Unconvinced. - an open letter from one who was there.
Letham St Marks meeting of evangelicals - Friday 14th June 2013
By Rev Philip Patterson.
At the meeting we had recently in Perth I stood up and said that I was unconvinced by the argument/s to stay within the Church. I was greeted by a profound silence, (though many later thanked me for my thoughts). I attended that meeting because I was looking for a thorough, reasoned, biblical discussion as to why we as evangelicals should commit ourselves to stay within the church. I'm afraid to say that I'm still looking for that thorough, reasoned biblical discussion.
That's not to say that I wasn't profoundly encouraged by the presence of 350 evangelicals all singing off the same song sheet, as it were. But I do think that there was something essential missing from our discussions, as I tried, failingly, to point out.
That missing essential was a good Biblical argument for maintaining the unity of the church in the current circumstances. Yes we heard many very good 'opinions' as to why we should stay, but these opinions were diverse and individual, and few of them were particularly well argued from a scriptural point of view.
It just feels to me as if many have made the decision to stay, and so will find any argument to justify that stance. What we have ended up with is a group divided over why it is staying; some are staying because of their 'calling' some for the opportunities for 'mission' some for the purposes of 'unity'.
As a group we are also divided over how long we will stay; some are staying to see what happens in 2015, some say they will stay until the 'Authority of Scripture' is surrendered (when exactly is that?), some are staying until the 'uniqueness of Christ' is surrendered, some until they are 'called' away to another place, some will 'never' leave - So as a group of evangelicals, we are neither united in purpose or vision! - And through it all the one thing that was sadly missing was a thorough, reasoned biblical perspective.
It was maintained at the meeting that those who had already left the church (most of them personal friends of mine) have done so prematurely, and thus watered down the 'evangelical' witness within the church. Well I know for certain, that had we 'evangelicals' been more united, had the reasons for staying been more convincingly argued from Scripture, and had a plan for us all to act together been forthcoming sooner, many of those who have now left would not have left so soon.
It is the disparate nature of the evangelical cause within the church that has convinced many to act independently, and it is Scripture that has convinced them that they do so, rightly. So come on please, convince ME that I should be aiming to stay, not to leave, and do it please from a biblical point of view.
My concern is that in the absence of such a reasoned thorough biblical position there is a kind of quiet admission that no such argument FOR staying actually exists - instead we have all found our own personal reasons for staying. It is significant that those who have chosen to leave already, have all left for the same reason! They are united in purpose, and we are not!
In my view there would need to be a robust argument to mitigate the teaching of 1 Corinthians 5. I have not yet heard such an argument.
While there are arguments from Scripture (1 Corinthians 7:20-21 Titus 2:9-10) to remaining in a calling (specifically in reference to slavery) to effect the purposes of the Gospel, such a position is not a long term 'commit to stay in strategy', but much more a gain freedom 'if possible' and 'work your way out strategy'. And so I personally am committed to the later.
Maintaining that 'I was called to this church and would need to be called away' is not an argument to stay, as my calling at least, is to ministry of Word and Sacrament, not to a 'church,' or a denomination. And even at that, ones 'feeling' of personal call does not mitigate against a specific teaching of Scripture.
I am really concerned, because, If we are insisting that the church maintain a biblical point of view on the current issue of homosexuality and the clergy, and yet we in turn ignore the Scriptures when they clearly teach us how we should act in these very circumstances (1 Corinthians 5) then we have lost the whole argument. We have become hypocrites, insisting that the church adhere to Scripture, when we are not ourselves!
I for one would like to hear a thorough reasoned theological discussion that pays heed to 1 Corinthians 5-7, and doesn't ignore it, as we seem to have done so far! This personal point of view brings me to the evening speakers at our meeting in Perth:
I told Kenny Borthwick that I thought his exposition of John 7 - where Jesus waited to go up to the feast - was fantastic. I thought Kenny made an excellent point encouraging us all to 'Get out tick back' and become evangelisTIC, - yes, Kenny was inspirational. BUT nothing he said needed the conclusion that this would be best achieved by staying within the church of Scotland.
Certainly we as Evangelicals need to be much more 'mission' focused in an increasingly secular society, but it could equally be argued that this might best be achieved through separation not by staying in. In fact those we reach with the Gospel are wholly uninterested by which banner we do it under.
I did pick up on a minor point, when Kenny referred to the current issue as an issue of sexual immorality within the church. Can we please, please admit, that this is not ONLY an issue of sexual immorality but a much more serious issue of Biblical Authority. This is not merely an issue of purity verses unity (as one contributor announced) but an issue of truth versus false teaching.
This brings me to Andy Magowan's shortened version of his 7 points for staying within the church. I have the greatest respect for Andy, but I'm afraid his theological treatise does not convince me that we should over ride the clear teaching of Scripture. In fact all of Andy's 7 points could be used to support an argument FOR separation.
Please allow me a little license to illustrate:
1. Nothing has changed. Or as I like to call it the 'Three monkey's argument.' Of course things have changed and are changing. As evangelicals our complaint isn't that the letter of church law has been altered or may be altered in the future, our argument surely, is that this issue challenges the authority of Scripture, a tenet upon which our church, our ordination, and indeed our nation was once built.
Such circumstances should at least dictate that we have some kind of a 'plan' for separation should separation become necessary. Even if we can convince ourselves that things have not changed, we should be prepared for change if it comes, we should have a point of departure clearly articulated (reasoned from Scripture). We should not simply live in hope that we might be able to stay indefinitely.
So let me say again, even if the letter of the law has not yet changed (at least until 2015), surely we need to prepare to act together if it does! I for one would be much more committed to staying longer if there was also a 'plan' for united separation when/if things change.
2. God and the Nations. - God speaks of nations, not churches.
The argument here is that the best vehicle for reaching a nation is a national church. Again, I'm not convinced. Andy is right to point out that God's concern is not for denominations, but for nations, yet God's vehicle for reaching those nations was NEVER a national church, but usually the lone voice of a single prophet.
Many seem to think that only the Church of Scotland can possibly reach Scotland, such an argument is naive, as it ignores the great work being done for the cause of Christ in other denominations, and it ignores the fact that God is blessing that work.
If God is only interested in nations, and not denominations, then ANY argument that is based on the need for any one denomination (Church of Scotland or otherwise) is a contradiction.
The fact is that the best vehicle for reaching Scotland is a local church of any denomination preaching the Truth of the Gospel. (That sadly is by no means a certainty with the Church of Scotland)
Anyway don't we maintain that the TRUE church is not 'visible' but 'invisible' made up of believers from all nations, cultures and creeds and denominations? To me there seems a naive arrogance in maintaining that God's emphasis on nations somehow supports the need for the Church of Scotland. It could equally be argued that it supports the need for a NEW Scottish church.
Surely we as Evangelicals should be speaking of the Church IN Scotland, not OF Scotland, and we should begin to realise that we have much more in common with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations than we do with many so called brothers and sisters in the Church of Scotland.
If one church really is an absolute necessity, the best way to achieve it is surely to seek the unification of all believers in every denomination, and not just naively focus on the structures of one!
3. The reformed doctrine of church.
Andy Argues that John Calvin wasn't a separatist! (Now there's a revisionist view of history if ever I heard one!) He argued that Calvin reacted against the Anabaptists and insisted that no church was 'pure' and that the wheat and tares must grow together until harvest.
I totally agree, no church is pure, and those who claim such are mistaken. Again what matters is the purity of the invisible church, not the visible.
However to cite Calvin's doctrine of church as a reason to stay within the Church of Scotland, completely ignores the reason why Calvin and the reformers left the Roman Church - over the issue of the Authority of Scripture! - the very reason at the heart of our problems today!
Surely if we are honouring the legacy of the reformers and holding to their core doctrine of Sola Scriptura, we should at least be planning to do as they did, - and leave!
4. The sovereignty of God.
The thinking goes, that if God is sovereign, we shouldn't be so eager to give up on the church, because God can surely turn it around.
Again I find that I absolutely agree - God is sovereign and he can turn situations around to his glory. Yet the train of thought here is more fatalistic than Calvinistic.
I have no doubt that God can change the Church of Scotland, but will he? And shouldn't we be prepared if he doesn't?
My ascertain here is that the sovereignty of God cannot be used as an argument for staying in nor for leaving the church, it simply isn't relevant at this point. God will bless and rule over whatever decision is made according to his will.
Our position should not be a fatalistic 'God is sovereign' lets stay and see what happens. Our position should be, lets see what Scripture says about our current situation. Lets find out what the WILL of God is in our current situation.
As yet I haven't heard a scriptural argument that pertains to the will of God and staying within the church!
As it stands the will of God may be persuading some to stay, some to go, or some to stay for a while. It seems to me that God is confused - or maybe, just maybe, it is we that are confused. Either way we need a Biblical remit for the way we are acting, not just individual interpretations of various isolated Scriptures and indeed personal opinions - isn't this the very thing we criticised the revisionists for? True unity, is a unity of seeking the will of God and acting upon it!
5. The Providence of God. - The growth of the evangelical witness in the church.
As Eric Alexander is quoted as saying, 'once you could hold a meeting of evangelicals in a phone box.' Now we have 350 at a meeting in Perth.
Andy maintains that soon the Evangelical witness within the Church of Scotland will be in the majority, and that this being so it can't possibly be the will of God to have that witness leave the church!
REALLY? - Why not? Maybe the will of God is exactly that, - to grow the evangelical witness within the church to such an extent that it can leave and support itself as an alternative to the liberal national church! - but have we really bothered to find out what the will of God actually is?
Just because our collective opinion reasons that leaving isn't God's will doesn't mean it automatically is God's will. Again a Biblical argument is needed if we are to make such sweeping decisions on behalf of the Almighty. My point is, that we don't seem to be considering the alternative view at all - that God may be providing for an alternative and a NEW beginning.
6. The Sin of Schism
Is Schism always a sin? And if it is, is it always the worst sin? Does it outweigh, for example, a church's surrender of the Authority of Scripture? And if a church surrenders the Authority of Scripture is separation really a schism? How can it be a schism if we are leaving a church that is no longer a church?
Schism is always troublesome I agree, possibly never desirable, but that doesn't mean that it isn't the will of God. I for one don't think that the unity of the 'church' is the be all and end all, surely Biblical truth matters much more than unity?
Then of course there is 1 Corinthians 5, that passage we all seem to be avoiding:
Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? 7Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
Here we have a God given mandate for separation, especially in the current circumstances, and its being conveniently ignored. Andy is right to point out that Schism is never desirable, but it isn't a sin when Scripture firmly supports it!
7. Learning from History.
Apparently church splits have ALWAYS been destructive in the history of our church! Really?? I find this a highly selective point of view.
There have certainly been splits over minor issues in the past that have damaged the witness of the church. But equally we have a very strong historical precedence, in the Disruption of 1843, for a split that was highly successful. A split that grew the evangelical church and witness, and ultimately led to at least a partial reunification at a later date when the argument was resolved in favour of the disruption.
History is patchy when it comes to church splits, but in some cases a multiplication of denominations has allowed diversity in unity! My own experience of denominationalism growing up in Northern Ireland was a healthy one in the main; where Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Reformed P and even Free P and others, in a given locale, would cooperate in mission, and worship frequently together. (yes, admittedly we did exclude the Catholics!)
This kind of unity in diversity also brought accountability. False teaching was quickly identified, and challenged, and the fellowship of believers across denominations was enriched. No one, and no denomination stood on its own, and no minister/pastor was left to run a 'parish' in isolation.
I for one think that the Church of Scotland's monopoly of church is unhealthy. History should teach us that reformations can reinvigorate, separations can often protect the truth, and Schisms can bring revival. - if we are to truly learn from history, lets listen to every lesson, not just the ones that support our blinkered point of view.
As I have said, I respect Andy very much, but these 7 points are unconvincing in the extreme, and could be argued either way, as I hope I have demonstrated.
As for the possibility of a separate 'evangelical' synod within the church (structures for unity and separation). My only question is WHY? Why hold to the veneer of unity, when administratively we are separate entities? I think this is a nonsense, and I personally will only support such a body if it is clearly defined as a step towards future separation.
I'm afraid, in the absence of a thorough, reasoned and biblical discussion on the matter of remaining within the church, I must be persuaded by 1 Corinthians 5 and therefore work towards leaving. I still believe in the sovereignty of God, and that He (should it be His will) can turn things around; indeed I actively pray that this will be the case, and that I will not have to leave. However, in the meantime, until an opportunity presents itself to go, I will continue to preach the truth in love that souls might be won for Christ.
Our third speaker, Colin Sinclair, spoke eloquently of his coming to faith at an SU camp. He said that he then promised the Lord that 'Where ever He calls I will go!' - meaning that he will follow that calling however difficult it may be, - and certainly it is difficult for many of us in the Church of Scotland. I cheekily turned Colin's phrase back to him later that evening, and said Colin 'I too promised that where ever God calls I will GO!'
I'm ready for the possibility that I might have to 'GO', are you?- If not, why not? If we as evangelicals are really to unite and if God really is sovereign then blindly following any one path is naive in the extreme until we are absolutely clear what God's will is!
So far I'm unconvinced by any of the arguments I've heard for staying put!
As I finish I'd like it to go on public record, and declare that the press release saying that 350 evangelicals are committed to working within the church, doesn't include me. What about the other 349 of you? Anyone else unconvinced?