FrontLine • November/December 2008
Resurrecting the Question: Two previous columns [broken into four Proclaim & Defend posts, see links above] in this series raised the issue of how Evangelicals should respond to unorthodox men within evangelical ministries. Admittedly, Jesus warned His followers that false prophets can be difficult to detect. They appeal for association with Christ’s true disciples as wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). Yet our Lord taught that despite their deceptive facade, these non-Evangelicals can be detected by their fruit. A corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit (7:17). But what is that fruit? Scripture identifies fruit to be, in the first place, a man’s heart beliefs. Evangelicals must begin discovering and dealing Scripturally with unorthodoxy at the root level of heart persuasion if they’re ever to terminate the debates over theological fundamentals which all too often characterize their movement.
Part 5 noted the readiness of evangelicals to remove leaders caught up in gross moral sin, but closed with the question, “What, then, ought Evangelicals to be doing when they discover these teachers of error within their ministry organizations?”
The Long-Standing Debate
The very ideological essence of the New Evangelicalism spawned just over half a century ago called for respectful toleration and even cooperation with non-Evangelicals—not merely charitable cooperation with men of differing persuasions on minor points, but cooperation with men who are actually not Evangelical at all.
For the purpose of comparison, just for a moment try to imagine a policy on associations that argued the necessity of cooperating with pastors, theologians, and other religious leaders who publish for all the world to read that they are practicing gross sins such as theft, drunkenness, drug addiction, or adultery. (For the moment I’ll refrain from enlarging on the current embarrassment to some major denominations who now find themselves brazenly challenged by some of their own ordained ministers on such issues. They openly practice homosexuality. Evangelicals denominationally associated with them are now unavoidably compelled to decide the very issue I’m raising. Will they continue to associate with immoral church leadership? They’ve been associating with false teachers for decades. Will they now do the same when it comes to grossly immoral persons?)
It’s almost unthinkable that a conservative Evangelical would associate in ministry with a seminary professor or church bishop whose public writings advocated fornication or adultery. On what Scriptural basis, then, would he associate with one whose publications argue against the inerrancy of Scripture, Christ’s bodily resurrection, the necessity of blood atonement, or, as in N. T. Wright’s case, the necessity of Christ’s imputed righteousness for salvation? Paul’s response to both kinds of “fruitlessness,” both behavioral and creedal, was equivalent. That’s because just as moral laxity will eventually leaven an entire church (1 Cor. 5:6), so will theological error. That is precisely why Evangelicalism is in such an amorphous state at present that the very word “Evangelical” has ceased to be definitive.
Yet even now, when the catastrophic consequences of a long course of accommodating unorthodoxy is finally being factually documented by Evangelicals such as David Wells (in No Place for Truth), John Armstrong (in The Compromised Church), Iain H. Murray (in Evangelicalism Divided), and others, much of the Evangelical leadership continues to equivocate. Just the title of Iain Murray’s little booklet, The Unresolved Controversy: Unity with Non-Evangelicals (Banner of Truth, 2001) is a tragic indictment of the irresolute state of the movement. Look at it again, The Unresolved [emphasis mine] Controversy. What is it? Unity with Non-Evangelicals. Before moving on I need to clarify that Murray isn’t talking primarily about this being a controversy between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, though it is. Murray is talking about the controversy within Evangelicalism. He’s talking about Evangelicals debating the question among themselves. I think, then, that the title of this series is appropriate: What’s an Evangelical to Do? Evangelicals are presently in controversy with one another over this matter of associations. What ought every one of them to do when he encounters unorthodox men? One of the most highly publicized debates within Evangelicalism over that question occurred over forty years ago in London. It’s well worth revisiting.
In October 1966, Britain’s National Assembly of Evangelicals gathered in London’s Westminster Central Hall to consider the subject of Christian Unity.
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, successor to G. Campbell Morgan at Westminster Chapel, had been asked to give the opening address. His solution to the need for true Christian unity was a stirring challenge for Evangelicals to leave their apostate denominations and join together in orthodoxy. Ecumenical people put fellowship before doctrine, he explained. We, as Evangelicals, put doctrine before fellowship. . . . I make this appeal to you Evangelical people this evening, what reasons have we for not coming together? Lloyd-Jones well knew one of the foremost arguments for rebutting his proposal, and he spoke to it. You cannot justify your decision to remain in your denomination by saying that you maintain your independence. You cannot disassociate yourself from the church to which you belong. This is a very contradictory position.
One can only imagine the atmosphere. Some present testified afterwards that the effect was electric. What happened next did nothing to diffuse the tension.
John Stott, who was chairing the meeting, stood up and publicly disagreed. I believe history is against Dr. Jones in that others have tried to do this very thing. I believe that Scripture is against him in that the remnant was within the Church and not outside it. . . . I hope no one will act precipitately. There we have a conspicuous example of the controversy within Evangelicalism.
In June 1995, J. I. Packer, another leading British Evangelical, reflected back on that night. Though it will take up valuable space to do so, I think it would be worthwhile to quote him at length, because his full statement reveals his own answer to the question at hand.
Lloyd-Jones, Packer said, had two bad arguments. He was a great man, but great men can be enmeshed in bad arguments. Bad argument number one was that if we stay in the Church of England we’re guilty by association of all the theological errors that any Anglican may be propagating anywhere at all. To which of course the answer is rubbish: on that basis Paul would have been guilty of all the errors that were abroad in Corinth, in Colossae, in the Galatian churches and the Thessalonian church and elsewhere— and of course he wasn’t guilty of any of that, and why not? Simply because he entered into the discipline of debate and wrote pastoral letters to them to put them straight. As long as we are free to raise our voices against the errors and seek to correct them from within we are not guilty of them. We are negating and refusing the error, we are not acquiescing in it, we are not guilty of it. It was a sad thing that a great mind like that of the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones should ever have toyed with an argument as bad as this one.
Secondly he said, “Don’t you see that the times call us to leave all the doctrinally mixed congregations and form a new one.” And I and others looked around and couldn’t see that the times called us to any such thing. We asked what do the times call us to do? And it seemed clear that the times called us to stay put and work for Reformation, renewal and fresh life in the church that has this rich heritage. So when people used to ask me why are you in the Church of England when the Church of England is in such a mess today I used to reply, “I’m in the Church of England today for the sake of what under God it might be tomorrow” (quoted by Roger Steer in Guarding the Fire [Baker Books, 1999], p. 225).
We are not reading about ancient history here. Though Lloyd-Jones died in 1981 (not that long ago), Stott and Packer are still leading spokesmen within Evangelicalism, and the decision they made that night forty years ago to disagree with Lloyd-Jones’s proposal is the one they continue to flesh out as Evangelicals rooted inseparably within the Church of England to this very hour. Their example influences literally thousands of younger men, both within and without Anglicanism.
A Fuller Answer from John Stott
Three years ago, Time magazine listed John Stott, former rector of All Souls Church in London, as one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He is the author of nearly forty books, one of which, Basic Christianity, has sold over two-and-a-half million copies and is translated into fifty languages. Probably most of us have at least one of Stott’s books on our shelves. I readily acknowledge that I personally value several of his works highly. However, last year John Stott issued a work entitled The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (IVP). One of the appendices is titled, “Why I Am Still a Member of the Church of England.” In it he discusses three possible responses to error: (1) Separation; (2) Compromise or Conformity; (3) Comprehensiveness without Compromise.
Stott says the first of these responses pursues truth at the expense of unity. The second pursues unity at the expense of truth. The third, which Stott advocates, fights for both truth and unity. He says it is staying in without caving in and is the most painful of the three options. But how does that flesh itself out? Stott explains that correct comprehensiveness
is a distinction which goes right back to the apostle Paul’s insistence on loyalty to the apostolic faith, alongside liberty of conscience on secondary issues. In conclusion, can we envisage a situation in which orthodox believers feel absolutely obliged to leave? Such an extreme situation might be
• when an issue of first order is at stake, such as deserves the condemnation “antichrist” (I John 2:22) or “anathema” (Galatians 1:8-9)
• when the offending issue is held not by an idiosyncratic minority of individuals but has become the official position of the majority
• when the majority have silenced the faithful remnant, forbidding them to witness or protest any longer
• when we have conscientiously explored every possible alternative
• when, after a painful period of prayer and discussion, our conscience can bear the weight no longer
Until that day comes, I for one intend to stay in and fight on.
So I do believe in the Church of England, in the rightness of belonging to it and of maintaining a faithful evangelical witness within it and to it. For I believe in the power of God’s word and Spirit to reform and renew the church. I also believe in the patience of God. Max Warren wrote that “the history of the Church is the story of the patience of God.”
To Be Continued
I want to continue this series in the next issue by discussing both Packer’s and Stott’s views. In the meantime, I’d like to recommend the reading of Lloyd- Jones’ entire address and argument over the Christmas holiday. Those who do so will be in a better position to evaluate Stott’s response.
Lloyd-Jones’ entire address is published in Knowing the Times (Banner of Truth, 1989), pp. 246–57. I’d especially like to suggest it for any younger men who are earnestly seeking the right answer to the question of associations. Lloyd-Jones doesn’t provide a comprehensive survey of all that Scripture brings to bear on the issue, but he does come at the subject from an angle that even we Fundamentalists sometimes unwittingly neglect. Prayerfully consider his treatment of the subject and, Lord willing, we’ll continue working it out in the next [articles].
Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.