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.  

Shack Author, Young’s new book of lies illustrates why ‘Radical Church’ is essential reading

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In November 2016 EP Books published my book ‘Radical Church: A Call to Rediscover the Radical Roots of the Christian Faith”. This month author of the Shack, William Paul Young has published his book ‘Lies we believe about God’. Why do I mention these two titles together? In my book I argued for key truths that the western church has either neglected, rejected or lost sight of – and consequently needs to recover. Young in his book says many of these ‘truths’ are actually lies.

‘Radical Church’ was written as a rallying call. It’s a call to restore a dying church. Young’s book is also a rallying call, but I would say it is rallying call to put the final nail in the coffin of biblical Christianity.

‘Radical Church’ calls the church to rediscover the Sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of humanity, the authority and sufficiency of scripture, the Judgement to come, and the Divine-wrath absorbing and bloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ. These are foundational truths – yet Young calls them lies.

For example, regarding sin and human nature, Young says:

“Yes, we have crippled eyes, but not a core of un-goodness. We are true and right, but often ignorant and stupid, acting out of the pain of our wrongheadedness, hurting ourselves, others, and even all creation. Blind, not depraved is our condition.”

In ‘Radical Church’ I make the point:

Humans were made in the image of God, and they were created to reflect God’s glory and greatness. However, when the devil told Adam and Eve that we could ‘be like God’ we reached beyond our station. We snatched a power that that is greater than our identity and purpose. We committed treason; we robbed for ourselves that which belongs to God alone. Consequently we have a higher view of ourselves than is actually true. We are pretenders to the throne.

In ‘Radical Church’ I explain the downgrading that has taken place within evangelicalism. This sheds light on some of the statements that Young makes in his book. In ‘Radical Church’ I argue:

The Bible’s teaching on the human condition is incredibly unpopular in our society today. Humanism boasts in the greatness of human nature. Humanism celebrates human potential and human goodness. To a self-assured humanistic culture, the idea that humans are sinful by nature, sinful in heart, and sinful in deed is a radical and prophetic rebuke. Society does not want to hear about sin, and neither do many quarters of the church. Even within evangelicalism there is a tendency to neglect or reject this teaching. Evangelicalism, in many parts of the West, has ceased calling sinners to repentance, and is instead celebrating the greatness of human potential. However, in order to see true gospel transformation, we need to understand the depth of the human problem: we are not just broken people in need of wholeness; we are rebels in need of redemption.

What I say is truth, Young claims is a lie.

Someone is wrong. One of these positions is not the truth.

If you do read Young’s book, I’d encourage you to read ‘Radical Church’ as a counter-argument. More importantly, test Young’s claims in the light of scripture. Because the real tragedy is not that Young’s book indirectly implies my book is full of lies, the real issue is that Young’s book makes the Bible a book of lies.

For a detailed review of ‘Lies we believe’ check out Challies’ article.

 

When evil seems to get the upper-hand – what can we do?

dark door light

There are seasons when things go so, so wrong. There are times when tragedy triumphs. There are periods when evil seems to prevail. In these moments, there are tears. There are doubts. There is anger. There is confusion.
When we are in these situations, sometimes we can lose sight of God. It is a time when faith can be fragile, and fear seems ferocious.
I pray that the following few thoughts offer some help for the battle.
1. Don’t forget the devil

1 Peter 5:8: Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

Perhaps there are some Christians who focus too much on the devil and demons. However, for the majority of western Christians, I think we fall into the other extreme. We underestimate the devil. We perhaps don’t even give him a thought. We assume he is not bothered about us. Hear the words of scripture. The enemy is real. The enemy is dangerous. 
2. Jesus is greater
This is not glib triumphalism. It is reality. Right now, it might not look like Jesus is greater. At times it can look like all hell has broken loose. That must have been how it looked when Stephen was stoned to death in the 1st century. How could this happen? Jesus had risen. The Spirit had come. The apostles were performing mighty miracles. How could God allow this to happen to Stephen. The man of God is dead, where is the God of the man? Where is his protection now? Where is his miracle working power? Why does it look like darkness has the upper hand?
And the truth is we don’t know – ultimately. We know that God is sovereign, we know that he works his purposes out even in the midst of gross darkness, evil and pain. It might not feel like it, but Jesus is still on the throne.

Acts 10: 38 How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.

Jesus was greater than Satan when he walked the earth, and Jesus is greater than Satan now that he has died, risen and is reigning at the right hand of God. The words of an old song say,

The power of darkness comes in like a flood
The battle belongs to the Lord
He’s raised up a standard, the power of His blood
The battle belongs to the Lord

Again, this isn’t triumphalism – it is a deep reality that the only help we have in the midst of spiritual darkness is Jesus. And Jesus is the name above every other name.

3. Pray, Pray, Pray.
Another hymn says, “Satan trembles when he sees, the weakest saint upon his/her knees.”. Are we tempted? Pray. Are we in despair? Pray. Are we angry at God? Pray. It needn’t be religious – it’s better if it isn’t. Shout if you need to. Now is not the time for middle-class politeness – now is the time for gut-wrenching crying out to God.

I waited for the Lord my God
And patiently did bear
At length to me He did incline
My voice and cry to hear
He took me from a fearful pit
And from the miry clay
And on a rock He set my feet
Establishing my way

4. Never give up

Don’t throw in the towel. Don’t walk away from God. Don’t leave the church. This is exactly what the enemy wants. It might be hard. It might seem impossible but keep holding on. We need to balance the truth that God preserves his people with the truth that we are called to persevere.

Hebrews 12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
God Disciplines His Children
4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”[a]
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,”[b] so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

Concluding thoughts.

This is a broken-messed up world. In the words of the Verve, life is a bitter-sweet symphony. The middle-class, western, selfie-oriented image of life being a never-ending party is phony. Tozer said ‘The world is not a playground, it’s a battle ground’. As Christians we have real hope, but it’s a hope that rises in the midst of blood, tears and death. There is a day coming when God will wipe away every tear and death will be no more, until then we fight. We might stagger and fall but arise and fight we must because the Kingdom of God is calling.

The Selfie on the Mount: Is it time to die to selfies?

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So Jesus and his besties head off to a stunning mountain location for a publicity launch. Their ministry is really kicking off. They are receiving thousands of followers. Folk like their stuff. Everyone is sharing their content. Jesus is going viral. Here’s what happened at the promo!

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and they posed for a selfie. His communications team quickly shared it in social media: #how2Bawesome

Jesus said.

  • Blessed are the self-confident, for them anything is possible.
  • Blessed are those who always look happy and fulfilled, for they will be considered successful.
  • Blessed are the determined, for they will inherit the earth.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for acclaim, for they will be noticed.
  • Blessed are those who promote themselves, for they will get there eventually.
  • Blessed are the ambitious in heart, for they will see their goals fulfilled.
  • Blessed are the tolerant, for they will be considered good.
  • Blessed are those who are praised because of political correctness, for theirs is the praise of all people.

Jesus then went on to teach his followers the art of virtue signalling.

“Be careful to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Whenever you do something good – e.g. raise money for a cause, help a homeless person, or run a community event – make sure you take a pic, post the pic online, hashtag it, and encourage your followers to share it. If you do, you will have great reward from your followers on social media. You will get lots of likes.

“So when you give to the needy, announce it on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, you have received your reward in full. But when you give to the needy, let everyone know what you are doing, so that your giving may be not be in secret. Then your social media friends, who see what is done in public, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the old time puritans, for they love to pray in secret. Truly I tell you, they have missed out on their earthly reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and tweet about who and what you are praying for. You don’t even need to actually pray for the people. You just need to tell them you are praying. Most people draw more comfort from being told they are being prayed for than the fact that prayers are being made. Then your Followers, who see what is done online, will reward you.

Edit

It has come to our attention that the previous article is #FakeNews. Despite the fact that the above scenario is a current en masse trend.

Apparently, the real story is the one below.

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

The Beatitudes

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn,     for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek,     for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,     for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful,     for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart,     for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers,     for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Giving to the Needy

6 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Prayer

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.