A recent letter from a clergyman illustrates the continuing and profound confusion that exists within the Christian faith relating to the word 'church'.
The letter below was recently written by a clergyman who has left his mainline Presbyterian denomination because of the latter’s acceptance of same-sex relationships. Much of what he writes is commendable and biblical. However there are huge chunks of the text where, in this writer’s estimation, he makes the very common, but devastating mistake of understanding the word ‘church’ to mean a religious organisation rather than the body of Christ (the ecclesia).
I would not normally respond in this fashion to what was and is a personal statement, and I have removed identifying details in order to address the issue rather than the individual, whom I have no wish to target, embarrass or offend. However, the above-mentioned syndrome has caused and continues to cause so much trouble in the church (ecclesia/body of Christ) that I feel obliged to address it.
The wider context relates to the breakdown and increasing heresy and apostasy now prevalent within ‘Christian’ religious institutions (which are commonly referred to as ‘the church’). The failure of these institutions to adhere to and apply biblical beliefs and practices has led to an increasing number of sincere and loyal-to-Christ disciples leaving formal religious structures to find fellowship within informal groupings of fellow Christians.
Legend: Rather than write a separate critique the method chosen has been to insert comments within the body of the text. These insertions are coloured red and, in some instances where necessary, the points in the text to which these insertions refer have been highlighted in yellow.
Any ‘bolding’ is part of the original document.
Editor: Christians Together
Leaving the [Denomination]
by Rev XXX formerly of XXX and XXXX (congregations)
"I have written this for the benefit of those who are curious about why I have chosen to leave the [Denomination]."
Jesus, the Christian, the Church, and the Bible
1. What is involved in being a Christian? Is it simply a matter of saying that one is a Christian, or of believing certain things about Jesus Christ? Does being a Christian affect the way a person lives?
I believe that being a Christian involves faithfully and obediently following Jesus.
In the New Testament, Christians are usually called “believers” (because they believed in Jesus and in his message) and sometimes called “disciples”, because they were committed to learning from him and obeying him. When Jesus sent the apostles out to make disciples of all nations, the apostles were told to teach these new disciples “to obey everything I have commanded you.” Obedience is not only part of the Christian life. It is at the heart of the Christian life. Jesus says “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:28) He says “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. ” (John 14:23).
Obedience involves aiming to do what God says we should do, and aiming to avoid what God says we should not do. This does, however, involve a struggle, because our natural inclination is to seek to please ourselves, rather than to seek to please God. Becoming a Christian involves a new start, and a changed (and distinctive) life. Hence the apostle Paul writes: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. ” (Ephesians 5:8-11) Similarly, Peter writes “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” ” (I Peter 1:14-16)
2. Why does the church exist? Is it something that was invented by the early followers of Jesus because it seemed like a good idea to them? Or was it God’s idea? And what is the church for, anyway?
I believe that the church is an important part of God’s plan, and that one of its most basic functions is to try to ensure that Christians are faithfully following Jesus.
In the New Testament, the word “Christian” (or “Christians”) is used a total of three times. The word “church” (or “churches”) is used over a hundred times. While most uses of the word “church” are found in Acts, Revelation, and the various letters of the apostles, Jesus himself speaks about the church. In fact, he calls it his church – he says “I will build my church.” By “church”, he means a body of people – the people who will believe in him and follow him – his disciples – in other words, Christians. Amen, and again Amen. This tells us that the church is important to Jesus, and that it is a basic part of God’s plan.
Furthermore, Jesus tells us that he is concerned about how his followers should live, and in particular, how they should relate to one another. He is concerned, for example, that they should love each other. He is also concerned that they should encourage each other to be faithful to him (which is surely a part of loving each other.) He told his disciples “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault.” And he goes on to explain that the church has a role to play when a Christian is not willing to accept correction from other individual Christians. He says “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. ” (Matthew 18:15-17)
The Westminster Confession of Faith (the [Denomination's] official statement of faith) speaks of the role of the church as “gathering and perfecting” Christians. (To “gather” them means to bring people to faith in Jesus – to bring new people into the church. To “perfect” them means to help them grow spiritually so that they follow Jesus more faithfully.) It seems to me that the New Testament, where it addresses churches, says more about the role of churches in ‘perfecting’ Christians than it does about their role in ‘gathering’ them.
Up to this point things are fine, however....
3. Do Christians have to be part of a church, or can one be a good Christian without being a member of a church? (This where things start to go awry.) One cannot fail to be part of the one and only church (ecclesia) if one is a Christian. To be a Christian (in the true sense) is to part of the body of Christ irrespective of whether or not that is expressed in some institutional or organised form. And what obligation do Christians have to their churches?
I believe that because the church is a basic part of God’s plan, it is the duty of Christians to be members of a church, and to be accountable to their churches. The error here of equating the body of Christ with a religious organisation continues.
The Bible often speaks about ‘the church’ – meaning all those who believe in Jesus Christ. Exactly. So why confuse it with religious structures. However, the Bible also speaks about ‘churches’. (There are 35 mentions of “churches” in the New Testament.) By this it means congregations. And this word should never be constrained to mean only groups of believers who meet in steeple houses on a Sunday morning under a ‘minister’. Since all Christians are part of “the church”, they are also obliged to be part of a church (in other words, a congregation). The Bible knows nothing of people who become Christians, but then choose not to be part of a church. At the risk of vain repetition, Christians cannot be anything else but part of the church (body of Christ). We cannot speak of ‘a’ church we can only speak of ‘the’ church: there is only one. When people became Christians they joined together with other Christians to form congregations of people who met together. (Acts 2:41-47) Yes they did, but the word 'congregations' should simply be understood as a 'group' of believers.
Why were Christians to join together with one another? The New Testament tells us that Christians have an obligation to help each other. In particular, they have an obligation to encourage each other to follow Jesus faithfully, and to correct each other when someone is not living or behaving as a Christian should. Amen. And this can be, should be and is done without the need of any overarching religious structure.
The teaching of Jesus (Matthew 18:15-17) (see section 2, above) makes this point clearly. Similarly, the apostle Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that if churches are aware of their members openly doing something wrong, they are not to ignore it, but are to address the problem: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? . . . Expel the wicked man from among you.” (I Corinthians 5:12-14) Writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul says that Christians have a duty to respect the leadership of the church, and to expect those leaders to correct them when they do things that are wrong: “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.” (I Thessalonians 5:12) The Letter to the Hebrews, speaking about church leaders, (13:17) says to Christians “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
These passages assume that churches have a membership, for if there is no church membership, how do leaders know who they are to admonish, and who is to submit to their authority? And when Jesus says that his followers are to “tell it to the church” when a Christian does something wrong, this assumes that we know who the church is. This shows that church membership is not optional. All Christians have a duty to be part of a church. This paragraph quintessentially illustrates the very serious problem of translating the word ‘ecclesia’ to mean a religious organisation, and ‘membership’ to mean a signed-up affiliation to same.
Furthermore, these passages assume that one of the most basic purposes of the church is its “quality control” function – encouraging Christians to obey God, and to correct those who are not obeying God. Hence these passages all assume that Christians have a duty to listen to and submit to their churches. Christians indeed have a duty, in the body of Christ, to submit to the discipline of the body of Christ. But the 'body of Christ' does not translate to mean religious structures. Additionally, the growing apostasy within denominations amply illustrates the failure of such structures to (a) ensure a biblical fidelity and (b) to exercise discipline when that is breached.
4. How can Christians know what Jesus wants them to do, and how he wants them to live?
I believe that the teaching of the Bible is the way that Christians can know how to follow Jesus faithfully. Amen. And this is a totally different concept to adherence to any religious establishment.
The words of Jesus, as we find them in the New Testament, point us to the Bible as the way to know what behaviour is pleasing to God. When Jesus is tempted by Satan and, in reply says “It is written” and then quotes the Bible (Matthew 4:4, 4:7, 4:10), he clearly means “What God has said in the Scriptures is the final word, and there is no arguing with it.” We never find Jesus saying “It is written that thou shalt not, but I say unto you that it is OK.” On the contrary, he condemns those who permit the written word of God in Scripture to be set aside. And so we read in Mark 7:6-13: “He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ” ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”” For Jesus, what is written down in Scripture is the word of God, and it is not negotiable. Scripture is the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined. For Jesus, holding fast to God’s word in Scripture is crucial; setting it aside is unacceptable.
Doing what Jesus commanded us, therefore, does not just mean doing the things that he tells us to do in the four gospels. It also means obeying the instructions of God that we find in the Old Testament. Does this include putting wayward teenagers to death as the OT prescribes? Furthermore, it also involves obeying the teaching of the apostles as found in the New Testament. Jesus told the apostles, “If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” (John 15:20)
5. Can a body legitimately call itself a Christian church if it does not hold to the teaching of the Bible? Is it permissible for Christian churches to depart from the teaching of the Bible?
I believe that it is necessary for Christian churches to hold to the teaching of the Bible.
It is almost two thousand years since Jesus promised to build his church, and then sent the apostles out into the world to make disciples of all nations. Over the course of those years, many bodies have claimed to be Christian churches. And witness where this has got us to... These bodies have differed from one another in their belief and practice. The differences have been so great that questions have been raised about whether some of them actually were Christian churches.
The Westminster Confession says that some churches are more pure than others, and then says “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; (which should be addressed where it exists) and some [churches] have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.” In other words, even the best churches are not perfect, and some churches have moved so far from the teaching of Jesus as to cease to be Christian churches in any meaningful sense.
Since Jesus pointed to the Bible as the word of God which is to be believed and obeyed, it seems to me that it is an essential characteristic of Christian churches that they acknowledge the Bible to be the word of God, and that they hold that the Bible is to be believed and obeyed. Furthermore, since it is the duty of churches to try to ensure that their members are faithfully following Jesus, they will not be able to carry out this most basic duty unless they hold that the Bible is to be believed and obeyed. It therefore seems unlikely that a body that does not hold that the teaching of the Bible is to be believed and obeyed can function properly as a Christian church.
6. Can a Christian church be accurately described as holding to the teaching of the Bible if it does not require that those in its top leadership positions hold to the teaching of the Bible? The term ‘top leadership’ again falls into the hierarchical and unbiblical pattern of institutionalised religion.
I believe that for a Christian church to hold to the teaching of the Bible, it is necessary that it requires those in leadership positions in the church to hold to the teaching of the Bible.
In any organisation, more will be expected of leaders than is expected of ordinary members. Every follower is Christ is an “ordinary member” of the priesthood of all believers. Clericalism is unbiblical. The word “reverend” is found only once in the Bible and, exclusively in reference to the Almighty God. This principle is expressed in the Bible in different ways. In Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, he explains the qualities that church leaders should have. (See I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-16). In particular, he makes it clear in his letter to Titus that church leaders are to hold to the teaching that they have received: “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”
This principle has always been recognised (at least in theory) by the [Denomination]. That is why all ministers and elders in the [Denomination] are required to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. And again that ‘subscription’ and the document itself has been shown to be utterly impotent in maintaining a biblical purity. This is to ensure that they believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. And one of the main reasons for that is that it should ensure that the decisions taken by churches and church courts (the only ‘church court’ the bible knows is a local grouping of believers) are consistent with the teaching of Jesus and the Bible.
7. Does the [Denomination] actually hold to the teaching of the Bible?
I believe that the [Denomination] has demonstrated that it does not hold seriously to the teaching of the Bible, because it has demonstrated that it does not expect those in leadership positions to hold to the teaching of the Bible.
In order to determine whether the [Denomination] holds, in practice, to the teaching of the Bible, we need to listen to what its leaders are saying. If the [Denomination] does hold to the teaching of the Bible, one would expect to see that expressed in the actions and words of its leaders. In particular, one would expect that if the actions and words of a church leader indicated that this leader did not hold to the teaching of the Bible, that action of some sort would be taken to correct the person concerned. Indeed, but while lack of discipline is manifestly evident, how can a biblical discipline be brought to bear when those responsible for applying same are apostate themselves?
The reality is that over the years, ministers and elders in the [Denomination] have often done things that indicate that they do not hold to the teaching of the Bible. With little evidence of discipline being applied. Other people have pointed to several examples. I will limit myself to just one matter – the matter of sexual behaviour. Does this statement apply to both adultery and homosexuality. If so then double standards would seem to have been applied; with the former tolerated. I choose this example for three reasons. First, because it has been extensively debated and discussed over the past 25 years; second, because the debates and discussion have been well documented; and third, because it clearly shows what leaders in the [Denomination] actually think about the place of the teaching of the Bible in the life of the church.
In particular, the question of sexual relationships between people of the same sex is significant because on this matter, the teaching of the Bible is unambiguous. While there have been those who have tried to argue that the Bible’s teaching on this matter is unclear, it seems to me that there is no real doubt that the Bible clearly teaches that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are unacceptable to God. Christian scholars have been almost universally agreed about this for two thousand years, and that remains the view of most biblical scholars today. In fact, this is admitted by many who are in favour of allowing those in same sex relationships to become ministers in the [Denomination].
Since it is the duty of churches to try to ensure that their members faithfully follow Jesus, it is seriously worrying that, at the 2015 General Assembly, 63% of those who voted, voted in favour of a measure that says those in leadership positions will be allowed to do something, without censure, which the Bible clearly says is unacceptable to God. This tells us that a very large proportion of those in leadership positions in the [Denomination] are either unaware of what the Bible says, or are confused about what the Bible says, or do not regard the Bible’s word on the subject as final. The fact that these people are in positions of leadership within the [Denomination] indicates that something that is absolutely basic has broken down within the [Denomination].
If the Bible gave the impression that same-sex sexual relationships were something which God was not particularly bothered about, one could be forgiven for not being too concerned about this. The Bible, however, makes it clear (Leviticus 20:13) that this is something God takes seriously.
If the courts of the [Denomination] can be completely confused about such a simple and straight-forward matter as same-sex sexual relationships, it seems to me that they can get absolutely anything wrong.
8. Most Christians living in Scotland – and in many other parts of the world – have several churches nearby. They therefore have a choice about which church they should be a member of. What sort of church should they choose? What is the main factor that should guide their choice? Most Christians living in Scotland have members of the body of Christ somewhere in their locality; and are therefore part of the same body. Merely joining another religious organisation offers neither security or guarantee of biblical fidelity. If one denomination can fail then so can another.
I believe that Christians, since they are obliged to be part of a church (and to be accountable to their church), should seek to be part of a church which will guide them in faithfully following Jesus.
When I was ordained to the ministry of the [Denomination], one of the questions that I was required to answer was “Do you promise to be subject in the Lord to this Presbytery and to the superior courts of the Church, and to take your due part in the administration of its affairs?” I believe that it is right for ministers to have to answer such a question. I believe that ministers should have to promise to be subject to their Presbytery, and to the higher courts of the church. I also believe that this is simply an extension of the duty of all Christians to listen to their church and to obey its leaders and submit to their authority. The language and concepts here speak entirely of religious (and unbiblical) structures.
But behind the Biblical instruction for Christians to obey their leaders and submit to their authority, lies the assumption that those leaders are able to provide faithful leadership. This does not mean that one expects those leaders to be perfect or infallible. It does, however, mean that one expects those leaders to have a reasonable knowledge of the Bible’s teaching and to be faithful to that teaching.
To put it another way, it is the job of the church to exercise quality control over its members, and in order to do so, it needs to exercise quality control over its leaders. That is why ministers and elders in the [Denomination] are required to subscribe to a confession of faith. What leaders need to hold fast to is Scripture not man-made documents. It is also the reason why the New Testament says that those who are in positions of church leadership should hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that they can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
A church that is not willing to ensure that its leaders hold firmly to the teaching of the Bible, does not itself hold firmly to the teaching of the Bible. Leaders are accountable to one another; and indeed to the whole body of which Christ is the sole head. A church that does not hold to the teaching of the Bible is lacking an essential and necessary characteristic of a real Christian church, because it will be unable to carry out what is one of its most basic tasks: to guide its members in following Jesus faithfully.
Since one of the main reasons that Christians are obliged to be part of a church (here again, the ‘church’ is the body of Christ of which every Christian is a part) is so that they can be guided in faithfully following Jesus, then Christians should seek to be members of churches that hold firmly to the teaching of the Bible.
(I might add that there will be those who will argue that a congregation within the [Denomination] can be a church that holds firmly to the teaching of the Bible, despite the fact that the [Denomination] as a whole does not do so. And there is enough truth in this to give it a certain plausibility.
However, I would say that it is highly naive to imagine that congregations in the [Denomination] are not much affected by what happens at Presbytery and General Assembly level. The reality is that what happens at Presbytery and General Assembly level most certainly does affect and influence congregations. The impact is rarely dramatic, but over the course of decades and generations, the influence is inevitably enormous.) Have done with any denominations which has shown itself to be an authoritain hierarchical structure. And not least if it has fallen into apostasy.
It therefore seems to me that a Christian who is seriously committed to following Jesus faithfully, would, given the choice, be better off not being a member of the [Denomination], but should, rather, seek to be part of, and accountable to, a church (if defined to mean a local and relational group of believers in the body of Christ whether within or outwith traditional church settings) that holds to the teaching of the Bible.
Footnotes (relating the critique and not the original document) :
1.The common accusation from institutionalised religionists regarding believers meeting outside of and apart from structured settings pertains to a supposed ‘lack of accountability’.
In the true body of Christ (i.e. priesthood of all believers) mutual accountability is found in a setting of faithful disciples in close and meaningful fellowship with one another. The youngest follower (in age and/or faith) in Christ can legitimately challenge the life/doctrine of the most mature Christian if the latter goes astray. It is also in such settings that believers find most encouragement to exercise their respective God-given giftings and ministry within a scenario providing genuine accountability.
A six-page document (from another writer) on the subject of biblical accountability within non-institutional settings can be provided on request.
2. Through the settings in which they function and the ‘offices’ and ‘titles’ under which they serve, ‘clergy’ are particularly prone to become institutionalised in their thinking, exegesis (read ‘eisegesis’) and practice. The above letter/article amply bears this out.
The Editor, 31/12/2015