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Thursday, February 12, 2009

When Should One Leave A Church?

Churches are more or less apostolic, that is, doctrinally pure or orthodox, according to the degree the gospel and doctrine of the apostles are taught and embraced by them; and while some churches are more faithful than others in confessing the system of doctrine taught in the holy Scriptures, even the purest churches are subject to error and do indeed err at times.

Error in the church should always be of concern to the Christian, and he should charitably labor to rid the church of error. But a Christian should not lightly repudiate his church even when there is perceived error in it. Differences of opinion over nonessentials should not be made the basis for division in a local congregation or denomination. Such division for light causes is "schismatic," schism being understood here as formal and unjustified separation from the church. Paul speaks against such unjustified separation in 1 Corinthians 1:10: "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions [schismata, schismata] among you" (see also 1 Cor. 11:18; 12:25). If a Christian's church is faithfully proclaiming the Word of God, administers the sacraments according to the institution of Christ, and faithfully exercises discipline, his church is a true church of God, and a repudiation of it is wicked and a denial of God and of Christ, even though it may have some error in it.

But the Bible recognizes that there are some circumstances that may arise in a church which will compel the Christian to separate himself from the church. The Greek New Testament employs two nouns in the main to describe dreadfully sinful situations in the church: apostasy (apostasia, apostasia) and heresy (airesiV, hairesis)

2 Thessalonians 2:3: "Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion [apostasia, apostasia] occurs."

1 Timothy 4:1: "The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon [aposthsontai, apostĕsontai] the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons."

2 Peter 2:1: "[False teachers] will secretly introduce destructive heresies [aireseiV, hairesis]." (see also 1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20; and Titus 3:10)

In general usage "apostasy" has come to refer to total renunciation of the Christian faith, with "heresy" being viewed more atomistically as any subversive doctrine professing to be Christian (of course, "systemic" heresy is hardly distinguishable from apostasy).

The New Testament lays down the following principles to protect the church in such a situation and to maintain its doctrinal purity:

1. Elders are charged to guard the church by guarding the truth (Acts 20:28-30; Tit. 1:9; see 1 John 4:2-3). The New Testament is realistic about the problems the church will have with false teachers. The passages cited presuppose that the Christian faith has a definite content, and that there are certain pivotal truths which are absolutely necessary to it.

2. Apostates and heretics ought to leave the church (1 John 2:18-19). It is not schismatic, indeed, it is quite appropriate, for antichrists to separate themselves from the Christian church. But more often than not, they set themselves up in the church. What is to be done with them then?

3. Unrepentant heretics who do not leave the church should be disciplined (Rom. 16:17; Tit. 3:10; 2 Pet. 2:1-3; 2 John 10-11; Rev. 2:2, 14-15, 20). As there were false prophets in Israel, so there are and will be false teachers in the church. As the former were subject to discipline, so the latter should be as well, mutatis mutandis, that is, by excommunication rather than execution.

4. Separation from one's local church or denomination is appropriate if it will not discipline heretics (2 Cor. 6:14-18). If a church rejects discipline for theological errors that subvert the foundation of the gospel and becomes theologically pluralistic in practice (even though it may retain an orthodox confession by which it promises to be guided), that church has become "heretical" in that it no longer stands under the authority of God, and the orthodox are compelled to separate from it to bear witness to the marks of the church.

(from Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, pp. 890-891)

9 comments:

Turgonian said...

A few points:

-- It is impossible to prove from Scripture that there is a difference between doctrinal essentials and non-essentials, much less how we know into which category any given doctrine falls.

-- Nowhere does the Bible say that the Church herself will be susceptible to apostasy and heresy. Sacred Scripture does say that the Church is the 'pillar and ground of truth' (I Tim. 3:15). If this theological truth is to retain its meaning, it seems reasonable to accept that the Church has been entrusted with the task of safeguarding the deposit of faith; and since God never leaves those incapable whom He entrusts with His tasks, He gave the Holy Spirit to the Church on Pentecost.

-- There is no clear indication in Scripture that we are to separate even from our local denomination when they are no longer believers; the text from Corinthians refers to those in the world. Besides, to use the reductio ad absurdum, if 'the purest churches are subject to error', if error is doctrinal uncleanness (the opposite of purity), and if we are commanded not to associate with uncleanness, wouldn't II Corinthians 6 also imply that we shouldn't join any church? There are a lot of ways in which one can (mis)use a Biblical text.

Now, I am not saying that we shouldn't separate from our local church if they preach heresy; in fact I stopped going to Mass in my hometown for that very reason. I went to another building, where the orthodox faith was preached and the Sacraments administered reverently. But that does not mean that there is any biblically grounded reason to separate from the universal Church (or to think that she can teach error). Did the Jews stop going to Jerusalem when Hophni and Phinehas were doing their thing in the Temple?

You are fond of studying Covenant Theology. Try to consider seriously, if only for a few months, whether God could not have made the New Covenant with a visible Church, as He made the Old Covenant with a visible people.

You owe it to yourself and to God to pick up something by Scott Hahn once. I just read Rome Sweet Home, and it talks about the idea of the Covenant a lot. If you prefer a theological treatise to a personal story, you could try to get your hands on his dissertation, Kinship by Covenant: A Biblical Theological Analysis of Covenant Types and Texts in the Old and New Testaments.

God bless you.

Puritan Lad said...

Turgonian "-- It is impossible to prove from Scripture that there is a difference between doctrinal essentials and non-essentials, much less how we know into which category any given doctrine falls."

Response Agreed. The question isn't whether or not a doctrine is essential, but how much leeway can there be in an interpretation and still be orthodox.


Turgonian "-- Nowhere does the Bible say that the Church herself will be susceptible to apostasy and heresy. Sacred Scripture does say that the Church is the 'pillar and ground of truth' (I Tim. 3:15). If this theological truth is to retain its meaning, it seems reasonable to accept that the Church has been entrusted with the task of safeguarding the deposit of faith; and since God never leaves those incapable whom He entrusts with His tasks, He gave the Holy Spirit to the Church on Pentecost."

Response Most of the new testament was written to correct heresy in the early church, as well as to give them warning to beware of apostasy. We clearly see heresy in the Corinthian Church in 1 Corinthians 15, where the resurrection from the dead was being denied. In fact, in all of Paul's letters to the churches, and in all of John's letters, the church at Ephesus was the only one that did not include doctrinal correction of some sort. To suggest that the Church is not susceptible to apostasy and heresy is both contrary to Scripture and irrational, and can only be maintained via a blind allegience to Rome.

It is true that the Church has been entrusted with the task of safeguarding the deposit of faith. In fact, it is commanded to do so. To the extent that the church fails in this task, it ceases to be a true church. The only church that is a 'pillar and ground of truth' is the true church, one that is founded on Scripture, "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone," (Ephesians 2:20). The true church can be identified by its dedication to the task of "contend[omg] for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." (Jude 1:3). To help indentify the true saints of God, Paul gives this clear warning.

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:6-9)

Does the organization that calls itself a church preach the sound doctrine that the apostle's preached? If not, than it is accursed, and is not a true church.


Turgonian "-- There is no clear indication in Scripture that we are to separate even from our local denomination when they are no longer believers...Now, I am not saying that we shouldn't separate from our local church if they preach heresy;"

Response Well, which is it?


Turgonian "But that does not mean that there is any biblically grounded reason to separate from the universal Church (or to think that she can teach error)."

Response Christians cannot separate themselves from the true universal church, that being the one that is apostolic in it's doctrine.


Turgonian "You are fond of studying Covenant Theology. Try to consider seriously, if only for a few months, whether God could not have made the New Covenant with a visible Church, as He made the Old Covenant with a visible people."

Response God did neither. Were all Judaists in Covenant with God in the OT? Were Jewish leaders free from error? God made both the New and the Old Covenants with the elect, and them only. False converts may falsely enter into the Covenant of Grace, but are really still in the Covenant of Works. This is true in both Testaments.


Turgonian "You owe it to yourself and to God to pick up something by Scott Hahn once. I just read Rome Sweet Home, and it talks about the idea of the Covenant a lot."

Response If he begins with the same idea that you did, that God's Covenants are with the visible church, then Hahn is already off base.

Turgonian said...

St. Paul spoke for the Church, which is different from the local churches. Here we see the Church correcting her members. Those who preach heresy have already cut themselves off from the Church; and the test for that is the unbroken doctrinal continuity.

Your view of the Church as invisible -- and of the Covenant as made with a people that cannot be outwardly identified -- deviates from Christianity's strong rootedness in history and tends towards Gnosticism. Theodotus, one of the Gnostics, talks about the 'Church of the special (spiritual) seeds', and he claims that Jesus came to reunite the spiritual sparks sown into certain people -- say, the elect. Theodotus saw the Church as the community of true believers (for him, the Valentinian Gnostics), saved by Jesus's carrying of the Cross.

He also said that those who held the faith of the Catholic Church might know the names of Jesus and Christ, but did not know the power of the symbol of the cross.

Puritan Lad said...

Turgonian: "St. Paul spoke for the Church."

Response: No disagreement here. But that's are far cry form assuming that the Church is the Roman church.

Turgonian: "which is different from the local churches"

Response: You'll need to prove that one particular church is different and superior to another local church, or that the Roman Church was given something that the Church at Ephesus wasn't.

Turgonian: " Here we see the Church correcting her members. Those who preach heresy have already cut themselves off from the Church; and the test for that is the unbroken doctrinal continuity."

Response: You'll need to prove this, as well as give us a clear definition of heresy. Paul defined heresy pretty well in Galatians 1.

Turgonian: "Your view of the Church as invisible -- and of the Covenant as made with a people that cannot be outwardly identified -- deviates from Christianity's strong rootedness in history and tends towards Gnosticism. Theodotus, one of the Gnostics, talks about the 'Church of the special (spiritual) seeds', and he claims that Jesus came to reunite the spiritual sparks sown into certain people -- say, the elect. Theodotus saw the Church as the community of true believers (for him, the Valentinian Gnostics), saved by Jesus's carrying of the Cross."

Response: That's funny. Covenant Theology = Gnosticism. Methinks you'll have to expound on that a little more.
Was Judas part of the Church? What about outwardly?

Turgonian: "He also said that those who held the faith of the Catholic Church might know the names of Jesus and Christ, but did not know the power of the symbol of the cross."

Response: Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Puritan said...

That's a great article!

David McCrory said...

I think this is partly why the early Reformers quickly came up with what they understood to be the marks of a true church.

The pure preaching of the Gospel (apart from works)

The proper administration of the sacraments (no ex opere operato) stuff.

And arguably, the neccesity of church discipline.

As far as I know, the RCC pursues none of these.

Puritan Lad said...

Right on. Who needs church discipline when you have Purgatory?

Anonymous said...

i know i am late to the game here, so to speak. But i am currently struggling with this issue. My example/question: what would you do if the lead teaching pastor in your church began teaching dispensationalism? He has said that this is his conviction, and he must preach from that perspective. Would you stay or go?

Puritan Lad said...

Good Question. I wouldn't just get up and leave, but would first talk the issue over with the pastor (and/or elders). If the issue cannot be resolved, then both sides should consider transferring your membership to another assembly. Who knows if you can convince your pastor of his error?