A Tale of Two Assemblies: FCGA17 and CofSGA17 — Personal Reflections

sad departure

Walking up towards the Mound from Edinburgh Waverly, on a certain week in May – you are struck by something odd. Ministers. Lots of them. But then as you approach the Mound you notice something else. Like a fork in the road the Ministers split into two groups. Some head towards St Columba’s Free Church and the others head towards the Church of Scotland’s Assembly hall. It Did strike me as odd that this scenario has been playing out every year since 1843. Most church splits really go their separate ways – yet every year the CofS and FC ministers and elders are reminded of the disruption. I cannot help but wonder that surely there comes a time when you need to delete your ex-girlfriend from your Facebook friends’ list?

FCGA17

This week I had the joy (yes, joy) of attending the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland as a Commissioner for Glasgow and Argyle Presbytery. This is not a detailed report – you can watch the videos, and read the reports for yourself – instead this is simply a few short reflections on some personal observations. 

Connections

FCGA17 was a humbling experience. It’s one thing tapping into the GA, online from afar – it’s another thing being there as part of the assembly. I’m reasonably new to the Free Church, so I don’t know most people – and most people don’t know me. Social media helps networking on one level – but on another level it’s superficial, one-dimensional and detached from context. Social networking may help us overcome geographical chasms, but it doesn’t develop depth of relationship. You just can’t get to know people via social media. In this sense, it was good to meet a number of folk in the flesh.

Humbling

I was encouraged by most of the GA. When I wasn’t encouraged, I might have been drifting off because we were dealing with some boring bits (or slightly amused at how a church models its governing affairs like a mini parliament) – but most of the time I was deeply impressed by the contribution of many of the other leaders. One of the things that really encourages me about the FC is depth. There really is a depth in many of the members. There is a depth of knowledge, wisdom, spirituality and godliness among many of the men and women who spoke at Assembly. I’m thinking for example of Irene Howat whose love for Christ and children was and is so evident. I’m thinking of Ms Elaine Duncan (Bible Society) who exhorted the incoming Moderator as she presented him with a Bible – her words carried conviction, depth and spiritual authority. I’m also thinking of some of the elders and ministers – both young and old, who just oozed character. Maybe it’s just the fact that I spent too long in youth ministry, and contemporary charismatic-evangelicalism – but the lack of hype, spin and triumphalism at the GA was just brilliant – and as I said, humbling.

Fellowship

The fellowship was fantastic. I had the opportunity to get to know some new folks, and to get know a little better some folks I’ve just got to know. Having relocated from the Isle of Skye, where not only are Free Churches ten a penny – but you quickly get to know folks because it is such a small community – in the central belt, FCs are more thinly spread and ministry commitments prevent you from getting to know other leaders and ministers in neighbouring towns. I really loved getting to know some of the ex-CofS guys, and it was also great to spend some time around food with a few of the senior leaders. And it was brilliant to catch up with some of the Skye leaders – not least my former minister.

Ministry 

The ministry was top-notch. It really was. There was a clarion call to “tremble” at God’s word in repentance and humility; a call to mission; a call to semper-reformanda (the Moderator, Derek Lamont’s opening address was simply outstanding and cutting-edge); a call to holiness, discipleship and accountability Really, really good stuff.

Unity in Diversity

There was an obvious diversity in the FCGA17. Okay – perhaps not enough – it was very white-western-male-centred – but within that group there certainly were a mix of backgrounds, personalities and approaches. Some more conservative than others. Others more progressive than others. Yet at the same time there was a unity – and this was particularly felt at various times in the GA when there were references to the doctrine of scripture. Scriptural authority is not a peripheral doctrine in the FC, it is foundational – and that was clear at many levels.

I loved how folks from a non-CofS background were welcomed the message was clear, “this is your church” – in other words, just because you weren’t brought up FC –that doesn’t mean you are visitor or a second-class member. It was very encouraging to hear those words – not just for the CofS guys, but others who have come in from other denominations.

I also liked the fact that the chairman of the Board of Ministry made it clear that the FC was not an “anti-gay” church. With ministers and members of the CofS leaving over issues surrounding human sexuality – this may be the assumption that people make. It was great to hear an ex-CofS minister affirm this by making clear that it was the CofS’s departure from the doctrine of scripture which has led many to leave the CofS.

Humorous

There were loads of laughs. The banter was brilliant – not least between myself and my commuting comrade – a minister who happened to be travelling via the same train route as myself. 

Sad

This was also a sombre assembly. An assembly marked by tragedy. This was an assembly with a shadow over it. The passing of Iain D. Campbell, and the circumstances surrounding it, certainly impressed upon this ‘young’ preacher’s mind, the words of Tozer, “The world is not a playground, it is a battleground.” There is an enemy of our souls, and we all must be ever-watchful.

Sorrow was further compressed by the events in Manchester. One of the most powerful moments was our morning of prayer where we also sang psalms of lament. At moments like this – we need the breadth and depth of human experience that can only be found in the psalter.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Hope-filled

Whilst there was sadness, there was also hope – a lot of it actually. The Free Church is bursting with vision. That’s no exaggeration. The Mission Board, the Board of Ministry, and the Seminary Board and the Board of Trustees, are full of vision, passion, and strategy for mission, ministry and training in the 21st century.

Final reflections

This week in May, ministers at the Mound did not just continue to part ways geographically, and denominationally – they continued to part ways theologically. In one assembly, there was a clear message sent out that the church is not anti-gay, but it’s conscience is forever bound by the authority of scripture. In another assembly, a message of secular inclusion and scriptural abandonment rang out loud in clear. In paving the way for ministers to perform same-sex weddings, the Church of Scotland has abandoned the revelation of God’s Word. Maybe it’s a good thing after all that both assemblies run on the same week. The annual ritual also becomes a means of self-reflection. A constant reminder of the importance of not allowing the state to define our consciences, theology and practice.

Of course, while the ministers of each denomination head towards their respective assemblies – there are interactions. Friendly words – and not so friendly words are exchanged. I think of the minister from one assembly who confessed that he wished that he was attending the other assembly but felt that for him it was “too late”. But I also think of the exchange between a Church of Scotland Minister and a Free Church Minister who had left the CofS to join the Free Church. “Turn Coat” mocked the Church of Scotland minister. That’s simply poor taste. It’s also ironic – to be happy to be a turncoat when it comes to the Word of God yet to boast faithfulness to an increasingly apostate denomination is not a reason for boasting. As our retiring moderator reminded us, “These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” Isaiah 66:2

There are no perfect Christians, ministers or denominations. But by the grace of God, there are real encouraging signs in the FC. God is at work. The priority is God, His Word and his world. After almost 500 years of the reformation, there is a remnant who are still saying “give me Scotland…” Whether we are also saying …” or I die” is yet to be seen – but the signs are encouraging. May God keep us in his grace, and empower us for his purpose and glory – for Jesus’ sake, Amen.  

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The importance and relevance of the Westminster Confession (Part 1)

Tonight at our mid-week meeting we kicked off a series on the Westminster Confession of Faith. We tapped into some of Vandixhoorn’s book, ‘Confessing the Faith’ for historical context; we drew from Trueman’s ‘Creedal Imperative’ for insight into why Confessionalism is essential for the well-being of the church and the preservation of the gospel and we began a study on WCF 1.1. We then explored how WCF 1.1 can help us become better at evangelism. It was a lively discussion and we heard some good testimony which demonstrated some of the material we were looking at.

Here are some of the highlights, followed by the study questions.

Carl Trueman

“The pastor who thinks he is being biblical by declaring he has no creed but the Bible may actually, upon reflection, find that his position is more shaped by the modern world than he at first realized.”

“It would be a tragic irony if the rejection of creeds and confessions by so many of those who sincerely wish to be biblically faithful turned out to be not an act of faithfulness but rather an unwitting capitulation to the spirit of the age.”

“Creeds and confessions are, in fact, necessary for the well-being of the church, and that churches that claim not to have them place themselves at a permanent disadvantage when it comes to holding fast to that form of sound words which was so precious to the aging Paul as he advised his young protégé, Timothy. . . The need for creeds and confessions is not just a practical imperative for the church but is also a biblical imperative.”

“A church with a creed or confession has a built-in gospel reality check. It is unlikely to become sidetracked by the peripheral issues of the passing moment; rather it will focus instead on the great theological categories that touch on matters of eternal significance.”

Vandixhoorn

The Westminster assembly (1643-1653)

Two years prior to the gathering of an assembly of theologians in Westminster Abbey (from whence the Westminster Confession of Faith derives its name), a prominent pastor named Edmund Calamy urged the House of Commons to reform the Church of England. . . Calamy urged Parliament to ‘reform the Reformation itself’. It was not until 1643 that Calamy’s modern reformation took shape in the calling of what proved to be the last of the great post-Reformation synods.

The Westminster Confession of Faith traces:

  • the great history of our redemption:
  • the grim realities of the fall,
  • God’s gracious covenants with man,
  • the stunning announcement of salvation,
  • and our sure hope of eternal life—

 

 All these are sketched out in bold but considered strokes. It is because of the clarity of this gospel presentation in all of its parts that the Westminster Confession of Faith finds itself in the first rank of great Christian creeds

Modern Translation of WCF 1.1

Although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, to such an extent that men are without excuse, yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of his will which is necessary for salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at various times and in diverse ways, to reveal himself and to declare his will to his church; and afterward— for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh and the malice of Satan and of the world— to commit this revelation wholly to writing. Therefore the Holy Scripture is most necessary, God’s former ways of revealing his will to his people having ceased.

Scripture Proofs 1.1

a Rom. 2: 14,15; Rom. 1: 19,20; Psa. 19: 1-3; Rom. 1: 32, with Rom. 2: 1. b 1 Cor. 1: 21; 1 Cor. 2: 13,14. c Heb. 1: 1. d Prov. 22: 19-21; Luke 1: 3,4; Rom. 15: 4;

Questions for study

  1. Look up the “scripture proofs” and compare them with WCF 1.1. Do you think the WCF is an accurate summary of these scriptures?
  2. What does WCF: 1.1 teach us about:
  • God?
  • Creation?
  • The Scriptures?
  • Humanity?

    3.
    What does the WCF mean when it says, “Holy Scripture is most necessary, God’s former ways of revealing his will to his people having ceased.” (See Heb: 1.1

4. Do you agree with this part of the WCF? Why/why not?

5. How can WCF 1.1 help us today with:

  • Our relationship with God?
  • Personal discipleship?
  • Evangelism?
  • Guidance?

 

 

Acts 29: Missional or Charismatic? Engaging with Newfrontiers/Sam Storms/Steve Timmis

Andrew Wilson has written an interesting blog which interacts with a diversity of views within the Acts 29 network. Andrew is a leader within the Newfrontiers movement. His ministry is marked by theological thoroughness, missional engagement and charismatic commitments. His stuff is always worth a read.

Wilson begins by noting: “There’s an intriguing discussion taking place within Acts29 at the moment over whether, and to what extent, miraculous spiritual gifts (like prophecy or healing) continue today.” What is the discussion? Sam Storms (an Acts 29 leader has written a book which promotes charismatic practice; Matt Chandler (Acts 29 President) endorsed the book and wrote the Foreword; but Steve Timmis (CEO of Acts 29) has written a friendly but critical review of Storms’ book.

Wilson says all of this “intriguing.” I’ll come back to this later. But for the moment I’ll simply add that there is nothing really unusual about this. From what I understand, Acts 29 has always been diverse, and by and large, “continuationist”. For example, Mark Driscoll (Acts 29 Founder) always described himself as “charismatic with a seat-belt” although, towards the end of the Mars Hill era was moving towards a more explicit charismatic position as could be seen in in his infamous ‘Sixth-Sense-esque’ moment when he declared “I see things” and when he gate-crashed John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference.

However, as far as I understand it, Acts 29 have always had a “continuationist edge” but they have never been “charismatic”. In fact, when I attended an Acts 29 Boot Camp in London (it was the one where Steve Timmis was brought in as the director for Acts 29 Europe), I happened to be sitting next to a guy from Newfrontiers. We had a discussion about the nature of New Frontiers and Acts 29. Both of us were “charismatics” and we noted that the Acts 29 conference was great in its emphasis on mission, but not so good in worship (worship being defined through a charismatic grid).

So, from my experience, Acts 29 (and Mars Hill where it derived its origins and ethos) have never been overtly charismatic. And there is a reason for this too. Acts 29 was always missional, and it was understood that charismatic practices often hindered mission rather than enabling it. The whole premise underpinning Acts 29 was contextualization and biblical faithfulness. Consequently, churches which made the charismata a central tenet tended to be not very missionally minded . Very often they would create church cultures that alienated people because of the various charismatic practices (en masse tongue-speaking, Toronto Blessing style manifestations, people being slain in the Spirit and so on). At least this is my analysis of the Acts 29/Mars Hill philosophy.

Wilson views the difference between Storms and Timmis as “intriguing”.

It’s intriguing because, as a local church, it is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t (although the degree to which you do this can obviously vary).

I think there are two issues here. One is a difference in tradition/worldview held by Wilson, Storms and Timmis. The second is a contradiction in Wilson’s understanding of the ongoing charismata.

First the difference in worldviews.

Tradition/Worldview difference

Wilson, develops his point about not being able to sit on the fence. He says the diversity of views on the charismata within Acts 29: “reflects a fairly important difference in ministry philosophy, not to mention theology, which in turn reflects a rather broader theological bandwidth than I am used to within Newfrontiers.”

Of course, this is correct. The charismata does have a different emphasis in Newfrontiers than it does in Acts 29, and in fact as it does in the worldview/experience of Sam Storms.

Charismata in Newfrontiers

New frontiers was pioneered by Terry Virgo and was a product of the charismatic movement of the 60s. The charismatic movement took different forms. One stream flowed into the Old mainline denominations, other streams flowed into the historic pentecostal denominations and others flowed out into new churches. One particular expression of the new churches was the restoration movement. New Frontiers, however else it may have evolved over the years (e.g. from a house church movement to a mega-church movement) has an ethos that is firmly rooted in the charismatic and apostolic restorationist movement. You can get a grasp of Newfrontiers’ history and core values, and development by reading Terry Virgo’s books on the church: ‘Restoration of the Church’ (1985); ‘No Well-Worn Paths: Restoring the Church to its original intention’ (2001); and ‘The Spirit-Filled Church: Finding Your Place in God’s Purpose’ (2011).

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To understand Newfrontiers’ theology of the charismata you need to understand its pneumatology and its ecclesiology. In terms of its theology of the Holy Spirit, in line with its charismatic history and tradition, Newfrontiers still seems to operate within a framework which understands the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a distinct and separate experience from conversion (however, given their lack of Statement of Faith, this is more assumed). It is not clear whether they make speaking in tongues “an” or “the” evidence, but Terry Virgo’s connection between baptism in the Spirit and speaking in tongues  is clearly emphasised in his latest book.

For restorationists there is a direct link between ‘baptism in the Spirit’; ‘operating in gifts of power’ and ‘expression of gifts within the context of the local church’. For the consistent restorationist, gifts must be expressed in the context of public worship. It’s a primary distinctive.

This is why Wilson argues that charismata “is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t”. What this means is, ‘miraculous’ gifts must ne normative if we are to be faithful to the New Testament Church pattern for public worship.

It is no wonder that folks in the Newfrontiers camp will be encouraged by Storms book. (I haven’t read it, although I agree with the points that Timmis makes in his review of it). However, Sam Storms’ theology of the charismata has been formed in a different context to that of Newfrontiers. Sam Storms’ background is the Vineyard church. Or, if you prefer to think in terms of movements, the Third Wave (see ‘Riding the Third Wave: What Comes After Renewal?’ edited by Kevin Springer and introduced by John Wimber).

The ‘Third Wave’ was really a major revision of the pentecostal and charismatic theologies. Pentecostalism made baptism in the Spirit and tongue-speaking essential – it was polemic and divisive; the charismatic movement made these things normative, and more widely accepted; the Third Wave returned to a classical evangelical understanding of baptism in the Spirit (happens at conversion) and separated the gifts of the Spirit from the baptism. It also placed ‘gifts’ or rather ‘power tools’ in the context of mission. Miracles, in this context, (in theory) were not so much about the church service, and more intended as signs to accompany the preaching of the gospel. In other words, they were a missional tool. (However, many charismatic churches, including Newfrontiers’ have been influenced by the Third Wave and vice versa).

The ideology of charismata as a missional tool was not always realized in the Vineyard movement. When the Kansas City church (Mike Bickle), where Sam Storms was based, joined the movement, a lot of emphasis was placed on spiritual manifestations. The movement really went off the edge during this stage. There were false prophecies, sensationalism, and scandals (See my review of Bill Jackson’s The Radical Middle).

Since we are thinking in terms of Waves. It is worth noting that the current missional movement is probably the next stage in the evolution of contemporary evangelicalism. With each development, ‘charismata’ is given a slightly different emphasis. In the missional context, mission, contextualization and the gospel are what matters. And, where and when charismata can serve this purpose – that is good and well. And if it doesn’t, then it shouldn’t be the focus. This is why Steve Timmis can disagree with Storms yet say: “although I’m not a cessationist—nor even a functional cessationist—I’m not and would not describe myself a charismatic.”

It’s also why Timmis can say:

I’d love to see the dead raised. I want to see cancers healed with thrilling frequency. I covet testimonies of multiple people having their hearts’ secrets exposed so they acknowledge God is indeed among his people. But I don’t. The anecdotal evidence cited by good friends is underwhelming. I can and do ask. I can and do expect. At times, I could even be accused of pestering my heavenly Father for these things.

But as I wait, the Lord continues to work powerfully by his Spirit in transforming lovers of self into lovers of God and others. I see many evidences of lives changed, and of sustaining grace. I hear God speak directly and pertinently through his Word as it’s faithfully taught. So, brothers and sisters, press on with the daily task of following Jesus with joy, even amid sacrifice.

Contradiction

This is where there is a contradiction in Wilson’s response. If we look at his statement in the light of Timmis’ comments it is clearly seen:

It’s intriguing because, as a local church, it is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t (although the degree to which you do this can obviously vary).

On the one hand, he is saying you can’t sit on the fence with the pursuit and expression of charismata yet on the other hand he is saying the degrees to which this outworked can be varied. Yet, it seems as if Timmis’ position is excluded from the scale, despite the fact he says he is not a cessationist. How is that possible? It’s possible because Wilson’s ecclesiastical and theological moorings demand a more central place for charismata. For Wilson (and probably Storms) charismata/miracles must be normative. But this is exactly the reason why Timmis must reject the premise underpinning Storms book – and also the premise underpinning charismatic theology.

The real issue here is not cessationism versus charismatic theology, the issue is how a theology of the Spirit is worked out in practice. It is a question of what is considered to be normative in church life and what is not. From a New Testament point of view, what is central, the gifts of the Spirit or the Gospel of Christ and the Word of God? If you try and make both central tenets, what is at stake? I would argue that you end up with two competing authorities. You end up with the authority of scripture, and the authority of individual experience. Sola-scriptura will be undermined, despite our best efforts to make that not the case. Further, Nobel Prize winning scientist, Francis Collins, makes the following observations about miracles.

The only thing that will kill the possibility of miracles more quickly than a committed materialism is the claiming of miracle status for everyday events for which natural explanations are readily at hand.

In my experience, this is problem that charismatic practice can create. When everything is miraculous, nothing is miraculous. As Timmis highlights, on the one hand charismatics claim that the same miracle-power that the Apostles walked in is available to all, but the reality is most charismatics are “happy to accept a lower standard of “success”.

Collins further makes the point, regarding healing:

More difficult to evaluate are the claims of miraculous healing from medical problems. As a physician, I have occasionally seen circumstances where individuals recovered from illnesses that appeared not to be reversible. Yet I am loath to ascribe those events to miraculous intervention, given our incomplete understanding of illness and how it affects the human body. All too often, when claims of miraculous healing have been carefully investigated by objective observers, those claims have fallen short. Despite those misgivings, and an insistence that such claims be backed up by extensive evidence, I would not be stunned to hear that such genuine miraculous healings do occur on extremely rare occasions. My “prior” is low, but it is not zero.

The importance of these issues is often overlooked in charismatic contexts. I overlooked them myself for many years. But we need to be realists. Faith cannot mean the redefining of reality. Again, it would seem to me that a biblical understanding of miracles and charismata is to recognise that God does work supernaturally, but at the same time it is not normative. There is no ‘key’ to ‘unlock’. There is no secret technique to discover. Charismatic theology ever forces us to embrace the next solution. Why? Because reality does not match ideology. If miracles are to be normative, why do we not see them more? And to answer that question, there is always the next book, the next method and the next strategy about how to become more supernatural. The irony being we end up less supernatural because we have substituted confidence in God’s sovereign power with a human methodology.

Further, in the constant search for the supernatural element in modern ‘prophecy’ we lose sight of the supernatural element in the ordinary means of grace. God in the midst of his gathered church, his grace conveyed by the means of Word and sacrament. This is supernatural. Maybe the problem is we are in search of the signs, rather than the reality itself – which is God in the midst of his people.  

Acts 29 in many ways is reflective of contemporary evangelical culture. In contrast to the pentecostal churches, and charismatic movements (like Newfrontiers), a diversity of views of spiritual gifts and miracles exists. Movements that make charismata a central tenet in some ways, I think, in decline. Certainly, in the UK, with the shift towards contemporary missional churches, charismata is becoming less and less part of the bread and butter of public worship. Participation in collective praying and prophesying has been replaced by worship that is driven by a professional band, or rendered almost impractical where the church is large. Consequently, in practice, many pentecostal and charismatic churches are indistinguishable from any other evangelical church.

What does this mean for Storms book and Acts 29? I don’t know, I’m not in that movement. Will some Acts 29 churches become more actively charismatic in practice? Maybe. Will all of them? I doubt it. Not if Timmis’ review is anything to go by. In that sense, Acts 29 will just be like every other network of independent churches – some will be more charismatic than others. Whilst this may be a “broader theological band-width” than is the norm at Newfrontiers, it is more reflective of the global church scene. And, I have a sneaking suspicion that it is more reflective of Newfrontiers – or certainly where Newfrontiers is heading. Ever since Newfrontiers split into spheres, my understanding is that some have headed down more charismatic routes (e.g. Bethel) whereas others would be more focused on expository preaching, and would be sceptical of anything as extreme as Bethel.

What will Acts 29 look like in the future? Who knows. If we can learn anything from the past though, the Vineyard movement suffered when it allowed the Kansas City church (which Storms was a part of) to set the trend in terms of a ‘supernatural’ emphasis. As a result, church planting and mission suffered. It would be a great pity if Acts 29 suffered the same fate – that is, if charismata took such central stage that it begins to hinder rather than enable mission.

 

Contradictions, Confusion and Invoking the Wrath of Christ: The Church of Scotland Report on Human Sexuality

So, someone let the cat out the bag. The Church of Scotland’s Theological Forum Report on human sexuality had to be published early because someone leaked it. What is the report presenting to the assembly? Two key areas are being presented. The General Assembly will be asked to:

 Authorise the Legal Questions Committee to undertake a further study on the legal implications of conducting same-sex marriages and report back to the General Assembly in 2018. *

Invite the Church to take stock of its history of discrimination at different levels and in different ways against gay people and to apologise individually and corporately and seek to do better.

So, basically, the Forum wants the CofS to sort things out legally and constitutionally so the CofS can perform same-sex marriages and it wants to apologise for discriminating against gay people. How has the CofS discriminated against gay people? Presumably by holding to a teaching that marriage is intended to be for one and man and woman for life. And that the only context for sexual inter-course is heterosexual inter-course in the context of marriage between one man and one woman. Or as the Church of Scotland’s historic confessional standard says: “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman.”

At this point we jump into the rabbit hole and discover the weird and wonderful world that is Church of Scotland theology and ethics. On the one hand the Church of Scotland is claiming that it seeks to be faithful in “upholding the fundamental doctrines of the Church” whilst allowing for “Constrained Difference”.

This is optimistic. On the one hand the Forum is calling the church to repent of what it regards to be “discrimination” against “gay people” yet at the same time it claims it will allow different viewpoints to co-exist. Yet this is inconsistent. If the church is discriminating sinfully against a certain people-group, how can it call itself to repent whilst at the same time allowing this expression of discrimination to exist? That’s meaningless. (Or political spin).

On the one hand the Forum says:

The Forum does not believe there are sufficient theological grounds to deny nominated individual ministers and deacons the authority to preside at same-sex marriages.

But on the other hand it says:

The Forum does not believe that such permission should be granted until there is assurance that the conscientious refusal of other ministers and deacons to preside at such marriages is protected.

So, if I read that correctly, in light of the whole, the Forum is asking the CofS to 1) not to discriminate and 2) to be free to discriminate by not marrying gay couples.

Whilst we should be glad that the Forum is seeking to protect the rights of conscientious and biblically faithful ministers, it is impossible to see how the Orwellian double-speak will not ultimately lead to problems. By embracing the radical LGBT view of human sexuality, they have already condemned the biblical understanding of human sexuality.

 CofS ministers and elders who attend the 2017 General Assembly need to see what is really going on. Scriptural authority is being replaced by humanistic ethics. And the CofS is shifting from sola-scriptura, to an almost Roman Catholic view of authority, where authority rests not in scripture alone but the tradition of the church and the living tradition of councils. In other words, the Holy Spirit continues to speak to the Church a fresh Word from God.

The report says:

Yet God’s Word is found through as well as within Scripture, and Jesus himself promised that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into further understanding (cf. John 16: 13). It is these new understandings that the General Assembly is attempting to discern in its consideration of the issue of same-sex marriages.

There you have it. The embracing of the new sexual ethics of LGBTism is the Holy Spirit speaking to the church. This section in the report is given in an answer to those who refer to Paul’s teaching on human sexuality. In other words, the New Testament scriptures:

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men (1Cor 6:9)

So, according to the Forum, the Holy Spirit can speak to the church and lead the church into new truth. Even if this new truth contradicts the old truth.

I cannot help but point out that the Church of Scotland is taking a very dangerous path. This is a path that can only lead to divine judgement:

18I testify to everyone who hears the words of prophecy in this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. 19And if anyone takes away from the words of this book of prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. 20He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:18—20)

The very last words of Jesus to the church are crystal clear. Don’t add to the Word of God and don’t take away from the Word of God. By denying what the Bible teaches and by claiming that the new path of LGBT inclusiveness is the Word of God to the church via the Holy Spirit, the Forum is calling the CofS to violate both commands. Consequently, the Church of Scotland is in danger of invoking both judgements upon itself. In other words, God will surely judge this path and those who follow it will come under judgement and forfeit eternal life.

My ‘Holy Week’ visit to the local Orthodox Church

This week is ‘Holy Week’. In contrast to living on Skye, where you were lucky to find at least one ‘Good Friday’ church service – here in Dunblane you have it all. With the Cathedral, St Blane’s CofS, an Episcopal Church, an Orthodox Church, Quakers, the Free Church and a local charismatic church – there is a lot happening on ‘Holy Week’. Of course, being the Free Church we are pretty much ploughing on as usual. Well that’s not quite true, we ran our Easter Craft for Kids and the Case for Christ (which comes to a conclusion on Easter Monday). And this Sunday our text in our Acts series naturally falls on a passage which relates to the risen Christ – so we will have a resurrection message and resurrection themed hymns and psalms. Oh – and the kids will get chocolate eggs.

Anyway, with ‘Holy Week’ being such a big thing here, and with my recent reflections and interactions with the current news pieces surrounding Hank Hanegraaff’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy – I decided to take the opportunity to pop along to the local Orthodox Church. I caught half an hour of what was going to be a three-hour service (Holy Thursday The Passion Gospels, FAST) but I couldn’t stay for the whole thing as our own Bible Study and Prayer meeting was starting an hour later. Since I only caught a snap-shot on the Thursday, I also went along for the Good Friday Service (this included Vespers and procession of the shroud) and managed to catch the whole thing.

I’m aware that the concept of a Free Church preacher and elder visiting an Orthodox Church might freak some people out. But let’s just put it in perspective. I was a Religious Education teacher for seven years. I’ve visited mosques, Buddhist temples and I’ve gone to hear the Dali Lama – and I still love Jesus, preach the gospel and hold to Sola Scriptura and haven’t morphed into a tree-hugging, all-religions-are-the-same kinda guy. So, if the Orthodox Church visit makes you shudder. Chill.

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Location

The first striking thing about the church (Community of St Nicholas) is its location. Its in a lovely little cottage in the centre of Dunblane. One half of the cottage is the residence of the priest and his wife, and the second half has been converted into the church.

 The Priest

As I arrived on Thursday evening, I was early — no one else had arrived. I had an opportunity to introduce myself to the priest and his wife. A lovely couple. We chatted about a number of things briefly – not least New Testament Greek. One thing struck me about the Priest – he actually came across as a religious man. And it wasn’t just because of his robe or the big gold chain with a cross. It was his countenance. I’ve experienced this a number of times with a certain people. There are some people whose faces radiate a kind of lightness. It’s the kind of person you meet whose presence makes you aware that you need to spend less time reading books or tapping away at a keyboard and more time on your knees.

The ambience

The bare stone-wall interior, with hanging candles was quite atmospheric. At one point, in the good Friday service, I felt I’d been transported back in time and we were worshipping in the ancient catacombs.

The people

On the Thursday, around 12 people gathered in the small church. On Friday night there must have been nearer 30. What struck me was the fact that there were a lot of young women with children at the service. I was also struck by the fact that it was very multicultural. There were a good few nationalities present. In fact, I’d go so far to say it is the most inter-national church I’ve encountered in Dunblane – although I’ve still to visit a few of the other ones. It was certainly more international than the various Free Churches I’ve visited or been a member of.

The Service/Liturgy

This was interesting. As would be expected, there were aspects that made me awkward and other parts I found incredibly enriching. There were also parts that were simply universal i.e. aspects that can be found in all churches in all places. One other thing that struck me is the fact that there were no seats. You stand throughout this service (there are some seats at the side for those who need them). Given the fact that one service lasted three hours, this is interesting in and of itself. How many of our churches get caught up moaning about the discomfort of the pews, or pushing for ‘comfy chairs’? The fact that the normal practice is to stand sent out a clear message — this isn’t about making you feel comfortable. Have evangelicals become too comfort orientated?

The awkward bits….

The first thing I noticed is when some people entered the building, the first thing they did was bow down and kiss one of the Icons. Throughout the service there was a fair bit of veneration of icons, veneration of Mary, and the regular performance of the Sign of the Cross.) I also couldn’t help but notice the central Icon at the altar was Mary, with a small image of Jesus at the centre of her. I guess this is part of the ‘Mother of God’ theme. Again, as reformed believer who sees the supremacy of Christ in the pages of scripture, it is difficult to see how this kind of imagery does not negatively affect our view of the person of Christ. Jesus seems to be overshadowed by his mother. Having said all that, these were very small parts of the over-all whole – which by and large were more universally applicable to all Christians.  

In many ways, the Orthodox service was like a more intense version of the Catholic Mass which I attended as a child. The priest, the altar attendants, the incense, the chanting of scripture and prayers were all very similar but in some ways felt more ancient.

Overall, the service was mostly made up of sung/chanted scripture readings. Ironically, these were read from the authorised version. There were readings from Isaiah, the Gospels, the Psalms and the Books of the Law. These were chanted in-between various sung/chanted prayers and responses.

One bit that particularly moved me was a song that reflected upon the impact of the cross upon Jesus’ mother – as a mother. It was a reflection on the words of a scripture “and a sword shall pierce your own soul too.” This was not, in my view Mary veneration, but a valid biblical reflection upon the effect of the cross upon Jesus’ mother. If protestants feel that the EOC/RC over-do the emphasis on Mary, we certainly under-do it. I was deeply moved by the horror and pain that Mary would have experienced as she watched her son being crucified. What mother would not be shattered into a thousand pieces by that?

Really Interesting Interactions

A couple of interesting interactions occurred between myself and other people. A young guy came in on the Thursday night. He had travelled all the way from Glasgow. He informed the priest, and myself, that he had been attending an Orthodox Church for a month. He said he’d been doing some research on churches, and “by process of elimination” arrived at the conclusion the Orthodox Church was the true church.

The priest had to go and get things ready, and myself and the young guy got chatting. Once he found out I was in ministry in the Free Church he began to ask some questions. It turned out his background was similar to mine – he was from a ‘nominal’ Roman Catholic family. I took the opportunity so share some brief testimony as to how I stumbled into a gospel hall when I was 18, and heard the simple gospel and how I encountered Jesus in a very real and life changing way. My prayer and hope for this young man is that he doesn’t stop short of just looking for church, religion, or a denomination – but that he finds Christ. In fact, this was my one concern about the whole experience. Whilst there were crosses, and icons of Jesus and references to him everywhere – my worry was that the gospel and the need for personal faith and repentance were not very clear. My concern, and my experience from growing up Roman Catholic, is that Jesus gets crowded out by religion. That’s not to say that there are not people in these contexts who clearly know Christ (it’s not for me to judge that) but it’s just to say that we cannot under-estimate how important the reformation was. In clearing away the smoke, the images, and the priesthood – it helped us see Jesus more clearly. It helped us hear the message of Christ crucified and the call to repentance and faith.  

The second interesting encounter was with a couple I later bumped into on the way home. The woman had been involved in the singing part of the service. It turned out, the husband was an Episcopalian but the wife Orthodox. We were outside the Free Church, and I had the opportunity to introduce myself as the local Free Church ‘minister’. The wife almost fainted. Literally. She was astounded that the local FC preacher would visit an Orthodox church service. The husband excitedly said. “David Robertson has done more to warm me towards the Free Church than any other person”. I agreed and told him that David’s writing was quite instrumental in drawing me to the Free Church also. We then had a chat about the decline of biblical teaching within the mainline churches.

These two encounters are examples of what I like to call ‘Kingdom moments’. The moments where something of the Kingdom of God breaks through in what seems like a chance encounter.

Taking away stuff to apply?

Is there anything to learn from the Orthodox Church for Free Church ministry? Yes, I think so.

James White, commenting on the conversion of Hank Hanagraaff to Eastern Orthodoxy said about evangelicalism:

“The church has become focused on the people pilling in, not the sacredness of what goes on there.”

Well that’s one thing the EOC can’t be accused of. There was nothing seeker sensitive about the EOC I visited. There was on the other hand a strong sense that the purpose of the gathering was religious. I think we have lost something of that. This ties in with a recent lecture from the Rev John Ross at ETS last week. He challenged us to recover our reformed liturgy. He challenged us to recover the liturgy of Knox and the Directory for Public Worship. I think he is absolutely right. Within reformed liturgy there is a strong God-centeredness. After several decades of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels – we have just ended up with shallow church.

Having said that, Ed Stetzer warns about the lack of missional elements within the EOC.

I think the tendency towards (big-O) Orthodoxy and its liturgy is missiologically unhealthy, not just theologically problematic. Many segments of Orthodoxy take Hellenistic (or other) cultural forms, consider them normative to today’s context, and apply them as the “true” or “authentic” way.

That’s not helpful and it actually hinders the advance of the gospel, which in part explains why American Orthodoxy has far more converts from evangelicalism than it does from secularism.

Whilst we need to recover our sense of sacredness, we also need to maintain our missional ethos. A liturgy that is not designed to draw people in and make it accessible is not like Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus was incarnational. The church should be too.

Finally, we need to do a better job of explaining ourselves ecclesiologically to those who want answers. “Which split was the Free Church – was that the one in the 1800s?” asked a young man who was in the process of looking for the true church. Do we know who we are, where we came from and why we exist as a church? Are we able to articulate who we are in relation to the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal and Church of Scotland? One of things that causes me to despair is the fact that many evangelicals – including many reformed ones – have such a shallow view truth, church and history. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that not everyone spends their lives watching mind-numbing television. Not everyone wants to go to your church because you are ‘seeker-friendly’ – they don’t care that your services are designed with the first-time visitor in mind – they want truth. They want to know how your church is connected to the Apostles. Are we able to explain ourselves in terms of where we fit on the Orthodox, Catholic and protestant map? Do we know why the Reformation mattered and why it still matters? We need to.

Overall, as you can see, I valued my visit to the local EOC. Dunblane churches have good relationships across the denominations. I hope to meet the leader of the local EOC again sometime. The services did help me reflect upon the cross. The OEC helped me see things that I can do better as a Christian (prayer) and things we could do better as a church and a denomination. It also helped me value afresh the importance of the reformation, and the dual challenge for our churches to be sacred spaces but also missional places.