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Why Stay in a Sick Church?

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Over the past few years, I have at times weighed in on the question of why orthodox, Bible-believing Christians should stay in denominations that flirt with heresy or abandon biblical authority. In particular, I have spoken of my own involvement in  the Presbyterian Church (USA), and why I remain in this denomination in spite of numerous frustrations and grave concerns about it.

The Episcopal Church often seems to be plagued with even greater problems than the PC(USA). Many Episcopalian churches and even some dioceses have left their denomination and affiliated with other Anglican dioceses in other parts of the world. Moreoever, there is a move afoot to form a new Anglican denomination in North America. I have many friends who are a part of this movement. I also have many friends who remain loyal to the Episcopal Church, quite a few of whom are solidly evangelical in their theology.

Christianity Today’s website has just published a fascinating interview with a leading Episcopalian who is remaining in his denomination even though, as a solidly orthodox, Bible-believing Christian, he has many concerns about the direction of the Episcopal Church. The Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson is the Rector (Senior Pastor) of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. With over 8,000 members, St. Martin’s is the largest parish in the denomination. I highly recommend that you read Rev. Levenson’s interview. It is full of wisdom and deserves a careful reading by all who are part of a church, especially by those of us who are members of denominations in crisis.

(I happen to know quite a few members of St. Martin’s because they come to Laity Lodge. They’re fine folk: faithful, committed, worshipful. In fact, I’ll be teaching a group from St. Martin’s in a couple of weeks when they join us for their annual Laity Lodge retreat.)

Oh, by the way, “sick” as in “Why stay in a sick church?” is Rev. Levenson’s word. I would feel hesitant to use this of another church or denomination, though I find it an apt description of my own denomination. We who are sick need healing. We need the Healer.

Topics: Church Life |

12 Responses to “Why Stay in a Sick Church?”

  1. Ray Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 5:47 am

    Hmmm, getting primed for the vote on proposed PC(USA) amendments, are we? Honestly, I think your blog is a GREAT place to share ideas as that process approaches. In Atlanta we’re voting in February.

    Thanks for the link to the interview with Dr. Levenson. He had some very good things to say. I’m solidly in the PC(USA), and I’m staying. For now. There is a line beyond which I will follow my conscience rather than the denomination, but I’m not really sure where that line is. Part of the problem is that the denomination is so institutionally wishy-washy that there is never an easily distinguishable line to see.

    I hope you will consider a series about this topic like you did just after the last GA.

    Thanks again for everything you do!

  2. Evan Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 6:38 am

    Rev. Levenson raises many fine points about unity, and I have no dog in the fight over leaving or staying in the two denominations in question. The issues over gay marriage and the like are merely the symptoms. The root issue always turns on the unique divinity and Lordship of Jesus and His revelation in the Scriptures. While it is only anecdotal evidence, I have never yet read about or run into a supporter of sexual freedom who did not also start in about “There are many ways to salvation” and start gymnastic contortions over why the clear commands of Scripture can be ignored. “No one comes to the Father except through me” is typically reduced to PostModern mush.

    The first question that must be addressed is when to call heresy “heresy.”

    The second question is when continued affiliation will not bring “unity” but merely provide more money, resources and prestige to those denying the Lordship of Jesus. To draw a parallel: there are any number of pro-life politicians who have affiliated with a party whose leadership (to be brief) continually empowers abortion. By their membership in that party, they ensure that their pro-abortion party leadership will have the majority and thus chair the committees and make the rules that will defeat the pro-life agenda at every turn. In 30 years, they have had next to zero influence on changing the course of their pro-abortion party, and it can be argued that they have enabled the other side to prevail by not leaving.

    I was hoping for a better explanation from Rev. Levenson in that regard, and this is not an easy issue. Merely invoking “unity” without addressing whether or not the other side even still constitutes “brethren in Christ” is problematic. I would not vote to call a pastor who is fine with the worship of Krishna, Gaia or Buddha as well as Jesus, nor would I expect that “unity” is ever possible with them.

    This is not to say that remaining as Rev. Levenson is doing cannot possibly be the right course, but only that I do not see how he expects to affect the situation to a positive resolution. I may have missed such an explanation completely, but not breaking up merely for the sake of not breaking up seems to be where he is coming from, and I cannot understand that.

  3. Ray Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 7:06 am

    Evan, great points. In many ways Unity has become an idol that seduces well-intentioned people away from the unity described in scripture.

  4. William Cody Bateman Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 7:17 am

    Call it semantics but the “church” you speak of refers to a denomination, not the church that is the living body of Jesus Christ Himself!

    His “church” is alive and well - but, the man-centered traditions that His “church” chooses to participate in is, as you say so well… sick!

    After 35 years of following Jesus Christ and His gospel - I am pursuaded to cast off “institutional church” all together and go back to the description of fellowship found in the Books of Acts and the epistle letters.

    The power of the Gospel and Word of our Christ and Lord Jesus - was more than suffecient to overcome even the gates of hell via persecutions, wolves, false doctrines, martydom and lukewarmness; from Pentecost to 1975 (where I was introduced to Jesus Christ by the Spirit at the foot of Calvary’s tree).

    As far as enduring within a methodology that preaches another Jesus and another gospel - the rector, despite is faithful years of service, seems to have ignored Paul’s plea to “come out from among them.”

    What is needed is another historical reformation - this time, from the bondage of institution itself… a modern application of antidisestablishmentarianism!

  5. Neil Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 7:33 am

    There are many Methodist churches I wouldn’t send my dogs to, let alone my family. They are “sick” in the sense of being ill and in the sense of being disgusting. Seriously, in one Methodist conference they voted roughly 60/40 that heterosexuality, homosexuality and bi-sexuality are all gifts from God and that this should be taught from the pulpits and Sunday School classes. I am not making this up.

    Then there is the denominational support for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, one of the more vile pro-abortion organizations out there. That support has only been sustained by some ugly politics and lies told at our General Conferences.

    But our conference and church are more conservative. We have three Bible-believing pastors (I know that should be a redundancy, but sadly it is not) and I am fairly happy with the church overall. Biblical illiteracy is a problem, but it seems like most churches have that issue.

    Methodism had great beginnings, I think, but the theological Liberals really messed things up the last few decades. As was the case in many denominations, these leaders either lied at their ordination vows or changed their minds later. If they changed their minds and left the church, I would have respected that. But they kept cashing paychecks with “United Methodist Church” on them. They took money from people who believed in the essentials of the faith and then taught them that the essentials weren’t true.

    But I’m going to stick around a bit longer. If we ever go the way of the Episcopal church, then the first sound you’ll hear is me leaving the building.

  6. Bill Goff Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Happy New Year, Mark!
    In light of current events, I am disappointed that so far this year you have addressed issues in your blog that are trivial or tangential. I am sure you could address the issues of war and peace which are so pressing now with the United States involved in two wars and watching a war in Gaza where hundreds of civilians are being killed while Israel and Hamas accuse each other of being the source of the problem. I am also confident that you could bring insight to the current economic situation in the United States.
    I vaguely recall a statement from Martin Luther to the effect that if our preaching is not addressing the issues of the day, it is not preaching the Gospel. I hope that this will not become the future of your blog.

  7. Mark Roberts Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Bill: I understand your frustration. Unfortunately, I’ve had very little time for blogging in the last week. Combination of travel, getting back to work with lots on my desk, a couple of day long meetings, etc. etc. Sometimes my life just doesn’t allow me the time to blog about big issues, since that last thing I want to do is add more shallow commentary. The big issues take lots of time, deservedly so. Peace, and Happy New Year back at you.

  8. Steve Says:
    January 8th, 2009 at 8:18 am

    Hi Mark,

    I am enjoying your blog. Perhaps I am a little different, but I actually prefer articles that are trivial and tangential. I can respect the opinion of the person who made the comment, but I don’t think you needed to defend your blog. No offense to the person who made the comment, but it reminds me of people that come up and complain about the sermon you just preached. I used to get all twisted up inside when it happened. Now I realize I can’t hit a home run every time I step in the pulpit. Blog on!

  9. Tom Says:
    January 12th, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    For whatever it’s worth:

    “The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ . . . On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” -Cyprian of Carthage (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).

    “It is to Peter that he says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ [Matt. 16:18]. Where Peter is, there is the Church. And where the Church is, no death is there, but life eternal” -Ambrose of Milan (Commentary on Twelve Psalms of David 40:30 [A.D. 389]).

    “If the very order of episcopal succession is to be considered, how much more surely, truly, and safely do we number them [the bishops of Rome] from Peter himself, to whom, as to one representing the whole Church, the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer it.’ Peter was succeeded by Linus, Linus by Clement. … In this order of succession a Donatist bishop is not to be found” -Augustine (Letters 53:1:2 [A.D. 412]).

    “[T]he Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [and] whatever you shall have bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. . . . What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when he conferred this personally upon Peter? Upon *you*, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to *you* the keys” -Tertullian (Modesty 21:9–10 [A.D. 220]).

  10. Ray Says:
    January 12th, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    I’ve missed the commentary from our Catholic theologian. Welcome back!

  11. Tom Says:
    January 12th, 2009 at 9:23 pm


    1. Flattering, but I’m no theologian, that’s for sure! Just a Catholic struggling to love God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength.

    2. “Missed” the commentary?! I have to exercise restraint and take routine leaves-of-absence for the sake of Christian charity. We can all grit our teeth and bare with the occasional uninvited and annoying poster. But I hardly think it my place to become a regular; forever trying Dr. Robert’s patience, and over-extending my welcome.

    You guys have been very kind and tolerant of my random $0.02. I’m afraid I just can’t step up my guerilla tactics any more than I have and expect positive feedback. I’d prefer not to ruin this friendly relationship. :)

    We are on the same team afterall.

  12. Deb Swain Says:
    January 24th, 2009 at 5:54 am

    I typed in why stay, as to why stay in this world. Started reading your site and my shattered thinking could not absord all in the article but it was enough to remind me of my Savior, the one name that can save me by His blood. I don’t know all the laws of the church, your church, your faith but I know what the Lord did in my life one raining afternoon day when all was hopeless and gone. I am gald that the Lord led me to your site, just a gentle reminder that He is alive and in control. No debating the truth that Jesus Christ in the only answer. Thank you for your work that you do, we all have a corner, a place in His kingdom that is so importan. God bless you, Deb


Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

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