Should I stay?
Stuart: We're going to be looking at what would happen if someone’s considering leaving their church or denomination because the leadership's departed from orthodox teaching. Do you have any general thoughts on this?
Ed: I'm part of the Church of England that is in the process of walking away from orthodoxy. My local church is my family. I’m the third generation of my family to work in an Anglican church. I’ve given the last 25 years of my life to serving churches.
Leaving church is a big deal
Stuart: It is right that we're committed to our churches, but there's no such thing as the perfect church. There is the consumerist mindset in the West of “I’m not happy. I'm going to go shopping for a new church.”
Ed: I've been on the receiving end of this consumerist mentality. People who are really committed to a local church family through the ups and downs of life show maturity. If you go to a church that you are completely happy with, that should ring alarm bells, because genuine family life always has its difficulties.
Stuart: Within one church fellowship there could be theological differences over secondary matters and the Bible gives accommodation for that in Romans 14, doesn't it?
Ed: Yes. I disagree with probably about half my church on baptism and women preaching. We should embrace people who have different perspectives because they are church family. But we must be united on things that are first order issues. Being in a church which successfully holds together disagreements in secondary areas should be humbling. We love Jesus and may need to express our views less stridently.
Leaving a church is a ‘luxury’
Stuart: In church history, you might have just had one church that you went to and there wasn't really another option. You couldn’t say “I’ll go to another church down the road.”
Ed: I live in a big city with a whole range of good Bible, believing churches. I advise people just to plump for one. There are so many people in different parts of the world who would love more than one to choose from. It’s a luxury for us, so be more grateful!
Commitment is good for us
Stuart: Being committed to a local body of believers, not necessarily for life, but for a decent amount of time, does allow you to get involved and not sit on the fence.
Ed: I was really struck overhearing a friend recently advising young single, celibate gay Christians to stay somewhere. Join a church, build yourself a family. I think that’s good theologically, but also good pastorally, especially for those of us who are single.
Principles for staying or leaving
Stuart: In the West a lot of churches and denominations are departing from biblical orthodox teaching, particularly on sexuality. What sort of principles you would offer to someone who’s wondering whether to stay or go?
Ed: There are no easy answers. If you're in the position to positively affect and change a local church or denomination that's going in the wrong direction, then stay. If your conscience allows you to be part of a mixed denomination where there are people that believe different things to you, you might fight for the truth. Whereas, if you have a really tender conscience, it’s probably better to leave. In the 60’s there were a number of bishops who didn't believe the creed. But people like John Stott stayed. And now, in 2023, there's creedal orthodoxy in the Church of England. So don’t necessarily rush to the door.
Stuart: That's really encouraging, isn't it? To remember that God is sovereign over the church. We need an almost prophetic voice of reminding the church what the Bible says.
Ed: Those who stay can have a positive effect, but actually also some of those who leave can too. People setting up new vibrant churches often is a challenge to the denomination they've left. The Wesley brothers setting up Methodism meant that were much more successful at reaching out, particularly to working class people. In God's sovereignty He's going to build His church.
Stuart: That’s good. This is a wake-up call. If you're staying, then you could be an increasingly lonely voice calling people back to orthodoxy, but if you're going, you could be pioneering something new.
Ed: It would be much easier if I just walked away from the Church of England at this point. I’m in my mid-40s now and halfway through my working life and ministry. Do I really want to spend the next 25 years seeking to return the Church of England to orthodoxy when it comes to sexual ethics? Some people are just called to contend for the gospel in really difficult circumstances. Perhaps they never saw the fruit of 30 years of church decline, but the result of their prayers is that there's now a flourishing gospel ministry.
Staying to contend for truth
Stuart: In Revelation 2, Jesus challenges the church in Thyatira saying, “You tolerate this woman, Jezebel who is teaching sexual immorality.” So, if we stay, we shouldn't be accused of colluding with liberal teaching, but also not just letting things drift and keeping the peace. One of our members, Chloe, wrote about going to a Church of England church where the leader had held to an orthodox position on sexuality, but he later changed his mind. Chloe wrote to the minister and warned him that he was leading people astray, not unkindly, but clearly. She had fairly frank conversations with other people in the fellowship and that was painful. But she felt, in all due conscience, that she needed to explain the reasons for leaving.
Ed: Chloe would seem to be a beautiful example of the sort of speaking the truth in love, which the Apostle Paul encourages to do in Ephesians 4. Leaving well is so important. We need to point out the fact that actually changing their sexual ethics might mean that people are excluded.
Stuart: The great irony in her story was that the minister said, “Well, I think we need to be a more inclusive church.” Chloe left the church and was excluded because of what she believed.
When a church stops being true
Ed: In 1 John there are markers of authentic Christianity. If your church denies the deity of Christ, then it's not a Christian church. If it doesn't see obedience to God's words and God's will as important, is it actually genuinely a Christian church?
Stuart: When the church leadership has left behind biblical teaching, they're really the ones who've done the departing. Whether you stay or leave, there may be some heart work to do, so that you don't you stay or leave with bitterness and resentment.
Ed: It's going to be really hard to trust the leadership of your new church. Allow yourself the time to grieve and to heal. It's about joining well too. When people have joined my church after a difficult departure, I haven't rushed them into service, because they have just experienced something really traumatic.
The same-sex attracted Christian
Stuart: I moved church in 2013 largely for good reasons, but it did in some ways set me back a little bit. There was a cost in leaving, not just in terms of the upheaval, but also perhaps putting things on hold in terms of my ability to serve.
I'm just wondering if there are any specific principles we need to highlight for the person who is same-sex attracted when the church leadership turns to revisionist teaching?
Ed: I have the support of my local church family in living a single celibate life. As a same-sex attracted believer, God's Word encourages me to embrace this gift. Knowing I could have a same-sex sexual relationship blessed by leaders in my church would break down the trust I have in the leaders.
Stuart: Yes. One of our members found himself in a church with a mixture of theology on sexuality. Part of him just wanted to ignore the biblical teaching and follow his feelings. He needed his brothers and sisters though to encourage him on the narrow way. Thanks so much, Ed, for sharing your wisdom on these matters.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2023 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Autumn 2023 edition of Ascend
To give space to discuss certain articles in greater depth, the TFT staff team will be recording occasional podcasts under the banner “Ascend Higher”, covering the issues raised in a more conversational style. To hear it for yourself, you can use the audio player below.