Why I never left the Church

Leaving the little “c” church

Over the last six months I’ve seen a lot of chatter amongst prominent bloggers and Christians about leaving the church (local). This trend scares me. It should scare you too. I have to admit that I sympathize with these people for the most part. Frequently when this issue comes up there’s a story of hurt, pain, and suffering. Or even worse traces of abused leadership. These experiences should not be minimized--we must weep like Jesus (John 11:35; Luke 19:41) with those who hurt. I have my own story of hurt from the church (a hurt that almost drove my family away). But should these hurts at the hand of the church cause us to reject the local church in favor of a more informal fellowship? I want to answer emphatically no!

Loving Costs

We look at the trajectory of Jesus’s ministry and one thing stands out above else: loving costs. You cannot love for free. You cannot love without pain. You cannot love without sacrifice (and sometimes even death). You cannot love without paying the cost. All of us understand this because we interact with humans every day. Relationships at the best of times are messy.

I’ve been married for almost seven years and including our dating time have been in relationship with my wife for almost ten years. I can without reservation or hesitation tell you that marriage is messy. The most intimate relationship between two humans and . . . it’s messy. It’s hard. It’s gritty. It costs.

If you walk into a local church, into a covenant community binding yourself to it and expect not to get your hands dirty and your heart broken at times then you know little about love. You value Jesus’s sacrificial death for you very little. Paul expounds this making the connection with Jesus and the gospel explicit

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

What Paul explains here is that the sovereign King Jesus came down to earth and humbled himself demonstrating that love costs by serving those who hated him and dying for his bride. Jesus’s pursuit of us was and is messy. Blood was spilled. So should we expect any less in our relationships personally and in his church? If it cost Jesus to serve and love and win his bride than it will cost us no less? We must repent of our consumerist hearts and instead whole-heartedly pursue the heart of Jesus, which sacrificial service.

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus

Cyprian of Carthage rightly said, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” or in English if you prefer, “There’s no salvation outside of the church.” Roman Catholics have hijacked Cyprian in a way but in quite another way we have overreacted to the Roman error by offering a low view of the church. Here’s what I mean. Show me a Christian who is joyfully involved in church ministering, loving, serving, and translating that love into personal, intimate holiness and worship (basically living in light of the gospel) and I will show you a healthy and happy Christian. Show me a Christian who has rejected the local church and I will show you a Christian who has thrown off authority, accountability, sanctifying growth, and the ultimate possibility of salvation if they continue to the end rejecting the body of Christ.

Faith is never primarily personal or solitude; it’s primarily covenantal within community. The church is charged with the care of Christ’s bride part of which is discipline. Part of that discipline makes an objective, outward statement about the belief of someone who lives in unrepentant sin. They are to be treated like an unbeliever. When discipline is not practiced in churches, this objective, outward statement is not made but the spirituality reality is still declared by the Spirit. The Spirit testifies with our Spirits when we are believers and convicts us of our sins (Romans 8:12-17) and for those who have falsely professed faith the Spirit convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgement (John 16:7-11). If someone rejects the church then he has rejected Christ for he is her bride. For those who would say the local church is not the universal church. I grant that but is there any expression of the bride of Christ outside of the local church? Did Christ institute any other expression of his bride?

Don’t get lost in this large quotation from Zaspel on Warfield. Read it through and digest the flow of his argument. Fred Zaspel in discussing B.B. Warfield’s view of corporate worship as essential says,

Corporate or community life is essential also. Warfield speaks to this point emphatically: “No man can withdraw himself from the stated religious services of the community of which he is a member, without serious injury to his personal religious life.” It is surely significant, Warfield says, that the apostolic writer links closely the two exhortations, to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb. 10:23) and “not neglecting to meet together” (v. 25). . . . Moreover, the writer adds a kind of lash to his words when he says, “as is the habit of some”: “We can see his lip curl as he says it Who are these people, who are so vastly strong, so supremely holy, that they do not need the assistance of the common worship for themselves; and who being so strong and holy will not give their assistance to the common worship?”

Warfield’s observation is telling. In the mind of the inspired biblical writer, godliness simply cannot be realistically pursued alone. “Nothing can take the place of this common organic worship of the community as a community, at its stated seasons, and as a regular function of the corporate life of the community.”

Warfield belabors this point emphatically. There can be no religious life in isolation. Neither is Warfield content with “going to church,” merely.

You will observe that I am not merely exhorting you “to go to church.” “Going to church” is in any case good. But what I am exhorting you to do is to go to your own church--to give your presence and active religious participation to every stated meeting for worship of the institution as an institution. Thus you will do your part to give to the institution an organic religious life, and you will draw out from the organic religious life of the institution a support and inspiration for your own personal religious life which you can get nowhere else, and which you cannot afford to miss--if, that is, you have a care to your religious quickening and growth. To be an active member of a living religious body is the condition of healthy religious function.

Corporate worship, Warfield insists is not optional, nor is involvement in the fellowship of the church. It is “the condition” of godliness. . . . [Warfield concludes by pointing us to the life of Jesus,]

Have we not the example of our Lord Jesus Christ? Are we better than he? Surely, if ever there was one who might justly plead that the common worship of the community had nothing to offer him it was the Lord Jesus Christ. But every Sabbath found him seated in his place among the worshiping people, and there was no act of stated worship which he felt himself entitled to discard. (Zaspel, Fred G. Warfield on the Christian Life. Eds. Justin Taylor and Roger Nicols. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 165-66, 67)

Just a Couple Caveats

All of this is qualified by two important factors: first, we are not bound to churches that have rejected the gospel. There are very good reasons for leaving one local church for another one. For instance, if the pastor of the church is living in unrepentant immoral sin and the elders refuse to discipline him. It’s time to leave. If truths central to the gospel are rejected and after pleading with the elders and congregation, they refuse to repent of their heresy. It’s time to leave. But leaving one church for another church shouldn’t be done lightly and not without much prayer, counsel, and sufficient pursuit of reconciliation/repentance.

Second, we all have at one time or another not been in a church leaving the church temporarily while dangerous is not the issue. Staying away from the church or downplaying its importance is. The important point is that we come back if we have left. You cannot live in consistent disobedience to Scripture; you cannot reject the bride of Christ without harm to your own soul. However, those who are saved by the grace of God will persevere and will work out their salvation with fear and trembling.

There is no malice or pride in my writing. There is a humble admonition from one brother to another brother or sister. There is an encouragement that church and community are messy. That love costs. The Church required a blood sacrifice to reconcile and therefore we should expect that our experience may cost no less.