In an age characterized by transient church membership, the past year has only further destabilized our congregations. On top of the COVID-induced disappearance of nominally engaged attenders, we’ve seen painful departures of members—sometimes even after many years of investment and involvement. The subject of when, why, and how a Christian might leave a church has been thrust to the forefront of our attention.
For many pastors and church leaders, this is a relatively unexplored (and unpleasant) topic. And yet as cultural events and pressures continue to press on our church communities, we must intentionally guide our flock to understand what constitutes a faithful departure from a church family.
The Task: Theological Triage
Just as emergency-room doctors triage the severity of a patient’s needs to determine how pressing the course of action is, Christians must triage our theological beliefs to determine the degree to which they should inform our fellowship decisions.
Gavin Ortlund provides a helpful framework for diagnosing the importance of a theological matter, triaging them into different ranks. First-rank issues are essential to the gospel and are therefore appropriate to split fellowship over, whereas third or fourth-rank issues can be disagreed on while maintaining fellowship within a local church.
The degree of a doctrine’s centrality to the gospel should determine the degree to which we’re willing to draw dividing lines over it. But, as experience and history show us, the process is not always as clear-cut as we’d like it to be.
Avoiding Pitfalls: Trojan Horses
At the outset, we must beware of Trojan horses. Like Odysseus smuggling his soldiers inside the walls of Troy in a giant horse, we sometimes smuggle tertiary concerns under the guise of a first or second-rank theological matter, hiding our real reasons for breaking fellowship inside something apparently more significant.
We sometimes smuggle tertiary concerns under the guise of a first or second-rank theological matter.
This smuggling operation usually takes one of two forms. The first we might call “catastrophizing.” This happens when we elevate an issue to undue importance, raising a third or fourth-rank issue to the severity of first rank. We take a narrow theological topic and turn it into a litmus test of gospel faithfulness.
The second approach, “theologizing,” occurs when we smuggle in our personal preferences—whether cultural, political, or otherwise—under the guise of theological conviction. We attach moral and theological value to things that are otherwise morally neutral or merely preferential.
In both types of smuggling, whether catastrophizing third-rank issues or theologizing cultural preference, we take what would otherwise not be grounds for breaking our covenant of membership and present it as something that warrants our exit.
Three Keys to Faithful Triage
Not every decision to break fellowship with a church is a case of someone creating a Trojan Horse. There are legitimate concerns that require serious consideration of whether to remain a part of a community of faith. Churches do drift from the central tenets of orthodoxy; pastors do abandon the authority of Scripture; and issues like sacraments or gender roles can create legitimate reasons for separation. The key to faithful theological triage in such cases is careful and intentional assessment of the reasons for leaving that we are wrestling through.
1. Do your homework
If you’re thinking of leaving, do your homework. Ensure that you’re thinking about the theological categories accurately. If you believe a church is “forsaking the gospel,” are you defining “gospel” properly—that is, biblically? Have you done your due diligence in researching the matter, exposing yourself to the best versions of the other side of the argument? It could be that you arrive at an irreconcilable impasse theologically with a church and need to leave; but given the weight of such a determination, be sure you understand the issue.
2. Ask questions
Don’t leave without asking questions. And note: asking questions and a questioning spirit are different. Asking questions with sincerity and humility is what we do when we are trying to genuinely understand. Questioning with a spirit of cynicism is what we do when we are trying to prove someone wrong. If you worry that your pastor has abandoned the authority of Scripture, ask him about his views, and do so in a way that assumes the best about him. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, love “believes all things.” Put another way, love gives the benefit of the doubt. Inquire with a spirit of genuine love that believes the best about him. Maybe there is a concerning disconnect, but don’t assume so before actually discovering it.
3. Look for blind spots
Ask others who know you well to help evaluate your reasoning. Because sin naturally leads to self-centeredness, we are all prone to be set in our personal preferences and views. By having open conversations, we can expose these blind spots and realign our triage when needed. Don’t make the weighty decision to leave your church without the benefit of wise counsel and an outside perspective.
Eager for Unity
In this process, strive and pray for unity. All of these careful steps—from the initial triage to the humble conversations—should be done with an eagerness to maintain unity to the extent possible (Eph. 4:3). This doesn’t mean that we collapse all issues into the “unimportant” category. Some second-rank (“non-gospel”) matters will inevitably lead to mutually exclusive convictions about local church ministry, and that’s okay.
Our unity, to the extent possible, will show forth the beauty of Christ’s gospel.
But we must recognize what is at stake in our divisions. Just before he goes to the cross, Jesus prays that his followers would be unified and says that our unity will be the means by which the world knows God’s love (John 17:20–24). According to Jesus, our unity is an important witness. You may need to leave your current church, but do so with appropriate sobriety (and even grief). And let us always be devoted in prayer and deed to the unity of Christ’s church. Our unity will display the beauty of Christ’s gospel.