[This continues a series of posts on mission as Church renewal.]
Denominations have served a major purpose through the centuries since the Reformation (16th century). There is a major need for denominational networks that enhance the ministry of local churches and provide an infrastructure and network for churches to fulfill its mission. The West is, however, witnessing a time in which individuals and churches are opting out of denominational organizations, and mainline denominations are declining in number and splitting between revisionist teachings and orthodox Christianity. In America, every mainline denomination has been declining since the 1960s. One reason for this decline and the anti-denominational perspective of our day is that mainline denominations have revised their long-held convictions and ethics, typically in the direction of the culture rather than any desire to reform the denomination in light of Biblical truth. Churches outside the West are aghast at the infidelity of the denominations that once brought the Gospel to them—their disregard of orthodoxy and opposition to Biblical authority. Many individual churches, ordained ministers, and persons training for ministry in various mainline denominations have been asking for decades whether or not they should leave their denominations. Some of the factors to consider are offered in the following two lists. The key issue for leaving or staying, though, needs to be missional: in which situation can ministry of the Gospel and witness to Christ best flourish?
Ten Reasons Why Churches (or Individuals) Should Remain in a Denomination
1. Reform: Churches, organizations, and denominations may need reforming, but if spiritually sound persons and churches leave too early, there may be no hope for reform.
2. Denominations: Denominations are not the Church, they are parachurch organizations that exist to serve local churches. The less centralized the denomination, the easier it may be to accept its services without being affected by the theological or ethical statements made at conventions. It is sometimes possible for local churches to do the work of the Church despite the denomination that has moved in an unorthodox direction.
3. Holiness: The church is not perfect and needs to be a place of forgiveness and grace. It is a community where spiritual growth happens. Paul says, ‘Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6.1-2). The Pharisees’ pursuit of holiness kept them from ministry to the sinners who needed ministry, which Jesus gave. He said, ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2.17).
4. Seeing Through a Glass Darkly: Not all theological and ethical issues are black and white. On some issues we ‘see through a mirror dimly’ (1 Corinthians 13.12). There are some matters that are simply matters of ‘indifference,’ such as rules about food, religious days, circumcision, worship styles, and church structures and governance. There are some matters of truth that have, even so, enough ambiguity as to need room for different understandings. They are not matters of eternal significance. They are not heretical teaching or conduct that excludes persons from the kingdom of God, such as holding to the right eschatological view. Of course, there are some matters that are essential. These relate to whether one really is a Christian or not. Yet there have been too many issues dividing the Church, and people really have to ask whether the divisive issue they are facing is a matter of being excluded from the kingdom of God or not.
5. Apostasy: There may be ministry even in apostate churches. While some in the church of Thyatira tolerated false teaching and sexual immorality, others in the church did not and were encouraged to ‘hold fast’ to the truth (Revelation 2.18, 24-25). There is even such a thing as ‘hospice ministry’ to a terminally ill church: ministering to the faithful even as the church of which they are a part is dying because of its heresies.
6. Unity: Christ prayed that the disciples would be united even as he and God the Father were one (John 17.21). While this is not a ‘unity despite differences,’ unity understood as ‘tolerance of diversity,’ it does show that unity is important. Certainly one should not take lightly the breaking of fellowship with true believers. As long as Christ is proclaimed, Paul could put up with personal attacks out of envy and rivalry on his ministry (Philippians 1.15-18).
7. Discipleship: Part of ministry involves correcting those in error. Paul says to Timothy, who is ministering to a church facing false teaching: ‘I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths’ (2 Timothy 4.1-4). Ministry may involve defending the faith, correcting error, and protecting believers from false teachers. Sometimes departure from erroneous churches involves abandoning faithful believers to the falsehood of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
8. Ministry Development: There is a place for exploring differences and allowing time for formation in ministry. First, a certain measure of diversity needs to be tolerated in the training of ministers. Training for ministry is in part learning to affirm and continue the tradition of the Church (orthodoxy and orthopraxy) and in part learning to interpret Scripture for theology, ethics, and ministry. The former involves being formed in the faith of the Church, the latter involves being equipped to reform the Church should it fall away from Biblical truth. Thus, there is room in theological training to interpret Scripture afresh and to hear alternative views based on Scripture. Scripture is both the basis for Church tradition and the means by which the Church’s tradition should continuously be reformed. Second, ministers need patience as people are formed in the faith. Church ministry is seldom a matter of believers unquestioningly and willingly following a minister. Ministers need to understand that ministry may be like a painful labour in childbirth until Christ is formed in the church members (Galatians 4.19). Thus, a quick dismissal of other views while still being trained for ministry or a quick dismissal of others when in ministry may be too quick.
9. Networking: Denominations do not have to offer all the networking and infrastructure for a church to fulfill its ministry. There are independent mission agencies, student fellowships, and other networks for finding ministry positions than what denominations offer. Churches may find meaningful fellowship and networking across denominational lines. A church may find that pragmatic concerns, such as the retirement and medical plan or the denomination’s restrictions on the church property, make it beneficial to remain in a bad denominational situation for the time being as long as the truth is not compromised. The more congregational a church’s denominational polity, the easier it is to see the denomination in this pragmatic rather than ecclesial sense.
10. Mission: It may be that a denomination propagates false teaching and practices in one country but not in another. If so, a church may find that its international relationships assist it in its mission more than that its mission is undermined by the false teaching and apostasy of its denomination in its own country. A church may also find that it has a mission field in its own denomination.
Ten Reasons Why Churches (and Individuals) Should Leave a Denomination
1. Reform: Churches, organizations, and denominations may start well but become heretical beyond the point of renewal. A steady diet of unsound doctrine in mainline denominations has resulted in various cancers and organ failures for what are now simply ‘oldline,’ dying denominations (they have been declining since the 1960s). The result has been a steady exit of believers to form new denominations that hold to historic Christian teaching. Indeed, Jesus’ Kingdom movement increasingly developed apart from the Jewish synagogues, challenged the Temple hierarchy, and offered a worship neither in Jerusalem nor on Mt. Gerizim but in spirit and in truth (John 4.24). Jesus said, ‘new wine is put into fresh wineskins’ (Matthew 9.17). The more that errors in teaching and practice become standardized or even official teaching that opposes orthodoxy and resists reform efforts, the less reason there is to continue the effort.
2. Denominations: Denominations are not the Church, they are themselves parachurch organizations that exist to serve the Church or churches. Biblically, the ‘church’ is either a local group of Christians drawn into Christ-centred community or the Church universal. Any other organization exists to serve one or the other and should not be confused with the Church/church. Whether we speak of a Baptist ‘convention' or an Anglican ‘communion’ or ‘assemblies’ of God, we need to recognize, as such terminology does, that the denomination as an organization is not what the New Testament means by ‘church.’ Thus we must not think too much of a denomination, and leaving a particular denomination, or breaking fellowship with a heretical segment of it, or dismissing perpetrators of heresy, has nothing to do with disunity in the Church per se or splitting the ‘Church.’ In fact, it may be a way to uphold unity with Christ.
3. Holiness: A significant purpose of a church is to be a holy community. Israel was to be God’s ‘treasured possession among all peoples … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19.5-6). This description was applied to the Church: ‘you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2.9). If a denomination actively undermines rather than encourages holiness because of what it teaches or practices, faithful believers should separate themselves. Paul says to the Corinthians, ‘I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people’ (1 Corinthians 5.9).
4. False Teachers: Scripture regularly warns against false teaching—whether that of false prophets and idolaters in the Old Testament or false apostles, teachers, and prophets in the New Testament. Disassociation, not toleration of diversity, is the Biblical answer to this. John writes, ‘Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting’ (2 John 9-10).
5. Apostasy: Churches can—and all too often do—become apostate. The church of Sardis, for example, had the reputation of ‘being alive’ but was judged to be dead and was in danger of a final judgement from God if it did not repent (Revelation 3.1-6). The church at Laodicea was neither hot nor cold, a rich community not sensing a need for God or aware of its own shamefulness. God announces that He will, therefore, spit the church out of His mouth (Revelation 3.15-18). Paul can say, ‘even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1.8). God’s people should not have commerce with apostasy.
6. Unity: Communal unity is the result of being united with Christ. False unity is communal unity that disregards Christ’s commandments and the Christian faith. Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him’ (John 14.21). And Jude appeals to his readers ‘to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). Unity is not a cardinal virtue; it is a secondary virtue resulting from faithfulness and obedience to God. Love, moreover, is defined as adherence to God’s commandments in both the Old and New Testaments. A key Old Testament text calls Israel to love God by obeying His commandments: ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart’ (Deuteronomy 6.5-6). And John says, ‘this is love, that we walk according to his commandments’ (2 John 6).
7. Discipleship: Toleration of sin in the church is not a sign of Christian grace but is a means by which the church becomes further corrupted. Paul says to the Corinthian church, ‘Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed’ (1 Corinthians 5.6-7). By tolerating sin in the church, the Corinthians opened themselves up to the corrupting influence of the person. In the same way, one might ask whether believers would send their children to the youth camp of a denomination promoting false teaching and sexual immorality.
8. Ministry Development: People are called into ministry from within churches and formed for ministry within denominations. Will churches that cannot agree on the Gospel be able to develop members called into ministry, and will they be able to train people for faithful ministry—or is the denomination in question a ‘dead end’ for future ministers? Is the denomination hostile to evangelists, will they support missionaries proclaiming the Gospel, do they offer orthodox training for ministers, and will their churches be ready to receive orthodox ministers graduating from seminary? Will churches in denominations perpetrating error willingly submit to church discipline over that error?
9. Networking: If denominations exist to facilitate ministry between local churches, one should ask if there is a robust and orthodox network of ministries working to support Christian ministry? If not, a church might wonder what reason there is to remain a part of the denomination. Are church finances sent to the denomination being used to develop orthodox ministries, such as evangelism, church planting, and foreign mission work? Or does the money actually go to support non- or anti-Christian causes? Does the network of ministry that a denomination offers actually make good people do bad things? The more a denomination is confused over the Gospel, the less its network provides the right infrastructure for healthy ministries, and it very likely even undermines them. A church may find that a denomination’s network has become so weak for propagating the Gospel—even resisting it—that there is no purpose served in trying to use the network for the ministry of the Church.
10. Mission: The mission of the Church is first of all making disciples. If disciple-making churches find themselves expending effort and finances to try to correct the corruption or errors of their own denominations rather than making disciples, those churches should ask themselves whether or not their mission and ministry efforts would not be better accomplished through another organization. If planting new churches in a denomination only means exposing them to the heresies and immoralities of the denomination, surely one is ministering at cross-purposes: better to free the new churches from the corrupt influences of the denomination and get on with the mission of the Church.
The decision to stay or leave a church, denomination, or organization is a difficult one. Some get out at the first sign of a grey cloud on the horizon. Others, like the frog in the pot, stay in so long that they end up being boiled before it dawns on them to jump. The oldline denominations that have watched a steady stream of departures for over half a century like to throw around a false concept of the denomination as the Church or a false understanding of unity as community. They like to talk about having dialogue and gaining understanding in order to affirm a social unity that is not centred on Christ and the Word of God. Faithful believers have woken up to find out that their beloved denominations have come out of the closet about their heretical teachings and are no longer what they pretended to be. They have undergone a doctrinal and moral change. Ministry is desperately needed in these contexts, but there are also times when enough is enough and, for the sake of those within the Church and the mission of the Church to others, a separation is needed.