Sometimes a church or denomination takes such outlandishly heterodox positions that it really leaves traditional Christians with no choice. More often, we are left with dilemmas of conscience, and the humbling reminder that we all are just flawed members of flawed churches and flawed denominations.
Social media is awash with reactions to Beth Moore’s decision to no longer affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention. United Methodists will soon face a decision about whether to join the traditionalist Global Methodist Church. We are in an especially fluid and rancorous moment regarding denominational affiliations. So when do you know it’s time to go?
The easiest decisions come when a denomination starts teaching doctrines or advancing moral positions that contradict longstanding, widely-agreed upon Christian orthodoxy or orthopraxy. If a denomination’s leadership countenances universal salvation, questions the historicity of the physical resurrection of Christ, etc., it’s time for us to get out.
It gets harder to decide whether to leave a denomination based on ethical or political lapses by denominational leadership. I am certainly not comfortable with the way that certain SBC leaders seemed to make support for Donald Trump a litmus test for good standing within the denomination, for example. But does that require a person to leave the denomination? Surely not, especially because that never became the official policy of the whole SBC. In such moments, giving one another the latitude to operate according to conscience is the way to go.
One of the complicating factors in leaving a denomination is that the really important decision is whether one leaves his or her church, which may or may not be required when leaving a denomination. Especially given the Baptist tradition of congregational autonomy, being “part of the SBC” can mean a lot of different things. My SBC church in South Bend, Indiana, was certainly not recognizable to outsiders as being SBC denominationally, even though our theology and practice was firmly within the bounds of the SBC. “Baptist” wasn’t even in the name of the church.