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Reversing the Journey: When People Leave Reformed Churches

Stephen D. Doe

We’ve Got a Problem

We live in a fluid society. People change their houses, cars, jobs, and spouses with astonishing regularity. And, if they are Christians, they change churches too. Some of these ecclesiastical changes are simple: a move out of town and there’s no OPC close by, so it is a sister Reformed denomination to which they transfer. Some changes are more puzzling: no move away physically, but people leave the OPC where they’ve been members and then go to another area church that, while not Reformed, at least preaches the gospel. A more heart-rending change is when people simply “drop out” of church, and the session must erase them from the rolls as having abandoned their hope in Christ. Yet, just as wrenching for pastors and elders is the sad experience of dealing with members who have left the OPC to join either the Roman Catholic Church or one of the Orthodox communions. It is this last situation, which seems to be becoming more frequent, that I want to ponder with you.

Our Book of Church Order outlines the responsibilities of sessions in this matter. We seek to meet with these members and dissuade them and pray that they’ll agree to talk to us. We try to determine how firm their decision is, and how committed they are to that decision. We present the theological differences. We talk about the doctrine of the church. We retell the story of the Protestant Reformation and why it was necessary for Christians to break with Rome. We tell them that there are divisions within both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, that the outward unity is less than it seems. We may warn them of the unintended consequences of their decision for themselves and their families. We try to be faithful undershepherds.

But what if it isn’t a church member? What if it is an ordained officer in the OPC who leaves to move into either Catholicism or Orthodoxy? What if it is a man who, at one time, subscribed to the Westminster Standards? What if it is a man who vowed to uphold the peace, purity, and unity of the church? He knows the challenges you’ll present him with, and your responsibility to dissuade him from his course. Especially in the case of a minister, he knows the history of the church. He knows the theology behind the Reformation. In the case of ministers, departure from the OPC, from the Reformed faith, from Protestantism itself, is a shock to everyone. “I never knew.” “He never said anything.” “Nothing I said could shake his confidence in his decision.” And maybe people say, “There’s something wrong with him, with us, with the OPC, with Reformed churches.”

It is this last situation, that of a minister leaving a Reformed church for the Roman Catholic Church, which came to me as a question and caused me to wonder what we should be learning as a church when this happens. Is something wrong with Presbyterianism when a man who knows his theology leaves what we believe is more light to a situation of less light? It is even more perplexing when men say that they are not abandoning the gospel, that their own hope is still in the fullness of the work of Jesus Christ as redeemer of God’s elect. My questioner asked what the church can do to ensure more OPC pastors don’t leave for Rome or for Orthodoxy. What follows is an expanded version of my response.

Let’s Be Presbyterian!

The question of what to do about ministers leaving the Reformed faith for either Catholicism or Orthodoxy is a painful and heart-breaking challenge to the church, but the short answer is clear: we need to be better Presbyterians! Although the things we will be considering apply to the responsibilities of ruling elders toward their pastor (and deacons in a different way), this is primarily focused on the responsibility of ministers to one another.

We look to our theology, which we are convinced is biblical and sound, because to go from a Protestant position generally, and a Reformed position specifically, into either Catholicism or Orthodoxy, flies in the face of that for which our Reformed forefathers fought. Why would someone trade the richness of the Reformed tradition for a church that has never repudiated the anathemas of the Council of Trent, or for a communion that views the debate over justification as a sign of weakness of the Western church?

An answer that is too easy, and therefore inadequate, is that the men who move away from the Reformed faith don't know their theology. Some very theologically bright men have made the move. It seems too simple to say that a man didn't know what he was doing because he really didn't understand what Protestantism is all about. That is perhaps our first response, and in some cases there may be truth to this, but certainly there are other factors as well.

First of all we need to see that, like all of our other decisions in life, the decision to leave the Reformed faith for Catholicism or Orthodoxy has other components besides an intellectual or theological one. We all do the things we do for a complex set of reasons. For example, if I am angry when another driver cuts me off in traffic, behind that anger may be that I am late for an appointment, an appointment that I am dreading, and I foolishly tried to do one more thing before I started out and so began ten minutes late, ten minutes that the volume of traffic compounded. I am mad at myself, I am feeling guilty, and the thoughtless driver simply triggers a sinful response.

What may look like a simple doctrinal rejection of historic Protestant truth may be affected by family, situation, friendships, and so on. A man may be “won” to the Roman Catholic Church by the friendship of someone who spent time with him and helped him through some difficulty. A man may have key relationships that are influential in his life, far beyond relationships with fellow presbyters. He may feel distant from fellow pastors because of tensions within a presbytery. A man may have influences from his upbringing that seem to provide comfort and stability, the “faith of his fathers” that can become his default response to changes in his life. A man may be attracted to the image of both Catholicism and Orthodoxy as being ancient and focused on a high view of worship, and as providing a more full-orbed response to the world than much of evangelicalism offers.

Things to Consider

A biblical anthropology helps us here. Our actions flow from our heart commitments. The heart is the fountain of all things, good and evil. We are admonished to guard our heart (Prov. 4:23, cf. Matt. 6:21, 12:34–35, Mark 6:45, Luke 12:34). As Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons.”[1] Proverbs 14:10 states that “the heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” Scripture teaches us to begin with the fact that God’s judgment is that the thoughts of man’s heart are only evil continually (Gen. 6:5), from our youth upward (Gen. 8:21, cf. Eccles. 9:3, Ezek. 14:3, Rom. 3:9–18). Depravity is a functional truth which radically affects our human experience, including our decision-making. According to Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is more deceitful than all things and desperately sick, who can understand it?”

It is because of the untrustworthiness of our own hearts that we need the Word of God, and we need the church. We need the Word of God to penetrate and correct our perceptions and conclusions about our situations, our choices, and our motives. We make faulty judgments because we always tend to think that our hearts will make the right assessment. In the church we can serve one another by reminding each other of this basic truth and asking the right kind of questions of a brother. Ultimately, of course, God himself is the searcher of the heart,[2] yet Proverbs 20:5 says this: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” God may use other believers to challenge us to reconsider how we are looking at things. We can convince ourselves that something is completely right, but in reality be deceived in our thinking. Our brothers can remind us to compare our thinking to the teaching of Scripture, the Word which tells us to take into account the corruption of all of man’s faculties and to see that only God's Word can fully critique our thinking (2 Tim. 3:16–17, cf. Prov. 3:5, Jer. 17:5).

Presbyterianism, simply the church acting like the covenant community it is intended to be, can help because it means or should mean, that we are connected to one another and accountable to each other. True, Presbyterianism is always battling both the innate, sinful human tendency to think and act individualistically and that tendency’s rabid expression in the spirit of our own age. This is the spirit that says that I must make my decisions on my own without regard for others or for the larger community of believers. The “sovereign self,” as it is termed, dominates our age. Yet the church structure which Christ has given involves a bond which is reflected in the ordination vows which church officers in the OPC are required to take. Ministers vow submission to their brethren in the Lord,[3] a vow which expresses the connectedness to which we commit ourselves. Submission to the brethren is a vow to not allow the individualistic mind-set of our age to control us. The “sovereign self” is called to hear the brethren.

What does this mean? In the case of ministers it means that we must talk to one another more than we do. We need to have brothers whom we can trust, with whom we can raise questions with which we are wrestling, even doubts that are troubling us without being immediately condemned as falling away from the faith. Too often men do not talk to anyone about the things that discourage them, or the doubts that may plague them, much less the sins with which they struggle. It is all too common to hear of a minister who has an addiction to pornography, an addiction that remains hidden until God in his severe mercy brings it to light. Men come to the point of demitting the ministry without having talked to another brother about their discouragements. The inner struggles a man may be experiencing are rarely openly spoken of to others. This includes the frequent unwillingness to discuss with another pastor the theological issues that trouble us, or the doubts about the truths of the Reformed faith that can develop. In the quiet of our own thoughts, we do not consider the factors that play upon the heart, loyalties, fears, and pressures. A man may turn so many things over in his own mind without speaking even to his closest associates because he fears the reaction he’ll encounter or that he will be “labeled” as unstable. Tendencies may develop within a man without any of the brethren to whom he vowed submission ever knowing. The attractions of Catholicism or Orthodoxy may never be discussed with anyone except one’s wife or those within the communion to which they are thinking of moving. Brothers who could challenge them and help them think about their questions are not consulted. Often we see things in a very small universe of thought which is determined by our heart commitments. We need the brethren to help us see our questions in a different light and to challenge those heart commitments, yet often we fear to talk to one another about these things. We may think that we are displaying weakness, either theological or emotional. We may expect that anyone in whom we might confide would instantly distance himself and would start to talk to others, “Pray for him, he’s flirting with the Catholic Church. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”

Ministers need to reach out to one another, pray with and for one another, be more honest with each other. We need to act as Presbyterians who are in fact connected to each other. We are not Presbyterians simply because we like to get together but because of what we believe about the nature of how the church is bound together in Jesus Christ. Paul’s instruction in Galatians 6:2 to “bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” applies to ministers as brothers in Christ as well as to the congregations we serve. We face busy schedules. Everyone believes that the time is too short for the things he should be doing. Yet the vows a minister takes to be in submission to his brothers reminds him that he must act as one connected to the other ministers in his presbytery by a true and deep bond. It is easy for us to assume that everything is going well with all the other pastors in our presbytery. It is admittedly uncomfortable to ask difficult questions and have them asked of us. And it is discouraging to be honest with a brother and have him ignore the painful doubts you’ve expressed or give you some pat and glib answer. Yet we must labor at this in order to live up to our claim to be Presbyterian.

The gospel constantly reminds us of our own weakness. When we confess Christ, we are publicly acknowledging our weakness and desperate need for deliverance from our sin and its power. This dependence on Christ does not diminish over time or by being ordained. We do not become immune to failure, struggle, doubt, or weakness through the laying on of hands. We should not be surprised (saddened? yes, but surprised? no) when a brother confesses his struggle, whether it be with sexual sin, anger, alcohol, or an attraction to a radically different theological view. As Presbyterians we confess the truth of our fallenness, but then we often act surprised when others tell of either sin or theological confusion.

In the church we have vowed submission to that Word which we believe is faithfully expressed by our secondary standards, and we have vowed submission to our brethren in the Lord. We are Presbyterians, we are bound to one another in Christ and by his gospel to love one another, bear with each other, and call one another to walk in the light. This may not stop men from moving away from the clarity of the Reformed faith, but it will mean that we are seeking to be faithful to one another and to the Lord of the church as Presbyterians.


[1] Compare the fuller quote from Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.” We wouldn’t agree with much of what Pascal says, but he recognized that more than man’s intellect is involved in his decision making.

[2] Jer. 17:10; Prov. 21:2, cf. 11:20, 20:12; 1 Sam. 16:7; Ps. 33:15, 44:21; Prov. 17:3; 1 John 3:20.

[3] Form of Government XXII.13.c; XXIII.8, 12.a–b, 14, 17–18.

Stephen Doe is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as regional home missionary for the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic. Ordained Servant Online, February 2013.

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