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Issues Facing Missions Today: 54. Mission as Church Renewal through a Return to Scriptural Authority

Issues Facing Missions Today: 54. Mission as Church Renewal through a Return to Scriptural Authority

I have recently been writing about mission as Church renewal, particularly as it applies to a mission to the West.  To this end, I have been examining Biblical texts as they address what we might call a theology of unity and division.[1]  Reformation of the Church is, as Protestants in the 16th century emphasised, accomplished through a constant revision of ecclesiastical errors by returning to the teaching of Scripture.  The Latin phrase, semper reformanda—always reforming—was fundamental for the Reformation—not just ‘a’ reformation but a continual reformation of the Church.  Why?  Because the Church is always prone to error in human hands.  How can the Church be reformed?  By constantly returning to the Scriptures to see where human interpretation has strayed from God’s authoritative Word.

Consider now this.  Yesterday, the Church of Scotland affirmed the ordination of same-sex ministers.[2]  In so doing, it has determined to oppose the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent witness of the Church throughout the centuries.[3]  Yes, this is the Church of John Knox—the 16th century preacher who helped to bring the Reformation to the Church of Scotland.  Now, Knox’s Reformation Church has set itself up in opposition to the very Scriptures it once turned to in order to free itself from error.  In so doing, it has plunged itself into such error that the issues of the 16th century pale in comparison to those of the 21st century.

At the time of his first public debate (1547), Knox was examined for his views.  His inquisitor continuously stood on the teachings of the Church, whereas Knox called for reform of the Church’s accrued teachings on the basis of Scripture.  In Knox’s words, ‘the spouse of Christ [has] neither power nor authority against the word of God."[4]  His debate partner retorted that, if Scripture were to be allowed to reform the Church, there’d be no Church.  Knox replied, in essence, that there could indeed be a ‘Church’ that was not based on what Scripture teaches, but such a Church would not have Jesus Christ as its pastor as it would be a Church that refused to hear His voice.

Now, nearly 500 years later, Knox’s own Church has voted to have a Church without Christ as its pastor because it is refusing to hear His voice in the Scriptures.  The Church of Scotland, mind, has been in free-fall for a number of years.  David Robertson reported the following statistics for the old Kirk in Christianity Today last year:[5]

Professions of Faith

We might, for that matter, note that the American daughter church of the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church, USA, has also jettisoned Scriptural authority in favour of cultural relativity.  It, too, has recently determined on its own authority that Biblical teaching on sin needs to be repudiated.  It, too, has chosen to take its convictions not from Scripture or the Church’s continuous witness but from culture.[6]  It, too, has seen steady decline in Church membership as orthodox believers and churches have fled to other denominations, especially the newer Presbyterian denominations (the Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and now the Evangelical Covenant Order).  As reported in The Layman, membership decline in the PCUSA is as dismal as that of the Church of Scotland:[7]
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The real story of these once thriving Christian Churches is not that this or that denomination has changed its mind on an issue that has always been taught in Scripture and the Church.  Rather, the real story is that so many Christians have left the particular denomination because of its increasingly unbiblical teaching that the heretical minority has become the majority.  One can only wonder what other core convictions will be forsaken as the Church of Scotland and the PCUSA—and similar denominations—continue to lose members to other, orthodox denominations.

As for John Knox, there is no question whatsoever that the very founder of the Church of Scotland would today be the loudest critic of the mainline Presbyterian denominations that his reform efforts founded.  He would critique them on the very same grounds that he once called for reform in his own day.  Orthodoxy—what all Christians have always taught everywhere[8]—is only possible when what Christians teach is the unchanging revelation of God in Scripture.  As we limp our way to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (1517),[9] we are once again in need of that other reforming principle of Protestants in the 16th century: sola Scriptura.  Denominations that have lost this principle have, not surprisingly, lost their essential means for continuous renewal of the Church.

As John Knox said (to paraphrase), ‘You can have your Church without Christ as its pastor, refusing to hear his Word.’  But a mission of Church renewal requires an authority for such renewal, and that authority is none other than the Word of God.  Mission as Church renewal in the West will be a reforming movement based on Biblical authority and teaching.  Sometimes that ministry of renewal will be conducted within a dying denomination (since not all believers leave these organizations--and sometimes they stay precisely because they have an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel in them).  At other times, the ministry of the Church will move to healthier denominations.  While the light of God’s revelation in Scripture flickers and is finally snuffed out in certain denominations, the flame of God’s Word will catch light and burn brightly in other places.

[1] One will never understand Church unity without also understanding the appropriate time for Church division.
[2] ‘Church of Scotland Votes to Allow Ministers to be in Same-Sex Marriages,’ The Guardian (21 May 2016); online at: (accessed 21 May, 2016).
[3] For this argument, see S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Knoxville: B&H Academic, 2016).
[4] As quoted by Peter Lorimer, John Knox and the Church of England: His Work in Her Pulpit and His Influence on Her Liturgy, Articles, and Parties (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1875), p. 9.  This is from Knox’s first public debate in 1547.
[5] David Robertson, ‘Is the Church of Scotland in Terminal Decline?,’ Christianity Today (20 April, 2015); online at (accessed 22 May, 2016).
[6] The most prominent example of this is the PCUSA’s 221st General Assembly’s affirmation in 2014 of same-sex marriage.  See online:
[7] ‘PCUSA Continues Membership Decline 92,433 Members Gone in 2014,’ The Layman (13 May, 2014).  Online: (accessed 22 May, 2014).  The mainline Presbyterian Church (in its northern and southern church bodies until 1983, when a merger took place), has been in decline in membership since 1965.  This story is typical of other mainline denominations in the West.
[8] This is the definition for orthodoxy given by St. Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century.  His point was that the Church’s orthodox teaching by all, everywhere, and always was its teaching of Scripture.  He was not advocating a teaching of the Church on its own authority.  The test for whether the Church has correctly interpreted Scripture, rather, was the test of unanimous interpretation.
[9] 1517 was the year when Martin Luther posted 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.  The theses called for reform within the Roman Catholic Church of his day.  This began the Protestant Reformation in Europe.