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What is a Reformed Pastor to Do in a Hostile, Non-Reformed Denomination?

In a January 2010 post, I weighed in on Dr. Scott Clark’s advice to a Reformed believer who asked: “Should I stay in my present church to try to reform it or leave altogether?”

“Evangelicals” as gumbo

I mentioned that there are two main groups in the Philippines: liberal mainliners, such as Methodists and UCCP; and “evangelicals” who are generally Bapticostal—a gumbo of all kinds of Pentecostal, baptistic, Arminian, dispensational and health-wealth teachings. Some are a combination of mainline and evangelical cultures. Mostly, none of the three marks of a true church is present.

In “The Myth of Influence,” D. G. Hart and John R. Muether trace the beginnings of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which was established in 1936 by a few churches who separated from the Presbyterian Church (USA)—once Reformed, but now liberal. The 16-year struggle against the liberal leaven in the church was led by Dr. Gresham Machen starting in 1920, and the two approaches were ones of strategy and influence:

For the first fourteen years of that struggle the most important issues facing conservative Presbyterians were ones of strategy and influence. With liberalism in the church, how best should conservatives respond? Put another way, how should the PCUSA be Reformed?

One strategy was that of trying to persuade the conservatives within the denomination that liberalism has infected the church. In 1923, he wrote Christianity and Liberalism, where he said that liberalism is not even Christian but a different religion, and therefore should not be tolerated. Another reform strategy used was to try electing conservatives to the leadership in the denomination, but in the 1920s and 1930s, only one conservative was elected as moderator. They were clearly in the minority, because all committees and boards were overwhelmingly liberal.

In 1933, the Machen-led conservatives formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in response to the liberal foreign mission board of the denomination who denied the uniqueness of the Christian religion and instead worked for the social gospel: helping the poor with food, education, and medicine. In 1934, the General Assembly declared the Independent Board unlawful, and ordered the Board members to resign or face trial. This declaration was the start of the last two years of the conservative struggle against liberalism in the denomination. But Machen and his companions were in a dilemma:

If conservatives were convinced of the latter then they had a solemn obligation to make that case in the courts of the church. Machen said that because he believed the official board of missions was “unfaithful” he could not support it nor urge others to support it. Neither could he simply withdraw from the Church because such evasion would be “a violation of my ordination pledge to maintain the purity and peace of the Church, whatever ‘persecution or opposition may arise’ unto me on that account.”

In the end, conservatives were resigned to the inevitable: separation from the denomination, although only a fraction—5,000—actually did.

The OPC was not formed to be a pure church. Instead, it was founded because the PCUSA was unlawfully binding the consciences of ministers and church members. By requiring ministers to swear allegiance to the boards and agencies of the church as a condition of ordination, the PCUSA had put the word of man above the Word of God.

Fast forward to our generation. In 1973, 260 churches separated from the same liberal PCUS and formed the Presbyterian Church in America. They opposed the “theological liberalism which denied the deity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy and authority of Scripture.” The PCA also upheld the “traditional position” that only men are to be ordained as officebearers in the church.

From the 1980s to the present, the bleeding has not abated, and this time, the controversy over gay marriage and ordination surfaced “out of the closet.” Finally, this year, the denomination officially approved the ordination of gay officebearers, and then ordained its first homosexual minister. In response to the gravity of these developments, some 200 conservative congregations formed the New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC) in 2005 to help those churches decide whether to stay or leave the PCUSA. Those who decide to leave have two options: form a separate denomination or join an existing one. In January 2012, 2,000 conservative Presbyterians who formed another group, the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP), will meet in a “Covenanting Convention” to consider their options. One conservative pastor estimated that the PCUSA could lose as many as 40 percent of their members soon.

The United Reformed Churches in North America (UCRNA) had a similar pilgrimage. In the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), doctrines were being taught that contradicted the Three Forms of Unity. The ordination of women was promoted, evolution was advocated, and the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture were questioned. In 1996, after many frustrating years of struggle against the liberalism in the CRC, 36 congregations finally gave up and formed the URC. Some of these churches had already left the CRC and were independent, while others were still CRC members. Since then, God has blessed this faithful federation with some 110 congregations.

Separation is a tough road to take for these congregations who want to be faithful to Scriptures. Doctrine, worship and practice are of primary importance, but what about church property, and the pastors’ salary, retirement fund, and other financial issues?

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Evangelical gumbo today

I have always maintained that once a church or denomination travels down the liberal road, or some other modern road such as the megachurch movement or prosperity gospel, there is usually no turning back. The PCUSA, Episcopal, Anglican and Methodist churches are some of the obvious examples.

This post was motivated by my conversations with some Reformed pastors from an “evangelical” denomination (as I defined above) in the Philippines over the last several years. Because this denomination is a gumbo of all kinds of persuasions in doctrine, worship and praxis, it’s a free-for-all of Pentecostal, Baptist, and prosperity gospel pastors—and a few Reformed pastors. Some are teaching Oneness Pentecostalism, Arianism, Kenoticism, and other such ancient heresies, in addition to the heresy of the G12 movement. The denomination is also episcopalian in church government, and there are many ordained women elders and deacons, in addition to women who preach. And worse, many of their churches and pastors lord it over other churches and pastors.

The three marks of a true church are absent from most churches in this denomination. The gospel is not preached; in fact, most sermons are merely anecdotal moralisms and jokes. The focus is on “missions” (translation: church growth) and prosperity. One pastor actually prayed before the offering, “Lord, make those who will give less than 20 pesos suffer hardship.” Open communion is practiced. And there are many in the congregations who are living immoral lives without church discipline, because the leaders believe that church discipline is for pastors only.

In short, it is denominational anarchy and chaos, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

As a result, the handful of Reformed pastors in the denomination have been persecuted, harassed, ridiculed, and put down. Some have been asked to leave if they do not conform and stop teaching the Reformed Christian faith. They do not know what to do, because they have struggled for many years against the denomination’s leadership who are hostile toward Reformed doctrine, worship and practice. However, like Machen, these Reformed pastors are very loyal to the denomination, not wanting to leave the church at the mercy of the wayward majority. They too would like to reform the church, to influence it, and to return it to the Scriptures.

So, what is a Reformed pastor to do? Like Machen and the OPC, the PCA, the NWAC, the FOP, and the URC, the Reformed pastors in this denomination must pray and work together to form a consensus on their next steps. But here’s my assessment and advice:

Conform? Absolutely not.

Reform? Not a chance.

Therefore, LEAVE! In staying, you are merely postponing the inevitable—separation. And the longer you stay, the more injurious it is to your conscience, and to your church’s spiritual health.

UPDATE: As of today (March 21, 2014), not even one pastor with a Reformed inclination has left. I might be mistaken, but it looks like they have been co-opted.

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Conform, Reform or Leave? Part Two

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