A Sidekick's Blog

Changing Churches | November 10, 2013

Leaving one gospel-preaching church for another is not a thing I have ever done lightly, hastily, whimsically, in a huff, or to avoid discipline, or because I didn’t like the music or the liturgy or the color of the carpet. There are those who shop around and change churches for stupid or even harmful reasons like those I just listed. They know who they are and they know they’re being immature at best and schismatic at worst. Not me. C’mon now, I’m the guy who wrote this big ol’ article promoting a very lofty view of the Church, defending the idea of church membership, and encouraging my readers to stay put, to participate, and to pray for their church – especially for the leaders! Read that article first, to assure yourself that I’m not a “church hopper” nor writing here to justify any supposed change in my position on the subject. The same article is published here on my blog as well.

But there can be sound, biblical reasons for making a change, even from one perfectly sound bible-believing, gospel-preaching church to another. The bible doesn’t really address the issue directly, since when it was being written there wasn’t but one church in any given city. But Scripture does offer some principles that should govern a believer’s choice in today’s circumstances.

Heresy, of course, not only justifies but demands the departure of believers. And by heresy, I mean doctrine which, if believed, threatens the very salvation of its followers. I certainly do not mean immersion-vs-sprinkling, premillennial-vs-amillennial, the precise meaning of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” or King James only vs any other reliable translation. A lot of churches major on minors, and even in churches where differences are officially accepted, there are some folks who just can’t stand to have anybody differ with them. I remember an occasion in which a new believer expressed her desire to be immersed rather than sprinkled (both are permissible in the PCA). Unable to persuade her to change her mind, the pastor immersed this new believer, but used the occasion to preach a little sermonette on why sprinkling is biblical. I was thinking (but not saying out loud), “Really, pastor? You would use the occasion of a new believer’s baptism to plug your preferred mode of water baptism rather than celebrate the Lord’s work in bringing another lost sheep to Christ?!” Yeah, he would. Would that be a good basis for leaving that church? Probably not. Unless all of the sermons and lessons were like that – legalistically imposing one person’s ecclesiastical opinions on the whole flock as though they were the commandments of God (Acts 15:10-11, Matt 15:9, Rom 4:14).

Church membership is voluntary. Every orthodox church and denomination agrees with this. While I might rightly find fault with the “church hoppers” I mentioned earlier, the very membership covenant that established the relationship in the first place, recognizes a person’s right to leave for any reason that seems good to them. The founding fathers of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), based on their own experience with the liberal PCUSA, wrote into the denomination’s constitution that both individuals and churches had the right to depart any time they so chose. So those of us who hail from any Reformed (or Presbyterian) churches have no reason to insist that the only legitimate reason for leaving a church is “heresy” or “apostasy.” The covenant between the church and it’s members, in the PCA at least, specifically forbids such an interpretation. While church membership is a covenant, it is not binding like a marriage even though I have always tended to think of it that way. I am not breaking a sacred oath if I choose to depart for another church!

It’s not all about ME. I may feel justified in leaving a sound, biblical church because “my needs aren’t being met,” but it just may be that God put me there to meet their need rather than the other way around. God is sovereign in all times and circumstances, and places His people where He wishes and moves them as He pleases. If I’m going to a church, then it only makes sense to join that church and participate in the life and ministry of that church instead of just sitting there “to get my needs met.” Go on, get in there and get dirty like the rest of us. The pastor isn’t the one doing all the work, his job is to equip us for the work that God has called us all to do. “Not getting my needs met” is no biblical reason to leave. If that’s what you’re feeling, ask God to show you why you’re really uncomfortable there. Most of the time when I’m feeling “uncomfortable” in church, it has more to do with the Holy Spirit convicting me of sin than it does with anything the church is doing wrong!

But sometimes they’re the ones breaking the membership covenant. In my own denomination I’m seeing this, even while it is being hidden (out of sight, out of mind) or ignored by the local church. In a dictatorship, the courts aren’t there to serve justice, but to serve the will of the regime. Church courts, however, exist to serve justice. When they are used to protect members of the good ol’ boy club or punish those who decline to join it, they have broken their covenant of membership with the churches and people they represent. A damnable heresy has quickly gained a foothold in my denomination and the courts have failed to deal appropriately with it. It remains a threat, and those who teach this error remain “in good standing” with the denomination as surely as Jacob Arminius did in his Reformed denomination while all the while teaching the Pelagian error. The membership covenant is broken when church courts fail in their duty.

Sometimes there’s just no one to blame. Paul and Barnabus had a bit of a falling out over John Mark (Acts 15). Paul didn’t want to bring John Mark along for their next missions trip because John Mark had “jumped ship,” so to speak, on their last one, and Paul needed to be able to rely on all the members of the team. Barnabus stood up for John Mark. The two disagreed to the point that they actually split up, with Paul taking Silas along and Barnabus (whose name means “Son of Encouragement”) took John Mark separately. Which one of them was wrong? Answer: Neither one. In fact it was God’s plan all along. John Mark must have done alright for himself though, because Paul later on sent for him, describing him as “profitable for service (2 Timothy 4:11).” And Silas was certainly no slouch. Neither Paul nor Barnabus erred nor sinned. They simply had different callings. That’s allowed, y’know. God gives different gifts to different people and places them, or moves them, to wherever their gifts are needed for a particular season of time.

It’s never easy or simple to say goodbye when one’s gifts or callings have grown different from when and where one has enjoyed a place of covenant ministry for any length of time. I’ve ignored it for too long, trying to explain away the ever-growing sense that I “just don’t fit” anymore with the church I’m at right now. I did have a vital role to play there for a time, and I relished in sharing in covenant with that church. Now I simply have come to believe that I have a different calling, and in fact there’s really no place in that church right now for my particular gifts and calling anymore.

As if to help me see that it’s really time to move on, our sovereign Father just put some people on my heart, and others not. After a few months’ absence from my church, no one greeted me when I returned. No one seemed to even notice I had been away for three months. Were they “wrong?” Nah, not really. The phone works both ways, and I hadn’t bothered to pick it up on my end either. My heart was just “somewhere else,” and the vital role I once played there is being filled by other faithful, gifted people. Now there is also the matter of settling some minor doctrinal concerns. Minor concerns. Nothing like the elephant in the PCA’s living room that they are pretending isn’t there. But this other church is a different denomination.  Would our differences cause trouble in the future there if I were to find myself serving in a leadership role as I have in other churches (as both a deacon and an elder, and as a teacher)? I decided to put all these questions to paper and meet with the pastor in order to be crystal clear on these things.

 

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