A House Divided

There is an amusing scene in the Scottish film, ‘The Bridal Path’, when the naive protagonist goes to withdraw some money from his bank account, and is asked ‘what denomination’? He replies – of course – ‘Church of Scotland’.

In my own part of Scotland, denomination has been all too important, time out of mind. I wonder how many of us feel that we belong to the Church of Scotland, or the Free Church, or the Free Presbyterian Church before we belong to the church of Christ. And I equally wonder how Christ, the head of the one church there is, feels about denomination. 

How have we come, in a town like Stornoway, for example, to have two Free Church congregations, three Churches of Scotland, a Free Presbyterian Church, a Free Church (Continuing), an Associated Presbyterian Church, a Reformed Presbyterian Church, and sundry other congregations?  It would be nice if the answer to that was that no one building could contain all the worshippers. That, after all, is the only acceptable justification to have the saints of God distributed across a multitude of churches.

I know this is an awkward topic, and some people don’t approve of it being aired – but we are bound to review our own conduct in light of God’s presence. And like the adulterous woman at the well, we don’t need to hear any accusing words from Him to be convicted of this sin.

Because that’s what this is. It’s pride. Resentfulness. Self-righteousness. It’s putting ourselves and our traditions first. 

Now, I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I like the plain worship style of the island Free Churches, with no accompaniment to our Psalms-only liturgy. Heck, I even like the pews. But, if the necessity and blessing of online church has taught us anything (as I believe it was meant to), it’s that the building isn’t the church. And if the building isn’t the church, the denomination with all its committees and rules and manmade fol-de-rols sure as fate is not the church either.

Yet, we cling to these divisions as though they might be important or worthy. With no outward embarrassment, with no attempt at unity of even the most superficial kind, we have our own separate rule books, our own General Assemblies, our own identities.

As if the identity conferred by belonging to God is somehow less than that of some combination of the words ‘church’, ‘Presbyterian’, ‘Reformed’ and ‘Free’. We declare ourselves freed in Christ – free indeed – and yet, still, we entrench ourselves, not for Him, but invariably for some ‘principle’ that has us standing on our dignity. And while we bicker amongst ourselves (the children of God, mind you) about how to worship, He not only goes unworshipped, but the banner of His beautiful cause sags into the mud. The unsaved watch, open-mouthed, as those of us who profess Christ act like we have never even heard His name.

You think I exaggerate, perhaps – that I’m being harsh and judgemental?

There are four seats on Comhairle nan Eilean Sitar’s Education Committee, which are allocated to faith representatives. One, by statute, is occupied by the Church of Scotland and two, by custom, by the Roman Catholic and Free Churches as being together representative of the islands’ faith profile. The fourth has in the past been filled by the Free Presbyterian Church, but the Chief Executive of the council this week told members that he’d had representations from another denomination, suggesting that they should provide the fourth representative instead because – and I quote – they have a larger membership. 

Let that sink in: Christians – Reformed Evangelicals between whose confessional positions you could not slide one page of the KJV – trying to best one another for a seat on the Education Committee. 

Thanks to their unlovely one-upmanship, it looks like that seat will be shared with other faith groups, including some that are non-Christian.

That, folks, is an object lesson in what denominations do for the cause. The sad truth is that we show no intention of dwelling together in unity, and actually pour more energy into preserving superficial difference than pursuing the one thing needful: togetherness in the Church of Christ.

What a witness we are for the Saviour; what an example to the unsaved. My advice to the council would be not to let any of us near an Education Committee until we grow up.

Politics, prayer and my inner Pharisee

Last Saturday, I had coffee  with an incredible young Christian who, less than a week later, would find herself presenting the Scottish budget to Parliament at very short notice. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman and all that.

We talked about the challenge of being female and Christian in any kind of public role. I think it’s safe to say that she has demonstrated that these need not be obstacles to acquitting yourself well. While the jury (including the one in my own head) is still out on me, even in my much more local role, I struggle with the big questions, so any believing politician of national stature certainly has my sympathy and – much more usefully- my prayers.

The Bible is full of people in leadership roles who walked with God and still went wrong. So, if Solomon in all his wisdom could have his heart turned to idolatry, then I’m pretty sure that should serve as a warning to all Christians in public office today. How much easier, indeed, for the devil to get his way when believing leaders are in the minority, and apostasy is the norm. Anyone might succumb to following that particular crowd with the greatest of ease.

And how do you avoid the pitfalls of being a Christian in a democratically-elected position? Here in Lewis, organisations like the Comhairle and the Stornoway Trust customarily open their meetings with prayer. Whenever this comes up in conversation with other believers, they react positively. For the Christian, there is a view that anything of the slightest importance should be put in God’s hands, where all things rightfully belong. Beginning the business of local government in this way, therefore, reassures them that leadership is as it should be, deferring to the Lord.

So, local Christians breathe a little more easily.

Except, I’m a local Christian and it doesn’t do a whole lot to reassure me. Not even considering my own position as an elected member of one such group.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to prayer in the Trust or anywhere else. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I DO worry that those of us who are Christians in elected office, and those of us who are voting Christians, tend to content ourselves with very little. ‘Prayer’ can end up being as formulaic as any other standing item on the agenda.

And the prayerfulness often ends with ‘amen’. I speak from personal experience here. There have been many occasions where I have gone seamlessly from bowing my head in contemplation, to venting my spleen in exasperation. My thoughts, my utterances, my conduct, my motivation often fall short of what they should be.

But never mind: at least we’ve said the words. Who’s to notice when they get stuck on the ceiling and rise no further?

I am not criticising the people who pray; not at all. What I’m saying is that we cannot content ourselves with opening petitions, if our subsequent conduct doesn’t testify to our faith. We cannot keep on expecting God to bless our endeavours if we aren’t really giving them into his keeping at all.

Recently, I was party to a conversation about a public servant whose conduct had been dubious to say the least. ‘But he’s a Christian’, someone protested. Their subtext was not that we should, therefore, expect better of him, but that he was actually beyond reproach.

There is a real danger here, that Christians will fall into a trap of thinking their faith guarantees all their actions to be righteous. We are at risk of the arrogance displayed – albeit to fictional extremes- in James Hogg’s ‘justified sinner’. If I call myself a Christian, if I pray in public and speak out for Sabbath observance, well, I’m doing my bit for the cause.

And that’s my challenge. I worry about becoming a Pharisee if I haven’t already. Many people voted for me in the Trust election, I am quite sure, purely because they knew where I stood on ‘The Sunday Issue’.

Here’s the thing, though: I want to keep the Lord’s Day myself because I love him. I want other people to want to keep it for the same reason. Is it the role of Christian trustees, councillors, MSPs or MPs to impose such things on an unbelieving people? Or is it our responsibility to earnestly pray for guidance ourselves, to show forth the love of Christ in everything that we do, and give it all to God?

We often hear complaints that there are too few Christians in public life. That may well be true, but God has placed some there. Instead of worrying about packing the debating chambers with more believers, let’s pray for those who are already in place, that they would learn to act in his wisdom and in his guiding. And God, I am sure, will give the increase.