Anglicans & nonconformists both need to ask questions about fellowship & compromise

Following on from what I wrote yesterday regarding the Church of England, it is worth noting what Church Society have said about these changes. You can read their response here. As I noted in this twitter thread, I essentially agree with their analysis in points 1-5. Nevertheless, as I noted in that thread, it is point 6 and what follows that raises concern.

The response of Church Society to these moves was this:

It is time for those who have failed to persuade us of the need and biblical basis for changing our doctrine and practice, to move on and move out of the Church of England.

That is, those who have pushed for this change in doctrine must leave the Church of England. Whilst that may be ideal for those evangelicals who wish to remain, it is clearly unrealistic. Dare I say, it is deeply naïve to believe that it will happen.

The conservative evangelical position in recent years has largely been to hold the line. Of course, if you are seeking reform of the Church of England, holding the line is positively not what you want to do. Your aim should be returning the line back to biblical Christianity. Holding the line is an admission of itself that reform is impossible. It is to make peace with the status quo; a position that conservative evangelicals have long considered unsatisfactory but whose tactic nigh on admit it won’t get any better than this. It is an admission things are unreformable.

What is more, it is proving to be a flawed strategy even as far as it goes. For, as much as they might want to hold the line, Church Society have said in their article (and this blogger agrees with them) ‘It is sleight of hand at best and a downright lie at worst to claim that allowing for the blessing of same-sex marriage relationships in church is not a change in the Church’s doctrine of marriage.’ The articles goes on to insist, ‘the church has already slipped away from reflecting orthodox doctrine in its recent changes to practice, and needs to return to orthodoxy, not just stick where it is.’ But the truth is, the hold the line strategy has prevailed and, worse, failed even so far as it goes. Here we are, in the face of conservative evangelicals holding the line, with a change of doctrine that further takes the Church of England away from orthodox, biblical Christianity.

The Church Society answer this move by insisting the liberals ought to leave the church. But the article itself makes clear enough why this will not happen. It notes, ‘The Archbishop of York says this is “not the end of the journey” — he expects there to be further changes down the road.’ Those who have pushed for these doctrinal changes will eagerly await the further alterations to come, safe in the knowledge that there are bishops within the hierarchy advancing that very case for them. As boosterish as it may feel to insist such people must leave, why on earth would they when the most recent announcement is a further step on the road to what they want, there is a implied promise of more to come?

In light of these doctrinal changes, the evangelical conservatives needs to ask themselves whether it is they who should remain. Indeed, when bishops themselves are insisting there is more to come, it is hard to see how it is faithful to remain in a denomination that has now officially departed from orthodoxy in its doctrine (by Church Society’s own admission) and whose bishops, under whose auspices they operate, are actively endorsing it and promising further heterodoxy to come. The article itself insists, ‘it would be a fearsome thing to be led by those whom God had abandoned’ without wrestling with the question what that means in practice for those who are willingly submitting themselves to such leadership. At what point does submitting to an unfaithful leadership make you unfaithful? Doesn’t remaining in fellowship with a communion that actively affirms heterodox doctrine make you unfaithfully compromised? As I argued here yesterday, ‘It [is] hard to understand why anyone would want to remain in a denomination that has now moved beyond fudge to officially enshrining its own hypocrisy for all to see.’

Nevertheless, conservative evangelicals who still wish to remain in the Church of England will have to contend with conservative evangelical nonconformists asking themselves these same questions. As I noted when the Methodist Conference changed its doctrine on this question:

At some point, we have to ask ourselves seriously, when is a church no longer a church? For the Reformers – and I would agree with them – it is when the right teaching of the Word is no longer present and there is no right practice of the ordinances. And those two things are closely linked because you don’t want to be admitting to your table those who deny the core truths of the gospel. Denominationally, the same holds. Where your denomination is binding your church to affirm what is evidently not true, even affirming doctrine that will jeopardise the salvation of all who abide by it, then your church and/or denomination has become apostate. It is no longer teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, but a false gospel that will lead people to Hell.

Those questions also have to be asked, not only by those questioning whether they should remain within, but also by those who ask whether they can have fellowship from without. Indeed, one of the criteria for belonging to the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) is that we affirm their doctrinal basis and their various ethos statements. One of those ethos statements concerns church unity and states clearly:

Our Doctrinal Basis affirms that true fellowship between churches exists only where they are faithful to the gospel. The gospel of salvation by grace is so precious to us that we desire to stand together with all who believe and preach it. For the same reason, we cannot express Christian fellowship with those who reject it. The New Testament warns us repeatedly to guard the church against the influence of false teachers who deny the truth. Therefore we cannot join in partnership in evangelism or activities of Christian fellowship with those who are unable to affirm the essential doctrines of the faith as expressed in the FIEC Doctrinal Basis and similar statements. We are unable to affiliate formally to groups such as Churches Together which exist to express unity between churches naming Jesus as Lord, but without concern as to whether they hold to the core doctrines of the gospel as expressed in our Doctrinal Basis.

The question this inevitably raises for us is this: is it possible to have gospel unity with churches who, whilst themselves would affirm our gospel doctrine, belong to denominations and organisations who officially reject it? It is one thing to continue in such fellowship when official doctrine was not at odds with gospel doctrine and specific local churches also affirmed orthodoxy. But does belonging to an denomination that officially deviates from gospel truth mean, despite an individual local church affirming orthodoxy, we necessarily cannot have meaningful fellowship with those who compromise the faith and maintain fellowship with false teachers by remaining within them?

The truth is, this will have implications for the Gospel Partnerships, for those of us who send people to train at Anglican colleges, for cross-denominational conferences and other such things. That doesn’t, of course, mean all these things must be dismantled immediately. But it is to say, now official doctrine has been changed by the Church of England – even by the admission of conservative evangelicals within the camp – a failure to remove oneself will necessarily be viewed as compromise by conservative evangelicals outside watching on. A willingness to continue in an errant denomination that has officially enshrined heterodoxy is surely unfaithful. If unfaithful to remain and be a partaker in such fellowship, this has knock-on implications for the fellowship you might have with those who would be faithful.

As Paul says to the Corinthian Church, ‘Do not be yoked together with those who do not believe. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness?’ (2 Corinthians 6:14f). Similarly, John says ‘Anyone who does not remain in Christ’s teaching but goes beyond it does not have God. The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and do not greet him; for the one who greets him shares in his evil works.’ (2 John 1:9-11). Just as we have to ask ourselves these questions so far as the fellowship we would have denominationally is concerned, so we have to ask ourselves these same things on an interchurch, interdenominational basis too. Such as we ourselves are found to ‘share in [their] evil works’ by welcoming and having fellowship with false teachers, we cannot be surprised if others determine not to welcome us lest Jesus determines the charge may also stick to them.

If official doctrine has change in the Church of England, and Church Society say it has, it must be time for conservative evangelicals to now ‘come out from among them and be separate’. Nonconformist brethren want to continue in fellowship with godly Anglicans, but will have to ask themselves these same questions if those within the Church of England determine they are able to stay in the face of official false doctrine, bishops intent on further heterodoxy to come and fellowship with those who actively advocate for it. We too need to ask ourselves whether we must ‘come out from among them and be separate.’