The Ancient Paths

In Jeremiah 6:16, the Lord counseled His people as follows: “Stand by the ways and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” The last evangelical bishop of the Church of England, J. C. Ryle, wrote a book called Old Paths which was titled after this verse. There is a great danger in people seeking for something new. That is what the Athenians were guilty of when Paul preached to them: “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). That is what the German universities required of their professors in the nineteenth century—which led to the liberal theology which nearly destroyed Christianity in that nation and, in one sense, opened the doors for that tyrant, Adolph Hitler. There is a great danger in always seeking something new. It is good to understand old truths in a deeper way than before. It is bad to replace those old truths—the ancient paths—with new ideas. History shows that course always leads to the destruction of a denomination.

In this third article on “Why Presbyterian Denominations Fall,” we consider the role that permitting a little bit of heresy plays in destroying the foundations of a denomination. Jesus warned His disciples, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). The immediate reaction of the disciples was to discuss if Jesus made that statement because they had forgotten to bring bread with them. Jesus corrected that wrong idea and they then understood that they were to beware “of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:12). The Pharisees were the legalists who were guilty of self-righteousness. The Sadducees were the free-thinkers—the supposedly open-minded people who could entertain new thoughts. Both are dangerous. As J. C. Ryle wrote: 

The Great Physician knew well that Pharisee-doctrines and Sadducee-doctrines would prove the two great wasting diseases of His Church, until the end of the world. He would have us know that there will always be Pharisees and Sadducees in the ranks of Christians: their succession shall never fail: their generation shall never become extinct. Their names may change, but their spirit will always remain. Therefore He cries to us, “Take heed, and beware.”[1]   

James, the half-brother of our Lord, wrote in his epistle: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). That is the danger of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. It is a little leaven that leavens the whole lump. It is permitting a little heresy that destroys the foundations of a whole denomination. There is something about even a little bit of heresy that makes people more accepting of other heresies. One heresy leads to another. That is why it is so important to “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16). The church will always be a mixed group composed of both good and bad fish; both wheat and tares; and, both sheep and goats. Ministers of the gospel should be and are held to a higher standard. Doctrinal looseness on the essentials of the faith must not be tolerated. Nor, should immoral behavior be tolerated. As James 3:1 states: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” 

There are a number of issues throughout the history of the church that have proved to be watershed moments for various denominations. When a church or denomination took action to allow or permit—maybe even endorse—bad theology, the danger rarely revealed itself in the full light of day at the beginning. Nevertheless, the canker worm of heresy was working. In 1892-3, Charles Augustus Briggs, in his inaugural address upon being elected a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, announced that he believed there were errors in the Scripture and denied the authorship of the Pentateuch by Moses. He was initially acquitted by his presbytery, but the General Assembly overturned that decision of the lower court and defrocked him. Yet, Briggs was allowed to continue in his professorship at Union Seminary while becoming ordained in another denomination. Forty years later, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was dominated by ministers who held to similar views as Briggs. Soon, a stalwart of the faith, J. Gresham Machen, was censured for being a conservative—for believing that the Bible is infallible and inerrant. The problem in Briggs’ situation was that heresy had already infected more ministers than just him or the Presbytery of New York would not have acquitted him. Yet, the PCUSA permitted those other ministers to remain in their positions without censure. Thus, the error spread from a few ministers to many ministers and the tidal wave of heresy soon became a tsunami that engulfed the denomination. That is how it always has worked and always will. 

As I was preparing to write this article before leaving on a trip to Kansas City to assist in particularizing a new Vanguard congregation, there were some events that took place that confirmed to me what to write. First, a member of Vanguard wrote me last Thursday evening to compliment me for writing my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision. He said:

Anyway, recently I have been blessed to interact with a group of younger men who identify as reformed Baptists but who are also Doug Wilson/Federal Vision/ Reconstructionist fans. In reading your book recently, I have been able to more clearly show them how you have identified much of the Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, and other early church heresies inherent in the arguments from those they are reading and listening to and watching.   

Then, on Sunday morning, there were two men from out of town who visited Cornerstone for the first time. One is a ruling elder of a church in Alabama and the other is stationed in England with the US Air Force. Both looked up local churches and decided to attend this congregation when they read on our website that I wrote a book against the Federal Vision. They both left with copies of the book in tow. Finally, I received a complimentary copy of a new book in the mail today by M. D. Perkins,Dangerous Affirmations: The Threat of “Gay Christianity”.

In 2007, the PCA voted on the study report on the New Perspectives of Paul and the Federal Vision. The vote was not close. Ninety percent of the commissioners voted to receive the report and affirm that the Federal Vision teaching was out of accord with the Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The General Assembly breathed a sigh of relief and most commissioners assumed the matter was clearly behind the denomination. Meanwhile, Peter Leithart wrote his presbytery a few days later and denounced every part of that report. He laid down the gauntlet and the game was soon on. I was serving on the Standing Judicial Commission and had a very active part in both complaints concerning Leithart that came before the Commission. I was the chairman of the panel that heard the first complaint and I was the representative of the complainant in the second one (having by that time resigned from the SJC). I cannot tell you how many times I have had ministers tell me something like this: “Well, the Federal Vision is not a problem in my congregation.” Or, “I don’t really know anyone who still holds to the Federal Vision.” Then, I find out that the person who made those remarks was voted out of office because an elder who started reading books by Doug Wilson et. al led the charge. Or, I learn, as I did yesterday, of a church that had to ask their pastor to resign because he secretly held to the FV. Then, that pastor just moved to a different presbytery within the same denomination. Can you see what the problem is? Denominations tend to make pious pronouncements against some heresy and even make a scape goat out of one minister or a few ministers, but they allow the error to remain—and the problem grows. And it morphs into other problems. And heresy soon controls the denomination. Here is what the problem is. The Church refuses to take heed to Jesus’ warning against the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The problem is not any one error/heresy such as the Federal Vision or gay ministers or women officers or that some minister wrongly claims that the Bible contains errors. The problem is deeper than that. The problem is that local churches and presbyteries do not have the courage to require fidelity to the Scripture and the essentials of the faith. As long as even one minister is allowed to remain within the denomination while holding to some heresy—whether large or small—there can be no protection from the leavening effect of the false doctrines of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Yet, Jesus says, “Beware!” We must always be careful that we do not become polemical concerning matters which are adiaphora—matters which are indifferent or about which the Scripture has not spoken. There is always to be the acceptance of one another in such things that are principles of conscience (Cf. Romans 14:1-15:13). Yet, there must not be acceptance of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  

Dewey Roberts, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

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Please send any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL. All donations are greatly appreciated and are used to help start new churches and advance the work of this new denomination.       

[1] John Charles Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew (Cambridge, England: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1974), 101. 

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