Self-esteem, fear of people & Christmas

Are you over-committed? Is self-esteem a critical issue for you? Do you ever feel as if you might be exposed as an impostor? Do you get easily embarrassed? Do you ever tell ‘white’ lies? Are you jealous of other people? Do you avoid certain people?

Do you find it hard to invite people to church, even at Christmas?

I answer ‘yes’ to far too many of the above, so I’ve found a remarkable little book by Edward Welch called When People are Big and God is Small to be very helpful.

In this book, Welch explores the omnipresent issue of self-esteem in the light of Christ. His argument is that our problem is that we tend to fear people more than we fear God.

  1. We fear people because they can explore and humiliate us (shame-fear).
  2. We fear people because they can reject, ridicule or despise us (rejection-fear).
  3. We fear people because they can attack, oppress, or threaten us (threat-fear).

Along the way, Welch charges that when we fear people rather than God, we show that

  • …we need people (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God).
  • …we are more concerned with looking stupid (a fear of people) than we are about acting sinfully (fear of the Lord).

The good news is that there is hope. Jesus Christ himself comes into our little world of people-fear. He walks in it, feels its weight. Jesus comes to bear away our guilt so that we may be holy and without shame. Jesus comes to win our acceptance by God so that we may be unafraid of rejection and ridicule by the unimportant. Jesus comes to conquer death so that we may have a glorious future that assuages our fear of harm.

This is a great book – and a great theme – for Christmas.

Water that grass, glorious hijacker

I am a “grass-is-greener” kind of guy. It’s in my nature.

If I’m at the beach, I think of how nice it would be in the mountains. If I’m in a crowd, I catch myself reflecting how great it would be to be alone with a cup of coffee. And so on.

Facebook doesn’t help, of course. Now, I’m not ragging on Facebook in a general kind of way. But it’s now pretty firmly established that social media is a dissatisfaction factory. Facebook tells you that this experience you’re having right now isn’t up to scratch. That other people – and potentially, other ‘you’s – are living the better life.

“The grass is greener.” That’s what they tell us.

So, Fiona reminded me yesterday that we should have a sign in our kitchen. A big sign. A bold sign. An unmissable sign. And this sign should say something like this:

“The grass is greener where you water it.”

I’m not pretending that there aren’t times when we need to escape a situation. Where exit is the only alternative. But more and more it seems to be our default. This relationship is hard – I’ll leave. This job is hard – I’ll leave. This conversation is hard – I’ll leave (maybe I’ll stay in body, but my mind is far away). This church is hard – I’ll leave. This marriage is hard – I’ll leave.

Leaving seems to be the theme of the day. George Monbiot argues in The Guardian that Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, “Interstellar”, reflects our widespread belief ‘that it is easier to adapt to our problems than to solve them.’ By ‘adapt’, he means, ‘move on’.

But this doesn’t seem to be the way of God, the way of grace. God doesn’t abandon a broken creation. God doesn’t stand off at 50 million km and cleanse the earth with hard radiation, ready for a fresh start. God doesn’t turn his back on the sad descendants of Adam and Eve when he sends his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world.

God doesn’t look for the greener grass. He waters the grass that is there.

For this reason, I’m persuaded that Ann Voskamp is right when she writes that the calling of Christians is not to run away, or to start anew, but to gloriously hijack every darkness with grace.

There will be plenty of darknesses for us to hijack ’round Christmas. The best and the worst seems to meet in this season. Let me encourage you – just as your life has been gloriously hijacked by grace, why not be a glorious hijacker for others.

Christian: water that grass.

Something new in our giving & teaching at Barneys

By the grace of our God, the generosity of our congregation has marvellously supplied the needs of Barneys and the partners that we support. As a result, total giving is ahead of target, which is a huge answer to prayer.

That said, we are going to make some changes to the collection of giving on Sundays. Here are some key points:

  • Around 97% of our giving comes in electronically. The remainder is in cash, with a few larger gifts on Sundays, but mostly bits and pieces.
  • Few of us reliably keep the kind of cash on us that would make for generous and godly giving. A member of our church pointed this out to me this week – he said that if he only gave what he had in his wallet, he wouldn’t give remotely near a generous amount!
  • The Barneys community believe in generosity, but we also believe we give 4x what we actually do. A survey earlier this year indicated that our community reports giving $4.5 million to the church each year, compared to less than $1 million actually received.
  • Research indicates that ‘giving inflation’ is associated with cash and ad hoc electronic giving. In other words, in the Western world, people who put cash in the basket on a Sunday, or make occasional electronic transfers, tend to be surprised if they discover how little they really give. Obviously, there are exceptions.
  • Jesus teaches more about money than anything else. Jesus, I take it, doesn’t have church budget, and doesn’t pay staff. But he taught more about giving than any other topic. The problem is that there is often a bit of murkiness at church: is the pastor preaching about money like Jesus, or is he preaching about money like someone who needs to keep the lights on?

With all this in mind, we’re going to try something a little different.

Firstly, in a few weeks, we will stop collecting money in our services for the purpose of supporting the church ministry and partnerships.

Secondly, we will stop talking about ‘how our giving is going’ in general church services. We will continue to publish the details in these emails, so you know where we are at and can pray about it.

Thirdly, we will plan to teach on giving twice per year in two blocks of two weeks, during which time we will talk about giving to Barneys. At two other times in the year we will talk in services about church membership in general, which will include (but in no way focus upon) giving. As giving comes up in other bible passages as we work through biblical books, we won’t avoid it, but we won’t discuss our church budget. My aim is to ensure we can focus on giving as a foundational Christian virtue, without getting caught up in issues of church budget.

Fourthly, we will encourage the congregation in our giving teaching blocks, and generally, to move to automatic, scheduled, electronic giving, where possible. For those who absolutely must use cheques or cash, there will be a new, secure Everything Box mounted on a pedestal at the rear of church.

Fifthly – and this really excites me – from time to time we will conduct a collection in church for a particular need or charity beyond our church. In the Anglican tradition, the collection in the service has mainly been of ‘alms and oblations’ for the ‘sick, poor and impotent [powerless]’, who are to be ‘sought out and… relieved’ (from the 1662 prayer book). We will advise by announcement or email the week beforehand or more so that members can set aside funds for this purpose, if they so wish.

I’m hoping that there will be a number of important things that come of this. It seems to me that, just as we don’t ask growth group leaders if they will minister to their groups in the coming week, so we ought not to ask Christians each week if they will give to support their church. To me this seems to diminish the dignity of the Christian person and their capacity to exercise faithful generosity. I hope that it will allow us to give spontaneously to some really wonderful projects without blurring that giving with our church budget. I think that it will help non-yet-Christians to feel welcome and clear about their role in church.

And I hope that it will help many Christians move to a prayerful, thoughtful and generous habit of giving that reflects what they already believe to be true of themselves.

The Mars Hill crash & me

The last 12 months have been devastating for Mars Hill Church in Seattle and their globally recognised teaching pastor, Mark Driscoll. Numerous former and present pastors, elders and members have described the church culture as abusive and manipulative, and criticised a process of concentration of extraordinary power among very few hands, including the power to silence employees.

Famously, Mark has described the process of dealing with those who do not buy into the Mars Hill vision:

“Here’s what I’ve learned. You cast vision for your mission, and if people don’t sign up, you move on. You move on. There are people that are gonna die in the wilderness, and there are people that are gonna take the hill. That’s just how it is. Too many guys waste too much time trying to move stiff necked, stubborn, obstinate people. I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done…. ‎You either get on the bus, or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop.”

As a result, the Mars Hill story has become a byword for the dangers of allowing untested young pastors with strong convictions and dominant personalities to exercise senior church leadership in the absence of effective oversight.

Now, I’m not really interested in talking much more about Mars Hill. There is much of Mark Driscoll’s ministry for which I am unashamedly thankful. There are other parts that I’d rather not have seen. However, it isn’t my job to offer commentary on third-hand insights into the inner life of the church.

What interests me – interests, that is, in the sense of morbid fascination and regretful reflection – is this question: how much of this is true of me?

(By the way, I’m fully aware of the incipient narcissism of this piece – I’ve just said that I don’t want to talk about them, I’d rather talk about me. Sorry. Guilty as charged.)

I am a relatively young pastor, or at least I was when I became the senior minister of St Barnabas Broadway, one of Sydney’s most iconic churches. My gifts don’t hold a candle to Mark’s; nor, however, have I had some of the same charges levelled at me. But I do hold strong reformed convictions. I am fairly driven, and have little time for liberalism or wooly-headedness. And I have made decisions that have hurt members of my church. I am prone to spin. I often shortcut important processes. I have a tendency to drive others towards my preferred outcomes without truly hearing their concerns.

And although I don’t resile from any of the hard choices I have made over the last few years, I don’t think I’m quite the white hat I’ve always believed.

I catch up regularly with a bunch of other young ministers, many of them church planters, and this theme is depressingly common. We have been tasked with starting new churches or revitalising old ones. Our relative youth has been named as a source of energy, and our strong convictions as a source of change. Some of us can point to significant conversions and growth. And yet all of our churches – as far as I’m aware – have balls of hurt, disappointment or resentment. The decisions we have made, and the way in which we have made them, have led to people leaving our churches, or just disappearing in them. And we are the source of this, too. In other words, there are ‘dead bodies’ behind our buses, too.

And it’s beginning to dawn on me that I don’t know how to lead a church where this isn’t true. And that’s really sad. And worst of all, the line between me and a Mars Hill sometimes seems a little hard to pin down.

Prayer and mission

Col 4:2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. Col 4:3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

Nowhere else in Paul’s writings is the connection between the prayer of the church, and the work of mission, so simply and powerfully put.

The motive power of prayer is ‘alertness’

All of us find it hard to pray at times. So when Paul says, ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful’, it should seize our interest that he is not speaking of the content or even manner of prayer, but of its motivation. Prayer, Paul says, is motivated by alertness.

Let me explain. How are ‘watchfulness’ and ‘thankfulness’ related? The answer is that they both have to do with being alert to certain realities. The watchful person is alert to the activity of sin and Satan in the world. John writes,

1 John 5:19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.

The watchful person is alert to, is mindful of, is vigilant to this reality, and the consequent rebelliousness and darkness of the world.

In contrast, the ‘thankful’ person is alert to the reality of God. The thankful person takes heed that God is the Creator of all things for our enjoyment, who made us for himself, and who will rightly judge the wicked rebellion of his creatures. And the thankful person is alert to God’s entry into history: that the same love that erupted into the abundance of the universe has also paid the price for the rescue of foolish humankind.

1 John 2:1    My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

An evil world. An effective atonement for sins. The watchful and thankful person is alert to both these realities.

But what will bring the two together?

The bridge is prayer

Paul goes on to ask for prayer for two things. Let’s take a moment to look at what these things are, and then draw our final conclusion: that the bridge is prayer.

Firstly, he asks ‘that God may open a door for our message’. As a side note, the language of open doors has nothing to do with guidance in the bible. Paul sees a closed door, but it is no deterrent: pray that God opens it, he asks.

In other words, Paul’s prayer is that mission will be founded on the work of God. Until God opens the door – to opportunity, to people groups, to hearts, to sending churches, to generous wallets – mission is impossible.

But in God’s providence, God’s own work is not the full story.

Secondly, Paul says, ‘Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.’

There is a school of thought that suggests that the human dimension in proclamation is largely irrelevant, except as a vessel. They point to Paul’s recognition of his own inadequacies. And yet, if the quality of proclamation has no bearing on the effectiveness of mission, why would Paul ask for prayer that he would speak ‘clearly’?

After all, ‘clear communication’ is a subtle and complex exercise. It depends on the capacity of a speaker to translate ideas and meanings across the interpersonal, cultural, socio-economic and experiential gap. Clearly communicating the gospel isn’t merely about not leaving out crucial pieces of doctrine, or getting confused about the big issues. Communication that fails to recognise the culture into which it speaks isn’t even truthful communication, because it does not allow for the different meanings that may be read off words in different contexts. In this sense, for example, the KJV is not a true communication of the gospel in my culture, because a ‘superfluity of naughtiness’ (KJV; James 1:21) does not truly reflect the meaning of the biblical text.

So, Paul asks for prayer that God would work and he would be clear. I take it, then, that Paul assumes that without prayer it is less likely that either of these two things would happen. And if neither of them do happen, then the saving work of Christ and the rebellion of our world would never be bridged by the news of the gospel.

This is why we pray for mission

This, then, is why we pray for mission. We pray because we are motivated by the alertness to the reality that

  1. people face the sure judgement of God as a consequence of their wickedness;
  2. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is sufficient for anyone in the world to be saved; and
  3. prayer is instrumental in the necessary work of God and effective proclamation of the Christian of the news that brings the two together.


Why women should not be silent in the churches

Last week, I wrote a short post called ‘Where do I stand on the issue of women preachers?‘. The post wasn’t intended to mount an argument for one position or another. Rather, it was written in response to questions I have been asked from inside and outside the church that I pastor, St Barnabas Broadway. The theological position of any pastor and teacher matters. Because Barneys is a church in which the theological method of thousands of potential leaders is shaped, what I teach has a particular kind of importance (not more, mind – just particular).

Since then, and at time of writing, the above article has been viewed 4,698 times.

I’ve been contacted numerous times to ask why I am so quick to set aside the clear teaching of the Scriptures. Here is a brief response.

The wrong place to start

The key verses usually referenced as the starting point for this discussion are found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

1 Tim 2:11-12 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

When I say the ‘starting point’, what I mean is that these verses are sometimes (though not always) treated as a relatively clear and straightforward baseline from which all conversation diverges. Any other passages may be called upon only to clarify or qualify the clear intent of Paul’s instruction.

There are two problems with this approach.

Firstly, the section in which Paul treats on this issue is, in Timothy, very brief. Paul clearly assumes a great deal in background knowledge on the part of the letter’s recipients.

Secondly, the context of these verses is both difficult and contested. The explanation that Paul offers immediately following his instruction is widely considered one of the most challenging passages (even in the underlying Greek!) in the New Testament.

1 Tim 2:13-15 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

I want to suggest, therefore, that 1 Tim 2 is the wrong place to start this conversation

A better beginning

A better place to begin is in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In 1 Cor 14, we read:

1 Cor 14:34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.

As a side note, this dismisses the argument that Paul’s instruction to Timothy was somehow rooted in the peculiar religio-cultural context of Ephesus. In 1 Tim 2, he appealed to creation, and in 1 Cor 14, to the law, and in both cases placed a particular limit or focus on the ministry of women in the public assembly of the church.

However, let’s return to the main point, which is this: there is great advantage in starting with 1 Cor 14 (within, of course, a biblical theology that encompasses the whole counsel of God). The main benefits of 1 Cor 14 are that:

  • The passage in which the text is located is a substantial and continuous argument, running from chapters 11 to 14.
  • The passage in which the text is located is relatively transparent (at least in comparison to 1 Tim 2).

A surprising start

Here is the curious thing about 1 Cor 11-14. Although it appears to land in the same place as 1 Tim 2 – with a prohibition on women conducting any kind of public word ministry in the congregation – it starts with a clear expectation that women will be speaking in the church. I say ‘in the church’ because Paul’s regulation of prayer and prophecy by women in 1 Cor 11:1-16 is in continuity with vv.17ff, which is about the assembly.

Whatever else this may mean, it is clear that Paul must have a specific, rather than broad, context for women being silent. He expects women to conduct word ministry within the congregation. In fact, I would suggest that he expects more than prayer and prophecy. Prayer and prophecy, along with speaking in tongues, simply happen to be two of the Spirit-led ministries of the Lord that Paul is most interested in addressing in this letter to the church in Corinth. Accordingly, the letter is situational, rather than systematic, and doesn’t treat of the different ministries with anything like equal emphasis. I suspect, therefore, that when Paul goes on to mention

1 Cor 14:26 ‘….a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation…’

he is simply continuing an informal and non-exhaustive list of various kinds of ministries of the Word that extend his original list of prayer, prophecy and tongues.

But there is still a context in which women are to be silent. What is it?

The context for silence

Here is my view, which finds support from scholars as various as D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer and Anthony Thiselton.

Paul’s instruction is that women are to remain silent in the testing of prophecies and other supposedly Spirit-led utterances in the congregation, where that testing is part of a broader body of authoritative activity such as ‘teaching.’

Here is the fuller context for the key verses:

1 Cor 14:29    Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace —as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 1 Cor 14:34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.

The context to Paul’s command that ‘women should remain silent’ is prophecy. This is very significant to our question, since Paul can’t possibly mean that women should be silent and not prophecy, since he has already affirmed and regulated prophecy by both men and women in 1 Cor 11. What makes the most sense to me is that he is proscribing the involvement of women in the testing of prophecy. Testing is the act of evaluating and assessing the content of the prophecy.

This means two things. Firstly, the content of prophecy is not authoritative in the life of the church because of the form of the act. Just because it looks like it is of God, does not mean that it truly is of God. Secondly, it means that there is a higher order of Word ministry that is able to set aside lower forms.

This higher order of ministry is authoritative and restricted. What could it be? I want to suggest that it is that thing which Paul calls ‘teaching’. Almost without exception in the New Testament, ‘teaching’ refers to the work of those in authority. I would suggest that it is particularly associated with the office of the elder in the church. Since elders are only to be men, it would make sense that women are not to practice an activity that is the responsibility of male elders.

Back to 1 Tim 2

Now, Scripture does not contradict itself. The Bible isn’t a set of complex and conflicting human accounts of their encounter with the divine, but the divinely inspired and infallible Word of God.

In other words, if 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 are discussing the same thing, then they must come to the same conclusion.

I would argue that this falls out quite naturally when 1 Tim 2 is read in light of 1 Cor 14, rather than vice versa. When Paul prohibits women from teaching and exercising authority over men, he is restricting them from those authoritative, standard-setting Word ministries that are properly the province of elders, who may only be men.

Aside from this, godly women – alongside men – are not merely allowed but expected to participate in Spirit-led ministry of the Word in the congregation.

The glass ceiling

But this leaves a very real elephant in the room. Doesn’t this devalue women?

Richard Rorty, the late great American philosopher imagines “a child found wandering in the woods, the remnant of a slaughtered nation,” and asks if such a lost person should have “no share in human dignity.” He explains:

it does not follow that she may be treated like an animal. For it is part of the tradition of our community that the human stranger from whom all dignity has been stripped is to be taken in, to be reclothed with dignity. This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by free-loading atheists like myself.

This is of enormous significance.

In the ancient world, up until pre-Enlightenment, it was widely held that your value was based on birth. This was the concept of aristocracy. At the top were the patricians, and at the bottom, the slaves, and only a little above that were women. Women were part of the household over which the father exercised pater families, which included power over life and death.

This particularly affected children, especially girls. A chilling letter from a pagan husband to his wife captures the casual nature of these values among the pagans:

Know that I am still in Alexandria…. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it.

As society changed, the aristocracy became a plutocracy (how wealthy you are) and a technocracy (your bureaucratic power) and it is now, theoretically at least, a meritocracy. Persons are valuable according to what they can do. This is a dispiriting and dehumanizing vision of humanity. It inevitably leads the marginalization of the very young and very old, the disabled and the disadvantaged.

In a meritocracy, no matter how much we’d like to pretend we believe in the equality of humankind, the CEO is worth far more than the janitor. This is the inevitable consequence of believing that your value lies in what you do.

Christians, on the other hand, are taught to value people because God values people. Humans are made in God’s image, irrespective of the shape that image has taken. And this means that there is no connection between what men and women do (or what children, the elderly, the poor or the disabled do), and their worth in the eyes of God.

In my next article on this theme, I will discuss the relationship between Paul’s list of Spirit-led ministries of the Word, and the activity of preaching.


PART 3: The conversation that church plants and established churches need to have

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:

  1. Churches make commitments that are not as flexible as the size of their membership.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.