After Church – Picking a Church (Or When You Should Leave One)

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I’ve been thinking about this post for quite a while, without actually putting anything down. But here’s to breaking bad habits, eh?

A bit of personal history: my family and I plowed (probably the wrong word, but I’m sticking with my grammar choices) through a number of church communities. We believe our goal in going to church consists of two things: worship and exposition of Scripture through the preaching of a pastor. If it fulfills those two basic requirements, we will probably go to that Church. As much as other people find themselves in the community aspect by virtue of socializing and the like, we find ourselves at a crossroads after a few years. Whether because of some ancient curse or whatever, inevitably that church fails to fulfill those two requirements.

The pastor commits adultery. The pastor thinks God can “change His mind”, as it were, about subjects of supposedly immutable truth (a capricious God, in any event). The pastor tells the congregation to give and dress unfashionably, yet he contradicts those very rules. The pastor only tells stories about Jesus when the Scriptures lay just in front of the leader of a Church! The pastor emphasizes a particular brand of service – i.e., indentured servitude – and that becomes the only way to serve God. The pastor empathizes a little too much with someone of the opposite gender; lo and behold, he disappears into the mists.

I understand that sin and stumbling blocks and good intentions turned bad infiltrate every person’s life; how much more those in church ministry? Yet, I think all Christians place their leaders on a higher standard. We want them, in some sense, to exist as a spiritual guide and a person more in tune with the ways and means of God. Do we foist this role upon them without thinking of them as people? I do believe that there’s the tendency to see the Pastor as an authority without looking at Scripture first, and that shameful practice needs to end. Pastors need to bow at the knee everyday, to everyone everywhere. They should not make any more than the bare minimum required for their own subsistence, because the Word of God remains sufficient for them. They must live by faith, or perish, falling into sin continually.

Thus, one asks: how do you know when you should leave a church? Firstly, at no point in time should such a decision be taken lightly. Church selection should become a serious consideration based upon what the church in question teaches and the message it purports to communicate. Does it show elements of the above? Do you not receive the exposited Word of God on the pulpit? Then you may find yourself in a precarious situation. What do you do? Do you leave your friends? Do you try to convince the congregation that something’s wrong about the whole deal? Or do you just wait for things to get better, maybepossibly?

None of these solutions ever work, unfortunately. The Church might be a family, but a family blind to its own failing and unwilling to hear criticism (i.e., “He hears from God because he’s a pastor, do you?”) does not stay together: it breaks apart. The dissolution may come slowly, especially if the organization keeps the train rolling, but a lack of discipleship and critical thought will eventually pave the road to ruin.

I don’t want this to happen to churches – I really don’t. It does, though, and I think Scripture gives you a good enough outline to determine when all options exhaust themselves under the bulwark of supposed “Christian” thought. Although referring to elders, we see in 1 Timothy 5 that Paul says thus:

17 The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” 19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. 20 Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning21 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. 22 Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.

So what if you don’t have any witnesses? Or if nobody agrees with you? One would hope that you can make your case if necessary using Scripture. I have not found that to be the case, though; pastors tend to act as if they are the ultimate authority, rather than a person ordained by God to speak his word. That becomes the essential difference. Titus 1 gives us a few more guidelines:

namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.

None of these help us with the issue of “leaving” and “picking” churches – frankly, they did not have the options, nor the diversity of opinion or denominations to which the Church evolved. We have this problem due to divisions in our communion; not an enviable positions, in any event. So what’s the most important bit of doctrine, then? Which one? Only you can decide, but for me accuracy to Scripture remains paramount. For two thousand years, people used it as a guide (and canonization happened MUCH more quickly than you think) for the entirety of the Christian religion. Every denomination I can imagine (well, excepting the more liberal types) uses it. Why not make it the primary one? To create a “new” Christianity (or act like you’ve discovered it for the first time) simply smacks of n

When people tell others how to live and then distort its message, that’s when you have a problem. A community built around a falsehood isn’t a community at all; a church of blind believers easily turns into a cult. A group of uneducated disciples hanging on the words of their leaders rather than the Word of God pushes a church into a downward spiral. This happens all the time, though! One must fight for truth, or find it elsewhere; there cannot be a compromise.

So, to summarize: truth first, community second. The second only exists by virtue of the first. That, in a nutshell, creates the grand mistakes you may see everywhere of people accepting bad doctrine out of a misplaced sense of loyalty – self-deception, in a word. Sometimes one must make the hard decision to leave even when everyone else does not. Every avenue taken with no results, you know the right thing to do but cannot do it. But you must, or face a continual defacing of what you believe to be true.

For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.

2 Timothy 1:7

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • I was just reading out of James recently and that part about being judged more harshly as a teacher really stood out – especially since I tried to teach this past Sunday! But yeah. I don’t feel like I’m the most expositional teacher. And I might leave a little too much room for grace in some areas. But I believe that the church and the community of Christ composes a wide diversity of strengths and opinions and that if people are walking with a love for Jesus and his Text, then it’ll all work out (granted that they live a life based on the Text).

    As a guy who had a pastor who was secretly in adultery, it’s a subject that cuts close to my heart. But the thing that said pastor rightly taught me, was that it’s really about where God calls you. Vocation and such. Vocation is just as important as it is with your church. If not moreso. The main reason I’m in central PA and not Atlanta or some other place I would have easily been dragged, is because of my church family and the identity that God gave me through it. I have no problem addressing my pastor’s failures or the shortcomings of my church. But that’s because it’s mine. And I’m its. We belong to one another. And I’m pretty sure that’s actually rather uncommon.