By Dr Paul M Elliott
Part 9 of a series. Read part 8.
Our current series addresses these questions: “My church is no longer true to the Word of God on 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?”
Scripture tells us that to “stay and fight” in a church that has become apostate is itself an act of schism that God condemns. He declares, “You are separating yourself from Me.”1
Can the Battle Be Won From Within?
Some people believe that they must stay in their church that has descended into apostasy, fight the battle against error from within. Some believe the battle can still be won from within, while others believe that it is simply not permissible to leave a church or denomination, win or lose, because to leave would constitute schism.
Both contentions are specious. When liberals are in control of a denomination, Bible-believing Christians must leave. Dr. J. Gresham Machen faced just this kind of situation in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA) in the 1920s and 1930s. An apostate minority, facilitated by a doctrinally-indifferent majority, gained control of the PCUSA’s seminaries, its mission boards, key leadership positions, and the pulpits of many of its churches. Although in retrospect it is obvious that the roots of the decline went back almost 100 years, liberal dominance occurred within a space of about 15 years, beginning in the early 1900s.
Machen came to the conclusion that separation from error was mandatory. He was instrumental in founding an independent seminary, and an independent mission agency, on a sound Biblical basis.2 From his own writings it was obvious that he intended to leave the PCUSA, and eventually he did.3 In the early 1920s Machen wrote:
If the liberal party really obtains full control of the councils of the Church, then no evangelical Christian can continue to support the Church’s work. If a man believes that salvation from sin comes only through the atoning death of Jesus then he cannot support by his gifts and by his presence a propaganda which is intended to produce an exactly opposite impression. To do so would mean the most terrible bloodguiltiness which it is possible to conceive. If the liberal party, therefore, really obtains control of the Church, evangelical Christians must be prepared to withdraw no matter what it costs. Our Lord has died for us, and surely we must not deny Him for favor of men.4
Leaving is Not an Admission of Defeat
The stay-and-fight mindset assumes that to leave would be to stop fighting or to admit defeat. This is not the case at all. But what this mindset also assumes is that those who remain true to authentic Biblical Christianity must attempt to conduct whatever “fight” they can, under the corrupt authority of a church or denomination where men who are the enemies of the Gospel hold sway.
Leaving Doesn’t Constitute Schism — Staying Does
Some who hold the stay-and-fight position contend that leaving their church under any circumstances would constitute schism. Machen in his time strongly opposed such thinking. He believed that
separation from a Church could be countenanced only if it was demonstrated that that organization had abandoned the authority of the Word of God for another authority, only, that is, if it proved thereby that it was not really a Church of Jesus Christ. Under such circumstances, however, it would virtually be an act of schism to remain, for then one would be separating oneself from the true Church of Jesus Christ.5
Machen understood that separation from apostasy is not schism, but that remaining in a church that has departed from the faith is itself an act of schism, and aids and abets the lie that such a body is still a true church of Christ.
Therefore say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations. For anyone of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell in Israel, who separates himself from Me and sets up his idols in his heart and puts before him what causes him to stumble into iniquity…I the Lord will answer him by Myself. I will set My face against that man…’ ” (Ezekiel 14:6-8).
1. Material in this article is adapted from Christianity and Neo-Liberalism by Paul M. Elliott (The Trinity Foundation, 2005), pages 353-355.
2. Sad to say, the seminary that Machen founded in the 1920s, Westminster in Philadelphia, had by the late 1970s descended into apostasy. The mission board he founded during the same period, The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, has remained true to the Gospel to this day.
3. Machen was one of the founders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. He died at age 55 of pneumonia due to overwork just six months after the OPC was founded. In the decades since, the OPC has descended into apostasy, as documented in Christianity and Neo-Liberalism and several other books. It is my own opinion that Machen waited longer than he should have to leave, since his course was obvious by the early 1920s.
4. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1923), page 166.
5. Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954), page 494.
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