Last week, in light of the most recent vote on the Church of England General Synod, I wrote some nonconformist thoughts in response. I was, essentially, floating some now fairly familiar questions in the direction of my evangelical brethren in the CofE. You can read that post here.
I am not on the usual social media channels anymore. I have no involvement with Twitter at all and I no longer frequent Facebook. My posts automatically arrive on the Building Jerusalem page and will continue to do so as long as WordPress and Facebook continue talking to one another (which Twitter determined to cut a while ago). But I don’t see the response nor do I know how most, if any, of what I write has landed save for the comments written under them here.
But what I do know – because none of my questions were really new – is how these sorts of posts have usually been received in the past. So, rather than just pose my questions (which I think bear answering), I thought I would pick up on some of the fairly common responses I’ve had over the years and address them too. I hope, if you find any credit to any of these responses, you will go back to the original post and think more seriously about the questions as they were posed there. It also goes without saying, this remains a nonconformist answer to these common responses.
Denominations aren’t in the Bible and aren’t the church
This is, of course, entirely true. It is precisely why I am an Independent and do not belong to a denomination because (unsurprisingly) I find them sub-biblical. But this particular comment from those within the Church of England is a strange one because, though a denomination isn’t the church nor is in the Bible, they do nevertheless belong to one.
This matters for four reasons. One, if denominations are not in the Bible, it begs the question whether one should belong to unbiblical structures like that in the first place. Two, if denominations aren’t in the Bible, and churches are separate entities, what precisely is the problem with leaving your unbiblical denomination when it errs? Three, if churches are biblical and denominations are not, then that seems to be a pretty powerful argument for churches – which are biblically responsible for what is taught and practised – to ensure they themselves are not in fellowship with errant denominations. If local churches really are separate entities from the denomination to which they submit then they evidently have both the biblical authority and the practical means available to them to separate. Four, if churches are independent of the denomination, they are necessarily choosing to submit to the structures and authorities of the denomination and it is difficult to avoid the case that they, therefore, are responsible and share in whatever errant teaching and doctrine may be peddled therein.
“Hired hands” run away; leaving would make me a hired hand
We can cut the legs from under this one simply enough by pointing out that my call to leave – to all with eyes to see – is categorically NOT a call for church leaders to run away and leave their people to fend for themselves. I am calling on anyone who would be faithful to leave the Church of England and for church leaders to lead and shepherd their people out. It is a call not just to church leaders to leave but to their churches to come with them! Calling their people away from an unfaithful organisation because they are deeply concerned for the faithfulness of the sheep is exactly what a good shepherd would do.
If the reply to that is we are not sure if their sheep would come, only two things can be said. First, maybe your shepherding hasn’t been up to all that much if nobody you shepherd will respond to a call to faithfulness to Jesus. After all, if you insist on modelling your ministry on the Good Shepherd (more on which in a minute), don’t his sheep hear his voice? Second, hired hands are called such because ‘they do not care about the sheep’ (John 10:13). They care about themselves only, not about the sheep so if one is to avoid being a hired hand it means doing what is in the best interest of the sheep. So, the question remains, is it in the best interests of the sheep to be told to stay put in a pen surrounded by wolves that want to eat them or is a good shepherd going to lead his sheep out of danger into a new pen away from the wolves? Indeed, what good shepherd encourages his sheep to stay in a pen full of wolves, overseen by a team of wolf breeders who actually has the shepherd in their pay and can bind his hands at various points? You tell me who looks more like a hired hand: a man who continues to take pay from the wolves who oversee an unfaithful denomination, and continues to operate under their jurisdiction, or one who leaves their employ, and calls the sheep to follow him, because faithfulness to Jesus is more important?
Of course, taking Jesus as the good shepherd in John 10 and insisting that is how we are to function as under-shepherds might not be wise at any rate. For example, he is the gate by which the sheep enter the fold in vv7-10. We are not the means of sheep coming into the fold. He speaks about having sheep from other pens in v16, clearly speaking in the context to the Jews and telling them his sheep will be both Jewish and Gentile. Elders in local churches specifically do not have sheep in other pens. Jesus is the shepherd who came to give life in abundance, that is evidently above the elder and pastor’s pay grade. Jesus lays down his life to take it up again, clearly speaking directly about his death and resurrection on behalf of the sheep. Elders and pastors can’t do that for their people. Clearly Jesus is referring here to the good shepherd in Ezekiel 34 of which Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the eschatological fulfilment. Indeed, Ezekiel says God himself will come to shepherd his people, which he did in Jesus and Jesus insists is happening when he calls himself the Good Shepherd. All of which makes it a very odd way to read the passage to pull out the bit about hired hands and insist it applies to pastoral ministry when the overwhelming majority of vv1-20 cannot possibly apply. I’m not sure references to hired hands is remotely helpful, but if you insist that is the model for your ministry, then I refer you back to the previous paragraphs.
Anglicanism is bigger than the Church of England
This is true. It is precisely why I have been very careful to call people to leave the Church of England. If you are confessionally Anglican and convinced by Episcopal polity, whilst I may disagree with you, I am not calling you to be anything else. I am, however, saying you are unfaithful if you remain in the Church of England. You can be a practising Anglican elsewhere, in another body, operating under the oversight of bishops who are not unbelievers. Of course, not all are wedded to episcopalian polity, but simply view it as a legitimate form of governance. In which case, they are free to go and do anything else, anywhere else. Those wedded to Anglicanism need to find communion that is apart from the unfaithful Church of England structures. As I understand it, there are a raft of options for those in such a position. The fact that Anglicanism is bigger than the Church of England and that other structures exists for convinced Episcopalians to operate faithfully really makes the case for remaining in the Church of England untenable even on pragmatic grounds of convictions concerning polity.
I have been called
This argument is amongst the weakest of all to remain. Frankly, most ‘calling’ language is overstated at any rate (see here and here). But setting that aside, there are several questions. First, how do you actually know you are called? Two, how do you know you are called to this particular situation? Three, how do you know you are called to this forever? Four, are there any grounds whatsoever on which you might reckon either your calling to have been wrongly determined or to no longer be tenable? Minimally, on the last one, your calling surely ends if you cark it! Short of the Lord ending your life whilst in post, are there any other grounds on which you might determine your felt-calling might perhaps have come to an end? If the answer is not, and you see no grounds to ever see a calling come to an end, it is hard to see how you are not setting yourself up in the place of Jesus!
There aren’t always other buildings or posts
Indeed not. But what price your faithfulness? If you are effectively happy to be mired in compromise for a building, I am not sure anything I say is going to convince you that faithfulness to Jesus is primary.
It is interesting that on this blog I was roundly told off for suggesting that this was a factor for some people remaining. I was told such a statement was ‘deliberately myopic’. And yet, even since that post was published, some have spoken to me and made exactly this headline argument. I do not think I am the myopic one here.
Things are complicated and take time
We have been discussing these things for the best part of a century. I think the days of claiming ‘it takes time’ are well and truly over. Likewise, I think arguing that disentangling oneself takes a while. Actually, it doesn’t. People retire, resign, leave and quit all the time. There is no complication beyond the will of the one being asked to do it.
Maybe you will not be in ministry for a while. Maybe you will have a strange ministry – much like that of the folks after the Great Ejection – that looks considerably different and feels a bit like flying by the seat of your pants. Maybe you will actually carry on ministry fairly easily because doors open up. But, again, I struggle to see how this will hold any water as a credible argument before the Lord on the last day.
Whatabout nonconformist churches who depart from the gospel?
There’s nothing like a bit of whataboutery. This is simply pointing to another issue in order to avoid the particular matter at hand. But let’s entertain it nevertheless because it really is simple.
If a nonconformist denomination – let’s say like the Baptist Union – departs the gospel, then the same applies. Those within – and I have many friends who themselves, or their fathers, have made the difficult decision to leave those errant denominations – should leave. This is not an Anglican-specific call. I said the same thing when Methodism crossed the rubicon and I have made the case regarding the Baptist Union. I think people should leave unfaithful, gospel-denying denominations. If an individuals nonconformist church departs the gospel, its elders insist on teaching heresy and its people cannot (or will not) remove them, then I think faithful believers in that church should go and find a faithful church to which they can belong and not be compromised.
In the end – whether Anglican or Free Church – we are all accountable for the fellowship we keep. We are all accountable for the groups and churches to which we choose to belong. 2 John 1:10-11 could not be clearer:
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and do not greet him; 11 for the one who greets him shares in his evil works.
It strikes me that John could not possibly be saying this only applies to our homes and not to our churches, denominations and affiliations. We share in the evil works of those errant organisations to which we actively choose to belong. We are effectively welcoming, by remaining in fellowship in denominational and organisational structures, and not separating from, those who deny the gospel.
It matters not which organisation, denomination, fellowship, association or church we are talking about. If we both belong, if we refer to one another as brothers and sisters, if we put ourselves under authority, if we belong to the same communion, we are welcoming such people. By welcoming them, we share in their evil deeds. It often feels like few seem to take that warning as seriously as scripture does.