When Should a Christian Leave a Church? (Part 2)

by John G. Reisinger

thinkingIf Bonar is right, and he most certainly is, then it is easy to see why so many warmhearted Arminian churches get people saved and see them grow in faith, love, and true holiness. They preach "Jesus Christ and Him crucified" and people are blessed with the assurance of peace with God and earnestly want to serve Him out of gratitude. Many Reformed pastors preach Moses and "striving to be holy" in such a way that people are trying to find a heartfelt assurance of peace with God on the grounds of their obedience. I know that nearly every single preacher who reads this will vehemently deny that what I am saying is true of him and his ministry. However, the hearts and lives of his people may very well tell a different story. You must be the judge in your own church and its ministry.

Some preachers are at such pains to oppose the preaching of false peace that they end up preaching NO peace at all. A heartfelt joyous assurance has the appearance of being a cardinal sin. These men forget that "only believe" is the essence of the gospel of grace just as much as "easy believe" is the essence of error. The Old Testament prophets were just as harsh in condemning another kind of preaching as they were in denouncing the preachers of false peace:

"'Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture'! declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: 'Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,' declares the Lord... 'I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,' declares the Lord." (Jeremiah 23:1-5)

How many sincere sheep do you know who "have been scattered" because of the tyranny of pastors and elders? How many sincere believers do you know who have been "afraid and terrified" even to speak what was in their hearts for fear of the elder's discipline? How many husbands and wives have been alienated in their affections from each other because of the intrusion of the church or elder into their relationship with each other. Many of you who read these lines have seen in practice what the following verse describes:

"The prophets follow an evil course and use their power unjustly." (Jeremiah 10:23)

I would pray to God that some of the preachers who have split churches over the issue of "elder authority" would ponder Ezekiel 34. Usually when people are run out of a church for refusing to obey the "duly authorized elders" (which, interpreted, means refusing to sell your conscience in "unquestioning obedience" to the eldership), they are never visited personally by the pastor. They are not contacted in any manner except to be informed in a "duly authorized" letter that quotes a lot of verses (mostly out of context) and then informs the "rebel" that he has been "duly" excommunicated from the church, or cult, as the case may be. Sometimes, not too often, the rebel is told that the elders are willing to consider receiving him back as soon as he will genuinely repent, which of course means, kiss the pope's ring in submission.

"This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourself with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock." (Ezekiel 24:2, 3)

If you were a pastor whose church was sacrificing to pay you close to $50,000 a year in salary and benefits and putting less than $1,000 a year into any kind of mission work, how should you feel when you read the above words from Ezekiel?

If you were helping to pay that $50,000.00 salary and you were personally being treated like a dog, or even worse, maybe that pastor was systematically turning your wife (or husband) and children against you, how should you feel when you read the following verses from the Word of God?

"You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back strays or searched for the lost. You ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered...." (Ezekiel 34:4, 5)

If you are a pastor who has driven families out of your congregation only because they dared to disagree with you, and you have never visited one of them to try to resolve the difficulty, who do you think God is talking about in Ezekiel 34:2-5?

My friend, beating the sheep into subjection with the supposed "duly authorized office of eldership" and sending them home bleeding and wounded is just as hateful to God as daubing with untempered mortar. Rubbing salt into an open wound is exactly what many preachers do week after week. Because true sheep have tender consciences, a false preacher can pummel them to death with two big clubs. When the law (club number one) is swung by the "duly authorized prophet of God" (club number two), you have a gruesome twosome that will bring any tender conscience into subjection and fear. When one of these sheep finally gets enough courage to leave such a church, or in one writer's words, "...with a sigh of relief some sheep escape such ministries," I guarantee you that God does not view this "escape" as rebellion against His "duly authorized church." He views it as a refusal by a sheep to follow a false shepherd. When a child of God flees from that kind of tyranny, he is being obedient to the voice of his one true Shepherd and he is rejecting the authority of a false prophet.

The amazing thing about this sad situation is that so many sincere sheep seem willing to submit to a form of Romanism without challenging it with Scripture. The words of Jeremiah is true in many churches today:

"A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, and priests rule by their own authority, and my people love to have it this way." (Jeremiah 5:30, 31)


The last three years have convinced me that a law/grace controversy in one of the most important struggles that a church can ever face. This goes beyond Dispensationalism versus Amillenialism, and yes, it even goes beyond Calvinism and Arminianism. A law/grace controversy involves the heart and nerve of the gospel of sovereign grace itself. It establishes, or overthrows, the Biblical goal and purpose of the ministry of preaching and teaching.

Dispensationalists, Amillenialists, Calvinists, and Arminians have all seen souls saved under their ministries. They have all developed strong missionary movements. Legalists, on the other hand, have never seen, nor can they ever see, revival. The present day preachers of law do not get sinners saved simply because they do not clearly preach the gospel of God's grace. They seem to be content with stealing sheep from the Arminians and "straightening them out theologically." One Arminian brother said, "you Calvinists should pray that we Arminians are successful at winning converts because if we don't get any one saved, you fellows have no one to work on"! In many cases, he was more than justified in such a statement. How many people in your congregation were converted out of paganism through the ministry of your church and its pastor? How many either came from another nearby evangelical church or deliberately moved into your town in order to attend a "true Reformed church"?

The gut issues in any law/grace controversy are always the same. They are:

ONE: What is the "gospel message" that we are to give to poor sinners? Must we start with Exodus twenty until there is an essential "preparatory law work" done in the heart and then, and not until then, do we give the gospel promise? Or can we begin to evangelize sinners with the Gospel of John and present the Saviour Himself?

TWO: How do we produce holy living among the saints of God? Do we send them back to Moses and put their conscience under his threat? Or do we keep them standing under the cross beholding their Saviour and put their conscience under His Lordship and His clear objective commandments?

We are talking about nothing less than the essence of the gospel message in evangelism and the Biblical means used to make believers grow in grace and sanctification. We are talking about two distinctly different approaches to preaching justification and sanctification. We are examining the true role of the church, the goal of its ministry, and the essence of its message to both sinners and saints.

I, and some others like me, have tried sincerely to work within the group of people with whom we came to the doctrines of grace. I would like to continue to do so; however, most of them will not let me. There is an adamant refusal to allow the issues of law and grace to be aired publicly and discussed in the light of Scripture. We are receiving the same treatment from many of our Reformed Baptist brethren that we used to receive from the Arminians when we came to the truth of sovereign grace.

If it were not so tragic, it would be comical comparing the methods and tactics used by Bob Jones University twenty years ago to try to stamp out a caricature call "hyper-Calvinism" to the identical methods being used by some Reformed Baptist preachers today in their attempts to stamp out another caricature which they call "antinomianism." The men today use the same methods Bob Jones used for the same reason that Bob Jones used them, namely, that is their only recourse. They do not set forth specific texts of Scripture because they do not have any! When you cannot defend your theology with actual tests of Scripture then you must resort to some other method such as raw personal power. When you cannot sit down with an open Bible and instruct, as well as learn, in gentleness, then your only recourse is angry name calling, using the authority of your "duly authorized office of pastor," or waving the creeds and saying, "thus saith our holy fathers in the faith."

We used to laugh at Bob Jones for banning books from being read and expelling students for reading the Sword and Trowel. We said, "If Bob Jones is so sure that he has the Scripture on his side, why does he not set down with those confused students and say, Let me show you what these verses really mean. Let's examine every argument these books and writers use. Better yet, we will invite one of them to lecture and then we will ask him questions and show where he is wrong"! Of course, we know why none of those things were ever done. We know why they had to appeal to the "big stick" of personal authority. They could not exegete their basic presuppositions from the Word of God and so they simply refused to discuss it!

Many Reformed Baptist preachers are doing exactly the same thing today! They are acting exactly like the Arminians did twenty years ago! And they are acting that way for the same reason that Bob Jones did! They refuse to sit down and discuss texts of Scripture because their whole position is built on "good and necessary consequences" instead of Bible texts. We will be happy to sit down any time and any place and discuss from the Word of God exactly what we believe and why we believe it. So far the response has been, "There is nothing to discuss. The Confession of Faith is clear. Who are you to dare contradict that venerable document." So much for Sola Scriptura.

Many of the people at the John Bunyan Conference can testify concerning both the message and the method that forced them to leave churches that they dearly loved. In each case, the Elder was "the anointed of God" that dare not be challenged by "ordinary Christians." The hallowed creed produced by our "Godly inspired forefathers" became a sword to silence anyone daring to ask a question. The creed and the pastor's personal power became the final authority over the church and the conscience of the individual.

Do you think that I am kidding or exaggerating? Are you smiling and saying, "John is building a bigger strawman than the people about whom he is talking." Do you doubt that such situations as I described really exist today? If you think I am just blowing smoke in the air, then read carefully the following words taken from an article by Pastor Walter Chantry. It is the best material he has ever written. He gives the most vivid and perfect description that I have ever read of the kind of elders and churches that I am talking about. Is Chantry just crying wolf, or is he talking about real situations with which he is personally familiar? Many of the people at the conference last week will testify that they came out of a situation exactly like that described by Pastor Chantry in the following quotation:

Arrogance and an overbearing spirit is never acceptable in elders. Popish demeanor reveals pride in the heart. Pompous and tyrannical treatment of subordinates almost universally attends positions of authority in the world and in human institutions. Never is such deportment permissible in elders. Our Chief Shepherd has said, "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you"! (Matthew 20:25,26)

Christ and Peter are not addressing hypothetical possibilities, nor peculiar attitudes of ancient times. Self-importance and lording it over others is a shameful reality among modern ministers. Many young Christians have been seriously injured by the imperious ways of elders..

We live in an age when rebellion is common against all divinely constituted authorities. Many have no respect for those whom the Holy Ghost has made their overseers (Acts 20:28). Multitudes of local churches are ruined by anarchy. Christians must be taught to submit to Christ's order and to his assigned elders and deacons. Yet a church may be as much injured by tyranny as by anarchy.

At times there come challenges to issues of truth and righteousness which are vital to the glory of God and the well-being of the flock. Then pastors must know how to be insistent in their opposition to immorality and heresy. Their prophetic voices should thunder and their feet hold firm. But all issues are not so essential. Neither should a severe, authoritative stance be the characteristic feature of a pastor's bearing.

Some have imagined that with Biblical commands that the sheep submit, congregations could be coerced into non-resistance to the pastor's opinions and decisions. Zeal for truth and righteousness mixes with an inflated self-esteem in the elders. Other men are not led by example but suppressed by the worst of worldly tactics. Disagreement and question are rigorously stamped out. When elders become obsessed with the submission of the flock, they have a view dangerously close to the autocracy of Rome. That outlook involves an egotism from which ministers must be delivered.

Some elders never appreciate the compliment given them when a saint disagrees with the pastor's exposition of a text. At least the Christian under his care is devoted more to Scripture than to the man in the pulpit. Under his ministry the child of God has reached a maturity to think through issues for himself and has imbibed a Berean spirit (Acts 17:11). But some ministers cannot endure the process of maturing in the sheep. At times parents are so flattered by the dependence of children that they cannot bear to see them grow independent with passing years. A swollen image of self-importance suffers too much for them to relinquish the reins. It is even so with domineering ministers.

Other sheep have fixed character traits which are evident to everyone in the body. Awkward habits and tendencies make a certain brother less useful in the church than he might be. His sin-related quirk of personality is a bit troublesome to the assembly. Frustrated that gentle rebukes and patient entreaties have not cleansed the blemish from Christ's sheep, some elders take the rod of Church discipline in hand to beat out the spots. In this, is an abuse of church discipline which God intended to be used for extraordinary and public sins. Involved too is an audacity which decides that advancement in sanctification must be made at once! But no elder has been called to chart the timetable of growth in grace. It is not the place of elders to demand. Sheep cannot be whipped and driven into conformity with pastoral wishes.

Lording it over the flock provokes church fights and splits. A domineering spirit in elders provokes mature men of strong minds and independent judgment to leave the church. These very ones would have the greatest potential for future leadership in the assembly. Dictatorial measures make lesser men craven and dependent, stunting their true growth. But it also has its harmful effects on the "lords over God's heritage." It makes them egotistical and self serving.

From: The Christian Ministry and Self Denial, by Pastor Walter J. Chantry, Banner of Truth Magazine, November 1979, Page 22, 23. There are only two options for you if you are sitting under a ministry like that so clearly described by Pastor Chantry. One, you can stay in that church. However, you will have to shut up and obey the "duly authorized eldership" and totally dry up spiritually. You will be sinning against Christ by allowing your pastor to be the Lord of your conscience -- and believe me, that is a grave sin! If you stay under such a ministry very long you cannot help but yield your conscience to the leader. However, the moment you do that you will begin to live in fear of that leader and his authority over your soul. When you reach that point, you are actually part of a cult and you have totally given up your true liberty in Christ. You will be afraid to even think for yourself, let alone speak and act that way.

Unfortunately, there are some churches that actually demand that kind of submission from you in order for you to be a member in their church, or cult, as the case may be. They will bounce you in and out of membership according to your "rebellion" (questioning anything the elder says or does) or "repentance" (treating the pastor like a pope). Some poor souls have been in and out of church membership many times at the whim of the preacher. These kind of churches use the office of elder and deacon as a carrot stick to award the "really loyal devotees." It is sickening to see men grovel and lick boots in order to be in favor and power with "the man of God."

The second, and right, choice for you if you feel Pastor Chantry is describing your pastor, is to get out of that church as fast as you can and never go back again. I do not know your situation, but I personally know of six Reformed Baptist churches where a large part of the membership was thoroughly convinced that Chantry was talking about their church and their pastor! The next time some key families leave a church, don't be too quick to believe that the "duly authorized" pastor and his devotees were right and the people who left were all "rebels against authority." It just may be that the pastor was a power mad paranoid that had begun to think of himself as the infallible voice of God. It is possible that the power structure in a church can be wrong! It is even possible in a "true" Reformed Baptist church! As Chantry said, "A church may be injured as much by tyranny as by anarchy." I have yet to see a Reformed Baptist Church ruined by anarchy, but I know of more than one that was ruined, or is being ruined, by the tyranny of pastors.

Carefully read again what Chantry gives as the reason many good men leave a church like those I have been describing:

Lording it over the flock provokes church fights and splits. A domineering spirit in elders provokes mature men of strong minds and independent judgment to leave the church. These very ones would have the greatest potential for future leadership in the assembly. Dictatorial measures make lesser men craven and dependent, stunting their true growth. But it also has its harmful effects on the "lords over God's heritage." It makes them egotistical and self serving.

Pastor Chantry is talking about concrete examples, and he is dead right when he says, "Lording it over the flock causes church splits." Nearly every single split that I know of that has occurred in a Reformed Baptist Church in the last ten years was over what Chantry called the "domineering spirit in the elders." The people at the conference last week told the same story no matter what location they came from. I do not know of a single split that was caused by a "bunch of rebels." Granted, some paranoid preachers may have made that claim, but anyone who took the trouble to find out both sides invariably saw where the real trouble lay.

I am aware that few people, especially Reformed Baptist pastors and elders, ever make any attempt to hear both sides of a church split. Such men often find it almost impossible to even want to hear both sides of a church dispute since they are theologically committed to the conviction that the elders have the 'authority' and therefore they must be right. I know of only one case where there was an exception to that rule and that was only because the "layman" that was opposing the local pastor was a close relative of one of the leading Reformed Baptist pastors.

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