[Note: The item below expresses the views of the individual named and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.]
When Is It Right to Leave a Church or a Denomination?
One of the HUGE issues facing the global church today, as at many times in the past, is how to identify situations which make it biblically appropriate for us to leave a church or a denomination.
Both in my historical studies and in recent conversations, I have encountered many examples of what could be called “church splitting,” where individuals or groups of individuals determine that the local church or the denomination of which they have been a part has made decisions or taken actions which justify and perhaps even mandate their leaving that church or denomination. Sometimes the reasons given seem to me to be more “personality-based” than “principle-based.”
I believe that one of the primary hindrances to the missional work of the contemporary Christian church is the divisiveness which “the watching world” sees when it looks at Christians, especially evangelical Christians. What are non-Christians likely to think when they see nearly 30 different Presbyterian denominations in the United States? What are non-Christians likely to think when they see more than 100 Presbyterian denominations in South Korea? What are non-Christians likely to think when they see the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland Continuing, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the United Reformed Church of Scotland, etc.?
In June of this year, my wife and I attended the GAFCON event in Jerusalem. GAFCON is a ten-year-old organization representing the approximately 50 million evangelical Anglicans from around the world who support the 1998 Lambeth Resolution affirming that biblical marriage is a life-long commitment between one man and one woman. GAFCON Anglicans are distressed that the mainline Anglican church has failed to discipline those Anglicans who, since 1998, have recognized and affirmed same-sex marriages. The Jerusalem meeting focused primarily on that issue. But another issue also became evident during the conference - should those Anglicans who support the 1998 Resolution remain in ecclesiastical fellowship with those churches which seem not to be acting in accord with that Resolution? On this issue, I sensed significant disagreement. That disagreement seemed to me to reflect some of the disagreements which produced the many divisions cited in the previous paragraph. They also suggested to me the kinds of issues which led to the Old Side-New Side, the Old-Light-New Light, and the Old School-New School divisions in the 18th and 19th evangelical Presbyterian Church in the United States (and very few contemporary Christians of any sort seem to understand those splits!).
I therefore determined to seek wisdom from other evangelical Reformed Christians such as the members of the World Reformed Fellowship. I did so by writing to a few such individuals to request their guidance about this matter. In my request, I asked both for principles on the basis of which leaving would be appropriate and specific actions which embodied those “leaving” principles. I mentioned that, in the U.S., the ordination of women has been such a reason which some have believed justifies leaving a church or denomination. Part of the reason for my use of this specific example came from my experiencing sharp criticism from Ugandan women in our GAFCON prayer group for even suggesting that women should not be ordained. After all, I was assured by those Bible-loving Ugandans, “Women are the best preachers.”
I felt that it was appropriate for me to reveal my own position to those to whom I had written although, of course, my present position is certainly open to correction as I learn from others.
The responses I received are below, preceeded by a quick summary of my present position. I hope that YOU, members of the World Reformed Fellowship, will add your comments on “The Question” as it has been posed below. You may do so by signing into the WRF website and posting your comments below. [If you need to be reminded of your sign-in information, just contact me at the email address listed above.]
In addition to the comments directly below, two longer treatments of this issue are attached. The first of these focuses on the idea of apostasy and was written by Dr. Rob Norris, Chairman of the WRF Board. The second focuses on the unity of the church an was written by Dr. Andrew McGowan, Chairman of the WRF Theology Commission.
I pray that this little exercise might actually lead us all to take more seriously Jesus’ prayer:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17: 20 – 23 (NIV, Emphasis Added]
How Do We Determine When It Is Appropriate To Leave A Church or To Split From a Denomination?
Sam Logan present position:
The church is not like a country club. It is "the body of Christ" and I believe, therefore, that I must not intentionally rend that body. Of course, the body may become “ill.” And, if I believe it has become "ill," I believe that I am responsible to take actions and speak words to try to bring healing as I understood the healing required by the Bible. Of course, if the body has become sufficiently ill, it may resist my “medicine” and may ultimately expel me . . . but then, if there is any blame, the blame is on the body and not on me. I believe that this position is consistent with how both Martin Luther and J. Gresham Machen acted. [Luther did not “leave” the Roman Catholic Church; he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521. Machen did not “leave” the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.; he was suspended from the ministry by the Presbytery of New Jersey in 1935.] Far more important, this approach seems to me to be consistent with the teaching of Scripture about the nature of the visible church (Westminster Confession, Chapter XXV, paragraphs 2 and 3.).
The Reformation teaching on the marks, or notes, of the true church is relevant to the issue of when ecclesiastical separation is called for. Our Lord (Matt. 7:15-20) and the apostles Paul (1 Tim. 4:1-5), Peter (2 Pet. 2:1-3), and John (1 John 4:1-6) all foretold that false prophets would arise within the church. Such teaching was clearly to be opposed, but what is not so clear is what to do when the false teaching takes over the institutional machinery at the congregational or larger ecclesiastical level. Calvin’s marks of the true church are the faithful preaching of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline (the third being only implicit in the ‘Institutes’, but explicit in his ‘Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto’). I believe that the third is also explicit in the English Reformation martyr and pre-Puritan John Bradford and in Bishop John Jewel’s ‘Apology for the Church of England’ (1562), which may be particularly relevant for your Anglican context in GAFCON.
You are right in citing the examples of Luther and Machen as cases of ones who were expelled from their ecclesiastical contexts and thus had little choice but to separate. The same might be said for pre-Reformation biblical reformers such as the Waldensians in southern France and the Piedmont of Italy, John Wyclif and the Lollards in England, and Jan Hus and some of the Moravians. It is a little more complicated for the followers of leaders like Luther and Machen and subsequent generations to know when separation may be justified. My ultimate criterion is when one is compelled by one’s ecclesiastical connection to act or speak in a way that is unfaithful to our Lord Jesus Christ. I believe this must be left up to one’s individual conscience, which can be affected by circumstances and timing. Different people will draw different conclusions according to the varying contexts.
This is why I believe it is wise for broader fellowships like WRF not to define membership on too narrow a basis. This also was true of the old National Presbyterian and Reformed Fellowship (NPRF) that George Fuller led. It maintained contact between those already separated and those still remaining in the mainline denominations, which helped enlarge the eventual new, more biblical denomination in the South in the 1970s in a way that did not happen in the 1930s in the North. Part of my summer reading is Sean Lucas’s well-researched and fascinating ‘For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America’ (P & R, 2015).
I hope this helps!
This GAFCON tests the ENCOMPASSING LIMITS of the UMBRELLA CHURCH. Will opposing beliefs and values result in two churches with mutually exclusive ‘orthodoxies’, or will they stay UNITED as sides agree to disagree within the framework of traditional polity and liturgy.
Behind these options (can there be more than two?) are strongly held teachings regarding the universality (portability) and indelibility of baptism, confirmation, and ordination.
For that reason, I think the only real options are (1) split or (2) stay united but without portability. Thus, for example, churches may ordain women but allow other denominations, churches, pastors, etc. to disregard such ordination with ecclesiastical impunity.
We shall see!
Quotation from Sam: “Further conversations among other GAFCON participants revealed that, while some GAFCON participants believe that women should not be ministers/priests/preachers, that simply is not an issue worth fighting over. In fact, one participant told me that, if the issue were ever raised, it might destroy GAFCON.”
Response: That's probably true. Women's ordination seems to be the third rail in GAFCON.
Quotation from Sam: "Is women’s ordination an issue over which the church should be split? Is gay marriage an issue over which the church should be split?"
Response: Context (both synchronic and diachronic) is important. In some church contexts (such as my own) the ordination of women has been closely linked with the issue of the authority of Scripture. That linkage is even more evident on the gay issue. The latter matter, of course, is complicated by the visceral response many have. I've long been amused by what I call "PCUSA homophobes"--those folks who would put up with all manner of heresy for decades and then left the Presbyterian Church over the gay ordination issue. Is gay ordination more important than the Trinity or the deity of Christ? Of course, as someone said, "you don't have to explain buggery to the ruling elders," and I'm sympathetic to the argument that such a denial of what Tom Wright calls the foundational "binary" of male and female demands an unequivocal response.
The ordination of women is particularly knotty because everything about the broader direction of our culture tends to render opposition to women's ordination suspect. It also tends to split the church anyway because liberals will not allow conscience clauses for conservatives in the long term--I wrote an article years ago in the Covenant Sem journal noting that the liberal exclusion of conservatives was inevitable in that women's ordination is a polity issue (of course, it's more than just that) and everybody has to own the polity, the ground rules for how the game is played. Thus, push came to shove in the old UPCUSA in the Kenyon case over the ordination of women elders (the fundamentum of Presbyterian polity).
Now for the diachronic angle, I tend to view women's ordination in similar terms to clerical celibacy. Both are unbiblical and have unfortunate consequences, but there were cultural reasons why the West demanded it for over a thousand years, and we're probably going to have to put up with it now for quite a while.
Dunno if that amounts to anything, but there you go.
Let me preface my brief comments by saying I know GAFCON leaders and the influencers who began it are men I met thirty-plus years ago. I have followed this movement with profound interest, at least for a time, because I have friends in it and around it. I am also sympathetic, as you are, concerning gay marriage being a biblical practice, or simply put it is NOT a biblical practice. I have tried to get my head and heart around the issue and have friends on every side of it so far as I can see.
Now, your question. I am “with” you 110%. I do not think we should leave but rather stay and force the truth questions by our actions and words both. This requires careful and wise leadership skill and being a peacemaker. Our Lord showed the way. His Spirit still leads us in the way. Your asking the question about women in ministry is more than ironic as these very leaders would have been flat out opposed thirty years ago.
I have a dear friend in the ACNA who is rejected and badly treated because he will not support GAFCON and attack Episcopal brothers and sisters in his diocese/region. He left the EC over this issue but that is not enough. He must become the enemy of GAFCON’s enemies to be accepted and this he cannot do in good conscience.
So I am conflicted by this form of schism. I would not leave but I respect those who did. Having said that I do not respect, nor think it right, to attack the Anglican Church in the way GAFCON has and is doing. You’d think Archbishop Welby is a heretic by these attacks and he is anything but such a person.
I am on the so-called frontlines and see the cold, hard edge of this. Brutal opposition to good leaders routinely. The Episcopal diocese of Dallas, Central Tennessee, Central Florida (Orlando) and Jacksonville (FL) are all training and ordaining evangelical men and women to leadership and ordaining them openly. Why? Their bishops have taken a stand against LGBT ordination and practice yet done so without dividing the church visible. They are courageous and honorable men. I cannot turn against these bishops and say that them not leaving is sinful.
This is very hard. I agree with you.
Illustrations: Alistair McGrath book on heresy: yes, significant doctrinal issues were decided in the early church, heresy was on the table. But not at the time of the Reformation, not in all those Protestant divisions, they were ongoing struggles with half-truths, and power was also on the table!! I’m startled by that, but you could say there was a Reformation because the pope shut down the discussion. Kaw and grace, law vs. grace have always been on the table, ambiguities with Norman Shepherd, radical dispensationalism.
I doubt Machen should have started that Independent Board, why not just designate support to missionaries in those evangelical missions areas. 15% admin fee, no big deal. Why so casually dump Clarence Macartney et al.
Why independent WTS? Machen had a call from Dubuque, or a presbytery seminary in Duluth. Why defend Board only by claiming heresy, why ignore the Calvinistic Methodist union in 1920 with its policy that missions are supported by free-will offerings?’ Clark/Van Til?
More positively, Christ’s commands are very focused on caring for the poor, but no one is ever disciplined for not doing that.
Homosexual sex is sin, no doubt about it. How shall we care for those with that temptation? That controversial St. Louis PCA meeting may show the way. Try to find out what’s happening?
There have been too many foolish splits, yes I doubt New/Old School was wise, people are converted by the Spirit/their decisions both/and.
I already gave you my comment on how I stayed in the pcusa ( for over 35 years ) as long as I was “free to be faithful”. I actually received phone calls from a number of PCA pastors over the years, asking me if I was free to preach the Gospel in the pcusa. I said, “Yes.” Their inquiry was due to what they perceived to be a lack of freedom to do that in the PCA. They would talk of situations where Westminster seemed to be placed on a higher authoritative level than the Bible. They were seriously considering transferring into the pcusa. Though I announced to HPPC that I was planning to exit the pcusa, I never did. I wound up staying in in order to take the call to [another church which was] trying to navigate their way out……and I wound up having charges unjustly filed against me (though I was not at all involved with helping them depart……I just pastored the people while the Session dealt with the denomination ), and then being defrocked because I refused to be a part of a kangaroo court trial. So they booted me out…..I never voluntarily departed (hope I get extra points for that in Eternity).
The issue for me was I was forced to participate in— and pay for—sin in regard to the health plan providing for same sex partners with no relief of conscience granted when I asked for some ( like they did for many pcusa pastors regarding abortion ).
You might want to look at the exchange between John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones back in 1966 as a way of dealing with this issue.
Here’s another question: should we all just go back to the RC Church and try to navigate Mother Church as Reformed Christians? I’m serious.
A quick and incomplete response. There is a difference between disagreeing about what the Bible teaches and disregarding what the Bible teaches. Does the other party acknowledge the ultimate authority of Scripture? Secondly, there is a difference between primary, secondary and tertiary issues. The gospel is surely a primary issue and it would be justifiable to leave when the authority of the Bible or the gospel are disregarded.
Unless you establish some guidelines like this then you can separate over any issue whatever. From your comments it is also apparent that cultural factors must be taken into consideration too.
As to your question - I published an article on this exact subject (with the Anglican journal Lex Orlando) under the auspices of the then Bishop of London - who then left for Rome! [A copy of this article is attached.]
I think the church should not split on the issue of women's ordination. The issue should also not be forced on churches in some cultures where female leadership is still against the main culture. The issue of allowing female leadership should be left to local churches to decide on. I have read - I can't remember where - that even Calvin said the ordination of females is an issue that should be treated in the same way the eating of meat is treated as a side-issue, or secondary matter, or matter of minor importance in Romans 14.
Several Reformed churches around the world is treating in such a way where some local churches in a denomination would ordain females and others not, but the remain in one denomination.
But I have heard from Anglicans in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, that the main issue for them was the push in the international Anglican church to accept same sex marriages. When they refused to approve same sex marriages the main Anglican churches in the USA and the UK threatened to terminate their financial support. They then made it clear that they will not be pressured with money to accept the acceptance and ordination of same sex marriages. That led them to join GAFCON.
A tough issue.
The N.T. says much about the unity of the body of Christ. The church where I have my membership (PCA) apparently believes that purity of doctrine and practice trump our Lord's concern for unity. The egos of dissenters seem to get in the way. Jesus' teaching about logs should apply here.
At every service of the Episcopal church we rise to affirm our common faith using the Nicene Creed. I look as belief in the articles of that creed as a church's identification with the body of Christ. I suppose I could use the simpler Pauline creed, believing that Jesus is Lord and that he is risen, for the same purpose. I'm apprehensive of "Reformed distinctives" or theological distinctives of any kind. They tend to create and sustain divisions, and take our focus off taking up our cross and following Jesus.
It is too easy to accuse brothers we disagree with as having a poor perspective of the scripture, when the issue may be differences on interpretation. St Paul wrote (1 Cor 13) "At present I know only a small fraction of the truth..." We should be very careful of bearing false witness against others in the body of Christ..
There are two churches that consider me a member. Dual membership doesn't bother the Episcopalians; they can be inclusive in a good sense. At any rate the "rite of church membership" strikes me as a recent development in the history of the church. I am comfortable knowing that my membership in the church is certified by my baptism - belonging to Christ and his church.
I have read through your email with interest. The unity of the church is something important to me. When, and if, we choose to separate from brothers (and sisters), we must have very substantial reasons for doing so (the Lord is going to ask about that), and, secondly, our attitude toward others (where we have been and where we are going) had better be in alignment with New Testament standards.
I have no special insights in this matter, no inspired wisdom. But it has always been important, perhaps not as important as it ought to be (when I consider my sometimes critical attitude toward others "in the fellowship").
Response # 12:
The Biblical concerns of GAFCON and the global sweep of the contemporary Anglican Church have brought into high relief the question of whether it is ever legitimate for a biblical church or a faithful believer to leave a church or denomination. There are weighty arguments for answering no and for answering yes. Christ’s prayer for the unity of the Church in John 17, the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ and the Christian ethic of love for God and for our neighbor (and even enemies) as well as the Golden Rule urge a strong negative answer to the question. On the other hand, concerns for the holiness of God, the truth of the Word of God and the Gospel, the biblical call for separation from evil and the examples of biblical reformations throughout the history of the church argue for the positive.
A third answer is also pertinent, that is, it depends on the circumstances. Scripture also gives us several insights that lead us to recognize that the answer to this question is not always straightforward or necessarily universally appropriate. Considerations here are the freedom of the believer, the role of one’s conscience, the necessity of doing all things decently and in order, the need to wait upon the Lord and the movement of His grace, and the exercise of the leadership of the church as to whether it is compelling its members to act unbiblically, to disobey God and His Word, or to resist the moral standards of Scripture established by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
It is thus likely in the circumstances that raise this question, that one will encounter individuals and groups that will answer in each of these three ways. What is especially challenging, therefore, is for a denomination or a leadership body such as an ecclesiastical assembly, a presbytery or church synod to make a determination. This is because the individuals and groups that compose them will have each of these three perspectives included. This means that the body seeking to be biblically faithful may be in danger of fragmentation as well when it determines its answer to this question.
In this last instance, this means that such a body must especially be conscious of all aspects of the debate, proceed with care and prayer, and when it is evident that a decision must be made, that requisite concern and pastoral support have been expended to support not just for the prevailing body but also for the concerned members who will not approve of the majority decision reached. Gospel concern for the care of the majority and the minority are incumbent on the body that is called to wrestle with these enormous issues of ecclesiastical governance and biblical fidelity. Although both are less than ideal, there is a difference between fraternal separation and a division of animosity.
All said, let us join in praying for the Anglican worldwide community and the GAFCON movement that they will be granted the wisdom of God’s Holy Spirit so that they will allow do their very best to preserve the peace, purity and unity of the body of Christ in such manner that the Lord will say to them, “Well done thou good and faithful servants” regardless of the decision that is ultimately reached in this regard.