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Dr. Carl Trueman: “No Country for Old Men?”

July 21, 2012

Writing in the Reformation21 blog, Dr. Carl Trueman gives us a lot to think about in his post No Country for Old Men?, and it speaks loudly at least in part for Anglicans because we have already fought some of that fight.  He makes several very salient points but this one, about when one crosses the line from being a fighter for the Gospel in a deteriorating denomination to being an enabler of apostasy, seems very much relevant to the issue of whether one should stay in the Episcopal Church:

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

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

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

The second argument, one deployed in an earlier era by Machen, is the financial one: if you give a dollar to an organization and half of it goes to promoting the gospel and half of it goes to denying the gospel, you might as well keep the dollar for yourself, for all the gospel good that it does. This is where it can become complicated for members and ministers in mixed denominations. One might instinctively want simply to stop giving money to central funds, to avoid the dilemma. That, I would suggest, is not really a very ethical option: if one’s vows bind one to honouring the church assemblies, then one does not have the right to pick and choose which bits one honours and which one ignores. Actively support, passively submit, or peaceably withdraw. Those would seem to be the only honourable options. If it has come to the point where you cannot, with good conscience, hand your money over to your denomination because you believe it will be used to deny the gospel, it is time to reflect long and hard on the precise implications of that decision. Once again, you would seem to be conceding that those crucial marks of word and discipline have vanished. It is not a church; it is thus no sin to separate from such a body.
That point about the financial aspects is a good one, I think; it gives a perspective on designated giving that I had not thought about.  I would encourage anyone seeking answers about how to address apostasy in a denomination to read all of Dr. Trueman’s post.  It certainly adds emphasis – to me, anyway – that the struggle to combat apostasy in a denomination must be waged continually and that we must seek to never let it get so far that it cannot be reversed.  And – we must seek to maintain the doctrinal fidelity of our seminaries.
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