When to jump ship?

Anyone in a mainline denomination infected by liberalism, or some other divergence from the evangelical faith, will have faced the question of when to stay or when to go? How bad does the denomination have to get before you decide to abandon ship?

Recently, this question came closer to home as an evangelical Anglican pastor in Australia, when a bishop in another diocese knowingly appointed a clergyman in an open same-sex relationship to charge of a parish. The matter was openly reported in the diocesan newspaper. (So the matter is public and I could provide links, but do not wish to give any oxygen to this bishop and his actions.)

My own Sydney Diocese is staunchly evangelical, mainly with a reformed flavour. As well as contradicting Scripture, we believe this move clearly breaches the agreement at the Lambeth bishops conference in 1998 (Resolution 1.10), and our national code of conduct for church workers, Faithfulness in Service (pdf, §7.4) and other national Anglican protocols and standards.

In addition, there is a high (not total) degree of independence in the governance of each diocese in Australia.

Nevertheless, this unbiblical move somehow makes it even more embarrassing and difficult for evangelicals to be an Anglican in Australia than similar moves when they occurred overseas. After all, they were in entirely different continents, but this was in our own backyard, on our own familiar shores.

As so often, I have found the wisdom of Bishop J. C. Ryle so helpful. The words that follow were part of an essay entitled “The Lord’s Supper” first published in 1877. In another context today, I found them persuasive and stirring. Take it away Bishop Ryle…

It is a cheap and easy remedy to secede from a Church when we see evils round us, but it is not always the wisest one. To pull down a house because the chimney smokes, to chop off a hand because we have cut our finger, to forsake a ship because she has sprung a leak and makes a little water, – all this we know is childish impatience. But is it a wise man’s act to forsake a Church because things in our own parish, and under our own minister in that Church, are wrong? I answer decidedly and unhesitatingly, No!

It is not so sure as it seems that we mend matters by leaving the Church of England. Every man knows the faults of his own house, but he never knows the faults of another till he moves into it, and then perhaps he finds he is worse off than he was before his move. There are often smoky chimneys, and bad drains, and draughts, and doors that will not shut, and windows that will not open, in No. 2 as well as in No. 1. All is not perfect among Dissenters and Plymouth Brethren. We may find to our cost, if we join them in disgust with the Church of England, that we have only changed one sort of evil for another, and that the chimney smokes in chapel as well as in church.

It is very certain that a sensible and well-instructed layman can do an immense deal of good to the Church of England, – can check much evil and promote Christ’s truth, – if he will only hold his ground and use all lawful means. Public opinion is very powerful. Exposure of extreme malpractice has a great effect. Bishops cannot all together ignore appeals from the laity. By much importunity even the most cautious occupants of the Episcopal bench may be roused to action. The press is open to every man. In short, there is much to be done, though, like anything else that is good, it may give much trouble. And as for a man’s own soul, he must be in a strange position if he cannot hear the Gospel in some Church near him. At the worst he has the Bible, the throne of grace, and the Lord Jesus Christ always near him at his own home.

I say these things as one who is called a Low Churchman, and as one who feels a righteous indignation at the Romanizing proceedings of many clergymen in our own day. I mourn over the danger done to the Church of England by the Ritualism of this day. I mourn over the many driven in disgust out of the pale of our Zion. But Low Churchmen as I am called, I am a Churchman, and I am anxious that no one should be goaded into doing rash and hasty things by the proceedings to which I have alluded. So long as we have truth, liberty, and an unaltered Confession of faith in the Church of England, so long I am convinced that the way of patience is much better than the way of secession.

When the Thirty-nine Articles are altered,- when the Prayer-book is revised on Romish principles and filled with Popery, – when the Bible is withdrawn from the reading desk , – when the pulpit is shut against the Gospel, – when the mass is formally restored in every parish by Act of Parliament, – when, in fact, our present order of things in the Church of England is altered by a statute, and Queen, Lords, and Commons command that our parish churches can be given over to procession, incenses, crosses, images, banner, flowers, gorgeous vestments, idolatrous veneration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, mumbled prayers, gabbled-over apocryphal lessons, short, dry, sapless sermons, histrionic gestures and postures, bowings, crossings, and the like, – when these things come to pass by law and rule, then it will be time for us all to leave the Church of England. Then we may arise and say with one voice, “Let us depart, for God is not here.”

But till that time, – and God forbid it should ever come; till that time, – and when it does come, there will be a good many seceders; till that time let us stand fast and fight for the truth. Let us not desert our post to save trouble, and move out to please our adversaries, and spike our guns to avoid a battle. No! In the name of God, let us fight on even we are like the 300 at Thermopylae, – few with us, many against us, and traitors on every side. Let us fight on, and contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.

The good ship of the Church of England may have some rotten planks about her. The crew may, many of them, be useless and mutinous, and not trustworthy. But there are still some faithful ones among them. There is still hope for the good old craft. The Great Pilot has not yet left her. Let us therefore stick by the ship.1

What do you think of what the Bishop argues?

If you find yourself contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), I hope you find his words rousing, and can work out the application to your own situation.

As for me, the Anglican flotilla is taking on water, but I am persuaded not to abandon my particular ship yet!

  1. Source: Knots Untied: Being plain statements on disputed points in Religion from the standpoint of an Evangelical Churchman, (James Clarke, 1964 ed.) pages 148-149.

24 thoughts on “When to jump ship?

  1. While there is much mutinous murmuring among some of the crew, and while there are scurvy knaves in need of good biblical limes, and while sin which the Captain will never approve infests some of the decks, and sometimes even the upper deck, and while some people given a turn at the wheel have a desire to steer us towards treacherous shoals, we do, nevertheless, as you say, have a diocese or two or three where the crew is mainly faithful to the Captain’s orders and official standards which are true to his will. There are in addition other dioceses where many of the crew, lay and clerical, are faithful to the truth and are keen on the ship having right navigation. Let us man the old vessel for as long as we can.

    On the other hand, I don’t think I could remain part of the crew in some Anglican parishes in Australia.

  2. What are the advantages to a formal/legal affiliation to a national Anglican denomination or international Anglican communion? I would think that an informal affiliation with like-minded Christians would be much more profitable.

    The Anglican church started out as a state institution (and is still somewhat the same in England.) It was necessary to be broad and inclusive, or else the state would have to get involved with theological dissenters. But we don’t live in a country with any institutionalised church. Australian Anglicans should take heresy seriously and purge the church of false teachers. If that’s not possible then they should separate themselves from those teachers.

  3. Dannii, thanks for the question and comment.

    Firstly a comment that each national Anglican province is legally independent of Anglican provinces in other countries. We have a shared history stemming of CofE in England. And part of that history is the 39 Articles and Book of Common Prayer, which are not inspired, and not perfect, but are solidly orthodox, gospel-centred, Bible-based, grace upholding, teaching justification by faith only, etc.

    In addition, there are no effectively two international Anglican Communions now (with some overlap) – the traditional one around Archbishop of Canterbury, which has moved strongly by drift and worse in the liberal direction, and the orthodox Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA), which includes some orthodox Anglo-Catholics, some Bible-based charismatic Anglicans and many evangelical Anglicans with a more reformed bent in their theology. This international alignment is via fellowship and core agreement in biblical truth (with some limited diversity) rather than legal structure in the main.

    The evangelical Diocese of Sydney to which I belong is a strong driver behind the FCA. We have had a long history in Australia of cooperating interdenominationally through such movements as SU, AFES, KCC. So I think we have moved pretty clearly to the affiliation model you mention.

    Advantages of formal affiliation to national Anglican denomination? Off the top of my head.
    1. The legal formularies and standards for our worship are Bible-based, moderate but clearly reformed evangelical in expression. In particular, a history of reading the Bible at length in church!
    2. The name is sometimes quite helpful, because in society, the Anglicans are seen as respectable and not quite so whacky, as some of our dear brothers in the Lord (many of whom are not whacky) who sail under different banners.
    3. Accountability of a good fellowship via the denomination and the people in its structures.
    4. Parish system, where we see every single person in a diocese as someone’ responsibility to try and reach, if possible.
    5. Some helpful guidance for church from our liturgical heritage, but with considerable freedom of approach now.
    6. Often a rich store of experience and resources. At least in my diocese, our denomination has been a leader in developing policies and resources in such matters as teaching Sunday School, SRE (school scripture), child protection, youth ministry support, social ethics/issues commentary and resources, OH&S/WH&S policies, etc. Don’t have to reinvent the wheel for all this.

    If I wait longer I will think of more. There are disadvantages too of course.

    • My question was not so much about the value of a diocese, but of a diocese being legally/formally affiliated with national or international groups (legally for national and formally for international). Because that’s the question that is being asked most often I think: should Sydney split from the Australian Anglican church or the Anglican Communion, not should the Sydney diocese exist at all. Ryles quote says that there is value in such affiliations, but doesn’t say what they are.

      1. I don’t understand what you’re saying. A constitution might be bible based but that doesn’t mean the organisation should exist.
      2. Independent Baptist churches can use the Baptist “name”, so I don’t see why independent Anglican churches couldn’t do the same, especially if the independence is at the diocesan level.
      3. It’s a bit of an open question: does top down authority really help the church? When the authorities are bad, no way (as is the case for my Brisbane diocese). When they are good? Possibly good, possibly only neutral.
      4. As I said, I was thinking of diocesan independence, not single church independence. An independent Sydney Anglican diocese could still work towards geographical comprehensiveness.
      5/6. Neither of these depend on a formal/legal affiliation so they can’t be advantages of one.

      From that I don’t think most of your points really answered my question (sorry!) Possibly the strongest advantage could be the parish system – a national healthy evangelical church could work to reach every suburb and community in the whole nation. But I’m not sure we should really be trying to do that. While the global church does have a globally comprehensive mission, I as an individual am not personally responsible for the evangelism of 7 billion people. I think a congregation has a responsibility for the people around it. Should we form larger organisations so that we can bite off a bigger responsibility? I don’t know.

      • Hi Dannii, thanks for the interchange. I agree that I misunderstood your question to some extent. I was answering from the point of view of a local church (pretty much the only sort outside of the heavenlies) being a part of a denomination.

        They are real advantages, so even if they can exist elsewhere, it is still relevant to note their existence in our situation and to ask whether the costs outweigh the benefits of staying.

        Still, as you note, I was not much distinguishing between two key levels in Anglicanism, the Diocese (regional), or the Province (national), let alone the Communion (international). Basically in Australia, the Diocese is the more significant unit for organisation, than the National, but all the Australian Dioceses are bound together legally by a national Anglican constitution (which is brought into civil force for Anglicans by various secular legal means, e.g. acts of various state parliaments).

        Anyway, for us evangelical Anglicans in my neck of the woods, most of the advantages I identified exist at the Diocesan level, and only some exist at the national level, and often in a watered down way.

        Hence the sort of questions we ask: should we stay (nationally) or should we go? Of course, even if you have a clear theological answer, legally and practically it is not very easy just to go, especially if you want to take your property. Just witness the plethora of court cases in North America. One thinks of unscrambling the egg. But sometimes, it is just better to walk away.

        One small thing, on my number 3, I said

        3. Accountability of a good fellowship via the denomination and the people in its structures.

        . You interpreted this to mean “top down authority”. I think this is a truncated understanding of what I was suggesting, and although there is the potential for top down authority to go a but crazy in out system, mostly in our diocese it doesn’t too much, and is vigorously objected to if it does. And even so, it is by no means what I was referring to as the key advantage. There are far more people in the association and even in the head office, who are not bishops, who are very helpful and beneficial and bring various types of accountability.

  4. Dannii, on your comment on rooting out heresy, I agree that where possible it would be good to expel the gospel minister who is clearly heretical. If not, then separation from such false teachers is right.

    A couple of thoughts. Firstly, it has sometimes been said (helpfully, perhaps) that it is worth distinguishing between false teachers and heretics. The latter is a sub-category (on a more serious level) of the former.

    The heretic denies widely agreed orthodox truths of biblical Christianity (e.g. the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, the atoning work of Christ for sins on the cross, and I would argue, justification by grace through faith only), where a mistake on this can cost a person their salvation.

    Other kinds of false teacher more broadly may deny all sorts of other biblical teachings, but to follow such a person’s teaching at that point does not necessarily threaten your salvation.

    It’s a spectrum not an absolute either-or, but a distinction worth considering.

    My second thought is that it is not just Anglicans but most denominations which have had enormous trouble expelling heretics (denominationally I mean, not just congregationally). It is far easier to expel an adulterous minister than one who has undermined the deity of Christ. There are many reasons for this.

    One of the biggest is that false teaching is a lot harder to pin down than (some) immoral conduct. If push comes to shove, in some sort of proceedings against a minister for false teaching, it is always very easy to claim your words are misinterpreted, and that you didn’t quite mean it like that, and to find (admittedly stretched) interpretations of your words to say they are within the range of legitimate possibilities, or to say you were just flying an academic kite rather than advancing a definite position etc. With something like adultery, if it is proved, it is pretty clear cut. Behaviour is more externally measurable than belief, if I can oversimplify. Hence successful verdicts against heretics in heresy trials are hard to secure.

    And there are all sorts of secondary reasons. For example, the laws of the land, employment laws, libel laws, etc can be added complications.

    Often separation from and public identification of clear false teachers is the best approach at a denominational level and beyond. And that is what has happened in our denomination. Often the worst sort of unbiblical teaching or behaviour has been firmly but clearly identified, critiqued and warned against by evangelical Anglicans in the public arena. Sometimes we have paid a heavy price in terms of criticism received in return for being judgmental.

    I suspect very few denominations will be free of these tensions. I think that was part of Ryle’s point.

    • I agree that there’s a difference between heretics and false teachers: we’re all heretics but only some of us teach! We all have wrong beliefs, and we should never be content with that. Finding and fixing our heretical beliefs in ourselves and others should be a constant process. But of course, it’s hard to do that.

      Knowing that we’re all heretics, when we discover another’s heresy, how do we choose what action to take? There are many possible actions: we could try to correct them, we could ignore it altogether, we could call out their heresies, or we could disassociate from them.

      If denominations must exist, then I think they should have theological positions and enforce them; to not do is negligent. Now maybe the Sydney diocese does do that, but it’s clear that the Australian Anglican church does not/cannot. Behaviour is much easier to identify that belief, but behaviour is what we’re dealing with. Appointing people in homosexual relationships to positions of authority is clearly a sinful behaviour. [Edit: sentence removed by author.] Heretics who out themselves should be dealt with. If the Australian Anglican church cannot deal with them then I’m not sure what the point of it existing is.

      • I shouldn’t have wrote what I did concerning [Edit: the deleted matter just prior] – as Sandy said it can be easy for your words to be misunderstood, so I should only have written what I heard myself. I withdraw that sentence.

        • Thank you, Dannii, for adjusting your comments.

          I think you may have misunderstood my distinction between heretics (or better, heretical teachers) and other types of false teachers.

          Heretical teachers deny central credal matters that undermine salvation.

          False teaches deny other secondary biblical truths that (in themselves) don’t necessarily undermine salvation. For example, I would argue that saying tongues speaking is the usual evidence of being filled with the Spirit is false teaching. But I don’t think it necessarily undermines salvation and makes the teacher of such a heretic. I think that Arminianism is false, but totally believe you can preach in an Arminian way and be truly saved and a good brother in the Lord (thank God for Billy Graham!)

          So that means I do not think we are all heretics, as you said. No, I think many who claim the name of Christian are orthodox believers (not perfect in doctrinal understanding, and certainly not perfect in faith and repentance and the good deeds which are the fruit). Orthodox in belief and teaching, not heretical.

          Hopefully that’s a bit clearer.

          However, you are quite right to point out that the Bishop who appointed an open homosexual engaged in a clear behaviour, not just enunciated a doctrinal position (which he and others could latter muddy the waters about its precise meaning).

          In such cases, I think avenues for action are being pursued. Once again, if action is to happen first of all, there may well be some personal private discussions at a one-to-one level, or between colleagues. There is a need for careful fact-checking, and clarification (yes, even in something like the issue described here.) There may also be public opposition from church leaders (and there has been). And there is exploration of what is legally and constitutionally possible in a denomination. I can assure you that for better or worse, this takes time and considerable effort. And sometimes the structural and legal heritage of the past proves not to be as workable for the ends one hoped it was useful for. And either reform to the rules has to be achieved first, or you give up on action, and contemplate such things as disassociation from the false teacher, or even a more wholesale withdrawal.

          But we should not be surprised at that. The debate over circumcision had quite a long lead up (some months at least) before the Council of Jerusalem, which was quite a significant undertaking it seems. And then the communication of the decision required significant effort as well. Exactly how events reported in Galatians fits into the chronology is a little uncertain, but once again, although described in the space of a dozen of so verses, the events must have spanned some months, and various types of journeys, letters, and meetings public and private.

          As I an impatient person, who likes to call a spade a spade, I find some of this frustrating. But it is reality if you have a legal, constitutional structure, and also if you wish to operate in a Christian way, lawfully, orderly, truthfully, fairly, charitably, seeking repentance and reconciliation if possible etc.

          Slow and messy and sometimes still frustrating at the end.

        • Thanks for your response! Firstly, I know I use the word heresy differently from most people. I think that nearly every wrong belief would have gospel significance, if we followed it through to its logical conclusion. Every wrong idea matters. But thankfully we are all experts at doublethink; we all believe many contradictory things. Most of these ideas remain unconnected, and so the core of our gospel understanding remains intact. But sometimes they get connected and contaminate our understanding of the gospel. It’s good to correct heresies when they’re unconnected. It’s essential to correct them when they get connected.

          As an example I believe that infant baptism is deeply heretical, but luckily it doesn’t seem many people follow it to its conclusions. One person who did was Craig Schwarze who said that the children of Christian parents don’t need to be converted. (http://sydneyanglicans.net/life/daytoday/baptise_those_babies/) I am very thankful that my parents did think I was a little pagan who needed converting! If they hadn’t, I might not be a Christian now.

          Similarly with tongues. The charismatic doctrine of tongues is wrong and should be corrected if possible. But when people start teaching that you don’t have the spirit unless you’ve spoken in tongues, then they’re denying the gospel.

          I don’t think it always matters whether or not the teacher explicitly links heresy to gospel matters, because we must assume that some listeners will. So if a teacher is teaching a big enough wrong doctrine, then it needs to be strongly corrected, even if they don’t themselves undermine salvation.

          I think it’s noteworthy that what the Bible calls a false teacher could be what you call a false teacher, or what you call a heretic. Acts 20:29-30 and 1 Tim 4:1-5 seem to be genuinely saved, but 2 Tim 3:1-9 and 2 Peter 2 and Jude are what you’d call a heretic.

          As to our Australian situation I must admit I am an idealist. I’d love for the Anglican church to reform itself but I don’t imagine it will ever happen. But I ask questions as if such a thing could happen. It must be hard to deal with these problems when your constitution is an act of parliament!

        • Tony’s comment here is another example of how heresies interact with true doctrines: http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/2012/08/is-this-christianity/#comment-17426

          Many people have concerns about Lewis’s theology. As all of us do, he believed some wrong things, and Tony could well be right that it was a sort of Platonism. His Platonism and Christianity swirled around together, but only occasionally made contact. Because his understanding of the gospel is largely intact we don’t need to denounce him, but we do need to be careful. If someone is strongly influenced by Lewis’s writings then they could adopt his Platonism and make all the connections which Lewis avoided. And that’s when unsystematic heresy becomes systematic heresy.

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  6. While I’m no longer in the Sydney Anglican scene there is so much truth in what JC Ryle writes about church, because it’s not only in the the Anglican Church but in all churches, including the one I’m Pastoring. The grass is not greener on the other side, but we stick at upholding the truth of the gospel and trust God to give us the strength to fight the good fight, because there are those faithful few who are worth encouraging and working with.

    • Thanks Angelo, we don’t have like buttons for comments, but you get one from me for this, because it reminds us that in the end Ryle’s comment is not just directed to one denomination but to any and all that wish to be evangelical. False teachers will always arise in our midst and there will be deviations and corruptions and vigilance is needed, regardless of which denomination or association we are a part of, and even if we are in a totally solo independent local church (perhaps even more so?)!

  7. The good bishop was right. The Reformed Episcopal Church here jumped ship in the 19th century over sacerdotalism and ritualism. And when the Anglican Church in North America jumped ship from The Episcopal Church the Anglican Church League and the Sydney Diocese heartily endorsed the new province as in “full communion”. Unfortunately, ACNA is nothing more than Tractarianism, Ritualism and Sacerdotalism all over again and the Reformed Episcopal Church deserted Evangelicalism for a false union with Anglo-Catholics. Maybe if Sydney were more consistent to stand with Reformed and Evangelical Anglicans rather than simply standing against the immorality of homosexuality there would be greater unity among those who stand on Scripture alone as the final authority.

    • Charlie, I don’t know enough about the North American scene, but I certainly admit to thinking co-belligerence against liberalism in the church or secular humanistic ethical pushes in the world have made for very strange bedfellows.

      One time I looked up the website of the church of an Anglo Catholic minister in Australia who was being spoken of with some appreciation by some in our circles for his stand against liberal theology and divergent sexual ethics. The website was one of the biggest shrines to mariolatry that I have ever seen and I found it quite upsetting due to the dishonour I believe it brings to the Lord Jesus (and the embarrassment I suspect it would bring to Mary herself).

      Yet clearly many think co-belligerence (of a variety of types) is OK at some points, and draw the line in different places depending on the issue and context.

      I guess I have met some sacramentally centred Anglicans (Anglo-Catholics, perhaps for want of a better term) who seem generally biblically conservative, credally orthodox and are pretty happy with BCP (but I admit I do not know them or their local church practices really, really closely, because I attend the church I serve, not elsewhere, and don’t naturally get to talk to them at great length).

      Charlie, do you see any room for what I might call political cooperation at a denominational or societal level between various types of conservatives (lets say credally orthodox) against liberal innovations in the Christians world or social engineering in our societies which undermines the created order? If so, how, and on what basis? Or would you prefer us to do what we think is necessary to oppose liberal theology or ethical immorality but ignore all association with others who are doing likewise?

  8. I think there is an enormous difference between the issues facing Ryle and those we face today: Anglo catholic teaching, while seriously unbiblical at various points, is not the same as liberal teaching on sexuality and the uniqueness of Christ. In fact, in many places, “sapless sermons” and ritual are the order of the day- worse than that, sermons that embrace heresy are the norm.

    Moreover, the Church of England is not the church; it is the demonination. There comes a point when allegiance to a denomination compromises us too much. Here in Australia I don’t think we’re at the point yet; but the day may well come sooner rather than later.

    • Thanks Phil, I think you made some good points, and more concisely than me!

      By the way, I like your typo – “demonination”!

      The serious point to keep underlining is that it is structurally simpler at the church (i.e. local congregation level) to address a false teacher. You oppose him, if he won’t repent and you can get rid of him (by persuasion or if not, lawful means), good. If you can’t and it’s serious enough, one definite option is to leave and go elsewhere that they preach the gospel. (I guess there may be some tactical or other pressing reasons why one might stay and wait the problem out in some circumstances.)

      Denominationally it is much messier as I tried to explain above to Dannii.

  9. Philip makes a good point. The denomination is not the church, as Ryle implies.

    What we’ve noticed is that it is possible to get (rightly) animated on same-sex issues but sadly less so on whether the gospel message is being heard by Australians.

    We’re glad for those of us who have already ‘jumped ship’ to see the gospel spread in our country.

    Can you stay ‘Anglican’ and reach many areas of Australia with the gospel?


    • Of course you can in many places, but it would be very hard in others.

      Go the independent evangelicals. Go the Pressies and Bapos and Reformed guys too. And no doubt others.

      • Thanks for your response Sandy.

        However, what about Syd Anglicans?

        What we’re thinking is rather than a ‘jump ship’ thinking, why don’t we plant churches as a Sydney Diocese outside our boundaries, whatever it takes? If they cannot be ‘Anglican’ we could call them something else…Gospel Churches ???? with a separate constitution.

        What actually happens if we did plant ‘Anglican’ churches attached to the Syd Diocese? Can we plant Anglican schools with ‘chaplains’ outside our boundary?

        If both are unlawful can Syd Diocese set up and support gatherings another way?

        Imagine if every Sydney church planted one or two churches outside Sydney. What joy!


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