Should Evangelicals Leave Mainline Churches?

In 1966, at a national evangelical conference in the U.K., D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called on all British evangelicals to leave theologically mixed denominations. John Stott, sensing that many of his fellow evangelical Anglicans might actually follow Lloyd-Jones’ admonition, decided to rebuke Lloyd-Jones in front of the whole assembly and call upon his fellow evangelical Anglicans to maintain the course. Alister McGrath, in his biography of J.I. Packer, said that if Stott had not done this, there would have been an evangelical exodus out of the Anglican church.

The Stott / Lloyd-Jones debate is important for it highlights a real tension for evangelicals in mainline denominations. At what point should evangelicals simply pack up and leave the decaying husks of mainline churches that are declining all over the Western world? Complicating this even further is the fact that some Anglican evangelicals, like J.I. Packer and David Short, who at first argued for evangelicals to stay in mainline denominations, are now arguing for them to leave. Why? According to Packer and Short, the Anglican leadership have repudiated the gospel by their repudiation of biblical norms of sexuality. Simply put, they’re preaching a gospel without a need for repentance, which is no gospel at all.

No doubt, Short and Packer are right. A gospel without repentance is no gospel, and many in the leadership of mainline churches are guilty of this. Does it follow though that evangelicals should leave those denominations? Should we follow the advice of Lloyd-Jones, even if it is about 50 years after the fact?

I’m not so sure. Liberals fudging the gospel is nothing new. I mean, if John Greshem Machen is correct, theological liberalism can’t be called Christian, and he said that in the 1920s! And what about mainliners like John Spong? Spong denied the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ and he was a bishop in the Episcopal church. If there ever was an award for preaching a gospel-less Christianity, Spong certainly wouldn’t have to worry about taking second place. And he has always appeared to get a sympathetic hearing in the Episcoal church. I realize that not all are were as extreme as he is, but many are extreme enough to warrant the admonition that they’re no longer preaching the gospel.

Orthodox Christians have always had problems in the institutional church. The Wesley’s, Charles Simeon, George Whitefield, John Newton – all faced opposition in their day. Unless you’re willing to break away and start a new denomination, faithless preaching will always coexist besides faithful preaching (in varying degrees of course). To once again reference Alister McGrath’s biography of Packer, in the post-war era of the 40s and 50s, Anglican evangelicals were hemmed in on all sides. Anglo-Catholicism was vibrant, liberal theology was growing in acceptance, and most Anglicans had committed themselves to a form of ecumenism which saw a concern for ‘right doctrine’ as being out of touch with the modern world. It was in that context that Packer urged evangelicals to reform the Anglican church instead of leaving it.

I realize that mainline churches allowing ministers to marry and ordain practicing homosexuals is a terrible move for biblical orthodoxy, but I don’t see how this is materially different from other forms of theological liberalism. All we’re seeing now are the Spong’s of the church open up the bedroom doors.

If, according to thinkers like Packer and Stott, having a mixed liberal-orthodox denomination was never a reason to leave in the first place, I hardly see how having practicing ordained homosexuals are a reason to leave. If Gene Robinson becoming a bishop means you’re going to leave the Episcopal church, why was it ok to stay when John Spong was a bishop? This argument only breaks down if faithful ministers are being coerced to assent to this slouch towards Babylon. If they’re not, and orthodox congregations are given space to preach the gospel, then Stott’s response to Lloyd-Jones from 1966 would seem to still apply.