My last video provoked this response on Facebook. My reply is too long for Facebook so is posted here.

First the original criticism:

“‘For 2000 years the church has rejected those who want Christianity to the social establishment.’ That is an astonishing statement. I should be interested to see how it could be defended against the church’s historical record. He quotes Wilberforce as an example of the church standing against the social establishment, and at the same time points out that Wilberforce was standing against the ecclesiastical establishment too. You can’t have it both ways. I doubt anyone with a high regard for scripture would allow the simple equation of ‘the ecclesiastical establishment’ with ‘the church’ but there is surely a problem of circular argument here. Disagreeing with fellow believers’ interpretation of Scripture, even with the interpretations of believers and thinkers of the stature of Pannenberg, is not the same as rejecting the authority of scripture. Refusing to see the stark divide between the Christian and the Secular which contemporary conservatives constantly hark on about is not rejecting the authority of scripture. Many progressives take the stance they do because they believe that on particular issues their position is more biblical, not less biblical, than the traditional conservative view. Let’s at least try to be clear on the different polarities involved here: one of those polarities is between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’. Neither side makes its case well by wholesale identification of the other with the worst of those who take or can be given the other’s label.”

My response is:

The good news is that I still have the ability to do something ‘astonishing’, Although what I said was that for 2000 years the church had rejected those who want Christianity to accommodate to the social establishment. It’s also good to know that I’m not the only one afflicted by the dreaded typo.

The bad news is that the commenter seems unable to grasp the Kuyperian distinction between the institutional church and the organic church; the ecclesiastical structures and the living stones. That there is often conflict between the institutional church and the organic church is not circular reasoning it is a simple fact of historical record.

Ecclesiastical history stretching over 2000 years teaches us that the institutional church being made up of fallen human beings, no matter how well intentioned, becomes a power bloc and all too frequently takes the colouring of the other established power blocs surrounding it. Just as Christians have the task of influencing the surrounding culture so we have been warned about the temptation and danger of accepting the surrounding culture.

The Extremists

As for the interpretation of Scripture it is undeniable that some leading self described ‘progressive’ Christians take the position that the revelation they see in fallen nature is superior to that in Scripture.

This is done not only by the usual suspects such as bishops Richard Holloway and John Spong, but they are representative of a strand of progressive thought. Holloway, one time episcopal bishop of Edinburgh and leader of the Scottish episcopalians and progressive icon, said on the subject of homosexuality that the Bible condemned homosexual behaviour and that the Bible was wrong. Bishop Spong in the USA likewise declares the Bible was ‘quite simply wrong’.

The Explorers

This is at least straightforward in contrast to those who indulge in the most convoluted exegetical gymnastics in an attempt to make the Bible say what the Bible doesn’t say. Just as early explorers searched vainly for the North West Passage so some search for biblical approval of homosexuality. Certainly some progressives like John Boswell of Yale attempt to argue on exegetical grounds that the Bible does not condemn homosexual practices and even approves of them. In Boswell’s case he argued not just that David and Jonathan had a homosexual relationship but also Ruth and Naomi, and Daniel and Ashpenaz. When this strand of thought doesn’t rely on claiming we have ‘mistranslated’ the Bible it usually descends into special pleading regarding the biblical text, as we find in Karen Lebaqz who argues that what is condemned is temple prostitution.

The Deniers

A third alternative is that of noted New Testament scholar Walter Wink, some of whose work I value, and who cannot be considered amongst ‘the worst’ of progressives. Wink acknowledged regarding the references to homosexuality in Paul’s writings that: ‘all of which unequivocally condemn homosexual behaviour’, and ‘Whatever the rationale for their formulation, however, the texts leave no room for manoeuvring’. One would be justified in saying this is pretty much in agreement with Pannenberg’s ‘unequivocal witness of Scripture’.

Wink, however, decides to reject the ‘unequivocal’ biblical prohibition on homosexual activity and declares, after discussing biblical views on the contended area of sexual morality that, ‘The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic.’ This ‘No problem here’ response, like the previous two alternatives, would seem to many people to be a rejection of the authority of Scripture in an area of primary importance to human beings

Whatever their methodology there is no doubting the sincerity of many progressives in their determination to normalise homosexual practice. But being sincere is not the same as being right.

The biblical statements about homosexuality cannot be relativised as the expressions of a cultural situation that today is simply outdated. As I argued in the original post the biblical witnesses from the outset, like their descendants throughout history, deliberately opposed the assumptions of their cultural environment in the name of faith in the God of Israel.



  1. Thanks for another thoughtful piece. This and the previous blog once again raises questions that are so basic regarding our Church I am surprised that I don’t hear them repeated and debated every Sunday morning or on any occasion when CoS members come together. That is part of the problem – there is no actual debate or discussion at “street level” about these issues. I know the reply will come that the GA has discussed them ad nauseum for decades (at least), but that is just the point. Debate and discussion has become specialised and rarefied.
    Part of the collateral damage to the CoS as a result of its dalliance with “progression” is that congregations are now almost starved of doctrinal teaching, bibles are a handy reference tool rather the Word of God, and knowledge of our church history is honoured more in its lack than in its actuality.
    It is my observation that congregations and normal church going members are no longer equipped to ponder or discuss what is happening to their own church. Indeed, the CoS to its eternal discredit shut down any congregational discussion on, what was at the time, civil partnerships for ordained ministers. (As anyone following the debate in the real world could have foreseen this has now moved onto Same Sex Marriage, with only the CoS it appears being caught on the hop.)
    I know of one elder who has never heard of the Westminster Confession of Faith let alone read it; I have heard both ministers and elders proclaim that doctrine doesn’t matter; I have heard elders state from the front of the church that God doesn’t want sickness and disease on earth because they don’t exist in heaven.

    With such a hotch potch of unscriptural views is it any surprise that our church is in the state it is? Incidentally, I have no doubt there are many congregations in many individual churches in Scotland which do not fit this description.

    But your overall theme is when a church ceases to be a church and it is to the CoS we have taken our oath and it is to that large, formalised institution that we must address your question. 2016 will be a year of reflection and prayer for me as I decide if I can remain part of what has ceased to be a church. It has instead become a cheer leader for every popular cause or campaign under the sun. In Ezekiel 16 the Lord gives us a powerful description of how he viewed his wayward church, the nation of Israel, using the metaphor of the harlot. This might be a bit strong for today’s more sensitive taste which shuns anything which could be considered offensive to the extent that we have turned giving offence into a crime. But our Lord is totally realistic.

    The CoS today stands as no more than a scantily clad contestant in a beauty pageant, embracing every hopelessly, idealistic good cause in order to impress the judges. One quick look at the CoS’s web site shows it to be campaigning for:

    an end to all nuclear weapons (beginning with UK’s first, of course),
    an end to world poverty
    an end to world hunger
    an end to war

    and, in perhaps its greatest conceit,

    to save the earth by ending CO2 omissions and by implementing other environmental measures.

    All of these, of course, are to be brought about by state intervention and legislation. There are a hundred and one different organisations all campaigning for these aims. All offer the same vision and all ultimately depend on the state (of whichever political hue) to save them. Only a Church offers free salvation and redemption through the power of our lord Jesus Christ. Sadly, the CoS no longer puts this message as its priority preferring instead to lobby on behalf of all these causes.
    The CoS is probably closer to the status of a NGO or Government Agency than it is to that of the Church.
    I do not identify the people who have brought us to this sorry mess as “progressive.” To me, that word suggests there is a positivity behind what they are doing. I prefer Peter’s term of “false teachers” (2 Peter 2:1). They have been part of the church since Peter’s day but it appears only now do we lack the courage and strength to call them out and to challenge them. They are leading us not just back into the wilderness but back to Egypt itself from which bondage our people will never be freed.
    Our church is so broad that it now makes belief in anything acceptable so that any two people coming to Christ via separate parish churches can not be certain that they will receive the same teaching, will come to believe the same things and ultimately will rest with assurance in the same salvation. A very sad state of affairs indeed.

    1. There ae a number of books dealing with the homosexual question from a biblical standpoint. Straight and Narrow? byThomas E Schmidt gives a clear statement of bibliprinci9ples presented with understanding and compassion.

  2. I may have commented on the wrong thread. I mean an answer to the question: When is a church not a church?

    1. Perhaps pther readers of Grain could pitch in with their suggestions as to where to find helpful outlines and descriptions of the true nature of the church.

  3. In response to the above request I would offer a number of suggestions for further reading. These, personally, have helped me both as a fairly new convert to Christianity and as someone confused by the conflicting definitions of the Church and what it means to be a Christian which emanate from the Church and other Christian commentators.
    Martin Lloyd Jones’s “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount” is a wonderful exposition which gives a clear picture of the Church, Christians and their distinctiveness in this world. I think this is important because, in spite of acclamations to the contrary, the modern Church of Scotland seems determined to lose its distinctiveness and conform completely to the pattern of this world. It is a long book made up of sermons given over the space of a few years so it is not a quick read but if I were to highlight a few chapters they would be: Chapter 1 which is the general introduction and in which he identifies the problem of the modern church as one of superficiality. Chapters 4-13 on the beatitudes are magnificent as they recapture what is so radical and genuinely distinctive about Christianity and Christians. But, for brevity, I would recommend chapters 14 & 15 on being salt of the earth and light of the world. These chapters together offer a wonderful picture against which to compare the Church of Scotland and its recent activities and pronouncements. Note, Lloyd Jones does not say anything about liturgies, procedures and presentation in the church.

    JC Ryle makes it clear in his chapter on “The Church which Christ Builds” that none of the above is relevant to the description of Christ’s Church as given in Scripture. This chapter is to be found in the book, “Holiness.” Again I find it very helpful in considering what the Church is. The companion chapter to this one in the same book is “Visible Churches Warned.” Again, an excellent description and you can see from the title that Ryle is separating the true Spiritual Church of Christ from the man made visible version which is currently being dismantled by the “Progressives.”

    Both these books were written long before the same sex controversy assailed our church and society and which is so successfully altering our church and criminalising in the process those who do not go along with recent capitulations. I would love to have known what these two giants of Christianity would have made of what is happening to the visible church now. To get an idea of how far this issue is affecting and will continue to change the church beyond all recognition I can recommend Albert Mohler’s “We Cannot be Silent.” This book looks at SSM issue but it also considers what is coming down the line in terms of gender politics and the transgender revolution. If we think the CoS’s response to civil partnerships has been tardy and very lax the transgender revolution will blow it out of the water – unless it starts to get its act together now and actually stand firm for the faith.

    Finally, a chapter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Ethics” provides a very relevant discussion on the church and its involvement with social, political etc issues. This chapter is called “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World.” It is relevant to us because the CoS is becoming less of a church more of an interest group for cultural, political issues of our time. In other words, it is less worried in the spiritual, eternal, unchangeable Church of Christ and more interested in how it can use the resources of the visible church to get involved in and affect populist issues. Short of being distinctive, this makes the CoS comparable with and identical to all the other pressure groups operating today. This is not to say that some of them are not worthwhile causes in themselves but there are more than a few whose ultimate ends are incompatible with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ – no matter how the “progressives” try to manipulate His Words.

    Ultimately, I would suggest that Scripture tells us all we need to know about the true Church.

  4. Thank you Grrod for your response and recommendations. I was not sure if the question, ‘When is a church not a church?’ was a rhetorical one or a real one. It makes a considerable difference. A real question is in search of a real answer. I have a good idea of what I think about the answer to the question but I am interested in what others think. I find it is a question that people for the most part avoid like the plague, and one that is not easily answered, and about which it is very difficult to find helpful material. The ordination of practising homosexuals, legitimised by General Assemblies in the Presbyterian world, is a new phenomenon. How does it align with ordination vows and the Articles Declaratory or foundational documents of denominations? If Pannenberg, broadly and fairly interpreted, is right then it is not a matter of ‘becoming less of a church’ which is how people almost always phrase it, but of, past tense, having ceased to be a church. That then has very important implications.

    I have not read Mohler and will have a look out for him.

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