Tuesday, 17 March 2015

On this day... Thomas Chalmers

Few people in British history have so combined intellectual, organisational and rhetorical talents as Thomas Chalmers, born on St Patrick’s Day in 1780. Mathematician, political economist and theologian, it was his passionate commitment to the freedom of the church and of the believer under the Lordship of Christ that led him to oppose the effective control that the state, and rich patrons, had over local churches in Scotland. He observed that where local churches cannot have any say in the choosing of their ministers, and where the choice belongs to the moneyed and the powerful, the effect on the gospel will always be a watering down and the question will always be bigger than a matter of local, ecclesiastical organisation.
The struggle over this issue in the Church of Scotland came to be known as the Disruption; it resulted in 470 ministers seceding from the established church and forming the Free Church, a body whose ministers were funded purely through the contributions of its members, and whose appointments could be vetoed by the local congregation. Ultimately, these principles were incorporated into the Church of Scotland itself, although to this day the C of S faces great challenges in terms of its relationship to the court of public opinion, if no longer the state per se.
What drove Chalmers through a very turbulent battle was his passion for the gospel and for gospel-driven transformation of society. He saw the urban poor of Glasgow as being desperately neglected by a church run in effect by distant politicians, and he worked for their social and educational well-being as well as for spiritual transformation through evangelism and the planting of new congregations. More widely, he was a key figure in the Bible Society and the great missionary movement of the time, and passionate about Christian unity, as a founder of the Evangelical Alliance (though that title was not his choice!). The quote I have chosen could be read in isolation as part of a gospel of do-goodery; nothing could be further from the truth. The man who could write of practical religion in such a way was the man who could also say, "Not till we come to a simple reliance on the blood and mediation of the Saviour, shall we know what it is either to have trust in God, or know what it is to walk before Him without fear, in righteousness and true holiness." This is Christ-driven, evangelical piety.
I am not a Scot, and poorly qualified to write on Chalmers, but feel that he is a figure who has much to teach us today, North or South of the border. What I have written I have gleaned from my memory of the story, bolstered by sites which are readily available. Much more is available on Chalmers as a mathematician and professor, as a pastor and theologian, and as a preacher. I found this article particularly helpful. He is arguably, in terms of gospel passion and importance, the greatest evangelical Scotsman after Patrick.  
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He who pays the piper, calls the tune. Wherever a church gains a proportion of its income from the state, or from the contributions of members of the public who are not necessarily committed to the rule of Christ or to the message of the gospel, the pressure will be on to soft-pedal those elements of the message and of discipleship which grate on the sensibilities of any given age. Thomas Chalmers has much to say to the Salvation Army today.

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