Previously: Keep the Truth, or Keep the Peace? and Unity by Sacrificing Truth
Leaving a church is a big deal. It’s a serious decision, not one to be taken lightly or made hastily. There is a huge, blurry, gray area between the extremes of never leaving a congregation no matter what and being promiscuous with Christian community (neither of which are biblical).
There are many factors at play in this decision. J. C. Ryle helps out with one element: the doctrine preached.
He who deliberately settles down under any ministry which is unsound, is a very unwise man. . . . But I do believe, if false doctrine is preached in a local church, a Christian who loves his soul is quite right in not going to that local church. To hear unscriptural teaching fifty-two Sundays in every year is a serious thing. It is a continual dropping of slow poison into the mind! I think it almost impossible for a man willfully to submit himself to it, and not be harmed.
—J.C. Ryle, “The Fallibility of Ministers“
Since stating the obvious is always helpful, I’ll say this: the local church does not replace your brain. The pastor does not replace your personal judgment. You do not surrender your responsibility to discern. God in his word has made it clear that you are personally responsible to distinguish between truth and error.
Now, the church is supposed to help with that, and actually train the people to do that. But, sinful as we are, sometimes the opposite is done. Sometimes false doctrine is being peddled to the congregation. And you as a student of Christ with the Bible in your hand are responsible to detect when the teaching is contrary to sound doctrine.
Do you think it might be a good idea for you to stop worshiping at that church, then? J. C. Ryle thinks so:
I see in the New Testament we are plainly told to “Test everything” and “Hold on to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). I see in the Book of Proverbs that we are commanded to “Stop listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge” (Proverbs 19:27). If these words do not justify a man in ceasing to worship at a church, if positively false doctrine is preached in it, I do not know what words can.
Does any one mean to tell us, that to attend your local denominational church is absolutely needful to a person’s salvation? If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.
If false doctrine is being preached, then you are justified in leaving that local church, according to the mandates of Scripture.
Notice that question of Ryle’s regarding a denominational church. He’s pointing out an objection that is still around today. There are believers, who out of loyalty to their denomination (or non-denomination), will never leave their local congregation no matter what. Even if false doctrine is preached, it would be wrong to leave the church, because it’s our denomination! Non-denomination, movement, whatever label you prefer, that tendency is still there. I know first hand. I’ve seen it.
Ryle asks why would you stay even in the face of the preaching of false doctrine? Will leaving the denominational church compromise your salvation? If anyone dares make such a preposterous claim, please, step up to the microphone so everyone can hear you.
Now, if that wasn’t far enough, Ryle points out this ugly fact of life:
There are many churches where the religious teaching is little better than Roman Catholicism. Ought the congregation of such churches to sit still, be content, and take it quietly? They ought not. And why? Because, like Paul, they ought to prefer truth to peace.
Ouch. That hasn’t changed since Ryle’s time, either. I was just reading yesterday this excellent article by K. Scott Oliphint. Evangelical seminary graduates are sliding over to Rome, partly because they already have epistemology and synergism in common. As Oliphint says, “In agreement with Rome, these authors were taught that “God is not a divine rapist” (p. 53); conversion is not a monergistic work of God, but is synergistic.”
Evangelicalism (in the theological sense of the word) is very similar to Roman Catholicism. “By evangelicalism we mean . . . the general non-Reformed Protestantism” (Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th Edition, pg. 308; also Defending the Faith kindle loc. 36). In other words, Arminianism. So there are not only outward similarities in evangelical practice (like moralism, the authority given to pastors), and preaching (Law without Gospel), but also presuppositionally. If you want to look into that, read The Defense of the Faith (4th Edition) by Cornelius Van Til, where he says “evangelicalism has retained something of Roman Catholicism both in its view of man and in its view of God” (pg. 102). Some of the essays in the book were first published as a six-part series which is available for free: Defending the Faith.
The migration of Evangelicals to Rome would not be so easy if evangelical churches weren’t already teaching like Rome. I know of a Roman Catholic who visited a large, popular, local evangelical church. After the service concluded, she commented: “it’s not that different.” That’s the kiss of death, right there.
That’s not even as bad as Christians, who believe in justification through faith alone, choosing to remain in the Roman Catholic church and attend the mass.
J. C. Ryle keeps going:
There are many churches where the religious teaching is little better than morality. The distinctive doctrines of Christianity are never clearly proclaimed. Plato, or Seneca, or Confucius, could have taught almost as much. Ought the congregation in such churches to sit still, be content, and take it quietly? They ought not. And why? Because, like Paul, they ought to prefer truth to peace.
I’ve been there. It was emotionally difficult to come to grips with, and admit it to myself. But I had to conclude at one point that the church I was a part of was not marked by the preaching of the Gospel. The preaching was morality. Some friends and I labeled that “Mosque.” Bryan Chapell says “Synagogue sermons.” The point is, you could take many evangelical sermons and preach them in a synagogue, a mosque, the kingdom hall, or the Mormon church, and walk out of there alive. Why? Because what makes Christianity different from them is entirely lacking in that preaching. It’s just morality. Ryle says we should not sit quietly with that. Make some noise. Because the truth is more important.
But division! That dirty word. Forbear everything, anything, to avoid even being remotely associated with divisiveness. The unforgivable sin, that is. Keep the peace, at all costs!
Yet, Christ said he brought a sword, to divide. Jesus Christ’s coming to earth caused division. Another classic case of “What Would Jesus Do?” that everyone seems to forget. What is worth dividing over? As in, detaching from your congregation? Truth. Remember, truth before peace. As Ryle says, returning to the matter of loyalty to a denomination,
But it is useless to expect attachment to the denomination, when the minister of the denominational church is ignorant of the Gospel, or a lover of the world. In such a case we must never be surprised if men forsake their denomination, and seek truth wherever truth is to be found. If the denominational minister does not preach the Gospel and live the Gospel, the conditions on which he claims the attention of his congregation are virtually violated, and his claim to be heard is at an end. It is absurd to expect the head of a family to endanger the souls of his children, as well as his own—for the sake of “the denomination.” There is no mention of denominations in the Bible, and we have no right to require men to live and die in ignorance, in order that they may be able to say at last, “I always attended my local denominational church.”
And all the non-denominational types said, “Amen!”
But honestly, all are addressed, here. Whether you want to admit to being a denomination or not, whatever label you choose, this is just as likely to happen. If the preacher, in any church, part of any “movement”, does not preach the Gospel and live the Gospel, his claim to be heard is at an end. Seriously, saying at last, “I always attended my local non-denominational church” doesn’t sound any better.
But division is bad!
Is division always bad? Not according to Ryle, based on all the Scriptural reflection up to this point.
False doctrine and heresy are even worse than schism. If people separate themselves from teaching which is positively false and unscriptural, they ought to be praised rather than reproved. In such cases separation is a virtue—and not a sin.
There you have it. Separate. Without fear, but with confidence that the Scripture itself promotes truth before peace. Separating from your congregation is a serious thing. But false doctrine and heresy are also serious. Peace is a good thing and something to pursue, but not at the expense of truth. Disruption needs to happen when the God’s truth is at stake, as Paul did with Peter at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-16).
Just because it is the right thing to do doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly. Just because you should get out, doesn’t mean it’s easy. It may be painful. To have remained silent and still would have been easier. Things would be more peaceful. False teaching is toxic.
To separate from a church that teaches false doctrine is wisdom. To sit still, be content, and take it quietly is harmful and demonstrates that the truth of God’s Word is not valued. Rather, to separate is a virtue, and praiseworthy. Indeed, we should show ourselves as disciples of the one who is Truth (John 14:6).