Should I Leave My Critical Text Church?
Answered by Christian McShaffrey
First of all, I am here raising a completely hypothetical question. In over two decades of ministry, I have never had a person ask me that exact question. If someone had, I suppose my initial inclination would be to say, “Probably not, but it depends.”
Sadly, it has been reported that some ministers are interpreting the appendix of “Why I Preach from the Received Text” in a way that undermines my initial inclination and, I believe, misinterprets the actual advice offered therein. The charge has even been voiced that the advice is dangerous and decidedly divisive.
Leaving a local church is a monumental decision and always involves many different considerations. I, in fact, once wrote a ten-step procedure for how saints should make and execute so weighty a decision in a manner that honors the Lord. Apparently, and as previously stated, the advice I offered in the anthology is being interpreted differently.
The purpose of this article is to clarify the advice that was offered that none might misunderstand the intent. Could I have possibly been more clear? Undoubtedly. At the same time, could my critics also be more charitable in their interpretation? Probably.
Let us proceed to review the advice [indented] as I offer some brief commentary on my intent. *
The truth of divine preservation is one of the most comforting things a Christian can discover. It can also be one of the most disconcerting, since you will find yourself (at least at the present time) holding to a minority position. It is therefore important to stay calm, charitable, and proceed carefully.
Whatever advice is to follow ought to be interpreted in light of this obvious and earnest call for calmness, charitableness, and careful proceeding. This mindset and tone having been set; we proceed.
Step one: Give a gift. If you are not in a position of church leadership, but a member who would like to see the church reconsider its position on the text of scripture, simply offer a free copy of this book to your Pastor and tell him how much you profited from it spiritually. Do not ask him to read it (because he already has a stack of books “assigned” by well-meaning members), but just offer it as a free gift and follow up with him later.
Notice, first of all, that a distinction is first made between being an ordinary member and one that is in a position of leadership. This distinction will be revisited, but the advice begins with a humble acknowledgement that, as an ordinary member, you have no necessary “claim” upon the Pastor’s time or energy. You are just hoping to introduce him to the topic and invite a future conversation.
Step two: Buy him lunch. A couple months after the gift has been given, follow-up with your Pastor and ask if you could meet for lunch to discuss the book. If he confesses to not having read it, say something like, “I’m sorry, I know you have a lot to read. Might you have time just to read my favorite essay? I would really love to hear your perspective.” He will probably agree to that, so get that lunch meeting on the schedule and remember to mention, by the way, that you are buying!
What could possibly be more gracious than this? You are not asking for much and you most certainly are not presenting the matter as if there is any problem. By the way, Ministers dread lunch meetings that are proposed less skillfully, as in, “Pastor, we really need to talk. I hope tomorrow will work because I should have asked for this meeting months ago!” Thanks for ruining your Pastor’s day, brother.
Also, when you choose your “favorite” essay, it should not necessarily be your personal favorite. You know your Pastor better than I do, and the anthology chapters offer many different perspectives, so thoughtfully consider which one he might enjoy most.
When you meet together, it is imperative that you do more asking and listening than talking. Reconsidering one’s view on the text of Scripture is a major undertaking, but especially for a Minister of the Word. Also, be sure to avoid overly-charged rhetoric. If you bring words like “liberal” or “heresy” to the table, your Pastor’s defenses will immediately go up, and the level of trust you once enjoyed with him might decrease. Remember, this is your first conversation about the topic and, if you stay calm and respectful, there will most likely be more to come.
Again, could this possibly be a more charitable and peaceable approach? You are assuming nothing, asking for nothing, and accusing nothing. At the end of this discussion, all your Pastor might learn is that the topic of textual criticism is of some interest to you.
Further, by intentionally avoiding all charged rhetoric, your Pastor will not then return to his study in panic mode, immediately typing into his browser, “Why the Received Text is wrong” or “Received Text advocates divide churches.” Having met as friends and departed as friends, his disposition will more likely be as calm as your own.
Then comes what I perceive to be one of the most important words of counsel:
In taking up this discussion with your Pastor, you will need to remember and be content with the fact that it is your Pastor and Elders’ responsibility to determine which version is used in the pulpit ministry of your church.
At no point should you assume or even ask that your local church change to accommodate your personal opinions or convictions. Holy scripture has committed that responsibility to ordained and elected church officers. When an individual member pushes for change, it often places the officers into a very unhappy predicament: “If we don’t consider this change, we might lose so-and-so.”
That is a grossly manipulative approach to implementing change in a local church and it should never be once named amongst the saints. Let your leaders do what God called them to do and be content that it is God’s good design.
The next word of advice then anticipates the likely possibility that you will not be seeing any change.
If there is no openness to change, you should not push the matter. Rather, you should begin considering your ability to remain in your church as a faithful member while holding a different opinion on this particular issue. If you cannot do this (due to conscience), politely request that your membership be transferred to a nearby church of like faith and practice. The online “TR-friendly Church Directory” may be a helpful resource in such a case.
If there is no openness to change, you should not push the matter.
Remember, having already reminded the concerned parishioner that a church’s preferred Bible version is ultimately not his responsibility or decision, he is charged not to push the matter. Don’t ask the Pastor to read a different chapter, don’t offer him another book, don’t fill his e-mail box with links to Sermonaudio and YouTube. Just let it go. That is more than intimated in the first sentence.
The first word in the next sentence – rather – then sets up an intentional contrast, as in, rather than pushing the matter, consider something else, namely: Staying at your current church.
Rather, you should begin considering your ability to remain in your church as a faithful member while holding a different opinion on this particular issue.
This, thankfully, happens all the time. In fact, I have several long-standing and much-loved members in my church that disagree with me over sacramentology, eschatology, and church polity. The first duty when such disagreements are discovered is, of course, brotherly love. Are we really going to break fellowship over admittedly-debatable issues? God forbid.
Sadly, my critics have been interpreting this sentence as an entirely negative construction, as in, “You really need to start questioning your ability to stay…” That’s simply not what it says. Read it again. The counsel is intentionally and entirely positive: Consider your ability to remain while holding a different opinion.
I trust that my critics would give the same exact counsel. After all, most Reformed congregations will have represented within them a rich diversity of opinions when it comes to the aforementioned examples and especially more practical issues like how to school our children, whether to get a certain vaccination, which political candidate to endorse, etc.
Christian love bids us to remain united insofar as it is possible, but because it is not always possible, an additional option is then added.
If you cannot do this (due to conscience) …
Simply put, if you come to the settled conviction that your church is committing sin (and causing you to participate with them in that sin), no Christian is duty-bound to continue in such a place. This is the doctrine of Christian Liberty and it should be cherished by all who claim to be Reformed.
Yes, sometimes the exercise of such liberty does result in sad departures. For example, a dear brother of mine had to leave our denomination because he came to the conviction that singing “non-inspired hymns” was a violation of the regulative principle of worship. I did not agree with him, but respected his position and bid him farewell in brotherly love.
That actually serves as a perfect example, because the violation of conscience was occurring on a weekly basis and, to add an aggravation, even on the sabbath. There was, literally, no way to leave that particular difference of opinion on a shelf and unnoticed.
This is where critics of the Received Text really need to think twice. Since textual variants affect less than two-percent of the text of scripture, the matter should not even be mentioned very often while preaching and, when it is, due sensitivity to conscience should always be afforded.
If you make it hard for a brother to sit in the pew by mocking his position or treading upon passages that he personally treasures, then you can probably expect a case of conscience to arise. You instigated it. The same thing goes, by the way, for those who preach from the Received Text. It is the unwise shepherd who drives his sheep away. Yet some do. Hence, the final word of advice:
… politely request that your membership be transferred to a nearby church of like faith and practice.
Notice first the phrase “politely request.” Our church, for example, would expect to receive a written request to this effect, “Dear elders, we have been visiting such-and-such church for the past three months. We have no offense or complaint against our church, but are convinced that our spiritual interests would be advanced through a transfer of membership. We remain thankful for your ministry and promise to speak well of it to others as we continue our pilgrimage.”
The phrase “like faith and practice” is also worthy of note. You should make it easy for your elders to approve your transfer by choosing a church that subscribes to one of the Reformed Confessions. Do not settle for sub-standard theology only to have the “Right Bible” sitting up in the pulpit.
This, however, seems to be exactly what my critics assume. I have only heard second-hand accounts, but apparently the accusation is this: “The confessional bibliologists have elevated the matter of textual criticism higher than the chief and cardinal doctrines of the Reformed faith!”
No, we have not. We are simply preserving a place for bibliology in the theological curriculum and acknowledging that some will see its place as more essential than others. After all, how can we know what the Bible says about any particular doctrine, if we don’t actually know what the Bible is?
To wrap things up, there has also been no small amount of criticism over the final sentence which I personally regard as rather innocuous.
The online “TR-friendly Church Directory” may be a helpful resource in such a case.
Saying that something “may be a helpful resource” is about as mild an expression as you will ever hear from the lips of this preacher. It is almost embarrassingly ineffectual.
Nevertheless, the critics seem to see this – and also the very existence of such a directory – as an attempt to establish some kind of quasi-denomination that seeks to draw members out of legitimate Reformed denominations.
This is an absurd suspicion since only confessional Reformed churches are allowed to be included on the directory in the first place. More, users of the directory are explicitly invited to alert the administrator when a church seems to have misrepresented its position so that the listing can be deleted.
As admitted in my introduction, I might possibly have been more clear in my expression, but now, at the close, I am also equally convinced that my critics could have been more charitable in interpreting my words. Perhaps we could all just receive it as a learning experience and move on.
Back, then, to the big question, “Should I Leave My Critical Text Church?” My initial inclination remains unchanged: “Probably not, but it depends.”
* I was the principal author of this section of the anthology, but my co-editor, Dr. Jeffrey Riddle, has read this expanded explanation and agrees that it describes his original intent as well.