Leaving the Church of Scotland
Minister’s Letter - June 2017
As you will already know, I will be leaving the Church of Scotland. Following my attendance at the General Assembly 2017, I indicated this to the congregation on Sunday 28th May. I have subsequently written to Glasgow Presbytery to resign my status as a minister of the Church of Scotland and demit the charge of Sandyford Henderson Memorial Church.
I am deeply saddened by the prospect of leaving the Church of Scotland and therefore Sandyford.
Later in the Record I have included a more detailed account of what lies behind my decision. There, I have attempted to explain the background, the present position of the Church of Scotland, and why I see no way back in the future.
Over the past three years we, as a family, have been grateful for the privilege of serving the Lord Jesus Christ with you. We found the prospect of ministry at Sandyford both humbling and exciting. Knowing that the priorities of the congregation are the Word and prayer, we moved to Glasgow looking forward to the many great gospel opportunities in the West End and throughout the city. We have enjoyed getting to know the people of Sandyford and also the many we have been trying to reach out to with the gospel of our Lord Jesus. We will miss the opportunities that are unique to our congregation.
Though my own decision to leave the Church of Scotland has been driven by Scripture informed conscience, I realise that it has an impact on us all, minister and congregation. For ourselves - Sheona, Joshua, Matthew, Rebekah and myself - we are sad to leave our church family: those we have loved and who have loved us; those who have prayed for us and for whom we have prayed; those we have laughed with and cried with; those whom I have ministered to who have been so kind and caring to me and my family. I have loved preaching God’s Word to both believers and unbelievers every Sunday at Sandyford and have been encouraged by the response.
Indeed, it is because we are aware that God does his work as his Word is proclaimed that the situation in the Church of Scotland at this time is so distressing. While we continue to have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ to change lives, the denomination has lost this confidence and has failed to uphold the teaching of the Bible and has instead chosen to follow the spirit of the age. I do not want to be ashamed of Jesus Christ or his words and want to be faithful to Him. It is clear to me that I cannot do this by being part of a denomination that no longer takes Jesus and the gospel seriously. We all struggle with the issue of how God’s Word directs our consciences towards a Christ-honouring response to our denomination’s decisions. While my own decision is clear to me, please be assured of my care and concern for you, as a member of Sandyford.
I’m sure there remain many unanswered questions as we wonder about the future and what will happen. All I can say at the moment is that my letter of demission to Glasgow Presbytery will be taken at the meeting on 20th June and it is likely that I will leave at the end of the summer. My first priority is to leave Sandyford well and any future plans will be intimated in due course. In the meantime, apart from planned holidays, I will still be here as your minister and am always available for any pastoral matters. I am also willing to discuss with you what I have written at any time.
With love and earnest concern,
Jonathan de Groot
Leaving the Church of Scotland - Jonathan de Groot
Many people have asked me ‘Why leave now?’ The fundamental issue at stake has been the authority of the Bible in the Church of Scotland. The Bible is our supreme authority in all matters of faith and life. However, over recent years the General Assembly has continued to make decisions which have failed to uphold the plain teaching of Scripture on human sexuality and marriage. This rejection of God’s Word is a rejection of God’s authority over us and, therefore, a rejection of God himself. By refusing to submit to God’s authority the denomination is essentially telling God that we know better than Him about how to live our lives. I can no longer minister within a denomination that has consistently turned away from the truth of the Bible.
General Assembly 2017
The latest instalment of this, and last for me, was the report of the Theological Forum which gave ‘An Approach to the Theology of Same-Sex Marriage.’ The report did not expound any Scripture, failing to mention the foundational passages on marriage in Genesis 1-2, which are then reinforced by Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 19; Mark 10). Jesus affirmed that God’s creation design for marriage is the complementary, exclusive, permanent relationship between one man and one woman. Yet the report states there is a ‘distinction between the written text of Scripture and the living Word of God, the latter being associated with Jesus Christ who speaks to us in our hearts and consciences.’ This sets Jesus and Scripture at odds with one another by wrongly suggesting that Jesus now contradicts what he said in the flesh and what we have written in the Scriptures. It is extraordinary to use Jesus as part of an argument for affirming same-sex marriage while ignoring the actual words of Jesus himself, yet this is what the report sought to do and what the General Assembly accepted. This is highly problematic in that it casts aside the authority of God’s revealed will in Scripture by making our sinful hearts and consciences the supreme authority for how we live, allowing us to do whatever we feel is right for us.
By accepting this report the General Assembly 2017 essentially chose to open the door to same-sex marriage in the Church of Scotland and to apologise to gay people (either for homophobia or for holding to what the Bible teaches, or both - there is a lack of clarity on this). Of course, there are finer details to the accepted deliverance, but both the Church of Scotland and the secular media are clear that this is what happened. This is hugely disappointing. But it is neither unexpected nor surprising, because it follows decisions of earlier General Assemblies in which there has been a consistent departure from the teaching of the Bible on matters of human sexuality.
Let me briefly outline this journey by the Church of Scotland to emphasise that leaving the denomination is not in any sense an overreaction and why it is unrealistic to hope that this situation can ever be reversed.
A clear direction
Since 2009 (I was ordained in 2007), the issue of same sex relationships has dominated seven out of nine General Assemblies. In 2009, a case was brought before the General Assembly regarding a minister in a same-sex relationship. Without first of all debating the issue in principle, the General Assembly voted to uphold the appointment of the minister to a church in Aberdeen. Subsequently, there was opportunity to turn back through the Assembly procedures. Yet, at every single opportunity the General Assembly has decided to move away from biblical truth.
In 2013 a Theological Commission brought recommendations to the Assembly by presenting ‘The Revisionist Case’ and ‘The Traditionalist Case’ and invited commissioners to consider each and make a decision. Instead, the Assembly chose to compromise by opting for a third way or middle ground which sought to affirm the historic and current doctrine and practice of the Church of Scotland in relation to human sexuality while allowing individual Kirk Sessions to ‘opt out’. Since that decision in 2013 and through the various legal practices and procedures at successive General Assemblies in 2014, 2015 and 2016, the Church of Scotland, in doctrine and in practice, has affirmed what the Bible clearly and unambiguously rejects as sin.
While some maintain that the 2017 Assembly did not actually approve same-sex marriage, it is certain that from 2017 forwards the Church of Scotland will inevitably continue the trajectory through ‘permissive legislation’ which will allow for same-sex marriages. While there will be promises of protection for those who do not want to perform them, this is a legal minefield yet to be navigated. It certainly carries no guarantees for those who refuse.
No way back
During these past nine General Assemblies, the Church of Scotland has travelled down a road from opposition to same-sex relationships to affirmation of same-sex relationships and is now moving towards the celebration of same-sex marriages. Procedurally, the Rubicon has already been crossed and despite what individual congregations do, the reality is that the denomination has deliberately rejected clear commitment to the authority of God’s Word. Even in General Assembly debate - indeed perhaps especially there - it appears that biblical arguments carry little weight anymore. What basis then, is there on which to argue against decisions that increasingly take a denomination away from God’s Word and its own confessional standards? It is no exaggeration to say that the fight for biblical truth has been lost and there can be no way back to a more biblical position.
During the report of the Theological Forum, I had the opportunity to speak in opposition to the same-sex marriage report, urging the Assembly that we listen to God because the Bible is consistently clear on what marriage is - a covenant relationship between one man and one woman and so allows no place for same sex marriage. After the three hour debate the General Assembly received the report and rejected virtually every amendment brought by evangelical commissioners.
At the close of debate I asked for my dissent to be recorded because I could not accept a report that sets aside the truth of God’s Word. I have also recorded my dissent at previous Assemblies where this issue has been debated. One cannot continue to dissent constantly from decisions and be part of the body that makes those decisions. Since I can no longer in good conscience live within a presbyterian church government and deeply disagree with its decisions on basic biblical teaching, it has become impossible for me to fulfil my vows of ordination and submit to the authority of the Church of Scotland with integrity. The only option open to me is to leave.
The decision to leave has become a very clear one to me, yet at the same time it is very painful to take. Along with many others, I have been distressed for years about the direction of the Church of Scotland and perplexed as to what best to do. In fact, when I met with the Sandyford Nominating Committee in April of 2014 I shared my concerns about the Church of Scotland. While we discussed many things, I felt it was important to clarify for them my concerns and convictions about the Church of Scotland. Following the invitation to preach as sole nominee I fleshed these out more fully by letter indicating that the fundamental issue for us all was the authority of the Bible and whether our denomination was prepared to uphold its clear teaching. I also indicated that, it had been my conviction for some time that to do what was best for the cause of Christ in Scotland, the day would probably come when it would be wisest to separate from the denomination. I also shared with the Committee that, while I came with no agenda, it was difficult for me to envisage my own long-term future being in the Church of Scotland. I simply wanted the church to be clear on my convictions since I did not expect they would change. In the event I was called to Sandyford; but while my love for our church family has grown and deepened in the intervening years, these concerns have also grown stronger.
So my decision to leave has not been either a sudden or easy one. I am sad to be leaving the denomination I have loved and served. I came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through my local Church of Scotland congregation. Faithful Church of Scotland ministers have mentored me and helped me grow as a believer. It was through the Church of Scotland that I was called to preach God’s Word. It was through the Church of Scotland that I was trained for the ministry. It was through the Church of Scotland that I have had the enormous privilege of exercising that ministry in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I have loved all the gospel opportunities serving in the Church of Scotland has provided. I have been encouraged by seeing God at work in transforming lives. I have prayed for the Church of Scotland and wept over the Church of Scotland. I also trust that our Sovereign God has been working out his perfect will through all that has gone on in the Church of Scotland. So it is only after much serious consideration, and with real sadness, that I no longer feel able to minister within the Church of Scotland.
While I have come to this decision, slowly, carefully and independently, I am not acting as an isolated individual, nor doing something unique. Other Church of Scotland ministers and indeed congregations have already reached the same conclusion. As you will know, St George’s Tron in Glasgow, Gilcomston South in Aberdeen, Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh, to name a few, made this decision between 2012 and 2014 (their stories and many others are narrated in David J Randall’s book A Sad Departure). It may well be that others will now reach the same decision.
Some will still say that it is too soon to give up, that the fight is not over, or that we can still reverse the situation. I do not believe that this is the case. In all my time as a Church of Scotland minister I have sought to be faithful to God, faithful to His Word, faithful to the work of gospel ministry and faithful in seeking, with others, to ‘contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3). I have served on General Assembly councils and committees and Presbytery committees. Over the years, and in partnership with other ministers, many attempts have been made to prevent the drift away from Biblical truth. Various groupings have been formed and much time and planning and prayer has gone into preparing for General Assembly debates so that evangelicals could present strong biblical arguments. I have been involved in all of this so that, together, we could make a strong stand within the denomination. I have asked questions at General Assemblies and spoken in debates, voted and dissented at decisions. I have worked with Kirk Sessions and congregations as we have attempted to contend for the faith together. I have spoken in Presbyteries and have voted to uphold the clear teaching of the Bible within the Church of Scotland. Every time, we have been opposed in debate, been in the minority and lost. I have tried. The sadness lies not in the defeat (which was expected) but in the dishonouring of God as those who profess His name deny the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.
Attacking the Gospel
Some continue to argue that this is an issue on which the Christian Church can legitimately disagree, and say that, after all is said and done the gospel itself is still intact. But this cannot be the case because the issues involved go beyond what the Bible teaches about gender issues and about homosexuality in particular and constitute an attack on Christ himself. And when carefully considered, the official position of the Church of Scotland results in a distorted view of virtually every biblical doctrine. It distorts the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Word of God, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of humanity, the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of the Church, the doctrine of the Christian life, the doctrine of the future. All of these foundational doctrines are distorted if practising same-sex unions is affirmed by the Church of Scotland.
The tragedy of the situation is that it is only this gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that can provide hope for our beloved Scotland as well as our lost and broken world. Only the true gospel can transform sinful men and women like us. It is the power of God for salvation. This is why we have wanted the Church of Scotland to hold to this glorious gospel and support us in offering it to people so that they might find forgiveness, freedom and fullness of life in Jesus Christ.
I believe that to remain within the Church of Scotland would be, at best, to allow a certain legitimacy to this new and unbiblical position, and, at worst, to be complicit with it. If we are part of a presbyterian denomination, then decisions made by its highest court, the General Assembly, inevitably impact all of us - every minister, elder and member. Whether or not we as individuals agree or disagree with the direction in which the Church of Scotland is travelling, it is impossible to repudiate the official position of the denomination while remaining subject to it. My own conviction is that claiming we are not party to the official position of the Church of Scotland whilst continuing our membership and our financial support is inconsistent. The nature of presbyterianism means that we are part of the system.
It was clear at the last Assembly that the tide is flowing overwhelmingly against evangelicals who have consistently been outmanoeuvred and defeated. Our denomination’s subtle compromise over the years instead of strongly contending for the faith has resulted in a slow but sure departure from the biblical gospel and from the historic and orthodox Christianity of the worldwide Church. For the sake of the gospel and the future of the Church, we cannot afford to ignore this departure. Each of us is surely called to consider our own response before God as we seek to be faithful to Him.View All Letters