In his book, Be Careful How You Listen, Jay Adams gives us one of the most helpful treatments of this subject. Adams gives several categories by which believers can assess what is deficient in the preaching. For instance, we must first seek to distinguish between “seeming heresy” and “heresy” in the preaching.
What are we to do when we find the preaching to be deficient in the local church to which we belong? For some church members, that is a relatively easy question to answer–just leave! After all, many people will leave churches for all sorts of other illegitimate reasons: musical preference, children’s ministry, social expectations, etc. For others, this is an exceedingly difficult question to answer. There are godly men and women who find themselves torn over whether or not they should leave a church–even when they know that they are not being adequately fed by the ministry of the word. Add to this the fact that many will leave their spouses, change jobs and move to another country before leaving a church that they have belonged to for several decades. Affinity and investment often clouds objectivity. The difficultly of determining when to leave a church can also be due to the fact that the Scriptures do not seem to give us much by way of a clear answer to this question. After all, Jesus rebuked almost all of the seven churches in the book of Revelation for serious spiritual–and, at times, even doctrinal–errors, without telling the members of those particular local churches to leave them at that precise moment. These factors make it quite difficult for someone to give another person a definite and objective answer to the question. So, we are left to ask, “Are there any guiding principles to help someone in a situation in which he or she knows that the preaching at their church is deficient?”
In his book, Be Careful How You Listen, Jay Adams gives us one of the most helpful treatments of this subject. Adams gives several categories by which believers can assess what is deficient in the preaching. For instance, we must first seek to distinguish between “seeming heresy” and “heresy” in the preaching. In order to do this, Adams suggests that concerned individuals go to the pastor and say something along the following lines:
“Pastor, we may have misunderstood, but here is what we think you have been saying. Please tell us if we are wrong; we are deeply concerned about this. We have come to you first; we haven’t made our concerns known to anyone else in the congregation.”
When individuals take this first course of action, the minister has an opportunity to respond. He might respond by “commending them for their honesty and prudence and will listen carefully to them.” This might be all that was needed for the minister to “make an effort to be clearer in his preaching.” If we fail to take this first course of action “none of these good things would happen.” When we fail to do things in this proper way, we take away an opportunity for clarity and growth.
However, if someone has gone through this first step and is ignored by the pastor–or comes to realize that the minister is truly preaching heretical doctrine (we have to know how to properly identify heresy if we are going to draw such a serious conclusion)–he or she should not immediately leave the church. Such individuals have a responsibility to go through the proper channels of accountability in order to bring about change. “They must,” Jay insists, “speak to the elders (or other board members, depending on the kind of church it may be) about the problem. They have a responsibility to the congregation and to the Lord that they cannot discharge by leaving the church.”
If a church member has followed the first two steps, and finds himself or herself getting nowhere, one final course of action may be taken:
“If the church belongs to a denomination, it may be possible to appeal to a high body (a Presbytery, convention, etc.). This may take time and it will require patience…but they are responsible to take every action possible to restore the ministry of this church…If the church is independent, they must attempt to rally as many of the members as possible to bring about a change in the situation…They will be vilified all along the way by some; but if they persist in a proper, humble, helpful manner–not returning evil for evil, but overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21)–keeping Christ’s honor and His Church’s welfare always uppermost in their minds, they will proceed rightly.”
If these courses of action are followed in love, humility and patience, and no change occurs in the doctrine that is promulgated from the pulpit, such individuals “must finally leave the church and…unite with a church in which the Gospel is preached and the Lord’s word is held inerrant.”