The real and present danger to the church

As the church of Christ, we are sailing in uncharted waters at the present time.

Faced by a novel virus which is highly contagious governments throughout the world have adopted restrictions which have either prevented the church from gathering physically or have allowed reduced numbers with uncomfortable measures such as mask wearing.

Christian leaders are bound to protect the wellbeing of the flock in their care whilst honouring the civil leaders with whose politics or handling of the science they might disagree. Its not an easy route to negotiate.

In Greek mythology Scylla and Charybdis were sea monsters on either side of the strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Famously, the dilemma confronting sailors was that in avoiding one danger (e.g. Scylla) you went too far in the opposite direction and came to grief at the hands of Charybdis. That is very much the danger we face in the church regarding our response to pandemic restrictions.

On the one hand there are those who are militantly opposed to the state’s restrictions and who wish to assert the church’s freedom. Recently 700 church leaders signed a letter which was then offered to the press. I agreed with most of the letter and with the theology of church as a physical gathering of God’s people offering real intimacy. There was one line, however, that stood out.  “We therefore wish to state categorically that we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again.”  That was like a cry of defiance to the authorities, the equivalent of the All Blacks performing the haka before the commencement of a match.  And, unsurprisingly, that was the line that was seized upon by the press as an intimation that the church was prepared to move to civil disobedience over this issue.

Now there are several issues over which I could foresee that faithfulness to the Word of God could constrain me to “obey God rather than man.” I don’t think, however, that another lockdown would be one of them.

None of us would deny that the State has a legitimate concern to regulate matters “around” the church’s worship. We comply with regulations on how we prepare our food, on the protection of vulnerable groups and on how we store private data. Our church activities in that sense are not above the law. What we do not tolerate is the state dictating the content of our worship or preventing us from worshipping at all. Now it is clear that the government has not meddled in the content of our worship and unless we think that being in our building is of the essence of worship it is not clear that they have prevented worship either. In fact, it is a remarkable providence that we were asked to close our buildings to prevent the spread of disease at a time when God- given technology made it possible for us to hold worship online.  We in the west are quick to ramp up our difficulties to the level of persecution. If we want to know what real government persecution of the Christian faith looks like there are plenty of other countries whose churches we could learn from.

So despite the sudden upsurge of epidemiology experts in the church we should be slow to criticise our leaders when they are patently trying to do the best for the community and we should be clearly seen as having that heart for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of those around us. The Westminster Confession of Faith (23, IV), referencing Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, declares  “It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to him: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted.”

But those who veer from the Scylla of asserting our “rights” are in danger of drifting into the Charybdis of accepting the “new normal”. Here I am addressing myself as much as anyone else.

Once we came to terms with the technology many of us found that delivering services online became a new and exciting experience. As church leaders we have been beguiled by the statistics of people connecting online and we saw this new way of doing church as opening new ways of mission. As time has gone on the reality has been more mundane. The early fascination with online church services has not, to my knowledge, led to a huge number of conversions. It seems that there are plenty of people online whose interest is sufficient to register a “view” but not enough to sustain them through a sermon.

On the other hand, there is the danger of a subtle but strongly negative impact on Christians of prolonged use of “online church”. The threat is to our habit as Christians of organising to get together on Sunday -regardless of what else is happening- to be there at 11.00 and then at 6.30pm (or whatever the Lord’s Day norm happens to be).

 Much of the Christian life concerns repeated doing of the right thing because “that’s what we do”. Habit is an extremely important bulwark against backsliding. On a church scale habits coalesce to become church culture. These are the ways in which we express our lives together as Christians.  A culture of prioritising the gathering with other Christians and enjoying real fellowship with one another is something that can be undermined by the attractions of online service.

Online church means that you can skip the discipline of preparation for worship and lounge before a screen in your pyjamas with a coffee mug in one hand. Online church means that you can tick the box of worship later in the day after you have done something which seems more pressing or attractive. Online church means that you are less accountable to others because no one is physically there to see how you are getting on. Online church is a real and present danger to a church culture of person to person Sunday gathering of adults and children built over generations.

Now of course we are glad for the provision of Zoom and Facebook to enable us to connect when the building is not available or to help vulnerable people stay connected.  Likewise, there are churches who because of their size or accommodation arrangements currently remain dependent on digital services.  But we should move as quickly to meeting together as we can and when this pandemic passes (and it will!) all of us should set our faces against online becoming the “new normal”.

The real and present danger to the church

Scottish Identity- A Christian View

When Will Graham greeted the first meeting of his celebration of Hope mission in Falkirk stadium he did so with the words, “I am Scottish, and I have returned to the homeland.” He then pointed out that his people had come to South Carolina from Scotland and if my information is correct he could have gone further and named Glen Conon in Skye as the homeland. His self-identification was greeted warmly but it did seem odd roared out in his Southern drawl.
The question of national identity or even local identity is a key question in today’s world of hypermobility and migration. The question “where you are you from?” isn’t a straightforward one for me to answer. I could answer Coatbridge which is where I stay. I could say St Andrews which is where by an accident of location I was born or Glasgow where I spent seven years as a youngster, but I invariably answer- from Skye because my identity has been shaped by the culture of the home, by the ties of land and people and language. I am emotionally Highland in a way that I am not emotionally Glaswegian for example.
To give that personal illustration is to immediately flag up an objection that many have to the very idea of Scottish identity which his that commitments to belonging to the Borders or the islands or to Orkney are stronger than a commitment to Scottish identity.
The other objection moves in the other direction arguing that globalisation and especially the globalisation of youth culture has rubbed out national distinctives. Young people in Govan are no different from young people in Grimsby and so speaking of national identity makes little sense.
What is a national identity and how does the Bible perceive it. The idea of nationhood in the Bible is complex. There are always elements which reflect God’s grand design as well as elements which reflect the reality of sin. Nationhood and national identity always lies within this tension. Creation reminds us that we have all sprung from the one-man Adam and therefore there is no place for biological or ethnic superiority a point Paul makes in Acts 17. All bear the divine image, and all are sent out into the world to fulfil the creation mandate of filling the earth and subduing it. At the same time men and women are fallen. One of the early expressions of this fallenness is the demonic desire for a unity that will challenge God and results in the creation of the Tower of Babel. The dispersal of the people of Babel into nations speaking national languages is both a judgment and a blessing. It thwarts the co-operation of the builders and frustrates their project but at the same time it reinforces the diversity of creation and drives forward God’s command to fill the earth. So, it is not diversity and language or nationhood that is cursed at Babel but rather the imperialist urge to unite in an anti-God unity of one people one tongue.
The blessing to Abraham includes the promise that he will not only father a great nation but that in turn all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Nations are not, therefore, to be regarded negatively as a symptom of fallenness. They are instruments that God uses to bring in his elect. Paul in his evangelistic address to Greeks in Acts 17 speaks of God’s positive evangelical use of nationhood. “ From one man he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” Acts 17:26,27. So we can rule out the notion that the concept of nationhood is a product of the fall rather than something God owns and blesses.
That still leaves us with some basic problems. To begin with it is very hard to define what a nation is. Indeed, the historian Hugh Seton Watson who has studied the phenomenon more closely than most concluded after years of reflection “I am driven to the conclusion that no ‘scientific definition’ of a nation can be devised; yet the phenomenon has existed and exists. ” -“All that I can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation or behave as if they formed one. It is not necessary that the whole of the population should so feel, or so behave, and it is not possible to lay down dogmatically a minimum percentage of a population which must be so affected. When a significant group holds this belief, it possesses ‘national consciousness’.” ( Hugh Seton-Watson, Professor of Russian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London: Nations & States – Methuen, London 1977)
Another name which comes up in the literature repeatedly is that of Benedict Anderson who speaks of nations as “imagined communities” (Benedict Anderson “Imagined Communities- the Origins and Spread of Nationalism Verso, London 1983)
“In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign
It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.
The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations;
It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. .
Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”
These definitions of nationhood are much more realistic and certainly much less exclusive and potentially dangerous than the blood and soil kind of nationalism which is based on notions of racial purity. National identity then is the imagined community of people who see themselves as one, who perceive a comradeship with people within a defined boundary whom they have never met. And that imagined nationhood is expressed by visible symbols such as flags, emblems, national saints or institutions such as parliaments, churches and sporting teams.

In the case of Scotland, it has always been the case that the nation has been a mixture of many people groups. Think of the mixture of Picts and Celts and Britons and Scots that was the melting point of peoples in early Scotland. Robert the Bruce the iconic Scottish leader was descended from both Anglo Normans as well as Gaelic nobility. But even though Scots were made up from very different racial backgrounds by the early 14th century there was a clear notion of Scottish identity. In the Declaration of Arbroath, the nobles appeal to the Pope based on Scotland being an ancient nation. It even has its own myth of nation hood.
“Most Holy Father and Lord, we know and from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous. Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today. The Britons they first drove out, the Picts they destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, they took possession of that home with many victories and untold efforts; and, as the historians of old time bear witness, they have held it free of all bondage ever since. In their kingdom there have reigned one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken a single foreigner.”
There is a tortuous relationship to the truth of many of these statements, but the point is not whether the story is true or not. The point is that there was a story to tell that sought to account for the cohesion of a very disparate group of people. That Scottish identity survived the union of the crowns in1603 and the Union of Parliament’s in 1707. Historian Tom divine points to the nineteenth century as a time of “profound crisis in Scottish nationhood.” This was the time of Empire when Scots had a strong stake in the economic prosperity and the prestige that came from Britain’s imperial project. It was the time when hotels and railways were labelled “North British” -something which would be unthinkable today. Some commentators also point to the 1843 Disruption as having negative implications for Scottish identity. The Church of Scotland had been culturally dominant, and its General Assemblies were a focal point of national interest but when that unity began to disintegrate an element that contributed towards national identity was diminished. The nineteenth and early 20th century also saw the greatest waves of immigration to Scotland since the Vikings and the Scots and the Britons had settled. Wave after wave of Irish, Lithuanian, Italian, Jewish, Polish Asian and English people settled in Scotland.
Nevertheless, Scottish identity has not only survived but it has strengthened the rise of Scottish Nationalism and the close-run referendum on independence demonstrated.
The mention of “nationalism” leads on to the question of whether that position is compatible with Christianity. In 1982 the Church and Nation Committee of the Church of Scotland produced a report that reflected on the Christian significance of Scottish identity. Professor TF Torrance who was strongly influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his experience of resisting the racist nationalist movement of the German Nazis denounced it in the strongest terms. The report’s affirmation of a religious dimension to national identity showed, “the same subtle twist to biblical ideas given by “German Christians” who provided a “religious dimension” for the racist ideology of National Socialist Germany.”
In 2012 Christianity Today ran a series of articles on patriotism. One contributor made the following distinction between patriotism and nationalism. “Patriotism can be defined simply as love of country—it’s a love that seems to include much of the world’s population. It’s the kind of love that makes you thankful you’re an American whenever you hear the National Anthem, or that makes you thankful you’re British whenever you hear “God Save the Queen,” or that makes you thankful you’re from whatever country whenever your country wins an Olympic medal. It’s that feeling of altruistic gratitude for freedom, or democracy, or culture, or any of the other values people around the world treasure in their nation.

Nationalism, on the other hand, takes that love of country and expands it to mean love of country at the expense of other nations. It’s when someone believes they are better because they come from a place, or that someone else is less valuable because of the country that issued their passport.”
So, there you have it patriotism is good, but nationalism is bad. But the trouble is that one person’s patriotism is another person’s nationalism. And most of the people who lambast nationalism in others are blind to their own nationalism. For example, someone can claim to oppose Scottish Nationalism on religious or ethical grounds whilst being unaware that they harbour notions of British exceptionalism eg. British attributes of doggedness or ingenuity mark British people above the rest of the nations.
But such a binary view of nationalism is not adequate. There are good and bad forms of the phenomenon. As Calvinists we believe both in the original goodness of human culture as well as its tragic fallenness. Nationhood and nationalism have the capacity either to be a thing of beauty that elevates the human spirit or a monster that can unleash terrible suffering. As Christians it is best to recognise the phenomenon of nationalism and to evaluate it from a Christian perspective.
The Left-wing writer Tom Nairn is responsible for the notorious comment “Scotland will not be free until the last Presbyterian minister is hung by the last copy of the Sunday Post.” But he offered the helpful comment on discerning nationalism. “When nationalism is based upon assertions of inherent racial or cultural superiority, the people turn in on themselves and develop a diabolical insensitivity to other nations. That kind of nationalism can lead people to evil and that cannot be denied. On the other hand there is evidence that when a nations does no more than assert the economic ,social and cultural identity of a distinctive group of people, insists that while they are no better than anyone else, they are no worse; insists upon a full entitlement to exercise freedom of judgement in both internal and external policies and contributes constructively to the world’s life it presents dangers to none.”
A helpful definition is that provided by Jonathan Hearn (Rethinking Nationalism : A Critical Introduction; 2006 p11) “Nationalism is the making of combined claims , on behalf of a population, to identity, to jurisdiction and to territory” Note that there is no implication of national exceptionalism nor would the definition in a Scottish context necessitate commitment to independence.
Politically national identity has been opposed by Marxists with Karl Marx famously saying, “The workers have no country… the worker knows no frontier except that between the classes.” Globalisation has fostered the idea of cosmopolitanism which scorns national distinctives claiming instead a single community of humans based on a shared morality especially of mutual respect. But in practice these notions are unworkable.
The evidence is that where there is no national identity cohesion breaks down and individuals begin to look for their roots sometimes in extremist positions. In the oil rich Arab Emirates Dubai has embraced radical globalism. Most of its population are not Dubai citizens do not speak the language, know its history or even eat its traditional food. It has led to a sharp disorientation with many turning to ISIS for a sense of their identity.
To what extent is Scottish national identity shaped by Christian values? The rise of secularism in the west has made religion less of a factor. In 2016, the Pew Research Centre took a closer look at public attitudes toward religion and national belonging in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia. In the survey they asked people whether being Christian or Catholic (reflecting religious traditions in the countries polled) was important to national identity. A median of just 15% across the 13 countries surveyed said it is very important to be Christian to be a true national – significantly fewer than the proportion who pointed to shared language or customs. Only in Greece did most respondents think that being a Christian was important to being Greek.
Historically Scottish identity was strongly influenced by Christianity. At key moments in Scotland’s history when her leaders have had cause to define her identity it was crafted in Christian terms.
The Declaration of Arbroath imagines that the Scots are among the first to be honoured by Christ after his passion and resurrection through the legend of Andrew bring the gospel to Scotland. Christ is described as the King of Kings, the Lord Jesus Christ after his Passion and Resurrection. Declaration stated that if even Bruce betrayed the cause of freedom he would be deposed, and a more faithful king put in his place.
Scotland had enjoyed favoured status- the “filia specialis” of Rome and its popes and had enjoyed freedom and peace until Edward 1 subjected the Scots to terrible suffering and bondage. God in his providence had raised up another lawful Scottish king, “like another Joshua or Maccabeus.”
John Barbour (Archdeacon of St Machar’s Aberdeen) in his poem “The Bruce” written when Scotland’s fortunes were at a low ebb in the reign of a weak successor of Bruce, David II, intended to renew patriotism based on her past. Barbour sets the situation in religious terms He compares the Scots to the Maccabees – a small nation defending their God given right and God given freedom with God’s active help against vastly superior forces.
The thorough going nature of reformation in 16th century Scotland led to a consciousness that to be Scottish was to be Presbyterian to the extent that Rev John Ker a Professor in the United Presbyterian College in his book Scottish Nationality in 1887 could write that “Wallace made a nation and Knox a people.” The Midlothian Journal of 1909 declared that “The civil and religious freedom we boast of, the fairer outlook upon the world that we enjoy, and the independence of thought and action that are peculiarly Scottish were won for us largely through the instrumentality of the great man (Knox)whose memory Scotsmen are determined to keep green and fresh in the minds of their countrymen.”
In the seventeenth century the Covenanters cast Scotland in the role of a modern-day Israel. Scotland was a covenanted nation. Her kings were only to be recognised as lawful monarchs in so far as they upheld the national covenant. And armies rode to battle singing psalms and fighting for Christ’s Crown and Covenant. However much we admire the piety and the courage of the covenanters we surely must acknowledge that this period represented a dangerous confusion over the uniqueness of Biblical Israel as state under God and a slide in the direction of identifying political movements with the gospel.
That “great man” Knox is of course now almost universally ignored or derided in his own country. Knox has featured as the villain of the piece in works by Fionn MacColla, the poems of Edwin Muir and Iain Crichton Smith, the stories of George MacKay Brown and many others. Journalists lazily attribute to Scotland’s dark Calvinism anything they regard as joyless or negative in the life of the nation. And they do so confident that they will not be called out because this is the new narrative. The new emblems of identity are secularism, moral pluralism and materialism.
Which takes us finally to more practical and missional reflections that I want us to close with. Scottish identity is a given. It is in inherently neither good nor bad. But given the 180-degree change from being self consciously a nation under God to being self-consciously a nation guided by shared secular values how does the Christian Church relate to Scottish identity. How important is it to identify as a Scottish denomination? Should we give up on the notion of a national identity informed by Christianity and instead seek a nation where there is a true pluralism and Christian rights are respected. Where does this leave the establishment principle.
These are huge issues and so my contribution by way of response will be quite limited.
First there is the question of the Scottish identity of the Free Church of Scotland. Our challenge is to be truly incarnational in our outreach and that must imply identifying with Scotland the nation. We cannot sit apart from Scotland, we must challenge caricatures that represent us as being bad for the welfare of Scotland and we must seek to identify with the whole of the country. We must be in the best sense of the word an inclusive church. For the Free Church of Scotland in 2018 that means that we must represent the whole of Scotland. We urgently need to present to the country a face that is both Highland and Lowland, both urban and rural, that reflects Doric and Scots as well as Gaelic tradition. One of the inhibitors for growth has been the perception that the Free Church is a Highland denomination chi is unable to connect with the rest of the country. Now that is increasingly a myth, but we need to present the modern face of the Free Church of Scotland to the country as one that reflects the nation. The desire to shed old images should not lead us into self-loathing. We ought to take pride in the spirituality of island communities and we ought to take pride in the fact that we are intimately connected with living Gaelic culture.
In being a Scottish church for all the people of Scotland we ought to remember Andersen’s wide definition of a nation as an imagined community and be as inclusive to the new Scots living within our bounds as well as those who will never see themselves as Scots because they are sojourning here.
In the history of the Church of Scotland an ugly incident of racism surfaced in the 1920 in relation what was referred to as “the Irish Menace” In 1924 the General Assembly had described recent waves of Irish immigration as “a menace to Scottish nationality and civilisation” because of the inferior quality of the type of Irish who emigrated to Scotland and the contrast between their social and moral conduct and those of the “native Scots”. In1927 a Church and nation report called for the regulation of Irish immigration stating “The Church of Scotland whose interests in the past have been so intimately associated with those of the Scottish people has clearly an obligation to defend Scottish nationality such as no other organisation or institution has. The Church has reacted on the nation and the nation has impressed its own genius on the Church in a most notable way. If ever there was a call to the Church of Scotland to stand fast for what men rightly call dearest- their nationality and their traditions- that call is surely sounding now, when our race a culture is faced with a peril chi h, though silent and unostentatious its greatest with which the Scottish people have ever been confronted.” Regular reports on the “Irish Menace” continued up to 1939 and although the Church and Nation’s reports were not inciting the Scots to racial hatred, in the light of what was going on in Nazi Germany in these later years, they are a reminder of how easily we forget the melting pot that is our own Scottish history and the need to welcome and assimilate well people from different backgrounds. The Free Church should be a place where New Scots are not a threat or an embarrassment.
Secondly there are issues of identity and cohesion within the Free Church of Scotland. I was in a discussion recently where someone commented on the fact that you could walk into of several our church plants and city centre churches and not know that you were in a Free Church. There is no sign of the denominational magazine, no interest in Free Church organised events and little recognition that the fellowship is part of a wider Presbyterian body. Now I believe that this is a self defeating approach to making the Free Church relevant. If our more contemporary congregations were willing to more publicly acknowledge their denominational loyalty then they would accelerate the breakdown of some of the old unhelpful stereotypes. But by remaining completely under the radar they appear as generically evangelical churches and, in a day, when people are looking to connect with roots and tradition they are missing out. The denomination should not be the first thing we want people to recognise when they engage with our churches but it shouldn’t be hidden away. There is a good story to tell and much to be gained by encouraging young people especially to discover loyalty to the wider church.
Thirdly I don’t think we should ever give up on the goal of cultural transformation through the gospel. We cannot rest content with the secular nationalism that is offered to the nation today. The answer is not to reject nationhood in favour of cosmopolitanism and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather we should seek the transformation once more of our national identity by the gospel.
As many missiologists have reminded us, Christians are living once more on the edge of society as aliens and strangers. We are pioneer missionaries once more and we can take inspiration from some of those who were courageous and sufficiently confident in the gospel to seek the transformation of a pagan people. I am thinking especially of Columba
Columba came as a believer chastened by failure to begin anew in God’s service. He first established a Christian community where shared life and theological reflection were a reality. Under Columba’s inspirational and charismatic leadership, Iona would become one of the major powerhouses of Christian learning and culture in the whole of Europe.
Once Columba had established a thriving monastic community, he looked beyond Iona’s shores. Columba was at home, culturally in Dalriada where he had settled as the culture was shaped by centuries of immigration from Gaelic speaking Ulster but beyond was the enemy territory of Pict Land. Columba was determined to make the dangerous journey through the densely wooded mountains by journeying through Scotland’s natural waterways of river and lochs.
Columba eventually arrived in Inverness and met with the Pictish King Bridei. He did not convert to Christianity, but Columba had won his respect and ultimately Columba and his mission would succeed in transforming the pagan Picts to a civilised and cultured Christian people. Interestingly, the Picts not only adopted the new Christian faith but also the Gaelic language of Columba and his monks. This unification by faith, language and culture would eventually lay the foundations for a united kingdom of Scotland under a Christian King.

Maybe its time to go back to the rock from which we were hewn and rediscover the importance of Christian community, holistic Christianity, evangelistic boldness and the vision for a Scottish identity one again shaped by allegiance to Christ the King of kings.


Scottish Identity- A Christian View

Reclaiming Sonship

prodigal 2

We had a ministry student on his six- week placement this summer. It was a great time of talking about ministry, learning from each other and having the privilege of passing something on to the next generation of preachers. One stand out comment from our conversations was the admission that he had never heard a sermon preached on the subject of adoption.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked. We think about adoption/sonship/ entering God’s family the way we think about domestic plumbing. We know it’s important, but it doesn’t shape our thinking.
But it should.
Sonship (a broader term than adoption including such things as the new birth), is a doctrine which has all the aspects necessary to communicate the whole gospel. As Sinclair Ferguson has pointed out it is covenantal, Christocentric and redemptive historical. It is covenantal in that God’s work in creation, redemption and renewal is framed by commitments between Father and Son. It is Christocentric in that our experience of sonship is modelled on the eternal love the Father has for the Son. It is redemptive historical in that the unfolding story of redemption is played out in terms of an ideal sonship (creation), estrangement (Fall) the story of the seeking Father (redemption) and renewal (the return home).
These three distinctives demonstrate that Sonship is not some sideshow that can be alluded to now and again. Rather it has a comprehensiveness which makes it capable of explaining the gospel without distortion. It is an organising principle for the architecture of Biblical theology.
There are other lenses by which we view God’s plan of salvation. Covenant, kingdom, creation etc. can all lay claim to be the floor plan to the house of redemption. In truth – like four gospels- we need the unifying vision provided using all the perspectives. But Sonship is not only a neglected perspective in need of recovery. It is the richest and, in many ways, the most culturally persuasive of the metaphors at our disposal.
Professor John Murray saw that. He famously described adoption as “the apex of redemptive privilege”. Sinclair Ferguson has long championed sonship and JI Packer has in his chapter on Sonship in “Knowing God”, one of the most sublime pieces of writing on the subject. However, it falls to us lesser mortals charged with the tasks of preaching and evangelism to put the theme of Sonship to work in communicating the Good News.
Think of the way we tell the gospel. Typically, it is framed in kingly terms. We are created under God’s rule but we usurp that rule and sit on the throne of our lives etc. Or in legal terms (think of the sinner at the bar of God’s justice finding in the judge an unexpected ally.) But few of the people we are addressing in modern Scotland relate to kings and thrones terribly well and the legal picture of God the judge threatens to obscure the loving, familial side to God’s character. With Sonship, it is different. To speak of God as Father is to speak of one who both rules and loves. To speak of salvation in terms of the need for a restored family relationship is to resonate with a deep longing within all of us. In a society where family break-down is endemic, we speak so as to hit the mark when we select the arrow of Sonship from the Biblical quiver.
Sonship is also the medicine we need for many of the spiritual ills from which we suffer in the church. Keller, Ferguson and others have shown us how the parable of the two sons points to two different ways of avoiding God as father- legalism and antinomianism. Some of us in the church struggle with the idea of a God who loves and accepts us and we live our lives struggling to earn what can only be received as a gift. Others of us, sadly, believe the lie that God is no good father and snatch at the good life on our own terms. The great antidote to both errors is a heartfelt experience of the love of the Father.
I’ve put a 12-week discipleship course together using Sonship as the lens through which to view everything from evangelism to the sacraments. If you’d like to trial it, I’d be glad to send it on (with the understanding that you feed me back your response) I would also love to hear of your stories- how you struggled with an earthly parent perhaps or how rediscovering the truth that God is your Father and Jesus your elder brother has impacted you. If you would be willing to share these to I would be most grateful.

Reclaiming Sonship

Kidnapped (and church culture)


I am the proud possessor of a 75-year-old copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. It just happens to be my favourite book, one that I have read again and again. It belonged initially to my mother and is captivatingly illustrated by old-style colour plates.
It’s a story- let me remind you- about a young Lowland Boy David Balfour who goes to claim his inheritance only to be kidnapped and taken away on a boat destined for the Carolinas. However, on the way the boat picks up a shipwrecked Highlander called Allan Breck Stewart who is travelling with money for his clan chief now in hiding after the ‘45 rebellion. David uncovers a plot to murder Allan and take his money and he alerts him. This throws the two of them together. There is a fight in the round house of the boat which results in an agreement that Allan will be put down off shore but in the end, they are shipwrecked and the two new friends find themselves washed ashore on Mull. There follows a series of adventures as they make their way south again. Although they are very different by background and personality a David and Jonathan friendship develops. When they are in flight following the shooting of the Red Fox (Colin Roy Campbell) opportunities present for each to desert the other. However an enduring friendship has been forged and together they win through numerous dangers until they eventually confront the wretched uncle who had conspired to have David sent away to slavery.
The theme behind this brilliant story line is that of a fundamental dualism in Scottish identity. You have one side of the Scottish personality represented by Allan Breck Stewart- the Jacobite, the clansman and the other by David Balfour the Lowland, Whig, Presbyterian. On the one side, there is the Gael who likes a good fight and is fiercely proud, drawn to lost causes tending to mysticism, whose culture is the family orientated land- focussed society of the north. And on the other side the pragmatic, enlightenment shaped, more individualistic and legal minded outlook of the southerner.
I would argue that these tensions come into play in relation to the Free Church and its perception in Scotland. The Free Church’s powerbase is still largely in the north and the Highlands. Perhaps just as importantly, the perception persists that it is a Highland Church and so for many Christians who might otherwise have found a home in the Free Church there is the sense that to move to the Free Church would involve a cultural as well as an ecclesiastical shift.
How does the cultural background of the Free Church present itself? Well, there is the value of kinship where being connected is important. That has led to some Lowland congregations being gatherings of Highland expatriates. Economic, cultural and ecclesiastical changes mean that is much less true today but the impression lingers of Highland outposts in the cities. The Highland temperament is sometimes reflected in a style of preaching which is more passionate but often text based, less hermeneutically controlled and on, occasion, mystical.
The value of kinship surfaces within the models of leadership in the church. The Free Church is not averse to making idols of its minsters but more typically leadership is of a more collegiate nature. There is a greater fear of offending members of the family and the eldership has a stronger role in shaping direction. There is, at a denominational level, a stronger cohesiveness or family identity than pertains in the Church of Scotland. Ministers coming in from the outside will meet with a denomination which is comfortable in its own skin as a Presbyterian church.
On the other hand, evangelicals within the Church of Scotland have become accustomed to a more congregational outlook. The tendency is to set themselves apart from the wider family. They are less concerned about offending the other family members. The “Stillite” stream in the Church of Scotland with its fellowship rooted outside the church in the Crieff Fellowship laid emphasis on the importance of strong ministerial leadership, seeing off resistant kirk sessions and changing church culture by prayer and persistence. Confrontation at a congregational level was regarded as the norm. At a denominational level, it was a case of “keep your head” down because the important work was in the parish.
As an evangelical in the Church of Scotland your identity comes not from being part of the clan but from a commitment to systematic expository ministry. This was the commitment that was required for membership of “Crieff “and a commitment that continues to define allegiance.
For me, the entry to the Free Church of Scotland was easy. My cultural background is Highland and I knew or was related to many people in the Free Church. It is my natural constituency relationally and theologically.
But Christian unity is not predicated on people coming from the same background. In fact, the glory of the church is that by bringing together diverse strands of humanity the wisdom of God is shown in the making of a new people who are one in Christ and whose deep unity transcends all other differences. The unity we have in the church is very different from the unity that is found in the golf club or the Orange Lodge.
Which is why it is sad that at a time when visible unity is so desirable in Scotland anyone could rule out joining the Free Church because they perceive it to be culturally Highland. Sometimes the accusation “too ethnic” reflects a concern that mission to the other cultures in Scotland would be limited. Sometimes it is simply taste. That the Free Church is too Highland, rustic, not middle class enough is the real issue for many as they walk with nose held into the arms of independency.
That is a real shame. In the end of the day David Balfour and Allan Breck Stewart made a good team. In Kidnapped neither culture can do without the other. Both individuals learn a great deal from each other and are stronger together than they would be going it alone. The very name of the vessel on which they meet -the Covenant – is significant because whilst on it they find themselves thrown into a covenant of friendship and loyalty in which they both achieve their goals. And that must be true of the bringing together of cultures in the Free Church. Scotland needs a strong Presbyterian church to speak to the nation in accents it recognises. Highland congregations should be comfortable in their own skin and not be apologetic for the strengths of family, language and identity. But the Free Church is a national church and, as any visitor to the General Assembly now notices, much more diverse than ever before. Allan Breck is holding out a welcoming hand to many more potential David Balfours who will make her more and more complete.

Kidnapped (and church culture)

JFK and the Church

The US election is behind us and the post-poll analysis continues to seek for reasons why Americans were faced with the dilemma of voting for one of two candidates who in different ways fell well short of the decency and morality expected in such an office. You can’t blame democracy because democracy simply reflects the people who vote and in a culture which elevates personal freedom and the pursuit of happiness above all else it is no surprise when in the one corner the candidate champions a woman’s right to end a human life and in the other corner we have a philanderer and a misogynist who ultimately rises to power by fuelling fear and insecurity. Many of our American Christian brothers and sisters are feeling raw and chastened as their new political reality exposes the drift from Christian values of self-sacrifice and duty that has occurred under their watch.

John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech on January 20th 1961 could not have been a greater contrast to the priorities of the current President -elect. At no point in the speech was that more evident than in Kennedy’s reference to Latin America. “To our sister republics south of our border we offer a special pledge — to convert our good words into good deeds — in a new alliance for progress — to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.  But one line, rightly famous, demonstrated that the Christian principles which had helped shape the nation could still be called into service. “Ask not what your country can do for you -ask what you can do for your country.”

But it’s easy to dwell on the problems of other people. Less easy to discern the same tendencies at home. The drift towards self-centred narcissism is one of the symptoms of the contemporary church scene in our own culture. Church for many attenders is about meeting my needs and finding maximum fulfilment. In a land where every school child was once able to define our purpose on earth as a “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” that great maxim has been reduced to “finding maximum enjoyment” We, too, have enshrined “the pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right.

Whilst no one should be arguing for unfriendly worship services and damp buildings the opposite extreme is increasingly encountered- worship which has been shaped by market preferences rather than to glorify God. One small town Scottish congregation proudly states that “Through a variety of Sunday services we aspire to offer worship in styles helpful to newcomers and long-standing worshipers alike, and to all ages.” Tellingly, the language comes close to the idea of offering up worship to the worshippers.

The decline in the Christian population has been accompanied by a growth in a small number of larger churches that are better equipped to meet the needs of worshippers for diverse friendships, youth ministry, quality music and pleasant surroundings.  At the beginning of every new academic session these churches engage in an ecclesiastical beauty contest to attract the new intake of young people who are thus conditioned further to “ask what the church can do for you.”  Could we imagine what a difference would result if an army of young evangelical talent was released to energise church revitalisation or church planting?

Church planting continually struggles to take off because of the reluctance of larger churches to send their best people to locations which are unattractive. There is no shortage of church plants in the trendy west ends of our cities but few want to fund church plants or join core teams to break new ground in Hawick or Wick.

And rural churches typically suffer from proximity to large “successful” evangelical churches in neighbouring towns. It is a depressing fact that our desire to have needs met has so overturned our doctrine of the church that in some parts of the Highlands villages are emptied of significant populations of Christians commuting to the better option.

If Scotland is mission field territory (and it is) then we need to rediscover the missionary mind set if the large tracts of population remote from flagship churches are to be reached. We will need to find people who are asking the question “What can I do for the church?” and are prepared to be deployed for the kingdom and forego (even for a season) some of the attractions of more established churches.

Our society is very mobile. People move around for education, for employment and many retire to new places. I happen to think that mobility is a mixed blessing and that there is much to be said for being rooted. But reality being what it is, it would be wonderful if Christians were motivated primarily in their re-location decisions by the question, “What can I do for the church?”

I have met with glowing examples of such an attitude. I had a wonderful time ministering at a Highland communion a year ago. The congregation was being revitalised. In no small part the reason lay in the decision of a young couple to relocate with their family and serve the church. Their presence had made it easier for others to join. It made my heart soar! Athole Rennie’s church planting in Leith was encouraged by young people who, early on, took the costly decision to give up work and relocate to get things moving. Andy Longwe in Cumbernauld is blessed by folks who have mobilised for the gospel. As has Campbeltown. The list could go on.

All the above is not to diminish the importance of having large, equipping churches. As Ray Evans points out in his great book Ready Steady Grow large churches are often more effective at certain ministries because of their multiplied contacts and resources of buildings, finance and people. But we want churches to grow big because of effective evangelism not Christian consumerism. And we want big churches to be much greater risk takers in sending out their best people to resource the mission frontline.

There are no rules about what kind of church someone should attend. There is, (apologies to JFK), one mantra that helps in making good decisions, “Do not ask what the church can do for you. Ask what you can do for the church.”

President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961.

JFK and the Church

Why I am a Presbyterian

Presbyterianism is the ruling of the church by representative elders. On the surface of things that seems a pretty sensible idea. You would also think that since Scotland is widely regarded as the land that birthed it that Presbyterianism would be regarded as something of a national treasure.
Not so. Our media, intent on its great project of re-writing Scottish history are of course only too eager to lump Presbyterianism in with its other bogey men of “repressive Calvinism,” “gloomy Sabbatarianism” etc. etc. That kind of attitude from the secularising press is to be expected. Less so when similar negativity is found nearer home. At times it seems that the myth of Presbyterianism as a malignant force has entered into the thinking of her own children.
There are various reasons for that. For some the myth has simply begun to take hold. If you are continually being told to connect Presbyterianism with church splits, heavy handed bureaucracy and a combative way of doing church you can end up thinking it must be so.
For those like myself raised within the Church of Scotland the temptation was always to think congregationally. As far as engaging with things beyond the local congregation the mind set tended to be “here be dragons.” When you have ministered in a situation where the presbytery was the enemy and the General Assembly required a vast army of administrators to service it you can end up wanting to throw out the baby with the bath water.
However, Presbyterianism per se is not the culprit. Once any church ceases to walk in line with the gospel it will begin to show all the symptoms of an ailing, worldly institution (competitive, combative behaviour, division, and the institution usurping the organism.
Why then stick with Presbyterianism rather than the rest?
Firstly, Presbyterianism, because of its connectionalism reflects Biblical community. Biblical religion is family religion. God who dwells in a community of love in the Trinity deals with us as communities, families, tribes, nations, generations of people. The western individualism that pervades much of Christianity (“which church meets my needs?”) is miles away from the corporate mind set of the Bible.
Presbyterianism enables the strong to support the weak. Our own congregation in Coatbridge received support from other stronger congregations for a time because our presbytery sees it as important to have a Free Church presence here. Now, by God’s grace, we are strong enough to help other congregations who are being revitalised. Independency may enable individual congregations to grow bigger but it does not carry the same obligation to look out for the congregation or the minister going through a season of difficulty. It is a joy in our Glasgow and Argyll presbytery to hear reports from a wide range of ministries from urban church planting to outreach to Muslims to revitalisation in remote rural contexts. Recently one young minster labouring in a tough situation spoke of being ministered to by the presbytery meetings he had attended. These provide opportunities for encouraging and challenging one another and for those in small or struggling situations to know that they are organically part of something much bigger.
Similarly, the church is not served well by imposing secular ideals of democracy on its structure (rule by church meeting). Rule by assemblies of elder reflects the fact that God deals with representative heads (most notably in the family). Presbyterianism forces elders to take the wider church seriously.
Connectionalism is closely aligned to accountability. You don’t have to be a Presbyterian church to be confessional but holding leaders to confessional standards is more difficult the further away churches move from meaningful connection.
Presbyterianism at its best takes seriously the unity of the church. I have never bought into the mantra “What Scotland needs is just gospel churches”. In other words, we have moved beyond the age of denominations and we should just concentrate on healthy individual congregations. I am all in favour of healthy gospel congregations but we need more than that. We need to express our unity in Christ in organic, visible ways. “Families of churches”, “networks” and “gospel partnerships” may all be the flavour of the month but to the extent to which they avoid organic unity they all shy clear of the clear Biblical church unity that reflects the Trinity and glorifies God. That, of course, also means that disunity between gospel loyal Presbyterian churches is completely anomalous and has to be addressed.
I am a Presbyterian because Presbyterianism is the way of doing church that seems to fit most logically with Calvinism and covenant baptism. I’m going to push the boat out here and suggest that other ecclesiologies which stress individualism and autonomy are a more natural fit for Arminian and credo baptist beliefs. Certainly, Presbyterianism is historically associated with a stress on divine sovereignty.
Finally, Presbyterianism is identifiably Scottish! The average Scot understands “minister”, “kirk” and General Assembly”. They know what you’re talking about. They’re not so sure about “pastors” who are in church “partnerships.” In a missionary context it makes sense to use language that is familiar and minimises the gap in cultures.
So here is my wish list:
Let’s have the courage to be Presbyterian and recognise the treasure that we have here.
Let’s build bridges with those Reformed groups who are convinced Presbyterians but are separated from us as well as those who have become disenchanted. Pragmatism must not obscure the goal of a national Presbyterian church. The Free Church of Scotland as the biggest of the conservative denominations should take the lead in generous, risk taking ecumenism.
Let’s do all we can to avoid the business, the legal or the corporate models of “doing church” and guard jealously Biblical Presbyterianism- Presbyterianism characterised by true worship, openness, mutual support, spontaneous moments of prayer, and creative, ambitious, missional thinking.

Why I am a Presbyterian

Morality and the Price of Milk

It’s a nice feeling when you discover that your particular commitment on an issue is not such a minority position as you had thought. That happened to me this week in relation to the issue of justice in farming.
First of all some of my Facebook friends began sharing links highlighting the crisis in the dairy farming sector. Some were posting ads that declared a willingness to pay more for milk. Then the media began reporting objectively on the direct action being taken as protest against the unfair treatment of the supermarkets. We began to hear of farmers buying up the entire milk stocks at outlets of the chief culprits, Morrison’s and Asda. There were pictures of two dairy heifers being taken down the aisle of one Staffordshire store to the amusement of all looking on. There was a clear communication of the issues. Farmers need 32 p per litre to cover all their costs. The supermarkets pay them 24 p per litre. That is unsustainable and for a typical family dairy farm with 150 cows it amounts to an annual loss of £90,000.
Now this kind of protest has happened before but this time it seemed different. Despite the unwillingness of some of the main farmers’ union to throw its weight behind the protests there seemed genuine and increasing public support. And then came the breakthrough when Morrison’s announced that it was to create a special line of milk which would be sold at a premium of 10 p per litre all of which would go back to the dairy industry. This would be sold alongside their own standard milk. ( I’m not altogether convinced by this move but it did represent a start).
The most interesting moment for me came when David Handley the leader of Farmers for Action spoke of the issue being one of “morality” He was speaking of the cynical action of supermarkets who defend their prices as “loss leaders” to entice shoppers into the store but actually make the farmer suffer the loss rather than their own business. That is very true but I want to go further. Much further.
The way we value food and the people who produce food is at the very core of what it is to be human. The Bible, not least in its first three chapters, describes a threefold set of relationships which define us as humans. At the apex of this triangle is our relationship to God. We are designed to reflect God and find our highest enjoyment in him. Directed by our relationship with God is our relationship with other people and with the non-human world. Because God rules with grace our relationship with the land is to be gracious. We are called to “tend and care for it” rather than exploit it. We are to eat of the fruits of the earth with thankfulness. We are to be mindful of how our use of the land reflects our submission to God and our obligations to other human beings.
Agriculture is different from other activities in that it is so closely connected to issues that are at the heart of who we are. Some of these issues include care for the environment, food, commitment to place, the aesthetics of landscape and traditional values associated with farm work such as self- reliance and hard work.
The public, subconsciously at least, recognise some of these connections, hence the outcry at the injustice of the milk supply chain.
There are many Christian voices in that protest and that is as it should be. Sadly we are often guilty as Christians of compartmentalising our faith so that we fail to apply the Bible to issues of economics and the environment as though God’s dominion did not extend to these areas. That is a travesty of the truth and a false and unbiblical pietism.
If supermarkets are allowed to get away with treating their milk suppliers unjustly there are two very obvious consequences. Firstly family operated farms cannot survive this kind of aggressive financial pressure. There will be fewer farmers and the consequence of driving people out of farming is to have fewer people who are in meaningful contact with the land and therefore in a position to care for it.
Secondly cheap food cheapens food. It affects the way we value it and reduces our thankfulness for God’s goodness. Milk, for example, is not only a highly nutritious food it represents enormous commitment by the farmer. When we set a value on milk that reflects what we think of a lifetime spent in learning the skills of animal husbandry. It reflects our value on a commitment to milking animals two or three times a day and providing the highest standards of animal care and nutrition.
The trend in society is to view food as fuel to be purchased cheaply, consumed quickly and wasted carelessly. That is a ghastly trajectory that reflects a refusal to honour God.
And for that reason it is good that there is an outcry. CS Lewis famously wrote “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one!” When this experience is multiplied it becomes a movement. I hope that is the case here.

Morality and the Price of Milk

Fabulous France (and crazy Christians)

It was great to be back in Hope Church again with our people there. I always know that I have had a good holiday when I am itching to get back to preaching in my own place again and this was the case on Sunday. Added to that was a certain energy from brothers and sisters there who are certainly in good spirits and enthusiastic to work for the gospel.
The holiday in question was a ten day break in the Loire Valley in France. Now I love France for a variety of reasons. They have a food culture, they speak a beautiful language, they actually see the sun in summer and they have good roads. But they are also one of the most secular countries in the world and that despite the fact that a church building dominates every town and village in the country.
The Loire is of course full of chateaux. Many of these are connected with the French monarchy including two we visited- Amboise and Chambord. This year was the 500th anniversary of the accession of Francis 1st one of France’s great kings. He was a true Renaissance man being a patron of the arts, a jobbing poet himself and builder of some of France’s most beautiful chateaux. He even persuaded Leonardo Da Vinci to move to Amboise and provided him with a stately home and resources to continue his work.
Francis’ attitude towards the growing Protestant movement shifted and was probably determined by his desire to have authority over the church. However, he was minded towards moderate reform of the church at one point and even dared to suggest to Pope Clement VII that he convene a church council in which Catholic and Protestant rulers would have an equal vote in order to settle their differences. His mood changed after the loony action of some Protestants known as the Affair of the Placards in which notices declaring the evils of the Mass were pinned in prominent places throughout the country including the door of the king’s chamber in Amboise. This put a stop to the mood for reform and led to dozens of Protestants being burned alive.
Which brings us to France’s greatest export, John Calvin. Calvin’s great summary of Christian doctrine, the Institutes of the Christian Religion was dedicated to Francis 1 and was written two years after Affair of the Placards. In his preface he makes a bold plea for the persecuted evangelicals and for recognition of the church on the basis of the pure preaching of God’s Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments.
Calvin’s task was made all the more difficult by the antics of the Anabaptists (“Re-baptisers). In Germany they had proclaimed Munster the new Zion and introduced polygamy whilst in Amsterdam an Anabaptist prophet persuaded his hearers that the return of Christ was imminent and that no clothes would be needed in heaven. Running naked in the wintry streets they were soon put under arrest.

Calvin’s appeal is a gem of common sense and courage. Common sense in distancing himself from the two extremes of his day. Courage in the bold manner of his calling for Francis to exercise his authority for the preservation of the persecuted Protestants. Ultimately Francis and his successors were not persuaded and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 brought the Reformation in France to a halt.
Weirdness doesn’t advance the gospel. It just makes people nervous. I don’t know what impact the only “eglise evangelique” near us was making on its community but when the lady behind me started to make noises like a fire alarm during a time of prayer it certainly made me uncomfortable.
The cause of the gospel in Scotland is, like 16th century France too precarious to indulge in wackiness. Whether it’s spiritual pyrotechnics or obscessing over exclusive psalmody it just looks plain weird to the onlooker. Far better to follow our favourite Frenchman and champion the cause of the downtrodden and proclaim the gospel fearlessly and intelligibly.

Fabulous France (and crazy Christians)