Leaving a church can be like committing spiritual divorce.
Have I got your attention?
I evidently got the attention of the group I was teaching last week, to the point I had to make a lengthy clarification of my comments the next time the group was together.
The (very fair) question came back at me: “Then is it ever right to leave a church?” Obviously the answer is yes. Once-thriving churches can start to die. They can begin to teach wrong doctrine. Leadership can go off the rails. Sometimes job relocation or other circumstance means we have to change church. And sometimes it is just not a spiritual fit. But all these things do not change the fact that people leave churches far too often for the wrong reasons, leaving a trail of hurt and brokenness behind and taking the same baggage with them, which sadly results in them often leaving the next church as well.
The problem lies with our failure to understand one of the most important and dangerous words in the Bible. That word is covenant.
All God’s dealings with humanity are based on the concept of covenant.
We need to understand some things very clearly. Covenant is initiated by God, not by us. God sets the terms of covenant and expects them to be obeyed. There is a blessing for obedience and a cost for disobedience.
Covenant bestows on us forgiveness of sins and gives us a new life, both now and in eternity. It was purchased at the highest cost, the death of God’s own Son.
But covenant cannot be restricted to our personal relationship with Christ. When God made covenant with us, he made us a people of covenant. Covenant should run through the length and breadth of our lives.
Covenant means you are a man or woman of your word. You do not walk out when the going gets tough. You’re there for the good times and the bad. You are committed.
Beyond our relationship with Christ, the clearest expression of covenant is marriage. That’s demonstrated in Ephesians 5. When I asked Elaine to marry me over 35 years ago, it never for a minute crossed my mind that it would be anything but till death do us part. And it never crossed her mind either. Nor has it ever since with either of us.
But we are also a people of covenant at work. We should be the best and most faithful employees. We are a people of covenant in our community, there for our friends and neighbours, active and faithful citizens.
And we are a people of covenant with each other. God created his church by covenant, and the conditions of his covenant govern it. And so it is not far-fetched to see ourselves as joined by God through covenant to those he has placed alongside us in the local expression of church he has called us to.
We should put a very high value on our relationships with others in that body. God has placed us there, and he expects us to be faithful and committed.
Most people do not leave churches out of any kind of spiritual conviction. They leave because of some form of personal offence, usually dressed up in spiritual terms. They neither understand nor value covenant, unless it benefits them. They haven’t the foggiest idea what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 18:15-20. They would rather gossip about others rather than try to work out their offences in love, faithfulness and integrity.
If that is you, you are shooting yourself in the foot.
I’ve always felt it cost the Lord so much to give me the opportunity of relationships that I don’t want to throw any away, at least out of my own stupidity, hurt or offence. I’m still working on it.
How about you?
If we’re a people of covenant, we should live like it.