Tragedy In Lewis – A Pastoral Response

Rev Dr Iain Campbell, a Free Church of Scotland minister, committed suicide and was posthumously accused of having had affairs with several women. David Robertson offers a pastoral response.

My phone has hardly stopped ringing over the past couple of days, with journalists from different news organisations desperate for information and 'an informed opinion' about the recent tragic death of Iain D Campbell. It still disappoints me that in a world where people are being killed, this is considered so newsworthy that it merits so many column inches and so much gossip. However to some degree I don't blame the journalists – that is the world they inhabit and they are just doing their jobs. It's more reading the accompanying comments and even more sadly what passes for 'prayerful concern' in the Christian world , which really sticks in the throat.

Rev Dr Iain Campbell.Free Church of Scotland

What can be said? In some ways it is surely better to say nothing, but as a Christian minister in Iain's church, and knowing the upset, hurt, pain and confusion this is causing to so many, I think it is right that something be said for those , like me ,who are pastorally struggling with this.

Those of you who are looking for 'inside info' or salacious gossip can go look elsewhere. All I could tell the journalists is how the procedures of the Church work. They probably knew more than me of the allegations. What I know is what is in the public domain. Iain committed suicide and after his death a number of allegations have been made. The truth or otherwise of these will be investigated by the Western Isles Presbytery. This statement from the Presbytery sums it up well:

The Presbytery of the Western Isles wish to assure the Free Church and friends in the wider Christian community that meetings have been held to consider the recent death in tragic circumstances of Rev Dr Iain D Campbell.

They wish to further give assurance that they are continuing to exercise pastoral oversight in all aspects of this tragic event in accordance with The Practice of the Free Church of Scotland.

We ask for your prayers for the family, for our churches, and for the cause of Christ worldwide, as we seek to deal with this painful matter in a way that is biblically faithful and Christ-honouring.

Weep and Pray

Our first response is to be one of great sorrow and anguish. For so many reasons. For me it is personal. Iain D was a friend. He was the same age and basically followed the same career trajectory – we were both Free Church ministers. I was the youngest Free Church minister until Iain D was ordained. We were both PhD students at Edinburgh Uni (he got his), editor of The Record, moderator of the Assembly, married to a Lewis woman, three children, keen cyclist, author and we both preached in different parts of the country and to a small extent, elsewhere in the world. I feel it, but can only imagine the pain, sorrow and numerous conflicting emotions that his family must be going through. We must uphold them before the throne of grace and pray they find help in their time of need. We should pray for all those involved and most directly affected. Would that we all had the heart of the minister I had to tell, who burst into tears on hearing the news. We must weep with those who weep. And for him. And for ourselves.

Avoid gossip

It's so easy to hide behind the mask of 'prayerful concern' and use it as an opportunity to feed our appetite for salacious gossip. People say they need to know. Why? Why does anyone, other than those directly involved, need to know? Isn't what we know enough for sorrow and prayer? (That is why you will not find here links to the numerous articles that have appeared in the press – why do we need to know any more than the basics already stated?) I don't know what happened and I don't want to know. And those of you who claim to 'know' more almost certainly don't. What you mean is that you have heard something. You don't know. I think what amazes me is how many people have contacted me with the words 'I have heard that...' or 'It's widely known...'. 'I don't want to share this but...' I rebuked someone for using this latter phrase before they then went on to share a newspaper article in public on their FB page. Why? Because there was no edifying or good purpose in it.

Now the accusation immediately comes – 'You can't face up to the truth.' The reality is that I can't know the truth. Not absolutely. I don't know the history, people's hearts or actions and so I can't know. And it's not my business. God will judge. And God alone knows. It is not for us to make judgments, take sides or pontificate as though we had the knowledge of the Almighty. We don't. This does not mean that the Church should not act when and as it can with what it does know. But it does mean that the request for the Church to act as God in order that 'something must be done', or seen to be done, should be ignored. As I told the press – we don't do trial by media and as I now say to the various Christians networks/gossip chains, we don't do trial by network gossip either.

Trust the Church

That seems like a strange request. Incidents like this are used by the Accuser to show people that the Church cannot be trusted. But that is not what this incident shows. I have a great deal of sympathy with my brothers in the Lewis Presbytery who are faced with a situation which they knew nothing of, and have no responsibility for. Now they are acting in accordance with the practice, procedures and principles of the Church, and that is for the good of all those involved. These procedures, practices and principles are there to protect and pastor people, not to punish.

Doubtless the Presbytery will be slated. Mainly by two groups of people – the militant anti-Church atheists, and worse of all, the Christians who see this as an opportunity to attack the Church and to justify themselves and their own cynicism. Both suffer from the same sinful desire to elevate themselves by knocking others down. I don't blame the atheists, but the Christians who indulge in such schadenfreude need to take a long hard look at themselves. Iain D was hardly in his grave before the gossips, blogs and FB comments began. I find it a sad indictment of much of the modern Church, that with our networks and media resources, we seem to find it far easier to spread bad news, than we do to spread The Good News. Perish the thought, but it's almost as though we delight in the bad news more.

Humble Repentance

For ourselves. We can't repent on behalf of others. Those who claim 'you can't face up to the truth' are in one sense right. We can't. At least if we saw ourselves and our sin as God sees it, we would not be able to stand. It was the apostle Paul who towards the end of his life said, 'I am the chief of sinners.' I am reminded that every day I sing, pray or read the psalms of a man who committed adultery and then murder. He knew the pain of the reality of Psalm 51. Those who are praying 'Lord, I thank you that I am not like others' need to remember Christ's words about the Pharisee and the tax collector.

We acknowledge that there are lessons to be learnt. Hopefully as the dust settles and the speculation and salacious mockery moves on to another target, we will take the time to reflect on these lessons. Now is not the appropriate time, except to simply say that we must not have a culture where ministers are placed on a pedestal and treated as some kind of mini-Saviour. If our faith is in Christ and his word it will be shaken, but not shattered, by the alleged failings of one of his servants. If our faith is in the servant then we are in trouble.

However, we must also avoid the temptation to swing too much the other way where we declare that all ministers are hypocrites, saying one thing and doing the opposite. Thats not true. I have known several pastors and church leaders who have fallen, but I have known many more who, despite all their faults and sins, have remained faithful to Christ. Ministry is hard. And it's often especially hard for the manse family. The pressures and temptations come thick and fast. We need to be often in prayer for one another.

Where is your God now?

Everyone becomes a self-appointed moralist and expert. The enemies of the Gospel mock – 'Where is your God now?' Or to be more precise, where is your Calvinist theology now? The answer? God is on the throne, where he has always been. And our theology is what keeps us going. Why? Because it describes what has happened. We believe in total depravity – not that every human being is as depraved as they can be, but rather that sin is in every human being and infects every part of our lives. We believe that there are demonic and evil forces at work, always seeking to disrupt, devour and destroy. This does not cause us to despair because we believe that over all, God is sovereign. He permits but does not cause evil. And he provides the remedy for that evil. Without Christ we have nothing. With him, we have been given all things. May the Lord grant that one mercy out of this will be the removal of any semblance of pride and self-righteousness, and an awareness that those who think they stand, should beware lest they fall.

This article appeared on David Robertson's blog yesterday and is reproduced with permission. It has been edited for length.