegiance to the Scriptures, who believe in the full, infallible authority of the Scriptures, do anything else? And yet, the greater majority of confessing, Reformed evangelicals have decided, at least for the moment, to remain within the Church of Scotland. Why?
One answer could be that many such Reformed Christians are already deeply compromised. Some have ordained women to office in the church in defiance of the clear teaching of the Bible and have grown accustomed to theological compromise. Perhaps. Another answer could be that they are simply cowards, unwilling to risk the uncertainties that will face them if they leave the security of the Mother Kirk. Perhaps. It has also been suggested that ‘ecclesiastical statesmanship’ has been such a force within evangelicalism in the Church of Scotland in the last fifty or so years that ministers and elders in particular have become so mired in the life of the church that having gained a ‘voice’ (tolerated or respected?) they don’t know how to extricate themselves. For all I know these may be cogent reasons and true to some extent.
However, it is undoubtedly true that there are ministers and elders within the Church of Scotland who are unashamedly Reformed, serving congregations that live under the Word of God, and who openly and vocally oppose same-sex relationships, who have decided (for the moment at least) to stay within and fight. Do they have a case? Are they all misguided? Are they blind to the obvious? Have they all been seduced by the mantra of ecclesiastical modernity?
Throughout the history of his church, old covenant and new covenant (the church of course is one church – Rom. 11:17ff), God has unfailingly sent his preaching servants to proclaim his Word, often to a wayward, disobedient, shallow-hearted, morally-perverse, idol-worshipping people. Sometimes God’s faithful servants were stoned or even sawn in two (Heb. 11:36-37) by the very people God sent them to declare his Word to. The visible Christian church prior to the Reformation was a scandalous mess of doctrinal aberrations and moral turpitude. But within that moral and theological mess, God had his faithful people. My guess is that the good, that is biblically faithful, men and women who have chosen thus far to remain within the apostate Church of Scotland, see themselves as belonging to a godly heritage. They are inspired by the hope and conviction that God can recover even the Church of Scotland from its present tragedies. Surely God is able to do so. The Church in Scotland at the time of the Reformation was a byword for clerical fornication and much worse. But God had mercy and brought the transforming power of the gospel into the midst of the ‘whore of Babylon’ and a new day of gospel blessing dawned for the nation.
To some, perhaps many, this may be no argument at all for ‘staying in’, but it needs to be acknowledged that it is not mere cowardice or ecclesiastical accommodationism that has resolved good men and women to ‘stay in’.
What is undeniable for all faithful, biblically-submissive Christians within the Church of Scotland, those who have left and those who remain, is that over the past decades we failed to confront the Kirk with its public departures from the Word of God and historic, orthodox Christianity. We were by and large silent when men denied the truths of the Holy Trinity, Christ’s penal subsitutionary atonement, his virginal conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, his bodily resurrection, his ascension to the Father’s right hand, and his promised return in power and glory to judge the living and the dead. We allowed men and women to say one thing with their lips but something else with their lives. We gave the impression that so long as doctrines were not openly denied in our formularies, we could tolerate unbelief and wickedness in practice.
When it is said, therefore, that to remain within the Church of Scotland will inevitably lead to compromising the gospel, it needs to be acknowledged that by remaining mute when men (and women) who denied the fundamentals of the faith were ordained by Presbyteries we were all compromising the gospel. Silence in the face of denominational unbelief has long been a stain on our evangelical testimony.
To the good folk who have resolved for the present to ‘stay in’, a question, however, needs to be asked: ‘Are you resolved to confront the Church with its apostasy and suffer the perhaps sore consequences?’ I don’t mean confront arrogantly, but I do mean confront. Not just from the safety of the pulpit, but in the church’s public judicatories.
In Presbyteries we have been mute. Now is the time to stand up and speak out.
The faithful believers who have chosen to ‘stay in’ deserve our prayers and our encouragement. There has rarely been throughout the history of the Christian church any secession that had whole possession of ‘the right’. When 2000 Puritan ministers were ejected from the Church of England in 1662, a faithful, godly remnant remained within the church, William Gurnall being one of them! One reason why some good men chose to remain within the Church of England was due to their reluctance to leave the sheep God had entrusted to their care to the mercy of ‘wolves’.
Thus far, biblically faithful ministers and elders within the Church of Scotland have freedom not to embrace the ‘new policy’. Whether in the future the church will tolerate ministers within its ranks openly defying the declaratory will of the General Assembly (if it is not overturned by the Barrier Act safeguard), is another matter, as recent history tells us!
Let those who have left and are in the process of leaving, and those who have chosen thus far to remain in, stand together in their common gospel cause to preach the Word, in season and out of season, when it suits and when it doesn’t, when men applaud us for doing so or when they kill us for doing so. Faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel demands that we all follow his example and put truth before consequences. There is but one Master before whom we stand or fall.
- See, for example, The Banner of Truth, Issue 599-600 (August-September 2013), pp. 10-11.
Ian Hamilton is pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church.
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