When Churches Go Bad

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.

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27 Replies to “When Churches Go Bad”

  1. It’s a similar situation with political parties. For example, should the conservatives in the Liberal and National parties stay and try to reform those parties or should they leave those parties to the (small “l”) liberals and form a genuinely conservative new party?
    Ewan McDonald

  2. Thanks Ewan

    Yes that is a very good question indeed. But hey, methinks you are just trying to get me to write another article!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. I am reminded of the journey of Jesus where He chose to let the rich young ruler go. Then Jesus persevered with Judas to a particular end point. Jesus also told Peter to mind his own business when he enquired about what was to be the journey of John.

    The question of flight or fight is one for Holy Spirit of Christ Jesus to call – not me / not us.

    If it was good enough for Jesus to do only what He saw Father Yahweh doing then it appears to be rather simple and relational that we do likewise.

    Ray Robinson

  4. ‘ 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 certainly can. The Presbyterian Church of Australia was gutted by liberalism such as that taught by Professor Samuel Angus in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He was tried for heresy but almost certainly would have been exonerated but for his untimely death. The Westminster Confession of Faith was theoretically our statement of faith; but it was practically abandoned. However, a remnant adhered to the Confession, and with many leaving for the Uniting Church, the remnant was able to return the denomination to an evangelical and reformed position where the Westminster Confession of Faith is once again honoured.
    Our return, by God’s grace alone, is indicated by the trial, and conviction of the charge of heresy, in the 1980’s, of Rev. Dr. Peter Cameron. I believe that the Presbyterian Church of Australia is the only major denomination to have done that.

    Andrew Campbell

  5. Your comment about the basis of union being ‘pretty sound, theologically speaking’ deserves comment.

    Some of us involved in the debates at the time read the Basis of Union as a Barthian document, in which the church ‘hears’ the word of God in the Bible rather than the church recognising that the Bible is the word of God. It was for this reason that we stayed out of the Uniting Church.

    The direction of the Uniting Church bears out the reality that it is not a church founded upon the word of God. For this reason you can be sure that Francis Mcnab will get away with his heretical views. The Uniting Church does not have a clear, legally defined doctrinal position which will allow individuals or a presbytery to charge him with heresy. He is safe because the Basis of Union is not sound theologically.

    Andrew Campbell

  6. Many thanks Andrew for both of your very helpful comments.

    It is great to hear of one case of heresy being turned around, and orthodoxy prevailing. (I was not in the country at the time, so that is my excuse for not being aware of it!)

    And yes, as an Evangelical, I did pick up the Barthian feel to the Basis of Union statement on Scripture when I read it for the first time today. It says the Church “hears the Word of God” in the Old and New Testaments, instead of the both Testaments being the Word of God. And nowhere in the brief paragraph are concepts such as inspiration, infallibility or inerrancy mentioned. So I can see why many conservatives may not have been happy with it back then, or today.

    And yes, in its recent resolution, Macnab seems to have been merely challenged by the UCA for the sin of offending people, instead of for his actual views, which are clearly heretical and apostate in terms of biblical Christianity. So while he was told to remove his advertising for his “new faith,” nowhere was he challenged about the actual content of this new faith which has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The Synod seems to have been worried about how this would damage ecumenical relationships, but it was not worried in the least about how this would damage the witness of biblical Christianity to a lost and needy world.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. IIRC the biblical inerrantists recaptured the Southern Baptists. Before then, Francis Schaeffer pointed out that once a denomination had denied biblical authority, it was all downhill. He called that a “watershed” issue, after the topography in the Swiss Alps where water on one side eventually flowed into one ocean, and on the other side into a different ocean thousands of miles away. I.e. denial of biblical authority leads to liberalism which as Bill and Machen said was a counterfeit religion diametrically opposed to Christianity.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  8. Unless the issue is clearcut, God may well call some to work on one side and others on the other e.g. some to work to improve the denomination or political party, others to stand outside and publicly catalogue its shortcomings. Surely there is often a valid role for both stands. Working from both sides may be the most effective.

    Graham Keen

  9. One wonders if there is any church in Australia that is true to scripture. Most according to surveys seem to be losing ground or just maintaining the status quo and those who are growing seem to do so by the cult of personality which is drawing people away from other churches rather than new converts.

    We have developed a leadership model that is nothing like that of scripture. Consequently, most leaders are “over” the congregation rather than “serving” the congregation. They take to themsleves positions and titles that are not in scripture. Domination is forbidden in scripture. Humility is the preferred model and servanthood is emphasised by Jesus.

    If you want to find out what true leadership is all about go to my website at http://churchalive66.googlepages.com

    Roger Marks

  10. Bill,
    “And in 1936 Machen left the Presbyterian Church, USA”

    It sounds like he left of his own volition. As I understand he was defrocked by the hierarchy which had been taken over by the liberals.

    Andrew, as I understood the history for the Victorian Presbyterians from some who were there, the conservative remnant actually had to leave the Assembly over a decision which was contrary to the Confession, and re-convene across the road.

    So technically, Bill is still in front, and you have not yet made your case. 🙂

    John Angelico

  11. Bill, the declaration of heretical teaching made by the PCA, applies not just within one congregation, but to the teachings of the identified group who’s members are actually located in at least two congregations (was three until some years back).

    John Angelico

  12. Thanks John

    Being neither Australian nor Presbyterian, I cannot speak with authority on the Australian Presbyterian scene, so I bow to the expertise of others here.

    And yes, you are correct: Machen was tried and found guilty of insubordination in 1935, and he was suspended from the PCUSA ministry. But after that he left and helped to form the OPC. So maybe we are both sorta right!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. Thanks for an excellent analysis, Bill.
    Personally, I would have to move on if heresy were preached at a church I was attending. But I have seen at least one person attending a lifeless church in order to reach out to friends that he had there and continue the work God had given him that was bearing fruit. Many of his friends there were coming to salvation.
    I believe that we can’t really put our trust in man, at least not to the point that we take our eyes off Christ as the ultimate Head. There is a rising tide of an anti-Christ/anti-Christian spirit in the world we are living in and it would make sense that this would invade every institution, including every church. Those who are determined to follow the uncompromising gospel of Christ will be persecuted and perhaps eventually squeezed out anyway. I personally believe, and this is just my own feeling, that the remnant who remain from each broken denomination will be united and purified as the bride that Christ is waiting for.
    Dee Graf

  14. Thanks Dee

    Yes you make a good case for remaining in a fallen church, if the Lord should so lead, in order to reach others.

    And yes, there is a winnowing process taking place, and the sheep will be separated from the goats, the wheat from the tares. The Lord knows who are is, and they need to persevere and not give up hope. But for the time being, as Jesus taught, the true and false are intermingled, growing up side by side (Matt. 13:24-30; 25: 31-33). But in the face of so much unfaithfulness and apostasy, we must remain faithful.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. Bill you say that dissenters in a church break away and form new ones but there are many who leave a church never to darken the doors of another. Numerically, the church in the West is dying. I believe Muslims and homosexuals already outnumber Christians in Britain.

    I have just left my church on the basis that the world and post modernism is seeping through the port holes. One dear old Christian lady who has concern for my wife and I, believes that we will probably drift away from the Church altogether. Yet I see that if we remain in it, we certainly will drift, quietly and comfortably like those poor souls who go to sleep on lilos and wake up, far out of sight of land.

    The two hundred plus bishops who stayed away from the Lambeth conference this year would have been damned for attending and causing division but they were damned all the same for staying away.

    I too am criticised for running away and yet am told that if I stay, I am to remain silent.

    I left because, having taken my complaint to the pastor and one elder, I was advised that for the sake of unity and peace, I would be better off somewhere else. I was minded to quietly leave so as to cause the least amount of turbulence. However, it appears that others are also disquieted or confused about the issues I have raised . I therefore decided to do the Matthew 18:15 and take the issue up with one or two others and then if that has no effect to bring it to the whole church. As I say most people just want to leave quietly, as David did when he left the court of Saul. It will be a test of whether we really understand and believe what the Bible states concerning women being in spiritual authority over men in the church and in their homes; whether we really believe in a real hell, infinitely worse than Belsen or Auschwitz; whether we believe in the historicity of the Bible; whether we believe that God does not work if we do not pray and whether we believe in the central position of the Bible in our church and private lives.

    I am all for a quiet life, but it could all become painful.

    David Skinner, UK

  16. Mark Sanford of Elijah House fame remained in his original church for many many years even though he considered it had become apostate. He presented his arguments but then left it to them – he continued to serve as asked and directed and whenever asked He continued to present Godly wisdom and correct teaching. He did so because he believed he was led by God to do so – he believed that God had made it clear to him that ‘perfect word’ can still come through a imperfect church. Given that no church is perfect I consider that generally to be true also, because God is able to feed His sheep no matter what the inadequacies of humans. If we are listening for God’s word to us, about and for us then we will hear it and learn what we have to learn – God can still use imperfect pastors, churches, authorities of all kind, to bring about the character growth required for Christian growth – indeed it is often those things that can lead to us being challenged – when we are offended, when we believe something isn’t right and are forced to study and research to actually *know* what we believe.

    Mark Sanford remained up until the point that he believed God required him to stay – his was not by choice but by duty to what was required of him by God. As soon as he was released from that duty by God he left – the church in question imploded a few years later.

    In the same way that the new testament doesn’t specify most of how we should ‘do church’ I think there is no definite scriptural process to follow as an individual primarily because our walk is a walk of faith – we are all Spirit-filled and must be led by the Spirit according to the word of God. As such we must pray for guidance, and we know in time it will be answered, and be led by the Spirit, which should be in accordance with confirmation from the Word, and it is wisdom to seek counsel from wise Christians who have no interest in the outcome of your decision.

    I can confirm the truth that a little leaven does indeed cause the whole lot to eventually go off. I have experienced the need to find God’s answer to this question for me – my decision in the end, after confronting the pastors on the issues, was to walk. It cost me too much – but I’d make the same decision again, and wish I had done so years earlier as I would have not lost all that I did.

    Garth Penglase

  17. I have been intrigued while reading Bill’s article and reading all the contributor’s comments and found it interesting that false teaching seems to originate from theologians and church leaders. Perhaps its time for local church leadership to be out of the hands of paid pastoral staff and back in the control of elected elders where it belongs.

    Glenda Morgan, WA

  18. Thanks Glenda

    Yes, you make a good point here about corruption and heresy, etc. coming from the top down. Leaders have a lot to answer for, and they must be very careful indeed. They will be held to account as they have greater responsibility and they will therefore face greater judgment, as James 3:1 warns about those who would be teachers in the church.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  19. John said: ‘ Andrew, as I understood the history for the Victorian Presbyterians from some who were there, the conservative remnant actually had to leave the Assembly over a decision which was contrary to the Confession, and re-convene across the road. ‘
    They had to move, physically, because the majority who voted to go into union, were staying put, and short of causing ongoing chaos with two meetings in one building, they had to physically depart. But the Presbyterian Church of Australia maintains that it (we) have remained true to the confessional standards we adopted in 1901 (and earlier, after the Reformation) and it was the Uniting group that left the Presbyterian church, rather than we leave the Presbyterian church. In NSW, for instance, with a larger continuing church, a lot of the church structures like the administrative offices simply stayed where they were with a group having left for the Uniting Church. Bill wonders whether a church has been rescued by a faithful remnant, well, we think (by God’s sovereign grace) we have done just that, but I have to admit that it wasn’t without the chaos of the uniting decision, removing many liberal elements.
    Andrew Campbell

  20. It might just be good ideas gone bad over time, thanks to traditions, with heresy. A heresy, like any other idea, has to have started somewhere. Someone must have voiced and believed in the unorthodox instead of the orthodox and then gained more people on board..

    Strangely enough, it happens within conservative theology as well.

    After all, the current day church culture based on biblical foundations regarding inerrancy of Scripture above everything else wasn’t in existence prior to the Reformation. And if the doctrine of inerrancy wasn’t in existence in Jesus’ time, how reliable is such a key foundation of classical conservative theology?

    Ask yourself then where did it come from.

    People voice ideas. Understand where and why the ideas they hold come from, and you understand them.

    Lawrence Meckan

  21. Thanks Lawrence

    While the actual term “inerrancy” may not have always been used throughout church history, a very high view of Scripture, including its truthfulness, trustworthiness and infallibility, has always been promoted. It has been almost the unanimous position of all the great Fathers of the Christian church until recently, whether we speak about such giants as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Warfield or Packer.

    Augustine for example could speak about “Infallible Scripture” and Aquinas could say “It is heretical to say that any falsehood whatsoever is contained either in the gospels or in any canonical Scripture.” Such quotes could be multiplied at length.

    And if you are concerned about where such doctrines originate, let’s begin with Jesus: “Thy word is truth” he told us in John 17:17. Many more such remarks from Jesus and the early disciples could be mentioned. So I am afraid you are incorrect here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  22. This is some really scary detail about Jim Wallis from Investor’s Buisness Daily. I have mentioned before at this forum my uneasiness about meeting Wallis at a launch for his latest book. It was at the Hawthorn bookstore ‘Readings ‘. Tim Costello was MC or introduced Wallis. Both men struck me as equally socialist and pro-abortion . Very disturbing.

    “Election ’08: Barack Obama has joined forces with a white socialist he calls a ‘good friend’ — the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of ‘Sojourners.’ He too believes in ‘liberation theology,’ sans the black nationalism. In fact, Wallis is the white version of Jeremiah Wright, sans the black rage.”

    Read the rest of the story here: http://www.ibdeditorials.com/IBDArticles.aspx?id=305851942725035

    Jennifer Parfenovics

  23. Here is some more scary detail when the catholic church goes uber liberal.


    “Catholic Left notables Michael Sean Winters and Garry Wills are part of a campaign to destroy Palin. The Catholic Left wants to provide pseudo-theological cover for Catholic liberals who wish to vote for the Democratic ticket of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden. Obama supports legalized abortion while Biden, a Catholic, opposes the Magisterium’s teaching on abortion.”

    These liberal Catholics seem to think you can just add social justice to abortion, infanticide and gay marriage and still be Christian!

    “Winters’ attitude is more pronounced, as the title of his latest book makes clear: Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats. In a commentary for The New Republic,[TL2] Winters suggested to Obama and the Democrats that “Catholic social thought provides Democrats with the kind of moral vision and linguistic clarity that their economic positions have lacked for decades now.” For Winters, that includes “government intervention on behalf of the common good.”

    Jennifer Parfenovics

  24. Jesus took a stronger view towards inerrancy than conservative evangelicals today in that, He considered the punctuation to be inspired (Matthew 5:18).. This is even stronger than the Chicago statement on Biblical inerrancy.
    Also, according to Ramban ie Maimonides (the systematic theologian of Judaism) Judaism has always the inspiration and immutability and therefore inerrancy of the Torah/Tanakh http://m.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/332555/jewish/The-13-Principles.htm
    So it’s pretty ridiculous for anyone with an ounce of intellectual integrity to claim that Jesus or first century Pharisees did not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture!!

  25. I think we must follow the example of Christ. He spoke in the synagogues. He spoke to the leading religious authorities of his day. He reprimanded them for their apostasy. He pointed to himself as the Messiah they supposedly had longed and waited for.

    While some like Nicodemus came to inquire of or support him privately, those in leadership of the religious institutions rejected him outright. He focused his attention on his disciples and followers of his Way. In a similar manner, we can rebuke and challenge; and, if we are not heard, if we are in effect isolated (or even put “outside the camp”) and given no voice; if exhortations to return to orthodoxy are repudiated by the authorities, we must leave in order to walk faithfully in the Way.

    Otherwise, we participate in worship of another god.

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