Tragedy in Lewis – A Pastoral Response

What can be said knowing how upset, hurt, pained and confused we all sense? It is right that something be said for all who are pastorally struggling with this.

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.


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.  Its more reading the accompanying comments and even more sadly what passes for ‘prayerful concern’ in the Christian world, which really sticks in the throat.

What can be said In some ways it is surely better to say nothing, but as a Christian minister in Iain D’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 D 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 ‘its 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 judgements, 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.  That’s 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?   He 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.

I had no intention of writing this, but this morning I read three things which compelled me.  I leave you with them.  Firstly from the journalist, John Macleod’s FB page:

We need to hold onto three things: first, the duty to support and pray for those who immediately grieve for a son, a brother, a husband and a father; second, the like duty to support and pray for the churchmen trying to resolve a case without precedent in Presbyterian history, to whose personal anguish I can attest; and – third – the hard and vital fact that God is in control, that He will have a people to Himself, and that the ark of His church sails on.

Then this from John Newton’s letters:

“Unbelief and a thousand evils are still in our hearts; though their reign and dominion is at an end, they are not slain nor eradicated; their effects will be felt more or less sensibly, as the Lord is pleased more or less to afford or abate his gracious influence.   When they are kept down they are no better in ourselves, for they are not kept down by us; but we are very prone to think better of ourselves at such a time, and therefore he is pleased to permit us at seasons to feel a difference, that we may never forget how weak and vile we are.  We cannot absolutely conquer these evils, but it becomes us to be humbled for them; and we are to fight, and strife, and pray against them.

Our great duty is to be at his footstool, and to cry to him who has promised to perform all things for us.  Why are we called soldiers, but because we are called to a warfare?  And how could we fight, if there were no enemies to resist?  The Lord’s soldiers are not merely for show, to make an empty parade in a uniform, and to brandish their arms when none but friends and spectators are around them.  No, we must stand upon the field of battle; we must face the fiery darts; we must wrestle (which is the closest and most arduous kind of fighting) with our foes; nor can we well expect to wholly escape wounds; but the leaves of the tree of life are provided for their healing.  The Captain of our salvation is at hand, and leads us on with an assurance which might even make a coward bold – that, in the end, we shall be more than conquerors through him who loved us”   (John Newton , June 1777)

And finally this was my psalm portion for the day.  As always the word of God is apposite.

8 Charge us not with the transgressions
of our forebears long ago;
May your mercy come to meet us—
you have brought us very low.

9 Help us, LORD, our God and Saviour,
for the glory of your name.
For your name’s sake come and save us;
take away our sin and shame.

10 Why should the surrounding nations
say to us, “Where is your God?”
Make the peoples know your vengeance
for your servants’ outpoured blood.

11 May the groans of every prisoner
come before your throne on high;
By your arm outstretched in power
save all those condemned to die.

12 Lord, remember how our neighbours
treat you with contempt and scorn;
And into their laps deliver
sev’nfold judgment in return.

13 Then shall we, the sheep you pasture,
worship and adore your name;
And through every generation
your unending praise proclaim.

(Ps 79 – Sing Psalms).

David Robertson is the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. He’s also the minister of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and director of Solas the Centre for Public Christianity. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.