Friday, August 11, 2017

FIEC Certificate in Independent Church Ministry course

In-class & on-line. 
FIEC's 'Certificate in Independent Church Ministry' commences on Tuesday afternoons at ETS on Tue 12th Sep. The course can be accessed in class or online - so if you'd like to understand more about Independent Churches and how to serve in them better then book a space HERE.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

'dislike for the unlike' (non-conformity is not extremism)

Israel Zangwill described anti-Semitism as being rooted in the human tendency to have ‘dislike for the unlike’. For the Jews with their peculiar religion and culture the result was a cycle of suspicion and prejudice from the societies in which they lived. For Zangwill the only solution was a Zionist State where Jewish people could live free from the repeated persecutions and purges that had been their experience. Only in their own land could they escape from being the scapegoats on which the grievances of others were frequently heaped.

This recent terrorist attacks in the UK have led to calls for widespread clampdowns on extremism and extremist groups. There is though the danger that such demands move beyond tackling terrorism and become a justification for acting against groups that wider society just doesn’t like.

Now of course, incitements to violence or the promotion of threatening behaviour should be challenged and, as is already the case, be illegal. No-one has a right to inflict injury, intimidate or coerce those with whom they disagree, however profoundly, on matters of religious, political or philosophical belief.

Indeed this cherished protection of ‘conscience’ in Western society is a freedom borne out of the trauma and bloodshed of trying to do otherwise. It was a lesson first learnt by the church (in the post-Reformation disputes and wars) and which subsequently became a foundation of our democratic society.

So freedom from such assault and bullying should be vigorously upheld – and those who seek to perpetrate such acts confronted with the full force of the law.

However, the calls to ‘clampdown on extremism’ are worryingly being extended way beyond this area. For some, in the political and media world, it seems that any religious beliefs or cultural practices that conflict with their own secular/liberal views are by definition ‘extremist’. 

This was illustrated in an interview with Archbishop Justin Welby on Radio 4’s Today programme (5/6/17). The interviewer raised (legitimately) the issue of religious belief being a factor in the London Bridge attack – he then went on to ask whether Islamic meetings where men and women were separated should be tolerated. For the interviewer such a practice was clear evidence of misogyny – to which he added, the church had also been guilty of (although probably not as much as the BBC and other media outlets – I’ve seen sitcoms and tabloids from the 1970s!). Welby responded by noting that such separation is common in synagogues too - and he could have added many African churches.

The fact is, throughout history men and women have often sat or met separately in a wide range of settings – practices that may have nothing to do with misogyny but reflect legitimate cultural and religious sensibilities. Yet something that most people in most places have found unremarkable is now seized on as dangerous and objectionable simply because it doesn’t chime with early C21 Western culture (which of course, represents a pretty thin slice of the totality of human wisdom and experience).

A lot has been made in recent years about ‘British Values’ and the insistence that everyone in these islands subscribe to them. But what about those British people who don’t subscribe to secular/liberal ‘British’ values when it comes to matters such as sex, abortion, the obliteration of gender and the meaning of life? Indeed one MP has already branded traditional Christian views on Marriage as extremist. So people who are peaceable, hard-working and law-abiding citizens ought to be marginalised and distrusted – because like Jews in medieval Europe they have beliefs and lifestyles that seem odd to the wider culture.

In Russia the Jehovah’s Witness organisation is facing a complete ban for being ‘extremist’. So a peaceable (if somewhat niche) religious group is being closed down by the State for the crime of ‘sowing religious discord’ – which means, as many observers have put it, they’re not ‘Russian’ enough and don’t fit in. Of course the UK is vastly different from Russia but nonetheless a pressurised government and an angry majority population can quickly be tempted to heap their grievances on anyone who dissents from their worldview.

There is a real risk of an over-zealous (albeit well intentioned) desire to tackle terrorism ending up turning non-conformist groups into scapegoats. Not because they’re going to harm anyone but simply because nothing fuels ‘dislike for the unlike’ as much as fear. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

FIEC in Scotland - Free Church of Scotland Article

An article published in 'The Record' (Monthly Magazine of the Free Church of Scotland).

‘If you can do it on your own, it’s not big enough’, was the strapline of a recent FIEC Mission Day held in Edinburgh – but it could equally be the motto for all churches and groups with a heart to see Scotland reached for Christ. The Fellowship of Independent Churches is one such group and is delighted to share that ambition with the Free Church of Scotland.

FIEC is a UK wide network of over 560 Independent Churches (including Brethren, Congregational, Baptist, Missions Halls…) who are united by strong evangelical convictions and a vision to see local churches strengthened and supporting each other. In other words while FIEC churches are ‘independent’ as regards their governance they know that being separatist or existing in isolation is not a Biblical model.

In Scotland, which historically has had a relatively small constituency of independent churches, there are currently 23 affiliated churches along with another 30 pastors connected to FIEC’s Pastors’ Network. It is nonetheless a growing network and encouragingly includes four new Church Plants in Huntly, Buckhaven, Glasgow (Barlanark) and most recently in Orkney. Other churches who have joined in recent years include Harper Church in Glasgow, Niddrie Community Church and Charlotte Chapel in the capital.

A proliferation of new Independent Churches
A key FIEC conviction is that there is no substitute for healthy and outward looking local churches if the gospel is to flourish again in Scotland. In recent years while there has been decline in some sections of the church there has been a proliferation of new Independent churches. New churches that will be increasingly needed in evangelising unreached areas and new communities. In this FIEC exists to help connect them with each other and to a big vision for gospel growth across the whole nation.

Almost every Independent church would want to see Church Planting and Revitalisations taking place nationwide, they would want to see new gospel workers being raised up and well trained, and they would want to see those gospel workers being supported and cared for. The reality is however, that such aspirations are often beyond the capacity of individual churches and remain unachievable for them. Alternatively a group of likeminded churches partnering together have the potential to give those gospel desires concrete expression.

FIEC means that an Independent church on the Black Isle can help a Church Plant in Glasgow get legal help setting up its constitution, a church in the borders can support the training of a student in Edinburgh, or a church in Shetland can help support a sick pastor in Ayrshire. In short FIEC allows Independent Churches to have something of the vision and capability of a gospel denomination like the Free Church.

In practical terms this is being worked out in initiatives such as the Certificate of Independent Church Ministry at ETS. The course is designed for students and others who are considering ministry in Independent Churches and gives an appreciation of the history, ecclesiology and practicalities of serving in a self-governing church. Along with this has been the FIEC initiated Pathways Conferences for men and women thinking about vocational ministry options. In the past two years these events have helped almost 100 men and women think through issues such as ‘the Call’, the character, and the challenge of Christian ministry today.

Care of Workers
FIEC pastors and church leaders are connected together in a ‘Link Pastor’ network to help ensure that no-one need feel isolated or out-on-a-limb because they serve in an Independent church. Additional support in this area has also been provided by pastoral retreats and day conferences which provide refreshment and fellowship for those in the front line of church life.

Reaching Scotland
The big challenge for all gospel-hearted people is, of course, the desperate spiritual state of the nation. With over 90% of the Scottish population lost and increasingly ignorant of the gospel the need for Bible-believing Christians to stand together and clearly proclaim Christ has never been greater. Because no one group, however dynamic, can meet that need on its own – all are needed and all have a part to play. FIEC is just one of those groups and thus we particularly value our deepening friendship with the Free Church and its big hearted gospel generosity towards us.

So please pray for FIEC and its work supporting Independent Churches – pray that such churches will have a big vision for the gospel, that being Independent won’t stop them partnering with other committed evangelicals, and that their part in the great task of making Christ known in the nation will be a fruitful and God-glorifying one.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Ian Brady was evil and that's a fact.

It was Bertrand Russell who made the statement, “‘Dachau is wrong’ is not a fact.” In other words, while he was appalled by the Nazi Concentration Camp he nonetheless struggled to see an objective basis for calling it ‘wrong’. Russell of course, was simply being consistent in applying his atheistic world view – in a meaningless universe where everything is ultimately arbitrary what basis can there be for such moral absolutes?

Today’s news of the death of Ian Brady the notorious ‘Moors Murderer’ seems to be causing some people a similar quandary. One contributor to Radio 4’s Today programme was reluctant to call Brady ‘evil’ as it was a term that had ‘religious connotations’. Instead he seemed more comfortable in seeing Brady’s crimes as the escalation of earlier sadistic and violent behaviour (which they undoubtedly were).   

Well, as others have pointed out, if your world view isn’t able to look at someone torturing and murdering five children and call them ‘evil’ – then perhaps there is something deeply flawed about your world view.

Blinding or illuminating
Psychology and social sciences have contributed hugely to our understanding of human behaviour - but all such enquiry, if detached from the notion of a moral universe, is in danger of blinding rather than illuminating us. To see Dachau or Brady as just being dysfunctional behaviour or simply sitting on an amoral continuum of possible human activity, is to reduce ourselves to little more than mechanistic animals.  It strips us of ultimate moral responsibility and indeed of ultimate moral accountability.

The rejection of ‘evil’ as an objective moral category is in part driven by the hubris that humanity can explain itself and thus fix itself. So by turning the actions of Brady into observable processes we are able to rationalise them, and if we can rationalise them we can rectify them. But as most of us know from personal experience human behaviour is frequently irrational and defies mechanistic explanations.

It is only the recognition that there is a spiritual/Godward dimension to our lives that can allow us to truly comprehend ourselves, never mind Ian Brady.

The reality of evil
So far from being a product of religious imagination ‘evil’ is a reality – a reality that affects and infects every person. At its deepest level evil is not simply behaviour that we find distasteful or upsetting – it is a condition. Biblically it is the dislocation of men and women from the source of their life and purpose. It is the rejection of God and thus the rejection of objective morality. A rejection that inevitably leads to conflict, self-assertion and the manipulation of others.  It is why Jesus was clear that even the best of humanity is ‘evil’ in God’s sight and that apart from God Himself there is no-one ‘good’ (Luke 11:12, Mark 10:18)

So Ian Brady was evil and that’s a fact. But, in the eyes of God, you and I are also evil and that’s also a fact. Our offences might not be grizzly and tabloid (thank God), but we have each stood apart from God, made up our own rules, violated our consciences and pursued self-gratification at the expense of others.

Inexcusable but not unforgivable
We cannot simply explain ourselves as corks powerlessly thrown about on a sea of haphazard materialism or victims of circumstance – we are responsible moral beings because there does exist a supreme moral standard. We are evil and we are culpable – no more excuses.

Yet the staggering message of the Gospel is that even though we are inexcusable we are not unforgiveable. The Gospel is painfully blunt about our evil and its consequences, it offers us no ‘get outs’ but amazingly holds out the prospect of forgiveness. It points us to a place where evil was laid bare and its horrors exhausted so that guilty people could be forgiven and go free. Because we can no more fix ourselves without God than we can truly understand ourselves.  

Ian Brady will now give an account of himself to God and face the consequences of his evil. The call of the Gospel is to take responsibility for our own evil, to look to the Cross of Jesus Christ and ask for mercy in the here and now.

Jesus Christ came to save you, me and the worst of sinners. And that’s a fact. 

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The most unselfish prayer ever made

In the opening verses of Romans 9 the apostle Paul turns his thoughts to his Jewish countrymen and women and in particular their rejection of their own Messiah Jesus. As his heart breaks for his native people he utters one of the most extraordinary prayers in the entire Bible.

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.

It is an astonishing prayer, and one Paul is at pains to show was not a pious throwaway line or some holy flannel – ‘I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit’. In it Paul expresses that such is his love for his kinsfolk that he would be willing to forfeit his own salvation if it could save them.

A challenging & chilling prayer
It is a prayer that is both profoundly challenging and chilling. Challenging because it takes an axe to the root of self-love and asks us how much do we really care about the fate of others? Chilling because of what is being contemplated - to be ‘cursed and cut off from Christ’. For the Christian so aware of their sin, awed by God’s holiness, and sensible of the coming judgement, such a prospect is frankly terrifying. To be shut out of heaven and to face a lost eternity is everything we have fled to Christ to escape.

To lay down your life in the here and now for another would take love and courage enough – but to dam yourself for eternity – that’s a thought surely too dreadful even to consider. Could I ever be so unselfish, so sacrificial, so devoted to others and so pre-eminently concerned with their welfare to be willing to forgo my very soul?

An unattainable prayer
Yet, and much to my relief, such a scenario could only ever be rhetorical. Not that Paul wasn’t sincere but the reality is, for him and for me, that even if either of us were to dam ourselves it wouldn’t actually help anyone else. To think otherwise would be like a self-deluded life-prisoner volunteering to serve the sentences of others – nice offer, but you can only meaningfully serve one sentence, i.e. your own. My damnation would be no more than justice – it would have no power to absolve anyone else of their own sin.

A fulfilled prayer
There was one, however, who could fulfil Paul’s prayer – the only one who could genuinely offer innocence in exchange for guilt. Jesus the sinless, whose rightful place was to enjoy the blessings of untainted fellowship with God the Father. Only Jesus, the faultless Son of God sharing in our humanity, could ever take the place of another in a way that could uphold justice.

But if the thought of being cursed and cut-off from God is terrifying to me – it was all the more so for Jesus. He alone knew the unsullied blessings of God from eternity. He was the one whose fellowship with the Father was to share the very substance of deity. The one whose uncorrupted eyes could see the true vileness of sin, and the one who truly understood the implacable hostility of God towards it. For Jesus the prospect of being cursed and cut-off was unimaginable horror and incomprehensible loss.

And yet he went to the Cross – the place of curse. The one who knew no sin becoming sin, the closet companion of God forsaken by God.

The most unselfish prayer was fulfilled - by the most unselfish person. Jesus offering up his soul for others. Castaway and cursed that they might be rescued and blessed.

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Serving Churches & Pastors in Scotland

Video explaining some of the ways FIEC makes a real difference to helping Scottish churches and pastors in Mission, Training and Pastoral Care.