Denny Burk has written a post titled Christians Cannot “Agree to Disagree” With Wolves. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. You can guess from the title alone what he has to say, but I just wanted to highlight a couple of things and then make a few further observations. To that end, here are some key things he says:
We are not living in an age that wants to go-along-to-get-along with Christians. Our culture in countless ways day after day displays open contempt for what the Bible teaches about sexuality and gender. They really do hate it, and some of them therefore really hate us (John 15:18-20). They try to gaslight and claim that Christians are the ones waging a merciless culture war. In reality, the sexual revolutionaries are the ones pushing the envelope and demanding conformity to a new religion. That is why your HR department at work is not trying to have Bible studies or tent-revivals among employees, but they are insisting that you use transgender pronouns. There is a culture war, it is largely being waged by sexual revolutionaries, and they are winning.
Some Christians and even some Christian leaders are responding to all this with courage and conviction. Others are responding to the pressure with cowardice and capitulation. The latter claim that we can make peace with those who are rising up against the faith once for all committed to the saints (Jude 3). They don’t say it in so many words. Rather, they dress it up in Christianese to conceal from folks their true motives. These are the wolves that Jesus warned us about: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). The wolves always try to make themselves look like sheep. Be on your guard.
He goes on:
One of the primary tactics of false teachers is to try and convince congregations that Christians can agree to disagree about gay marriage or same-sex relationships. They try to convince Christians that good and godly people can disagree while remaining in fellowship with one another. But this is precisely what the Bible says we cannot and must not do.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
We cannot “agree to disagree” with apostasy. Nor can we “agree to disagree” with wolves masquerading as sheep. We cannot “agree to disagree” at all with those whom the Bible says will not inherit the Kingdom of God. To do so would be deeply unfaithful to Christ and unloving to those who need to repent and believe the gospel.
On all that, I agree. It seems various others agree too. Here, then, are my further reflections.
Burk suggests that the wolves are not actually those who depart the gospel by signing up to gospel-denying ethics, but those who insist we can ‘make peace with those who are rising up against the faith once for all committed to the saints’. That is to say, the true wolves Jesus warns us about are not those who so brazenly reject his gospel by adopting such evidently anti-gospel stances, even if they make clear by such pronouncements they are now outside he camp, but those who purport to hold to the true gospel of Jesus Christ – indeed, appear to do so – whilst maintaining that we can remain in formal fellowship with those gospel-deniers, can sit in the same church, under the same leaders, just perhaps in different ‘wings’. It seems to me – whether inadvertently or not – Burk is laying the term ‘wolf’ at the door of those supposedly sound evangelical leaders who nevertheless counsel their fellow conservative evangelicals to remain in churches, gospel partnerships, or in some sort of formal fellowship with those who advocate these very gospel-denying ethics.
Burk goes on to say, ‘One of the primary tactics of false teachers is to try and convince congregations that Christians can agree to disagree about gay marriage or same-sex relationships. They try to convince Christians that good and godly people can disagree while remaining in fellowship with one another. But this is precisely what the Bible says we cannot and must not do.’ Again, it is hard to avoid the conclusion – whether inadvertently or not I don’t know – that Burk is labelling as false teachers those who counsel people to remain in communion with others who affirm these gospel-denying ethics. If we cannot “agree to disagree” with wolves who masquerade as sheep without being deeply unfaithful to Christ, how can we remain in a church with formal ties and fellowship with such people? What are we to say of those who counsel ostensibly faithful evangelicals to remain in such places in the face of these things? It is hard to see how – if we follow Burk’s assessment (and I find it difficult not to do so) – such people are not themselves rightly to be considered wolves and false teachers.
Of course, it may be easy for a nonconformist like me to throw stones at connexial churches to which I don’t belong so let me bring the matter closer to home. How should Independent Churches like mine view those arguing to remain in connexial churches where these gospel-denying ethics and doctrines have been officially adopted? If you want me to be really, really specific, how are we to view formal fellowship with evangelicals who remain in the Church of England, the Methodist Church and the Baptist Union? How are we to view those who we have had fellowship with, who are calling their evangelical brethren to remain in those churches, when those same churches have formally adopted gospel-denying positions on these issues?
The FIEC have a clear statement on gospel unity that prohibits their churches being in organisations such as Churches Together. This is specifically deemed unacceptable because of the involvement of Roman Catholic Churches who would preach and present a different (and, in our view, false) gospel. Though we all recognise the possibility that there may be genuine believers in the Roman Catholic Church, I struggle to believe m/any of us would counsel such individuals to go and be a light for the gospel in those churches. Nor, I suspect, would we look at people arguing they should go and be a gospel witness inside the Roman Catholic Church to be doing much else than encouraging them to have formal fellowship with those outside the kingdom. How, then, are we to view those who encourage such things in other churches that have officially taken stances that minimally encourage fellowship between those who have different gospels?
The FIEC also have statements about marriage and sexuality to which it (rightly) expects its churches to adhere. If it is happy to specify that formal fellowship with Roman Catholic Churches or organisations such as Churches Together are problematic because of the gospel they propagate, what is the distinction being offered for those Protestant churches who have adopted a false gospel and those leaders who encourage evangelicals to remain therein? How can we consistently distinguish between the Roman Catholic adoption of doctrinal error and the adopted stances on gospel denying ethical issues in Protestant denominations that minimally allow for and encourage fellowship between those diametrically opposed on the issues and, therefore, encourage fellowship between those who hold to different gospels?
I fear we are in danger of hypocritically singling out Roman Catholicism – with which we have historic disagreement in the gospel – and ignoring the present disagreement in the gospel with other Protestant denominations. One could be forgiven for thinking this might appear more nastily anti-Catholic than it is a matter of gospel principle. But even if we accept it is not that (and I certainly don’t think anyone is thinking in such terms), we nevertheless have to contend with the principle. If we agree with Burk’s assessment above, how can we on the one hand insist a Roman Catholic false gospel is grounds to withdraw fellowship but a Protestant ethics-based departure from the gospel isn’t? How can it be a problem to encourage a godly bible-believing Catholic (such as we have found one) to remain in the Roman Catholic Church as a light for the gospel but it isn’t a problem to encourage a godly bible-believing Anglican, Methodist or Baptist Union individual or congregation to do the same?
I think – particularly if we follow Burk’s assessment – we need to get to grips with who we, as Independents, have fellowship with. Burk appears to suggest it isn’t so much the Bishops and Moderators who openly espouse a false gospel who are wolves – or at least, they may be such, but they don’t present as anything other – rather it is the sound, the reasonable, the doctrinally solid who encourage us to remain in fellowship with those who depart the gospel on these grounds who are the true wolves in sheep’s clothing. Yet, it seems, we are largely talking about how to maintain fellowship and encourage people to remain faithful in a setup that has departed from faithfulness. As much as we go ‘yes, we cannot agree to disagree with wolves’ – if we follow Burk’s assessment – it seems that is precisely the noise most of us are intent on making.