Should I Stay or Should I Go?
By Revd Dr Mark Pickles
One of the most vital and pressing question for those in a doctrinally mixed denomination is, “At what point, if any ought we to leave the denomination”? Is there a non-negotiable, defining line that once crossed then it is time to leave and if so what ice it and how do you decide what that line is? (I am well aware that for some the question is not ‘should I stay or go’ but ‘why should I bother joining in the first place’? I will return to that question, but in this chapter I want to try to give a biblical rationale and defence for why it is a good thing to remain in a mixed denomination and attempt to work for its reform and renewal.)
This a complex and vexed question. In October 1966 Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ address to the Evangelical Alliance in which he appealed to those in mixed denominations to come out and for there to be a greater unity amongst evangelicals had an explosive impact, the effects of which are still being felt today. John Stott, an Anglican who waist the chair hastily stood up and urged no one to act precipitously, stating that he thought that both Scripture and history were against Lloyd-Jones and arguing that biblically the remnant has always been inside the Church not outside of it. This led to a deeply regrettable parting of the ways between nonconformist evangelicals and Anglican evangelicals. Carl Trueman describes the legacy of 1966 as a disaster and writes “English evangelicalism is only just starting to move out of the long shadow that split between Lloyd-Jones and Packer (another leading Anglican and up until that time a close friend of Lloyd-Jones) cast for decades”.
Critics would argue that evangelicals within the Church of England keep moving ‘the line’. For some it was the ordination of women, but when that arrived very few left, then it was the ordination of women bishops, but when that arrived few if any left. More have claimed that if the Church of England was to change its position officially on homosexuality then that would be the defining moment at which they would leave.
Some evangelical non-conformists shake their heads in bewilderment at what they deem to be hopelessly compromised Anglican evangelicals who keep moving the goal posts and never leave. Furthermore, some would suggest that despite their protestations, the reason why Anglican evangelicals do not leave is because of less principled reasons such as loss of house, income, pension, cowardice, and fear.
Within the denomination, non-evangelicals are suspicious of conservative evangelicals who they think, are always talking of leaving thus betraying a loose commitment to the denomination and like the boy who cried wolf, they continue to threaten to leave but never do.
Before turning to the life and ministry of Jeremiah, which can provide us with a different perspective on this issue, I want briefly to consider Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. It is a deeply moving passage as Paul reminds the elders of his ministry and warns them of the dangers they will face.
“I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them”.
Threats from Without and Within
These are startling words. Paul is speaking to elders that he has personally trained and equipped and yet he wins them of the constant danger of false teaching that will assault them on two fronts:
- From outside. Fierce wolves will come in among them. They will always be under threat of attack from outside by false teachers seeking to come in and lead people astray. Wolves hunt for prey, wolves follow the sheep. It is naive foolishness to think that if we, as sheep, are vulnerable to attack in this particular field because of the presence of wolves, then if we move to another field we will escape from their clutches. Guess what—wolves move! Wherever the sheep are that is where the wolves want to be.
This not just true for Paul’s day and the specific context in Ephesus, this is the nature of church life down through the ages and all around the world. Churches with faithful gospel ministries are always vulnerable to attack from outside. It may come from the surrounding culture, it may come from the particular denomination or simply from people who join and become a part of the congregation. It can come in many forms but there is always a threat from outside.
2. Perhaps more alarming, there will also be a danger from within, according to Paul. ‘From among your own selves’ says Paul. This is deeply disturbing, remember these are elders personally discipled by the Apostle Paul, if he knows that even from amongst these elders some will rise up and begin to twist the truth and move from the apostolic gospel then that ought to alert us to the fact that all of us need to be vigilant. He warns these elders to ‘pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock’ (v. 28), he warns Timothy to ‘keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching’ (1 Timothy 4:16) and the Corinthians ‘let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Cor. 10:12).
The reality is that every local church every denomination, every network of churches is vulnerable to the disease of false teaching and that orthodoxy today is no guarantee of it tomorrow, that the danger can come from without or within. You may remove yourself from a doctrinally compromised denomination but that will not remove you from the threat of false teaching. Every new denomination that is a break away from a compromised older denomination, will in time, still have the same battles to fight, the wolves follow the sheep. This is an unerring principle. That is not to say, of course, that therefore one should never leave a denomination but it does say two things at least. Firstly, we should not be naive about the reality and ever-present threat of false teaching, no matter how secure and vigilant we are at present and secondly, that knowing this ever-present danger, before considering the option one jumping ship, we ought to be prepared for the battle and to be willing to roll up our sleeves and fight for the life and health of the church.
Paul is clear about the imminent and constant threat these Ephesian elders will face but he never counsels them, that when wolves come in and when men arise from their own number twisting the truth, they should be prepared to leave and start afresh. It never enters his mind to give such counsel, rather his sole intent is to forearm them by forewarning them and giving them steel for the battle, not least because the church is so precious to God, the last thing they ought ever to contemplate would be to abandon the flock to the mercy of wolves (Acts 20:28). Why would they? How could they? Jesus in fact, contrasts himself as THE Good Shepherd who lays down his lifer the sheep with the hired hand who abandons the flock as soon as he sees a wolf appear, “He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:13).
Excerpted with permission from, Gospel-Driven Anglicanism, pg. 70 -73; Mark Pickles.