DO CHRISTIANS HAVE A RIGHT OR DUTY TO LEAVE AN APOSTATE CHURCH?
Eric V. Snow, sermonette, UCG Ann Arbor, March 11, 2005
In 1887, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous English Baptist minister, “the Prince of Preachers,” had a big problem. He was the leader of the largest single Baptist congregation in the world, the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, which could hold 6,000 people, but that didn’t solve his problem. He and his local church were part of the Baptist Union in Britain. This larger organization, which had many congregations affiliated with it, had been quietly infiltrated by religious liberals. Many pastors in it longer believed the Bible was fully infallible and inerrant in its original manuscripts. They were advocates of higher criticism and the theory of evolution. A number didn’t believe Jesus’ blood atonement was necessary for salvation. They denied that Adam and Eve’s sins lead to the downfall of the human race spiritually and cut off this present evil world civilization from God. Some believed in universal salvation. They even called justification by faith immoral. He decidedly to publicly challenge the religious liberals in his own church organization through articles in his church newspaper, The Sword and Trowel. Soon afterwards, and very reluctantly, he decided to leave his old larger church organization. This became known as the famous “Down-Grade” controversy, because it was one of the earliest big theological battles between religious liberals and conservative Christians.
[John MacArthur: “[Through the Down-Grade Controversy,] Spurgeon was the first Evangelical with international influence to declare war on modernism. The Baptist Union was never the same. . . . Spurgeon's actions helped alert evangelicals worldwide to the dangers of modernism and the down-grade.”]
Now, let’s go back ten years in our church history. Spurgeon’s problem was remarkably similar to the doctrinal mess our old parent church organization thrust upon us concerning the Old Testament law and the Sabbath.
The long-gathering doctrinal crisis in our parent church had finally come to a head, and was fully public: For many, the question was, Should we go back into Protestantism or not? We decided to reject the teaching that the Sabbath, the Holy Days, tithing, and avoiding unclean meat were merely nice but obsolete suggestions at best, and legalistic hindrances to our personal relationship with Christ at worst.
But what justified us leaving one church organization for another? If you were challenged to find what verses authorized Christians to leave one church for another, could you come up with even one? Furthermore, did we merely have the option to leave? Or are Christians commanded to leave apostate churches?
Since most of us left our parent church organization nearly ten years ago, we should briefly look at the Scriptural case for Christians leaving doctrinally false churches.
S.P.S. When a corporate church organization falls irretrievably into apostasy on major doctrines, Christians should leave it and form another.
II Cor. 6:14-17
This text traditionally used against baptized members marrying non-Christians. It also would restrict Christians from taking on non-Christian business partners. But doesn’t this principle also apply to rejecting continued fellowship with people who say they are Christians, but who deny fundamental truths of Scripture? Ultimately, are they still “Christians” if they don’t believe in obeying important parts of God’s law fully? If we believe obeying the Sabbath is just as important in God’s sight as avoiding adultery, what should we say of those who knowingly reject God’s day of required rest? When it comes to trunk-of-the-tree doctrines for which belief and/or obedience in them is required to be saved, we can’t compromise with and steadily fellowship with unbelievers who reject them, whether they call themselves “Christians” or not.
Doesn’t apply to minor doctrines, such as the past bans on birthdays and cosmetics, or somewhat more serious issues, like the date for Passover or Pentecost, interracial marriage, etc. People can be saved, yet disagree on these teachings. The Sabbath is quite another story. So is whether or not Jesus is God. This principle also doesn’t apply to moral corruption, such as (say) when a minister commits adultery. Nor does it apply to most of the smaller schisms in the COG since the “Great Schism” of 1995 over personality conflicts, administrative blunders, church service format, what to spend tithes on, even what kinds of hymns to sing.
In Spurgeon’s newspaper, The Sword and Trowel, he explained his reasoning this way:
“Yes, we have before us the wretched spectacle of professedly orthodox Christians publicly avowing their union with those who deny the faith, and scarcely concealing their contempt for those who cannot be guilty of such gross disloyalty to Christ. To be very plain, we are unable to call these Christian Unions, they begin to look like Confederacies in Evil. . . . It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretence of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.”
Ernest Pickering’s book, “Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church,” makes the case for separatism when apostasy by a conservative Christian doctrinal definition takes over a big denomination. Very useful in principle, despite situations he describes differ some from the mess most of us here landed in a decade ago. Censorship apparently not a threat in these big churches to the conservative element, but this was going to be imposed on both the pulpit and press in our old former association. The need to keep the truth of God being publicly proclaimed made it more urgent for us to leave. By comparison, the situation of a Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian isn’t as dire when he knows many of his denomination’s pastors, missionaries, teachers, and seminary professors are religious liberals who deny the Bible is fully God’s word. Author’s criticisms of Billy Graham’s crusades most interesting. Wish I had this book back in 1995 (was published originally in 1979). Peculiar way gotten from mother.
Basic principles in conflict: Unity vs. purity, holiness. If “unity” involves sacrificing holiness, it needs to be sacrificed, especially when it is a farce anyway. Can apostates and true Christians have true spiritual unity, true spiritual fellowship?
Spurgeon: “The divergence is every day becoming more manifest. A chasm is opening between the men who believe their Bibles and the men who are prepared for an advance upon Scripture. Inspiration and speculation cannot long abide in peace. Compromise there can be none. We cannot hold the inspiration of the Word, and yet reject it; we cannot believe in the atonement and deny it; we cannot hold the doctrine of the fall and yet talk of the evolution of spiritual life from human nature; we cannot recognise the punishment of the impenitent and yet indulge the "larger hope." One way or the other we must go. Decision is the virtue of the hour. Neither when we have chosen our way can we keep company with those who go the other way.”
Pickering (p. 167): “God’s demands upon His people are based upon His own standards. Truth and holiness are inseparable companions. If God is separate from evil, He expects His people to be so.”
Can be personally costly: Leave family, friends to go to a much smaller church often.
Church discipline necessary to avoid apostasy (Spurgeon): “The objection to a creed is a very pleasant way of concealing objection to discipline, and a desire for latitudinarianism. What is wished for is a Union which will, like Noah's Ark, afford shelter both for the clean and for the unclean, for creeping things and winged fowls.”
Suppose we’re attend services with a physical corporate church organization that teaches God’s truth. But suppose over time, it stops teaching those truths. What makes it then any different from any Protestant or even Catholic church? If we were in the world again, would we choose to go to an organization not teaching God’s truth once we became aware of true doctrine once we were called?
Clearly, we were taught a defective doctrine of the church years ago in our old parent organization. We were taught it was the one true church, and that the spiritual organism and the physical corporate organization were one and the same. But in point of fact, the invisible spiritual assembly of believers is distinct from any particular church buildings or physical assets. The true church is wherever the believers go to assemble. A group of men sitting in a suburb of Los Angeles with voting control over the church corporation’s assets aren’t our intercessors with God. We weren’t called by God and then required by God to stay with them unconditionally regardless of their beliefs or behavior.
General principle of separation in Old Testament, with Israel to live differently from surrounding gentile nations. Case of Moab and Balaam’s enticing Israel to sacrifice to their false gods, intermarry.
I Kings 11:1-11
If Solomon can be taken in, the wisest man who ever lived, by his pagan wives, do we think we can spiritually fellowship with apostates, such as by listening to their sermons, and yet remain unaffected?
[2 John 10-11, back up]
Charles Spurgeon over a century ago left the Baptist Union of Britain,
just as almost decade ago most of us left the Worldwide Church of God. When the spiritual principle of unity
conflicts with upholding holiness, we need to be willing to separate from those
denying major, spiritually crucial doctrines of the faith once it is totally
clear they won’t repent of their apostasy.
Since God is holy, He expects us to become holy and to stay holy. We can’t perfect our holiness and
righteousness in a church organization that attacks both from the pulpit and
the printing press. There can’t be
spiritual unity between apostates and true Christians, or communion between
light and darkness, or accord between Christ and Belial. [Optional, if third text not used and if
need a quick end: For as Amos (3:1)
asked, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?”] For as Spurgeon commented about
the worthlessness of staying in an apostate church hoping to change it: “If it be
said that efforts should be made to produce reform, we agree with the remark;
but when you know that they will be useless, what is the use? Where the basis
of association allows error, and almost invites it, and there is an evident
determination not to alter that basis, nothing remains to be done inside, which
can be of any radical service. The operation of an evangelical party within can
only repress, and, perhaps, conceal, the evil for a time; but meanwhile, sin is
committed by the compromise itself, and no permanently good result can follow.
To stay in a community which fellowships all beliefs in the hope of setting
matters right, is as though Abraham had stayed at Ur, or at Haran, in the hope
of converting the household out of which he was called.”