You could be forgiven for thinking that this series of posts is fundamentally about cash.
Actually, it has almost nothing to do with money.
Money works as an example of the two points I’ve made (slowly) so far:
- Churches make commitments that are not as flexible as the size of their membership.
- When members leave, this can have a huge impact on the commitments their churches have made.
So, we’re left with a couple of extremes. Should churches just stop planning? Should they never commit to anything they can’t pull out of, at a moment’s notice, with no impact? Should they stop taking out loans to buy land or build facilities?
Or, on the other hand, should church membership be tightened up? Should movement amongst churches according to personal volition be restricted? Before you assume that this is a ridiculous escalation, keep in mind that the 9Marks folks are vigorous advocates of a theology of covenant amongst members (see, for example, Jonathan Leeman’s book, Church Membership: How the World Knows who Represents Jesus). So is Mars Hill. And Redeemer Presbyterian.
And, usually, these covenants involve a commitment by a church member not to unilaterally resign their membership, though this has been tested in the highest courts (!).
Well, what does the Bible say?
1. We belong to a church and the church
Christian leaders are made responsible for specific sheep. Peter tells elders, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Peter 5:2). Paul says the same to the elders in Ephesus: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The elders know whom they are responsible for. This implies that there is a mutually expressed commitment.
Christians are responsible to submit to specific leaders. The author of Hebrews writes, “Heb 13:17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” Clearly, the believers must know who their leaders are, and who their leaders aren’t. Therefore, there is a church that they belong to. And there are churches that they do not belong to.
At the same time, we need to keep in mind that the New Testament uses ‘the church’ in two totally different ways. Let me show you through two very similar passages in Acts.
In Acts 16:5 we read,
So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
These churches are local churches. They are a group of people who regularly gather together in the same place to do churchy kinds of things.
But in Acts 9:31 we read,
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened.
I hope you see right away that this is quite a different use of ‘church’. This can’t be talking about one group of people coming together for a Sabbath day meeting, because it is far too widely spread.
So we have local churches. And we have what Christians have called the church universal. The church universal is all of God’s people, from across all time and space, who are gathered by God around himself. It includes people who have already died, because those who are follow Jesus Christ can’t be lost to God through anything as temporary or unimpressive as death.
As a side note, church never means ‘denomination’. The Anglican Church, or the Roman Catholic Church, are not churches, and have no biblical significance.
2. You can leave your church, but not the church
The Bible says that you can leave your church.
The apostle Paul is converted on the road to Damascus, returns to Jerusalem to minister, is sent to Tarsus for safety and eventually brought to Antioch because of his skill with Greek. Apollos, a native of Alexandria, in Egypt, travels to Ephesus in Turkey and ends up church-planting in Corinth in Greece.
This moving-between-churches is a beautiful affirmation of the church universal. Wherever there is a church of Jesus Christ, there Christians belong more completely than within their own biological family. Wherever there is a church, it is your church, because it is Christ’s church, and all that belongs to Christ belongs to the Christian.
It is also a beautiful affirmation of the freedom brought by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ has won for his people freedom from the rules and legalism that oppressed us. The local church isn’t a cult from which you are not allowed to escape. It’s more like an oasis in the desert.
However, while this means is that Christians can leave a church, they can never leave the church without ceasing to be Christians, since the church – the church universal – is that body of all people whom God is saving.
3. Leaving should never involve a breach of submission
This is a point worth making. When was the last time you heard of someone being excluded from the local church? (Actually, formally excluded – not just that everyday failure to love and welcome that is so part of our broken experience?)
Christians are called to recognise a distinction between those who rightly claim to be Christians and those who do so falsely. In one letter, Paul tells the church in Corinth to “expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13). Obviously, you cannot expel someone from a church unless they belong to a church in the first place.
However, it isn’t uncommon for someone, when confronted by a brother or sister for a pattern of behaviour, to simply change churches. Either this becomes a cycle of exposure and departure, or simply a means of choosing a church that is more permissive.
This makes a mockery of submission to our churches, and our mutual responsibility to encourage, exhort and rebuke.
4. The freedom to leave can be abused.
However, lastly, I do want to acknowledge that freedom can be misused.
Gal 5:13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
Firstly, moving between churches in the New Testament appeared to involve significant reasons. People were sent by their churches for safety or mission, because of their particular gifts and potential contribution.
Secondly, it may well be that the need for a genuine reason arises from something scholars call proximate responsibility. This is the thoroughly biblical idea that there is a stronger call on my service by the one next to me than the one far away. It is my neighbour to whom I’m responsible. Galatians 6:10 calls us to do good to all people, ‘as we have opportunity.’ In this age of the global village, this is trickier.
Thirdly, the church is a community of formation. What I mean by this is that the church is called to spur one another on, to teach, encourage, exhort and rebuke. The church is to bring the Word of God to bear in insight, gentleness and love, on one another’s lives. But insight takes time. It takes time to cut through the crap and the façade to be able to speak truth to where someone is at.
But here, I think, is the big one. Christians are called to speak the gospel to one another in the church. By actions, not just words. There are some reasons to change churches that undermine the gospel. When we say, ‘that church has more people like me’, we say by our actions that we prefer to act in love towards those we find easy to love. When we say, ‘relationships would be easier at that church than here,’ we are saying that we prefer to avoid the hard slog of forging connection with others. But the gospel is about God’s difficult love for us, the profoundly unlovely, in Jesus Christ. I think this goes deeper, too. How we treat others, is how we assume we are treated. And our experiences at the hands of others mediates how we assume God treats us.
How am I ever to truly grasp that God loves me with a costly love if I don’t love with a costly love in church? How are we ever to really find confidence in the faithfulness of God if we don’t experience at least a hint of unfailing faithfulness to us in our Christian brothers and sisters?
And, above all things, our faithfulness to church is a true appropriation of gospel freedom. You see, our world tells us that you are nothing if not the fulfilment of your longings. To refrain from satisfying a desire is not just repression – it is a denial of our true selves. To withhold anything after which our hearts yearn is to create an incomplete life.
However, the gospel recognises that everything we are chasing after is but a shadow – its consummation is God. This sets us free from the fear of missing out; from the fear that a better experience, a deeper community or a more compelling mission is just around the corner. Yes, we are free to leave our churches. But this freedom would be no freedom at all if we had to exercise our freedom to remain whole. True freedom is found when we are also free not to seize hold of our freedom. I’m reminded of the apostle Paul, when he writes,
1 Cor 9:12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.
5. Leaving is not an end to the obligation to love
The persecution-led diaspora of Christians from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-4) was the beginning of global mission. It was made up of a scattering of believers from their home church, and the founding of new churches.
But this was not an end to the obligation to love the church of Jerusalem. In Romans 15:25-27, Paul speaks of the idea of a spiritual debt to be met by a collection for the poor in Jerusalem during a time of famine:
Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.
Blessing came from the church of origin, in Jerusalem. And so there is joyful call to bless in return. Daughter churches are not independent of the churches through and from which they have come.
6. The conversation that established churches and church plants need to have
This, then, is the conversation that established churches and church plants need to have.
- Pastors of established churches need to understand & love that their flock are always free to start a new plant. The pressure that pastors have often put on their members not to leave, as if for biblical reasons, needs to stop.
- Church planters need to consider how their new church can be a source of blessing for the churches from which its members come. There is no such thing as a ‘new start’ without any obligations to love a previous fellowship. This is particularly important for the young core that often make up a new plant: they need to be taught that you must not walk away from the call to love.
- A really concrete way in which this might happen would be for church plants to consider how they might be a blessing as source churches wrestle with their commitments. For example, rather than starting a new social justice initiative as a way of being distinctive, a church plant might urge its members to keep partnering in support of the schools programme of the church they have left. Church planters could meet with church pastors (who would have to learn to be open to this discussion!) to talk about the impact of a cohort joining the church plant, how they might work together to mitigate the impact.
It’s just a conversation. But I don’t see it happening all that much at the moment. And I’m convinced it would be great for the kingdom, and for building trust, and for planting churches.
And for the glory of God.