23 November 2008

"Deep Rooted" Follow-Up 3: You can never leave?

QUESTION: Does that mean a person can never leave a local church in good conscience?

M.M. For some reason, "Hotel California" is cued up in my head. Something about checking out any time you like "but you can never leave." (That will be on "repeat" in the mental jukebox now - sorry.)  Let's journey out of my twisted inner space and back into the question at hand, which, by the way, is a good one.

Can you ever leave a church in good conscience? Yes, I believe there are circumstances where obedience to Christ will require you separate from your local church and, then,
commit to another church. This leads to some treacherous territory because it may be misunderstood and this freedom is widely abused to the dishonor of Jesus Christ.  A review of biblical examples and one instance in church history reveals that Christians may separate from their local church in good conscience when that separation preserves Gospel truth.

Let the Biblical Examples Speak
Barnabas and Paul
This may be the most oft quoted parting of ways in the New Testament.  Was it a good thing? Does this justify "unresolved conflict" as a legitimate reason for breaking a relationship?  A biblical review would say "no" for two reasons.

A quick reading of the passage does not make it clear.
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. (Acts 15:36-40 ESV)
It is interesting to note where this story finds its place in the story line of the book of Acts. The first half of Chapter 15 is dedicated to Gentile circumcision controversy.  The divisive potential of this controversy cannot be understated.  To the Jew, circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and His people.  Now that Messiah has come, should it be jettisoned?  The persistent desire for unity under God's truth produced much discussion and a biblical decision that brought the whole church into agreement. 
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,  (Acts 15:22-25 ESV)

This is a glorious example of unity in the church.  Two widely divergent opinions submitted to the Scripture and to each other and did the hard work of coming to a common opinion.   I believe that the juxtaposition of this example with Paul and Barnabas parting ways is intended by the Holy Spirit.  The disagreement over John Mark seems foolish after the miraculous unity brought to the whole church on the issue of circumcision.  This is first reason to believe that Paul and Barnabas' parting was NOT a good thing.

Second, Paul's life ends reconciled to John Mark.  The division did not remain and Christ-exalting unity was preserved.
Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), (Colossians 4:10 ESV)

Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11 ESV)
For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia,Titus to Dalmatia. (2 Timothy 4:10 ESV)
In Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24, Demas is included with those in Paul's company who send their collective greetings.  But here at the end of Paul's life, Paul states that Demas left him - because he loved the world.  The basis for Demas' departure was love for the world and it was not godly.  Believers are capable of this same error today.  We should humbly be aware of that and faithfully acknowledge it is ungodly today just as it was then.  James is clear that worldly desires cause quarrels and fights and they have no place among God's people.  

I take that to say that a better job with better pay, a better position, in a better place and/or a better use of your talents (for your own glory) is friendship with the world and an ungodly reason to separate from your local church.  Now a family may need to move because of unemployment (although I believe a man should do everything he can to stay employed in his community) but better employment, climate or standard of living is insufficient reason to break fellowship.

Titus and Timothy
Paul's epistles reveal that Titus and Timothy were dear to him and critical to his ministry.
But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, (2Corinthians 7:6 ESV)

Do your best to come to me soon.  (2Timothy 4:9 ESV)
Timothy is listed as a co-author in seven of Paul's epistles (Rom. 16:21, 2 Cor. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Thes. 1:1, 2 Thes. 1:1, Philem. 1) and Titus is described as a great source of encouragement to Paul (2 Cor. 7:6,13).   Their fellowship was a glory to God and useful to the Great
 Commission and, yet, God had clearly called them to part ways - for the strengthening of new churches.
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— (Titus 1:5 ESV)

That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to re
mind you of my ways in Christ,as I teach them everywhere in every church.  (1Corinthians 4:17 ESV)

and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith,  (1Thessalonians 3:2 ESV) 
This is an example of parting that may be done in a clear conscience, namely for preserving the truth by strengthening fledgling churches/believers in other locations.  It is important to note the call for Titus and Timothy was specific and confirmed by other believers.  Also, unity was preserved between the men and the local church never stopped being an integral part of their lives. 

Church History
A quick glance at one example from church history reveals another legitimate reason to separate from your local church. 
Martin Luther and Sola Scriptura 

An excerpt from Luther's response to the papal bull from Pope Leo (requiring Luther to recant his 95 Theses) will set the table for this example.
"Having given my testimony I proceed to take up the bull.  Peter said that you should give a reason for the faith that is in you, but this bull condemns me from its own word without any proof from Scripture, whereas I back up all my assertions from the Bible.  I ask thee, ignorant Antichrist, dost thou think that with thy naked words thou canst prevail against the armor of Scripture? Has thou learned this from Cologne and Louvain?  If this is all it takes, just to say, "I dissent, I deny," what fool, what ass, what mole, what log could not condemn?  Does not thy meretricious brow blush that with thine inane smoke thou withstandest the lightning of the divine Word?  Why do we not believe the Turks?  Why do we not admit the Jews?  Why do we not honor the heretics if damning is all it takes?  But Luther, who is used to bellum, is not afraid of bullam.  I can distinguish between inane paper and the omnipotent Word of God."
The basis of Luther's protest was the Scripture.  His challenge to the Vatican was to justify their actions with Scripture.  His plain reading of the New Testament revealed that the Church had severely lost its way.  Luther faced church leadership divorced from the Scripture and abusing their authority.  The sale of indulgences stole money from parishioners for the benefit of  a notoriously immoral clergy and Vatican.   Jesus Christ was no longer the soul basis for salvation which now came through the intercession of the Church.  The situation was dire and it was no longer "right or safe" for Luther to let his conscience down.  The preservation of Gospel truth was at stake and Luther, after attempting to reconcile with the Church, had to make his stand and part ways with the Church.  Thank God he did.          

Today the Gospel, as revealed in the Word of God, is preached all over the world because God used Martin Luther and other reformers as they stood by their convictions and broke fellowship with the Church (which, by the way, had completely lost its "local" character).  When the Gospel is compromised or church leaders manipulate the flock for their own benefit without repentance, bible-believing Christians are required by conscience to find a new church.    
A NOTE TO "THE DOCTRINAL POLICE":  Your appetite for well-defined, perfectly stated doctrine needs a governor before you break with your church because you believe "the Gospel is compromised."  Understand that you may be so zealous for "right doctrine" that eventually every church may be disqualified by your standards.  My advice - get advice and remain humble before you do anything radical.  You need the church, don't treat it with critical distain.   

Can I leave my church with a clear conscience?
Leaving a local church (or remaining in isolation as a believer) should be considered very seriously.  The church is not a social club but the very embodiment of Jesus Christ, a spiritual house whose architect is God.  She is the bride of Christ and, yet, she is not yet perfect.  Loyal commitment (through offenses and trials) to fellow believers in a local church glorifies Jesus Christ as the head.  Breaking that commitment should only be done to preserve the Gospel either in the face of heresy, abuse of authority or to support a needy congregation of believers in another location when no more appropriate help is available.  Unresolved conflict, differences in taste and personal comfort are insufficient reasons to jeopardize the glorious potential of the church.  


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