Summary: Making a wise decision on whether or not to leave a church comes down to the nature of the issue. There are foundational issues and there are preferences. A Christ-centered community agrees and commits to Christ as their foundation and understands what that means practically for their life together.
If you’re reading this, I’m almost certain you’ve been a part of and left a church at some point in your life. My wife and I recently left a gathering of Christians we were a part of for the last few years. It was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done.
Since then, some people that weren’t intimately involved with the situation asked us why we left.
It seemed from more of an outside perspective that we agreed on almost everything about how to do church life together. As you can imagine, this resulted in some confusion about the situation.
After all, you’re never going to agree about 100% of everything with everyone in a church. If you agree about most stuff, that even sometimes seems like a miracle :).
This begged the question…how do you decide if disagreements/conflict should guide you to leave a church versus not leaving and working through your issues together?
It’s certainly true that there is no such thing as a perfect church. If you require that to be a part of one, you might as well forget about it. After all, whatever church you’d join, YOU’D be a part of it and you’re not perfect :).
With that said, this doesn’t always mean you shouldn’t leave a church either. What this comes down to is the nature of the issue.
Building on the right foundation
In the New Testament, Christ-centered community is called God’s house, temple and building (I Cor. 3:9, 16-17). It’s where God dwells on earth through His Spirit. The people that make up His building are called living stones (I Peter 2:5). Christ is called the foundation (I Cor. 3:11) and the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20), which is the most important stone of a building.
As we all know, for a building to stand, it must have a solid foundation. What kind of flooring, paint, countertops, etc. you choose won’t matter all that much if the foundation causes the house to crumble.
So before a community works out those things together, they must first lay and build upon the right foundation. This is exactly what Paul said a wise builder does. Here’s what he says about this in I Cor. 3…
By the grace given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
The church in Corinth was fighting over what teacher they were going to follow. This is essentially the color of the paint on the walls. Paul called them “infants in Christ” for doing this. He’s essentially saying that the important thing is keeping Christ alone as the foundation and not your preferences about all the other things.
The implications for life together
But any group of people can give lip service and say “Christ is our foundation.” That’s so abstract though. What does this mean practically? What does it mean for Him to be the foundation of a community of people?
Certainly it’s to all agree that He is Lord and King of the universe and that we are looking to do His will together. But it goes beyond that.
To be a healthy Christ-centered community, you must understand and agree on not only who Jesus Christ is and what He’s done. You also must agree on the implications of that for life together. The implications are not just vertical (between us and God), they’re also horizontal (between us).
When Paul went to “build” a church, he spent months with those who received Christ as Lord training them on what this means. What do you think he shared with them? The story of the early church shows us these things…
- God’s eternal purpose for creating and how Jesus fulfilled that purpose
- What our new identity in Christ is individually and corporately (the new humanity)
- How to live by the Spirit (our new instincts)
- How Spirit-led children of God treat one another and the outside world
- How the Spirit functions in a community (serving each other, working together, making decisions together, etc.)
Paul taught them what it meant practically for the foundation of a church to be Christ. He taught them how to do life together in light of the Truth. He also taught them the signs they were being built on something else (like a specific teacher).
Once he did this, he left and let them work together from the foundation to be built together into God’s house.
Once the foundation was right, the building of the rest of the house (paint color, flooring, curtains, etc.) was up to them. And anytime he was asked or felt like he needed to address other matters, he always brought it back to the foundation to make sure it was still strong.
He knew that problems with the house always started with cracks in the foundation. This is why his letters took the form of dealing with the foundation and then giving his take on behavioral matters in light of that.
Being built together
With this in mind, we see how it becomes essential to have agreement on what it means for Christ to be the foundation of life together. It’s what the building of the house relies on.
Practically speaking, it’s what regulates acceptable behavior. When challenges come along, this is what the community falls back on to meet the challenges and survive. It’s what re-calibrates them when they get out of line. That foundation directs us as we practice, fail and practice some more to be built together on it.
As I mentioned in another series, starlings are a great example of this. These are the birds you’ve seen flying in flocks together that appear like they’re operating with one mind that guides the flock as it moves.
But that’s not true. There isn’t one mind.
Each starling is acting on its own and has “agreed” to four things…
- stay as close to the middle as possible
- stay two to three body lengths away from your neighbor
- do not bump into any other starling
- if a hawk dives at you, get out of the way
These agreements alone allow the flock to keep moving in the right direction, to resist predators and to regroup when divided.
It’s the same with humans in Christ-centered community. We have to learn, agree and commit to what it means to live by the Spirit in order for unity to develop and stick. We’ll fail each other along the way, but we have the foundation to come back to and continue building and remodeling ourselves together.
As we do this, we become together practically what we already are spiritually. Over time, it seems like we’re operating with one mind.
Here’s how Ephesians 2 puts it…
In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.
When not to leave a church
If you find people that have come to know, understand and are committed to living by Christ as the foundation of your relationships; and you’ve worked through what that means together and have come to agreements on that, you have found something extremely rare on this planet. Don’t leave a church for infantile reasons.
Allow the inevitable conflicts that community provides to bring you back to the foundation and cause each one to learn to lose so that Christ may win (Matt. 6:25). The building will stand, and in fact be even stronger once you come through.
Learn to live by the Spirit together from that foundation. Work the rest of it out in love through mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). You’ll find that what happens with the rest of the house will be dimly important.
When to leave a church
If you give it your best shot to know and understand what it means for Christ to be the foundation of your life together, and you can’t come to agreement on that, it’s time to move on.
A big mistake I made was falling in love with the decorations of the house. When it came down to it, I came to realize that we never agreed on what it meant for Christ to be the foundation of our life together.
My wife and I stuck it out through losing on the paint color, flooring and curtain choices for a good period of time. We attempted to avoid being the reason the community wouldn’t work.
But when we presented what we thought was an essential implication of Christ being the foundation of our life together as taught in the Scriptures, it was met with a sledgehammer.
That’s when we knew we had to leave.
The nature of the issue
Every situation is unique. But in all of them, ask yourself – is this an issue of Christ being the foundation of our relationships, or is this an issue of you simply wanting the community to be what you want it to be instead of what Christ would have you become together?
My advice is not to answer that question on your own. If you can, find a few seasoned Christians that can help you process it.
Even better, find someone on the outside who can come and help the community examine the foundation together like Paul did.
Learn, agree and commit together to what it means for Christ to be the foundation. With a strong foundation in place, you’ll be able to stand firm and get through the inevitable storms.
If a sincere, thoughtful and guided effort is made to do this and it’s just not happening for whatever reason, it’s OK to leave a church to avoid inevitable damage.