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Thursday, March 1, 2012

To Stay or Not To Stay

In the message on Sunday, I made the statement, “there are good reasons to leave a church, just not as many as we think.”  Of course, the obvious question is “what are those good reasons?” 
There are no passages in the New Testament that explicitly deal with this issue.  To formulate an answer then, we have to appeal to principles that we find in the Bible.  This is somewhat subjective, but I think we can come up with some general ideas.
First, I’d like to share what I believe do not qualify as good reasons to leave a church.  As we saw on Sunday, Ephesians 4:1-3 assumes that we are going to have differences.  Paul writes, I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 
Humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and the eager maintenance of unity are not necessary if everyone gets along.  Neither are they necessary if those differences are adequate grounds for separating from one another.  The New Testament is littered with similar references that assume that different preferences, different convictions, and offenses against one another are a part of the normal course of church life (Rom 12:9-12, 14:1-15:12; Gal 6:1-5; Eph 4:25-32; Phil 2:1-11,4:1-3; 1Th 5:12-15).  These passages do not condone parting with fellow believers over such things.  On the contrary, they command the opposite.  We are to love and forgive and be patient with one another in the face of all kinds of differences and offenses. 
When we leave a church because our preferences are not the norm there, and go to another church where they are, we will eventually find that we have more preferences than we originally thought.  While the preferences for which we left Church A may be favored at Church B, we will in all likelihood find that we have other preferences that Church B does not favor.  We then have a longer list of preferences that must be favored by a potential Church C – that is, we will look for a church that favors all the preferences for which we left Church A and all the preferences for which we left Church B.  You can follow this trail off into infinity.  At some point, we have to recognize that the church isn’t about our personal preferences.  We have to sacrifice what we might prefer for the good of the body.  Some examples of preferences would be worship style, the right programs, no programs, and even whether or not there should be gourmet coffee and a bookstore.
Many people also leave churches because they have been offended by someone or many someones.  This might be the most ironic reason for leaving a church.  In one large respect, it is completely different from leaving a church over personal preferences.  If you leave a church because of preferences, you will at least end up in another church with different preferences.  On the other hand, if you leave a church because it has sinners who offend you, you can search high and low until the Lord comes back, but you will never find a church that also does not have sinners who will offend you.  The only thing you accomplish by leaving one church for another for this reason is variety – you will simply have a greater diversity of people sinning against you.
It won’t seem that way at first.  The new church will seem perfect – no sinners.  Everyone gets along.  But let’s face it – we are all perfectly adorable until you get to know us.  The longer you are at that church, the more flaws you will see in people and the more flaws they will see in you. 
When we leave for these kinds of reasons, we do an end run around one of the primary ways that Christ makes us like himself.  Our differences and offenses teach us to die to self and forgive.  If we run from conflict and uncomfortable situations, we will never learn how to deal with them in a godly way. 
I think we can use texts like Eph 4:11-16 to help us determine what would be an appropriate reason to separate from a local church. 
  11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,
 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,
 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.  (Eph 4:11-16)
These verses teach us that God has given equippers to the church to equip them for the work of ministry.  Paul shows that this is critical in order for the church to function properly. If the pastors and teachers are not equipping the church for ministry or giving instruction in sound doctrine, that local body has no hope to be healthy. 
We can add to this the instruction that Paul gives to Timothy and Titus on the importance of preaching the Word and holding to strong doctrine (1 Tim 4:6; 2 Tim 3:14-4:4; Titus 1:9, 2:1).  One of the strongest admonitions in all of Paul’s writings pertain to this matter: I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2Tim 4:1-2).   
Preaching and teaching are safeguards for the purity of the church.  They also are essential for the equipping of the church.  Without them, a local church simply will not be a biblically-functioning body.  If a person finds himself at a church where God’s Word is not preached faithfully and sound doctrine is not a priority, he should raise his concerns with the leadership of the church.  If those errors are not remedied, that person should remove himself and look elsewhere. 
I believe that our priority should be to maintain the unity of the church.  To that end, I must be willing to sacrifice my personal preferences and be patient with those who sin against me.  However, when God’s Word is not being preached and sound doctrine is compromised, a believer must find a biblical place of worship.
posted by Greg Birdwell

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