However, there are times when it becomes necessary to leave a church for the sake of one's own conscience, or out of a duty to obey God rather than men. Such circumstances would include:Now, who is really going to argue that these things, each on its own, are not serious and significant problems? These start to come under the umbrella of “not done lightly” if and only if we take the solution as seriously as we take the problem.
- If heresy on some fundamental truth is being taught from the pulpit (Gal. 1:7-9).
- If the leaders of the church tolerate seriously errant doctrine from any who are given teaching authority in the fellowship (Rom. 16:17).
- If the church is characterized by a wanton disregard for Scripture, such as a refusal to discipline members who are sinning blatantly (1 Cor. 5:1-7).
- If unholy living is tolerated in the church (1 Cor. 5:9-11).
- If the church is seriously out of step with the biblical pattern for the church (2 Thess. 3:6, 14).
- If the church is marked by gross hypocrisy, giving lip service to biblical Christianity but refusing to acknowledge its true power (2 Tim. 3:5).
Before we step one word further here, I think this is a place where Phil and I have a pretty serious disagreement in theory, but it’s important to note that this difference in theory doesn’t blow up into a war of attrition where our friendship or fellowship is in danger. And I say that first to make the point that what I’m about to write here I know factually is not the position of GTY, Phil Johnson or Dr. John MacArthur – and I respect their difference in this matter.
But I say that also to make the point that this is exactly the way we ought to handle all of these problems in a church. If you want to wag your finger at a problem, go find a child to wag your finger at, or maybe a dog which will feel appropriately chastised by your umbrage. And if you want to go and shake the dust from your feet at somebody, go find a strip club or the local branch of “Unity” to dust off with – someplace that has never been a church, and has never welcomed the Gospel in its midst.
But this urge to separate over error is, frankly, a bad application of a good biblical principle.
Let me qualify something before the “yeah buts” start: what we’re not talking about is the process of finding a church home in the first place. You know: you can’t just walk in the door at the first place with a cross on the sign and hope to go as deep as I am really pleading with you here to do. If you’re a Presbyterian, you’re going to never come to terms with a non-denom church; if you’re a Lutheran, well, just find the right Lutherans; and in truth and sympathy, if you’re a Reformed baptist, the odds of you finding a merely-non-calvinist (rather than anti-calvinist) SBC or Independent Baptist church is probably below 1 in 500. We are not talking about the process of finding a church here: we’re talking about the place which you, in your wisdom which now condemns the place where you are part of the body, chose in the first place by whatever means you used to get there.
For those who aren’t goo with nuance, let me say it this way: “You made your own bed by the means you made it in your wisdom at the time. Now using your new-found wisdom, sleep in it.”
See: the good and godly Biblical principle is “Let him who has done this be removed from among you,” right? Some version of the idea that you shouldn’t abide sin and you shouldn’t be yoked up to unbelievers.
But the problem, ultimately, is you – that is, you’re not the heretic from which we ought to be separated, but you’re the one who, yesterday, or last week, was one of these people in this church who didn’t know any better – and now apparently something which is not in this church is now in you, and you think that means you have to leave - because of the wisdom found in Gal 1, 1 Cor 5, 2 Thes 3 and so on.
But this interpretation of this principle neglects the greater matters of the New Testament. Yes, unquestionably: anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. But there is also the problem of James 5, and 1 Cor 6, and Mat 5-6-7, and the question of whether or not we are supposed to live together as an assembly before God as a people meant to be saints together.
Now here’s where I sign off for the day: don’t respond to this post if you haven’t read the others that go with it. Don’t raise objections to this post which are clearly answered in another one in this series posted this week. You’re a grown-up, I hope. You’re a big enough person to decide for yourself that your church stinketh, so be a big enough person to paste together this argument for something better and more Gospel-like than running away from men because they are sinful.
More to come.