Before You Leave Your Church

Being a "new society" or "community" in Christ means that the Church should do things differently than the various clubs and organizations of the world's community.  Perhaps this brief blog could stimulate our thinking toward doing "life together," as Dietrich Bonehoffer said.  Even in the midst of disagreements about matters that are not sin in themselves.

BEFORE YOU LEAVE YOUR CHURCH 
Gerhard deBock

Leaving the fellowship of a local church is a big deal, at least it should be. If we think we should break fellowship, there are lots of things to consider. One of the key things is our level of commitment. The depth of commitment will vary depending on whether a person identifies as a visitor, as a non-member churchgoer, or is a member who has made a my-church covenant.

If a person feels he/she is visiting and not yet committed to this church, then “leaving” a local body is not a major event. There really has been little time for relational bonds to develop. We usually have considered ourselves to be “visitors,” or perhaps those who were exploring that church to see if something more serious could develop. If we have attended several times, it is polite to thank the pastor for welcoming you as a guest before you leave.

Many today are churchgoers, who attend quite regularly. For some, they have no firm commitment to a local church, other than some emotional connections that develop over time. Though they may participate in worship services and perhaps other ministries, they have seen no need to become committed church members. They may give financially, even sacrificially. Sometimes, long-time churchgoers expect to be treated like they were members, assuming their long tenure gives them almost a “common law membership.” Leaving a church may seem to these folks a merely personal decision. If they are unhappy with services rendered, care given or decisions made, they decide to leave. At best they may send a letter explaining their intentions. Rarely will they take the more difficult, and perhaps costly, steps of seeking reconciliation. Non-member churchgoers must be encouraged to express the unity, that Christ died to give us, through local church membership.

Leaving a church should be most difficult for the member who has made the covenant of membership. We may wish that all regular attenders would make this choice of commitment to specific brothers and sisters in Christ. Gratefully, some do realize that the relational commands in the Bible make it reasonable and right to make formal a strong one-to-another bond through membership. These are folks who “stop dating” a local church and make a covenant commitment to that local body. Such commitments should not be easily broken.

Unfortunately, many members who leave their local church act more like a churchgoer or even a visitor. They have adopted the world’s mindset to committed relationships, deeming that a “no-fault divorce” is always an option. They are committed if they believe their needs are being met or if they understand and agree with the decisions of those in leadership. It is common for these members, when they leave, to write a letter of frustration. Sometimes they may make a phone call. And rarely will they set an appointment with the pastor. In their communication they state their concerns and declare that they will no longer be attending and that they want their membership terminated.

A BETTER WAY?

Is there a better way? A more biblical way? Is there a path that takes seriously all the biblical commands to work hard for the unity of the body? Are there steps that will be more Christ-like, promoting the health of the local church? What can we do to not give fuel to the gossip of the world that sees the church’s unity as nothing more than “birds of a feather, flock together”? Leaving a local fellowship divides that body, especially when the churchgoer or member has been attending for an extended period. Leaving incorrectly leaves room for the devil to bring dishonor to the name of our Savior. So, what can we do better?

The first thing we can do is try to assess clearly why we believe we have “grounds for a divorce.” No doubt that we will have lots of hurt feelings. If we have enough of these, we will be tempted to jump past the next steps and just make a fiat judgment that “we just cannot be part of that church!” Hopefully, the Holy Spirit will help us slow down a bit. What has caused our hurt feelings and perhaps our sense of outrage? There seems to be four different sources that are often seen:
1. Systemic sin within the church as a whole or her leadership.
2. Personal sin committed against us. This can be done by another attender or a church leader. 3. Disagreement over judgment calls made by a leader or the leadership.
4. Inadvertent bruises, which the other party may not even be aware of.

Not minimizing the pain of being hurt, if we take seriously the Scriptures, we must not too quickly assume that our judgment of “guilty” on any of these four charges is enough to just leave. As we do life together, not every bruise we get is intentional. Do we not owe it to the other party to speak the truth in love to them? Does Christ’s love not compel us to give them a chance to tell their side of the story? Does His forgiveness not press us to offer forgiveness to them for their methods, even if their motives were not bad? Do not the Scriptures tell us to submit to the judgment of others in conflicts that we cannot resolve?

We may believe that we have personally been sinned against. Does Matthew 18 not give us a command to go and talk with the offending brother or sister? Is there not there given a path of escalating the conflict because maintaining the bond of peace is so very important? Is adding up a record of wrongs not antithetical to what love does? If the offending party does not repent, should we not love them enough to eventually put them “out of the church?” How is it loving to allow them to be fooled into thinking everything is OK between them and God when they are actively practicing sin?

This is especially true when dealing with a church leader. If we do not use our position of membership or long time attendance to escalate the conflict through the Matthew 18 steps, does not “the blood of their sin stain our hands?” To not actively go through God’s directives that express “care-fronting,” is to allow the sinning leader to remain in a position to hurt others. That itself is sin, is it not? If we consider ourselves mature and godly and we “just leave,” have we not left the less mature “little ones” to be fodder for the sinning leader’s corruption?
 
The reason most often heard why professing Christians will not care-front the sin against them by others, especially church leaders, is that “it will make no difference anyway.” “They will not listen. They will not change. They have the position of power and they will get what they want.” Emotionally speaking, this gives the member an “out” from having to do the next right thing. But does it really provide a biblical ground for the desertion of a covenant relationship? Doing the right thing is not contingent upon whether we think it will work. True biblical courage is about trusting God when we do the mandated next right thing even when we do not think it will work.

When it comes to what we may label as “systemic sin,” it may be a misnomer. For sin to become a system-wide infection, there must have been many individual sins. The reasons given above, as to why we must care-front specific sins, still apply when we believe sin is a broad-brush issue. To leave without trying to right the wrongs is still cowardly. If we have not tried by going through all the levels of authority within the local church, we have left too soon, with our duty unfulfilled.

When folks leave disgruntled, it is most often tied to a disagreement about judgment calls. This is usually aimed at those perceived to be in leadership roles, formal or informal. These can be decisions about big things, like church staffing and resource allocations. They can also be about minor irritants. The key thing is to realize that they are not over sin issues. If we have determined that we do not believe that the leader or leadership is sinning, we must quickly put on the brakes when it comes to leaving the church.

We must realize that we are now at the point of deciding whether these judgment calls are “grounds for divorce.” What must slow us down is our own admission that leaving is not about biblically defined sin. When an individual continues in their sin, or a group in leadership is in sin, then eventually there will be biblical grounds for leaving. When there is merely disagreement about judgment calls, then it is time to work together for peace and unity.

If the leader or leaders demonstrate continued arrogance or unreasonableness, then these sins will need to be confronted. But we must not assume that those are present just because we disagree with their judgment calls. This situation would take us back to dealing with sins, not just judgment calls.

When thinking about leaving, we may be tempted to say, “I just cannot submit to them anymore.” A question lingers in the background of this statement as to whether we have submitted before. Or, if we have just agreed with their judgment calls. Submission is about obeying the judgment call of another who is in a position of authority over us.

In the local church we must ask whether a leader has been duly recognized in a position of authority. If there has been no sin, then it is appropriate to submit to that authority. That is not to say that we should not share our thoughts and feelings, but submission to the covenant made under the umbrella of the church’s by-laws is still called for. The biblical commands of submitting to and obeying our leaders must not be too quickly swept away by our emotions.

 WHAT SHOULD BE OUR NEXT STEPS?

I BELIEVE I HAVE BEEN SINNED AGAINST OR HAVE WITNESSED SIN AGAINST ANOTHER

1. CARE-FRONT THE INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP

2. GIVE OTHERS A CHANCE TO OWN RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR METHODS (INADVERTENT BRUISES) EVEN IF THEIR MOTIVES WERE NOT BAD

2. IF THINGS ARE NOT CLEARED UP (BETTER COMMUNICATION OR REPENTANCE) THEN ESCALATE THE CARE-FRONTING

4.WORK WITH THE CHURCH BODY TOWARD PEACE EVEN IF THAT MEANS PUTTING AN UNREPENTENT PERSON OUT OF THE CHURCH

I DISAGREE WITH THE JUDGMENT CALLS OF OTHERS, INCLUDING OUR CHURCH LEADERS

1. REVIEW WHETHER THEIR JUDGMENT CALLS WERE SINFUL, IF SO, USE THE PATH GIVEN ABOVE.

2. REVIEW WHETHER THEIR JUDGMENT CALLS WERE MADE IN ACCORD WITH THE CHURCH’S BYLAWS, IF SO, SUBMIT TO THEM WHILE RESPECTFULLY VOICING YOUR CONCERNS
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