Be sure to read the introductory installment of this series here: http://biblestudypodcasts.org/archives/3765
is it Time to Leave a Denomination?
The great R.C. Sproul was once asked, “When must you leave the church?” As one of the most widely loved and respected theologians in the world, I don’t know if there was a tougher question you could have asked him. It’s a question that many church-going people have struggled with at one time or another. When you consider some of the ridiculous stories about churches splitting (I’ve even heard a story about one church splitting over a stick of butter that was left in the church refrigerator for too long), you understand that this is an issue that requires prayer, patience, and—above all—love.
If anyone would know how to answer this
question, however, it was R.C. Sproul.
He had a love for the church that was evident, as was his desire for the
unity of the brethren. But if you know
his history, you know that there was a time in his own life when he had to
wrestle with the issue of leaving. In
his case, it wasn’t just leaving a church, however; it was leaving a
denomination. He left the Presbytery of
Pittsburgh in 1981 to join the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).
In answering this question, Sproul clearly
recognized the delicate nature of it. “You
have to be very careful,” he warned, “not to be too hasty to separate or to
tolerate the intolerable.” And yet, he
would add that there are certainly “times when a church or any institution
becomes so corrupt” that there becomes “a moral obligation to leave it.”
So when does a denomination cross that
line? When does a denomination go from
being off-track (but still sound) to corrupt, and worthy of leaving?
The answer here isn’t easy. And different people come to different
answers. In other words, this isn’t
necessarily a clear-cut, black and white issue.
As I struggled with what I saw happening
in the EFCA, one of the places I turned for answers was the writings of the
Reformers (as I found out after the fact, Sproul did the same). After all, this was an issue that was right
at the heart of the Protestant Reformation.
Those men had to struggle with the issue in a bigger way than anyone in
our day and age can relate to, I would imagine.
And for the Reformers, the issue came down to the responsibilities that
the true church has been given.
Are The Responsibilities of a Church or Denominational Institution?
This is actually a question that is
specifically addressed in the Belgic Confession. This historic confession is included in the
“Three Forms of Unity” (which you can—and should—read about, if you’re not
familiar with them. You can read about
them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Forms_of_Unity
), and was written in the 16th century by Guido de Brès, a Dutch
preacher who ended up being martyred.
Article 29 of the Belgic Confession is
titled, “Marks of the True Church.”
While the article is several paragraphs long (and I would strongly
encourage anyone and everyone to read and study it thoroughly), you’ll find
this at the heart of the article:
“The true church can be recognized
if it has the following marks:
The church engages in the pure preaching
of the gospel;
it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments
as Christ instituted them;
it practices church discipline
for correcting faults.
“In short, it governs itself
according to the pure Word of God,
rejecting all things contrary to it
and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.
By these marks one can be assured
of recognizing the true church—
and no one ought to be separated from it.”
To summarize, the church has three primary
responsibilities: 1) the pure preaching of the Gospel; 2) the pure
administration of the sacraments; and 3) church discipline.
One of the underlying responsibilities here is the preservation—the protection—of the Gospel. That’s what keeps it pure. What threatens the purity of the Gospel? At the very least, we can be sure that the devil, the world, and the flesh oppose it (Ephesians 2:1-3). But we can also be sure that one of the tools used by these forces which would work against the purity of the Gospel would be ideologies—worldly philosophies that are opposed to the Gospel, because they are opposed to Christ.
Paul writes in Colossians 2:8, “See to it
that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according
to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world,
rather than according to Christ.”
One of the most challenging aspects of the
pure preaching of the Gospel is guarding it from worldly ideologies and
philosophies. And yet, there is no
contesting the reality that the church has a responsibility to remain on guard,
and to take immediate, swift action if a worldly ideology creeps in and dilutes
or compromises our faithfulness to the Gospel.
With that said, if the church has a responsibility to protect, preserve, and preach the pure Gospel, would it not seem fairly obvious that a denomination has a responsibility to do the same thing?
Remember Sproul’s quote about not being
too hasty? I sat and watched a worldly
ideology infiltrate the newsletters and social media posts of the EFCA for 2
years. I just so happened to take screen
shots of several of those social media posts, and kept copies of several of the
blogs that the denomination sent out in the newsletter which brought me to the
realization that the denomination was either not aware of the worldly ideology
that had snuck in, or they didn’t care. Either way, it was there, and it was a
Leaving the denomination was not my
decision—rather, I presented the evidence to our church’s board of elders, who
shared my concerns and felt that the best thing to do was to take it to the
congregation for a vote.
Moving forward, my plan is to demonstrate
that there was a worldly ideology that was making its way into the fabric of
In the next installment of this blog
series, I will identify and define this worldly ideology which had become quite
apparent in the social media posts and newsletters of the EFCA, and I will
attempt to demonstrate how/why it is at odds with the pure Gospel message. The purpose of this particular installment of
the series was simply to record the thought process and criteria our church
used when faced with this difficult question: “When is it time to leave a