Publications

Should I Stay or Should I go?

Rob Munro

Within the constraints of different manifestations of the Church of Christ, with all its disunity and mixed character, critical to a right response is a clear understanding of what errors in the church at any level should result in the responsibility for presbyters to seek appropriate discipline.

What Constitutes An Error Which Is Subject To Discipline?

The exercise of apostolic authority and discipline in the New Testament seems very carefully nuanced. In 1 Corinthians, Paul adopts various responses to the variety of questions and problems that they had written to him on. Sometimes he recognises differences between the qualities of the ministries of different people (having already challenged them about their tendency towards factionalism), but trusts that God will evaluate them on the day of Christ (eg 1 Cor.3:11-15). At other times, in the case of the man sleeping with his father’s wife, he calls for the Church under his apostolic authority to judge and excommunicate him (1 Cor.5:1-13). On other occasions, such as whether or not to marry a virgin he is engaged to, Paul allows an individual a freedom of his own will (1 Cor.7:37-38). When arguing about women in the church having a sign of being under authority, Paul appeals both to Scripture (1 Cor.11:8-9), but also to the common practice of other churches (1 Cor 11:16, 14:33). In Galatians regarding those promoting a different gospel Paul wishes they would emasculate themselves (Gal.5:12); yet in Philippians 3:15 in commending a mature attitude to faith, Paul trusts that it is God who will make clear the points of difference.

Similarly John’s letters demonstrate a variety of approaches to Christian differences. At times there is the assumption that truth is confirmed by a Spirit-given conviction (1 John 2:20-21, 26-27), yet it is also discerned through applying a variety of tests of orthodoxy (1 John 2:22-23, 3:10, 4:2-3, 4:20). Some sins do not lead to death and become the responsibility of others to pray for them, other sins do lead to death which has no responsibility to be prayed for (1 John 5:16-17). In 2 John 10-11, those who deny Jesus’ incarnation are not to be welcomed because it would share in a wicked work. Yet a leader who is gossiping maliciously against the apostle and is inhospitable is only to be challenged personally in 3 John10.

What Are The Criteria By Which An Issue Of Theological Or Moral Difference May Be Made A Matter Of Exhortation Rather Than Discipline And Excommunication?

It appears that the distinction in approaching controversies is to be made on three grounds:

First, does the issue jeopardise a person’s salvation[4] that is, is it effectively a different gospel?
These issues are those which generate a strong opposition, calling for immediate repentance of the offender and pastoral discipline for other believers. There are theological differences that jeopardise salvation, including denial of the incarnation (eg 1 John 4:2-3, 2 John 10-11) or denial of the gospel of grace (Gal.1:6). There are moral behaviours that without repentance also jeopardise a person’s salvation, including sexual immorality, idolatry, greed, etc (1 Cor.5:11). That is not to say serous moral failure is not possible and forgivable, but rather that embracing such moral evils as a ‘good’ is to exhibit fruit of a sinful nature (Gal.5:19-21) rather than the fruit of the Spirit, and is to lead to rebuke and discipline. Issues of salvation are dealt with by discipline, beginning with individual rebuke but maybe leading to excommunication. This is what is sometimes called a ‘first order issue’ by evangelicals, because to believe the issue as a settled conviction is to be standing outside of gospel faith.

Second, does the issue lead to the edification of the church – that is, does the exercise of a Christian freedom build up or tear down fellowship? Some issues are differences which don’t in themselves jeopardise a person’s salvation, but may lead to damage in their ongoing sanctification or in the edification of others. These differences may be theological, for example in 1 Cor.8-10 Paul has a long discussion about whether or not it is permissible for Christians to join in eating food sacrificed to idols, as most meat in the market had been, a similar discussion is had in Romans 14. In both cases there is an acknowledgement of a Christian freedom that flows from the Lordship of Christ, but a necessary condescension to the consciences of others for whom such behaviour is dishonouring of Christ. Christian freedom, to do all things for the glory of God, is to be constrained by Christian compassion for the consciences of other Christians (1 Cor.25-11:1, summed up in v.31-32). Similarly there are moral failures in the church that are to be challenged not on the grounds of their sinfulness, but in their failure to edify the wider Church, such as factionalism (which is seen as evidence of immaturity rather than sin by Paul in 1 Cor. 3:1-4), the failure to wait for each other at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor.11:17-33) or the excessive focus on tongues in worship for similar reasons (1 Cor.14). Issues of edification are addressed by exhortation and acceptance rather than a discipline leading to excommunication (Rom. 14:1). This is what is called by evangelicals a ‘second order issue’, because they are issues which can do harm to the edification of the church, but not to its essential nature.

Thirdly, is the motivation to glorify God – that is, is it an exercise of Christian freedom?
There are theological differences that are neither essential to salvation, nor in themselves having a difference in the edification of the church. In these areas, there is a freedom subject only to a motivation to glorify God. These may be theological, for example the merits of marriage or singleness (1 Cor.7) or ethical, for example whether a minister receives their right to financial support or not (1 Cor.9). Issues of this sort are primarily issues of providence and vocation, and are addressed by encouragement of discernment and obedience rather than exhortation or excommunication. This would be a ‘third order issue’ or a ‘none issue’ because it relates to vocation rather than faith itself.

What Is The Nature Of The Women Bishops Issue?

First, the biblical principle of headship is taught explicitly in the context of exhortation to the edification of the church, rather than an appeal to what is essential for salvation. Hence in 1 Cor.11 it is a matter of honour, v.3-7, and propriety v.13. In 1 Tim.2 it is in the context of appropriate behaviour, v.10-11, rather than a matter of salvation,[5] so it is not a ‘first order issue’. However it is equally clear in the context of these passages that this headship pattern is not just a matter of individual vocation, but one of edification to the whole church (1 Cor.11:16, 14:36-38), so it is more than a third order issue. So the headship of women in the church is clearly a 2nd order issue. You do not lose your salvation in the light of holding or practising the view.

Could it become a ‘first order issue’? Clearly a church that constrained its members to subscribe to a view that Scripture does not teach may in effect make a 2nd order issue into a 1st order one. But to do this it would have to exclude from the church those who upheld the biblical principle of headship. In other words, if acceptance of the ordination or consecration of women became an article of salvation, or a criterion for disciplining ministers in the church, then it will have made it into a first order issue. At that stage, the church would have had to disregard its own Articles in applying discipline.

Would the neglect of biblical headship effectively make this a ‘first order issue’? If approval of women’s ordination were made a necessary criterion for recognition of a vocation to the ordained ministry, would that erosion of biblical teaching constitute a ‘first order issue’? The biblical evidence would suggest not. Jeremiah prophesied at a time of national and institutional apostasy, but to a people who still were constituted by God’s Word in the Torah. His call was to remain in the midst of the people, preaching to those who were then persecuting him. The disobedience of the Church may involve suffering as part of calling it to repentance, but that in itself does not constitute an issue of salvation, if the freedom to preach, obey, discipline by and proclaim God’s Word remains.

Is The Issue Of Same-Sex Eroticism[6] Similar?

First, the explicit references to same-sex eroticism[7] occur in the context of a moral depravity flowing from rejection of the knowledge of God (Romans 1:18ff), wickedness which precludes inheritance of the kingdom of God from which repentance is necessary for salvation (1Cor.6:9-11), and direct offence to God’s character (Leviticus 19:22). In that these pertain directly to salvation, this is clearly of first-order issue.

Could it become a ‘second order issue’? It is argued by proponents of same-sex eroticism that the modern concept of ‘covenanted partnerships’ between same-sex couples are an innovation not envisaged by the biblical writers, and that possibly same-sex eroticism within a covenanted partnership, while falling short of biblical ideals, may be a matter for exhortation rather than discipline. However the clear context of those passages explicitly referring to homoerotic behaviour is of behaviours requiring repentance, and offences against God’s character (because they violate the creation order which expresses God’s image in a complementary union of man and woman). These are not answered by sanctioning a covenant that the bible finds to be an act of rebellion against God.

While theologically the issue of same-sex eroticism is a different order of issue than the headship of women, nevertheless it is recognised that in the minds of many proponents of women’s ordination, the issues are of the same order, because of adopting the inclusion dogma. So while a response to women’s ordination should theologically be distinguished from a response to same-sex eroticism, it is wise to recognise that those promoting one will also be working to promote the other.

How Do We Respond To A Church Sanctioned Error In Practice?

There is a need to call for and work for the church’s submission to God’s Word in any areas which impinges on the edification of the Church, which a second order issue does. While such issues, such as the consecration of women, may be tolerated by the church, it should be recognised that there are various different levels at which the Church of England is unreformed and explicitly allows a variety of understandings which fall short of the best expression of biblical faithfulness. The reformation call of semper reformanda – always reforming - implicitly recognises that each generation is called to address key issues of biblical faithfulness in its own day. It also implicitly recognises that failures to change or some actual changes may enhance this process or diminish it. This is explicitly recognised by the Article 21 which recognises that ‘councils have erred’ – and they do this without ceasing to be truly the Church. It is clearly recognised that God’s Word is to be the final rule for the church, not general synod, bishops or archbishops.

So if women’s consecration is adopted without explicit provision for the consciences of those seeking to uphold male headship, what options are open to make a biblical response?

First, in response to the national church there is a necessity to exercise legitimate authority to call the church to return to the best expression of biblical faithfulness in ministry. This will mean making every effort to bring the national church governance in line with Scripture. In practice, it is vital that such churches play a full part in the Synodical processes, through which institutional change may be influenced. It is also essential to bishops who are seeking to be faithful to biblical revelation to call for greater biblical faithfulness within the council of bishops.

Second, in response to the regional or diocesan church there is a necessity to exhort a local bishop to follow biblical norms. While response to a local bishop should respect the office and give due respect to the person, it is legitimate at a personal level, or with other presbyters, to exhort a bishop to biblical faithfulness over the issue of headship. In the case of a woman bishop, assuming she is unwilling to concede to the biblical witness, it will be legitimate to receive the ministry of a bishop through the provision envisaged (although not yet spelt out) in the Code of Practice). This will involve a difference between the authority that a woman bishop perceives herself to have by office and law, and the oversight exercised by suitable provision.

Finally, in response to the local church, should provision be made through delegation and the necessity to give ‘due regard’ to the Code of Practice, for most pastoral and sacramental matters the male bishop provided should suffice to satisfy conscience despite the anomalies. However it is incumbent on the presbyter to continue to weigh and test prophets (1 Cor.14:29), which may allow a minister to choose not to invite a woman bishop to minister in the local congregation. It is also important to develop close associations of other presbyters who may corporately make up for some of the deficit in episcopal ministry that may arise.

It should be recognised that such an approach to the issue of consecrated women may be justifiable to a reformed Anglican, but it is not legitimate to a more Catholic ecclesiology. Without appropriate provision, while most reformed evangelicals may be able to be accommodated, albeit in a more hostile environment, the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church is less likely to make such adjustment (for whom it is more akin to a first order issue).

What would be different if it were a same-sex eroticism issue? The seriousness of the issue would require a stronger and more direct response nationally and a clear call for repentance. Refusal to repent on such an issue may legitimise the setting up of an alternative structure of oversight. This would more naturally be within a local association of presbyters who share a common calling to exercise biblical oversight. Were such heresy to be tolerated in the church it would result in serious harm to the church, analogous to wolves being tolerated in the sheep pen (Acts 20:29).

Would calling on an overseas bishop be a legitimate solution to expressing dissent to the consecration of women? In short, no! It is an Anglican conviction of the Articles (eg Article 24, 28) that appropriate jurisdiction is applied at a national level by analogy to God’s providence in supplying national government; therefore an overseas bishop has no jurisdiction in England, notwithstanding their inability to exercise effective pastoral and sacramental care. Furthermore, because of the reformed understanding of governance and the prophetic calling of the church, such provision does not address the need to work as a presbyter for the repentance of a woman bishop of her ministry.

Would withholding parish share by a legitimate solution to expressing dissent to the consecration of women? The parish share is still technically a voluntary contribution of a parish to central funds to allow its distribution for ministry. While the biblical norm appears more that a local church takes responsibility for the remuneration of its ministers (eg 1 Tim.5:17-18), there is also a biblical command to express our greater union with Christ in compassion support of each other’s needs across the whole church (eg 2 Cor.5:13-15). Two reasons are typically given to justify withholding a parish share contribution: first, that an evangelical church should not be subsidising a non-evangelical one. However part of the responsibility of a local church is to seek to call other churches greater faith and maturity, and that will only be done by ministry to them, and in practice financial support is the one effective mechanism that we do it. In a mixed national or regional church, maintaining that shared responsibility for each other is one of the few mechanisms that offers longer term hope of revival. The second justification for withholding money is by way of discipline to a bishop who refuses to uphold biblical norms. It is true that such practice will impact a diocese, but it will have less personal impact on the bishop, rather it will put pressure on other local churches, who may be inclined to listen less intently to the message of such churches that withhold support. It would seem hard to biblical justify this behaviour, a point compounded by the observation that giving is primarily to be an act of worship, and offering to Christ, not a debt to the church, and as such it is not really to be withheld from the Lord, so any attempt to ‘quota-cap’ must be met by alternative arrangements that ensure the Lord’s resources are blessing to the Lord’s Church.

So, Finally...

The pressure of a liberal ‘inclusion’ dogma within society and the church means that the consecration of women is an issue whose sensitivity is raised by the perceived direction of change in the Church. I have argued that the consecration of woman is to be views a s a ‘second order issue’, to which an appropriate response would be exhortation rather than excommunication. A local congregation may decline from receiving the ministry of a woman bishop, failing to accept her spiritual authority, while honouring her office; nevertheless the current arrangement that provide for the delegation of pastoral and sacramental care to a male bishop should suffice (assuming the Code of Practice is ‘generous’), despite the likely increased difficulty to have the integrity and ministry of those upholding biblical headship acknowledged by the Church. Increased pressure however does not justify activity that breaks the fellowship of the church in its national or regional manifestations (dioceses), although proper eldership in a local church may decline from receiving the ministry of a woman bishop.

The irony of the impact of the ‘inclusion’ dogma, is that its promotion has led to pressure towards the exclusion of those who are seeking to maintain biblical integrity and faithfulness. However as the Lord is sovereign and we are only his servants, we are called to seek his honour and glory rather than out own, and trust that he will in all things work for the good of those who love him.

Rev Dr Rob Munro July 2010


[1] In Corinth Paul identifies a string of theological and moral errors – factionalism, division, sexual immorality, lawsuits, idol-food, abuse of ministry rights, problems at the Lord’s supper, in the use of spiritual gifts and belief in the resurrection. While correcting their errors, the emphasis is more remedial than merely judgemental – for example in 1 Cor.5 there was pride in the church over the incest they permitted, yet Paul’s call is for them to excommunicate the offender ‘…so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.’ v.5.

[2] The preaching of the ‘pure’ word of God means two things in practice, both articulated in Article 20 – a church may not require to be believed something which is not proven from Scripture; nor may it adopt a hermeneutic that makes one passage of Scripture contradict another.

[3] That is not to say that if you are baptised into another church you are duty-bound to leave and join the Church of England. We trust in God’s providence for where he has placed us. If you move to a new area, however, you should look to join the local Anglican Church if possible.

[4] By “jeopardising a person’s salvation” I am not thereby inferring that God’s election and preservation of his people may be overruled, but rather that proclaiming and living in such a way will put at risk the understanding of the gospel that others will see or hear, and thereby communicate a false faith and hope.

[5] The reference in 1 Tim.2:15 I take not to mean that bearing children is necessary for women to be saved, but rather that, because of the context being Adam and Eve v.13-14, it is an allusion to the promised seed who would bruise the serpents head, being received by faith.

[6] I am reviewing this issue because of it contemporary relevance to the church. In fact the same observations should also be made about any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, and it is important not to single out same-sex eroticism in isolation from other sexual sins.

[7] I am reviewing this issue because of it contemporary relevance to the church. In fact the same observations should also be made about any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, and it is important not to single out same-sex eroticism in isolation from other sexual sins.