Breaking Up With Church
Is it the best solution?
BY ANNE ELLIOTT
I’ve been watching the storm clouds brewing over the issue of women’s ordination, but I didn’t expect them to drift so close to home. And then they did. Unexpectedly, my home church was asked to consider a female pastoral candidate. Suddenly the tempest was raging directly over us. During a conversation with an elder who was upset about the matter, I asked, “What would you do if the church hired a woman pastor?”
“Leave,” he promptly replied. “I don’t agree with it.”
I thought about his statement a lot. Now, I’m not about to solicit any ideas on it from you or share any of mine with anyone. But it does seem like abandoning the church has become the prevailing action when there’s a disagreement. Who doesn’t know at least one person or family who has jumped ship over differences either in personality or opinion with someone else in the church, or with the church itself? I’ve been at my home church for nearly 30 years, and I myself have left and come back a couple times. The important thing, at least to me, is that I do come back. But in relationships there are no guarantees. The next time could always be the last time, for me or for anyone.
This lack of fidelity is disturbing to me on a personal as well as a corporate level. It’s as if the church has been reduced in importance to the status of a throwaway institution, like a club rather than a vital gathering of Christians working toward a goal far larger than their own individual petty disagreements and squabbles. You have to wonder how much the “easy come, easy go” attitude of the world around us has penetrated the church body when we would rather walk away over a disagreement than stay and “reason together” like the mature, adult Christians we believe ourselves to be. Let’s face it, the church—that is to say, a cohesive body of believers who represent the attributes of Christ rather than just spouting them—will be present and accounted for at Christ’s return, with or without us. God has always preserved a remnant that reflects His character to the world. That’s what we’re here for: to be a living demonstration of God to the dark world in which we live. Can we expect to accurately represent a steadfast God when we are all too ready to abandon ship at the slightest provocation?
Little Has Changed
It is no surprise to anyone with a cursory knowledge of Bible history that God’s chosen people were often confidently self-righteous while simultaneously stiff-necked and rebellious. At one point Moses told them, “Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the Lord your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord” (Deut. 9:6, 7). Unfortunately, it often seems as though little has changed. And isn’t that the real point? The reason we’re so willing to chuck it all at the first sign of trouble is that we aren’t growing up. We can’t develop spiritual maturity while we are focused on the small things instead of the Great Commission.
As members, we aren’t “dating” the church; we’re in a committed, “monogamous” relationship.
Rather than surging eagerly forward toward the Promised Land, Israel’s knee-jerk response to any sign of difficulty was to give up and go back to Egypt. Wringing their hands they’d accuse Moses of dragging them out into the wilderness to die. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (Ex. 14:11). We look at them and think they were crazy. With God leading them, what bump in the road could be too great to overcome? Yet we often have the same response to the bumps in our own roads. Israel longed to throw in the towel rather than fulfill their God-given commission, but they couldn’t get to the Promised Land by heading back to Egypt.
A disagreement does not have to result in a parting of the ways. People can disagree on particulars and still pull together for the greater good. As members, we aren’t “dating” the church; we’re in a committed, “monogamous” relationship. We’re not sampling denominations anymore; we’ve chosen one, this one. How would a marriage fare if couples broke up every time they disagreed? Just as married couples are one flesh but two separate individuals, we can exist in the church as active, productive, vibrant members even when we don’t completely agree.
That’s not to say we should take disagreement with official church positions lightly, because the church certainly doesn’t advocate them lightly. Is the church infallible? No; only God is infallible. But the church is, and should be, constantly growing, and growth involves change, a continual refinement of understanding. The Wisconsin Conference of Seventh-day Adventists puts it well when they say on their Web site that “[religious freedom] implied a right to read the Scripture for oneself and come to conclusions not bound by creedal presuppositions. The ‘present truth’ perspective assumed that new insights would arise as Seventh-day Adventists continued to study the Scriptures.”* If you choose to view change in such a light, “present truth” is exciting stuff; it means that our faith, our understanding, and our interaction with God and His Word are constantly growing as we become able to accept and comprehend it. This should make us more, not less, forbearing with one another and with the corporate church, of which we are a part. We will not all grow at the same rate, however, and we must treat with kindness and understanding both those who grow faster and those who grow slower than we do.
To be clear, I’m not advocating that anyone stay in an abusive church relationship. I’m talking about the petty differences of opinion such as the color of the sanctuary carpet, or the Sabbath school class teacher, or the food offerings at potluck that put people’s noses out of joint. These are opportunities for us to exercise our God-given forbearance and love for one another. But so long as abuse isn’t being perpetrated, this concept applies to greater disagreements as well, including strongly held opinions such as who should lead and serve in the church, and on what basis.
It Happens to Everyone
Make no mistake, sooner or later you will disagree with someone or something in the church. You will feel hurt, or betrayed, or just plain angry. You will want to leave. You can do this, of course. Or you can be like Moses, who continually put the interests and salvation of the people before his own personal good. Time after time he could have stomped off into the desert, saying, “That’s it! I’ve had enough!” He had an inarguable right to be Israel’s number-one critic after what they put him through; but instead, he continued to champion them in the very teeth of their relentless disobedience.
It may not be easy to continue to be a contributing part of an organization when you have a difference of opinion over one (or more) of its positions. It takes a great deal of humility. Not surprisingly, the Bible lists humility as Moses’ strongest character trait. It says he was a humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth (Num. 12:3). No doubt he would have agreed with Paul when Paul wrote: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:3-7).
When we have differences with the church or individuals in the church, the question we must ask ourselves is this: is it more important to be right as we understand it, or to be Christlike? Putting others before ourselves isn’t a natural action for humans. We’re too self-centered for that. Instead, it’s an action that is available to us only when God is running our lives.
Only then can we be sure that nothing will shake us loose from the church, no matter what. In marriage one of the basic tenets when trying to work through a disagreement is that neither party brings up the D word. Instead, both determine that divorce is not an option and channel all their combined energies into finding a solution to their problem. This isn’t always a straightforward proposition. Sometimes, in order to restore peace, one or the other will have to yield their will or extend grace. If they find that impossible to do in their own strength, they must allow God to work what is needed through them. Their hearts will have to change before they can move forward.
In the same way, perhaps it is our own heart, and not the church or someone else’s strongly felt position, that needs to change. When we are able to practice this level of Christian maturity, not only will the church be a happier place, but we will finally stop circling this mountain and cross into the Promised Land.
Anne Elliott is a pseudonym.