“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
(1 John 2:19, ESV).
Alright. I admit that the title I gave this post is a bit provocative.
“Denying the Faith?” Isn’t that a bit much?
Yes. It certainly sounds serious, doesn’t it? But so does the quotation from the Apostle John above. After all, the teaching of the Apostle is that leaving the visible Body of Christ can often reveal those who have made false professions of faith. Try as I might, I can’t soften up the Apostolic teaching. So I won’t.
Clearly leaving the Body of Christ–as it is expressed in the local church–is a very serious matter indeed.
And no, I don’t believe that we can lose our salvation. But many make false professions to be sure (Matthew 7:21-22).
Is Leaving Right?
There may be some times when leaving your home church is absolutely the right thing to do. When a local church or denomination has committed apostasy to the extent that the Gospel is utterly compromised, and the visible institution no longer exhibits the Reformation’s three “marks” of a true church (the preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of godly discipline) it may very well be time to go.
Sometimes it may be necessary to leave one’s home church due to major theological differences that cannot be reconciled easily (Calvinism vs. Arminianism; cessationism vs. Pentecostalism etc.).
Of course, some people change jobs or relocate from time to time. That’s not in question here.
But before you bolt and head down the street to the next church (or even quit going to church altogether!) ask yourself some serious questions:
1. Am I just being petty? Am I leaving because of preferences or because of foundational issues? Is mere worship style a factor? Am I going somewhere else because of something as superficial as song choices? Is it because I don’t like the pastor’s clothes? Or his wife? Or the color of the pews? If so, repentance is probably the better course.
2. Am I leaving behind damaged relationships that need to be reconciled? Fleeing one’s home church is a dangerous thing. One such danger is that I may be leaving because I am avoiding the hard work of reconciling relationships.
Sure, its easier to say “Goodbye!” than “I’m sorry!” or even “I forgive you!” Does anyone read Matthew 18:15-20 and think it sounds easy to carry out? Living in light of Jesus’ teaching in Scripture is always hard. That’s why He called it “carrying your cross” and following Him (Matthew 16:24). And yet His way is always right.
Before you leave, take the time to restore as many broken personal relationships as possible. Go back one more time and try to repair what has been broken. If you cannot, at least you will have the personal peace of knowing that you tried. In our congregation, we ask new members to sign a form that says that they have tried to do their best to restore broken relationships before joining our church. I wish others would do the same.
Let me be clear: If you are running away from the difficult work of reconciliation, you are running away from your own sanctification.
3. Did I even let my (former) leadership know of my decision? It used to be that the common courtesy was to send a transfer letter of membership to one’s former congregation letting them know that one had moved or changed direction. But today, I can’t even tell you when the last time is that I have received such a letter.
I suppose it is because we have a totally corrupt view of local church membership. The idea of the “covenant community” seems to have been obliterated. Most just bolt without even saying farewell. In my own experience, a few have used their departure as an opportunity to “stick it to the man.”
But let me ask you, when is the last time you’ve seen the old I’ll-show-them-how-much-they-miss-me trick bear any Gospel fruit?
4. Am I a religious consumer? Many people leave churches without so much as a wave or salute because they do not believe in church membership at all (see above). For these folks, the church is nothing more than an ecclesiastical Wal-Mart; a retail supply chain from which to consume religious goods and services. I’ll take some of this praise music here; some of that youth group there. I’ll listen to this preacher’s podcast here, and keep my membership on the rolls there. All of this reflects a sub-Christian understanding of the role of the local church.
5. What am I leaving to? If you are leaving your church to join another congregation, alright then. At least it is better to be in a different local church than no church at all. But have you read it’s doctrinal statement? Do you know where it aligns on matters of first importance (Biblical authority, the Trinity, the atonement)? How about secondary issues (marriage, charismatic gifts, women in ministry, baptism)? Have you thought through this at all, or are you just leaving because the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence?
6. Am I even a Christian at all? If you are in the habit of changing churches regularly, or have given up on the Biblical idea of the local church altogether–over which Jesus Christ is Lord and Head–it may be time to seriously reflect on whether you are a Christian at all.
As scary as it sounds, 1 John 2:19 may be referring to you.
Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brookville, Florida. He is a graduate of Malone University (BA, Bible and Theology); Ashland Theological Seminary (MA, Practical Theology), and a doctoral student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. His is the author of several books including Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647.