Reasons to Leave a Church, part 3

This is the third of a 3-part series of posts addressing the question, “what constitutes a good reason to leave a church?”  The first couple of reasons were dealt with in the first post, and dealt with issues concerning the church leadership.  Yesterday’s post dealt with a couple of reasons related to a church’s theology and practice.  Today’s post deals specifically with conflict in the church.

So, the fifth and final “good” and “bad” reasons….

Good Reason #5 – There is no “good” version of this 5th reason, so let’s get right to the “bad reason”

Bad Reason #5 – conflict within the church – While #4 above may be the biggest component of the “consumer mindset”, I believe that this reason (conflict) is the number one reason why people leave their church.  It is the both the most prevalent reason, as well as the most unjustified reason.

A couple of weeks ago the History Channel aired a 3-night mini-series about the infamous “Hatfield and McCoy” feud that erupted between two families in West Virginia in the late 1800’s.  I found it ironic that in the movie’s adaptation of the feud, both families attended the same church.  Some folks can give testimony to the potential for feud-like conflict within the church, but most often the conflict is left unaddressed while the festering wounds of the conflict continue to cause pain for years.  Many have left their church home in such instances.

Scripture is filled with admonition to work out the interpersonal conflict we have with other people, especially within the church.  “Love between the brethren”, not bitterness or resentment or hate, is to be the defining characteristic of those who follow Christ (John 13:35).  Consider Paul’s exhortation to two women in the church at Philippi to “agree in the Lord”:

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.  Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.  Phil 4:2-3

Resolving conflict in the Body of Christ can be messy and complicated, but Paul gives one of the keys in Philippians, chapter 2, verse 3:

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

Paul then goes on the explain that the kind of humility we need to have in our relationships with one another is the kind of humility that Jesus displayed in His coming from Heaven and dying on a Cross for those who were in rebellion against His Father (Phil 2: 6-11).

If you are in conflict with another person in the church, please don’t leave the church over this.  The hurt and pain that are a result of the conflict will not go away just because you move your membership to another church.  In reality, you will only be bringing that hurt and pain with you to the next church, and it will become the filter through which all of your new relationships are established.  Instead of leaving, please prayerfully, graciously, lovingly, patiently address the conflict in humility with a willingness to forgive and seek forgiveness where necessary.  If needed, ask a pastor/elder or another mature believer to help you walk through this conflict resolution.  Let the Gospel of Jesus Christ replace conflict with grace, and allow it to be a resolution that bring glory to God.

Conclusion – In over 10 years of pastoral ministry, I would have to say that the vast majority of those who left the church probably should not have left.  Of those who left because of good reasons, over half of them did not leave well.  Only a very small percentage of those who left, did so because of reasons that in my opinion are justifiable, and that when they left, they left well.  My encouragement to those reading this who are considering leaving their church home, is to prayerfully reconsider.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you can’t just do whatever you want to do….you gave up that right when you made Jesus Lord of your life.  Our obligation is to pray and ask God what He wants us to do, and then trust Him to give us the faith, patience, strength, and whatever else it might take…to obey Him.

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Reasons to Leave a Church, part 2

This is part two of a 3-part series of posts addressing the question, “what constitutes a good reason for leaving a church”.  Yesterday’s post dealt with issues relating to the leadership of the church, today’s post will deal with disagreements with the church’s theology and/or methodology.  Tomorrow’s third and final post in this series will adress conflict within the church.

So, here are a couple more “good” and “bad” reasons for leaving the church:

Good Reason #3 – theological disagreement on essential doctrines – If you find that the stated doctrine of the church (and/or the doctrine being taught at the church) is unBiblical, then it is also time to leave.  Now, to determine a doctrine as “unBiblical” is sometimes difficult.  There are a great variety of theological persuasions that provide ample evidence of Biblical support for their position; nevertheless, church members must do the hard work of determining whether the doctrines held by their church are informed from the Scriptures or not.  That being said, I would suggest that the “doctrines which divide” (iow, those that require members to disassociate themselves from the church upon disagreement), be limited to essential doctrines.  There is a vast difference between leaving a church over a disagreement on the authority of Scriptures versus leaving over a disagreement about the exact nature of end time events.  For an excellent discussion on what might constitute essential doctrines, I would encourage you to read Al Mohler’s 2004 article on theological triage.  I would suggest that the essential doctrines of a local church are those that Mohler describes in his article a “first-order and second order issues”.  In the case of NewBranch Community Church, our essential doctrines are listed in black and white in our Statement of Faith. I would argue that leaving over essential doctrines should be fairly rare, since new members should know the essential doctrines of the church they are joining, and determine in advance if they are going to be a problem for them.

Bad Reason #3 – theological disagreement on unessential doctrines – You probably saw this coming.  It stands to reason that although leaving a church may be justified when there is disagreement over essential doctrines, disagreement over unessential doctrines should not justify leaving a church.  Now, just because I call them unessential does not at all mean they are unimportant.  Unessential doctrines can be very important to us individually, but they are “unessential”  in maintaining unity in the church.  We believe that there can be diversity in the unessential doctrines and still have unity among the body of believers in a local fellowship.  In keeping with Mohler’s article above, these unessential doctrines are what he would describe as “third-order issues” (or “tertiary issues”).  For us at NewBranch, we like to say that the essential doctrines  are those that we hold with a “closed hand”, while the unessential doctrines are those that we hold with an “open hand”.   The issues we hold with a “closed hand” are those clearly articulated in our Statement of Faith, while those issues we hold with an “open hand” are those which are not discussed in our Statement of Faith.  Based on this framework, I would argue that leaving over “open-handed” issues is both wrong and hurtful to the unity of the local church.

Good Reason #4 – unbiblical methodology – If the methodology of the church is inconsistent with Biblical theology, and all efforts to address the issue have been exhausted without any indication of a willingness to change, then a person would be justified in leaving the church.  However, since one’s methodology follows from one’s theology, these issues should be addressed as theological disagreements (see good and bad reason #3 above).  If the theological disagreement is over essential doctrine, then I would argue that their decision to leave the church (while not a necessity) would be justified.  For example, if we (as a baptistic church) began to baptize infants, then the disagreement would be over our theology of baptism.  Now, just because someone disagrees with us about infant baptism doesn’t mean they cannot be a member of the church; however, that theological difference may be too much for the individual to overlook, and they may decide they need to leave the church.

Bad Reason #4 – disagreements about methodology – With that being said (above about unbiblical methodology), it must be noted that most of the time folks who leave a church do so because the church is doing something they don’t like or don’t agree with.  I believe this to be the biggest component of the “consumer mindset” towards church membership.  In years past, it was almost proverbial for folks to leave the church because of a disagreement over thinks like “the color of the carpet”.  Today, folks leave their church because it doesn’t offer enough programs (children’s activities, etc.), or because the music doesn’t meet their needs (too loud, not loud enough, too many hymns, not enough hymns, etc.).  In addition, disagreements over methodology can be centered on things like:

  • How we do evangelism
  • How we serve communion
  • Whether we do Sunday School or small groups
  • Whether we have a Sunday night service or not
  • Whether we take up the offering before or after the sermon

These are not issues to leave the church over.  Take “how we do evangelism” as an example.  There are a variety of evangelism methodologies (friendship evangelism, street preaching, attractional outreach, incarnational outreach, etc.), most of which are all Biblical.  There are some that I would argue are not Biblical (like telling folks they will “have their best life now” if they pray the sinner’s prayer), but it all goes back to the theological underpinnings of the practice.   If your church has an evangelism methodology with which you disagree, make the issue about the theological underpinnings of that methodology, not the methodology itself.   If the theological disagreement (about a methodology) is over an unessential doctrine, then leaving the church is not a wise option and is ultimately hurtful to the Body.

Tomorrow will be the final post in this series, and will deal with conflict in the church.

Reasons to Leave a Church, part 1

The previous post was re-posting of some advice from Kevin DeYoung concerning how to leave the church, and how to engage in a new church.  A very important issue that post doesn’t address is “what constitutes a legitimate reason to leave a church”.  I’d like to address that question in a 3-part series of posts in this blog.    Two caveats before we begin. First, my list of good and bad reasons for leaving a church is not meant to be exhaustive, but representative.  Second, I am not posting this in response to anything going on at our church.  These reasons are not meant to describe anyone who has either joined our church or left our church, but are reasons I’ve heard and seen in over 10 years of pastoral ministry.

So, “what constitutes a good reason to leave a church?”  As a pastor, I’m tempted to answer that question with… “nothing”!  Shepherds don’t like to see sheep leave the flock; however, there are times when it is best or even necessary for someone to leave their local church and find a new church home.  Sometimes this decision is made for us.  Involuntary reasons include things like moving out of town.  It’s always best to connect with a faith family that is relatively close to your home.  Driving an hour and a half may very well preclude you from having genuine community with others in your church, which I would suggest is a mandatory element of church membership (wherever you are).  This may have application to some mega-church congregations where people are drawn from great distances from the church.  Another involuntary reason is church discipline, but that’s a post for another time.

 

What we most often encounter are the voluntary reasons for leaving a church.  Admittedly there are good reasons for leaving a church, and there are bad reasons for leaving a church.  The “how” of leaving a church is handled well in the previous post mentioned above, but let me take a quick stab at noting some of these reasons.  Today’s post will cover reasons dealing with the leadership.  Tomorrow’s post will address disagreement with the church’s theology and methodology, and the third post will deal with conflict in the church.  Oddly enough, the good reasons for leaving can easily be warped into bad reasons, as you’ll see in this list:

 

Good Reason #1 – abusive leadership – When a pastor or elder steps over the line and abuses his position

of leadership in order to exert power, influence, or control, then it is time to leave.  Sometimes when our own emotions are at play, it is difficult to determine if a leader is abusing his authority.  Trevin Wax provides some helpful guidelines to follow in a recent blog post.  Many people have been deeply hurt be leaders who are characterized by abusing their authority.  This is unacceptable from a church leader, and if it is left unaddressed, then it is time to leave.

 

 

Bad Reason #1when leaders exert authority – Although the pastors/elders of a church should never abuse authority, they are required to “use” authority.   The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that church leaders must one day be held accountable for how they exercise their authority:

 

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.  Hebrews 13:17, ESV

 

When writing to Timothy about the leadership of the local church, Paul makes an assumption that the elders must “rule”,

 

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.  1 Timothy 5:17

 

We shouldn’t get all bent out of shape when leaders lead.  The congregation holds the elder board accountable to never become abusive (above), or sinful (next), but leaders must lead.  Especially as men, sometimes our sinful pride gets in the way of humble submission to authority.  When we fail to submit to authority (and remain in that place), only one of two options remain.  Either the leadership must alter its convictions in order to acquiesce to the dissenting voice (which is an unacceptable outcome), or the dissenter will become bitter and resentful, and end up leaving the church.  Leaders should never become abusive, but they must be allowed to lead.

 

Good Reason #2 – when a leader falls into or remains in sin – I want to be very careful how this is worded.   We should not hold leaders to a higher standard than Scripture, and we should extend grace to leaders and not oust them whenever they sin (see bad reason #2 next); however, there is a difference between a leader who loses his temper, recognizes his sin, confesses it, and seeks to fight his sin with the help of the church community, and a leader who falls into sin, fails to respond to church discipline about the sin, and remains in a position of authority in direct defiance of church discipline.  In some cases, a pastor remains in authority because those in the church who are charged with exercising authority over the pastor do not perform their responsibility.  In these cases where a leader is allowed to remain in a position of authority despite his ongoing sinful rebellion, after all efforts of addressing the issue have been exhausted, it may be necessary for people to leave that church.

 

Bad Reason #2 – when a leader sins – Our church knows full well that if everyone were to leave when a leader sinned, then we would have had a worship attendance of “zero” by the 2nd week of our existence as a church.  No leader is perfect, and pastors like myself provide ample evidence of that fact.  The example of pastors and elders who run to the Cross and cling to the grace of Jesus Christ in their moments of struggle with sin, can bring a greater depth of understanding of Gospel-centered living to the remainder of the congregation.  Are there times when a leader’s sin is such that they should be excused from leadership?  Absolutely, and those are serious times to be handled with much prayer and wisdom; however, I would argue that these are not the times to leave a church, but times to dig in with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and help the church heal through that process.  If a leader is not excused from their position of authority when they should be (because of sin), then I would argue that you’re within the bounds of “Good Reason #1” above (abusive leadership)

Tomorrow’s post will address issues relating to disagreements with the church’s theology and/or methodology.

Leaving the Old, and Engaging the New

How to leave your old church well, and how to engage in your new church faithfully.

This past month marks 12 years of pastoral ministry for me.  In that time, I’ve seen a number of new people come into the church where I was serving, as well as some long-time members leave.  Some of these experiences have been healthy, and some have not.  Most of the unhealthy ones are because of how I and the other pastors/leaders handled the situation; however, there are some important things to keep in mind when engaging in a new church or in leaving your existing church.  Kevin DeYoung over at The Gospel Coalition Blog has written a couple of posts this week addressing this, and I thought they were worth sharing:

First, “How To Start At Your New Church”.

Second, “How To Leave Your Old Church”.

These posts cover the “how” in leaving a church, while usually the most pressing decision is not “how”, but “if”.  Whether or not to leave a local church is a huge decision with huge ramification both for the individual and the church.  We should approach that decision carefully, prayerfully, Biblically, and solemly.  To help with this, I’m working on a future post that discusses what are good reasons and bad reasons for leaving a church, but that’s for another day.

 

Tradition vs. Traditionalism

Yesterday we unpacked Matthew 9:14-17, and among other things, we talked about how tradition is good, but traditionalism is not.  I thought this post might be helpful in fleshing that idea out a bit more.  This is a blog post that original appeared on The Resurgence blog, and was written by a guy I went to seminary with, Jeremy Carr.

 

TRADITION VS. TRADITIONALISM

By Jeremy Carr

THE MASTERS

My hometown of Augusta, GA is renowned for the annual golf tournament The Masters. Golf is central to the identity and culture of our city. In college, I had the great opportunity to work as a driver for a world famous company during the 1997 Masters. That week I met numerous celebrities and had an up close and personal experience of the lifestyle and traditions of golf’s greatest. These golf traditions are expressed in many ways: players exhibit pre-game rituals, spectators observe golf “liturgy” as they approach the hallowed ground of the Augusta National, and the world watches on as the champion is praised by the offering of the coveted green jacket (despite the unforgiving Georgia heat). For many, golf is a tradition. For some it is a religion.

EVERYONE HAS TRADITION

Part of contextualizing the gospel involves recognizing the traditions of that culture—discerning what is redeemable and what is an idol. The south, for instance, is rich in history and tradition, yet in many ways remains under-gospeled. Pastors and church planters are typically wide-eyed and ambitious, seeking to build a new expressions of gospel-centered faith in culture. The simple fact is that the moment something is done more than once, a tradition has been established. Tradition is good in so much that it points to Christ and connects with the saints of history. We must ask: what traditions are we establishing and upholding?

PRESERVING THE NON-ESSENTIALS

In Mark 7 we see the Pharisees approaching Jesus with questions regarding certain traditions. It soon becomes evident that the issue is not tradition, but traditionalism. The Pharisees are observing “the tradition of the elders” (Mk 7:35) and “many other traditions” (Mk 7:4). The root of their observances are traditions of men rather than commands of God. Their oral law had become equivalent in authority to the written law. In so doing, the Pharisees were promoting cultural traditionalism at the expense of extending the gift of God’s word.Traditionalism is an idol that replaces Christ and isolates from the saints of the past.

MISSING THE GOSPEL

Jesus is quick to shift the focus from the human authority of traditionalism back to the commands of God revealed in Scripture, of which Jesus himself exhibits authority over. Quoting the prophet Isaiah (Mk 7:6-7), Jesus states with authority, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mk 7:8). He later charges that their traditionalism makes void the word of God (Mk 7:13). Traditionalism is a very affront to God by placing obstacles for true communion with God, while missing the good news that tradition intends to display.

ESTABLISHING, UPHOLDING, NEGLECTING?

Historical theology gives us an understanding to the gospel-centrality of certain traditions that should be established and upheld, not neglected. Tradition should not be ignored, but infused with the gospel. Traditionalism should not be tolerated, but confronted with the gospel. What traditions are you establishing? What traditions are you upholding? How are you combating traditionalism in your context? Traditionalism requires that we come to God in a certain way, while the timeless tradition of true gospel belief frees us to come to Jesus as we are.

Are we holding to traditions of men or commandments of God?

Lord, Send Revival!

About 15 months ago, Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of First Baptist Church, Grand Caymans (what a place to suffer for Jesus, huh!?), posted an article describing how he had been encouraged after reading one of the Jonathan Edawrds works I mentioned in a post earlier this week.  I too was encouraged by this, and reminded that revival as we’re defining it (a fresh awareness of the glory and nearness of God) can only happen by God’s hand, and thus my role is to pray for Him to revive my heart and our church.  Read and enjoy, and be similarly encouraged.

Recently I dusted off my copy of Jonathan Edwards’ The Surprising Work of God, an account of the revivals in New England in the 1730s.  I’ve been freshly stirred by Edwards’ recounting of the Lord’s work in that spiritual awakening.  Consider how he described the affect on the daily life of the people:

“The people seemed to follow their worldly business more as a part of their duty than from any attachment they had to it.  It now seemed that the temptation was to neglect worldly affairs too much and to spend too much time in the immediate exercise of religion.  This was highly misrepresented by reports that were spread into other regions, as though the people here had completely thrown aside all worldly business and had committed themselves entirely to reading and praying and such religious exercises.

“Although people did not ordinarily neglect their worldly business, religion was the great concern among all sorts of people.  The world was simply incidental to them.  The only thing on their minds was to obtain the kingdom of heaven, and everyone appeared to be pressing into it.  The fixedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hidden; it appeared on their faces.  It then was a dreadful thing among us to be out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell.  Indeed, the people were intent upon escaping for their lives and fleeing from the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7).”

Can you imagine?  Here were a people accused of neglecting the world and spending too much time in heavenly things.  I love how Edwards describes them: “The world was simply incidental to them.”  Don’t you get the sense that so much of today’s Christian living is afflicted with the opposite problem?  Heaven is incidental to us, so we neglect it and we’re too much involved in worldly pursuits.

Edwards goes on to describe the effect:

“There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world.  Those who were typically the vainest and loosest, and those who had been inclined to think and speak lightly of vital and practical religion, were now generally subject to great awakenings.  The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner, and it increased more and more.  Souls literally came by flocks to Jesus Christ.  From day to day, for many months at a time, sinners were brought out of darkness into marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9), delivered out of a horrible pit and from the miry clay, and set upon a rock witha new song of praise to God in their mouths (Ps. 40:2-3).

“This work of God, as it went on and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious change in the town, so that in the following spring and summer of 1735, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.  It has never been so full o f love and joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then.  There were remarkable signs of God’s presence in almost every household.  It was a time of joy in families because salvation had been brought to them: parents rejoiced over their children as if they had again been born, and husbands rejoiced over their wives, and wives over their husbands.  The workings of God were then seen in His sanctuary (Ps. 68:24), the Lord’s Day was a delight (Isa. 58:13), and His tabernacles were amiable (Ps. 84:1).”

Perhaps you live in a place that needs to be filled with the presence of God, with the joy and love that comes from His presence?  Perhaps you dwell where “a great effusion of the Spirit of God” is desperately needed?  I live in such a place.  The church I shepherd is such a people.  My own home is such a place.  Indeed, my very soul needs this renovating, reviving work of God.
Consider this supernatural work at its height:

“This work seemed to be at its greates height in this town in the early part of the spring, in March and April.  At that time, God’s work in the conversion of souls was carried on among us in such a wonderful manner that, so far as I can judge, it appears to have been at the rate of at least four people a day, or nearly thirty in a week, for five or six weeks in a row.  When God took the work in His own hands in such a remarkable manner, there was as much done in a day or two as was usually done in a year with all the effort and blessing that are usually allotted to men.”

My soul cries out, “God take this work in your own hands!”  Can you imagine a season where at least four people per day every day are born again by the Spirit’s working?!  And that for five or six weeks!  I would rejoice if it were just one day–today.  I’d be overcome if it were a week.  But I’d lose my mind with joy to know weeks or months of Spirit-wrought revival, a great in-gathering of souls for our Savior!

Oh, come Lord Jesus!  Revive your people and renew sinners!  Bring in the ransomed with a great demonstration of your Spirit’s power.  Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Revival Resources

This past Sunday we started a 4 week vision series.  In this series we will be discussing 4 distinct areas of ministry that the Lord has recently been bringing to the awareness of the elders as areas we need to address as a church if we are to be “faithful tools” in His hands.   These four areas are part of a “Four-Fold Vision” that we will be referring back to throughout the year.  They are Revival, Manhood, Missionality, and Community.  Each week of this series we will be attempting to provide some follow-up material via this blog in order to provide fodder for discussion and additional study.  It is our prayer that you would avail yourself of these resources in the coming weeks and that the Lord would use that time to continue His work in transforming us into a people He will use for His glory.

This past Sunday we talked about the need for revival at NewBranch Community Church.  If you were working in the children’s ministry, or if you were out, you can listen to this message online.

Today, I wanted to provide you with a plethora of resources on revival.  These resources help to clarify what revival is (and is not), what our need for revival is, and how we will know if revival comes.  This list is in no way intended to be exhaustive, but representative of the theology of revival that I presented on Sunday.  I would love for you to likewise share any resources you’ve come across that would be helpful to folks in our church.  Enjoy!

 

Books on Revival:

Books that will help reclaim an abiding awareness of God’s nearness and glory (we talked on Sunday about how revival is primarily an desire for (and an acute awareness of) God’s presence, so these resources have stirred my soul to remind me of His glory and his nearness):

Online sermons about revival:

Blog posts/articles about revival: