A cultural problem of false gospels and fellowship

Yesterday, following Denny Burk’s article on fellowship and orthodoxy, I asked about our own consistency on fellowship when it comes to the propagation of false gospels. It seems to me we are ready and willing not to have fellowship with Roman Catholic gospel departures – even if we were to find some faithful believers therein – but we do not seem to apply the same consistent logic to Protestant gospel departures. I think this potentially puts many of us into hypocrite territory.

The big question is, why? Why are we so hard on the false gospel evident in Roman Catholicism but quickly breeze over the gospel-denying ethics being propounded by the Church of England, Methodism and the Baptist Union? Disagree if you want, but I’m going to suggest two primary reasons.

First, there is historic animosity between Protestants and Roman Catholics. I don’t use that word animosity to suggest in-built hatred in either direction. I just mean historic theological disagreement. The Roman Catholic Church anathematised Martin Luther and the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which led to the creation of various Protestant Churches. There is an inbuilt animosity baked into the existence of Protestant Churches. The denominations and churches in which we Protestants sit were birthed out of separation from Rome.

Historically, that animosity has played out in a number of ways geo-politically. In Britain, as the state church became Protestant – but with Henry VIII making himself Head of the Church (and this only renamed Supreme Governor under Elizabeth, but in essence continuing to mean the self same thing) – monarchies and their countries were inextricably bound up with their religious affiliations. The history of Britain is peppered, since the Tudor period, with power struggles between Catholics and Protestants, each trying to get their preferred ruler on the throne. Anti-Catholic sentiment was a significant feature of British history right up until the early 20th Century. It is hardly that surprising that practising Protestants – steeped in such history and culture – might find it easy to see the danger and problems with a Roman Catholic false gospel, and organise fellowship accordingly, than when it arises within Protestant groups.

However, by far the bigger reason I suspect, is that the Evangelical Church in the UK is overwhelmingly middle class and the dominant culture is middle class. And nothing vexes the middle classes more than awkwardness. Awkward social interaction is like kryptonite for middle class British people. Middle class people value easy-going relationships, to the point where they will be incredibly indirect with communication – even to the point of lying to you (or thereabouts) – because it feels less awkward.

Now, let’s be honest, insisting that you cannot have fellowship with people is difficult. Few of us relish telling people what we know they don’t want to hear. But it is much harder still, much more awkward, to tell people you are friends with and actively in fellowship together that you can no longer have formal fellowship with them. That isn’t to say you can’t be friends, anymore than I can’t be with my Muslim or Roman Catholic friends who I have no formal fellowship with, but it is to say our churches cannot have formal fellowship together. But if you once were in fellowship, and now can’t be, I appreciate that will feel and sound very awkward to many. Unsurprisingly, given we have historically not had any formal fellowship with Roman Catholic Churches, it isn’t very awkward to maintain that longstanding, well-known stance. It is much harder to say to friends and people you have worked closely with that you no longer can because of the stance taken by the church they have decided to remain in and hitch their ministry to.

But I strongly suspect this aversion to awkward conversations and creating awkward situations lies behind much of evangelicalisms unwillingness to withdraw from fellowship with those in denominations that have now officially taken gospel-denying stances. If Denny Bruk was right that we “cannot ‘agree to disagree’ with wolves”, and the true wolves are not those who openly and flagrantly deny the gospel, but those who would purport to believe it whilst encouraging us to maintain fellowship with the gospel-deniers, ought we not to take a firmer stand? If the price of faithfulness for many inside is buildings, stipends and job security, for those of us outside it is may be some funding and awkward interpersonal relationships. But are we really prepared to compromise the gospel, and affirm as legitimate churches and denominations those who propagate false gospels, on those grounds?