Trusting the Lord in difficult times

From Edward Lobb, Director of Cornhill Scotland and one of our Honorary Associate Ministers

Dear Friends,

I hope it will be helpful for all who belong to St George's Tron if I write a little from my own perspective about the Church of Scotland's present turmoil and how it affects our own church. Though not at present a parish minister I am still very much concerned (through the preaching ministry of the Tron and the training ministry of Cornhill) with the current church ministry scene in Scotland.

In the last few years deep divisions in the Church of Scotland have painfully come to light, as indeed they have in nearly all the older mainline denominations in the western world. The presenting issue concerns homosexual activity and whether it should ever be countenanced in the lives of those who profess to follow Christ. But the underlying issue concerns the authority of the bible and the very nature of the gospel. Is the Christian gospel really a call to repentance and faith, or not? Is the bible’s clear teaching about the sinfulness of homosexual activity to be obeyed — or can it be cast aside so as to bring the church into line with secular society?

I am thankful — I think we’re all thankful — that SGT is firm and clear on this question. We want unambiguously to uphold the bible’s teaching and authority. We lovingly hold out the gospel’s invitation to people who are caught up in homosexual practice; but we point out that coming to Christ involves repentance and change. All of us have to change when we come to Christ: dishonesty, idolatry, adultery and much more have to be left behind, as well as homosexual activity.

But SGT’s clear stance on this question brings us into conflict with others in the C of S; and, more specifically, into conflict with the decisions of the General Assembly in May of this year. And because the General Assembly has made its position so clear, our Minister and Kirk Session (elders) have felt that the only course open to us, if we are to honour the Lord and the bible, is to part company with the C of S, because we can no longer be a congregation in fellowship with this denomination. Inevitably, this decision brings real sadness to those whose faith has been long nurtured in the C of S. Many members of our own church have belonged to a church in this denomination for decades. As a lifelong Anglican myself, I know what it feels like to belong in a deep sense to one of the older denominations of Christendom.

"...when a denomination deserts the fundamental doctrines and ethical standards of the bible, the allegiance of true Christians is to the Lord, the bible, the universal church and the local congregation..."

But — and this point needs to be strongly emphasised — when a denomination deserts the fundamental doctrines and ethical standards of the bible, the allegiance of true Christians is to the Lord, the bible, the universal church and the local congregation. The New Testament knows nothing of ‘denominations’. The church in the New Testament is the worldwide fellowship of Christians and the local congregations, nothing less and nothing more. Denominations can be a great help, extending true fellowship in faith between congregations, pooling resources to aid and abet one another’s ministries for good. But if a denomination adopts teachings and views that are contrary to the teaching of the bible, the true Christian’s allegiance simply cannot be to the denomination; it belongs unequivocally to the worldwide church and to the local congregation.

Let me try to draw out some of the implications of all this for our own congregation.

First, it’s important that we remain united. Inevitably, some in our church will deeply grieve over the Church of Scotland (rather as Jesus wept over Jerusalem) and may feel they don’t want to leave it — at least not yet. And Christians who feel like this may feel a tension and difficulty between themselves and others (including our united eldership) who believe that there must be a more immediate parting of the ways. But we must stick together as a united congregation at all costs! It’s the devil’s work to divide Christians. It’s sobering to see from the Apostle Paul’s letters how the young New Testament congregations were often tempted to split into factions. For example, Paul says to the Philippian church (Philippians 1:27) ‘only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.’ He also says just a few verses later, ‘complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’ (Philippians 2:2). A church that has ‘one mind’ of course will have a great variety of characters and personalities amongst its members (that’s certainly true of SGT!), but amidst the variety of characters there will be a fundamental willingness to work together, to evangelise and pray together, to meet regularly together and to build up the work of the gospel together: many personalities, but a united purpose, a united mind and a united vision to uphold the honour of the Lord Jesus and to extend His kingdom.

Second, it’s important that we value SGT, and that we see how precious is the work that is being carried out here. Old friends of mine sometimes ask me what the church that I now belong to is like. I usually say something like this: ‘I feel that it’s a real privilege to belong to SGT. There is a vigour and enthusiasm and unity in the fellowship which is rare. There is a developed sense of the importance of worldwide mission (with links all over the globe) and a great enthusiasm for launching, and maintaining, new evangelistic and training ministries. Clear and penetrating teaching and preaching of the bible lie at the centre of the church’s activities. The administration of the church is carried out with great care and skill. There is a wonderful growth of young staff members and ministry apprentices who are being prepared for a lifetime of active service. The church is led by committed and prayerful elders, and an outstanding senior minister who has vision not only for SGT but for the growth of excellent gospel ministry throughout Scotland’. Of course our church is far from being perfect; but the life and work of this city-centre congregation is precious and rare. It owes much of its strength not only to its present leadership but to more than fifty years of vigorous and faithful bible preaching and teaching. There are not many churches like it. Let’s value it, and let’s often thank God for raising it up and blessing it so richly.

Third, in this stressful time let us redouble our commitment to loving one another in the congregation. Paul says ‘Love one another with brotherly affection’ (Romans 12:10) and ‘Above all.....put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’. (Colossians 3:14). Growing love within a congregation will be seen in a number of ways: it will stifle our tendency to grumble, because we will realise that grumbling and gossiping and speaking ill of others behind their backs damages our shared life. It will spur us on to pray: to pray for wisdom and strength for our leaders, and for joyful enthusiasm to characterise all our activities. It will help us to respect our leaders, and in Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:13, ‘to esteem them very highly in love because of their work’. In other words, we will allow our leaders to lead, and we will accept and support their decisions even if privately we have reservations about them. And we will learn to support others more actively, more thoughtfully, more truly from our hearts. Let’s particularly give our minister extra helpings of love and support at this difficult time: in ‘normal’ times the work of a parish minister is very demanding, but in times like these the burden can be almost unbearable. Let’s think carefully how we can make Willie’s load easier to bear, not harder!

"The Lord is sovereign over the church. We are going through difficult times. But we can trust Him not only to bring us through them, but to bring honour to His name and gospel by means of them."

Finally, let’s take the long view of God’s purposes. One of the great joys of the bible is that it shows us how God’s will for the church cannot be thwarted. As the old hymn put it, ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’. He is, of course, rather more patient than we tend to be! But He is sovereign, and therefore is to be trusted. Turmoils in the church may last for a time, but He leads His people through them. So we must encourage one another to be patient. Our present troubles may not be resolved within a few months or even a few years. But the Lord God is committed to His people, and will sustain us.

When I was a parish minister in England, I had a delightful curate (assistant minister) working with me for several years, and he and I had to face and work through one or two sharp difficulties that our parish threw at us. I would look at him at these difficult times and say to him with a grin, ‘Here’s a question for you, Simon! Who is in charge of this universe?’ He always gave the right answer! It was a comfort to both of us.

The Lord is sovereign over the church. We are going through difficult times. But we can trust Him not only to bring us through them, but to bring honour to His name and gospel by means of them.

With loving good wishes,
Edward Lobb