Thursday, 25 May 2017

Good Start, Disastrous Conclusion? - The Church of Scotland General Assembly

Good Start, Disastrous Conclusion?

At the beginning of this week’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland one leading evangelical messaged:

Good start to the General Assembly today as the Council of Assembly moved the following motion, which was unanimously approved by the General Assembly: 'Issue a call to the Church of Scotland to pray that God will do a fresh work amongst us as God's people and instruct Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to consider how best to respond to this call.’

My immediate response was to wonder whether this normally acute theology professor had lost his powers of analysis and discernment.  Firstly, this motion had passed unanimously.  That either indicates that the G.A. was of one mind on this matter, or that the motion was such that various parties could put their own spin and interpretation on the words.  Given that the Church of Scotland is a predominately theologically liberal body, were the majority understanding the words in a different sense from the good Professor?

Theological liberals have developed the art of using orthodox and even pietistic language in a non-biblical manner.  They are happy to affirm confessions that they totally reject, to recite creeds that they dismiss and to quote even the Bible in ways contrary to its original meaning.

What does it means to pray that God would do “a fresh work amongst us as God's people”?  Do we mean that God will bring the church to repentance over its theological and moral apostasy, that he will reinvigorate it with a new confidence in the biblical gospel of Christ’s atoning and renewing sacrifice, that it will rediscover a new boldness to preach that individuals need to be born again, and a new commitment to the great truths of the Reformation expressed in the solas of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), Sola Fide (“faith alone”), Sola Gratia (“grace alone”), Solus Christus (“Christ alone”) and Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”)?  Certainly that would be the good Doctor’s interpretation; but is that how the larger body of the Assembly interpret this call to prayer for a “fresh work”?

We know that for many “a fresh work amongst” us means a new openness to homosexual practices and gay marriage, a new ecumenism that fully embraces Rome and is indeed a multi-faith ecumenism, a new theology that casts off the doctrinal restrains of Scripture and the Reformed confessional tradition, a new understanding of the cross that excludes penal substitutionary atonement, and a new universalism that guarantees the salvation of all individuals with or without faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord.

The enthusiasm of the Saturday over the prayer for a “fresh work amongst us” has to deal with the reality of the Thursday and the decision of the General Assembly to continue on its revisionist trajectory in accepting and endorsing homosexual marriage and openly rejecting the authority of Scripture by an appeal to an ephemeral word behind the Word that may contradict the text of Scripture and be more attuned to the spirit of this present age and moral culture.

In political discourse the term “useful innocents” is sometimes used to speak of those naive individuals who are susceptible to manipulation in the support of a cause and who fail to see the reality behind their enthusiastic endorsement of a particular movement. For the Church of Scotland evangelicals are the “useful innocents” who provide money and manpower to maintain a liberal edifice that despises their theology, mocks their morality, and longs for their eventual demise. Talk of “reconciled diversity”, “constrained differences”, or “mutual flourishing” will prove to be empty rhetoric on the part of the liberals – it should be equally unacceptable to evangelicals who believe that there is a “faith once for all delivered to the saints” to be defended, anathemas to be pronounced against any who preach a different gospel, and discipline to be exercised against those who support, encourage or practice sexual immorality.

Differentiation among Elder

Differentiation among Elders

It has become common in Presbyterian circles, on the basis of 1 Tim 5:17, to speak of Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders. The text says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.” (ESV)  Alternatively, “The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” (HCSV)

All elders rule – they shepherd the flock. (1 Peter 5:2)  All elders are able to teach, (2 Tim 2:24).  Some elders rule particularly well, and some do so through preaching and teaching.  This suggests that some elders have particular shepherding gifts and others have particular teaching gifts, but the roles are not mutually exclusive.

Interestingly, while we accept salaried teaching elders, it is less common to find salaried ruling elders.  Why should we not have full-time shepherding ministers who are counsellors, pastoral encouragers, personal mentors, education co-ordinators, administrators or discipleship co-ordinators?  Conversely, why should we not have non full-time teaching elders or non stipendiary teaching elders? The New Testament pattern allows for flexibility and a rich variety of elder leadership patterns.

We speak of one office, with a differentiation of function, (teaching or ruling elders).  Might it not be best to speak of a differentiation of “focus” rather than of function? We should be training our ruling elders to develop their teaching ability and we should be training our teaching elders to develop their ruling ability.  It is not unknown for a competent preacher to lack experience or strength in ruling, and of doing so within the plurality and parity of the local session.  Indeed, we have within presbyterian practice the anomaly of men with no general experience of eldership becoming teaching elders, but never having worked alongside their fellow elders in a local church session.  That was my own experience, and I wonder how many local churches would never consider calling a man as an elder at twenty-three years old but would consider calling him as a minister?

Thankfully, I learned on the job, but it was not necessarily the best route to take. If a church has not called a young man as an elder locally, why are they willing to recommend him for training as a teaching elder / minister?  Surely they need to recognise that “elder” is a term acknowledging spiritual wisdom and maturity rather than merely chronological age.  If a man shows the gifts and aptitudes, and desires the work of eldership locally then age is not necessarily a barrier. Put him on the Session, with congregational approval, and let him gain experience in the trials and joys of local church eldership.  This is not to go down the route of those churches that think that youth in and off itself is an adequate qualification and therefore have youth delegates in presbytery and assembly to represent the voice of the next generation, whether or not these persons are biblically qualified as elders.

If local eldership can involve differentiation of focus then there is an ongoing necessity to sharpen that focus without neglecting the other aspects of eldership. Using resources such as those found at would be a good place to start.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Scriptural Basis of Biblical Presbyterianism

The Scriptural Basis of Biblical Presbyterianism

I was preaching last Lord’s Day on the theme of biblical presbyterianism, Christ’s gift of rule in his church. What was interesting was that the congregation had never heard a sermon on presbyterianism and why we in the Free Church of Scotland adopt this form of government.  If we demonstrate our love to Christ by obedience to his commands, and if Christ in his Word has given us basic principles for church government, then it is part of our corporate sanctification to follow the teaching of Scripture on this matter.

The emphasis was not on justifying in detail the current practice of the FCS, but in showing that there are basic principles that we work out in our practice. We looked at the local and the regional aspects of biblical presbyterianism.

At the local level we saw that there was to be a plurality of elders, a parity among the elders, and popular election of these elders, recognising their call by Christ and gifting by the Holy Spirit. Application was made to both our elders and our people.

At the regional level there was connectionalism, consultation and constraint.  (Why do we refer to Acts 15 without Acts 16:4 : “As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.” ?)

Does this justify our monthly regional presbyteries and our annual national assembly?  We have no text and verse for these but base our practice on sanctified common sense rooted in the biblical principles.  Other patterns might equally be compatible with the biblical principles.

What is important is that the principles are worked out in the life of the church locally, regionally and nationally. 

Can such truths be preached?  Of course.  Is Christ exalted in such preaching? Yes, if the emphasis is on the fact that his guidance on government is based on his divine wisdom, grace and love.  Can such a sermon be evangelistic?  Well, I concluded with reference to the joys of Presbyterianism experienced by Christ’s people, and the importance of being not only in church but in the Church, not merely in the building but in the Body, with an appropriate evangelistic application.

Elders and Sacraments

Elders and Sacraments

Thomas Witherow was Professor of History and Pastoral Theology at the Presbyterian College in Londonderry, and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (1878). We tend to know him through his work on Presbyterianism, “The Apostolic Church—which is it?” (1856). However, he also authored a short study that dealt specifically with the eldership.  It makes interesting reading and certainly contains some novel ideas:

“As to the administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper, we ought to divest ourselves of the last relic of that old sacramental theory, that the ordinances lose all their influence if not dispensed by the hands of a minister, and admit the fact, that there is no reason why they should be administered by the pastoral elder rather than the ruling elder, except that the former is usually best qualified, when administering the rite, to edify the people at the same time.

What mystery is there about these symbolic institutions, that we should believe them to be more efficacious when administered by one of the elders rather than by another ? Is such a notion consistent with our own doctrine, that "the sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them or in him that doth administer them ?" Are we to perpetuate the absurdity that no spiritual good is conveyed by a sacrament, except it is dispensed by the one among the elders who is better educated than his brethren ? Education certainly has its advantages ; but we make too much of education if we suppose that the want of it in a church-officer deprives of its validity the ordinance of Christ.” 

“The New Testament Elder his Position, Powers and Duties” Witherow, Thomas, 1824-1890

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Response to the Church of Scotland Theological Forum

Response to the Theological Forum

Covenant Fellowship Scotland have produced an excellent response to the Report of the Theological Forum on Human Sexuality, which will be discussed next week at the Church of Scotland General Assembly:

Here is a response that is scriptural, logical and reasonable. However, the problem may be that it presupposes that theological and ethical disputes are to be settled in the church by an appeal to Scripture, and the use of reason.  If this was accepted, their case would be unanswerable.

But that is the very heart of the problem.  The Church of Scotland no longer wishes to listen to Scripture; it is governed by sentiment and emotion and not by reason.  Without a common basis, Scripture, there can be no consensus on either theological or ethical issues.

I will watch with interest the debate at G.A. My prayers are with those who will argue a biblical basis for marriage as between one man and one woman.  But, I will also watch with interest to see their response if the G.A. extends its recognition of homosexual marriage.  Will they be willing to embrace the doctrine of “constrained difference” and continue to recognise those who embrace, encourage and promote homosexual marriage?

It is worth considering the argument of Dr. Denny Burk, who in essence is commenting on the “reconciled diversity” or “ constrained differences” approach:

“[This] approach is functionally no different from an “affirming” approach. Here’s the bottom line. A church either will or will not accept members who are practicing homosexual immorality. A church either will or will not discipline members for homosexual immorality. A church either will or will not ordain clergy who are practicing homosexuals. There is no middle ground between these practical polarities. If you are in a church that allows both points of view (Side A/Side B), then functionally your church is no different from a fully “affirming” congregation. You accept members and clergy who are practicing homosexual immorality. Again, there is no middle ground between the polarities of these two positions. Those who attempt middle ground will eventually have to move to one side or the other.”

See his excellent article at:

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Church of Scotland and Marriage

Church of Scotland and Marriage

Al Mohler demonstrates his usual perceptive insight in analysing the Church of Scotland’s Theological Forum report on marriage and sexuality. He cuts to the heart of the matter – the abandonment of sola scriptura, and the substitution of an ephemeral word of the living Christ subjectively experienced

Listen here:

For those who would like the transcript

But now switching from the United States and the situation in the United Methodist Church, we go to Scotland and a recent report that was leaked out of the Church of Scotland. It was leaked in recent days, and then the Church of Scotland went on to release officially the draft report from a special theological forum. Once again, the issue at the center is the authority of Scripture. The presenting issue or catalyst for the discussion and the report are the issues related to sexuality. The Church of Scotland has been one of those churches that has of late been trending in a far more liberal direction. Once the report of the theological forum had been leaked and public conversation began, the Church of Scotland moved up its timetable to officially release the draft of the report. On its own website, the Church of Scotland declared,

“The Theological Forum has published its latest report on ‘An approach to the theology of same-sex marriage.’ The report will be considered by Commissioners to the General Assembly in Edinburgh next month.”
The church then acknowledged the fact that the report had been leaked and they said,

“In light of the report appearing in the national press, the Principal Clerk has authorized its immediate publication to allow Commissioners, members of the church and members of the public to understand fully the content and context.”

According to the statement from the Church, the General Assemblies being asked to consider two key issues. 

Number one,

“Authorize 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 [of the Church of Scotland] 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 apologize individually and corporately and seek to do better.”

Now in terms of that second statement, there are certainly ways that Christians and Christian churches have sinned against gay people. But you’ll notice that in the context here holding to a biblical understanding of sexuality, holding to biblical authority, holding to a biblical definition of marriage, all of these are basically included in what is described here as merely “a history of discrimination at different levels.”

Simply the fact that the language is employed in this way serves as a powerful signal of the direction the report is taking. But it’s actually a good deal more interesting than even you might expect. One of the interesting things in the statement from the church is that what the forum is calling for is “constrained difference.” That is to say, the Church of Scotland is going to try to avoid further schism. There have already been several conservative departures from the denomination by calling for the existence of two polarizingly opposite positions in the church, those who on the basis of conviction cannot recognize marriage as anything other than the union of a man and a woman and others who are determined to go ahead and recognize and perform same-sex weddings. But this “constrained difference” to which the church says it’s committed means that those who are biblical conservatives by remaining in the church are in their own way endorsing others within the church who do defy the authority of Scripture on LGBTQ issues and most particularly on same-sex marriage.

Like so many reports in this kind of denominational committee, the report indicates one side of the argument and then the other side of the argument, but it begins with the use of Scripture and the authority of Scripture. The report makes a distinction between conservatives who are according to the report committed to the written text of Scripture and to more liberal persons who make 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.”

That’s a breathtaking argument. It affirms the abandonment of Scripture, claiming instead a different source of revelation, an even higher source of revelation, which is personal religious experience, which is claimed to be in the Spirit of Christ. The most devastating aspect of this report is the juxtaposition between what’s identified, again these are the actual words of the report, “as the living words of Scripture” and what’s identified as “the living word of God,” that is Jesus Christ who speaks to us in our hearts and consciences. Now they went on to say,

“According to this argument we owe our allegiance to Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, rather than adherence to the literal words of Scripture.”

Now that’s a stunning statement. Once again, you have the living Christ set over against the words of Scripture. That is a juxtaposition that the Lord Jesus Christ himself most fundamentally did not allow, and faithful Christianity cannot allow that distinction. But it’s a key distinction for a church or for a segment of a church that is determined to undermine and overthrow biblical authority. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what this report calls for. Another thing we need to note here is that this theological forum in the Church of Scotland represents something of a breathtaking honesty, because nowhere in this report did they try to make any argument that what they identify is that literal words of Scripture, otherwise known as simply the words of Scripture, can in any way be construed as to affirm same-sex marriage or homosexual behavior or relationships. It seems they at least in honesty have given up that argument, but the argument they now use is one with which we are familiar: just abandon the words and grammar of Scripture in order to instead follow what is claimed to be the living Word of God, which comes to us internally
Now one of the key issues in the Reformation is the Roman Catholic Church’s affirmation of a two-sourced theory of revelation, that is Scripture and tradition as interpreted by the church. But here you have the Church of Scotland birthed in terms of John Knox and that same Reformation that once stood resolutely for the theology of the Reformation, including Sola Scriptura, that now denounces effectively the very idea of Sola Scriptura by adopting its own two-sourced theory of revelation, which means the words of Scripture and also a higher authority, which is what is claimed to be the living word of God, which is an inference that comes from the church by its own experience and intuition.

For the last few days, I’ve been in London, England and during the course of these days I found myself at Bunhill Fields, that is the cemetery where John Bunyan and so many Puritans are buried, and right across the street Wesley Chapel. We can only imagine that John Wesley would be absolutely appalled that the authority of Scripture in this way would be undermined by so many in his church that this would even be a live question. And when it comes to the Church of Scotland, we do not have to wonder what the reformer John Knox would say about this debate and this report in terms of his own church. He would be mincing no words, and nor should we.