Yesterday we looked a bit at some lousy (but common) reasons to leave a church, and Stevens Street Baptist Church specifically. Today, we’ll see that there are also several legitimate reasons that someone may choose to leave a church, though this is never something that should be done lightly. As a starting point, I’ll use the list from Pastor Helopoulos to which I referred yesterday.
The first reason is an obvious one, which I hope no one would argue. This is what he calls “Providential moving”, meaning that for one reason or another, your family is moving out of town. While for many people, the necessity of leaving a beloved church will factor into the decision to move their family, once that decision is made, no one is going to begrudge you leaving the church. It’s expected, just as it’s expected that you would join another local church in whichever town you are moving to. With mass layoffs last year at some local businesses that had employed many of our members, we have seen several families leave Stevens Street as their work situation took them away from Cookeville.
The next item on Pastor Helopoulos’ “Good Reasons” list — Planting a Church — is one I might combine with one of his “Possible Reasons” — what he calls Special Gifts. Basically, in both of these instances, people are not so much leaving a church as being sent out. Whether going into some sort of vocational ministry (such as planting a church or taking a ministry position at another existing church) or using some sort of special gifting to serve another church (such as his example of an organist), the key is in taking it before the leadership of your current church for prayer and counsel. With the affirmation and blessing of your current church, you may be sent out with joy for the building of God’s kingdom.
Many people have left Stevens Street in this manner. We have ordained several men to ministry who are now pastoring other churches. Others serve as youth or music ministers. Even Brother Jimmy left in this way. When God called him to leave SSBC to become an itinerant pastor/missionary, he didn’t just leave. He met first with the other ministers, and received their blessing and the blessing of our congregation to “preach the good news of the kingdom of God to other towns as well” (Luke 4:43).
Pastor Helopoulos lists two more “Good Reasons” to leave a church, though it is difficult to see an example of “The peace of the church is in jeopardy due to my presence” that is not the result of either personal sin (which is not grounds for leaving a church, in my opinion) or the other “Good Reason”, which is that the purity of the church has been lost.
This one is very tricky. How does one judge whether a church has reached a point of error (in either doctrine or practice) that is beyond the point of one’s ability to contribute to it’s restoration? In other words, given what I said yesterday about no church being perfect and about those who love Jesus working hard to resolve problems, how bad is too bad? Where do we draw the line and say that there’s nothing left we can do but cease to support a church with our gifts, our tithes, and our presence?
If this is our reasoning for leaving a church, it must go beyond mere disagreement. For instance, a good portion of our interim pastor’s sermon on Sunday taught an eschatological viewpoint with which I strongly disagree. But this is an area of theology in which there is much debate, and in which people can disagree while still agreeing about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have long known that my views of the “End Times” are a minority report among Southern Baptists (and at Stevens Street in particular). Nearly everyone on our staff and in our congregation believes in a pre-tribulational rapture, and this is not at all a hindrance to our ability to work and minister together. Different interpretive viewpoints on comparatively minor doctrines is no reason to break fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ!
So what would qualify as a lack of “purity” in a local church? Well, first of all, if the Bible is not being preached, it is not a biblical church. This certainly does not apply at Stevens Street! If there is unaddressed sin among the pastors, this would also be a big problem. Again, this is not happening at Stevens Street. There are other potential reasons, such as false teaching, lack of church discipline, dysfuctional “power struggles” among the congregation, etc. Each of these is fleshed out in a little more detail in two other excellent articles on this subject, so rather than re-hash it here I’ll direct you to this article by John MacArthur, and this one from the Baptist Press. I highly recommend you check those out!
The last thing I’ll say on this issue for now is this: No matter what the circumstances of someone’s choosing to leave a church, one thing remains absolutely certain. No believer has any right or justification to sow discord in the church he is leaving. If after much prayer and counsel with other believers you are led to believe that your church suffers from a lack of purity, this is not grounds to bad-mouth the church or its leadership. If they have not listened to your earnest attempts to lovingly speak truth into the situation, simply “knock the dust off your feet” and leave. That church is accountable to God, not to you. He will judge whether they have behaved sinfully or not. Who knows? Perhaps leaving a church in this manner may be the catalyst it needs to recognize a problem and begin the process of healing?