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

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

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)