No Country for Old Men?

Article by   July 2012
Last month I had the privilege of giving a short series of lectures to a group of orthodox ministers who are members of a mixed denomination.  By 'mixed' I mean a denomination which tolerates a broad range of teaching in her pulpits and in her name, from the orthodox through to the heretical. My lectures were on Paul's answer to deviant teaching and behaviour, the rise of creeds within the early church, and Luther's seven marks of a healthy church. He had two less than Mark Dever but he did remember to include prayer.

The sociology of the gathering was interesting. It was clear from early on that I was there to lay a foundation which could be used for discerning how to fight and when to separate. I was fascinated to see that the reactions to what I had to say varied depending on the age of the one reacting: those below the age of forty had clearly had enough and are very open to the idea of separating. Those over fifty seemed generally committed to staying. Those in my decade could perhaps go either way.

Two things in particular stand out in my memory. The first were the questions and comments I received after each of my talks. The second was a speech made by one minister at the very end of the gathering.

First, the questions. After my second talk, one very senior minister made a passionate argument to the effect that, as long as the confessional standards remained in place, there was hope for the church and nobody should leave. To do so, he said, would be to doubt God.

The problem with such an argument is twofold. First, given the fact that God is sovereign and can even raise the lifeless body of his Son from the grave, there is surely a case to be made that He could take any denomination, no matter how apostate or wicked, and make it faithful once more. Even if the confessional standards were to be entirely removed from the statute books, that would not necessarily hinder God.  

Practically, however, if a denomination has no institution for training ministers in a manner consistent with the historic confessions, the potential for developing a realistic strategy for turning things around is next to none. Denominations which have become more orthodox - the American ARP's being the most obvious recent example - typically owe their transformation to good ministerial training institutions; in the ARP's case such came primarily from RTS-Charlotte.   Confessionalists in a mixed denomination which requires all candidates to be funneled at some point through a less-than-solid denominational institution have a major strategic problem.

Second, I responded to the gentleman by asking what exactly it means for the standards to remain in place. We need, after all, to be wary of what we might call the 'ecclesiastical root' fallacy which sees the orthodox origins of the denomination as permanently sanctifying, or at least relativising, any subsequent developments regarding confessional documents and their function. 

Thus, if a church never enforces its confessional standards, or so attenuates its ministerial vows that the substance of the standards has no practical significance, then those standards have gone, whatever nostalgic function they might still fulfill on paper. To put the matter in blunt, judicial terms: you can tell a church's real confessional standards, theological and moral, by looking at the minutes of disciplinary proceedings and seeing what the church disciplines people for teaching or doing. When a church's procedures are uncoupled from orthodoxy, the game is more or less over. If I can hold office in a church and teach with impunity that the Virgin Birth is a fiction or that there is universal salvation, then these things are part of the functional creed of that church.

Another related question came from a younger minister: when does one cross the line in a mixed denomination from being a faithful fighter to an enabler of apostasy? This is a very difficult question indeed. It is clear that a denomination is not apostate the first time a minister stands up in a pulpit and teaches heresy. Further, all ministers typically take vows to maintain the peace and unity of the church. Separation is therefore something which should never be done in a light or casual manner. Nevertheless, the seemingly endless acceptance by the orthodox of increasingly bad theological and ecclesiastical decisions in many mixed denominations is exasperating to many of us who wonder where the line will finally de drawn.  So many important hills; yet none apparently important enough to die on. In the past year I have seen all kinds of arguments used to justify staying in denominations which promote all manner of nonsense in the name of the gospel, from claims akin to the one above about the standards to the frankly laughable (e.g., 'There were many sinners in the church in Calvin's day' - as if that is relevant to anything). My suspicion is that many of these arguments are simply rationalizations for not doing the courageous thing.

So when is that line between fighting and enabling crossed? Two factors need to be taken into account here.  First, the gospel is surely lost the moment it becomes impossible to maintain, protect and promote it through the assemblies of the church. This may not be the very first time that a single judicial case is lost; but when the church speaks as a whole in a decisive manner on such a matter, the game is up. If the general assembly or general synod rules that gospel-denying position A is legitimate (either tolerable or to be enforced), the end is nigh.  

To paraphrase Charles Hodge, ministers take vows to honour the rule of the church's assemblies; when those assemblies make a decision, one must actively support, passively submit or peaceably withdraw. One does not have the option of simply ignoring the ruling and carrying on regardless; nor does one have the option of mounting a kind of perpetual guerrilla warfare within the church. Further, once the gospel cannot be defended within the assemblies of the church, that church has lost the key marks of the word and of discipline. It is not a church; it thus no sin to separate from such a body.

The second argument, one deployed in an earlier era by Machen, is the financial one: if you give a dollar to an organization and half of it goes to promoting the gospel and half of it goes to denying the gospel, you might as well keep the dollar for yourself, for all the gospel good that it does. This is where it can become complicated for members and ministers in mixed denominations. One might instinctively want simply to stop giving money to central funds, to avoid the dilemma. That, I would suggest, is not really a very ethical option: if one's vows bind one to honouring the church assemblies, then one does not have the right to pick and choose which bits one honours and which one ignores. Actively support, passively submit, or peaceably withdraw. Those would seem to be the only honourable options. If it has come to the point where you cannot, with good conscience, hand your money over to your denomination because you believe it will be used to deny the gospel, it is time to reflect long and hard on the precise implications of that decision. Once again, you would seem to be conceding that those crucial marks of word and discipline have vanished. It is not a church; it is thus no sin to separate from such a body.

The second thing that I find so striking about the gathering was a speech made towards the end.  One minister stood up and made a heartbreaking speech about how he loved the unity he found among his brethren at this pre-synod gathering of orthodox churchmen and how he longed to have that at a synodical level. As I listened, I could hear in his voice just how tired he was of fighting a rearguard action against massive odds and the seemingly inexorable advance of liberalism in his denomination. All this man wanted was to be able to focus his energies on the gospel. He had clearly given years of his life to the struggle and he was now exhausted and disillusioned.   

My silent response was twofold. First, I gave thanks that I am in a congregation and a denomination where we currently enjoy a high degree of unity around the gospel. We are very far from perfect; but at least I do not have to waste my time at the moment fighting blasphemous nonsense. There is never any guarantee that such will continue; there is ever the need for vigilance; but I felt at that moment like Christian in the Delectable Mountains looking back at a tired brother struggling through the Slough of Despond. Not prone to emotion, I was nonetheless deeply affected by this cry from the heart.

Second, I felt I could see the split in this denomination coming. The middle aged men are exhausted by years of synodical defeats; the younger men are unwilling to spend their time and energy - indeed, their lives -- fighting the cuckoos who are defecating with impunity all over their ecclesiastical nest. Only the old men seem to think it worth staying; but they appear to have no strategic plan for turning things around. There is no question that they must be respected as senior men in the Lord. But appropriate respect and strategic agreement are two different things.

The next decade will bring numerous denominational splits. That is sad. Those who split for the sake of orthodoxy will in every case be joining those of us who are already regarded as the cultural fringe, even within broadly defined evangelical circles. But if conservatives want to maintain credible confessional witness to the wider world, they must have ecclesiastical discipline which reflects the same. And if liberals want to spread their own distinct message, they should at least have the decency to fund it themselves;

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