When Should a Christian Leave a Church? (Part 1)

by John G. Reisinger

thinkingThe following article is written primarily for Reformed Baptists only because that is the group with which I have been identified for over twenty years. There are Brethren Assemblies, Presbyterian, Independent, and Charismatic churches, as well as other types of Baptists, that clearly fit the description given in these pages.

Many who read this will say, "none of those things could ever happen in my church." You may be surprised! If you have a truly Godly pastor, these things will not happen regardless of how wrong your view of Elder authority may be. However, if your system is that held by many Reformed Baptists, you have a ready made situation for these same things to happen in your church at a later date with another pastor.

A good man in a bad system will not misuse his authority. A good system can deal with a bad man and get rid of him. A bad man in a bad system is an untouchable pope simply because he is protected by the system. He may be the worst of tyrants, but nothing can be done by anyone. A sincere sheep has only one option in such a case.

I recently preached at the First John Bunyan Conference on the subject of law and grace. About fifty people attended from various places and nearly all of them had recently left a church with a heavy "law ministry" where the Elders were the "Lords and Masters" of the Assembly. Many of these dear people had helped to start the very church they had recently been forced to leave. They had watched a warm hearted fellowship of believers become what Spurgeon called "a better representative of the law than of the gospel." There were three things that seemed to be true in the recent experience of each of these people.

(1) The "law ministry" they had been under had robbed them totally of the joy of their salvation. It is amazing how many preachers believe it is a sin to be genuinely happy in the Lord. They think a believer has to squirm like a worm under every sermon and go home feeling depressed and miserable in order to be sure that he heard "the whole counsel of God."

(2) These people noticed a marked change in their marriage relationship when they got out from under legalism and fear. One brother said, "My wife and I have never loved each other so much. Our home and marriage has changed radically since we left our former church." How can it be otherwise? A "worm theology" must produce a "mud hole" home. If you cannot smile and rejoice in church with the saints, how can you do so at home with your family?

In a few extreme cases, a pastor had deliberately placed himself between the husband and wife and was using his pastoral authority as a means of manipulating them both into personal loyalty to himself. If either the husband or wife became in any way critical of the church or his ministry, the pastor would "counsel" the other mate to put pressure on the first one to repent. This was done on the ground that "your mate's soul is in danger" because they were daring to question God's "duly authorized" minister. One dear Christian lady was under such pressure to force her husband to submit to the pastor's authority that she felt she was being torn in half. She told someone, "I feel like I must choose between the two most important men in my life." The person wisely answered, "God never intended you to have two men in your life in any sense where you had to make a choice between them."

My friend, if your loyalty to, or dependence upon, any preacher ever comes close to being equal to your loyalty and love to your husband or wife, then you are so sick spiritually that you can't think straight.

(3) These people all had a new desire to witness the amazing love of Christ to poor sinners the moment they themselves began to experience again that love in their own hearts. How can it be otherwise if "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks"? If your salvation does not thrill your heart with joy, why would you want to share it? If all you have is doubts and fears, then that is all you can share with others. If all you do is sit in the corner and lick your wounds after examining your heart to "find evidences of true holiness," how can it be possible for you to be thrilled with the Saviour and His amazing love?

In no sense am I suggesting that we should never examine our hearts. We are fools of the worst kind if we do not heed the exhortations in the Scriptures to do that very thing. Psalm 139:23, 24 and 2 Corinthians 13:5 are just as true today as when they were written. For me to be unwilling to examine myself as these verses command is to prove that I am probably a deceived hypocrite. Only a hypocrite is afraid of examining himself. We must examine our heart and we must feel our sin and guilt. However, we must always see Christ as greater than our sin and our guilt! McCheyne was right when he said, "Take one good look at your heart, and then take ten thousand looks at Christ."

Spurgeon has given us a description that, sad to say, fits some present day churches. He was preaching on the "Full Assurance of Faith" and answering common objections made by people who feel that full assurance can be dangerous. He sounds like he has just finished arguing with some "law centered" elders that I know.

I have one more class of objectors to answer and I am finished. There is a certain breed of Calvinist, whom I do not envy, who are always jeering and sneering as much as ever they can at the full assurance of faith. I have seen their long faces; I have heard their whining periods, and read their dismal sentences, in which they say something to the effect - "Groan in the Lord always, and again I say, groan! He that mourneth and weepeth, he that doubted and feareth, he that distrusteth and dishonoureth his God, shall be saved." That seems to be the sum and substance of their very ungospel-like gospel. But why is it they do this? I speak now honestly and fearlessly. It is because there is a pride within them - a conceit which is fed on rottenness, and sucks marrow and fatness out of putrid carcasses. And what, say you, is the object of their pride? Why, the pride of being able to boast of a deep experience - the pride of being a blacker, grosser, and more detestable sinner than other people. "Whose glory is in their shame," may well apply to them. A more dangerous, because a more deceitful pride than this is not to be found. It has all the elements of self-righteousness in it."

From "Full Assurance" by C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1861, p. 292.

My first message at the conference I mentioned was on "John Bunyan and the Law." I was covering the section in Pilgrim's Progress where Christian was pulled out of the Slough of Despond by a man named Help. I used the following quotation and was quite surprised at the response from those listening:

"Help is one of the King's officers who are planted all along the way to the Celestial city, in order to assist and counsel all pilgrims. Evangelist was one of these officers; this Help was another; Goodwill will be another, unless, indeed, he is more than a mere officer; Interpreter will be another, and Greatheart, and so on. All these are preachers and pastors and evangelists who correspond to all those names and all their offices. Only some unhappy preachers are better at pushing poor pilgrims into the slough, and pushing them down to the bottom of it, than they are at helping a sinking pilgrim get out..." Bunyan's Characters, by Alexander Whyte, Volume I, page 48.

When I read the above quotation, nearly every person looked at the person sitting next to him, grinned from ear to ear, and nodded his head in agreement. After the session one person said, "John, you understated it. When we tried to pull ourselves out of the Slough, our pastor would step on our fingers." A lady standing nearby said, "Our preacher did not step on our fingers, he used a sledge hammer."

John Newton was dead right in that great hymn when he said, "It was Grace that taught my heart to Fear," but he did not stop there. He went on to show that Grace my fear relieved." Let no one ever down play the need to fear the wrath of God against sin. It is most gracious of God to convict us and make us feel our guilt and shame. One of the distinct purposes for which the blessed Holy Spirit was given is to "convict of sin." We can never be saved until we know, feel, and admit that we are guilty before God. It was the grace of God that made Pilgrim feel so afraid that he was forced to flee from the city of destruction.

I am fully aware that many preachers do not preach either the holy character of God or His holy demands upon us, and thus they never reveal the awful guilt and corruption that must be exposed. No one has endeavored to expose this horrible distortion of the gospel more than I have. I freely admit that the accusations of the Old Testament prophets can be leveled justly against many evangelical preachers in the land today.

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. "Peace, peace," they say, when there is no peace. Jer. 6:14

Because they lead my people astray, saying "peace," when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall...Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: "In my wrath I will unleash a violent wind, and in my anger hailstones and torrents of rain will fall with destructive fury. I will tear down the wall you have covered with white wash and will level it to the ground so that its foundation will be laid bare. When it falls, you will be destroyed in it; and you will know that I am the Lord. So I will send my wrath against that wall and against those who covered it with whitewash. I will say to you, The wall is gone and so are those who whitewashed it, those prophets of Israel who prophesied to Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her when there was no peace," declares the Sovereign Lord! Ezek. 13:10-16

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel are talking about what we today would call "easy believism." It can only produce a false wall of assurance. They are condemning preachers who do not preach the need for Biblical repentance. Their gospel only tells about the "good things" and the "love of God." These preachers never talk about the punishment of sin and the holy wrath of God against sin. They even go further and label any preacher who teaches "hard things" as being a false prophet. The people who listen to such preachers must be warned in the same manner Jeremiah and Ezekiel warned the people of Israel. People need to be told that their cheap assurance will be destroyed by God's wrath. They, like all sinners, want a religion without pain or sacrifice and a God who is all love and no wrath. Unfortunately, the preacher of "easy believism" gives them exactly what they want.

We insist that Newton was right in his hymn. It is God's grace that brings our conscience to fear His awesome wrath and drives us to a Saviour for mercy. We totally reject both the false prophet and his message of "easy believism." However, easy believism is not a problem in any of the churches that I have been describing! The problem in these churches is the exact opposite. They don't preach enough of any kind of believism. They seem to be as much afraid of joyous assurance as the easy believist is afraid of searching his heart.

John Newton did not stop with the words "T'was grace that taught my heart to fear." The next line is just as true as his first line. "T'was grace my fears relieved." The amazing grace that Newton loved did not leave men under the fear of the law and its judgement. Bunyan's Slough of Despond was neither a necessary experience (remember Pilgrim was chided for not walking on the stones) nor is it to be a continual experience. Christiania and her children did not fall into the Slough, and even Mr. Fearing had enough spiritual sense to walk on the stones and not fall in. If you are wallowing in such a Slough and bragging about a "deep work of God" in your soul, you are nothing but a self righteous hypocrite braying like a donkey and showing your spiritual ignorance. I suggest you get the taped message on Bunyan and the Law. I believe it will help you.

The grace of God that leads to true fear also leads to true peace. If John Newton had preached like the present day apostles of law, poor William Cowper would have committed suicide every week. The preaching of the law that sends believers home week after week with a despondent and despairing heart is just as opposed to God's truth as is the preaching condemned by the OT prophets in the passages quoted above. The preacher whose congregation is not truly happy in the Lord and yet at the same time is proud of its ability to endure his constant "heart searching preaching" is as much a false prophet as the preacher of easy believism. He has merely distorted the gospel in a different direction.

I would like to put the following words by Horatius Bonar in large letters over the head of both the legalist preacher and his opposite, or counter part, the antinomian preacher:

The way of peace and the way of holiness lies side by side; rather they are one. That which bestows the peace imparts the holiness; and he who takes the one takes the other also. The spirit of peace is the spirit of holiness. The God of peace is the God of holiness.

If at any time these paths seem to go asunder, there must be something wrong - wrong in the teaching that makes them seem to part company, or wrong in the state of the man in whose life they have done so....

The two are not independent. There is vital fellowship between them, with each being the helpmeet of the other... The peace is indispensable to the production or causation of the holiness, and the holiness is indispensable to the maintaining and deepening of the peace.

He who affirms that he has peace, while living in sin, is "a liar, and the truth is not in him." He who thinks that he has holiness, though he has no peace, ought to question himself whether he understands aright what the bible means by either the one or the other. As the essence of holiness is the soul's right state toward God, it does not seem possible that a man can be holy so long as there is no conscious reconciliation between God and him. There may be a spurious holiness founded upon a spurious peace or upon no peace at all. But true holiness must start from a true and authentic peace.

From: God's Way of Holiness, by Horatius Bonar, Moody Press, page 7,8

The "easy believe" preachers have separated peace and holiness by offering peace without repentance and without demanding that true holiness follow a profession of faith and a claim of assurance. The "obey the law" preachers have also separated peace and holiness by urging holiness as the only safe ground upon which to build the peace of assurance of salvation. They try to produce peace of conscience by holy living. The first group believes that holy living is not essentially connected to peace and the second group believes that a conscious peace can be attained only by obedience to the law. I disagree with both groups and agree with Bonar in his entire statement, especially in the following areas:

(1) Peace and holiness cannot be separated from each other. They are two distinct parts of one whole. You cannot have one without the other. True holiness and a valid assurance of salvation cannot be separated from one another. Most "obey the law" preachers would wholeheartedly agree with that statement, but most of them will also deny it by their lopsided preaching. You have no more Biblical right to be talking about "holiness" if you are not consciously sure of your peace, than you have the right to be boasting about "assurance" if you are living in sin. One of these mistakes is just as bad as the other one.

(2) Our argument today is NOT over whether you can have true peace without also having true holiness attending it. We all wholeheartedly agree that such a possibility is contrary to the very heart of the gospel in both its message and results. Grace makes men holy! Titus 2:11-13 settles that question forever. I have never questioned that fact in the least. "He who affirms that he has peace, while living in sin is a liar, and the truth is not in him" is the message I have preached, do preach, and shall preach as long as I live. Our argument, like Bonar's, is that you cannot have true holiness without first having true peace with God in your conscience. "He who thinks he has holiness, though he has no peace, ought to question himself whether he understands aright what the Bible means by either the one or the other" is also the same message that I preach. The first part of the message gets me in trouble with the antinomians and the second part gets me into worse trouble with the legalist.

The legalist binds your conscience to the law in a manner that makes assurance of salvation and real joy nearly impossible, and the more sincere and conscientious you are, the more difficulty you will have with assurance. If you are one of those dear souls that is earnestly "striving to be holy" in order to find real heart felt assurance, then in Bonar's words, you do not understand either Biblical holiness or true assurance. Your theology has been warped by legalistic preaching.

(3) Our main difference with many Reformed Baptist preachers is not over the necessity of holiness in the life of a true child of God; we agree with them that this holiness is essential. Our disagreement is over how that holiness is produced. I believe the Scriptures lead God's sheep into true holy living by making Christ Himself precious to their hearts. Some of my Reformed Baptist brethren believe that the sheep are led to true peace by whipping them with the law every week. That is the heart of the present law/grace controversy. A pastor's wife told a friend of mine, "We need to be constantly whipped into submission by the law or else our sins will conquer us." That approach is exactly opposite to the theme of Bonar's book and also contrary to the consistent teaching of the Apostle Paul.

Bonar's statement that "peace is indispensable to the production or causation of the holiness" is the foundation of my position and preaching. The foundation of all legalistic preaching is the exact opposite. The goal of a legalist's preaching is to make people feel holy enough so that they then might dare to believe that they are finally acceptable in God's sight. The basic premise of the legalist is that the rod of the law is the only God ordained way to whip the sheep into shape. The feeling of genuine acceptance with God will only come when you can examine yourself and your obedience and "feel" that all is well because you passed the test. The legalist puts the law into the Christian's conscience as his judge in such a way that a sheep has no right to feel "secure in Christ" until his daily life can "pass inspection" by the "holy Law of God." This horrible distortion of both the Law and the Gospel can only lead to either constant despair and doubt on the one hand, or self-righteous conceit on the other hand, and both of these states or conditions are enemies of the sovereign grace of God.

If some who are legalist revile me and my friends and say, "That is what we also believe," I can only respond, "Brother, the content of 95% of your messages as well as the look on your face and tone of your voice as you preach sure does not prove it!" If preachers really believe (1) that the law cannot sanctify or justify, and that (2) only the preaching of the cross can produce true Biblical holiness, then why are the sheep under their ministry sent home nearly every week so badly beaten and bleeding? Why are the marks of Moses' rod on their backs so visible and the fruits of the spirit so conspicuous by their absence? Do these preachers believe that the majority of their congregation are "hypocrites" that need to have their "lost estate" exposed instead of sheep that need to be fed? These preachers clearly use, or misuse, the law in a manner that indicates most, if not all, of their hearers are lost hypocrites.

Let me say again that I abominate the message of "easy believism" and all of its attendant evils, but I must also repeat that easy believism is not a problem in the churches I am describing. The problem in these churches is that there is not enough "only believe" and too much "obey the law or else you will be damned." These is too much Moses and the law covenant's threat and not enough Christ and the grace covenant's blessing of forgiveness.

Note: This article also appears in the In-Depth Studies website.