When Should I Leave My Congregation?

One of the themes I’ve pursued here is the churchlessness of the evangelical movement. I’ve challenged those “evangelicals” who say that they believe the Reformed faith to stop being Nicodemites. When other folk see for themselves what is happening and they begin to reconsider their relationship to broad evangelicalism it can create a crisis. One of the questions I’ve received more than once is this one, “When should I leave my congregation?”This is not an easy question to ask or answer. It is not easy to ask because it suggests that a relationship has been broken and that a divorce of sorts is impending. That means pain and discomfort. It’s not an easy question to answer; not because I don’t have an opinion but because it’s an unpopular opinion and one that some might not want to hear.

First, a bit of historical context. In the Reformation one of the questions the emerging evangelicals (i.e., those leaving the Roman communion and forming Protestant congregations organized around sola Scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide) faced was what to do with the vows many had made to various monastic organizations or to the Roman communion. The Protestants took this question seriously. This was one of the topics Luther was addressing in his 1521 letter to Melanchthon when he counseled him to “sin boldly.” He wrote:

You cannot convince me that the same is true for the vows made by priests and monks. For I am very concerned about the fact that the order of priesthood was instituted by God as a free one. Not so that of the monks who chose their position voluntarily, even though I have almost come to the conclusion that those who have entered into that state at an age prior to their manhood, or are currently at that stage, may secede with a clear conscience. I am hesitant, however, with a judgment about those who have been in this state for a long time and have grown old in it.

…If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.

Later, Luther was not as hesitant to to counsel others to leave their orders. Embedded in his advice to Melanchthon is the notion that we sometimes obligate ourselves to that which is either not real or has not sufficient legitimacy to obligate us. Melanchthon was worried about faux sin, in this case breaking monastic vows. Luther wanted him to worry about real sins, to stop pretending about inconsequential things and to understand the true state of things. Jesus didn’t die for faux sins but for real sins and real sinners. This is what Luther wanted Philip to understand when he wrote about “true mercy” and real sins.

In a 1553 letter Calvin made more explicit some of these same themes:


Being questioned concerning vows, he answered, that all our promises are but lies. Now, it would have been well to specify that a part of their vows being impossible, they are nothing but an insult to God: as, for instance, when the monks and priests renounce marriage; and that generally the whole of these vows are nothing but false inventions in order to bastardize the service of God, and that we are not permitted to promise or offer to him except in accordance with his word. I believe that the said brother will be well pleased to be informed of these things, so that the truth of God may be the more victorious in him.
When we take false vows, they are no vows at all. if we’ve promised something that is contrary to the word, then we’ve not taken a proper vow. If we’ve affiliated with that which is not really a church at all, because it lacks the marks of a church, however friendly the people are, however sweet the people are, however connected we are by common experience and even affection, what have we actually done?  Does our intent at the moment of the vow determine the nature of it? Really? Does intent define reality?
Calvin said essentially the same thing to the Five Prisoners of Lyons (1552) who were facing certain martyrdom:
As I hope to write to you again, I shall not at present lengthen my letter. I  shall only reply briefly to the point which brother Bernard has asked me to solve. Concerning vows, we must hold to this rule, that it is not lawful  to vow to God anything but what he approves. Now the fact is, that monastic vows tend only to corrupt his service. As for the second question, we must hold that it is devilish presumption for a man to vow  beyond the measure of his vocation.
Whatever discontinuities between monastic vows and membership vows in congregations that lack the marks of church, there are certain similarities.  Our intent does not create reality. The truth creates reality. Vows, whether for membership or monasticism, taken in ignorance or in rashness are not proper vows.
Vows taken before God in a congregation which has the marks of true church are a different matter. Those vows are binding. Church members (assuming that we’re talking about a church here) are not free agents.
How should one proceed? Slowly, clearly, and graciously. If, in a given congregation, reformation according to the Word is not possible, then one who has taken vows should withdraw to a congregation that has the marks. This should not be done rashly but it should be done. If possible, one should meet with one’s minister or elders to explain what is happening, that it is not personal, and that one is acting on principle. One should focus on the central issues. This is what I mean by “clearly.” The color of the carpet in the auditorium is not a sufficient cause to leave a congregation but refusal to recognize the continuity of the covenant of grace established by God in Gen 17 and re-articulated in Acts 2:39 is. Refusal of a minister to preach the gospel or to distinguish the law from the gospel or the flat refusal of elders to practice discipline are matters of sufficient gravity as to provide warrant for ending a relationship with a congregation. I say “graciously” because too often those who have discovered the Reformed faith have not always borne witness to it in the most winsome way (here is a talk on this same topic).
It was not easy for ex-monks to walk away from their brothers and fathers, with whom they had prayed, with whom they had suffered, and with whom they had sworn vows to God but walk away they did. They left the monastery and renounced their vows because they realized that their vows were not biblical, the monastery wasn’t biblical, much of the theological system undergirding it wasn’t biblical, and the ecclesiastical structure which nourished the monastic communities wasn’t biblical. They had a higher vocation to Christ, to his Word, and to the visible, institutional church founded on that Word.


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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Your last paragraph is sufficient for me.

    I should like to ask you a related question, one that’s inversely related to the gist of your post here.

    If the church that one belongs to is doctrinally apostate, is staying and deliberately remaining in an unrepentantly apostate church a sin against God?

    For example, a Bible-believing Christian who remains in a liberal mainline “church” or denomination such as the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, or the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America while knowing that corporate or institutional reform is practically nil. Is that Christian sinning against God?

    • The key here is the definition of “church.” According to my denomination/federation connectionalism is of the well-being but not the being (essence) of the church. If so, I couldn’t say that a congregation is corrupt simply because it belongs to a corrupt mainline denomination. Nevertheless I really hope that faithful congregations will leave the mainline and join us in the sideline churches. History suggests that those congregations that remain in the mainline do not remain faithful for long. The pressure to conform is quite strong. Few have been able to resist it for very long.

      Here are some posts that address the “mainline” problem:




















      • History suggests that those congregations that remain in the mainline do not remain faithful for long.

        Hi Professor Clark,

        Thanks for the plethora of articles that you provided in your archives! Wow!

        But my question wasn’t about congregations remaining in the mainline, it was about whether *individual* Christians who deliberately choose to stay in an apostate church/denomination (whether it be of a congregational or hierarchical/episcopal polity) are committing sin.

        Instead of your question “When should I leave my congregation?”, my question (for individuals) is

        “When does staying in my (apostate, heretical) congregation become sin?”

        • TUAD,

          No one can stay in a congregation that lacks the marks of a true church and especially not in one that is apostate and/or heretical. I took that as a given. That’s why the Belgic gives three marks of a true church: to help believers know when to leave and when to stay. Did you follow the links on churchless evangelicals and the other links?

          • “No one can stay in a congregation that lacks the marks of a true church and especially not in one that is apostate and/or heretical. I took that as a given.

            (Laughing happily and heartily at innocent naivete). My dear professor,

            What you take as a blindingly obvious, forehead-smacking, how-could-it-possibly-be-otherwise “given” is not, NOT, a “given” with many (professing) Christians who are deliberately choosing to stay and remain in an apostate and/or heretical church/denomination.

            (Implicit in your declaration is that to deliberately stay in an apostate/heretical church or denomination is to commit sin. As you have noticed, this is one way to answer the question in your post title “When Should I Leave My Congregation?” Answer: When staying in it is sinful.)

            Let’s take The Episcopal Church as an example. This hierarchical denomination (and numerous churches within it) knowingly ordain and have unrepentant gay priests and lesbian priestesses. They officially support abortion through their lead participation in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Some churches have an abortion liturgy. Some/many clergy don’t uphold the historical doctrines of the Christian faith. (Most blatant example: Bishop Spong). Some/many clergy do not have a high view of Scripture (to state it mildly).

            And yet there are Christians who while knowing and acknowledging the heresies and apostasy of The Episcopal Church will adamantly stay in TEc and who would adamantly argue with you, Professor Clark, that they can and should remain in TEc with a variety of arguments. Their most unassailable one is that they are “called” to remain in heretical, apostate TEc.

            What do you say to those folks, Professor?

            And those folks in TEc have their counterpart representatives in the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the PCUSA, the CRC and RCA (from your thread “RCA prof predicts demise of RCA”), etc….

            Do you still say to those folks who deliberately stay in an apostate church/denomination while knowing that it’s apostate and heretical (with virtually no chance of reform) that they are sinning by remaining where they are?

            • No, you’ve changed the terms of the discussion. There’s a non sequitur in your reasoning.

              When the Belgic speaks of the marks of a true church, it’s speaking to congregations.

              Thus, earlier I distinguished between leaving a “congregation” and leaving a denomination. I don’t accept the premise that connectionalism is of the essence of the church. I distinguished between the being and well being of the church. A congregation can be a church with or without a connection or even in connection with a corrupt denomination.

              I do heartily think that confessional congregations should leave corrupt denominations but I don’t know that the same moral imperative applies in the same way to individuals in relatively sound congregations which exist in corrupt denominations.

              I’ve been hard on the mainline here. I’m grieved by the sins of the mainliners (as I’m grieved by the sins of the borderliners and the sideliners). I do hope and pray that faithful people and congregations separate from the corrupt and corrupting mainline but I don’t know that I can say that those that stay in are necessarily sinning. It would depend on the situation.

              To show that individuals and congregations are morally obligated to leave, that it’s not just a matter of wisdom, you have to show that connectionalism is of the essence of the church, don’t you?

            • R. Scott Clark: “No, you’ve changed the terms of the discussion. There’s a non sequitur in your reasoning.”

              Au contraire, my dear professor. You have placed me in the awkward position of having to politely remind you that it is actually you who have changed the terms of the discussion and committed a non sequitur in your reasoning. To wit, the title of your post is “When should I leave my congregation?”, is it not? That speaks of an *individual* leaving, not a non-sequitur about whether a congregation should leave a denomination. Further, your examples of Luther and Calvin were examples of counsel about *individuals* leaving a church, not a non-sequitur about whether a local parish can leave the Catholic Church.

              RSC here: TUAD,

              The comments don’t indent any further, so to reply I have to do so within your comments.

              Yes, the post was about when to leave an particular congregation but the discussion did shift or I did also raise the related question of congregations leaving denominations but I didn’t confuse the two. They are distinct questions.

              Let me ask you for further clarification. Earlier you wrote ““No one can stay in a congregation that lacks the marks of a true church and especially not in one that is apostate and/or heretical.” Then you wrote “I do heartily think that confessional congregations should leave corrupt denominations but I don’t know that the same moral imperative applies in the same way to individuals in relatively sound congregations which exist in corrupt denominations.”

              (1) I grant that you don’t know.
              (2) I was careful to observe nuances of ecclesiastical polity in my comments above. Whether they be of a congregational or of an episcopal/hierarchical polity.
              (3) Thus I gave the example of The Episcopal Church which is hierarchical.
              (4) With regards to your comment about “relatively sound congregations” in a corrupt denomination:

              (a) That means that in the example of TEc, you are advocating “congregationalism” for a church that has an hierarchical polity. Is that not a violation of that denomination’s express polity?
              (b) What about those *individuals* who are in unsound congregations in a corrupt denomination and who willfully stay in those congregations while knowing that both their church and denomination is apostate and heretical with virtually nary a chance of reform? Are they sinning by staying in those churches?

              RSC: I think Scripture teaches a presbyterial polity (note lowercase to include variations within Anglo-American Presbyterianism and European Reformed traditions). Ideally, I don’t think that anyone should be a an episcopal church. I don’t think it’s a biblical polity. That said, I don’t think episcopal polity makes a congregation not a church.

              Yes, by advocating a sort of congregationalism within an episcopal setting I’m contradicting the polity but I don’t care since episcopal polity is man-made anyway and this takes me back to the original point of the post and the quotations by Luther and Calvin.

              Yes, I’m distinguishing between the esse and bene esse of the church. Connectionalism is of the bene esse of the church.

              Here I think wisdom and prudence are better categories for analysis than sin and righteousness. That said, the handwriting is on the wall for the few relatively sound congregations that remain in the various mainline groups of whatever polity. The past is the future. Those “conservative” CRCs will become increasingly broadly evangelical and the already broadly evangelical PCUSAs will become liberal and the already lukewarm episcopal congregations will become unitarian and so forth. The pattern of history is clear and I can’t see why congregations can’t see that. They are blinded by brand/denominational loyalty perhaps, or by cultural connections (particularly in the CRC and RCA, or inertia or fear of losing property and status or all of the above

              (5) Are you saying that as long as the congregation is “sound” (sound because they possess the marks of a true church), then even if this congregation is in a corrupt, apostate, heretical denomination, then *individual* members of this congregation are not sinning by staying in that local congregation.

              (a) If so, then the local pastors or undershepherds of this “sound” congregation, a congregation that possesses the true marks of a church, are also individuals in that congregation, and they have no moral/biblical imperative to leave and/or lead their congregation/diocese out of their corrupt, apostate, heretical denomination.

              (b) And if so, then you’re really advocating “congregationalism” and there is no real ecclesiastical “connectionalism” that you’re speaking of between local parish/church and the wider denomination.

              I look forward to your response.


  2. Hi Dr Clark,

    Thanks for this post. It is well timed for my wife and I as we seek to leave a church which we believe is moving towards Mike Horton’s Christless Christianity.

    I was wondering if you have a post, or could explain what you mean by the marks of a true church are? This would be helpful for us in explaining to our pastor why we are leaving.


  3. Growing up Catholic, you are required to attend a Mass that lasts approximately 45 minutes; you can show up late and leave early, but at least, in showing up, you’ve “fulfilled your Sunday obligation.”

    I’ve been in the process of joining a PCA church for more than a year now. That’s a whole different mindset. You become a part of a community. You fellowship and worship together. These folks, who you don’t know all that well, become your best friends. You incorporate your life and efforts into building the community.

    On my way to church on Sundays, I drive past at least a dozen or more different churches. That saddens me a great deal. But it makes more sense to me to take my kids to a church where they’ll hear the Gospel preached rightly. I would hate taking them to the A/G church that’s right up the street, or the Nazarene church nearby, or any of the handful of RCC or EO churches (“mega-churches” all!) that we drive right past.

    We live in hard times, in more ways than one.

  4. Thanks Dr. Clark. This is helpful.

    May I ask what one should do with the confessional idea that the true church is more or less visible/pure across history? Isn’t this an assertion that the true church is to be found in congregations among whom some of the marks are obscured or even missing?

    A related question has to do with availablity. As a pastor in a NAPARC church I am wholeheartedly committed to the Reformed confession and would wish to attend a church that confesses the faith I embrace. However, that is not always possible in some areas of the country. Can you give some guidance to Reformed folks on what to do in areas where the best option may in fact be the Bible Church down the road? Should they withdraw from it and meet alone as a familly at home for example?

    • Hi David,

      Letters from Mississippi is one of my favorites!

      This is a good and fair question and there are no easy answers. I come from a part of the country where there is nothing like a NAPARC congregation for hours at a time. I’ve sometimes thought about where else we might live someday, looked at the web, only to see that there isn’t anything like a Reformed church anywhere nearby.

      There are a few things to consider:

      1. Before one moves to a place, is there a congregation there with which to affiliate? If not, am I willing to try to plant a congregation? If not, that ought to give one pause.

      2. If one finds oneself in a place where there isn’t a true church then one should consider whether to plant or move. Failing that, I wouldn’t judge a family for deciding to gather on the Lord’s Day with a congregation that, say, orthodox on justification and faithful in other respects but also Baptistic on the sacraments. They might reserve the afternoon for catechism and family worship.

      For my part, in such a situation, I would do all I could to plant a congregation and, if that failed, then, on analogy with charge the Synod of Dort gave to ministers to conduct the second service even if it was only the minister and his family, we would worship at home.

      I understand that not every family has an ordained minister and that people have to make tough choices. I guess, however, that with planning, foresight, and right priorities (church trumps job) some of those choices can be eliminated in some cases.

      On the interpretation of the phrase “more or less pure” in the WCF, I’ve often heard that language applied to this question. I doubt that’s what was intended. To be sure there were three polities represented at the assembly (episcopal, congregational, and presbyterian) so that implied in the assembly is some latitude on polity (the GA of the Kirk of Scotland adopted an act to say that they received the WCF as teaching presbyterian polity) but it seems to me that what is in view in 25.4:

      4. This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

      The question here is the relation between the visible and invisible church (a thread running through 1-3) and more precisely an answer to the implied question: where was your church before the Reformation? If the church is of this quality or that, and if this or that quality is now said to have been lacking or diminished in the medieval church, where was your church before the Reformation? The answer is that the church “hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible.” The catholic or universal church has always been but it has not always been equally visible.

      I quite doubt that the intent of this language is to say “Yes we know that there are congregations out there that lack one or more of the marks but that’s okay. We understand.”

      Another category to consider is “status confessionis.” What can a congregation lack and still be a true church? Obviously the gospel is non-negotiable. If a congregation or her minister denies the gospel and if they are irreformable (incorrigible) then they are not a true church.

      In the case of worshiping with our Baptist friends, well, it’s complicated isn’t it? They deny that our children are baptized and they deny that those of us who were baptized as infants are baptized. That’s a poor basis for fellowship (if we take the sacraments and the visible church seriously).

      At least, if there is an orthodox Lutheran (e.g. a Wisconsin Synod or Mo Syn) congregation or per chance and orthodox Anglican congregation (not infected with Anglo-Catholicism or liberalism) those would be options. If it’s ONLY a Bible-Baptist church, that’s a very difficult situation indeed.

      • Dr Clark,

        You wrote,

        “To be sure there were three polities represented at the assembly (episcopal, congregational, and presbyterian) so that implied in the assembly is some latitude on polity”

        Could you name the prelate/episcopal that was represented at the Westminster Assembly. Everything I have read (on the history of the Assembly) has stated that no prelate was at the Assembly, especially after King Charles outlawed any prelate to attend.


        • Among the those who were episcopalian in their polity Daniel Featley attended. Others (e.g. Ussher, whose Irish Articles were quite influential on the assembly, and Prideaux, and Ralph Brownrig) were called but did not attend.

          There were several divines who were not de iure divino presbyterians, however, who became episcopalians after the assembly (e.g. Edward Reynolds later served as Bp of Norwich).

          See Robert S. Paul, Assembly of the Lord on this. Beveridge’s little history spends 3 chapters on this.

  5. Thanks. Agreed re: church planting and church trumping job and Anglican/Lutheran options.

    Regarding the more or less pure thing, you wrote, that the question being answered in this language was, “where was your church before the Reformation?”

    Again agreed.

    It was your helpful quotations from Luther and Calvin on vows at the Reformation that made me think along these lines. Aren’t you drawing an analogy between the condition of reformation era converts to the Reformed faith and modern converts, who, like their antecedents, face the challenge of moving from one eccelsiastical home to another? But for that analogy to hold doesn’t it also imply that the Confessional language addressing where the church was before the Reformation also holds today?

    I mean, just as the true church existed, though under the distortions and abuses of Rome, might it not exist under different distortions and abuses today?

    Where that leaves the decision making process of a brother or sister in such a circumstance I am unsure. Still, you got me thinking as usual.

    • David,

      Good and fair question.

      It’s a little different before the Reformation and after the Reformation. One simply had no options before the Reformation. To understate things, one simply had no options before the Reformation. It’s likely that nne didn’t even realize that there was a problem or at least what the true nature of the problem was.

      Now, after Trent, the lines are much clearer. After the Reformation we know unequivocally, once again, what the gospel is, what the sacraments are, what true worship is, what is the ultimate norm for faith and life. Should we abide in ostensibly evangelical congregations that are, in one way or another, drifting back to the medieval mess from which we were delivered almost 500 years ago?

      So the analogy between contemporary “evangelical” confusion and the pre-Reformation church doesn’t quite work.

  6. Can you give some guidance to Reformed folks on what to do in areas where the best option may in fact be the Bible Church down the road?


    I am curious what you might presume about “Bible church” and how it might be conceived as a best option. Maybe you mean “only option”?

    But when I think “Bible church” I think of the IFCA congregation I was a part of many years ago when I finally came upon the Reformation. I think of subsequently being told of the doctrines of grace by the pastor, “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” and how it all clicked that I was amongst glorified moralists. I think of how that revivalist IFCA has gone from mini-revivalist to mega-revivalist. I think of the moralistic-therapeutic deism, Biblicism, culture warriorism and general subculture. I think of how whatever ostensible lip service may have been paid to sola fide how everything else either undermined or flat out contradicted it. I think of how the members visit the local (and sane) confessional PCA plant only to deem it “too Catholic, strange and dark (hey, where’s the altar call and what’s up with drinking wine?).” And, more to the point, I think of how that IFCA is a dime-a-dozen, as in if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

    Granted, my experience may not be nearly broad enough, but what do you think of when you think “Bible church”?

    Also, as I understand it, the older Reformed outlook may have hypothesized that a Lutheran church was the next best thing. To the extent that Lutherans are fellow descendants of the Protestant Reformation and the credo-baptists tend to have more in common with the Radical Reformation, I wonder why the contemporary Reformed mind thinks first of the “Bible church”? Is it because they are more ubiquitous (as a real or perceived reality)?

    • Zrim,
      Apologies for the imprecise language. I guess I did mean, “only option”, though I was struggling with the question of whether a gethering of conservative, if muddled, Christians who do indeed love the Lord and his word but who have gone rather wrong in some issues of polity, piety and practise, might still be better for one’s spiritual health than total withdrawal to the confines of one’s own home for ‘house church’.

      I fully grant that we ought not to tar all non-Reformed congregations with the same brush and some are sounder than others, and that therefore the response one makes to them will vary in situations when they are the only options for corporate congregational worship. Nevertheless I have seen in my own pastoral ministry situations where families have withdrawn to have ‘house church’ because all the churches around them were unsound, only to wander far afeild themselves as a result of the lack of accountability etc involved.

      I think Dr Clark’s wisdom about planting a church (under the oversight of a parent congregation or presbytery) or heading for the Missouri Synod or some confessionally sound Anglican congregation or a combination of the above, is wisest here. I also think he is right about worshipping in the baptistic congregation in the morning and then carefully catechising and holding worship at home in the evening.

      Unless I am prepared to reject the people in the Bible church round the conner as simply non-Christian, and assuming they are the only option in my community (which, mercifully they are not), then doesn’t the injuction forbidding the ‘forsaking of ourselves together’ apply, at least in some measure? I mean, isn;t there some sense of obligation to Christ the King and Head of the Church and the Great Shepherd of the Sheep to sit patiently with fellow believers, and where possible, work with them in areas where doctrinally they are astray?

      AS for my understanding of “Bible-church” it is rather shakey I must confess. I have lived in the US for a littel over a year so it is largely theoretical since there are no such creatures on the other side of the pond.

      • Unless I am prepared to reject the people in the Bible church round the conner as simply non-Christian, and assuming they are the only option in my community (which, mercifully they are not), then doesn’t the injuction forbidding the ‘forsaking of ourselves together’ apply, at least in some measure? I mean, isn;t there some sense of obligation to Christ the King and Head of the Church and the Great Shepherd of the Sheep to sit patiently with fellow believers, and where possible, work with them in areas where doctrinally they are astray?


        Well, patiently abiding the borderline CRC myself, I certainly appreciate your point here. And the marriage analogy I find helpful: there may be as much virtue in sticking with a bad spouse as there is in divorcing an adulterous one.

        At the same time, however, I wonder when it comes to that thing called the “Bible church” (per my understanding above). I mean, when one considers that the broad evangelical likely wouldn’t abide a sound confessional Reformed/Presbyterian church, it seems to suggest that even they have a doctrine of the visible church, which is respectable. And that seems to me to be what is at play here, the in/visible church. By not abiding their visible church does not mean there is comment being made upon invisible status, and by extension that to remain apart may not necessarily be the same as “forsaking the assembly.” It is to say that the visible church matters.

        These questions can be difficult and complex. But I suppose I am somewhat skeptical about what one may mean to “sit patiently with fellow believers, and where possible, work with them in areas where doctrinally they are astray.” For one, in a Bible church, that means beating one’s head against a wall and possibly just becoming a nuisance that keeps people away from confessional truth instead of winning them to it. For another, I wonder, would we give the same advice to the broad evangelical whose only opportunity is the confessionally Reformed outfit?

        • I hear you Zrim.

          I suppose I’d want to urge people to take a loving, patient, and wise, but no less bold and forthright stand for Reformation in their congregations before moving on.

          Of course every situation is different. Some may be utterly unfriendly to the Reformed faith. Some may be open but cautious. The approach a Reformed Christian may take in both cases would probably be quite different. But before leaving a congregation I would feel a certain obligation to those around me in that ‘church’ to seek the reform of the church and its leadership etc.

          If I saw movement in a hopeful direction, if the leaders were interested in reformed theology, if they begin to read and engage and explore the doctrines of grace, if the church is moving along a more Reformed trajectory, though there may yet be a long way to go, I’d be more inclined to stay and labour along with them. If there are none of these things then I’d still want to do what I can to seek reform (even if it seems hopeless), explain my position carefully, go slow, and only once I was clear there was no movement possible would I leave.

          My motives in this are simply to encourage proper catholicity along with faithful commitment to the Reformed Confession in contexts that are far from ideal.

          My experience of people newly ‘converted’ to Calvinism is that they can be terrifying! With iconoclastic zeal, people who awaken to the Reformed faith while immersed in broad evangelicalism can sometimes overreact and withdraw to ever increasingly extreme and isolated alternatives.

          While I applaud their new convictions and would want a distinctly reformed church for them to attend, if none were available I’d counsel patience and slow steps and lots of prayer and discussion and transparency wth elders/leaders etc before leaving and going it alone.

          • David,

            Good points. I’m reminded of Sean Lucas’s concept of “Fundamentalists learning to be Presbyterian” (if memory serves, he had in mind the beginnings of the PCA).

            In my individual experience it was, “A Presbyterian amongst Bible-church Fundamentalists who had no inclination whatsoever toward Presbyterianism.” And to be quite frank, one man’s “cage phase” can be another’s sandal shaking. If the Fundamentalists left the mainline with glee, while the confessionalists left weeping, does that mean the confessionalist may leave the Bible church with glee?

            But I suppose I’m more of the Lutheran school of reformation than the Erasmian.

  7. RSC: thanks for the sound counsel regarding vows in this post. I wonder if you have commented elsewhere or can comment further on how we recognize “if, in a given congregation, reformation according to the Word is not possible.” This strikes me as a key, perhaps the key, consideration.

    • Hi Fowler,

      This, of course, is a difficult judgment to make and people might come to different conclusions but I think of Bob Godfrey and the CRC or Machen and the PCUSA. At a certain point one has to make a judgment, weighing all the factors (confession, situation etc) and come to a conclusion about whether one believes that there is enough truth or commitment to confession left to warrant remaining in a congregation or perhaps even a denom/federation.

      In the case that one becomes classically, confessionally Protestant in a typical evangelical Bible church, I would guess there isn’t much hope. If the leadership became confessional first, then, of course there’s hope. If the leadership is resistant to reformation then the handwriting is on the wall. Does one have a right to split a congregation? I doubt it. One should seek to form a confessional congregation and hope and pray for reformation.

      Certainly one could and perhaps should work within a congregation first. If there’s openness to reformation, that will become apparent but usually those who’ve been exposed to classic Reformed teaching via Sproul or Horton become dissatisfied with their congregations because what they’ve come to love just isn’t present.

      • Your focus on the church leadership’s openness to reform is helpful. I’m thinking further that reform-minded congregants, who have peacefully and honorably attempted to engage their leaders but to no avail, should contact other reform-minded church leaders for help.

  8. How similar are church membership vows to marriage vows? I am a member of New Life PCA, La Mesa, and I love it there (and one of the many things I love is that it’s only 10 minutes away). But hypothetically, would it be wrong for me to dissolve that membership with a faithful three-marks church to join another faithful three-marks church, say Santee URC, which is in the same “neighborhood”?

    Or what if I moved to north county (where I work)? As long as my church remains faithful to their side of our membership vows (by maintaining the three marks), am I obliged to drive 30-45 minutes to La Mesa for worship, or do I have liberty to divorce my church and engage my family to North City PCA or Esco PCA or Esco OPC or Oceanside URC?

    I realize that, practically speaking, no session is going to resist an amicable transfer of membership of a member in good standing for something as trivial as driving distance. But should they?

    • It seems to me that there is a vast difference between vowing “to love and to cherish until death do us part” and the vow to submit to the government and discipline of the church. So it’s hard for me to see how it could possibly be wrong for a member in good standing in a three marks church to seek to transfer membership to another, or even that such a move can be properly termed “divorce.”

    • Rube,

      I think there are analogies but the analogy breaks down. Though I do not think Christians ought to be church hopping if they are moving laterally to another true church then that would seem to belong to Christian liberty. I don’t see how a consistory/session could rightly forbid it.

    • the vow to submit to the government and discipline of the church

      I guess we are vowing more generally to submit to the government and discipline of the church, less specifically to the leadership of a particular congregation. So if, with the approval and assistance of our specific leaders, we place ourselves into the care of other leaders of the same church, then everything’s cool. And of course, keeping leadership in the loop would prevent frequent “lateral church-hopping” over trivial issues.

  9. In Presbyterianism shouldn’t the issue of what it and isn’t a true church be determined by church courts, not the individual?

    The reason I ask is that I’m unaware of any case law or church order at least in the PCA, that unchurches broad swaths of evangelicals. In fact, in the BCO guide for administration of the Lord’s Supper, instructs ministers to invite members in good standing of “evangelical” churches to participate. There’s no restriction to NAPARC members only and the use of the term “churches” would appear to run counter to the idea that those folks at least from the perspective of the PCA’s church order aren’t members of true churches. I’d also think there would be a track record or policy that denies and disciplines those who seek membership transfers to evangelical churches. If such a policy exists, I’ve never heard of it.

    • Adam,

      I agree that we ought to be churchly but some individual judgment is inevitable here and one must have a basis for making that judgment. Belgic 29 provides that basis. It’s a reasonable basis. What fellowship do we have with congregations that deny the gospel, corrupt the sacraments, or refuse to practice discipline?

      Are the courts of the church (to use presbyterian language) called to pronounce on every single denomination in existence? Has any denomination ever done that in the history of Presbyterianism? I don’t think so. You’ve set up a test that leaves believers with no basis to make a judgment.

      Further, if one wants to argue that the PCA BCO says “evangelical,” and therefore we are in some sort of fellowship with all “evangelical” churches I reply by saying that this line of reasoning only postpones the discussion. Now we have to define “evangelical.” Is a congregation truly evangelical if they deny the gospel? Are they truly evangelical, for the purposes of deciding where to attend if they do not accept my baptism or the baptism of my children? Perhaps, but then there are other issues. How do we have true, churchly fellowship with those who do not regard me or my family as baptized? That’s an odd definition of fellowship, isn’t it?

      It’s not as if the PCA does not have a quite extensive confession as to what constitutes “evangelical.” The Westminster Standards provide a pretty good definition of the evangelical faith.

      I wouldn’t say that one could only attend NAPARC churches. Nothing I’ve said here even suggests that. I’m quite aware that there are NAPARC congregations one probably shouldn’t attend and that there are non-NAPARC congregations one might attend quite profitably. That said, using NAPARC as a rough and ready guide isn’t a horrible idea.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    What do you do if you and your wife don’t see eye to eye on this subject? I am reforming, but my wife is not, and she is ‘younger in the faith’ than I. We have discussed the matter and we remain ‘divided’ on this issue.


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