Friday, August 13, 2010

Good Reasons to Leave a Church Evaluated (Part 1)

A couple weeks ago I posted a link to an article which I appreciated for its thoughtful engagement with an issue that many Christians struggle with - when to leave a church. I still have not thought this through as much as I would like, but since I don't want this opportunity to get away from me, I want to at least begin responding to Jason's post. I'll begin today with a response to the "four P's" - what Jason called good reasons for moving on. My response to Jason's words is in italics.

1. Providential moving—If my job, family, or life has moved me from Dallas to Austin then I should probably find a local church in Austin, let alone if I moved from Michigan to North Carolina. It is right and good to belong to a local church and covenant with brothers and sisters in my own “backyard.”

This reason is clearly correct. I would only change one word: “probably” needs to be dropped. You should find a local church, period. The biblical rationale for this statement is found in the nature of church membership. How can one gather regularly with people 100 or 1000 miles away? How can one practice the one another commands of Scripture with those whom you never (or rarely) see? How can fellow church members truly know what is going on in your life? How can church leadership feed and lead one whom they never see? How can the church exercise discipline?

2. Planting another church—It may be that I haven’t left my home town, but the church I belong to has decided to send me out with others to plant another church in the area. Notice though, that I am being sent out by my church, not leaving with a group of people because I am disgruntled or think it is a good idea.

Once again, this reason fits well with the biblical concept of church membership. Being sent out to plant another church is a beautiful, Christ-exalting, gospel-spreading extension of the body, not an ugly, divisive fracturing of the body.

3. Purity has been lost— It may take different forms, but primarily this occurs when the Word is no longer proclaimed. It could be that heresy is being taught, the Bible is never read or preached, or a much more prominent manifestation these days is that the Word is no longer seen as sufficient; it is used as a seasoning for the message of the week rather than the diet by which the congregation is fed and nourished upon. However, we must be careful here; patience should always be exercised and I must always test my own heart to see if I am “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

This is a worthwhile point, but it needs careful construction and delineation.

I agree with this point, in general; however, I fear it is too general to be of much help. Let's slooow down here. We need to define clearly what constitutes a loss of purity and when that loss rises to the level of a good reason to move on. We need to do this biblically because popular level American Christianity has very little theological and historical sense of the weightier matters of the law, so to speak. The existential weight of any given issue is usually driven by other factors than a deep grasp of God’s Word and a powerful love for Christ and his people.

Let’s put this point into some biblical perspective. Our starting point ought to be the ubiquitous expectation in the NT for unity. We are commanded to be eager to maintain the unity produced by the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3). With that as our norm, any breach of that unity ought to be publicly demonstrable from Scripture. By publicly demonstrable, I mean demonstrable to other wise and godly Christians and Christian leaders, not just demonstrable in my own mind. This demonstration ought to be made publicly before any rash decisions are made to leave a church.

If heresy is being taught, it ought to be exposed and refuted. If it cannot be corrected, then the church itself has ruptured Christian unity, not those who leave that church. That church ought to be censured by all true churches. This will have the added benefit of making clear to younger or less knowledgeable Christians what their duty is in this deplorable situation. The same goes for moral corruption.

It is remarkable that in the NT, most churches had some problems, some of them quite severe, but no one was ever told to leave. The assumption holds that we fight for the unity of the church by seeking to purify it. In the process of doing that, we are purified, strengthened, and grown. There has always been the problem of false teachers with their ungodly lifestyles arising in the churches. It won’t be solved by scurrying away to our little enclaves that do everything “just the way I like it.”

Particular responsibility for this lies with the elders of churches. As mature and biblically informed leaders, they must lead Christians to discern what constitutes an irreparable loss of purity and what does not. Anyone coming to one church from another church ought to be asked why they are doing so by the leadership of the receiving church. If they do not have biblically sufficient reasons, they ought to be instructed and/or corrected. They ought never to be allowed to act autonomously and individualistically. When overseers allow this kind of church changing without instruction or correction, they reseed the weed of autonomy in their own fields. With this noxious weed afoot, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see the good crops pushed out.

This brings me to one concern of mine with the advice given in this list. It appears to assume the autonomous individual making his own choices without reference to other believers, church leadership, and historical helps (such as confessions of faith). Of course, these other factors may be assumed in this list, but I do not believe that they ought to be assumed. In my experience, precious few Christians carefully consider what other believers think, seek to work through issues with their church leaders, and have a broad doctrinal and historical perspective which allows them to see past the immediate tension to the enduring issues. Simply put, the average American Christian is not equipped with the spiritual maturity to, for example, stay put in an orthodox church when he doesn’t have a lot of close friends there or to leave a heterodox church when he does have a lot of friends there. I am not trying to denigrate personal responsibility at all here; I am simply saying that personal responsibility is not the entire equation.

So, is a loss of purity a valid reason for leaving a church? Certainly it is, if biblical thinking is being applied.

4. Peace of the church is in jeopardy due to my presence— This “reason” is hard to suggest for fear of it being abused, as it is by far the most subjective “reason.” However, there are cases where an individual/family can personally become a hindrance to the ministry of the local church and it is best for that person/family to move-on. If this is the reason I am contemplating leaving the church, then I must first test myself and discern whether it is because of sin on my own part. If that is the case then I must be quick to repent rather than move-on. This “reason” should always be approached with trepidation.

With the third reason I started to put on the brakes. Now with this reason I come to a stop, almost.

With my pastor hat on, I can think of some situations in which it would be a relief for a person to move on to a different church (not, I might emphasize, at my church at this time!). But just because it might be easier for me or for the church, it does not mean that it is right.

Does not the Scripture give us direction on how to achieve peace in the church? And does not the Spirit give us the power to implement these directives? Can leaving the church for this reason be deduced from Scripture?

This reason presupposes the fractured state of the church in our day. As such, it certainly has some pragmatic pull. But it does nothing to call all of us to walk worthy of the calling to which we have been called. I know well that there may be situations in which we throw up our hands and say that moving on is the best we can do. But we ought to do so with repentance, for we are tacitly admitting that our sinfulness is hindering the work of Christ and the unity of the Spirit. Thus, I would never suggest this as a legitimate reason for moving on. It may happen – no, it will happen – but that in no way justifies it as a biblical solution to our problems.


Michael Riley said...


I really, really appreciate your thoughts here, and I deeply share your concern about the trivialization of leaving a church. The choice to leave a church is often evidence of a pervasive consumer mindset; even in the best cases, the democritization of Christianity tends to diminish any notion of church authority in favor of one's own understanding of the Bible.

So I want to make that clear, at the outset: I'm with you, but I'm also wrestling with the inevitable tension between the biblical (high) view of church authority and the Luther-an conscience, bound to the Word of God.

Here's my question: is there any applicability of the dispute between Paul and Barnabas to the fourth reason for leaving a church? Certainly, the situation is different, but some similarities seem relevant: perhaps an overly kind reading of the event is that Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing sharply on ministry philosophy, decide that ministering separately would be best for them both.

Jason Parker said...

Thanks for your good comment, Mike. I had not thought of that angle, so I'm glad you brought it up. I, too, wrestle with how we can stand like Athanasius (contra mundum)when the need arises without elevating ourselves to the position of little popes.

You are right that Luke seems to studiously avoid laying any blame on either party in the narrative of Acts. Although we can't build a "theology of ministering separately" out of this episode, I do think that it is relevant if used in keeping with all of the clear directives of the NT.

How would it be relevant? Well, just thinking out loud, it might be relevant by demonstrating that the work of the gospel does not crash to the ground if two Christians cannot agree on how to minister together. I find this encouraging. Christ will build his church whether we always get it right or not.

Beyond that it is difficult to know how much weight to give this incident in our thinking. There is much that is left unsaid; therefore, I have a hard time using this passage to justify leaving a church *simply* for reasons of differing opinions on what to do next in a ministry. It is one thing to have confidence that the Lord will accomplish his work even when we can't get everyone on the same page. God's providence often works in inscrutable ways, and the Scripture is realistic about that. But it's another thing to claim that this gives us a license to do our own thing, especially when we have Scriptural precepts and principles which point the other direction.

Do you see any further lessons that can be drawn from Paul and Barnabas' experience?