December 16, 2017

On the Sober Step of Leaving a Church

Don Johnson

Recently, I wrote on the subject, What to do When the Church Leaves You. The article generated a fair amount of interest and discussion, for which I am grateful. Some criticism came my way, mostly along the lines that I might be encouraging frivolous schism where no good reason to leave a church may exist.

I want to be very clear about this point. The decision to leave a church is a very sober one. One could almost say it is spiritually traumatic, and shouldn’t be entered lightly. I am not endorsing departure from a local church over minor differences of style or ministerial approach. I am not endorsing the disgruntled leaving because they can’t get along with the pastor or some other leader of the church. (Those who are disgruntled need to get ‘gruntled’ again!)

The fact remains, however, that churches and ministries change, sometimes in ways that are contrary to the founding principles and/or documents of a local church. When such changes occur, individuals need to soberly assess their relationship with the church – is it spiritually healthy to remain? What level of disagreement can exist for me to maintain my fellowship with a local church? (It is a given that most likely we will never be 100% in agreement with every person or every policy/position of any local church.)

In the discussion of my previous article, a testimonial was offered by one of the participants concerning his own experience with leaving a local church. I thought the testimonial was so good that I offered the author an opportunity to share it here as a case study, illustrating the principles I am espousing. He declined, saying the memories were painful, but agreed to allow me to refer to the post and quote it in writing up a follow-up to my initial article.

In this case study, the issues were serious doctrinal changes:

The pastor wanted to move to a plurality of leadership (multiple elders). That in and of itself did not bother me but [I] was waiting to see how that would flesh itself out. …

[The] Pastor wanted to change the church doctrinal statement to remove pre-trib … make it pre-mill only …

It appears that the issues came to a head when a church-supported missionary was removed from his mission board for changing his views on eschatology. The board and the church both had doctrinal statements holding to the premillennial, pretribulational views of eschatology.

The church received letters from both the missionary explaining his position and requesting that we continue to support him and from the mission board [explaining their actions in removing the missionary.]

Through this period, Jim, our testimonial author, was a deacon in the church, and thus privy to all of this communication. He made a private appeal to the pastor:

To the pastor privately I advised that we could not continue to support the missionary (he was home from the field so it wasn’t a case of dumping him in a foreign land … I advised a 2 or 3 month phase out).

The pastor rejected my advice. He decided to make the letter from the missionary public (printed and distributed) but not make the letter from the mission board public. I objected to this and requested that he make both letters public. He refused.

Jim responded by appealing to the leadership of the church for a clear stand on the church’s doctrinal statement:

I wrote an official letter to the pastor requesting that he, and all offices (would include deacons) should annually affirm the church’s doctrinal statement

The deacons, pastor, pastoral assistant all met to discuss.

The meeting unfortunately revealed a serious fault-line in the leadership of the church. Only one alternative remained:

The Pastor said he would not sign statement affirming pre-trib. Nor would the pastoral assistant. The chairman of deacons basically equivocated. It seemed that the other deacon supported me.

I stated that wife and I would be leaving.

This is a sad tale, but it illustrates the kind of process that an individual might have to follow if some serious departure has occurred in a church ministry. It should be noted that Jim says this whole process “really spread out over about a year.” It should also be noted how careful Jim was to keep the disagreements private as long as possible and within the leadership circle as much as possible. While the biblical phrase “decently and in order” does not directly apply to this kind of circumstance, the spirit of “decently and in order” ought to apply to every disagreement of this sort in a local church.

No one should relish such disputes. No one should pursue disagreements over minor issues to the point of departure. An example can be found in this testimonial – the issue of “plurality of leadership”. Some of us don’t find biblical warrant for the concept, but it isn’t a deal breaker as such, as long as congregational government is maintained. Other minor differences could be such things as the use of technology (or not, or to what degree) in worship services, whether certain songs should be included in a church’s repertoire, or not, how evangelism should be conducted and so on. It is true that changes in any of these areas could represent a serious doctrinal or philosophical shift in the practice of a local church, but that is not always the case. Church members should ask questions about changes (non-combative) and should be willing to be flexible (within limits) when such changes occur.

In the end, painful as it might be, if the differences become spiritually intolerable, the church member may be left with no recourse but to sever ties with his church. I am not advocating a full scale public knock-down drag-out fight, certainly not. But ultimately, as individual believers, we are accountable to God for every aspect of our spiritual lives. When we find ourselves in such disagreement with our church leadership that we cannot conscientiously continue in fellowship, we will have to seek out alternatives, keeping in mind that the church belongs to the Lord and He will take care of it Himself. We need to be sure that we are faithful to him in every step we take, inside or outside any particular local church.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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