Church or State: Who Rules?

Did the Scottish Government close the Churches in March 2020? When the Churches were given the green light to re-open in July, did the Government put a stop to congregational singing?

The spirit in which these directions were issued - whether as an order or as advice - is debatable. However, the spirit in which the Church received them is not. The Church receives all such directions from the Government as advice and recommendation, not as order and instruction.

As such, in March, the Kirk Session of Kinloch Free Church took the advice of the Government and, on that basis, made the decision to close. In July, they took further advice to refrain from congregational singing and then made the decision to implement that advice. These decisions were not made at the level of Government ministers but, rather, at the level of Church elders. Had the Kirk Session deemed the advice to be un-Biblical or unnecessary, it would not have hesitated to have ignored it - nor would it have been wrong to do so.

Two Governments

Aside from the family, which has its own legitimate government, the Bible sanctions two forms of government, each having authority from God and, therefore, worthy of our respect. In Romans 13, Paul tells us that 'the powers that be are ordained by God' and that 'every soul [ought to be] subject unto the higher powers.' In Scotland, these 'powers that be' are the democratically elected Parliaments of both Westminster and Holyrood and they have jurisdiction over the civil matters of our country.

They do not, however, have jurisdiction over the ecclesiastical (Church) matters of our country. For that, God has elected a separate government. The nature of that government is described in one of the questions that ministers, elders and deacons in the Free Church of Scotland are asked at ordination or induction:

Do you believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, as King and Head of the Church, has therein appointed a government in the hands of Church-officers, distinct from, and not subordinate in its own province to, civil government, and that the Civil Magistrate does not possess jurisdiction or authoritative control over the regulation of the affairs of Christ’s Church?

The Church has Jesus Christ as its King, the Bible as its statute book, elders as its governors, and believers as its members. It is the duty of these governing elders to serve their King, to be faithful to His Word, and to care for His members.

Two Jurisdictions

It follows that, if Church and state have separate governments, they will also have separate jurisdictions. As a general principle, the state deals with civil matters such as the rule of law and the economy, whereas the Church deals with spiritual matters such as doctrine and the regulation of public worship. It is not the place of the Church, therefore, to dictate economic policy or international relations, and neither is it the place of the state to dictate what the Church's doctrine should be or what its worship should look like.

The principle of separate jurisdictions was, perhaps, never so bluntly illustrated as it was at a meeting at Falkland in Fife between Andrew Melville and King James I (VI of Scotland) in 1596. Grabbing the King's sleeve, Melville called him 'God's silly vassal' before going on to explain to him that:

There are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James the head of this commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus the King of the church, whose subject James the sixth is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member. Sir, those whom Christ has called and commanded to watch over his church, have power and authority from him to govern his spiritual kingdom both jointly and severally; the which no Christian king or prince should control and discharge, but fortify and assist.

The state has a duty to support the Church and uphold the Christian religion, but it has no jurisdiction within the Church, just as the Church has no jurisdiction in Westminster or Holyrood.

That is not to say, of course, that there isn't interplay between Church and state. It is perfectly acceptable and right for the Church to advise and even urge the state to make laws, for example, to protect the unborn. It is also right and proper for the state to advise and urge the Church, for example, to close its doors during a dangerous pandemic. However, in every case, it is advice that is given. Whichever direction it comes from, it comes as a recommendation, not as an instruction.

Relevance

This may sound like a case of small-man-syndrome. However, we ought to remember that the greatest cause of strife, disunity and martyrdom in Scotland since the Reformation has been a violation of this principle. State-rule of the Church, or Erastianism as it's called, is what spilt the blood of the martyrs in one generation and what tore the Church into factions in another.

In a day when the Church is small and despised, there is an increasing likelihood that its right to self-govern will be stolen from it by a power-hungry state. It is our duty as a Church, not only to defend our right to self-govern, but also to ensure that we do not inadvertently and naively surrender that right.

It is our hope that the Government will continue to give good guidance and that we, as a Church, will continue to follow that good guidance. However, should the guidance become bad guidance, the Church should not hesitate to exercise its right to make its own decisions.


A Challenge to Self-Centred Christianity

Christianity is, in the first place, a personal relationship with God. We must be saved, not in a group, but alone. This individual pursuit of being right with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ ought to be the great goal of our lives because, if we fail in it, we perish eternally. In this pursuit, then, we ought to be self-centred. We cannot afford to put anything or anyone before that all-important goal.

Yet, once saved, the Christian is not to be self-centred. An emphasis on personal spiritual needs, of course, continues. However, the focus radically broadens to embrace the needs of others - temporal and spiritual - in obedience to the full teaching of Scripture.

The nature of the Christian life, as perfectly exemplified by the Lord Jesus Christ, is one of selflessness rather than selfishness, of self-giving rather than self-obsessing, of self-denial rather than self-gratification, and of bearing crosses rather than securing comforts.

Peter reminds us that Christ's life was an example for us, 'that [we] should follow his steps.' (1 Peter 2:21) The Apostle Paul, too, called the Christians in Philippi to adopt the mind of Christ by 'looking out not only for [their] own interests, but also for the interests of others.' (Philippians 2:4) Paul, himself, adorned this posture of humble selflessness by 'not seeking [his] own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.' (1 Corinthians 10:33) The salvation and good of others far outweighed his own gain.

We, too, as Christians in the 21st century, are to be selfless rather than selfish. Our primary concern, after God Himself, is others, not ourselves or our own. How are we following our Saviour in this regard?

In 1878, J. C. Ryle wrote:

There is a generation of professing Christians now-a-days, who seem to know nothing of caring for their neighbours, and are wholly swallowed up in the concerns of number one - that is, their own and their family's. They eat, and drink, and sleep, and dress, and work, and get money, and spend money, year after year; and whether others are happy or miserable, well or ill, converted or unconverted, travelling toward heaven or toward hell, appear to be questions about which they are supremely indifferent. Can this be right? Can it be reconciled with the religion of Him who spoke the parable of the good Samaritan, and bade us "go and do likewise"? (Luke 10:37) I doubt it altogether.

If that was true almost 150 years ago, how much greater is the temptation in our day of rife individualism?

As we examine ourselves in response to God's Word and providence, we have to ask some serious questions about what has, hitherto, characterised our Christianity. Have we cared about others, or have we been swallowed up in our own concerns? Has our Christianity been active and sacrificial, or has it been individualistic and comfortable?

As we prepare to enter what is being called a 'new normal,' what will our new Christian normal be? If God has been speaking to us through this pandemic and calling us to change, what will have changed? Will repentance make us look more like Jesus who continually 'went about doing good' (Acts 10:38)? Or will the new normal be like the old normal?

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Matthew 16:24-26a)


News: Food Bank Update

We are glad to report that, in response to our initial appeal for items for the food bank (see https://kinlochfc.org/news-kinloch-food-bank/), we already have sufficient stores to get up and running. As such, unless items have been specifically bought for the purpose, we are asking people to hold back from making new donations. Future appeals will be made when stocks run low or when specific items are required, so please keep checking the blog. Monetary gifts will still be accepted (see instructions on the old blog post).

We can also report that volunteer positions have now been filled. If the food bank has to scale up in future, however, we will be looking to recruit new volunteers so please feel free to register your interest.

The Deacons' Court of Kinloch Free Church would like to thank all for their prayerful interest and charitable spirit with regards to this new work.


News: Kinloch Food Bank

At the beginning of 2020, the Deacons’ Court of Kinloch Free Church agreed in principle to set up a food bank. With the outbreak of COVID-19 and its impending  economic impact, it has been decided to fast-track the plans and get it functional as soon as possible

Volunteers

We are looking for prospective volunteers for organising and delivering food. If you are interested in getting involved, please get in touch with the minister before Friday 29th May.

Donations

We are also beginning to collect the following items:

Cereal/Porridge

Tinned Fruit/Veg/Meat/Soup/Fish/Beans/Lentils/Pulses

Tinned Pudding/Custard

Jars of Sauce

Biscuits

Chocolate

Sugar

Tea Bags

Coffee

Pasta

Rice

Stock Cubes

Long Life Milk/Juice

Non-Perishable Spreads (Jam, Marmalade, Peanut Butter etc.)

Toilet Roll

Toiletries: deodorant, shower gel, shaving gel, shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, tooth paste, hand wipes, sanitary towels, tampons

Household Items: laundry liquid detergent, laundry powder, washing up liquid

Baby Supplies: nappies, baby wipes, baby food

Please ensure that all items are non-perishable, in date and well wrapped.

If you are willing to make a donation, please bring it to the main door of Kinloch Free Church on Friday the 22nd and 29th May between 2-3pm, ensuring that you maintain social distancing. If you are unable to make that time, please let someone at the manse know and they can organise delivery. Monetary donations are also welcome – envelopes should be marked ‘Food Bank’ and cheques should be made out to ‘Free Church Kinloch Congregational’.

Distribution

A committee is currently discussing the best way to distribute food and hope to release details over the next few weeks. However, if anyone is in current need, please phone the manse or get in touch via the contact page of this website. Confidentiality is assured.


Coronavirus-Induced Loneliness

This week, I had intended to write on the subject of loneliness. It is not a new problem, but it's one that has been exacerbated in our current COVID-19 climate. People are having to come to terms with solitude who have never had to do so before and are, as such, completely unprepared for it.

John Piper: Fighting Loneliness in the Coronavirus Outbreak

What is the Christian response to Coronavirus-induced loneliness? This morning, I read a transcript of an interview with John Piper in which he deals with this issue very appropriately. Instead of saying the same things a different way, I have decided to post a link to his blog. Read or listen here:

https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/fighting-loneliness-in-the-coronavirus-outbreak?utm_campaign=Daily+Email&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=86083075&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-9J6U2oEBouhGzJuk1v2Hmez4_eT1lTkpUzV8f72hSPpGAWdFkuOFzHmXItVqrR2TiYm7pSxYoLrhcabu7RwPdsKRRIudq4iGg8eG9trZU72xl-o5g&_hsmi=86083075

Duty of Care

I would add one thing to John Piper's blog. I recently listened to a sermon on Moses at the burning bush by Rev Mark Macleod of South Harris Free Church. He pointed out that a central part of Moses' training for leadership was spending forty years tending to sheep in relative isolation. It was this training, with its associated loneliness, which qualified him to minister to the Children of Israel. He used what he had learned to lead them with wisdom, sympathy and understanding through their own wilderness wanderings.

In terms of application, it was pointed out that isolation is no new thing to many in our congregations and communities. For many who are elderly or unwell, it is a part of life. That will, no doubt, be intensified in these days. However, it's likely that those who have been dealing with loneliness for years will be better equipped, not only to deal with Coronavirus-induced loneliness, but also to minister to those who are struggling through a relatively new experience. The wisdom, advice and encouragement of those who have learned to deal with loneliness before now will be invaluable in these days to those who have not.

If you are newly isolated and are struggling, pick up the phone and speak to someone who can help you. If you have been historically isolated, pick up the phone and speak to someone who you can help. We owe a duty of care to each other, in both physical things and spiritual things.

Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

You can listen to the full sermon here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnvBzSDJwts


Self-Isolation: Blessing or Curse?

For many, self-isolation is a curse. To be cooped up in the house can mean detachment from much that gives life dignity, worth and enjoyment. But is it all bad? Arguably, despite the undeniable disadvantages of lockdown, self-isolation is exactly what we need. It is a blessing in disguise because it has given us an abundance of time. Time for ourselves; time for our families; time for God.

Gress Bridge

In his excellent book The Soap Man, Roger Hutchinson delineates the strained relationship between the people of Lewis and Lord Leverhulme, the island's owner from 1918 until his death in 1925. Hutchinson argues that one of the turning points in this relationship took place on Wednesday 12th March 1919 at a meeting at Gress Bridge, Back. Leverhulme bluntly told over a thousand land-hungry crofters that he didn't intend to give them the land that they so felt they needed. To his credit, he firmly believed that the industrialisation of Lewis with its associated benefits - a fixed wage, a comfortable home, and a small garden - was what its people really needed.

Having said his bit, a young returned serviceman from Vatisker called John Macleod said his own bit:

You have spoken of steady work and steady pay in tones of veneration - and I have no doubt that in your view, and in the view of those unfortunate people who are compelled to live their lives in smoky towns, steady work and steady pay are very desirable things. But in Lewis we have never been accustomed to either - and, strange though it must be to your lordship, we do not greatly desire them. We attend to our crofts in seed-time and harvest, and we follow the fishing in its season - and when neither requires our attention we are free to rest and contemplate.

You have referred to our houses as hovels [shacks] - but they are our homes, and I will venture to say, my lord, that, poor though these homes may be, you will find more real human happiness in them than you will in your castles throughout the land.

Lord Leverhulme - you have bought this island. But you have not bought us, and we refuse to be bond-slaves of any man. We want to live our own lives in our own way, poor in material things it may be, but at least it will be clear of the fear of the factory bell; it will be free and independent.

An impartial observer said that 'the loudest and longest cheers of that day greeted John Macleod's speech.' Although Macleod had won the day, however, sadly his eloquence failed to persuade Lord Leverhulme.

Learning from the Past

To learn from the past isn't to nostalgically long for it. As happy as the blackhouses of the district of Back sounded, we would probably be quite uncomfortable in them. Most of our houses offer privacy, warmth, powerful showers and WiFi - we would be loath to part with such comforts. For that generation, eternity was near - advances in medical science have now neutralised many of the diseases which plagued early 20th century Lewis. For them, hunger was common - for us, it is not.

But it wasn't all bad back then. For one thing, if John Macleod had been told to self-isolate, it wouldn't have changed his life as radically as it's changed ours. He would, undoubtedly, lament some of the social restrictions, but he could continue to work on the field and fish from his boat.

What is most pertinent to our present discussion, however, is the immense worth which John Macleod placed on his freedom and time 'to rest and contemplate.'

Losing our Focus

But what's the point in time if you can't do anything with it? Undoubtedly, many in society have, through self-isolation, lost their focus. The activities which have, hitherto, given life meaning and excitement have been cordoned off. Those who live for the weekend have seen restaurants, pubs and clubs close. Those who religiously attend the gym, or a weekly game of football or squash, are sitting at home in their shorts. The great sporting events of the year (not to mention music and theatre) have been cancelled. Some have taken to watching re-runs but it's not the same. Schools are closed to most, kids clubs are cancelled, Church services are suspended, and supermarkets are hushed. Furlough from work, for many, is frustrating.

It is difficult to overestimate how vital social activity is to the mental health and well-being of a great proportion of our population. People are literally wondering how they are going to cope without the focus. It is not without reason that the BBC are daily posting advice about stress, anxiety and depression.

Re-Focusing

But what if this is a chance to re-focus? The opportunity for rest and contemplation that John Macleod so valued has now been thrust in front of most of us. It is incumbent upon us to use that time wisely and profitably by re-assessing what in life is important and essential. Many of the things which we have temporarily lost will, on assessment, still be important to us after the lockdown. Many of them, however, will fall far down the priority list. As they fall down, it is hoped that other priorities, formerly sidelined, will rise up.

Family

This is an opportunity to prioritise the family and realise its blessing. Recent years have seen the family unit, which is the basic building block of a healthy society, attacked and degraded. Bit by bit, the family is being pulled apart. Now, families have been forced together. One of the top divorce lawyers in the UK has said that she expects business to boom as a result of the Coronavirus. How much happier the outcome if couples used this time to work through their marriage problems and renew their commitment to one another.

Self-isolation also provides a great opportunity for parent-child relationships. When the schools closed, one mother went public to say that, as a teacher, she got her dignity from her work; now, however, she was forced to stay at home and look after her children. What a blessing it would be for both parents and children - and society as a whole - if we realised how dignified a thing it is to bring up children. Arguably, there is no more important and influential role in all of society. This is a time for parents to prioritise their children by spending time teaching them, playing with them, eating with them and resting with them. This lockdown could provide our children with some of the happiest memories of their childhood.

'What of the soul?'

When William Wilberforce was at the height of his campaign for the abolition of slavery, a Christian woman said to him, 'Mr Wilberforce, what of the soul?' Wilberforce, who was a dedicated Christian, turned to her and said, 'Woman, I had almost forgotten that I had a soul.' Much of our population has been so busy that they can say the same. We've been so distracted that we've neglected our souls, overlooked eternity and spurned Christ and His gospel.

Paul called the Church in Ephesus to 'redeem the time, because the days are evil.' (Ephesians 5:16) In these evil days when we're faced with fear, uncertainty, loss and mortality in a way that is new to most of us, how better to use our time than by ensuring that we are right with God and by getting to know Him better?

Most of us have Bibles in our homes which we can pick up and read, online sermons that will explain it to us, and quiet places where we can bow the knee and pray. God has given us the means to get to know Him and time to do it - it would be remiss of us to miss such an opportunity for spiritual blessing.

Seeking the Blessing

I'm not suggesting that COVID-19 is itself a blessing; on the contrary, there are strong grounds to call it a curse and a judgment from God (see https://kinlochfc.org/the-why-of-covid-19/). Neither am I suggesting that lockdown is going to be easy for everyone, especially those who are already lonely and isolated.

But for many who have been too busy and whose calendars have been too full, self-isolation could be the gateway to life-changing blessing. It is an opportunity to re-assess, re-focus and get right with God.

Let's not hurry away the days or misuse them by being slaves to smartphones, news bulletins, or Netflix. Rather, let us capitalise on this new-found time by seeking the blessing that it offers. Who knows but that, as a result, our homes, like that of the landless crofters in Back, will again be filled with 'real human happiness.'


The "Why" of COVID-19

Why is our world being ravaged by COVID-19? It's not a question that's easily answered. Lots of people are calling it a judgment from God, but what if the judgment isn't on those we might think?

Such a definition sounds decidedly negative, I know. But from a Biblical perspective, temporal judgments generally have positive elements in the form of lessons to be learned and grace to be received.

The Lesson

In Luke 13, Jesus explains that people were wrong to assume that certain tragedies - a bloodthirsty mass-murder and a deadly tower collapse - happened because the victims were more sinful than other members of the public. That, of course, doesn't mean that COVID-19 isn't a judgment; it does mean that it's wrong to suggest that those that die of it are succumbing because of their personal sin. On the contrary, COVID-19 will take lives indiscriminately. Murderers and rapists may well be taken, as may saints and philanthropists.

But the lesson of COVID-19 comes in the chorus of the passage. Twice, Jesus says to His listeners, 'unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.' The message of God to all of us through the Coronavirus is to repent of our sin and rebellion against God, and, in a 180 degree turn, to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. He is calling us, both personally and corporately, to put Him first.

But, before I develop this further, it is a revealing exercise to examine why it is that we’re interested in the “why” question at all.

Science

From a purely scientific angle, the Telegraph recently suggested that this may have happened because of cross-contamination in a wet market in Wuhan which sold both live and dead animals (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/30/what-covid-19-coronavirus-pandemic-virus/). It's thought that the difficulties involved in maintaining suitable hygiene in such an environment allowed the virus to be transmitted from an animal (which had contracted it from a bat) to a human. And the rest is history in the making, or so we are led to believe. The Chinese government, it's only fair to say, deny this explanation and, for all we know, they may be right.

Philosophy

It's becoming increasingly evident, however, that, when a crisis brings much of the world into lock-down, people aren't satisfied with purely scientific answers. And that's not just because the science, in this case, is uncertain - even if we knew exactly where COVID-19 had come from and how it had developed, we would still be seeking deeper answers as to why this is happening. Scientific answers are helpful in such instances, but they aren't sufficient because man has metaphysical needs. In Biblical terms, God has set eternity in the heart of man (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and, as such, we have an intrinsic desire to know the unseen why as well as the observable how.

Herman Bavinck, in his Prolegomena, argued that

 the world of non-material things, the world of values, of good and evil, law and custom, religion and morality, of all that inspires love and hatred in our hearts, lifts us up and comforts us or crushes and grieves us, that whole magnificent invisible world is as much a reality to us as the "real world" that we perceive with our senses. Its impact on our lives and on the history of humankind is still much greater than that of the visible things about us.

As such, the whole scientific endeavour, pre-Enlightenment, accepted that natural science and philosophy had to go hand in hand. As spiritual beings, we bring our presuppositions, whether they be religious in the traditional sense or not, to the cold, hard evidence of science. We interpret the brute facts through the lens of our philosophy. Rationalists will deny this in theory, but not in practice.

This is all important simply because it explains why we are asking the why question. It helps us clarify why we look for deeper meaning at all, if the science is already giving us the facts. The reason is that we need a lens through which to view and analyse our facts, just as an eye needs a retina to see the world. That lens is our philosophy or our religion or our worldview.

Diverse Perspectives

This explains why people have reacted to the current crisis in the way that they have - with metaphysical questions as well as physical questions, with philosophy as well as science. It explains why, when people talk about why this is happening to us, they don't speak, particularly, of the negligence of the Chinese authorities (or any other authorities) but, rather, of a greater purpose in all of this, and a greater power behind it.

The fact that we are no longer a Christian country in any tangible sense - nor, arguably, have we been for over a century - is evidenced by the fact that the answers to the why question are generally vague and lacking in any substantial content. Bavinck observed that, though the mainstream scientific schools dismissed religion and spiritual knowledge out the front door - because, they argued, it was not empirical (observable) - it is 'again admitted through the back door, but now frequently in the form of superstition.'

As such, in our current crisis, superstitious answers are run of the mill. Some are citing 'Mother Earth' as the instigator of COVID-19, seeking revenge for our pollution of the world. Others base their theories on a westernised form of Karma, going about judging and avenging those who've done wrong. Those with a nominal Christian background are, while avoiding any uncomfortable details, suggesting that God is in control and, on a vague and ill-informed notion of providence, are confident that this means that all will be well and that no real harm will befall us. These things, we often hear, are sent to try us.

But who is trying us? Who is the God that some believe to be in control? Who is Mother Earth? Who or what is behind Karma? What basis do we have to say that everything will be fine in the end? By what law are we being judged? Tragically, many who are seeking deeper answers to our current crisis have precious little to base either their optimism or pessimism upon, because their philosophies are materially bankrupt. Their lack of content means they have no real answers to give.

'What saith the Scriptures?'

Unlike many other religions and worldviews, Christianity is a religion of content - sixty-six books full of it. Through men like Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Malachi, Matthew, John, Paul and James, God is speaking into diverse historical and cultural contexts and is addressing varied issues and life-situations.

What does the Bible have to say about the outbreak of COVID-19? The Bible, of course, isn't updated every few minutes with the latest headlines, like BBC News. Its final book, chronologically, was probably penned at the end of the 1st century A.D. In one sense, then, the Bible doesn't mention the Coronavirus, but in another sense, by speaking into similar historical situations, it speaks into our own situation. The lessons learned are transferable and help us to answer our why questions.

Inevitably, there will be numerous and conflicting interpretations of the Biblical data in this regard. It is notoriously difficult - for both believer and non-believer - to approach the Bible without trying to make it say what we want it to say. As with any science, we bring our own background and worldview to the data at hand and use it as our lens. That is why some are shouting that this is the judgment that we all deserve and that the end is coming, while others appear to think that God is not the judgmental type.

Judgment in the Bible

Judgment is, perhaps unwittingly, the first explanation that the Bible-reading Christian mind thinks of in the face of worldwide catastrophe. It's, of course, not a popular subject but, regardless, from Genesis to Revelation, the theme of judgment is to the fore. The fact that God is, Himself, infinitely just requires it to be so. The judgment theme is brought to its consummation at the Last Judgment where

we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

It's also beyond doubt, however, that God, at times, afflicts mankind with temporal judgments. The greatest the Bible records is the worldwide flood in the day of Noah. The reason given for it is that God

saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)

Similarly, but on a localised scale, Sodom was destroyed because 'their sin [was] very grievous.' (Genesis 18:20) Egyptian families lost their firstborn children because Pharaoh would not let Israel go; Joshua's army was defeated at Ai because Achan kept the spoil from Jericho; Judah was taken into Babylonian captivity because of sustained neglect of their covenant responsibilities before God. These are a small sample of God sending temporal judgments in the Old Testament.

Temporal judgments, however, are also prominent in the New Testament. In the Book of Acts, God smote Herod because, in his blasphemous pride, he 'gave not God the glory.' (Acts 12:23) Jesus' Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) was, in part, fulfilled in the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. - a judgment upon Jewry for rejecting their Messiah. Paul warns the Church in Corinth against partaking of the Lord's Supper unworthily and, thereby, drinking judgment upon themselves. This is how he explains some of the illnesses and deaths in their congregation - as a judgment from God because of their sin. (1 Corinthians 11:29-32) When Christ addressed the Churches in Asia Minor in Revelation 2 and 3, some of the judgments that He threatened were, without doubt, temporal as well as eternal (e.g., Revelation 2:5, 16; 3:3, 10, 16).

The principle which is important to grasp is that sin is always judged and punished. That takes place, primarily, at the final judgment. However, the Biblical evidence shows that God's judgment sometimes protrudes into time. For Christians who have trusted their whole lives to Jesus Christ, their Saviour has stood in their place in the judgment and has borne their punishment on the cross. The fact that they will not be punished for their sin in eternity, however, is no guarantee that they won't be chastised for their sin or that of their Church, or caught up in the judgment of the world, in this life.

Is this a Judgment?

It is certainly possible, then, for God to send temporal judgments, even today - but are we right to suggest that this is one? COVID-19 certainly conforms to many of the norms of a judgment. It's hitting us where it hurts - socially, economically and physically. Many millions who won't get as much as a whiff of the virus itself will be devastated by its imminent impact on their finances, relationships and consciences.

But are we ripe for judgment? Do we deserve this? Arguably, the world is no more sinful today than it ever was. Certainly, there's nothing new under the sun. Some of today's sins may not have been practised a thousand years ago, but their seed was certainly present and probably manifested in other ways. Some argue, not without grounds, that even the golden days of Christianity in Scotland, whenever they were, weren't golden days at all but were marred by many sins that today's Church would describe as heinous.

What makes 21st century Britain more worthy of judgment than 17th century or 19th century Britain? In a sense, that's the wrong question. God may have judged these generations with temporal judgments either long-forgotten or condemned to the pages of unread history. Or He may, in His divine wisdom, have chosen to reserve their judgment until they broached the realms of eternity.

The right question, I would suggest, is, are we worthy of judgment? Are Scotland, the UK, and western society worthy that God's displeasure be displayed against us? Arguably, yes.

The World

I'm not going to go into a detailed list of modern society's sin - I think they are quite obvious to anyone who knows anything, not even about the Bible, but about historical Christian values. It is clear that God's Word and authority have been expelled from the public sphere and are, therefore, militated against in public policy, whether that be in our schools, health service, or courts of law. The outworking of this is best recognised and confessed before God by those responsible.

The Church

It's uncomfortable to realise, however, that most Biblical judgments are exacted upon the Church. If we are to be honest (Pandemics can be good for honesty), we who should have known better, who had Bibles in our hands, who had God's praise on our lips, must confess that we've sinned against the God we professed to serve. We have minored on the majors and, at times, have majored overly on the minors. We have tried (unsuccessfully) to attract the world by becoming virtually indistinct from it. We have loved as they loved and hated as they hated.

We have become lazy in our Church-going and sporadic at our prayer meetings. We have squabbled amongst ourselves, severed as we saw fit, and held grudges against brothers and sisters, sometimes for decades. Privately, we have forgotten about the reality of who God is and have neglected the place of prayer. We have explained away His holiness, normalised His grace, side-lined His law and practised only those parts of His Word which we saw fit to practice.

It would be unwise to be dogmatic on the judgment question. What we cannot doubt is that God has, for one reason or another (or probably for countless reasons), allowed this virus to spread. The Coronavirus is part of the 'purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.' (Ephesians 1:11)

If we do accept that COVID-19 is a judgment, however, perhaps it's, primarily, not a judgment upon the sins of the world but a chastisement for the Church, that she might be tested in the fire, that what comes through might do so as tried gold. (Zechariah 13:9) It's easy to blame what's happening on the world. It's not as easy to point the finger at ourselves and bear the responsibility for the devastation.

Summary

On Sunday, I heard a minister say that, at the Last Judgment, there will be no arm of mercy extended to those who have lived in defiant unbelief. In this judgment, however, God graciously extends to us an arm and calls us to repent, lest we perish. That invitation to repent goes out to ministers and lay-people, saints and sinners, to Churches and parliaments.

 If, through asking the "why" questions of COVID-19, we see God's mercy towards us in judging us now and not later; and if, consequently, we re-order our priorities and set Him up as King in our hearts, we will have learned the lesson that He is teaching us and will be eternally grateful for that lesson, sore though it was.

A seasoned Christian said to me a few days ago, 'as for me, I can't put the reason for this judgment past myself.' If we all took that approach, perhaps we would better learn the lessons that God is teaching us.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

 


A Strange Day

Yesterday (Sunday 22nd March) was a strange day for Christians all over the country and much of the world. At a local level, apart from being closed for communion services in neighbouring parishes, it was, as far as I am aware, the first Lord's Day where there was no worship service held in Kinloch since the Church opened in 1881. There was a solemnity about the empty car park and the unlit Church building - a potent illustration of God's judgment. I hope to delve further into that in a future post.

For now, however, I want to consider another subject: why is it strange for a Christian not to be in Church on Sunday? Why does it bother us? Is Church really needful? You can, after all, be a Christian without going to Church. We have Bibles in our homes, good books on our shelves and sermons on our iPads. Indeed, I can think of some in our own district who are now sadly housebound and who haven't been out to Church in years and, yet, they are evidently Christians.

And, yet, though that be the case, there is an unease in the true Christian when he is unable to get to Church. Even those who are housebound feel this to an extent; they know a lack in their experience; a void which is very difficult, if not impossible, to fill. Why is this?

Obedience

I would argue that there are two particular reasons for it. First, we are very clearly commanded to gather together as believers. The author to the Hebrews said, 'let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as you see the day approaching.' (Hebrews 10:24-25) To assemble together as believers is a command and is, therefore, part of our obedience to God Himself. Jesus said, 'If you love me, keep my commandments.' Church-going is an expression of this love for Christ and His body, the Church. To purposely neglect Church services, therefore, is sinful. To have no Church to go to, as is our present situation, is not sinful, but it is certainly strange.

Family

But there is another reason why it is strange for a Christian not to go to Church, and that is the fact that humans are social beings - we yearn for company. God made us for companionship and that is why He called us to come together - for our own good. It was never good for man, or woman, to be alone. Isolation is sometimes necessary, but it is never natural. That is, primarily, why most people live in cities, towns and villages and not in isolation - not, simply, for the economic benefits but for the social benefits. Humans are also familial beings - we have a sense of belonging and are intimately tied to those who share our blood and our ancestry. By extension, we long for the company of those with whom we have common ground, who share our interests and our ambitions, our history and our purpose.

The Church is a family. This is an important concept to grasp in a society where the family unit has been denigrated and has, as a result, largely disintegrated. The Church has, in every generation, acted as a family structure. For some, it's the only real family that they have. The Psalmist could say, 'When my father and my mother forsake me, Then the LORD will take care of me.' (Psalm 27:10) When we lose our natural brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, the Church-family remains our family. It is an imperfect family, as is every family, because it is made up of sinners, but it is still precious and enormously important to the believer.

Adoption

It's important to realise that this isn't just a fuzzy, feel-good concept without any real substance. The Bible tells us that, if we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, that God is our adoptive Father. The Westminster Divines, in writing the Shorter Catechism, described the benefits of Christianity as not just justification (being made right with God) and sanctification (being made holy before God), but also adoption (being made children of God).

This has great implications for the way that the Christian approaches God - he/she can now do so with boldness as well as reverence; indeed, he/she approaches God with a combination of both. But it also has implications for our attendance at Church services because, when we gather together to worship, we are gathering with others who have been adopted into God's family - we are meeting with those who are legally our brothers and sisters. In fact, according to Scripture, our family bonds aren't just legal, they are also organic - when we are 'born again,' God changes our nature by putting His Holy Spirit into us. Because He has done this in the life of every believer, every Christian has the same spiritual DNA. The result is that those who are your legal brothers and sisters in Christ through the judicial process of adoption are also your natural brothers and sisters in Christ because they are indwelt by the same Spirit of Christ.

Church

A Church service, then, is a family gathering. Here, spiritual brothers and sisters assemble to worship the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We may differ in many respects - in background, race, colour, wealth and privilege - but we are united in the one family, with all that that entails in terms of mutual love and privilege, by virtue of the fact that we are Christians.

As such, the Church has physically gathered in every generation. Old Testament believers went together to the temple. So, the Psalmist could say, 'I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.' (Psalm 122:1) Jesus, Himself, attended the synagogue which is, literally, the assembling together of people. The early Church 'continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.' (Acts 2:42) Fellowship, or togetherness, has ever been a central and much-loved part of Christianity.

I have met some who, for differing reasons, have missed family gatherings - weddings, anniversaries, birthdays etc. - and have been grieved by their absence. Their absence, I'm sure was also grieved by others. So it ought to be with Church. It is painful for us to be separated from the physical fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yesterday felt strange because it was strange. Indeed, it was an unnatural thing to be separated from the Lord's people on the Lord's Day. Some have felt this strangeness before, when locked in due to illness or some other factor. But, now, every true Christian whose Church has been compelled to shut its doors is in the same boat. If we did not sympathise with the housebound Christian before, we are learning that sympathy now, the hard way.

Some of us have, undoubtedly, leaned too heavily on Church services to prop up our Christianity, and not heavily enough on God Himself. As such, this trial - and a trial it is - will shatter some Christian professions which were no more than professions. God forbid that that would be true of us.

Our hope is that, as our props are taken away, we might taste the sweetness of greater reliance on the Saviour Himself. If, by God's grace, we come through the trial with our profession intact and our garments unstained, we will hopefully have learned by sore experience the preciousness of physical fellowship with God's people and will ensure that our Church attendance is no longer characterised by laxity as, perhaps, it has been hitherto.

Duty

It is important for us, however, to do our duty in the strange situation in which we find ourselves. Our physical Church services have been suspended, but the Church is still active and can never be suspended. Personally, we ought to be searching the Scriptures, listening to (or watching) and worshipfully participating in services online, pleading with God in prayer, and seeking to read God's providence and be students of it.

Corporately, we ought to keep in touch with one another through phone or other technologies and ensuring that we are encouraging one another, strengthening the weak hands and confirming the feeble knees. It is our duty to 'Bear one another's burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.' (Galatians 6:2)

Finally, it is our duty to speak into a Christ-less world. People's worlds are crumbling around them and many are beginning to see the uncertainty and emptiness of all that they have believed in and relied on. That is not the case with the Christian. The foundation of God stands sure; He is our rock and He has not changed. We still have a hope. See, then, that you are bold in witnessing for Him and that you are 'ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you for a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.' (1 Peter 3:15) Our Church services have ceased for a time and that is strange, but the work of the Church goes on.