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.

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against More Rough Wooing

Were John Knox alive today, I don’t think the Protestant church in Scotland – if such a monolith existed – would be wise to choose him as a spokesperson. He had a somewhat unfortunate way with words, and a bit of an uncompromising manner, particularly when it came to ladies in government. It’s not that he was sexist, just that he believed female rulers were an abomination and ought to stay at home having babies.

And, like an awful lot of people – to be fair not all of them men – once Knox had said a thing, that was it. He was not a fan of taking back ill-chosen words, nor of admitting when he’d been a bit of an insensitive twit.

He even managed to contradict Calvin. Pause for dramatic effect. Yes, THAT Calvin – the one who gets the blame for the unfortunate personality traits of dour Wee Frees, Wee Wee Frees, and Wee Wee Frees to the Power of Three. Calvin had used biblical examples, such as Deborah, to demonstrate God’s willingness to raise up female leaders. Knox wasn’t having any of it, though and maintained that women ruling was a breach of the God-given order.

He inadvertently annoyed Queen Elizabeth I of England, and steadfastly refused to apologise. In typically winning fashion, he corresponded instead with her (male) adviser, Sir William Cecil . . . but, let’s just say, he didn’t win any prizes for diplomacy there either.

The worrying thing for me is that I’m not entirely persuaded that our church WOULD keep Knox away from the microphone. I can almost hear the arguments in his favour: ‘oh, but he’s so godly’; ‘oh, but his theology is sound’; ‘oh but he’s not afraid to speak the truth’. Knox would undoubtedly possess the courage and the drive to speak for the church in Scotland: but are those the only qualifications?

Let me circumvent any misunderstanding. I’m not referring to ‘the church’ in terms of an institution, or as a specific denomination. What I’m speaking about is Christianity, the cause of Christ. There are many in Scotland who love the Lord and who wish to see some restoration of truth to public life. But if we’re ever going to get there, we need a wee bit of the ‘s’-word: strategy. Strategy backed up by prayer and trusting to God, absolutely, but still, a strategy.

First up on my planner, therefore, is ‘silence all the would-be Knoxes’.

Knox was all kinds of things: courageous, straight-talking, and a champion of Christ. We have people like that, though obviously not of his stature, today. And sometimes, I’m afraid that when they speak, I cringe.

It isn’t that I usually disagree with the fundamentals of their message; how could l? Nor do I belong to that camp which feels that Christians need to water down the challenge of the Gospel. God IS love, indeed, but we also have to preach about sin and hell and judgment, and the danger of not accepting his free offer of salvation.

No, it’s about presentation. It’s about the fact that there is no use in battering unsaved sinners over the head with the fact of their sin. I cannot show them their sin and neither can you. Why? Because we’re sinners ourselves. They need the mirror of God’s perfection to see themselves in that light.

So, when Christians speak on moral issues, we do not need a John Knox to remonstrate with people for their sin. We need those who are gifted with diplomacy and, yes, the wisdom of serpents, tempered with the gentility of doves. Every man or woman who professes faith is not destined to champion it effectively in the public arena, and we have to find ways to channel gifts prudently.

I would like to see, for example, more female Christians being encouraged to speak on issues like abortion. It sits uneasily with me when the pro-life lobby is represented by men. Yes, they have as much concern and as much right to a view; but that’s not the point. Knox, no doubt, would be very willing to speak on ‘Reporting Scotland’ about protecting the unborn child – but that doesn’t mean that he would be the best person for the job. Whether we like it or not, perception is important, and we do nothing to win over the hearts of a hostile world by playing up to the stereotypes.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not actually talking about gender. This is not me saying, ‘shut up, men, and let the girls talk’. What I’m trying to say is that we need to get better at representing our cause, by equipping our people to speak. There has got to be love, grace, intelligence and common sense. And, yes, there has got to be strategy.

The church needs people who walk with God, who pursue a holy life, and who are chiefly concerned with glorifying him. However, the world needs a church that can speak comfortably to it, in ways and words it will understand.

We are not going to win Scotland’s soul back with another rough wooing.

Hold Your Tongue and Shame the Devil?

I have loved my denomination with an irrational affection which mimics what I feel for many human beings. Overlooking obvious faults, chuckling at foibles which irritate others, and even adoring the very character flaws which may repulse less tender onlookers,it’s only ever been the Free Church for me. Give me psalm singing, give me the blue book, give me the envelopes for the collection plate, and give me 1843.

But, my goodness, give me also a mind open enough to admit that NONE of those things are a substitute for a right relationship with Christ. And to admit that nothing is more important than that His salvation should reach the lost – by whatever means He chooses. It is, after all, in His hands, and by His design; not ours.

Last week, while I was halfway across Europe, a dream came to fruition on the lawn in front of Lews Castle. It was not my dream to begin with, but the vision of somebody who loves music, and who loves the Lord. When he first painted a word picture of how this evening would unfold, I was captivated by it – ‘people gathered together for praise . . . a single voice singing ‘Amazing Grace’ . . . hymns . . . praise bands . . . and the crowd dissipating to the strains of a lone piper, playing again, ‘I once was lost, but now am found’ – the heart’s cry of every saved soul, and their deepest desire for those they love.

That this idea came from  someone who thought that ‘Bangor’ begins, ‘oh, didn’t we have a lovely time the day we went to . . . ‘ just made it all the more winning. We are not all the same, and we do not all value the same things; but we are one in Christ, who loves us equally, and who gave Himself for the strummers of guitars, as much as for the hummers of psalms.

An old minister once, saying grace before a meal, was almost inaudible to his companions. ‘I didn’t hear a word of that’, one of them complained when he had concluded. ‘It wasn’t to you I was speaking’, came the swift reply. And so it is with worship- it’s for God, and Him alone.

Except, that’s not entirely true. It is also for us to find pleasure in worshipping Him. What does psalm 100 say – ‘enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise’ – but come to Him with that joy already in your heart and upon your lips. Glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Anywhere and everywhere.

The more I go on in the Christian life, the more I realise its semi-solitary nature. Yes, the fellowship of God’s people is there as an encouragement but, I am bound to say that it can be equally dispiriting at times.

If I listened to the criticism, to the whispers, I would be far from lifted up by my fellow Christians. I have recently joined those legions who must be pilloried by their own for committing the heinous crime of organising worship in a tent. Faith Mission, Billy Graham, Grace on the Green – you name it, if it’s happening under canvas, these folk are opposed to it. And not so mindful of my feelings as a fellow Christian – a relatively new one at that – that they are prepared to pull their punches.

Some, recently, did not want people praising God in a tent when they could (should?) have been doing it in a church. Personally, I think He can receive all manner of worship simultaneously, wherever it emanates from – a cathedral, a marquee, a hovel, a ditch, a hospital toilet.

That last one, I can testify to. Let anyone – deacon, elder, minister, even – tell me that God grades our petitions according to where we are, or what we’re wearing, and I will call them false. I prayed more fervently in the Bethesda Hospice shower cubicle than ever I have in the Free Church. God met me there too, without a doubt – and yes, He answered my prayers.

This week, I have had to ask Him to answer prayer again – and it’s not so very different. I need grace not to say what’s on my mind, not to walk away from the whole sad and sorry denominational mess that we’ve created. Novice I may be, and whipping-boy for all the more ‘seasoned’ Christians, but I am going to stop the self-censorship right here, and ask my questions. How else is a new girl to learn, after all ?

Why is a prayer meeting in a church better than praise in a tent? How is it folk can come together to worship in the town hall, but not in one another’s churches?

And, doesn’t your Bible teach you about dying to self? Mine does. I’d rather hold my tongue than hurt another Christian, or harm the cause. Maybe I’ll grow out of that, though. One day, when I find where in the Apocrypha they’ve hidden the Book of Denominations.