One 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.”
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)