Don't Leave Your Church

4:28 PM

Boring sermons. Slightly-judgmental people who never heard of major theological debates. Small town feel in the middle of nowhere. Close-minded tradition. Little change. No women in visible roles. Pet peeves about this horrible world and President Obama and homosexuality. Bible studies that seem like Middle Eastern political analysis.


In a word, fundamental Baptism.

These things irk me, sometimes like an amusing but annoying relative, sometimes like a threatening outsider that continually and unwittingly tramples on my personal beliefs. I quietly studied theology on days other than Sundays, digesting the steady diet of end-of-the-world paranoia and moralistic Sunday school material. A long time ago I started questioning my Baptist identity; a short time ago I stopped identifying myself as Baptist at all; and only now have I come to embrace that the Presbyterian shoe fits my Reformed foot pretty snugly. 

My first thought upon realizing that nothing I believed lined up with distinct Baptist doctrine was to change churches. I'm a college student now. Nineteen. (So old, practically an adult.) I can drive the fifty minutes to a bigger church in a different town that's not in the middle of nowhere, with Christians who come from many more different backgrounds than simplicity and fundamentalism, who passionately dialogue on things other than teetotalism and the evils of using the overhead projector during worship. I was hungry for solid exegesis, something to stump my well-researched opinions and questions. I longed for mentorship that brought me to a higher plane instead of constant service that took me back a step or two to drag lagging church members along the straight and narrow. I wearied of fundamental Baptist snobbery toward Catholics and Lutherans. I wanted to pray out loud in the service and lead worship instead of only wrangling misbehaving children during children's church and banging out cringe-worthy offertories on the out-of-tune piano. 

Plus, it makes me antsy when I make my mind up about something but my actions still suggest that I believe the old beliefs. After complaining about how I don't believe anything Baptist and no longer identify with that denomination, my mom reminded me, "Well, that's a problem, because you're a member of a Baptist church."

All reasons to strike out on my own and discover the Presbyterian church that suits all my needs, right?

Wrong.

I stayed up to late hours researching why people, especially women, leave the church. Many women leave because of the lack of opportunities for women -- tight-laced conservative churches that deny women the (I believe) Spirit-given right to exercise their gifts of teaching, serving as deaconnesses, praying aloud, reading Scripture in the service, and leading worship. Others complain of boring sermons, lack of spiritual growth, not enough people their age, the wrong style, failed leadership. These reasons vary in degrees of seriousness, but, I think, are all valid considerations when one has the option of choosing a new church.

The question is, who possesses that option to choose a new church at the expense of leaving his current congregation? The dissatisfied Presbyterian girl in hiding? The "oppressed" woman in a conservative church? The bored modern family? 

The New Testament never adds an addendum on the dissatisfied churchgoer or tips for choosing the perfect church for you. It speaks of one church, the little c catholic church, the universal church, that manifests itself in congregations based solely on location -- not style, denomination, or ministry opportunities. It mentions the church in Rome, the church at Galatia, the church at Ephesus -- not the First, Second, and Third Baptist Churches across the street from the Evangelical Lutheran church two blocks over from the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church twenty minutes away from the nondenominational mega-church. Denominational controversy aside, the New Testament makes something brutally, unequivocally clear: unity is a huge deal. 

John Calvin writes that a Christian may schism from his church (he speaking primarily of the Reformation split from the Catholic Church) only if that church abandons the true preaching of the Gospel or the right administration of the sacraments. If your church starts denying the essentials of the faith, by all means, leave and come out of that church, which is no true church at all. Boring sermons are not a deviation from the Gospel, aggravating as they are. An unpleasant worship style is not abandoning the Gospel. No, not even a reluctance to allow women to pray aloud in the congregation is on the same level as the Gospel. Calvin makes the true point that the Bible sets the bar very low for what a true church is -- again, right preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments -- and thus it sets a very high bar for leaving a church. He uses the Corinthian church as an example: they got everything wrong, from Christian practice, to basic doctrine, to church order, to morality. They even condoned -- and were proud of -- the sexual misconduct of their members. Yet Paul addresses them not as non-Christians, not as a non-church, but as a church gone astray -- and a true church despite their overwhelming sin and ignorance. If Paul treats the Corinthians as a true church, with all their sexual immorality and stupidity, should I not stick with my little fundamental Baptist church that differs from my understanding of Scripture?

God lately convicted me of how I must strive for unity, how I must make that essential in my understanding of the church (a post on that forthcoming, I hope). Because the Presbyterian church emphasizes the catholic church far more than fundamental Baptism does, I ironically wanted to leave my Baptist church to join a denomination that confirmed and nourished my newly-found conviction on unity. After praying about it, talking about it, I saw the hypocrisy: I wanted to leave my church for reasons other than the Gospel. Important reasons. Reasons I'm not about to sweep under the rug. But if I really cared about unity, should I not stay and pour my heart out for my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, despite their imperfections?

I'm doing just that. I spoke about the importance of church unity during our testimony time. I turned the Sunday school conversation away from the gloom and doom of the world to the importance of judging ourselves first, we who are called to be holy as God is holy. I want to serve where I'm allowed, while starting to push for women to pray and lead worship. I'm going to lunch with an older couple in the church to hear their wisdom; I'm renewing or starting friendships with the girls in the church. I'm trying not to duck past chatty adults and instead learn to encourage and befriend them. I'm swallowing my pride and gleaning random bits of insight from all the sermons, no matter how "simplistic" they seem to me. 

Already God's blessing me in my hesitant efforts at church unity. No, I'm not going to believe something differently than I believe. I'm not going to keep silent when asked my opinion on something. I'm not going to pretend that my church doesn't need change. But with the blessing and help of the Spirit, I want to be that change -- a change my church may never get if I choose to walk away without trying.

Note: I still do not endorse paedobaptism, but I lean more to the Presbyterian view of the sacraments...and basically everything else. Just for those who wonder.

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9 impressions

  1. Well said! Amen!

    But if Calvin permits schism "if a church abandons ... the right administration of the sacraments," the first question in my mind is, what does "right administration" mean, especially given what Calvin himself has written about the subject of the sacraments? (I suspect I may come upon the answer to that question sometime after I get back to reading the Institutes ...)

    One of the two major frustrations about the (independent Baptist) church I attend is that very point: it insists that both baptism and Communion are something that we do---Communion is a mere symbolic memorial, not Christ's body and blood for us in any true sense, and baptism merely a symbol of our decision and commitment to God rather than of his election of us---and denies the sacraments to children (and thus the validity of my baptism). I take comfort in the fact that, despite the preaching to the contrary, both are God's "means of grace" for us, and so do not depend on the orthodoxy of the ministers.

    Still, though, your point about the Corinthians is a good one, and a most a propos rebuke: if they were a true church, not to be abandoned in schism by any true Christians despite the rampant abuse of the Lord's Supper, the most egregious church still meeting Calvin's limited criteria is a miracle of restraint by comparison, and not to be despised. Thank you for the reminder!

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  2. Calvin rejected the sacramentarian view held by Baptists -- that the Lord's super is merely a symbol. He sought unity with the Lutherans, but they rejected them because they linked Calvin with the Anabaptists/sacramentarians. Calvin did come together with Zwingli (a so-called "sacramentarian") on the Eucharist in the Consensus Tigurinus, though, but only after he was convinced that the Lutheran reformation in German was over. And actually, Melanchthon and the Philippist branch of Lutherans embraced Calvin's views on the Eucharist after the "Consensus Tigurinus." Melanchthon vowed never to write against the "sacramentarians" again. So I'm not entirely clear, then, what Calvin would define as the improper administration of the sacraments -- except transubstantiation, of course. Check Book 4 of the Institutes.

    I, too, am glad that God's means of grace in the sacraments work despite the confusion surrounding them. As a side note, I was actually "baptized" as a toddler into the Methodist church, but I count my real baptism as the one following my profession of faith at age 7. I'm still wrestling with the means of grace in baptism, since I've mainly focused on the Lord's supper in my studies. But personally, I dislike infant baptism for many reasons, not just straight-up theological ones, but also personal ones, as a kid growing up in the church. I need to write a post about that someday....

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  3. On the question of the Lord's Supper, I alternately find various Reformers' explanations of "what's happening" compelling. But after reading about the Marburg Colloquy, while I'm by no means ready to go as far as Luther (who held, I believe, that anyone who denies that the elements are Christ's body and blood cannot really be a Christian), my church's monthly pattern of reading the passage from Corinthians until it gets to the quotation of the words of the Institution, and switching to "... the Bible says that the bread symbolizes ..." instead of reading "'this is my body ...'" has become very tiresome.

    I, too, was baptized in a Methodist church. (Free Methodist ... and by immersion, which I gather is not all that common.) Growing up, that fact was all that kept me from falling into the "baptism-after-conversion-only" camp by default; when I got to college (Calvin College), my viewpoint shifted until I became firmly paedobaptist.

    In my own case, I can't remember any time when I did not believe the truth of the Gospel: that I was a sinner in desperate need of salvation, that Jesus was God Incarnate and died on the cross to take away the sin of the world, and that I wanted to have him as Lord of my life. I can remember several "crises of faith" when I doubted my salvation, and prayed essentially "the sinner's prayer" again, but at no time that I can remember was this a new thing. And, from what I gather from reading, this is what infant baptism is supposed to inaugurate.

    The regular pattern in our current, "'believer's baptism' only" (a phrasing that assumes the invalidity of infant baptism ...) church of children professing faith and being baptized at very young ages seems to me to bear this out: if a regenerate person believes that he or she is not yet saved, his or her first response on hearing the gospel will be to believe it.

    Whenever someone is baptized in our church, our pastor says that "baptism is like a wedding ring," that just as his wedding ring symbolizes his love for and commitment to his wife, so baptism symbolizes the love for and commitment to God on the part of the person being baptized. I think that a wedding ring is perhaps an apt analogy, but for precisely the opposite reason: baptism is the sign that the believer belongs exclusively to God, and that God has bound himself to the believer in a covenant, much as a wedding ring is a sign that the wife of the person wearing it is in covenant with him and has an exclusive claim on him.

    And I have to agree that you should blog about this ... Much of my thinking about issues relating to the sacraments didn't crystallize until I wrote blog posts about them, a couple of years ago. And, of course, I'd be interested to read your reasoning.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on infant baptism, Jonathan. I'd never heard that perspective before. I need to think about it.

    Ah, the Marburg Colloquy...wait, so which Reformer's belief about the Eucharist do you find most compelling? Luther's or Calvin's? Because they're different, and different in important ways.

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  5. I'm not very familiar with the specifics of Luther's position, other than his famous insistence that when Jesus said, "This is my body," he meant it. And my reading of Calvin himself, rather than summaries (and even those was long enough ago that my memory's gone fuzzy, alas. But when I was deep into the issues, I remember going back and forth between, I think, Calvin and Zwingli, and perhaps one other (which might even have been Luther) depending on which one I'd last read. I recognize that they sharply disagreed, but when I was reading the Reformers themselves at length I wasn't sure enough of anything to not see sense in whichever I was reading, and then when I was working through the issues on my blog, to my regret, I couldn't remember those specifics and didn't have time to go back and read. (Or the posts would still be sitting in draft form on my hard drive.)

    At the moment I'm more inclined to say, with Charles Wesley,

    "O the depth of love divine, the unfathomable grace!
    Who shall say how bread and wine God into us conveys!
    How the bread His flesh imparts, how the wine transmits His blood,
    Fills His faithful people's hearts with all the life of God!

    Let the wisest mortals show how we the grace receive;
    Feeble elements bestow a power not theirs to give.
    Who explains the wondrous way, how through these the virtue came?
    These the virtue did convey, yet still remain the same.

    How can spirits heavenward rise, by earthly matter fed,
    Drink herewith divine supplies and eat immortal bread?
    Ask the Father's wisdom how: Christ Who did the means ordain;
    Angels round our altars bow to search it out, in vain.

    Sure and real is the grace, the manner be unknown;
    Only meet us in thy ways and perfect us in one.
    Let us taste the heavenly powers, Lord, we ask for nothing more.
    Thine to bless, 'tis only ours to wonder and adore."

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  6. I enjoy your thoughts, Bailey. I identify with where you are right now as about two or three years ago I went through the same process with my own baptist church...and then decided to stay for much of the same reasons you did. I got more involved and instead of complaining about the music, offered to be the music coordinator. Instead of complaining about a lack of people my own age, I took a leadership role toward the few high school/junior high girls at the church. Things didn't last that way forever; I started to sense that the church, while it wasn't abandoning the gospel, was simply going a different direction in ministry than God was leading me. This was also related to God leading me to move to a different town. There is an aspect where there is no right or wrong answer about whether to switch churches or stay. I don't think that people that switch churches are necessarily making the wrong choice. Sometimes God leads you to a different place where your ministry will be more free and effective. It is good to be open to the spirit and be realistic about what God is doing in you and what God is doing in the church you are at. Sometimes God can use you as a catalyst for change; sometimes you are a support for what is already going well. Sometimes you just need to leave and go somewhere that God is working in the church the same as He is working in you. For me, that meant moving and going to a radically different church. I'm thankful for my time at my old Baptist church and I'm thankful for my new nondenominational emergent-style church. I admire your mature decisions and know that no matter where God takes you, He will continue to use you.

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  7. Because I'm not very educated in heavy theology and "isms", I'm just going to nod my head and smile and give you a fist pump and say "RIGHT ON MAN". Or woman. Whatever.

    However, do you feel like someone can only have the freedom to leave their church if the Gospel is being muddled with? While I hate it when people just up and leave their church because of minor, silly problems ("I hate the worship style" or "The pastor takes too long"), I don't really see the problem in someone leaving their church if they feel like it's stifling them spiritually and smothering their growth, or if it's just a really catty, judgmental environment (or vice versa). Thoughts?

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  8. Alexxus :: I think Karen's comment above really captures the kind of attitude we should have when approaching this issue.

    I think that we should try to be the catalyst for change in our churches, no matter how judgmental or spiritually stifling. For two reasons: (1) the entire blog post reason and (2) there may be more people on your side than you think. You can encourage those voices to speak up and step out, which may change the entire church. Be radical in your commitment to love your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. You should really TRY and POUR YOUR HEART OUT. In a way, you are responsible for the spiritually well-being of those in your church.

    There are, however, a couple situations where I think it's acceptable to leave a church of that ilk. First, if the leaders are spiritually abusive and unrepentant (a.k.a., you've already done the confrontational aspect of love laid out in Matthew). I'm thinking especially of leaders who set themselves up as so-called "prophets" of God with special insight and try to gather people to themselves instead of to Jesus Christ. Such people are divisive and schismatic already; they are in the wrong and need to leave. I think in that case the action should be to ask the spiritually abusive leader(s) to step down, and if they do not, to leave quietly and encourage other sufferers to leave as well.

    Second, I'd leave a church if you're asked to leave, whether subtly or explicitly. This usually ties into the first. A truly abusive leadership or congregation will be so resistant to change that they will want you GONE. If you're causing more harm than good, you should leave.

    I think that should be the more important to question: not whether MY spiritual life is improved or not, but whether MY CHURCH'S spiritual life is improved or not. As an example, my family left a spiritually toxic environment for our current church when we were all but asked to leave. Our salvation was questioned; the leadership of the church was driving harder and harder for FUNDAMENTAL BAPTISM instead of Christianity; and our presence caused more harm than good. One sermon was almost directed entirely at us, asking all dissenters to leave the church. So we left. I truly think the Spirit of God was quenched there, because there was NO love, grace, or humility. It was still hard for us to leave, but I think it was the most loving thing to do for that congregation.

    That said, your question is super tricky because the Bible doesn't anticipate denominational splits or "leaving a church for another one." There was just ONE church. And unfortunately, I guess we've just got to use wisdom and the Spirit's guidance to discern how to navigate the myriad of denominations and churches within those denominations.

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  9. Hey, Bailey! Good to see you again!

    Ah, church life. I am part of a Reformed Baptist church, which is probably closer to your beliefs than the church you are in, yet I know we still have much to figure out and much to learn. Thank you for reminding me that I am, indeed, a participant and not a spectator. I am a part of the body, and each member must take an active role in unity.

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Hit me with your best thought! I'm very interested in your unique perspective. If you'd like to discuss things in private, feel free to email me! :)