A Harsh Rebuke from Jesus
Thank you for the encouraging responses to last month’s Record with regard to the Kirk Session statement on the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2015, and to my pastoral letter. I’m grateful to all who have spoken to our elders on these issues and, as a result, we have had helpful and needed discussion on the direction our denomination has chosen and our response to it. As a result, a number of questions have arisen which are worth taking the time to answer. These questions can roughly be summarised by three simple questions: Why this? Why now? and Why bother? Of course, we can’t cover everything here and there are many more questions which need to be considered such as the ‘What…?’ questions and the ‘How…?’ questions. First, let’s tackle some of the ‘Why…?’ questions.
Why is the matter of the Church of Scotland permitting those in same-sex relationships to hold office such a big issue? Why is this not something we can agree to differ on? Doesn’t attention on this issue make us sound like unloving homophobic bigots? etc.
The reality is, whether we like it or not, the relationship of homosexuality to Christianity and the Church is one of the main topics of discussion in today’s culture. If this is the case, then why would God’s people be silent or fail to make any response to what is going on in the world? It has been forced on us by our culture as an issue of equality and it has been forced on us by our denomination as an issue for theological debate on its practice within the church. Therefore, this is a matter that does requires us to make a biblically clear and strong, yet gracious and compassionate, response. We ought to respond within our contemporary culture as we are able as well as within the councils and courts of our denomination. This issue is not one that’s going to go away anytime soon, so burying our heads in the sand or pretending we don’t need to concern ourselves is ignorant at best. At worst, the implications of rejecting what God says could not be more dangerous. Of course, we do not want our society to drift any further away from God either in our laws or common life, aware of what is at stake. As those who belong to the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, we may be shocked and grieved, yet we should not be surprised when the world behaves like the world and rejects God and his truth. We should, however, be appalled when those who claim to belong to the Church refuse to believe and uphold what God says.
It is often said that the primary issue is not just about homosexuality but about the rejection of the authority of the Word of God. By implication, this is a rejection of God himself because a refusal to accept what God says on one thing is a rejection of his authority and therefore him. Adopting such a position could not be more serious, whether for an individual or for a denomination. A refusal to submit to God has eternal consequences because without repentance for sin a person will never inherit the kingdom of God. That’s why it is impossible to agree to differ on this because it is a salvation issue, so to suggest that it does not matter is to say that the salvation of men and women does not matter. Some worry that to mention this issue is unloving yet, in reality, failure to clearly communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to lost and confused people is the lost unloving thing we could do.
Why should this issue concern us now? Hasn’t there always been liberalism within the Church of Scotland? Why make a fuss over this one issue at this time? etc.
We are aware of the long standing liberalism within the denomination. Unbiblical teaching has been common over the years with the denials of the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as teaching universal salvation, etc. This has perhaps come from the wrong, yet commonly understood, acceptance of the Church of Scotland as a broad church. However, if one reads the Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland, they state that the Church of Scotland is a confessional church. Over time, however, what has become a way of referring to the denomination (i.e. ‘broad’) has come to result in an accepted departure from Scripture and confessional standards. Distressingly, such teaching has persisted in pulpits around the country, but surely we should never concede that just because there has always been false belief, false teaching or false living that somehow we should simply live with it. It ought to have been challenged within Kirk Sessions, presbyteries and at the General Assembly. If any denomination never enforces what its ministers ought to believe and hold to, then its confessional standards have clearly gone when only lip service is paid to them. If no discipline is exercised for departure from these standards, whether theological or moral, then it becomes clear what that denomination really believes, despite what it claims to believe.
This is a real problem but, while individuals denying biblical truth in their own congregations or in articles in magazines etc. is one thing, there is a substantial difference between this and what is adopted by a General Assembly for the whole denomination. The highest court of the Church of Scotland, by majority vote, now permits those who wish to depart from Scripture to do so. Such a decision which is now church law marks a formal departure from Scripture through an Act of the General Assembly. For some, there is a willingness to seek to continue to fight to turn things around despite the current state of play. For others, the formal adoption and therefore acceptance of an unbiblical ruling is essentially game over.
Why do we need to do something about this? Why should we be concerned about what is happening in the national church when our priority is to our local congregation? Why should we let this be a distraction? etc.
It is good and healthy that our concern is for ourselves, our local congregation and our mission to our community. We are grateful to able to freely exercise our own ministry here without any interference, whether past or present. We are not too affected by decisions that have been made nationally. This may be true but this is not presbyterianism, it sounds more like independency. However, we are not an independent congregation. We are a presbyterian congregation implicated in every decision our denomination makes and, whether we like it or not, we are financially supporting the denomination which is making unbiblical decisions we deeply disagree with. Therefore, we are not free to exist in our own bubble locally, separated from what is happening nationally. Interestingly, the only freedom to act independently as a congregation is through departing from the historic and current doctrine and practice in relation to marriage and human sexuality. Other than this, we must hold to the laws of the denomination. On this issue therefore, it is impossible to have your cake and eat it. We can’t have an independent mindset and yet be presbyterian. It is either one or the other. Either we want to be free to exercise our own ministry or we must exercise our ministry within the current system. We either separate from a denomination we are in deep disagreement with because we like to do our own thing or we get stuck into the work of trying to reform the denomination. If we are serious about the latter, this will inevitably be a huge distraction for us because we will not be able to purely concentrate on ourselves and our mission. One option that isn’t open to us is to seek to exist independently, while trying to ignore what is going on in the wider Church of Scotland. It is unpresbyterian, untenable, illogical, impractical, but most significantly unbiblical to tolerate the current situation as it is.
Jesus, in his letter to the Church in Thyatira in Revelation 2:18-29 commends the church by saying, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” (Rev. 2:19). Yet straight after Jesus said this, he immediately rebuked the church for tolerating someone who misled people into sexual immorality by saying, “I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” (Rev. 2:20). So it is possible to be a good going congregation that is growing in many ways, but still come under harsh rebuke by the Lord Jesus because of what it is prepared to tolerate. The Church in Thyatira did tolerate sexual immorality which was leading people astray. We will want to surely heed the words of Jesus, recognising that there is teaching and there are practices which must not be tolerated.
We do need to be aware of the significance of what has happened in our denomination, both in the present and in the light of the future. As Christian people who know and love the Lord Jesus Christ and who want others to know and love him, we will want to be faithful to the work God has called us to do which extends beyond our local church to our national denomination and to our society. This will require much from us as we seek to be faithful to Jesus Christ by responding to our current circumstances in a wise and God-honouring way.
Your minister and friend
Jonathan de GrootView All Letters