What does one do when a Christian denomination or school or institution starts to go off the rails? By that I mean, when it begins to reject classic Christian teaching, and moves toward error, apostasy and heresy. Two choices usually arise: stay and fight, or leave.
In the face of increasing false teaching and practice, what are the faithful to do? Should they remain and pray and work for revival and renewal, or should they simply leave, and form new institutions? These are very real questions for many believers.
Indeed, there are many examples of this very thing found in church history. A classic example concerns American Presbyterians and Princeton Seminary last century. Princeton University, like so many other great US universities, was originally established as a Christian school. Formed in 1746, its purpose was to train Presbyterian ministers. However, theological liberalism slowly but surely crept in and took over, and evangelicals there were forced to decide what to do.
J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), professor of New Testament, led the conservatives in resisting these trends. His classic 1923 volume, Christianity and Liberalism, was a devastating critique of theological liberalism. In it he argued that theological liberalism is not a form or variant of Christianity, but in fact is the enemy of biblical Christianity.
Several things came out of all this. Machen left Princeton in 1929 and helped to form Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia to continue historic Presbyterian teaching. And in 1936 Machen left the Presbyterian Church, USA and helped to form what is now known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
So in this case the liberals gained control over Christian institutions, and conservatives were forced to leave and found new ones. Sometimes however those true to Scripture choose to stay and fight. Just off hand I must admit I can’t think of an example where a church has been corrupted big time, but was eventually rescued by a faithful remnant. Perhaps my readers can help me out here.
(I can however think of one example of a major cult repudiating its heretical teachings and embracing biblical orthodoxy. I refer to the Worldwide Church of God, originally headed up by Herbert W. Armstrong. Soon after he died in 1986, the church began to renounce many of his false teachings, and move in the direction of evangelical Christianity. And in contrast to what usually happens, those members who wanted to continue in the heretical doctrines split away and formed their own congregations.)
But for an example of a church effectively using church discipline to deal with false teaching, just this week the Presbyterian Church of Australia has declared heretical six principal teachings of a cult inside a Melbourne Presbyterian church. Disciplinary action will be taken if the church in question continues to push these heretical views.
But generally speaking, when Christian institutions start moving away from orthodox teaching and practice, the usual outcome is for those who resist such moves to eventually leave, and regroup elsewhere. Most reform movements, whether the Protestant Reformation, or the push for revival by John Wesley, resulted in new religious institutions coming into being.
Australian Christianity is not immune from such problems. As an example, the Uniting Church comes to mind. While not meaning to pick on one denomination, many current or former members of the UCA have claimed that it has been progressively going downhill in terms of both faith and practice. When originally formed in 1977, the three denominations that merged into one new one – the Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia – produced a theological statement, The Basis of Union, which was pretty sound, theologically speaking.
But the denomination has in many ways been drifting from that Basis. Today the majority of leaders in the UCA would consider themselves to be “progressives” in terms of both doctrine and practice. Because of this, over the years a number of groups have fought for the restoration of biblical orthodoxy. Today the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA is leading the charge. It is a strong national body with Australia-wide membership from congregations and individuals, which for the moment has not broken away, but remains.
So the constant question for such groups is this: should we stay and fight the liberalism, or leave and form a new body? This is a very difficult question to answer. I suppose the short answer is to simply seek God with all one’s heart, and seek to discover what his will is in the particular situation.
Presumably God will call some to remain and seek to bring the erring group back to its biblical roots. Then again, in other situations, God may call some to leave, because there is either no hope of reform, or remaining behind may result in contamination and corruption.
Scripture certainly warns about the bitter fruit of false teaching and wrong practices. False doctrine has a habit of spreading, as does immoral behaviour. Paul uses the metaphor of leaven: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). In this context he is referring to sinful behaviour in the Corinthian church, that of sexual immorality.
Interestingly Paul says one must work to get rid of this harmful and corrupting leaven: “Get rid of the old leaven that you may be a new batch without leaven” (1 Cor. 5:7). Concerning these two verses, Anthony Thiselton remarks that the bad or old leaven has an “unstoppable, spreading, disastrous influence” on the rest of the community. The immoral behaviour must be decisively dealt with: “the church is to clean out what defiles its identity and purity”.
The point of this metaphor is plain, as David Garland comments: “Just as a little leaven can infect a whole batch of dough, so this man’s sin can infect a whole church. . . . Paul assumes that the church is implicated in the sins of its individual member. There is no such thing as private morality (or immorality) for church members. The sin of one tarnishes all. . . . The sin must be confronted openly and decisively for the good of the individual and the good of the church body.”
Similar things can be said about false doctrine. In 2 Timothy 2:17 Paul speaks of the insidious nature of false teaching. He says that false teaching “will spread like gangrene”. As one commentary puts it, “Gangrene was nearly always a fatal disease, thus the comparison was vivid to Paul’s listeners. Gangrene begins in the body when tissues die from obstructed circulation. Once a limb gets gangrene, it often has to be amputated as the only way to stop the gangrene from spreading. The spread and deadly result of false teaching could not be more aptly described.”
Or as Philip Towner comments, gangrene is “hard to stop, deadly. This medical imagery depicts false teaching as utterly unhealthy, unsound, destroying wholeness, in contrast to the health-producing gospel (1 Tim. 1:10).”
Thus this false doctrine must be dealt with firmly and rapidly, or else good people will become contaminated by it. Very strong means were used by Paul to deal with these false teachers (excommunication is probably what Paul is referring to in 1 Tim. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor. 5:5). Such strong church discipline is notable by its absence in much of today’s church.
In both cases – bad behaviour or bad doctrine – Paul urges believers to weed out such corruption. But what happens if the corruption stays? What happens when false teaching and immoral living prevail? Then it may well be time to call it quits, and leave that group, since they have degenerated into apostasy and immorality.
Theologian John Frame, in his brand new volume, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, makes these observations: “Scripture itself never says that believers should leave a church organization and form a new one because of false teaching. . . . Rather, the churches themselves are to take action against it (as in 1 Cor. 5).”
Church discipline is the means by which churches stay healthy as they deal with false teaching and practice. As Towner remarks, we cannot afford to ignore church discipline, “as if it were an aberration belonging to the Inquisition. Taken together, Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 and 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 reflect the development of a carefully measured process. Each step was designed to bring the erring individual to the point of admission and true change of mind and behaviour.”
So church discipline is meant to be normal practice, and the means by which we deal with problems. But, as Frame asks, “what if such efforts fail, and a false religion like liberalism becomes dominant in a denomination or church?” If this occurs, then “believers are obliged to leave one religious organization and join another”.
Of course the question then arises, “how do we determine when a professing church becomes apostate?” Ah, but that takes us further afield than space here permits, so it will have to remain the topic of a future article.
In sum, there are times when either false teaching or wrong behaviour, or both, become so great in a religious body that tough decisions are called for. Do I stay and work for reform, or is it time to move on? Unfortunately I have not provided clear answers for these tough questions here. But I have laid out some biblical, historical and theological background which we must utilise as we seek to work through these difficult issues.