Guarding the Pulpit
A few months back, in the aftermath of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s failure to elect a first female Moderator, a prominent Religion Correspondent, himself a Presbyterian, railed against the “male brotherhood” in his denomination. He went on to express dismay that “some male ministers are still able to bar women from preaching in their pulpits on grounds of conscience.” Leaving aside the question of women in ordained ministry – a practice rejected by the Free Presbyterian Church (see issue 7, Jan – Feb 2014, for a Biblical assessment) – there remains the issue of whether or not sessions have any right to guard their pulpits.
The Free Presbyterian Church is a product of the Biblical challenge to separate from the unscriptural trends of the age. As such, it has sought to maintain a position apart from those who seem happy to embrace, or at least tolerate, those practices. Historically, this has meant the refusal to give a platform to individuals who, themselves professedly evangelical, have been willing to enter into associations with compromisers, or who have remained in membership of denominations that have abandoned any real commitment to those articles of faith to which they claim to adhere.
But is this position valid? Does it have Biblical mandate? Is there any room for it in an age where there is ever increasing pressure for churches to cooperate in resisting the relentless march of secularism and atheism? Are we just guilty of ‘majoring on minors’?
For some believers, the suggestion of ecclesiastical separation is incompatible with Christian love: to refuse to fellowship with another believer is unworthy of Christ. But is this true? It is our duty to love fellow-believers (1 Peter 1:22). But if we refuse to enter into organisational fellowship with another believer, have we ceased to love him? Surely not – it is perfectly possible to have love for those with whom we do not have such fellowship because we disagree over doctrine or practice. Faced with the evidence of that which is contrary to God’s Word, is it really an act of love to deny its existence and carry on regardless? Commentator Alfred Plummer observes that “to plead for tenderness, where severity is needed, is not charity, but Laodicean lukewarmness; and mistaken tenderness may easily end up in making us ‘partakers in evil works’.”
And this danger is all the more pronounced in respect of denominational fellowship. We may enjoy personal fellowship with some, but stop short of fellowship on a local church level. This is because the church has doctrinal criteria that go beyond what is required in the area of personal fellowship. Your church will have clear creedal positions, Biblically-based and winning your approval, but denied by the body to which your friend belongs. His membership of the said body hinders fellowship at church level.
And there are other circumstances preventing cooperation with genuine believers. The New Testament provides case studies. If, for instance, a believer is propagating falsehood, teachings incompatible with our church’s Biblical doctrines, and refuses to turn from his error, fellowship cannot be offered. Paul’s treatment of Hymanaeus and Alexander is an example of this (2 Timothy 2:18-20). Or if there is immoral behaviour and a refusal to repent, that too requires separation (1 Corinthians 5:1,13). And should there be the danger of becoming ensnared in the sins practiced by others, again, we must stand apart (1 Timothy 5:17-22). Interestingly, this passage, in v22, offers “partaker” as a translation of the Greek term (koinonia) most often rendered ‘fellowship’ in the New Testament: we are not to ‘fellowship’ with another’s sins by endorsing or approving a position he has taken. Once more, believers must stand apart from those who are disruptive. While brotherly admonition is prescribed for such (2 Thessalonians 3:15), the ultimate sanction for the unrepentant is separation (v6,14). The believer with a concern for his own reputation and testimony will not happily company with those who continue to follow a course condemned by Scripture and harmful to Christians and churches. He will be more careful about his associations, Psalm 119:63, Amos 3:3.
These considerations must impact the matter of fellowship on a denominational and local church level. They will mean that our pulpits and platforms are not thrown open to those not sharing our convictions, much less our commitment to be “separated unto the Gospel” (Romans 1:1).
Perhaps we can quantify a Biblical approach to these issues by presenting the following counsel:
We should determine our practice by the light of heaven. Will this fellowship or association glorify God? (1 Corinthians 10:31) Will He be honoured by our support of those whose beliefs and behaviour flies in the face of His Word? Clearly not – to reverence Him is to have no truck with wrongdoing and its apologists (Proverbs 8:13).
We stand against those who have embraced error, refraining from participation with them. Nevertheless, where possible, we seek their recovery. Just as Paul sought to ‘straighten out’ the erring Peter (Galatians 2:11), so we must, in love, seek to confront and instruct those who have gone astray in this age. But if we readily engage in fellowship with them, maintaining an open door to our pulpits, is not this to suggest that, really, their conduct isn’t a problem after all? In this, we do them no favours. It is not love to condone error! As the apostle put it, “Am I become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16) No, Paul’s indictment of Galatian wrongdoing proved him their best friend.
Believers must be ever aware of the fact that they are part of the family of God. No believer is an island. We have a responsibility to our fellow-believers. This is especially so for those who lead (1 Timothy 4:12). Thus we must be careful not to act in a way that will confuse the minds and weaken the stand of those who travel with us. There may be instances where leaders are well able to read the issue and to make judgements harmless to themselves, but is that so for all who observe their actions? Is there the danger that we may contribute to the establishment of a principle in the mind of an individual that will only lead him or her along a path to compromise and potential ruin?
One old preacher exhorted, ‘never sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate.’ It is a temptation not always resisted. But we must not allow the desire for popularity or the wish to pull a crowd to so blur the lines of separation that we open the flood-gates to practices that will guarantee a host of long-term problems. What looked appealing – the answer to the challenge of the hour – will, long-term, produce only negative effects.
No one pretends that it is easy to maintain a separated, Christ-exalting position – especially when the clarion call of the age is to abandon that ground, and its arguments seem all too plausible. But then, it never has been easy to “go forth…unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach.” (Hebrews 13:13)
Rev Timothy Nelson.