I’m just back from my first attendance at the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, having had a thoroughly enjoyable week of worship, fellowship, debates and decisions. Having previously attended the assembly across on the other side of the Royal Mile, it’s interesting to reflect on the stark contrast between the two.
On the surface, the Free Church Assembly is far less impressive: it’s much smaller, there’s less media coverage and national interest, fewer occupy the public galleries, there’s no electronic voting and no clerical robes or moderatorial rings in sight.
What there IS, however, is worth so much more than what there isn’t: a sense of fellowship, warmth and togetherness; a mutual respect and brotherly love; a common sense of vision and purpose; an absolute commitment to the reign of Christ in his church through the authority of his Word; a sense of genuine excitement and expectation about what God is doing up and down the land, as our church reaches out and grows.
It is with ongoing pain and frustration that I read the reports of proceedings across the road. I reflect on these things not because I can’t let go of my own past, nor because I want to kick former colleagues when they’re down, but because what happens in the national church affects the wider church and the nation.
The fact is that the Church of Scotland has now demonstrated consistently over the past six years that it is intent of following the WORLD and not the WORD – and therefore the Kirk is a ‘church’ that cannot any longer seriously claim to be a part of the mainstream Christian faith. The Church of Scotland, by its rejection of the authority of Christ in his church, has now placed itself on the extreme fringes of global Christianity.
Some will say: ‘Yes, but you’re just focusing on one issue; the church is doing a great deal of good in society.’ Well it’s surely true that the Kirk does do much good – but once you’ve denied the fundamentals of your own existence (the authority of Scripture; the Lordship of Christ; the creation-ordinance of marriage, biblically defined) then you’ve un-churched yourself, and everything else you do is really just pretending. The Church of Jesus Christ is not a pick-n-mix counter, where you just pick what you want and leave what you don’t!
It really is an astonishing self-destruction that we’re witnessing in the Kirk. Its General Assembly is hell-bent on its own destruction, and it seems nothing is going to stop it:
not the evangelicals, who spoke graciously, earnestly, winsomely and biblically - once again winning the debate but losing the vote
not the drastic decline in membership – 16,000 member-reduction in one year is described as ‘gentle decline’;
not the dwindling offerings;
not the looming catastrophic reduction in ministers through retirement which, combined with the fact that hardly anyone is coming forward for ministry training, means that in a very few years, most parishes will find themselves without a full-time minister
not the departure of ministers (the true number is somewhere north of 40, and not the 20 bandied about) congregations and individual members
Meanwhile, over the road, in the much smaller yet growing Free Church, authentic gospel-discussions were taking place. The talk is of revitalising existing congregations and planting new ones; new congregations and ministers applying to come into the denomination; the growth of Edinburgh Theological Seminary as Scotland’s foremost theological education provider, and an increasing number of ministry candidates; increased membership and offerings.
The Moderator, David Robertson from St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee, is a superb Moderator, and set just the right tone for proceedings. His address on the Tuesday morning (find it here: http://freechurch.org/resources/moderators-address) was quite outstanding as a statement of church-and-nation, and showed his usual insightful grasp of the issues affecting Christians in our day. The guest address from the Rev Dr. Sinclair Ferguson was similarly inspiring.
Also notable were the contributions from the younger generation of ministers – those recently graduated from the Seminary and now established in congregations across the land. The input from representatives of other denominations and organisations was also welcome and helpful.
The Free Church is not heaven on earth and is not a perfect denomination – there is no such thing, and we are well warned in the Scripture: let he who thinks he stand take heed, lest he fall. Like everyone, we have our faults, our failings, our sins, our limitations. But let these limitations never be of gospel vision, of faithfulness to God, of desire for God’s glory and of passion for the salvation of sinners.
So at the end of my first Free Church Assembly I find myself deeply grateful for the welcome into the church I have received. Add to that encouraged and inspired, excited and energised for the ministry and opportunity that lies ahead of us.
So let us pray for our brothers and sisters in the Kirk – that they would be given the courage to take a meaningful stand against so much that is ungodly.
Let us pray for ourselves – that we would be obedient, faithful Christ-followers day by day.
Let us pray for the nation – that God would have mercy, and that Scotland might again be a country whose people are identified by their adherence to The Book.