Illustration: Mound Place from Princes Street, with
the twin towers of New College and the Assembly Hall
Photo credit: see below
The Church of Scotland General Assembly
One item dominated this year’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It was expected that the Assembly would come to a final decision on a matter which has troubled the denomination for a number of years, namely whether to permit the ordination of ministers who are in same-sex relationships. A decision was certainly made but whether it is final remains to be seen: given the nature of the decision we must hope that it is not final.
The background is that in 2011 the General Assembly appointed a Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry which published its report in April. The report contained two options for the Church. Firstly there was the ‘revisionist’ option, which “offers the Church a way of allowing the ordination of ministers in same-sex relationships who have entered into a civil partnership, while protecting both individuals and congregations who in conscience do not agree with the theological principles which underpin that choice.” Secondly there was the ‘traditionalist’ option, which “while reaffirming its belief that homophobia is sinful, invites the Church to reaffirm its traditional stance that the only appropriate expression of sexual activity should be within marriage between one man and one woman.”
The report made no recommendation one way or the other, leaving it to members of the Assembly to propose their own motions. The motion which carried (by 340 votes to 282) was proposed by the retiring Moderator Very Rev. Albert Bogle of St Andrew’s, Boness and seconded by Rev. Alan Hamilton of Killermont Parish Church, Bearsden, both regarded as on the ‘traditionalist’ wing. It asked the Assembly to do the following: “Affirm the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality; nonetheless permit those Kirk Sessions who wish to depart from that doctrine and practice to do so.”
Yes, you did read that correctly! No, you are not mistaken! In one breath the Church of Scotland has affirmed the biblical teaching on same-sex unions...and disregarded it! She has endorsed the law of God...while giving licence to her under-shepherds to break it. She has made a stand for righteousness...and opened the door to sin. One can only view this decision as a complete and utter compromise unworthy of any church.
That is not how the decision is viewed officially however. Right Rev. Lorna Hood, Minister of Renfrew North Parish Church and Moderator of this year’s Assembly (that a woman holds these offices is of course another contradiction), while acknowledging the “pain” and “hurt” of some people, insisted that it was “a major breakthrough” for the Church. This is despite the fact that two large congregations and their ministers and six other ministers have left already over this issue and more are now likely to follow: breakdown might describe the situation better than breakthrough.
There are two things which must take place before this year’s finding can be enacted, providing more time for the disaffected to depart. The Church’s Legal Questions Committee and Theological Forum were instructed to explore the ecclesiological issues involved in what is now referred to euphemistically as a “mixed economy” and report to the General Assembly in 2014. After this the matter will be sent down to Presbyteries under the Barrier Act seeking their approval with the returns coming to the 2015 Assembly. If a majority of presbyteries is against the proposals they will fall but that is regarded as very unlikely.
What should we make of this decision? Three things must be said.
The decision is clearly unbiblical. It is the function of the church to put into effect the will of her Lord as revealed in His Word, rather than her own will. What does Jesus Christ have to say about homosexuality? To answer that question we might refer to any part of Scripture for it is all given by inspiration of God and is profitable for us (2 Tim. 3:16). We learn that the moral law was in Christ’s heart (Psa. 40:8) and that He came to fulfil it, not to destroy it (Matt. 5:17).
We will turn instead to some words spoken directly by Christ. When the Pharisees questioned the Lord about divorce He replied: “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matt. 19:4-6)
In His affirmation of the doctrine of marriage Christ went right back to the account of its institution which is given in Genesis Chapter 2. The pattern is that a man is to “cleave” or join himself to his wife. When God made man He made two sexes, male and female, expressly so that they might complement each other in the union of marriage, becoming one flesh. Such a union is impossible for two people of the same sex: therefore two people of the same sex cannot be ‘married’ to each other and are not to be sexually involved with each other.
The decision is also unpresbyterian. The decision means that an individual Kirk Session will be able to call a minister in a civil partnership (and presumably a minister in a same sex ‘marriage’ if these become lawful) if it chooses to do so. This is being spun as in line with the Church’s historic position of allowing congregations to call their own minister. Presbyterians fought a long battle against the wrongs of patronage and for the spiritual independence of the church and we do not hesitate for a moment to assert the right of congregations to choose their own pastor in a free and unfettered way. However the function of approving and licensing candidates for the ministry belongs to presbyteries and they must follow the guidelines of Scripture as to who is qualified for this calling. The Bible says that an elder (a minister is a teaching elder) is to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6): unrepentant homosexuals are clearly unsuited to the office of the ministry; neither are they suited to membership in the church (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
We are also told that the decision will preserve the right of members of presbyteries – of whatever viewpoint – to not take part in ordinations and inductions which go against their conscience. It would be sad if evangelicals who are seeking to be obedient to Scripture were satisfied with this provision. Even if they opt out of such services what will they do when a practising homosexual takes his or her seat on their Presbytery? Will they welcome them, when presumably they believe they should be subjected to church discipline? Will they continue to attend meetings of the court? If they were to follow through with their convictions then they would really have to take up an independent position, confining themselves to the affairs of their own congregations. Yet we are meant to be presbyterians in practice, not merely in theory.
Finally the decision is unprincipled. The General Assembly cast aside a vital biblical principle in coming to its decision. Doubtless those who supported the decision thought that they were upholding an important biblical principle: they believe in ecclesiastical unity and hope that by the Assembly’s decision this will be maintained. The successful motion does appear to have united many ‘traditionalist’ and ‘revisionist’ commissioners which is presumably why the Moderator described the outcome as “a massive vote for the peace and unity of the Church.”
The problem is that this principle is being followed at the expense of another which must always come first: truth. We are exhorted in the Bible to “love the truth and peace” (Zech. 8:19) and that is the correct order. A unity which is not based on truth is not worth having. As the saying has it, Righteousness at any cost, not peace at any price. It is one thing to keep the organisation together but what of unity with other churches – those which have not buckled under the pressure to conform to the world? And what of faithfulness to Jesus Christ, the King of the church?
In the end it is the Headship of Christ over His church which is at stake in this matter. He has just been pushed aside once again by the Church of Scotland and if there is no repentance then He will surely remove His candlestick from her.
Mound Place from Princes Street, with the twin towers of New College and the Assembly Hall
By Derek Harper
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons