In the years of my ministry, I’ve had the opportunity to counsel with friends and church members regarding their marriage, the problems they’re experiencing, and the desire for one to leave the other. They want to end their commitment, their covenant to each other and move on to whatever it is that has to be better than what they’re going through now.
I’ve also had the pleasure of doing pre-marital counseling with young couples who are looking forward to a life of commitment and covenant. It’s funny…you can talk to these couples about impending issues – what they will inevitably face in their life together – and they’ll nod in agreement, say “Oh, we know”, and move forward to the blessed day. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that they don’t know. There will be problems. There will be disagreements. There will be tension. And, hopefully, grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, once told a young couple in their wedding ceremony that, “It is not love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains the love.” What he is saying is this: marriage is a covenant, a promise, not only between each other, but with friends and family and, most importantly, God. It is a covenant that says you will indeed continue in this relationship through the good and the bad, in sickness and in health…when you’re loveable…and unloveable.
Divorce, breaking the marriage covenant, is allowable in the case of sexual immorality. Not mandated, but permitted. Hear this: “…I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32 ESV)
Too often, though, marriages fall apart and end because someone feels the need for change, or that they’re not getting want they want, or their needs are not being met, or that someone else can meet their needs better, or they just don’t love that person anymore, and on and on.
So, they get out. Break the covenant. Move on.
Marriage is like Church
There’s a parallel here for those who leave a church because they, too, feel the need for change, or they’re not getting what they want, or their needs are not being met, or that some other church can meet their needs better, or they just don’t like that church anymore.
If Christ remains committed to us, in spite of our continual failings, why should we not remain committed to Christ’s bride? In a difficult church situation, what looks more like Jesus: to hop to an easier church situation or to stick with a local congregation through the dark days?
Many people think their church’s problems are an obstacle standing in the way of their spiritual development. Usually, the opposite is true. It’s their commitment to their church, in spite of its problems, that is making them more like Jesus.
In another post, Trevin gives the reasons in Jonathan Leeman’s book, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, when it’s ok to leave the church. He quotes Leeman:
Nonetheless, should you find yourself in a church where the leadership is characteristically abusive, I would, in most cases, encourage you to flee.
Flee to protect your discipleship, to protect your family, to set a good example for the members left behind, and to serve non-Christian neighbors by not lending credibility to the church’s ministry.
To me, Leeman’s reasons for leaving the church due to abusive leadership represent an altogether different issue. In this case, abusive leadership should be addressed through the biblical model of church discipline. An abusive leader is a believer who does not exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, nor does he comply with biblical instruction for shepherd-elders.
Is this reason to leave a church, the Church? No. Yet, it needs to be dealt with, instead of leaving and avoiding the issue of a believer, albeit a shepherd-elder, who is working against the unity of the church.
Wayne Grudem, in Bible Doctrine, promotes unity of the church in that we must become “perfectly one” (John 17:23) and we must be “in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). Grudem states that there may be other reasons to “conclude that separation is required”, but he goes on to say that “there are no direct New Testament commands to separate from Christians” unless those differences involve such teaching “that the Christian faith itself is denied.”
I encourage you to stay and be part of the process of change, of going through the transformation that all of us experience. When a church is loveable, and especially when it’s unloveable. As Trevin states,
The grace of God is transformative. We are predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. The heartbeat of every Christian should be to look more like Jesus. Just as the facial expressions and physical characteristics of two spouses begin to reflect one another after many years of marriage, we should look more like Jesus every day. But this transformation will not occur unless we stay committed to Christ’s people, challenging and encouraging others as they challenge and encourage us.