Posted by: Andrew Webb | April 3, 2008

When Should Old Schoolers Leave Their Denomination?

pilgrimsleaving.jpgOne of the most frequently debated questions amongst pastors in denominations that seem to trending ever more liberal is when they should leave. What is the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back? While some conservative men have been willing to stay in liberal denominations until they were forced out is such a policy really wise or biblical?

Before I attempt to tackle this question, let me state in the clearest possible terms that Pastors should deplore schism and not be seeking an excuse to abandon their denomination. Of all Christians, it should be the elders of the church who are least likely to be changing denominations like socks. If the government and constitution of their church remains the same as it was when they were first ordained, and their own beliefs remain the same then there are very few circumstances that should cause them to leave.

Let’s start the discussion by listing reasons that we should not leave our present denomination. Too many men have in Christian history have left their denominations or in a few cases refused to join themselves to any denomination merely because there are wolves within the sheepfold (Acts 20:29-31). When men do this they are failing to take into account that the visible church has always had a mixture of wheat and tares within her gates, and indeed that it is impossible to find an entirely pure church this side of glory. The church in every age, including that of the Apostles, has been afflicted with heretics and heresies, and yet God has always providentially preserved both His word and a godly remnant that has not “bowed the knee to Baal.” We have His assurance that death and Hell will never prevail over His church, but though she is “by schisms rent asunder and by heresies distressed,” she will ultimately triumph through Jesus Christ her Lord (Mat. 16:18).

But while we know that the church universal will never be destroyed, we know all too well that both particular churches and entire denominations have become apostate because of human sinfulness, the schemes of the devil, and the temptations of the world. The giants of the faith going all the way back to the Apostles have exhorted Christ’s shepherds to be ever on their guard lest they themselves fall into temptation or allow wolves in sheep’s clothing to sneak in. It was precisely because the PCUS failed to take these warnings seriously and maintain a high standard of vigilance that the PCUS became apostate and that the faithful remnant found it necessary to leave and found the denomination that I am a part of, the PCA.

Speaking of this need to maintain a high standard of vigilance, it would be naïve for us not to face the fact that many Reformed denominations are presently in the process of institutionally “lowering their guard.” If someone unfamiliar with the Bible or Christian history were to study the actions of several conservative Reformed denominations over the past few years, their conclusions might well be that the primary problem Christian denominations have to deal with is the presence of fanatical conservatives, and that these are the men who have to be carefully watched and guarded against. This attitude, of course, goes against all the historical experience of Reformed denominations, as Paul Settle observed in his History of the PCA, To God All Praise and Glory:

“Unbelievers introduce error, the moderates, who usually are in the majority, let them do it, and the conservatives who protest are accused of being troublemakers. It was certainly this way in the PCUS in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. The liberals callously drove spikes of false doctrine into the tender flesh of the church; when Bible-believers flinched and cried “Ouch!” they were accused of being divisive.”[1]

But at what point does the kind of denominational “truth decay” that destroyed the PCUS force men to leave the denomination in search of a more faithful communion? I strongly feel that it cannot merely be the point at which one is compelled to acknowledge that there are men who hold to erroneous doctrines accepted within the pale of the church. Their presence alone, while it is a scandal and a shame, is not sufficient grounds for orthodox men to leave a church, because they are, as yet, in no way compelled to go against their consciences by joining these heretics in their heretical views. As Thomas Boston long ago put it so well in pleading for the peace and unity of the church:

“There are no corruptions among us, whether real or pretended, which the church obligeth [us] to approve or join in the practice of, as terms of communion with her.”

I believe that Boston is correct in indirectly identifying the point at which a minister whose conscience is captive to the word should leave an apostate church – the point at which he is compelled to approve of or join in the practice of error.

This was the case, for instance, when after the Restoration of Charles II, almost 2000 godly Puritan ministers found it impossible to sign the “Act of Uniformity” as it would have compelled them to deny the truth and accept principles of church government and doctrine that were not in accordance with the Word of God. Ultimately, this meant that the English church was deprived of her best ministers, but the church had institutionally made it impossible for them to stay and be true to the very principles that made them excellent ambassadors of Christ.

Therefore, if a denomination were ever to change her constitutional standards to approve of or teach a practice clearly out of accord with the word of God, such as the practice of paedocommunion or the ordination of women, a minister who believes these practices to be grossly unbiblical (as I do) could not maintain their membership in that denomination as they would be compelled to approve of or join in the practice of error as terms of communion.

Obviously, if a denomination were actually to definitely lose any of the three marks of the True Church; the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and the biblical administration of church discipline that denomination would cease to be a true church of Jesus Christ, and all true Christians would be obliged to separate themselves from her communion and join themselves to a true congregation. (See the Belgic Confession, articles 28 and 29 for a fuller exposition of these principles)


[1] Paul Settle, To God all Praise and Glory, p. 17.
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Responses

  1. I believe that Boston is correct in indirectly identifying the point at which a minister whose conscience is captive to the word should leave an apostate church – the point at which he is compelled to approve of or join in the practice of error.

    This is why I resigned as a RE last week. It became clear to me that as the congregation I serve (PCA) was busy celebrating Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and engaging in questionable ecumenical alliances, I am responsible as long as I remain silent. My conscience could no longer bear the silence. Now my question is, do I eventually leave this neighborhood church altogether or do I remain in their fellowship as long as I am no longer a leader?

  2. The truth is much simpler. Ministers are supposed to be Christians, therefore the issue is not when should ministers leave but when should Christians leave. Protestants do not believe in clergy/laity, that heretical Romanist concept that there is one level of ethics and commitment for ministers (lax) and one for laity (strict). In most churches there is a two tier church–defacto. Ministers get away with much, while laity do not. That is why there is a huge rise in ecclesiastical abuse cases. AS CHRISTIANS we leave a congregation when it ceases to announce OR defend one or any of the three marks of a true church. We do not look for perfection but consistency. When a PCA minister (or anyone else) can give the Lord’s Supper to a practicing homosexual and you are accused of being a fanatic for bringing it to the session’s attention–it’s time to go. (That happened to me) That does not mean that you cannot join another PCA congregation. Leaving a church does not mean leaving a denomination, but we should be aware that in most denominations there is a “good ole boy’s network” where if one session brands you a problem, then every session in that presbytery considers you a problem.

  3. Andy,

    Presbyterians are supposed to deplore schism… as you yourself state… and you argue that a given body’s adherence to something “grossly unbiblical” is grounds for departure from that body. Ok. The problem (as I see it) is that this country is full of Reformed micro-denominations who, in their own estimation, broke off from some larger Reformed denomination for something “gross” (to avoid the charge of being schismatics).

    I’m not sure if you would go as far as me – so I won’t put words in your mouth – but I’d say that it is the DUTY of a faithful Christian to leave a given body if that church/denomination takes a position that strikes at the Gospel.

    I think we’re in agreement that disassociation from a body is warranted if the church/denomination drops the ball – or (perhaps more accurately!) PUNTS the ball – regarding the marks of the church.

    Regarding the “ordination of women” I’d have to say that I think ,”it depends.” IF we’re talking about the ordination of women… to serve as pastors, then I think that very clear Scriptural teaching – and by clear Scriptural teaching I mean explicit commands found within Scripture – has been undermined and the hermeneutic employed will inevitably be used to justify liberalism or neo-orthodoxy. IF the PCA ordains women to the office of teaching elder, I’m gone. End of story.
    However… I don’t believe that such a clear and fast case can be made against the idea of women being deacons. I do believe that the position is contrary to the Bible as I read it, and I most certainly believe that the position is not in conformity with the Standards. However, IF the PCA were to decide that the usually cited passages of Scripture actually do imply that women can serve as deaconesses, and if they change the Standards to reflect that… I don’t think that is nearly as eggregious or as brazenly defiant of Scripture as ordaining women to serve as elders. While I don’t believe that women should serve as deacons, I have enough intellectual honesty to grant that AT LEAST the argument for women serving as deaconesses has more biblical warrant than the argument for women serving as elders.

    If the PCA decides to allow women to serve as deaconesses, while I do believe that they have wrongly interpreted Scripture, I do not believe that such a position reveals a brazenly defiant rejection of Scripture nor does it strike at the heart of the Gospel or the marks of a true church.

    Therefore, my conscience would say that leaving over the issue IS schism.

  4. Andy,

    This issue is certainly worth thinking about in our current context. One thought that crossed my mind if my denomination started the unbiblical practice of ordained deaconesses, is that perhaps it would not be necessary for me to approve of that (per Boston’s quote).

    For example, if women were made elders, they would necessarily have authority outside the local church, and I would be required by polity to acknowledge that authority (at Presbytery meetings, in discipline cases, etc.) But deaconesses do not move outside the local church body. So I would not (perhaps) be required to affirm anything. I doubt that the PCA would go to the point of *requiring* deaconesses (a-la PCUSA and women elders) – and if they did, that would present another issue. I would not be required to acknowledge the deaconess in a broader court.

    Just a thought…from someone very concerned about the instant Overture.

  5. Good points, Fred.

  6. Well guys, you’ve certainly given me quite a few things to respond to. First let me respond to JR and Gus…

    J.R.: without knowing the circumstances of your individual congregation, I’d say it might be wise if you moved to another PCA church. Given that Holy Days observance is the majority practice in the Reformed world, you are probably going to have great difficulty finding a congregation that doesn’t observe them, so if you can participate in your church and not take part them, that might be a good idea.

    Gus: No, its not that simple. For a minister to leave his denomination is a bigger deal than an ordinary family. They can, on any given Sunday simply begin attending a new congregation and then send a request to the session that their credentials be transferred (although they should have spoken to the session about problems first). A Pastor, on the other hand, cannot simply fail to show up at church and abandon his responsibilities, neither can he simply transfer his credentials at will, and if he is going to leave his call, he had better be very sure he is doing so for the right reasons.

    Scripture tells us in James 3:1 that the teachers of the church will be held to a stricter judgment, and the high requirements for pastors, and passages that speak of a special gifting and calling indicate that there is a difference between ministers and other Christians. Pastors are Christian men who have been called to the ministry and gifted for that particular service by God. Also Pastors may find their consciences bound in a way that laymen don’t. For instance, many a Reformed Baptist whose children are grown has found it possible to attend or even join a Presbyterian church. However, no convinced Baptist minister is going to be able in good conscience to Pastor a presbyterian church and consent to baptize the infant children of members or repudiate believers only baptism in his teaching.

  7. Fred and Ben,

    First, regarding the issue of the move to ordain female deacons in the PCA, please do not think that somehow, contrary to what I wrote above, I am looking for an excuse to leave the PCA or that I would leave over minor issues.

    I’ve been on the losing end of several major debates in the PCA already and have bowed to the will of my brethren every time. I lost on the creation issue, I lost on the subscription issue, and I’ve lost more battles in Presbytery than I can count. I can’t even get my presbytery to acknowledge that going out to a restaurant to eat and paying people to work for you on the Sabbath is an exception to the standards (and please note, I’m not saying an impermissible exception, just an exception to be noted before the man is ordained). So I am used to submitting to the will of my brethren or working out a compromise I can swallow, and with the exception of the FV issue, where for the first time in PCA history I was on the majority side, its all I’ve been doing since I was ordained as a TE.

    I also am very hesitant to leave the PCA not just because of my long association, but also because I don’t have a clue where I’d go.

    I am also aware that there are a few orthodox Reformed bodies that ordain women as deacons, the RPCNA for instance. However, I would point out that I am unaware of any that have not eventually tried to also ordain women as elders (even the RPCNA voted on ordaining women elders and came very close to doing so) and as bodies become more orthodox they tend to become more uncomfortable with female ordination, not less. So, for instance, many in the RPCNA have told me there is a growing movement to do away with the ordination of female deacons.

    As for me, I really am convinced that the bible forbids ordained ministry to women, and that while women like Phoebe frequently acted as servants of the church, that actual ordination in the Acts 6 sense is forbidden. I believe that if ever there was a moment in church history when if women could be ordained they would have been, it was at that moment in time (it was after all ministry to widows that was the issue) and yet the Apostles explicitly said that the deacons chosen and ordained to deal with the problem should be men, and indeed that is precisely who was chosen. We all know that the Jerusalem church had a bevy of pious, industrious, and bright women, some of whom had been followers of Jesus almost from the beginning, and yet they were not considered.

    So, here is my problem, I can no more call a woman “Deacon” than I can “Pastor” and in refusing to acknowledge that her ordination was lawful, I am not submitting to the government of my church, nor am I approving of her government – which I vowed to do. What would happen if, for instance, someone nominated a woman for the office of deacon in our church and I refused to train her? On what grounds would I object if the PCA book of church order says that her candidacy is legitimate? “I know what it says, but I know better than my brethren so do what I say not what they say???” What would happen if someone appealed the situation to the Presbytery?

    Also, please keep in mind that while Deacons serve not rule, they are often called to serve on committees and to hold office in presbyteries, etc. and to exercise authority as in BCO 9-7:

    9-7 Deacons may properly be appointed by the higher courts to serve on committees, especially as treasurers. It is suitable also that they be appointed trustees of any fund held by any of the Church courts. It may also be helpful for the Church courts, when devising plans of church finance, to invite wise and consecrated deacons to their councils.

    For me also, this is something of a line in the sand, and a watershed issue in the PCA. If this goes through, it will be a turning point for us. It will merely be the first in a succession of egalitarian moves, and the signal that our agenda will be henceforth in lockstep with that of the rapidly liberalizing and conforming to culture post-modern evangelical world. If we loose here, the feminists and egalitarians in the PCA will continue on to the realization of the rest of their agenda, if they lose, they may actually leave the PCA for explicitly egalitarian denominations. Regardless, this is not a matter of getting huffy over a small issue, its a matter of not being able to condone the church government or treat someone with the title of officer of Christ’s church as a lawful officer. I would be introducing schism at that point.

  8. J.R.: without knowing the circumstances of your individual congregation, I’d say it might be wise if you moved to another PCA church.

    I am close enough to Mark Herzer’s church to make this happen. I may have to do that eventually.

    Thanks Andy.

  9. Andy,

    I do not think “the marks of the true church” should be the only consideration for Christians in evaluating a particular congregation. In my opinion, Christians should leave a congregation if they do not have confidence in the session to be good overseers. If the session is making too many bad decisions, how can Christians remain under their care?

    We have visited a number of PCA churches in our area and are extremely concerned with what we have observed. We don’t like being negative, but the fact of the matter is that the condition of so many churches is alarming. We are in a state of shock and we are losing sleep over this matter. I only wish that ministers and elders of various denominations might wake up from their slumber and acknowledge the true condition of the church.

    If I do not have respect for how the session is overseeing the church, how can I willingly put myself and family under the oversight of the session?

  10. Hi David,

    A couple of thoughts, first there is a difference between changing one’s congregation and changing one’s denomination. This post was aimed more at the latter. Regarding an individual congregation going bad via misrule by the session, then it shouldn’t be the members who leave, it should be the session that is replaced. To often, contrary to Presbyterian principles, the congregants flee when the session begins to operate contrary to the constitution they are governed by. Instead, under those circumstances, congregants should file a protest or complaint with the session, showing where they have violated the constitution (in the case of the PCA that would be the Westminster Standards and BCO) and if they cannot redress the situation that way, they should appeal the session’s decision to the Presbytery.

    Too often I find conservative Presbyterian congregants act like congregationalists, instead of Presbyterians. The other courts of the church are there for a reason, USE THEM! And make sure you have done so before you bolt from the church. If the session is in error, they need to be brought into compliance or disciplined. If the congregant is in error, he needs to repent or be disciplined, but this “I’m just going to leave as soon as I see bad rule” principle just isn’t right and is a disservice to the other members of the church.

  11. Greetings to all. This is my first time to the site, and I am very encouraged by the discussions that take place.

    This is a very important issue facing all Old School Presbyterians. As a member of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), I am very interested in the discussion.

    Has anyone read through James Durham’s Concerning Scandal? This is a classic on the subject, and well worth reading. It handles the essence of the concern quite exhaustively, and might prove helpful in answering questions mentioned above.

    Kindly,

    Jonathan Mattull
    http://www.presbyterianpastures.blogspot.com

  12. How about someone who is convinced that nothing will be done to stop the advance of a recognized and clearly identified false gospel? Should Christians remain in a denomination that continues to allow the preaching and teaching of the false gospel alongside the true one even if his own session happens to be sound?

  13. Hi Andrew (et al),

    Thanks for your thoughts here. I have a (hopefully) simple question about one of your comments. You said,
    “I am also aware that there are a few orthodox Reformed bodies that ordain women as deacons, the RPCNA for instance. However, I would point out that I am unaware of any that have not eventually tried to also ordain women as elders (even the RPCNA voted on ordaining women elders and came very close to doing so) and as bodies become more orthodox they tend to become more uncomfortable with female ordination, not less.”

    How about the ARP? They also ordain women as Deacons, but (insofar as I am aware) have not faced the tendency that you describe. I confess, though, that I am not aware of their history enough to speak definitively. Perhaps you are more familiar with it than I am?


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