As events throw a Church body into upheaval, people inevitably start leaving the congregation. No different with our Church body which, as I posted here, is going through some difficult transitions right now. Considering I had some recent conversations with several brothers that are either contemplating leaving or have already made the, undoubtedly difficult, decision to leave, I started to think about what the Scriptures may have to say about leaving a church fellowship.
To be clear, I am not considering those that may leave a Church family for more practical and obvious reasons. I like to summarize those as the three S’s:
- Situation: A new job that requires relocation is an all too common event in these modern working days and it is self-evident that one tries to join a family that ministers in the area where one lives.
- Sending: Likewise if people are sent out for Christ, either to plant a local church or overseas ministry, it is obvious they will leave their current congregation and move on to a new one.
- Support: Lastly I would consider some family circumstances to be an valid reason, although one that needs to be evaluated carefully. A special needs child may prompt a move to another faithful church in the area that just happens to have an excellent ministry for disabled. Or a painful divorce may prompt a move to a different local body that has an excellent ministry catering to others with the same pain.
Bogus reasons or excuses
And then there is a whole slough of reasons that are quite unequivocally not Scripturally based. If one pays sufficient attention prior to joining a given family, these would have surfaced in advance. Let’s call them the four M’s:
- Ministries: The fact that one doesn’t “like” the children or youth ministry, is a very dangerous argument, for which I can’t find any Biblical support. After all, the children or youth in your family are not called to be the spiritual leaders of your family. I would propose that rather than leaving because of this, it should be a call to get more engaged in those ministries and support them with all the service one can muster to improve them and grow them.
- Misfits: I’ve heard the argument that people feel that no-one seems to care about them. That they don’t “fit in”. The questions are usually along the lines of “Why isn’t anyone asking me how I am ?” or “Why doesn’t that elder address me ?”. Perhaps the solution to this argument is to start ministering to others first. Imagine how much more dynamic our body would be if everyone tried to reach out to each other and ask how they were doing ? Walk up to a person and ask him how they are doing. Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them if there is anything in particular you can pray for in their lives. The old saying “What goes around, comes around” is definitely applicable in this case. Inevitably, sooner or later someone will walk up to you and ask you that same question.
- Music: Whether the music is slow, fast, old, modern, hymns, gospel, etc… It’s an excuse. Note that music does not equate to worship. Worship includes the all aspects of our weekly gathering, including the sermon, the music, the Lord’s table, the atmosphere, etc. Hence, I do understand completely that there are styles of worship in which people feel more comfortable than in others. Me, myself and I not in the least. I was brought up in a European Roman Catholic environment and so the charismatic style of worship is not something I personally am comfortable with. Not because I don’t think it’s a valid form of worship. But I know that for me it is more a distraction than a motivation to worship Him. Personally, I believe this is the only exception: where worship style becomes the point where one is distracted during worship, it could be a reason for changing Church. Music in and of itself, is not a valid excuse.
- eMotions: Things happen as much in a Church congregation as in any other human community. We are a congregation of sinners who will, even inadvertently, hurt each other. And this causes emotions of pain, anger, grief, frustration. Acting out of one of these emotions with a decision to leave is never a good idea, nor can it be Scripturally defended. Many negative emotions are caused by sin, and we’ll cover further down in this post on how are being called to deal with sin within the Body. But the reaction should never be an immediate decision to leave.
So now that we’ve listed the more self-evident reasons and invalid reasons, what other motivations does Scripture provide for potentially leaving a Church ? And it should not come as a surprise that they are very, very few and far between. Considering the historical context in which the New Testament was written, one has to remember the early Church was very united, both spiritually and physically. One could not go from one side of town to the other side of town to find a different Church. There was one Church in Corinth. One in Philippi. One in Colosse. Etc, etc… They were spiritually united and under the direct guidance and authority of the apostles. I can imagine it was hard to disagree with an apostle on an issue. I pretty much would think the apostle was right. If one decided to leave a Church, they decided pretty much to leave THE Church. There were no options. Obviously over the centuries, this has now become more of a luxury and especially in the United States we have a smorgasbord of options at our disposal. But even with the limited material from the Scriptures, I found support for two potential reasons. Which I like to call the two H’s:
1. Heresy vs Doctrine: Even though people may think this is a self-evident reason, it is more complicated than that. Inevitably it will lead to the question “Which doctrine” ? Or “Which Heresy”. There are those doctrines that are essential for Salvation and our faith, versus those that are essential for a denomination. Then there are those that are non-essential.
- Essential for Salvation: Those doctrines that are necessary for the essence of our Christian Faith. If these get violated in your Church body… flee !
Gal 1:6-9: 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
2 John 8-9: 9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
- Essential for denomination: With regards to those doctrines that are essential for a given denomination and may be important for you if you desire to remain within that denomination. This would include items such as baptism by immersion or not, believers or infant baptism, the differences in Eucharistic, Ecclesiastic or Eschatological theology. If there arises a discrepancy between the denominational doctrines and the practices of the local Church, one could decide to start the search for another family.
- Non-essential: These are those doctrines we can absolutely disagree on and yet remain within the same family. Nothing on this list should ever be a reason for leaving a Church family.
2. Hypocrisy vs Holy Living: This second “H” applies to the character of the Church leadership. Do note that these apply to the character of the leadership. Not to any decisions they make that are unpleasant or that one doesn’t agree with. Paul made tough choices, decisions and rebuked entire congregations. Not pleasant I am sure, but necessary. But when one notices that the lifestyle of the leaders of the Church body does not conform to the Scriptural guidelines provided for the Church leadership, there would be definite reason for concern. The qualities for Church leadership are clearly laid out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. It is important that the congregation is led by men above reproach that can set a good example for the entire congregation. [Note that there are some criteria that have been open for debate over the years, especially the element of “husband of one wife” (interpretations of non-divorced vs. non-polygamist in 1st century Judea). Consequently those interpretations can vary from congregation to congregation. Just as much as the requirement for celibacy can vary from denomination to denomination.] What is unambiguous, is the overall standard of character depicted in both 1 Timothy and Titus. If one should notice behavior that does not conform to these clear scriptural guidelines, there may indeed be a more fundamental challenge in the overall Church leadership. At which time, one should decide to address these.
So how should one leave ?
Now that we covered on what the Scripture may teach on us what may warrant leaving a Body, can we just “pack up and leave” ?
Not for naught do we call our Church body a family. We very often refer to our congregation as our Church family. Our congregation is referred to as a Body repeatedly. And I don’t think this is coincidence. Let us explore either analogy a little further.
If one of your family members decides to “act up” or “disobey”. Do we just kick them out the door ? Or worse even, when our spouse made a decision we don’t agree with, do you pack up a suitcase and leave ? I would assume that no-one in their right mind would act that harshly and swiftly. I’m sure that you would sit down and discuss matters. Some would look for an intermediary or counseling. Perhaps even reach out to your extended Church family to come and provide insight into the home family.
Or if your hand or foot starts bothering you. Perhaps it has some arthritis. Or itching. I would dare to venture to say that none of you would immediately resort to amputation to eliminate the bothersome part of the body. Even worse, if the hand or foot of your body all of a sudden decides it would like to be the hand or foot of another body, it cannot just “detach and jump ship”. So neither should we.
The Scriptures actually provide us with solid guidance on what to do when we see something wrong happening in the Body. Matthew 18:15-17 teaches us that: 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
I realize the text mentions “if your brother sins against you” and I would classify the two “H” reasons listed above as sin. When your brother, even though he may be a teacher, is erring in doctrine, that is a sin. When an elder or leader is living a hypocritical lifestyle, that is a sin. When another Church member has hurt you in some way, that is sin. And they are sins against the Body since they reflect badly on the body. And since you are part of the Body, it is a sin against you. So therefore, I conclude this applies directly to how to deal with any of the reasons why one may contemplate leaving a Church body.
And furthermore, if one does feel the leadership of the Body is going astray and that there are reasons for questions, 1 Timothy not only gives us the qualities of our leaders, it also instructs us how to approach them if we feel they go astray:19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
What is clear from both passages is that leaving a Church body is a process. Just like becoming a member of a Church is a process, leaving it should be treated the same. Except for blatant heresy from the pulpit as outlined in 2John, I cannot find any Scriptural support to indicate that we can just get up and leave our Church family without an attempt at reconciliation and discussion. Even more so, it is never a “one man show”. In both verses we are clearly called to call for witnesses, to take others along and to discuss.
If after this process, one still feels called to leave their current congregation, do so in a dignified manner, worthy of a follower of Christ. Do it factually, simple and without venting or backstabbing. If one has followed the steps above that Scripture indicates we are called to follow, your departure from the Body should not be a surprise to the leadership. If you have exhausted all attempts at reconciliation, no further reasons to explain your decision are necessary. If you are in a position of leadership at the Church or heavily involved in different ministries, it may be wise to ask the Church staff how they would inform your friends and others in the Body. It may avoid unpleasant surprises, gossip and assumptions later. And never, ever build a faction within a Church body. Remember we all belong first to Christ and are not followers of men (1 Cor 1:11-31).
So for those that are contemplating to leave, I would urge you to consider the process that Scripture is calling us to. Meet with others. Discuss matters with the elders. Don’t believe gossip, slander or hear-says. But call on witnesses. Above all, refrain from trying to find blame. And refrain from making a decision based in emotions such as hurt, anger or grief. Take the time, however long it may take, to let those subside and then see if this family is still the one you belong to.
People have asked me “What about you and Mary ?”. We feel we were led to this family for almost 12 years and have been an integral part of it since then. Hence we decided not to act rashly. We love this Body, we love the teaching, we love the Lord and we feel it is still the best place for us to worship Him. We have not found any doctrinal heresies nor any hypocrisy with any of the leaders.
I was drawn to Hebrews 13 lately. And especially v.7 and v.17:
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.9 Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.
Besides that, Matthew 7:1-2 are continuously in my mind:
7 1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
Based on that, Mary and I remember our elders and how faithfully they have led us for many, many years. I have not found any faults in their way of life and faith. And hence we continue lifting them up in prayer and will submit to them as we trust they are watching over us with all the best intentions. Realizing that eventually, they will have to give an account to Him. Therefore, I will not judge them. But continue to look at myself to see how I can support our family in this hour of need. Besides daily prayers, perhaps this post is my small contribution in supporting our struggling family.