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December 8, 2014

How American Evangelicals Are NOT Following New Testament Christianity

Much more than a single article could be written detailing all the ways in which American evangelical Protestantism looks very different from the early church. Certainly not all of the developments in our external circumstances or internal practices have been for the worse.

But one key way in which American evangelicals have not been closely hewing to the faithful biblical example of our spiritual forefathers and foremothers is in the basic attitude and response we often have towards what to do about blatant unfaithfulness within the church itself.

People often romantically long for the purity of “the New Testament church.” But in the New Testament I read, I see a church with some really serious problems.

In the Revelation to John, we see Jesus Christ not giving up on but still loving certain churches, calling them to Scriptural holiness, even when the Ephesian church had forsaken its first love, the church in Pergamum included people devoted to false teaching and sexual immorality, the church in Thyatira tolerated Satanic teaching and a woman leading others into sexual immorality, the church in Sardis was spiritually dead, and the church in Laodicea had not yet repented of being so infamously lukewarm.

Members of the church in Rome were harshly judging and being stumbling blocks for each other. The very first “reconciling congregation” in church history, which took an “open and affirming” stance towards sexual sin, was the one in Corinth, which also included members with a scandalously nasty habit of dragging each other to court. The Galatian church was being led to follow a false Gospel, and heard from Paul about his own experiences elsewhere with “false brothers” who “had infiltrated our ranks.” To the Philippian church, Paul noted that some preachers of Christ were driven by insincere motives of selfish ambition and jealousy. The Colossian church was plagued by a heretical false teachings that mixed in elements from non-Christian belief systems and struck at the very heart of the Gospel. The Thessalonian church had its own struggles with practice, needing to be warned against sexual immorality and then having problems with sinful, mooching laziness. The churches in Crete, overseen by Titus, had within them a disruptive faction who were spreading false teaching, and who had become part of the church despite not even knowing God. The church folk who first received the epistle of James appear to have had an ugly habit of treating rich people better than poor people. Peter’s second letter strongly warns against the inevitable problem of churches being infiltrated by dangerous false teachers. The recipients of John’s epistles were apparently in churches in which people were evidently believing the claims of spirits and false prophets who were not from God, there had been the spread of false teachings so dangerous that they endangered Christians’ eternal salvation, and there was even a corrupt man in a church leadership position who was slandering faithful Christians and abusing his power to put some faithful Christians out of the church. Finally, Jude’s little epistle is worth taking a moment to read in its entirety. He was addressing a church into which false teachers had “secretly slipped in,” people who “pervert[ed] the grace of our God into a license for immorality.” Sound familiar?

I fear that for too many American Protestants, their first reaction if they heard of a church experiencing even one of these problems would be “if something like that was going on in my church, I would just leave and go to another church – even if that meant abandoning a faithful local congregation because of something happening in the wider denomination!”

This is a profoundly unbiblical mindset. The New Testament presents us with a number of responses to such church problems: Teaching that explicitly refutes false beliefs. Church discipline. Patient endurance. “Contending for the faith” – and note that when Jude gave that command, he was talking about fighting unfaithfulness within the church itself! Warning about the ultimate eternal consequences of persistent unfaithfulness. Waiting for eventual justice for enemies of the Gospel. Even rejoicing over some good preaching by very corrupt individuals!

But what I do not see in Scripture is this idea that when the false teachers have gained a small foothold in or even overwhelmed a local church, we have any right to just surrender everything to them, give them full, unchallenged leadership over the local flock, just run away and quit, and maybe try to rebuild everything from scratch somewhere down the road.

As long as God sustains our ministry, the Institute on Religion and Democracy is committed to contending for the faith once delivered, rather than surrendering the church to those who would hijack it for lesser agendas.

This article originally appeared on The Christian Post 

8 Responses to How American Evangelicals Are NOT Following New Testament Christianity

  1. Noel Weymouth says:

    John, I don’t know what part of the country you grew up in, but in the South, many evangelical pastors have had the experience of being “run off” by an irate congregation, which is their way of dealing with someone they perceive as a false teacher (or they may dislike him for any number of reasons). Biblically, I think that is on solid ground.

    Btw, I always smile when I read liberals’ accusation that evangelicals are “sheeple” who mindlessly follow our pastors and obey their every command. Not even remotely true!

  2. FW Ken says:

    Not to shock you, but this is not a problem specific to evangelicals. Catholics and Orthodox pretty much go through the same things.

  3. John Waller says:

    The problem of course is that in the 1st Century there wasn’t another church down the road so there was no option but to stick with the one you were in. We can only guess at what apostolic advice would have been given were such options available

  4. Pudentiana says:

    Mr. Lomperis, I really appreciated this survey of congregational problems which we all know about, but perhaps never put into the context of the 21st c. UMC. The reminder that God is greater than any sin or deception is a great encouragement to me. Keep up the good fight and we will support you, pray for you, and try to pull some weight.

  5. Salvatore Anthony Luiso says:

    It seems to me that there are indeed cases in which faithful and obedient Christians should *withdraw* from unfaithful and disobedient ones–including false teachers–upon the basis of the following passages of the Scriptures. I think that in certain cases, this may require leaving an entire local congregation.

    Matthew 18:17
    Romans 16:17
    I Corinthians 5:11-13
    Ephesians 5:11
    II Thessalonians 3:6 and 14-15
    I Timothy 6:5 (in the AV/KJV, this verse ends with the words “from such withdraw thyself”)
    II Timothy 3:5

    • Thanks for your comment, Salvatore. All those verses you cite could arguably be classed under the broad heading of “church discipline” – which I noted the absolute need for in my article. A major practical application of the commands to “avoid” and “not be partners with” certain false teachers would be NOT doing a pulpit exchange with the Unitarian congregation down the road, as I understand some 19th-century New England Congregationalist churches did. And I am not saying there’s NEVER a time to part ways as a very later resort (NOT the first resort, as in the practice of many of my fellow American evangelicals). But where does Scripture present us with a clear example of God establishing a faithfully Christian congregation, then this congregation gets infiltrated by some false teachers, and the proper response is to just surrender and let the false teachers take over the church while the true believers scatter and run away?

      • Salvatore Anthony Luiso says:

        Hi John:
        I hope you do not mind the length of my response to the question you have just posed to me. Maybe it would be best for us to discuss this matter via e-mail.
        In answer to your question, which begins “But where does Scripture present us with a clear example”: Such an example does not come to my mind. As you know, during the Apostolic Age, when the New Testament was being
        written, it was possible for an apostle to administer discipline to a congregation that had a problem with false teaching. This could be done through an epistle written to the congregation by an apostle, and also by a personal visit by an apostle. Paul’s responses to the problems with
        the congregation in Corinth come to mind–he wrote epistles to them, and he visited them in person, in order to correct their waywardness.
        Of course, today this is not possible. Today we must rely on prayer and the proper application of the Scriptures in church discipline to rid a congregation of false teachers.
        Members of certain church bodies in America, such as the LCMS, the PCA, and the SBC, are able to rely on local and denominational church governance for church discipline. In such churches, if a minister in a local
        congregation begins to teach something egregious–such as that Christ was not truly divine–the faithful and obedient members of the congregation can pray about it, remain in the congregation, and allow the offender to be dealt with according to the governance of the congregation or of the larger church body.
        Members of certain other church bodies in America, though, are NOT able to rely on local and denominational church governance for church discipline. In such cases, a local congregation, or the larger church body, may not be
        willing to administer proper discipline to a false teacher, or wolf in sheep’s clothing.
        I am not prepared to say that every faithful and obedient member of such churches should respond in the same way to a situation in which, as you say, a congregation “gets infiltrated by some false teachers”. I believe that sometimes it could be best for a faithful and obedient member to stay, and sometimes it could be best to leave. If you would like, I will explain why.
        I don’t think it is always necessary that “the true believers scatter and run away”–I think that oftentimes it is possible for the true believers to follow the Lord by leaving the congregation en masse and forming a new congregation. I think that this is a proper contemporary application of Hebrews 13:9-14.
        I could say more on this subject, but I think that this is sufficient for now.

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