Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
Having considered the scriptural principles and responsibilities of church membership, we devoted the last article to the inescapable truth of corporate responsibility. Though many in this age of ecclesiastical departure and apostasy would like to ignore that truth, it is exactly the truth of corporate responsibility and corporate guilt that lies at the basis of the call, “Come out from among them and be ye separate.” We must not continue in conflict with the holiness of God. I pointed out that, for some of you, that may mean separation now from the body where you currently have your church membership. That is a move that is extremely difficult. I know that – as a matter of experience.
But when I point out that exercising the responsibility of church membership becomes increasingly difficult in the advancing apostasy in the church today, I would remind you that God’s people have often faced the same difficulties in centuries past.
That was the difficulty that our Reformation fathers faced in the bondage of Roman Catholicism. Do not think for a moment that they left that church on a whim! Do not think that they left the Roman Catholic Church without a struggle! And I refer here not to the fact that in many cases they faced physical persecution. Rather, I point out that the Reformers finally came to the decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church only after tremendous spiritual struggle of soul. It ought to be clear that love for God’s church and for His people should prevent any Christian from making separation without going through that struggle of soul. But once men like Martin Luther and John Calvin made that separation, they forcefully called God’s people to follow them.
In1537, John Calvin wrote a very pointed letter of considerable length. That letter was titled: “On Shunning the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly and Preserving the Purity of the Christian Religion,” and you will find it in the third volume of his Tracts and Treatises. This letter was written to those who professed the Reformation gospel, but for various practical reasons remained within the Roman Catholic Church. In no uncertain terms Calvin pointed them to their sin of turning their eyes away from God’s Word and demanding nothing more of themselves than could be performed without endangering either their safety or their conditions. But he also pointed to the truth that there is no difficulty too great to be surmounted by him who strengthens himself with the consideration that, though all men should threaten, their menaces cannot outweigh those which the Lord denounces against the deserters of His camp.
Calvin’s view of the necessity of belonging to a church that manifests the marks of the true church is not only historically significant, but is also of great practical importance for Protestants in departing churches today.
Some 300 years later, in the face of rampant departure from the truth of Scripture in the Church of England, and the influx of a mentality that sought reunion with Rome in many areas, Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote a review of two papers by the Reverend J.C. Ryle, the prominent and soundly Reformed pastor and bishop, whose writings many of us have read with pleasure.
The papers Spurgeon was reviewing were titled “Church Principles” and “Church Comprehensiveness.” Spurgeon wrote:
There is no party within the Church of England with whom we are more nearly agreed than the Evangelical (i.e., the party to which Ryle belonged, SK), and yet they excite far more our wonder and pity than our sympathy. We wonder they are not ashamed of being connected with men who openly defy the law and preach the worst form of Popery. We pity them because, while they remain in the Establishment, their protests against its errors have but little power. . . . Congresses in which Christ and antichrist are brought together cannot but exercise a very unhealthy influence even upon the most decided followers of the truth. We wish Mr. Ryle could review his own position in the light of the Scriptures rather than in the darkness of ecclesiasticism; then would he come out from among them, and no more touch the unclean thing (p. 143, Forgotten Spurgeon).
In 1864 Spurgeon addressed an issue that plagues many churches today, including the historic Reformed churches. There were professors in various colleges connected with the Church of England and ministers and bishops who questioned the divine inspiration of Scripture and limited its authority to a religious sphere, if they recognized any authority in it at all. This is how Spurgeon described the times, and I ask you: Do you see the likeness in the church today?
God’s Word, in this age, is a small affair; some do not even believe it to be inspired; and those who profess to revere it set up other books in a sort of rivalry with it. Why, there are great Church dignitaries now-a-days who write against the Bible, and yet find bishops to defend them. (They tell us) “Do not, for a moment, think of condemning their books or them; they are our dear brethren, and must not be fettered in thought” (Ibid., p. 147).
Do you not see the application? Miserable heretics have permeated churches with their swords of higher criticism, hacking the whole of the Scriptures to pieces. Spurgeon also called attention in writing to the consequences of the new teaching which had permeated the churches:
Attendance at places of worship is declining, and reverence for holy things is vanishing. . . (Ibid., p. 149).
And, in closing, he raised the issue which others had declined to face:
It now becomes a serious question how far those who abide by the faith once delivered to the saints should fraternize with those who have turned aside to another gospel. Christian love has lost its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth?
A chasm is opening between the men who believe their Bibles and the men who are prepared for an advance upon Scripture. The house is being robbed, its very walls are being digged down, but the good people who are in bed are too fond of the warmth, and too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars. . . . Inspiration and speculation cannot long abide in peace. Compromise there can be none. We cannot hold the inspiration of the Word, and yet reject it; we cannot believe in the atonement and deny it; we cannot hold the doctrine of the fall and yet talk of the evolution of spiritual life from human nature; we cannot recognize the punishment of the impenitent and yet indulge the “larger hope.” One way or the other we must go. Decision is the virtue of the hour (Ibid., p. 149).
Believers in Christ’s atonement are now in declared union with those who make light of it; believers in Holy Scripture are in confederacy with those who deny plenary inspiration; those who hold evangelical doctrine are in open alliance with those who call the fall a fable, who deny the personality of the Holy Ghost, who call justification by fall immoral, and hold that there is another probation after death. . . . Yes, we have before us the wretched spectacle of professedly orthodox Christians publicly avowing their union with those who deny the faith, and scarcely concealing their contempt for those who cannot be guilty of such gross disloyalty to Christ. To be very plain, we are unable to call these things Christian Unions, they begin to look like Confederacies in Evil. . . . It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretence of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin (Ibid., p. 150).
May God forbid that we lose our children and children’s children because of our own paralysis of indecision!