This is the fourth in my series on the Church, and we’ve already discussed three things:
- God doesn’t want us to forsake assembling ourselves together with other believers each week. Read more…
- God is calling out believers unto Himself, from every tribe, nation, and language. This is the Universal Church. Read more…
- God has established local groups of believers in local towns and cities, and all local churches have specific characteristics mentioned in Scripture. Does yours have these things? Read more…
So what should we do if our local assembly of believers isn’t perfect?
(You mean your church isn’t perfect either? Really?)
How do we know when we should stick it out — and when we should leave?
I see two main reasons why people want to leave a church:
- The teaching is bad.
- The people are bad.
I thought I’d tackle the “people are bad” reason first. Why? Well, most people say they’re leaving a church because they disagree with the teaching going on there. However, I’m not convinced this is always true. So just in case, I thought I’d give you a Scriptural checklist from the book of Ephesians.
Am I making every effort to keep “the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”?
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism;one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-4).
I realize that any congregation will have ornery people. God only asks me to do my own part, by being “completely humble and gentle,” as well as patient, bearing with others in love. That’s super tough! In other words, before leaving a church, I need to make sure I’ve really done my part to “keep the unity of the Spirit.”
Matthew 18:15-20 tells me that if I’ve been wronged by a brother or sister in my local church, my first responsibility is to:
“…go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”
That’s hard to do, because it requires humbleness and gentleness on my part. I honestly struggle with this, just as much as the next person, but when we do things God’s way, it’s amazing how much love and unity there will be. Most of us start instead by “telling it to the church,” usually by phone or whispers in the lobby.
Am I submitting to the leadership God has placed over me?
“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:11-16).
God has placed several kinds of leadership in the local church: apostles [sent-out ones], prophets [to declare what God has said], evangelists [to reach the unbelievers], pastors [shepherds and care-takers], and teachers [to train us].
The reasons are clear:
- to prepare us for works of service
- to build up the body of Christ
- to help us reach unity in our faith and knowledge
- to help us become mature
- to keep us from being infants who can be deceived
Leadership is supposed to be “speaking the truth in love” to us.
Do you ever speak the truth in love to your own children? Do they always like it? No, of course they don’t, but you do it for their good, because you love them and want to see them mature properly.
Leadership does the same thing to you. Do you submit to that training?
“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
Am I watching my mouth?
“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:25-32).
That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Seriously, we can easily find all the times that others don’t speak kindly to us, but do our hearts convict us when we speak unkindly back?
“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
Before we leave a church in anger and frustration, we need to prayerfully check through this list to be sure we have sinned in our words. If we have, we need to go to the one(s) we have wronged, confess our sin, and make restitution.
Do I make wise use of my time?
“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise,making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:3-7, 15-20).
When we gather together with other believers, it’s very easy to let the conversation drift, first to the weather, then downhill from there. However, God wants us to act like “holy people.” (Remember what holy means? Yes, “set apart.”) We should be different!
One way you’ll know if you’re filled with the Spirit, or that you’re being controlled by God rather than your fleshly nature, is that you’re thankful and singing praises to God when you speak.
Many parents are rightly concerned about youth groups, children’s ministries, and small groups, because these “extra-curricular” activities often degrade into worldly entertainment. This is a very common reason families leave churches.
If you have the ability (and sometimes you won’t), can you participate in these groups and be different? I can tell you from experience that “foolish talk or coarse joking” stop when one member of the groups starts praising God for everything He is doing in her life, maybe even breaking into song. It’s sure worth trying before leaving.
Do I set a good example at home and work?
“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church… Children, obey your parents in the Lord… Fathers, do not exasperate your children… Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ… And masters, treat your slaves in the same way” (Ephesians 5:22-6:9).
In 1 Timothy 3:4, we learn that the pastor of a local church “must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” Just as I mentioned above, that we need to submit to the leadership over us, we also need to be careful not to judge others until we’ve proven ourselves at home.
“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
Even though we often don’t submit to our husbands, don’t require obedience of our own children, exasperate our own children, and don’t obey our employers with “respect and fear” — we quickly think that we would make better teachers and leaders than the ones God has given us. Yup, anything they can do, we could do better!
Some of us will be called to be teachers, or maybe our husbands will be, but until then, we should probably focus our attention on our own faults, working to manage our own families well and teaching our children to obey us with proper respect. It’s not an easy job — so while we’re perfecting our skills, we can pray for our leaders, who have much greater responsibilities than we do.
Do I pray for others?
Much of the time, we feel that we’re fighting a war against our brothers and sisters in the local church. However, Scripture says this isn’t so.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:10-18).
We’re not fighting against the people in the pews. We’re fighting against “the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Once we realize this, it helps us see why the battle is so ugly and bloody — and it helps us love and forgive the physical people around us.
These verses share many strategies for winning this battle, but I want to point out that we need to “always keep on praying for all the [set-apart ones].” Prayer will help you win. Period.
So before you leave a church, try to pray with those people.
There are good reasons (like false teaching) to leave a church, which we’ll discuss more next week, but carefully consider these verses and ask the Spirit to honestly lead you, in accordance with His Word.
More Good Verses to Study: