When Should a Christian Leave a Church?
When Should a Christian Leave a Church?
By John G. Reisinger Sound of Grace
The following article is written primarily for Reformed Baptists only because that is the group with which I have been identified for over twenty years. There are Brethren Assemblies, Presbyterian, Independent, and Charismatic churches, as well as other types of Baptists, that clearly fit the description given in these pages.
Many who read this will say, “none of those things could ever happen in my church.” You may be surprised! If you have a truly Godly pastor, these things will not happen regardless of how wrong your view of Elder authority may be. However, if your system is that held by many Reformed Baptists, you have a ready made situation for these same things to happen in your church at a later date with another pastor.
A good man in a bad system will not misuse his authority. A good system can deal with a bad man and get rid of him. A bad man in a bad system is an untouchable pope simply because he is protected by the system. He may be the worst of tyrants, but nothing can be done by anyone. A sincere sheep has only one option in such a case.
I recently preached at the First John Bunyan Conference on the subject of law and grace. About fifty people attended from various places and nearly all of them had recently left a church with a heavy “law ministry” where the Elders were the “Lords and Masters” of the Assembly. Many of these dear people had helped to start the very church they had recently been forced to leave. They had watched a warm hearted fellowship of believers become what Spurgeon called “a better representative of the law than of the gospel.” There were three things that seemed to be true in the recent experience of each of these people.
(1) The “law ministry” they had been under had robbed them totally of the joy of their salvation. It is amazing how many preachers believe it is a sin to be genuinely happy in the Lord. They think a believer has to squirm like a worm under every sermon and go home feeling depressed and miserable in order to be sure that he heard “the whole counsel of God.”
(2) These people noticed a marked change in their marriage relationship when they got out from under legalism and fear. One brother said, “My wife and I have never loved each other so much. Our home and marriage has changed radically since we left our former church.” How can it be otherwise? A “worm theology” must produce a “mud hole” home. If you cannot smile and rejoice in church with the saints, how can you do so at home with your family?
In a few extreme cases, a pastor had deliberately placed himself between the husband and wife and was using his pastoral authority as a means of manipulating them both into personal loyalty to himself. If either the husband or wife became in any way critical of the church or his ministry, the pastor would “counsel” the other mate to put pressure on the first one to repent. This was done on the ground that “your mate’s soul is in danger” because they were daring to question God’s “duly authorized” minister. One dear Christian lady was under such pressure to force her husband to submit to the pastor’s authority that she felt she was being torn in half. She told someone, “I feel like I must choose between the two most important men in my life.” The person wisely answered, “God never intended you to have two men in your life in any sense where you had to make a choice between them.”
My friend, if your loyalty to, or dependence upon, any preacher ever comes close to being equal to your loyalty and love to your husband or wife, then you are so sick spiritually that you can’t think straight.
(3) These people all had a new desire to witness the amazing love of Christ to poor sinners the moment they themselves began to experience again that love in their own hearts. How can it be otherwise if “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”? If your salvation does not thrill your heart with joy, why would you want to share it? If all you have is doubts and fears, then that is all you can share with others. If all you do is sit in the corner and lick your wounds after examining your heart to “find evidences of true holiness,” how can it be possible for you to be thrilled with the Saviour and His amazing love?
In no sense am I suggesting that we should never examine our hearts. We are fools of the worst kind if we do not heed the exhortations in the Scriptures to do that very thing. Psalm 139:13,14 and II Corinthians 13:51 are just as true today as when they were written. For me to be unwilling to examine myself as these verses command is to prove that I am probably a deceived hypocrite. Only a hypocrite is afraid of examining himself. We must examine our heart and we must feel our sin and guilt. However, we must always see Christ as greater than our sin and our guilt! McCheyne was right when he said, “Take one good look at your heart, and then take ten thousand looks at Christ.”
Spurgeon has given us a description that, sad to say, fits some present day churches. He was preaching on the “Full Assurance of Faith” and answering common objections made by people who feel that full assurance can be dangerous. He sounds like he has just finished arguing with some “law centered” elders that I know.
I have one more class of objectors to answer and I am finished. There is a certain breed of Calvinist, whom I do not envy, who are always jeering and sneering as much as ever they can at the full assurance of faith. I have seen their long faces; I have heard their whining periods, and read their dismal sentences, in which they say something to the effect – “Groan in the Lord always, and again I say, groan! He that mourneth and weepeth, he that doubted and feareth, he that distrusteth and dishonoureth his God, shall be saved.” That seems to be the sum and substance of their very ungospel-like gospel. But why is it they do this? I speak now honestly and fearlessly. It is because there is a pride within them – a conceit which is fed on rottenness, and sucks marrow and fatness out of putrid carcasses. And what, say you, is the object of their pride? Why, the pride of being able to boast of a deep experience – the pride of being a blacker, grosser, and more detestable sinner than other people. “Whose glory is in their shame,” may well apply to them. A more dangerous, because a more deceitful pride than this is not to be found. It has all the elements of self-righteousness in it.”
From “Full Assurance” by C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1861, p. 292.
My first message at the conference I mentioned was on “John Bunyan and the Law.” I was covering the section in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian was pulled out of the Slough of Despond by a man named Help. I used the following quotation and was quite surprised at the response from those listening:
“Help is one of the King’s officers who are planted all along the way to the Celestial city, in order to assist and counsel all pilgrims. Evangelist was one of these officers; this Help was another; Goodwill will be another, unless, indeed, he is more than a mere officer; Interpreter will be another, and Greatheart, and so on. All these are preachers and pastors and evangelists who correspond to all those names and all their offices. Only some unhappy preachers are better at pushing poor pilgrims into the slough, and pushing them down to the bottom of it, than they are at helping a sinking pilgrim get out…”
Bunyan’s Characters, by Alexander Whyte, Volume I, page 48.
When I read the above quotation, nearly every person looked at the person sitting next to him, grinned from ear to ear, and nodded his head in agreement. After the session one person said, “John, you understated it. When we tried to pull ourselves out of the Slough, our pastor would step on our fingers.” A lady standing nearby said, “Our preacher did not step on our fingers, he used a sledge hammer.”
John Newton was dead right in that great hymn when he said, “It was Grace that taught my heart to Fear,” but he did not stop there. He went on to show that Grace my fear relieved.” Let no one ever down play the need to fear the wrath of God against sin. It is most gracious of God to convict us and make us feel our guilt and shame. One of the distinct purposes for which the blessed Holy Spirit was given is to “convict of sin.” We can never be saved until we know, feel, and admit that we are guilty before God. It was the grace of God that made Pilgrim feel so afraid that he was forced to flee from the city of destruction.
I am fully aware that many preachers do not preach either the holy character of God or His holy demands upon us, and thus they never reveal the awful guilt and corruption that must be exposed. No one has endeavored to expose this horrible distortion of the gospel more than I have. I freely admit that the accusations of the Old Testament prophets can be leveled justly against many evangelical preachers in the land today.
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace. Jer. 6:14
Because they lead my people astray, saying “peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall…Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “In my wrath I will unleash a violent wind, and in my anger hailstones and torrents of rain will fall with destructive fury. I will tear down the wall you have covered with white wash and will level it to the ground so that its foundation will be laid bare. When it falls, you will be destroyed in it; and you will know that I am the Lord. So I will send my wrath against that wall and against those who covered it with whitewash. I will say to you, The wall is gone and so are those who whitewashed it, those prophets of Israel who prophesied to Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her when there was no peace,” declares the Sovereign Lord! Ezek. 13:10-16
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel are talking about what we today would call “easy believism.” It can only produce a false wall of assurance. They are condemning preachers who do not preach the need for Biblical repentance. Their gospel only tells about the “good things” and the “love of God.” These preachers never talk about the punishment of sin and the holy wrath of God against sin. They even go further and label any preacher who teaches “hard things” as being a false prophet. The people who listen to such preachers must be warned in the same manner Jeremiah and Ezekiel warned the people of Israel. People need to be told that their cheap assurance will be destroyed by God’s wrath. They, like all sinners, want a religion without pain or sacrifice and a God who is all love and no wrath. Unfortunately, the preacher of “easy believism” gives them exactly what they want.
We insist that Newton was right in his hymn. It is God’s grace that brings our conscience to fear His awesome wrath and drives us to a Saviour for mercy. We totally reject both the false prophet and his message of “easy believism.” However, easy believism is not a problem in any of the churches that I have been describing! The problem in these churches is the exact opposite. They don’t preach enough of any kind of believism. They seem to be as much afraid of joyous assurance as the easy believist is afraid of searching his heart.
John Newton did not stop with the words “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear.” The next line is just as true as his first line. “T’was grace my fears relieved.” The amazing grace that Newton loved did not leave men under the fear of the law and its judgement. Bunyan’s Slough of Despond was neither a necessary experience (remember Pilgrim was chided for not walking on the stones) nor is it to be a continual experience. Christiania and her children did not fall into the Slough, and even Mr. Fearing had enough spiritual sense to walk on the stones and not fall in. If you are wallowing in such a Slough and bragging about a “deep work of God” in your soul, you are nothing but a self righteous hypocrite braying like a donkey and showing your spiritual ignorance. I suggest you get the taped message on Bunyan and the Law. I believe it will help you.
The grace of God that leads to true fear also leads to true peace. If John Newton had preached like the present day apostles of law, poor William Cowper would have committed suicide every week. The preaching of the law that sends believers home week after week with a despondent and despairing heart is just as opposed to God’s truth as is the preaching condemned by the OT prophets in the passages quoted above. The preacher whose congregation is not truly happy in the Lord and yet at the same time is proud of its ability to endure his constant “heart searching preaching” is as much a false prophet as the preacher of easy believism. He has merely distorted the gospel in a different direction.
I would like to put the following words by Horatius Bonar in large letters over the head of both the legalist preacher and his opposite, or counter part, the antinomian preacher:
The way of peace and the way of holiness lies side by side; rather they are one. That which bestows the peace imparts the holiness; and he who takes the one takes the other also. The spirit of peace is the spirit of holiness. The God of peace is the God of holiness.
If at any time these paths seem to go asunder, there must be something wrong – wrong in the teaching that makes them seem to part company, or wrong in the state of the man in whose life they have done so….
The two are not independent. There is vital fellowship between them, with each being the helpmeet of the other….The peace is indispensable to the production or causation of the holiness, and the holiness is indispensable to the maintaining and deepening of the peace.
He who affirms that he has peace, while living in sin, is “a liar, and the truth is not in him.” He who thinks that he has holiness, though he has no peace, ought to question himself whether he understands aright what the bible means by either the one or the other. As the essence of holiness is the soul’s right state toward God, it does not seem possible that a man can be holy so long as there is no conscious reconciliation between God and him. There may be a spurious holiness founded upon a spurious peace or upon no peace at all. But true holiness must start from a true and authentic peace.
From: God’s Way of Holiness, by Horatius Bonar, Moody Press, page 7,8
The “easy believe” preachers have separated peace and holiness by offering peace without repentance and without demanding that true holiness follow a profession of faith and a claim of assurance. The “obey the law” preachers have also separated peace and holiness by urging holiness as the only safe ground upon which to build the peace of assurance of salvation. They try to produce peace of conscience by holy living. The first group believes that holy living is not essentially connected to peace and the second group believes that a conscious peace can be attained only by obedience to the law. I disagree with both groups and agree with Bonar in his entire statement, especially in the following areas:
(1) Peace and holiness cannot be separated from each other. They are two distinct parts of one whole. You cannot have one without the other. True holiness and a valid assurance of salvation cannot be separated from one another. Most “obey the law” preachers would wholeheartly agree with that statement, but most of them will also deny it by their lopsided preaching. You have no more Biblical right to be talking about “holiness” if you are not consciously sure of your peace, than you have the right to be boasting about “assurance” if you are living in sin. One of these mistakes is just as bad as the other one.
(2) Our argument today is NOT over whether you can have true peace without also having true holiness attending it. We all wholeheartedly agree that such a possibility is contrary to the very heart of the gospel in both its message and results. Grace makes men holy! Titus 2:11,123 settles that question forever. I have never questioned that fact in the least. “He who affirms that he has peace, while living in sin is a liar, and the truth is not in him” is the message I have preached, do preach, and shall preach as long as I live. Our argument, like Bonar’s, is that you cannot have true holiness without first having true peace with God in your conscience. “He who thinks he has holiness, though he has no peace, ought to question himself whether he understands aright what the Bible means by either the one or the other” is also the same message that I preach. The first part of the message gets me in trouble with the antinomians and the second part gets me into worse trouble with the legalist.
The legalist binds your conscience to the law in a manner that makes assurance of salvation and real joy nearly impossible, and the more sincere and conscientious you are, the more difficulty you will have with assurance. If you are one of those dear souls that is earnestly “striving to be holy” in order to find real heart felt assurance, then in Bonar’s words, you do understand either Biblical holiness or true assurance. Your theology has been warped by legalistic preaching.
(3) Our main difference with many Reformed Baptist preachers is not over the necessity of holiness in the life of a true child of God; we agree with them that this holiness is essential. Our disagreement is over how that holiness is produced. I believe the Scriptures lead God’s sheep into true holy living by making Christ Himself precious to their hearts. Some of my Reformed Baptist brethren believe that the sheep are led to true peace by whipping them with the law every week. That is the heart of the present law/grace controversy. A pastor’s wife told a friend of mine, “We need to be constantly whipped into submission by the law or else our sins will conquer us.” That approach is exactly opposite to the theme of Bonar’s book and also contrary to the consistent teaching of the Apostle Paul.
Bonar’s statement that “peace is indispensable to the production or causation of the holiness” is the foundation of my position and preaching. The foundation of all legalistic preaching is the exact opposite. The goal of a legalist’s preaching is to make people feel holy enough so that they then might dare to believe that they are finally acceptable in God’s sight. The basic premise of the legalist is that the rod of the law is the only God ordained way to whip the sheep into shape. The feeling of genuine acceptance with God will only come when you can examine yourself and your obedience and “feel” that all is well because you passed the test. The legalist puts the law into the Christian’s conscience as his judge in such a way that a sheep has no right to feel “secure in Christ” until his daily life can “pass inspection” by the “holy Law of God.” This horrible distortion of both the Law and the Gospel can only lead to either constant despair and doubt on the one hand, or self-righteous conceit on the other hand, and both of these states or conditions are enemies of the sovereign grace of God.
If some who are legalist revile me and my friends and say, “That is what we also believe,” I can only respond, “Brother, the content of 95% of your messages as well as the look on your face and tone of your voice as you preach sure does not prove it!” If preachers really believe (1) that the law cannot sanctify or justify, and that (2) only the preaching of the cross can produce true Biblical holiness, then why are the sheep under their ministry sent home nearly every week so badly beaten and bleeding? Why are the marks of Moses’ rod on their backs so visible and the fruits of the spirit so conspicuous by their absence? Do these preachers believe that the majority of their congregation are “hypocrites” that need to have their “lost estate” exposed instead of sheep that need to be fed? These preachers clearly use, or misuse, the law in a manner that indicates most, if not all, of their hearers are lost hypocrites.
Let me say again that I abominate the message of “easy believism” and all of its attendant evils, but I must also repeat that easy believism is not a problem in the churches I am describing. The problem in these churches is that there is not enough “only believe” and too much “obey the law or else you will be damned.” These is too much Moses and the law covenant’s threat and not enough Christ and the grace covenant’s blessing of forgiveness.
If Bonar is right, and he most certainly is, then it is easy to see why so many warmhearted Arminian churches get people saved and see them grow in faith, love, and true holiness. They preach “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” and people are blessed with the assurance of peace with God and earnestly want to serve Him out of gratitude. Many Reformed pastors preach Moses and “striving to be holy” in such a way that people are trying to find a heartfelt assurance of peace with God on the grounds of their obedience. I know that nearly every single preacher who reads this will vehemently deny that what I am saying is true of him and his ministry. However, the hearts and lives of his people may very well tell a different story. You must be the judge in your own church and its ministry.
Some preachers are at such pains to oppose the preaching of false peace that they end up preaching NO peace at all. A heartfelt joyous assurance has the appearance of being a cardinal sin. These men forget that “only believe” is the essence of the gospel of grace just as much as “easy believe” is the essence of error. The old Testament prophets were just as harsh in condemning another kind of preaching as they were in denouncing the preachers of false peace:
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture”! declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord…”I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord. Jer.23:1-5
How many sincere sheep do you know who “have been scattered” because of the tyranny of pastors and elders? How many sincere believers do you know who have been “afraid and terrified” even to speak what was in their hearts for fear of the elder’s discipline? How many husbands and wives have been alienated in their affections from each other because of the intrusion of the church or elder into their relationship with each other. Many of you who read these lines have seen in practice what the following verse describes:
The prophets follow an evil course and use their power unjustly. Jer. 10:23
I would to God that some of the preachers who have split churches over the issue of “elder authority” would ponder Ezekiel 34. Usually when people are run out of a church for refusing to obey the “duly authorized elders” (which, interpreted, means refusing to sell your conscience in “unquestioning obedience” to the eldership), they are never visited personally by the pastor. They are not contacted in any manner except to be informed in a “duly authorized” letter that quotes a lot of verses (mostly out of context) and then informs the “rebel” that he has been “duly” excommunicated from the church, or cult, as the case may be. Sometimes, not too often, the rebel is told that the elders are willing to consider receiving him back as soon as he will genuinely repent, which of course means, kiss the pope’s ring in submission.
This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourself with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. Ezek. 24:2,3
If you were a pastor whose church was sacrificing to pay you close to $50,000 a year in salary and benefits and putting less than $1,000 a year into any kind of mission work, how should you feel when you read the above words from Ezekiel?
If you were helping to pay that $50,000.00 salary and you were personally being treated like a dog, or even worse, maybe that pastor was systematically turning your wife (or husband) and children against you, how should you feel when you read the following verses from the Word of God?
You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back strays or searched for the lost. You ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered…. Ezek. 34:4,5
If you are a pastor who has driven families out of your congregation only because they dared to disagree with you, and you have never visited one of them to try to resolve the difficulty, who do you think God is talking about in Ezek. 34:2-5?
My friend, beating the sheep into subjection with the supposed “duly authorized office of eldership” and sending them home bleeding and wounded is just as hateful to God as daubing with untempered mortar. Rubbing salt into an open wound is exactly what many preachers do week after week. Because true sheep have tender consciences, a false preacher can pummel them to death with two big clubs. When the law (club number one) is swung by the “duly authorized prophet of God” (club number two), you have a gruesome twosome that will bring any tender conscience into subjection and fear. When one of these sheep finally gets enough courage to leave such a church, or in one writer’s words, “…with a sigh of relief some sheep escape such ministries,” I guarantee you that God does not view this “escape” as rebellion against His “duly authorized church.” He views it as a refusal by a sheep to follow a false shepherd. When a child of God flees from that kind of tyranny, he is being obedient to the voice of his one true Shepherd and he is rejecting the authority of a false prophet.
The amazing thing about this sad situation is that so many sincere sheep seem willing to submit to a form of Romanism without challenging it with Scripture. The word of Jeremiah is true in many churches today:
A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, and priests rule by their own authority, and my people love to have it this way.” Jeremiah 5:30,31
The last three years have convinced me that a law/grace controversy in one of the most important struggles that a church can ever face. This goes beyond Dispensationalism versus Amillenialism, and yes, it even goes beyond Calvinism and Arminianism. A law/grace controversy involves the heart and nerve of the gospel of sovereign grace itself. It establishes, or overthrows, the Biblical goal and purpose of the ministry of preaching and teaching.
Dispensationalists, Amillenialists, Calvinists, and Arminians have all seen souls saved under their ministries. They have all developed strong missionary movements. Legalists, on the other hand, have never seen, nor can they ever see, revival. The present day preachers of law do not get sinners saved simply because they do not clearly preach the gospel of God’s grace. They seem to be content with stealing sheep from the Arminians and “straightening them out theologically.” One Arminian brother said, “you Calvinists should pray that we Arminians are successful at winning converts because if we don’t get any one saved, you fellows have no one to work on”! In many cases, he was more than justified in such a statement. How many people in your congregation were converted out of paganism through the ministry of your church and its pastor? How many either came from another nearby evangelical church or deliberately moved into your town in order to attend a “true Reformed church”?
The gut issues in any law/grace controversy are always the same. They are:
ONE: What is the “gospel message” that we are to give to poor sinners? Must we start with Exodus twenty until there is an essential “preparatory law work” done in the heart and then, and not until then, do we give the gospel promise? Or can we begin to evangelize sinners with the Gospel of John and present the Saviour Himself?
TWO: How do we produce holy living among the saints of God? Do we send them back to Moses and put their conscience under his threat? Or do we keep them standing under the cross beholding their Saviour and put their conscience under His Lordship and His clear objective commandments?
We are talking about nothing less than the essence of the gospel message in evangelism and the Biblical means used to make believers grow in grace and sanctification. We are talking about two distinctly different approaches to preaching justification and sanctification. We are examining the true role of the church, the goal of its ministry, and the essence of its message to both sinners and saints.
I, and some others like me, have tried sincerely to work within the group of people with whom we came to the doctrines of grace. I would like to continue to do so; however, most of them will not let me. There is an adamant refusal to allow the issues of law and grace to be aired publicly and discussed in the light of Scripture. We are receiving the same treatment from many of our Reformed Baptist brethren that we used to receive from the Arminians when we came to the truth of sovereign grace.
If it were not so tragic, it would be comical comparing the methods and tactics used by Bob Jones University twenty years ago to try to stamp out a caricature call “hyper-Calvinism” to the identical methods being used by some Reformed Baptist preachers today in their attempts to stamp out another caricature which they call “antinomianism.” The men today use the same methods Bob Jones used for the same reason that Bob Jones used them, namely, that is their only recourse. They do not set forth specific texts of Scripture because they do not have any! When you cannot defend your theology with actual tests of Scripture then you must resort to some other method such as raw personal power. When you cannot sit down with an open Bible and instruct, as well as learn, in gentleness, then your only recourse is angry name calling, using the authority of your “duly authorized office of pastor,” or waving the creeds and saying, “thus saith our holy fathers in the faith.”
We used to laugh at Bob Jones for banning books from being read and expelling students for reading the Sword and Trowel. We said, “If Bob Jones is so sure that he has the Scripture on his side, why does he not set down with those confused students and say, Let me show you what these verses really mean. Let’s examine every argument these books and writers use. Better yet, we will invite one of them to lecture and then we will ask him questions and show where he is wrong”! Of course, we know why none of those things were ever done. We know why they had to appeal to the “big stick” of personal authority. They could not exegete their basic presuppositions from the Word of God and so they simply refused to discuss it!
Many Reformed Baptist preachers are doing exactly the same thing today! They are acting exactly like the Arminians did twenty years ago! And they are acting that way for the same reason that Bob Jones did! They refuse to sit down and discuss texts of Scripture because their whole position is built on “good and necessary consequences” instead of Bible texts. We will be happy to sit down any time and any place and discuss from the Word of God exactly what we believe and why we believe it. So far the response has been, “There is nothing to discuss. The Confession of Faith is clear. Who are you to dare contradict that venerable document.” So much for Sola Scriptura.
Many of the people at the John Bunyan Conference can testify concerning both the message and the method that forced them to leave churches that they dearly loved. In each case, the Elder was “the anointed of God” that dare not be challenged by “ordinary Christians.” The hallowed creed produced by our “Godly inspired forefathers” became a sword to silence anyone daring to ask a question. The creed and the pastor’s personal power became the final authority over the church and the conscience of the individual.
Do you think that I am kidding or exaggerating? Are you smiling and saying, “John is building a bigger strawman than the people about whom he is talking.” Do you doubt that such situations as I described really exist today? If you think I am just blowing smoke in the air, then read carefully the following words taken from an article by Pastor Walter Chantry. It is the best material he has ever written. He gives the most vivid and perfect description that I have ever read of the kind of elders and churches that I am talking about. Is Chantry just crying wolf, or is he talking about real situations with which he is personally familiar? Many of the people at the conference last week will testify that they came out of a situation exactly like that described by Pastor Chantry in the following quotation:
Arrogance and an overbearing spirit is never acceptable in elders. Popish demeanor reveals pride in the heart. Pompous and tyrannical treatment of subordinates almost universally attends positions of authority in the world and in human institutions. Never is such deportment permissible in elders. Our Chief Shepherd has said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you”! (Mat. 20:25,26)
Christ and Peter are not addressing hypothetical possibilities, nor peculiar attitudes of ancient times. Self-importance and lording it over others is a shameful reality among modern ministers. Many young Christians have been seriously injured by the imperious ways of elders..
We live in an age when rebellion is common against all divinely constituted authorities. Many have no respect for those whom the Holy Ghost has made their overseers (Acts 20:28). Multitudes of local churches are ruined by anarchy. Christians must be taught to submit to Christ’s order and to his assigned elders and deacons. Yet a church may be as much injured by tyranny as by anarchy.
At times there come challenges to issues of truth and righteousness which are vital to the glory of God and the well-being of the flock. Then pastors must know how to be insistent in their opposition to immorality and heresy. Their prophetic voices should thunder and their feet hold firm. But all issues are not so essential. Neither should a severe, authoritative stance be the characteristic feature of a pastor’s bearing.
Some have imagined that with Biblical commands that the sheep submit, congregations could be coerced into non-resistance to the pastor’s opinions and decisions. Zeal for truth and righteousness mixes with an inflated self-esteem in the elders. Other men are not led by example but suppressed by the worst of worldly tactics. Disagreement and question are rigorously stamped out. When elders become obsessed with the submission of the flock, they have a view dangerously close to the autocracy of Rome. That outlook involves an egotism from which ministers must be delivered.
Some elders never appreciate the compliment given them when a saint disagrees with the pastor’s exposition of a text. At least the Christian under his care is devoted more to Scripture than to the man in the pulpit. Under his ministry the child of God has reached a maturity to think through issues for himself and has imbibed a Berean spirit (Acts 17:11). But some ministers cannot endure the process of maturing in the sheep. At times parents are so flattered by the dependence of children that they cannot bear to see them grow independent with passing years. A swollen image of self-importance suffers too much for them to relinquish the reins. It is even so with domineering ministers.
Other sheep have fixed character traits which are evident to everyone in the body. Awkward habits and tendencies make a certain brother less useful in the church than he might be. His sin-related quirk of personality is a bit troublesome to the assembly. Frustrated that gentle rebukes and patient entreaties have not cleansed the blemish from Christ’s sheep, some elders take the rod of Church discipline in hand to beat out the spots. In this, is an abuse of church discipline which God intended to be used for extraordinary and public sins. Involved too is an audacity which decides that advancement in sanctification must be made at once! But no elder has been called to chart the timetable of growth in grace. It is not the place of elders to demand. Sheep cannot be whipped and driven into conformity with pastoral wishes.
Lording it over the flock provokes church fights and splits. A domineering spirit in elders provokes mature men of strong minds and independent judgement to leave the church. These very ones would have the greatest potential for future leadership in the assembly. Dictatorial measures make lesser men craven and dependent, stunting their true growth. But it also has its harmful effects on the “lords over God’s heritage.” It makes them egotistical and self serving.
From: The Christian Ministry and Self Denial, by Pastor Walter J. Chantry, Banner of Truth Magazine, November 1979, Page 22,23.6
There are only two options for you if you are sitting under a ministry like that so clearly described by Pastor Chantry. One, you can stay in that church. However, you will have to shut up and obey the “duly authorized eldership” and totally dry up spiritually. You will be sinning against Christ by allowing your pastor to be the Lord of your conscience — and believe me, that is a grave sin! If you stay under such a ministry very long you cannot help but yield your conscience to the leader. However, the moment you do that you will begin to live in fear of that leader and his authority over your soul. When you reach that point, you are actually part of a cult and you have totally given up your true liberty in Christ. You will be afraid to even think for yourself, let alone speak and act that way.
Unfortunately, there are some churches that actually demand that kind of submission from you in order for you to be a member in their church, or cult, as the case may be. They will bounce you in and out of membership according to your “rebellion” (questioning anything the elder says or does) or “repentance” (treating the pastor like a pope). Some poor souls have been in and out of church membership many times at the whim of the preacher. These kind of churches use the office of elder and deacon as a carrot stick to award the “really loyal devotees.” It is sickening to see men grovel and lick boots in order to be in favor and power with “the man of God.”
The second, and right, choice for you if you feel Pastor Chantry is describing your pastor, is to get out of that church as fast as you can and never go back again. I do not know your situation, but I personally know of six Reformed Baptist churches where a large part of the membership was thoroughly convinced that Chantry was talking about their church and their pastor! The next time some key families leave a church, don’t be too quick to believe that the “duly authorized” pastor and his devotees were right and the people who left were all “rebels against authority.” It just may be that the pastor was a power mad paranoid that had begun to think of himself as the infallible voice of God. It is possible that the power structure in a church can be wrong! It is even possible in a “true” Reformed Baptist church! As Chantry said, “A church may be injured as much by tyranny as by anarchy.” I have yet to see a Reformed Baptist Church ruined by anarchy, but I know of more than one that was ruined, or is being ruined, by the tyranny of pastors.
Carefully read again what Chantry gives as the reason many good men leave a church like those I have been describing:
Lording it over the flock provokes church fights and splits. A domineering spirit in elders provokes mature men of strong minds and independent judgment to leave the church. These very ones would have the greatest potential for future leadership in the assembly. Dictatorial measures make lesser men craven and dependent, stunting their true growth. But it also has its harmful effects on the “lords over God’s heritage.” It makes them egotistical and self serving.
Pastor Chantry is talking about concrete examples, and he is dead right when he says, “Lording it over the flock causes church splits.” Nearly every single split that I know of that has occurred in a Reformed Baptist Church in the last ten years was over what Chantry called the “domineering spirit in the elders.” The people at the conference last week told the same story no matter what location they came from. I do not know of a single split that was caused by a “bunch of rebels.” Granted, some paranoid preachers may have made that claim, but anyone who took the trouble to find out both sides invariably saw where the real trouble lay.
I am aware that few people, especially Reformed Baptist pastors and elders, ever make any attempt to hear both sides of a church split. Such men often find it almost impossible to even want to hear both sides of a church dispute since they are theologically committed to the conviction that the elders have the `authority’ and therefore they must be right. I know of only one case where there was an exception to that rule and that was only because the “layman” that was opposing the local pastor was a close relative of one of the leading Reformed Baptist pastors.
It is the duty of a true child of God to get out from under any ministry like that described by Pastor Chantry. Chantry is most accurate in saying, “It is with a sigh of relief that some sheep escape such ministries.” Escape is really the right word to use because people like those described have literally been liberated from a cult. We heard some of those grateful sighs at the John Bunyan Conference.
The fear of rejection by the pastor is a powerful motive in a church where the office of elder is almost raised to the level of priest. When Christians sell their conscience, even unknowingly, to the elder and the church, they can be manipulated into doing almost anything. I personally know of a case where a Reformed Baptist “pastor” (?) arbitrarily revoked the membership of the entire congregation. After a two and a half hour tongue lashing on authority and obedience to God (ala himself), each person was required to sign a new membership form in order to be reinstated into membership. They were told to sign the paper or else “get out and never darken the door of this building again.”
One of the many things demanded in the lengthy harangue was more sacrificial giving. The congregation was informed that the elders were going to review each member’s giving, and if it was felt that any individual was not giving enough, the elders would visit that family and go over their budget and help them to give more. One man was “asked” to give by check instead of cash so that the elders could know exactly how much he was giving. Another man was “encouraged” to quit supporting his daughter and son in college and put that money into the church.
The worst part of this sordid story is that only one family had enough spiritual sense to refuse to sign the new membership form. Most of them sincerely obeyed and did as they were told because they had been taught, and foolishly believed, that “my duty is to obey my elder, regardless of whether he is right or wrong, and God will reward my obedience to his duly authorized servant.” Anyone who believes that nonsense has become a Roman Catholic in his view of church authority and is treating his pastor like a pope.
If you wonder how preachers can become and remain what Pastor Chantry calls “sanctified busy bodies” who “keep the sheep in bondage,” it is easy to explain. You start by exalting the office of elder far above the sheep. You then reinforce your position and authority with intensive counseling into the most intimate details. You “poke your nose into Christian’s personal business,” you manipulate with “counseling and directives that are none of your business,” you encourage them to open up every aspect of their life to your “microscopic scrutiny.” And sure enough, the response is precisely that described by Chantry. The people under such a pastor “run to him for decisions” about their whole life. All power mongers do not use counseling as a means of controlling people, but those who do are twice as dangerous.
If you are in a church and under a ministry like that so vividly described by Pastor Chantry, then I plead with you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to flee from it as fast as you can for the sake of your soul. You are not in a Baptist church. You are not in a Reformed church. You are not even in a Christian church. You are in a cult! If you choose to stay under such a ministry out of either fear or a false sense of loyalty, then you have no one to blame but yourself. Read Chantry’s words again and honestly evaluate your church and its pastor. Are you really in a gospel church of free grace or are you in a Roman system of despotism? Act accordingly! Immediately!
The last thing I want to mention deals with what you and I as individuals can do to help promote the truth that has become so precious to us. I believe it is time to take some positive steps to deliberately make known new covenant theology more effectively and on a wider scale. This is what we did twenty five years ago with the truth of sovereign of grace, but unfortunately, we then allowed ourselves to be side tracked from preaching the Doctrines of Grace to building organizations that we proudly labeled “True New Testament churches.” We became institution oriented instead of grace oriented.
Granted, some preachers were sincere in this effort, but many others were really interested in building a little kingdom of personal power where their word was law. The subject of many sermons dealt with the role and authority of the church and the eldership. The primary thing that consumed most preachers was to have a “true New Testament church with a plurality of elders exercising the authority with which Christ clothed that high and holy office.” The really “in thing” in many churches was to establish “elder rule” in the congregation. Our churches became more Roman Catholic in their view of authority and we lost the power of the truth of sovereign grace. Chantry is dead right when he says.
When elders become obsessed with the submission of the flock, they have a view dangerously close to the autocracy of Rome. Ibid
This is exactly what happened in many of our churches. The elders became conscious of nothing but the “authority invested in their holy office,” and they neglected to develop the gifts and graces in God’s people. As one brother said, “There is a danger in typical Reformed Baptist churches of having only two gifts; A giant tongue that speaks with absolute authority, and a giant ear that listens with unquestioning obedience.” Once that attitude is taken, it is inevitable that the church will move toward a spiritual dictatorship. In such a church, to challenge an elder is to challenge God’s “duly authorized messenger.” The sheep are in total subjection to the elder because they believe that he is “responsible to God for their soul,” and their duty is to obey his directives without question. It is because the sheep believe that Roman rubbish that the “amazing thing” spoken of in Jeremiah can happen, and is happening, in our own day.
I spent ten years in evangelism and preached in an average of forty churches a year. The constant problem that I encountered in many Reformed Baptist churches was the extent of the authority of the church and the eldership. Since the pastor was the “duly authorized” representative of God in the local institution, the problem was really his personal authority over the life and conscience of the people. The pastor that I spoke of earlier who revoked everyone’s membership appears to believe and teach that when he preaches from the pulpit his message is God’s Word. He is the “voice of God” in that assembly. One man challenged this concept and said, “My conscience is wed to Scripture alone.” The preacher responded emphatically, “Your conscience is under the authority of my preaching of the Scriptures.”
Many Reformed preachers would not dare say that out loud, but they give every evidence of believing it in their hearts. They practice such an attitude in their ministries. This is the one thing that has hindered and hampered the Reformed Baptist movement ever since the doctrines of grace became secondary to the all consuming drive for a “true New Testament institution with duly authorized officers.”
There is a sense in which “law/grace/Sabbath” is not really the heart of the present controversy among Reformed Baptists. It is, in some cases, a smoke screen that men use to keep their congregation from discussing the whole issue of authority and liberty of conscience. This is not always the case. Some Godly men are concerned with what they feel (wrongly but sincerely) is real doctrinal error. However, some men see their personal power destroyed if their view of eldership is wrong. These men drag the Sabbath out as a red herring.
What can be done by an individual if it is absolutely impossible for him to even get a hearing for the truth in his local assembly? We must do in the present situation with the truth of new covenant theology exactly what we did when we came to believe the doctrines of grace, and men and churches refused to have anything to do with us. We can all do three things.
(1) We can use our voice to testify and witness to the truth of God’s grace that has set our conscience free. We can talk to individuals and help them see the truth. We can give out material for people to read and tapes for them to listen to just as we did with the Arminians. We can only dispel error with truth and ignorance with light. We must get men into the Scriptures as their final authority just as we did the Arminians. “What does the text say” must be our first motto, and the second motto must be, “Where is there a Bible text that says that?” We must get people to see that the Westminster Confession (or any other one) has no more authority over our conscience than a Scofield footnote.
(2) Above all, we must demonstrate this truth and power in holy living and then testify that our life is motivated by love to our blessed Lord and Saviour. In the days of the Anabaptist, men were suspected and labeled as heretics only because they refused to submit to the state church as the “duly authorized authority” of God. Since they were so truly Godly in their life, their enemies could find nothing wrong with them. The Reformers heaped abuse upon them and said they were “hiding error under holy living.” Let legalists say of us what the Reformers said of the Anabaptist. We will know that the change in our life came from freeing our conscience from the old covenant and putting it under the new covenant. Let men resort to the sophistry of attributing it to the Devil as did the Reformers. Men and women will know better.
The legalist is not concerned with the reality of holiness itself as much as he is with the means by which it is attained. He is not willing to trust the power of the gospel in the hands of the Holy Spirit to produce a zeal for holy living; he must seek to put your neck under the yoke of law. The legalist is more concerned with the means (law) than he is the ends (genuine holiness), and in his mind, like the Pharisee of old, holy living can only be produced by Moses. Only “antinomians” deny this “fact,” and worse, they hide their error under a “blameless life.”
Bullinger, for example, wrote that the exemplary lives of the Anabaptist are hypocrisy, for…even Satan can transform himself into an angel of light…”he who wishes to catch fish does not throw out an unbaited hook.” After granting that the Anabaptist, Pilgrim Marpeck and his wife, were “people of devout and blameless lives” he added: “But this is an old trick of the Devil, with which he has in all churches, from the days of the Apostle Paul, sought to catch his fish.”
The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin, Erdmans Publishing House, p. 110.
In another place, Bullinger wrote:
Those who unite with them (the Anabaptist) will by their ministers be received into their church by rebaptism and repentance and newness of life. They henceforth lead their lives under a semblance of quiet spiritual conduct. They denounce covetousness, pride, and profanity, the lewd conversation and immorality of the world, the drinking and the gluttony. In fine, their This was Font/Pitch 3,13* – On.Hypocrisy is great and manifest.” Ibid, p. 110
Isn’t it amazing that Bullinger could admit to the above and then label the anabaptist as “antinomians.” Tragically, the same thing is happening today.
Let men call us what they will, only let us live more holy, pray more fervently, and witness more passionately than any who accuse us of error. Let men attack our doctrine with unearned labels, but let us prove our doctrine in our life. If those who refuse to discuss the Word of God with us are content to prove their love for God’s truth with slander and the use of their so called “duly authorized church” power, let us prove our love for God’s truth by loving and praying for these brethren and by always being ready to sit down with them and looking at the Scriptures together. Remember, we once sat exactly where they now sit and God set us free! We have no fear whatever to look into the Scriptures together with any man.
The devotees who remain in churches like those described by Chantry are literally are afraid to even speak to someone who leaves their local church. They may have been close friends for ten years but it makes no difference if the people who left are on the pastor’s “no, no” list. Let us never take that horrible attitude and cut off fellow believers.
(3) The third thing we can do is help produce and distribute the truth in printed form, tape cassettes, and video cassettes. One of the greatest tragedies of our past efforts as Baptists was our use of nothing but Presbyterian literature. We set up the conferences, got those to attend whom we had taught the truth of grace, and then we stuffed Presbyterian books and speakers down their throat by the carload. It is time to set up a BAPTIST Banner of Truth. It is time to quit feeding the best of our young men to Presbyterian schools. It is time that sincere Baptist sheep stop leaving Reformed Baptist churches only to find a welcome nowhere but in a Presbyterian church.
In Africa, the evangelical missionaries taught the people to read and then the communists gave them literature. In our case, it was even worse. We Baptist did both for the Presbyterians. We taught people the doctrines of grace, and then we gave them nothing but books written by Covenant Theologians.
It is time to finish the job God moved us to begin over twenty years ago. Let us not make the mistake that the Reformers made. They thoroughly reformed the gospel message of justification by faith but failed to reform some other doctrines. They threw out justification by the works of the law, but they held on to sanctification by the law. They threw out the church’s authority over your soul but hung on to the church’s authority over your conscience. They threw out priest craft but kept clericalism. They rejected the authority of Roman church tradition but replaced it with man made creeds that have now become the authoritative “Reformed” church tradition. They cried Sola Scriptura” while waving a creed in one hand and a sword in the other hand.
I do not question that the Reformation was the greatest movement of God in history since the days of Pentecost. However, the Reformers were only men of clay like you and me. They brought a lot of baggage over from Romanism. The present day revival of the doctrines of grace is another great movement of God. The leaders that God has been pleased to use have been primarily Baptists. I fear that some of these Baptists have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage in order to gain credibility among the “truly Reformed community” that was responsible for destroying the power of the doctrines of grace in the first place, and until recently the so called “Reformed community” has done precious little to restore that power.
Brethren, it is time to apply the search light of Scripture to the Westminster Confession, the Philadelphia Confession, and every other confession, with the same honesty and consistency that we applied to the Scofield Reference Bible some years ago. It is time to say “Sola Scriptura” and really mean it!
I want to say one last thing. I am sure that some sensitive and sincere people are saying, “John, I know there is a real problem in many Reformed Baptist Churches, but putting this in print may cause some innocent pastors to be falsely accused by genuine rebels.” I honestly appreciate that concern and have weighed that possibility very carefully. The following reasons seem to outweigh the possible dangers:
First of all, this article is not any stronger than Pastor Chantry’s, and I guarantee you that everything he said needed to be said. The only difference is that I have used some specific examples. When a situation gets to the place that men are willing to literally turn children against their parents, and turn wives and husbands against each other, then it is time to speak loudly and clearly. When believers are taught to actually hate another believer simply because he dared to challenge the pastor, the cultic mentality must be exposed. Remember again that Chantry said, “A church may be injured as much by tyranny as by anarchy.” The accusation of “anarchy” in a cult is always hurled by a paranoid power monger whose personal power has been challenged. Such men as that need to be exposed.
Anarchy is easy to spot because it is so vocal and visible, but tyranny can go on for years since it is only seen inside the group. The members of the group are sworn to absolute secrecy and are even afraid to talk to each other. It is only when someone is delivered from the bondage of fear to such a group that anyone outside finds out that anything was really wrong.
In the second place, I agree that it is possible that a rebel may try to use this paper against a Godly pastor and a good church. However, if the Pastor and church preach and practice true Christian liberty and love, it will be obvious to all that the accusations are false. The individual will soon manifest to all that he is a self centered rebel and the work will be all the stronger. If a Godly pastor and a church are forced to rebuke and discipline a true trouble maker, the people will know it is done with the right motive and not just to get rid of one of the pastor’s personal enemies. There will be genuine efforts to love and restore the backslider and hearts will ache and weep. The people will see a true shepherd tearfully using a Biblical rod and not a tyrant trying to beat someone into subjection to his personal authority. God’s people, in their hearts, know the difference between loving discipline and the paranoid use of personal power. They may be able to squelch their conscience for a time and justify lies, deceit, and kangaroo trials, but the Holy Spirit will not allow a true child of God to tolerate absolute cruelty even when it is committed by a so called “duly authorized” prophet of God. One by one, God’s true sheep will flee such God dishonoring ministries.
Finally, in the third place, I believe there are far more beaten sheep bleeding in despair than there are true pastors being maligned by rebels. When a tyrant really gets control of the individual’s conscience, personal revolt is nearly impossible. The poor sheep is scared of everything and everybody. When he is cut off from asking or sharing the questions and difficulties in his heart, then he literally has no one to help him. I believe it is time to help some badly beaten sheep and talk out loud about some of the awful tyranny that has been allowed to exist under guise of eldership authority. The churches where this never happens cannot be hurt by such a discussion, but the churches that are basically a cult run by paranoid pastors will begin to be known for what they really are.
If you would like further information on tapes or literature that deals with the subjects discussed in this paper, please do not hesitate to write or phone. I am serious when I urge that positive efforts be made to deliver sincere sheep from churches that are really semi-cults. I believe every true Gospel Church will say “Amen” to this paper and to what Pastor Chantry has written. Who but a legalist tyrant can accept the kind of situation that Chantry described so accurately?