"Give them the whole Bible!"

Kenneth Stewart (Glasgow RPCS) preaching at the ordination in Stornoway Town Hall last night

Kenneth Stewart (Glasgow RPCS) preaching at the ordination in Stornoway Town Hall last night

Last night saw the ordination of Stephen McCollum as minister in Stornoway. At an ordination service, one of the other ministers is usually given the task of addressing the new minister and exhorting him in one or more particular aspects of his work.

One such address was given in Stranraer in 1932 by Rev. Andrew Cross Gregg at the ordination of Mr Moffett Blair as minister - and it's still as relevant as ever.

After warning about the mistake of thinking that orthodox sermons are more important than a Christ-like life, the older minister went on:

"Another great mistake we ministers make is that we do not give our people enough of the Bible. We have preached too much and too often from single verses and single clauses, and not often enough from whole passages. I advise you to serve to your people big slices of the bread of life...The late Mr. Struthers once took for his text the 119th Psalm - the whole 176 verses! The sermon was printed, and a fine sermon it is, and not too long either! Give your hearers plenty of the Bible. Give them the whole Bible.

A. C. Gregg, then minister in Greenock

A. C. Gregg, then minister in Greenock

After more than forty years of attempt to preach I regret to have to confess that there still remain large and fertile tracts of Bible material which I have never tried to expound. I have, of course, taken many texts from the great Prophets of Israel, but I have not yet tried to travel right through Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and Daniel, to bring to my hearers some of the rich and luscious fruit of the linked thoughts of those grand, inspired men with their living and creative messages.

I take it for granted that you are a diligent student of the Word of God. Walk through the length of it and the breadth of it, survey its heights and its depths, its green pastures and its quiet waters, and then take your people through that good land and let them feel by experience that it is flowing with milk and honey".

- A. C. Gregg, 'To a young minister' in R. P. Witness (Dec 1932), 279-280.

The Reformer John Calvin also urged the importance of studying Scripture in its context. Commenting on a frequent misunderstanding of Isaiah 14:12 (that 'Lucifer' is another name for Satan), he says: 'When passages of Scripture are taken up at random, and no attention is paid to the context, we need not wonder that mistakes of this kind frequently arise'.

As he concluded his ordination address, Gregg said: 'I can assure you, my dear young brother, that there is far more cause to-day for a happy view of the future of our Church than I have ever seen'. Perhaps some of us could say the same today - but if we do, may it not be because our confidence is in men, but because it is in the Word of God. And not just parts of it, but all of it! 'Give them the whole Bible'.

Jesus has left the building (Newspaper article)

A few years ago, an exhibition toured Scotland with photographs of churches derelict or converted into night-clubs and carpet showrooms, entitled simply 'Jesus Has Left The Building'. It would be hard to argue with the title; if a place where God was once worshipped is now used for other purposes, it's pretty clear that it's no longer a place where Jesus meets with his people.

The former United Presbyterian Church in Whithorn - now a car garage

The former United Presbyterian Church in Whithorn - now a car garage

However my concern is that there are hundreds more churches which haven't been converted to commercial use - but which could equally well have been included in the exhibition. Churches where (usually dwindling) congregations meet together on Sunday mornings. Where hymns are sung and the Bible is read – but the message that sinful human beings can only become right with a holy God through Jesus has long since ceased to ring out.

The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision the glory of the Lord literally leave the temple. We're not going to see Jesus physically leave a church today - so how do we know if he has departed?

Well above all, Jesus is present in a church if his word is proclaimed. Jesus said that his sheep follow him, because they know his voice. Imagine a little girl waking up in the night. It's dark, and she's scared. Then she hears the voice of her father: 'It's alright sweetheart. Everything's ok. You can go back to sleep'. The voice of her father is the reassurance of his presence. One of the Reformers put it this way: 'Have we God's word preached purely? Then Jesus Christ is in the midst of us'.

Just because the Bible is read, doesn't mean the Bible's message is being proclaimed. It's easy to teach moral lessons from the Bible. But if living a moral life was enough to get us to Heaven, Jesus' death would have been pointless.

So if Jesus has left a building, his people must leave too. There's too much at stake to keep going to a church just because you've been there all your life. Jesus said that his people would 'flee' from the voice of strangers. A sentimental connection with a building or denomination shouldn't be enough to hold us.

Seeing churches turned into garages and boxing gyms is sad. But the real tragedy is the churches that are still open - but whose members don't realise that Jesus is no longer there.

Published in Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press, 23rd March 2017

The building where Dumfries Reformed Presbyterian Church met - now a boxing gym

The building where Dumfries Reformed Presbyterian Church met - now a boxing gym