Recoil

Scripture speaks about our going out and our coming in, and experienced pastors have seen a great deal of it. There is, of course, the ordinary going out and coming in, but we also have to take account of the traffic patterns established by those who come in enthusiastic and leave disgruntled.

There are of course many causes of this kind of thing, and wise elders will want to sort through it carefully. The first question should be “is it us?” and not “what’s wrong with them?” The basic Christian reflex should always be to consider yourself (Gal. 6:1). Have we lost something we used to have, or is this just another instance of the “fellowship of the grievance” (FOG)?Leaving Arriving

Fortunately, these are real questions, which means that answers are possible. Doubts don’t have answers by their very nature. “What if it is my preaching?” doesn’t have an answer because that can always be countered with “what if it isn’t my preaching?” Speculating vaguely is not the same thing as asking questions. Questions have answers. And if those answers are close to home, it is the responsibility of the church leadership to find those answers.

But suppose it isn’t that. One of the easiest ways to tell if the departures are FOG motivated is by looking to see if there are any radical contradictions involved in it. I used the phrase fellowship of the grievance carefully, because if the fact of having a grievance against the church is the tie that binds, you will find people on opposite sides of whatever the ostensible “issue” was teaming up after the fact.

In other words, suppose you have Murphy leave because of his dislike of Smith and all his ways. The elders refuse to deal with Smith and so they lose Murphy. Later on, if Smith gets unhappy with the church (because the elders won’t deal with Hanson) and he leaves also, what should you look for? Right. If Murphy and Smith promptly become fast friends over at the Other Church, this tells you that the separations were not based on an objective grievance, but were rather driven by the perennial need that striving and ambitious human beings have to have a grievance. Just as clouds build up an electrical charge and become thunderheads, so also congregations build up a mimetic and envious charge. When a pastor sees this developing beforehand, his only recourse is to make sure he preaches the vicarious and substitutionary death of Christ on the cross — the only lightning rod God has given us.

In other words, what you have to do is tell the difference between those times when the issue is the issue and when the issue isn’t the issue at all. When the issue is the issue, deal with the issue. When it isn’t, pastoral leadership is still necessary.

When the issue isn’t the issue, what is? It is the desire for differentiation, and it doesn’t much matter how that differentiation is displayed, just so long as it is maintained. When uber-homeschoolers in your church strive for years to not be compromised by your “compromised” Christian day school system, and then collapse one day, leave the church and enroll their kids in the public school, the one thing you can be sure of is that education is not the issue — and never was. When someone departs from his Puritan heritage in order to throw himself into high church fineries for a spell, and then one day chucks it all for the mega-shallow experience, the one thing you can be sure of is that liturgical conviction is not the issue — and never was.

In short, to take yet another example, if you leave a church because of “inadequate discipline” in situations x,y,z and you go to a church where discipline is non-existent, then it is fairly certain that the only discipline you care about is the kind you are trying to avoid personally.

If you quit going to Lloyd’s Famous Steak House because you grew weary of their Famous Burger failing to meet your exacting standards one time too many, but we then see you the very next week on your anniversary date taking your wife to Burger King, we may be justified — and this is just a suggestion — in thinking that something else is going on.

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John
Member

Thank you for this article! Gave me a lot to think about. Let me be so bold and try and explain why we have left several churches. Bear with me. The first involved a company owned by a fellow church member who started to put a new roof on my office building. God saw fit to produce a massive rainstorm over the weekend and the building was flooded as the roof had not been protected properly over the weekend of the storm. We sought to resolve the matter first with the individuals, then with the deacons and then with the… Read more »

Matt Bell
Member

An island in the South? Is that a metaphorical island, or the Florida Keys?

John
Member

Both North Carolina and South Carolina have many islands.

Bro. Steve
Guest
Bro. Steve

I’m not buying into the addendum of, “and never was.” People are weak. People backslide. People grow discouraged. People get defeated. They get old and tired. They change their opinions, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Sometimes a guy is gun-barrel straight and gets sidetracked by bad leadership, bad books he’s read, or some other avenue where the deceiver plants a lie in his head. Sometimes people fight well, but the cost is so high that they’re just not up for the next round. They need a break, and there’s nobody around to tag-team with, so they crumble.… Read more »

nathantuggy
Member

While all this is possible, what Doug is focusing on is a suspiciously specific reversal — where what was previously one of the centerpieces of their high-sounding conversation is now completely swapped around. In such a case, it’s reasonable to be suspicious; they might have fallen in any other way, so why was this particular one the one they happened to fail in? Usually, we’re tempted in areas we’re less aware of, not areas we’re crusading against.

Jane
Member

And the centerpiece gets swapped around at precisely the moment they decide they need to leave the church to which they were being the self-conscious example of purity.

adad0
Member

Possibly even the self righteous example of “purity”.

Jane
Member

Good article, hitting on both sides of the equation.

I have a friend (in cyberspace) who is a Presbyterian elder who believes that “the issue is never the issue.” IMO that precludes him from ever being able to ask “is it us?”

adad0
Member

“the issue is never the issue.” is always a sophomoric ploy to dictate the “issue”, by people who have no will to face tough issues, interior or exterior.

adad0
Member

Romans 14 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. I understand that pastors have a personal interest in their flock. (Rams, Ewes and lambs.) Though the flock does not belong to the pastor, the flock belongs to The Master. Psalm 139:2-4 2 You know when I sit and when I rise;… Read more »

Jon
Guest
Jon

Good article. Balanced and honest, and of course, is going to offend a lot of people. It’s a message that we need to hear in North American Christianity. The Biblical picture of church membership is radical—if we were bought by the same blood, then we are family. And if we don’t get along, then we will have learn to.

insanitybytes22
Member

Interesting. I think I know of a church full of nothing but FOG.

Andrew Lohr
Member

Bill Gothard said some kids can’t stand their parents’ discipline, so they go join the Marines.

Scott Cottrill
Guest
Scott Cottrill

One point that is noticeably missing in this discussion is the idea of commitment to the body. In our church we take membership vows. This means that I am committed to this local body regardless of whether they change in things that I believe are preferential. Unless the pastor/elders are adopting and adhering to heresy, I do not believe I have a right to renounce my vows and move to the next “fast-food church” down the street. Perhaps this ignoring of vows is why the divorce rate is so high among Christians.

JohnM
Guest
JohnM

So just pronounce whatever you don’t like to be heresy or apostasy, and don’t walk, run way! Isn’t that the way it’s done? :) Seriously, while I see your point, I can see valid reasons, short of outright heretical leadership, for leaving a church. There are shallow reasons, to be sure, but there are also shallow pastors and shallow churches. Not all church memberships involve formal marriage-like vows either – perhaps you would see a lack thereof as contributing to the problem?

Scott Cottrill
Guest
Scott Cottrill

I do see a lack of formal commitment in many if not most churches’ laxk of formal membership as being problematic. For years I refused to see church membership as being on the same plane as a marriage, and still place it a little lower. However, what we have today is an almost universal acceptance of the concept that I can leave a church whenever I want, and if my behavior is called into question while I am a member of a church and I am placed under church discipline, I can simply transfer my membership elsewhere and avoid any… Read more »

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

Does a pastor have the responsibility to discipline even without that extrabiblical innovation of formal church membership?

Scott Cottrill
Guest
Scott Cottrill

I guess that depends on a couple of things. To say that formal church membership is extrabiblical is akin to saying that denominations are extrabiblical (which they are) but they’re understood and work for the most part. If someone just attends a church but doesn’t make a formal commitment, I don’t think they would be subject to the same level of discipline that a “formal” church member would be, but at the same time they would not be entitled to the same privileges that someone who was a formal member of that church would be either, and that may include… Read more »

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

Thanks Scott.

You mention that a pastor might responsibly engage different levels of discipline, dependent on the different levels of commitment demonstrated by the sheep in question.

You even go so far as to imply that some sheep are “not entitled” to any pastoral oversight unless & until they “commit” to the assembly & pastor.

And you picked this up from where in the Bible?

Scott Cottrill
Guest
Scott Cottrill

Actually, I think you took quite a bit of liberty with what I was actually saying. Scripture does not give us many examples of church discipline or membership rolls per se. Of course in a given location there was but one church, i.e., “The church at Ephesus”, “The Church at Philippi”, etc. Even up until the Reformation, you had a single church in a given municipality, so the idea of church hopping was non-existent, and I believe it is safe that we can extrapolate to the current times with basic principles. In Acts 5 Ananias and Sapphira were severely disciplined… Read more »

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

Scott, thanks again. It appears you believe church polity has now become much more fully evolved & now “set”, and today involves a thing you call “full membership” — as distinct from the simple Biblical membership in Christ that all believers enjoy. You’ve indicated that pastors have the freedom to discern whom in the Body they will feed, and whom they will shoosh away from the fold. These are innovations and traditions of men, of course. “Feed my sheep” says Jesus. “Nay, nay, Lord” replies today’s Peters. “Not all of them, Lord. We’ve invented a thing we like to call… Read more »

nodelink
Guest
nodelink

As a recent revert to the RCC of my youth, it now looks to me like every leader of a non-RCC church tries to be a pope. They insist that there is authority below but no authority above them (except perhaps a board, presbytery, synod, assembly, etc.) but even the Pope in Rome is under that type of constraint. RCC and Eastern Orthodox churches have a hierarchy of authority through the bishops to a chief bishop. Read the early church fathers of the first three centuries and you will see bishops and hierarchy among them. Only with Luther and Calvin’s… Read more »

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

How about sideways?

ken
Guest
ken

Probably half the people in my nondenominational evangelical church are “faith exiles” from the mainlines – former Episcopagans, PCUSA, ELCA, UM, and UCC. Their usual story is that not only do they not regret leaving a church that they consider apostate, but they regret they didn’t leave much sooner. There is amazing vitality in a church where people were unhappy with their previous church. We seem to be pretty good at retaining these people, so we must be doing something right. These are not “church-hoppers,” these are serious Christians who don’t expect perfection, they just expect the pastor and the… Read more »