When Should a Christian Leave a Church? (Part 3)

by John G. Reisinger

thinkingIt is the duty of a true child of God to get out from under any ministry like that described by Pastor Chantry. Chantry is most accurate in saying, "It is with a sigh of relief that some sheep escape such ministries." Escape is really the right word to use because people like those described have literally been liberated from a cult. We heard some of those grateful sighs at the John Bunyan Conference.

The fear of rejection by the pastor is a powerful motive in a church where the office of elder is almost raised to the level of priest. When Christians sell their conscience, even unknowingly, to the elder and the church, they can be manipulated into doing almost anything. I personally know of a case where a Reformed Baptist "pastor" (?) arbitrarily revoked the membership of the entire congregation. After a two and a half hour tongue lashing on authority and obedience to God (ala himself), each person was required to sign a new membership form in order to be reinstated into membership. They were told to sign the paper or else "get out and never darken the door of this building again."

One of the many things demanded in the lengthy harangue was more sacrificial giving. The congregation was informed that the elders were going to review each member's giving, and if it was felt that any individual was not giving enough, the elders would visit that family and go over their budget and help them to give more. One man was "asked" to give by check instead of cash so that the elders could know exactly how much he was giving. Another man was "encouraged" to quit supporting his daughter and son in college and put that money into the church.

The worst part of this sordid story is that only one family had enough spiritual sense to refuse to sign the new membership form. Most of them sincerely obeyed and did as they were told because they had been taught, and foolishly believed, that "my duty is to obey my elder, regardless of whether he is right or wrong, and God will reward my obedience to his duly authorized servant." Anyone who believes that nonsense has become a Roman Catholic in his view of church authority and is treating his pastor like a pope.

If you wonder how preachers can become and remain what Pastor Chantry calls "sanctified busy bodies" who "keep the sheep in bondage," it is easy to explain. You start by exalting the office of elder far above the sheep. You then reinforce your position and authority with intensive counseling into the most intimate details. You "poke your nose into Christian's personal business," you manipulate with "counseling and directives that are none of your business," you encourage them to open up every aspect of their life to your "microscopic scrutiny." And sure enough, the response is precisely that described by Chantry. The people under such a pastor "run to him for decisions" about their whole life. All power mongers do not use counseling as a means of controlling people, but those who do are twice as dangerous.

If you are in a church and under a ministry like that so vividly described by Pastor Chantry, then I plead with you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to flee from it as fast as you can for the sake of your soul. You are not in a Baptist church. You are not in a Reformed church. You are not even in a Christian church. You are in a cult! If you choose to stay under such a ministry out of either fear or a false sense of loyalty, then you have no one to blame but yourself. Read Chantry's words again and honestly evaluate your church and its pastor. Are you really in a gospel church of free grace or are you in a Roman system of despotism? Act accordingly! Immediately!

The last thing I want to mention deals with what you and I as individuals can do to help promote the truth that has become so precious to us. I believe it is time to take some positive steps to deliberately make known new covenant theology more effectively and on a wider scale. This is what we did twenty five years ago with the truth of sovereign of grace, but unfortunately, we then allowed ourselves to be side tracked from preaching the Doctrines of Grace to building organizations that we proudly labeled "True New Testament churches." We became institution oriented instead of grace oriented.

Granted, some preachers were sincere in this effort, but many others were really interested in building a little kingdom of personal power where their word was law. The subject of many sermons dealt with the role and authority of the church and the eldership. The primary thing that consumed most preachers was to have a "true New Testament church with a plurality of elders exercising the authority with which Christ clothed that high and holy office." The really "in thing" in many churches was to establish "elder rule" in the congregation. Our churches became more Roman Catholic in their view of authority and we lost the power of the truth of sovereign grace. Chantry is dead right when he says:

When elders become obsessed with the submission of the flock, they have a view dangerously close to the autocracy of Rome.

This is exactly what happened in many of our churches. The elders became conscious of nothing but the "authority invested in their holy office," and they neglected to develop the gifts and graces in God's people. As one brother said, "There is a danger in typical Reformed Baptist churches of having only two gifts; A giant tongue that speaks with absolute authority, and a giant ear that listens with unquestioning obedience." Once that attitude is taken, it is inevitable that the church will move toward a spiritual dictatorship. In such a church, to challenge an elder is to challenge God's "duly authorized messenger." The sheep are in total subjection to the elder because they believe that he is "responsible to God for their soul," and their duty is to obey his directives without question. It is because the sheep believe that Roman rubbish that the "amazing thing" spoken of in Jeremiah can happen, and is happening, in our own day.

I spent ten years in evangelism and preached in an average of forty churches a year. The constant problem that I encountered in many Reformed Baptist churches was the extent of the authority of the church and the eldership. Since the pastor was the "duly authorized" representative of God in the local institution, the problem was really his personal authority over the life and conscience of the people. The pastor that I spoke of earlier who revoked everyone's membership appears to believe and teach that when he preaches from the pulpit his message is God's Word. He is the "voice of God" in that assembly. One man challenged this concept and said, "My conscience is wed to Scripture alone." The preacher responded emphatically, "Your conscience is under the authority of my preaching of the Scriptures."

Many Reformed preachers would not dare say that out loud, but they give every evidence of believing it in their hearts. They practice such an attitude in their ministries. This is the one thing that has hindered and hampered the Reformed Baptist movement ever since the doctrines of grace became secondary to the all consuming drive for a "true New Testament institution with duly authorized officers."

There is a sense in which "law/grace/Sabbath" is not really the heart of the present controversy among Reformed Baptists. It is, in some cases, a smoke screen that men use to keep their congregation from discussing the whole issue of authority and liberty of conscience. This is not always the case. Some Godly men are concerned with what they feel (wrongly but sincerely) is real doctrinal error. However, some men see their personal power destroyed if their view of eldership is wrong. These men drag the Sabbath out as a red herring.

What can be done by an individual if it is absolutely impossible for him to even get a hearing for the truth in his local assembly? We must do in the present situation with the truth of new covenant theology exactly what we did when we came to believe the doctrines of grace, and men and churches refused to have anything to do with us. We can all do three things.

(1) We can use our voice to testify and witness to the truth of God's grace that has set our conscience free. We can talk to individuals and help them see the truth. We can give out material for people to read and tapes for them to listen to just as we did with the Arminians. We can only dispel error with truth and ignorance with light. We must get men into the Scriptures as their final authority just as we did the Arminians. "What does the text say" must be our first motto, and the second motto must be, "Where is there a Bible text that says that?" We must get people to see that the Westminster Confession (or any other one) has no more authority over our conscience than a Scofield footnote.

(2) Above all, we must demonstrate this truth and power in holy living and then testify that our life is motivated by love to our blessed Lord and Saviour. In the days of the Anabaptist, men were suspected and labeled as heretics only because they refused to submit to the state church as the "duly authorized authority" of God. Since they were so truly Godly in their life, their enemies could find nothing wrong with them. The Reformers heaped abuse upon them and said they were "hiding error under holy living." Let legalists say of us what the Reformers said of the Anabaptist. We will know that the change in our life came from freeing our conscience from the old covenant and putting it under the new covenant. Let men resort to the sophistry of attributing it to the Devil as did the Reformers. Men and women will know better.

The legalist is not concerned with the reality of holiness itself as much as he is with the means by which it is attained. He is not willing to trust the power of the gospel in the hands of the Holy Spirit to produce a zeal for holy living; he must seek to put your neck under the yoke of law. The legalist is more concerned with the means (law) than he is the ends (genuine holiness), and in his mind, like the Pharisee of old, holy living can only be produced by Moses. Only "antinomians" deny this "fact," and worse, they hide their error under a "blameless life."

Bullinger, for example, wrote that the exemplary lives of the Anabaptist are hypocrisy, for...even Satan can transform himself into an angel of light..."he who wishes to catch fish does not throw out an unbaited hook." After granting that the Anabaptist, Pilgrim Marpeck and his wife, were "people of devout and blameless lives" he added: "But this is an old trick of the Devil, with which he has in all churches, from the days of the Apostle Paul, sought to catch his fish."

The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin, Erdmans Publishing House, p. 110.

In another place, Bullinger wrote:

Those who unite with them (the Anabaptist) will by their ministers be received into their church by rebaptism and repentance and newness of life. They henceforth lead their lives under a semblance of quiet spiritual conduct. They denounce covetousness, pride, and profanity, the lewd conversation and immorality of the world, the drinking and the gluttony. In fine, their hypocrisy is great and manifest." Ibid, p. 110

Isn't it amazing that Bullinger could admit to the above and then label the Anabaptist as "antinomians." Tragically, the same thing is happening today.

Let men call us what they will, only let us live more holy, pray more fervently, and witness more passionately than any who accuse us of error. Let men attack our doctrine with unearned labels, but let us prove our doctrine in our life. If those who refuse to discuss the Word of God with us are content to prove their love for God's truth with slander and the use of their so called "duly authorized church" power, let us prove our love for God's truth by loving and praying for these brethren and by always being ready to sit down with them and looking at the Scriptures together. Remember, we once sat exactly where they now sit and God set us free! We have no fear whatever to look into the Scriptures together with any man.

The devotees who remain in churches like those described by Chantry are literally are afraid to even speak to someone who leaves their local church. They may have been close friends for ten years but it makes no difference if the people who left are on the pastor's "no, no" list. Let us never take that horrible attitude and cut off fellow believers.

(3) The third thing we can do is help produce and distribute the truth in printed form, tape cassettes, and video cassettes. One of the greatest tragedies of our past efforts as Baptists was our use of nothing but Presbyterian literature. We set up the conferences, got those to attend whom we had taught the truth of grace, and then we stuffed Presbyterian books and speakers down their throat by the carload. It is time to set up a BAPTIST Banner of Truth. It is time to quit feeding the best of our young men to Presbyterian schools. It is time that sincere Baptist sheep stop leaving Reformed Baptist churches only to find a welcome nowhere but in a Presbyterian church.

In Africa, the evangelical missionaries taught the people to read and then the communists gave them literature. In our case, it was even worse. We Baptist did both for the Presbyterians. We taught people the doctrines of grace, and then we gave them nothing but books written by Covenant Theologians.

It is time to finish the job God moved us to begin over twenty years ago. Let us not make the mistake that the Reformers made. They thoroughly reformed the gospel message of justification by faith but failed to reform some other doctrines. They threw out justification by the works of the law, but they held on to sanctification by the law. They threw out the church's authority over your soul but hung on to the church's authority over your conscience. They threw out priest craft but kept clericalism. They rejected the authority of Roman church tradition but replaced it with man made creeds that have now become the authoritative "Reformed" church tradition. They cried Sola Scriptura" while waving a creed in one hand and a sword in the other hand.

I do not question that the Reformation was the greatest movement of God in history since the days of Pentecost. However, the Reformers were only men of clay like you and me. They brought a lot of baggage over from Romanism. The present day revival of the doctrines of grace is another great movement of God. The leaders that God has been pleased to use have been primarily Baptists. I fear that some of these Baptists have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage in order to gain credibility among the "truly Reformed community" that was responsible for destroying the power of the doctrines of grace in the first place, and until recently the so called "Reformed community" has done precious little to restore that power.

Brethren, it is time to apply the search light of Scripture to the Westminster Confession, the Philadelphia Confession, and every other confession, with the same honesty and consistency that we applied to the Scofield Reference Bible some years ago. It is time to say "Sola Scriptura" and really mean it!

I want to say one last thing. I am sure that some sensitive and sincere people are saying, "John, I know there is a real problem in many Reformed Baptist Churches, but putting this in print may cause some innocent pastors to be falsely accused by genuine rebels." I honestly appreciate that concern and have weighed that possibility very carefully. The following reasons seem to outweigh the possible dangers:

First of all, this article is not any stronger than Pastor Chantry's, and I guarantee you that everything he said needed to be said. The only difference is that I have used some specific examples. When a situation gets to the place that men are willing to literally turn children against their parents, and turn wives and husbands against each other, then it is time to speak loudly and clearly. When believers are taught to actually hate another believer simply because he dared to challenge the pastor, the cultic mentality must be exposed. Remember again that Chantry said, "A church may be injured as much by tyranny as by anarchy." The accusation of "anarchy" in a cult is always hurled by a paranoid power monger whose personal power has been challenged. Such men as that need to be exposed.

Anarchy is easy to spot because it is so vocal and visible, but tyranny can go on for years since it is only seen inside the group. The members of the group are sworn to absolute secrecy and are even afraid to talk to each other. It is only when someone is delivered from the bondage of fear to such a group that anyone outside finds out that anything was really wrong.

In the second place, I agree that it is possible that a rebel may try to use this paper against a Godly pastor and a good church. However, if the Pastor and church preach and practice true Christian liberty and love, it will be obvious to all that the accusations are false. The individual will soon manifest to all that he is a self centered rebel and the work will be all the stronger. If a Godly pastor and a church are forced to rebuke and discipline a true trouble maker, the people will know it is done with the right motive and not just to get rid of one of the pastor's personal enemies. There will be genuine efforts to love and restore the backslider and hearts will ache and weep. The people will see a true shepherd tearfully using a Biblical rod and not a tyrant trying to beat someone into subjection to his personal authority. God's people, in their hearts, know the difference between loving discipline and the paranoid use of personal power. They may be able to squelch their conscience for a time and justify lies, deceit, and kangaroo trials, but the Holy Spirit will not allow a true child of God to tolerate absolute cruelty even when it is committed by a so called "duly authorized" prophet of God. One by one, God's true sheep will flee such God dishonoring ministries.

Finally, in the third place, I believe there are far more beaten sheep bleeding in despair than there are true pastors being maligned by rebels. When a tyrant really gets control of the individual's conscience, personal revolt is nearly impossible. The poor sheep is scared of everything and everybody. When he is cut off from asking or sharing the questions and difficulties in his heart, then he literally has no one to help him. I believe it is time to help some badly beaten sheep and talk out loud about some of the awful tyranny that has been allowed to exist under guise of eldership authority. The churches where this never happens cannot be hurt by such a discussion, but the churches that are basically a cult run by paranoid pastors will begin to be known for what they really are.

If you would like further information on tapes or literature that deals with the subjects discussed in this paper, please do not hesitate to write or phone. I am serious when I urge that positive efforts be made to deliver sincere sheep from churches that are really semi-cults. I believe every true Gospel Church will say "Amen" to this paper and to what Pastor Chantry has written. Who but a legalist tyrant can accept the kind of situation that Chantry described so accurately?

  1. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Ps 139:23-24).

    Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you - unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Cor. 13:5).

  2. When there are bold letters used in a quotation, it means I am emphasizing something that the writer being quoted did not emphasized. Anything that appears between square brackets [ ] means that I am adding something that the writer being quoted is not saying.

  3. For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age....." (Titus 2:11-12).

  4. Chuck Swindoll recently asked the question, "Would someone please explain what 'hard believism" is?

  5. Power mongers just love to throw around that "duly authorized" phrase. It makes them feel that when they speak, God speaks. One brother, in jest, said, "I would like to meet this guy 'Dooley' that hands out this arbitrary power to such hardnosed people."

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