By Dr Paul M Elliott
I’ve counseled Christians from many parts of the world who all wrestled with the same critical question. They express it in many different ways, but the essence is this: “My church is no longer true to the Word of God. I’m not talking about matters on which Christians may legitimately differ. I’m talking about essential Christian truths. What should I do? Should I leave? Should I stay and try to fight error? Will I be guilty of schism if I do either one?”
In a series of questions and answers beginning today, we’ll deal with various aspects of this issue, from the pages of Scripture.
What to Do In Obvious Circumstances
First, let’s deal with the obvious case. Are you in an independent church, or a church that is part of a denomination, that no longer holds to Biblical truth? Does your church, the pastor or teachers in it, the denomination with which it is associated, or colleges or seminaries associated with that denomination, do any of the following? —
Openly deny, or subtly question, the verbal plenary inspiration, complete inerrancy, and absolute infallibility of the Bible? (This is contrary to the clear statements of passages such as 2 Timothy 3:16-4:5 and 2 Peter 1:19-21.)
Openly deny the sole authority of Scripture, or in practice place anything else — tradition, other writings, other peoples’ words, etc. — in authority over the Word of God? (This is contrary to the passages above, and others such as Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32, Proverbs 30:6, and Revelation 22:18-19.)
Deny the doctrine of the Trinity, or teach that Jesus Christ is anything less than eternally God the Son, both fully divine and fully human, and absolutely sinless? (This is contrary to passages such as Matthew 28:19, John 10:30 and 17:21-24, 1 John 5:7 [which is in the most reliable manuscripts]; and 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and Hebrews 7:25-27. See also 2 John 6-11.)
Teach or practice anything that is contrary to the Biblical doctrine that salvation is by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone, apart from works of any kind? (This is contrary to passages such as Romans 3:21-28 and 5:1-2; Galatians 2:16, 3:11, and 3:21-25; and Titus 3:4-7.)
Teach that anything else — such as baptism, church membership, confirmation, or partaking of a sacrament — brings about salvation, contributes to salvation, or has anything to do with keeping a person saved? (In addition to the passages above, this is contrary to passages such as Philippians 3:7-9 and Hebrews 9:1-12.)
Teach that justification is by anything other than faith alone? Teach that there is a second or final justification at the Last Judgment? Teach that justification is anything other than God’s declaring a sinner not guilty, once for all, based on the merits of Jesus Christ alone, at the time a person is converted? (In addition to passages cited above, this is contrary to Hebrews 10:11-14.)
Openly or practically deny the sanctity of Biblical marriage by condoning or even encouraging homosexuality or same-sex unions, cohabitation outside of marriage, or divorce and remarriage on other than Biblical grounds? (This is contrary to passages such as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:12; Romans 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; and Matthew 5:31-32.)
Teach that it is permissible for women to hold the office of pastor, elder, or deacon? (This is contrary to passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:33-36, 1 Timothy 2:8-3:7, and Titus 1:5-9.)
If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, your course is obvious. Leave at once. And like Lot leaving Sodom, don’t look back (Genesis 19:14-19). If a church teaches or condones any of these things, it demonstrates clearly that it has become apostate. Leaving is not optional. God commands it (see Hebrews 3:12-14; 2 Peter 3:14-18, and 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
“If Truth is Optional, Error is Justifiable”
Charles Spurgeon, arguably the greatest preacher of the 19th century, faced such a situation in the “Down-Grade Controversy” among Baptists in England. In 1888, despite great opposition and ridicule, Spurgeon chose the Biblical path of separation from those who were denying fundamentals of the faith, or remaining in fellowship with those who did so. At the time, he wrote these words:
Numbers of good brethren in different ways remain in fellowship with those who are undermining the Gospel; and they talk of their conduct as though it were a loving course which the Lord will approve in the day of His appearing. The bounden duty of a true believer towards men who profess to be Christians, and yet deny the Word of the Lord, and reject the fundamentals of the Gospel, is to come out from among them (II Cor. 6:14-18)….
Complicity with error will take from the best of men the power to enter any successful protest against it. If any body of believers had errorists among them, but were resolute to deal with them in the Name of the Lord, all might come right, but confederacies founded upon the principle that all may enter, whatever views they hold, are based upon disloyalty to the truth of God.
If truth is optional, error is justifiable….
It is hard to get leaven out of dough, and easy to put it in. This leaven is already working. Our daring to unveil this deep design [that is, this deep-laid plot] is inconvenient, and of course it brings upon our devoted head all manner of abuse. But that matters nothing so long as the plague is stayed. Oh, that those who are spiritually alive in the churches may look to this thing, and may the Lord himself baffle the adversary!1
At any rate, cost what it may, to separate ourselves from those who separate themselves from the truth of God is not alone our liberty, but our duty. I have raised my protest in the only complete way by coming forth, and I shall be content to abide alone until the day when the Lord shall judge the secrets of all hearts; but it will not seem to me a strange thing if others are found faithful, and if others judge that for them also there is no path but that which is painfully apart from the beaten track.2
Next: Why did Jesus tell His disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees”?
1. Charles Spurgeon, in “Notes,” Sword and Trowel, October 1888. Reproduced at http://www.spurgeon.org/s_and_t/1088nts.htm.
2. Charles Spurgeon, “Attempts at the Impossible,” Sword and Trowel, December 1888. Reproduced at http://www.spurgeon.org/s_and_t/dg12.htm.
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