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Friday, October 07, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Worth Leaving Over

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In principle, I’m not keen on leaving churches. It happens too often and too easily. But sometimes, there just isn’t any choice.

When Gretta Vosper became the pastor of a West Hill United Church in Toronto, Canada in 1997, she was not yet out of the closet about her atheism, a little bonus she didn’t disclose from the pulpit until 2001. Amazingly, quite a few congregants hung on until 2008 when Vosper did away with the Lord’s Prayer, at which point 2/3 of the flock made for the exits.

Tom: I’m not sure precisely where the line is, but I’d have difficulty faulting anyone who leaves a church with an atheist pastor, IC. From your experience, what are the ingredients that go into making for a “time to go” decision?

A Firm Congregational Commitment

Immanuel Can: Great question: and with it, how to go. That’s a tough one.

Tom: Perhaps tougher than when.

IC: Obviously, leaving the local church is most importantly a doctrinal decision: to what doctrine is the particular local church in question firmly committed? That’s often harder to figure out in practice than it would seem.

Tom: True. Online, I keep running into five-point Calvinists who are much better in practice than their theology would lead you to expect. But in every church that has a statement of faith, you run into people who don’t fully subscribe to it, or people who say they do, but don’t have a clue what most of it actually means. So to find a whole local church “firmly committed” to something seems to me to be asking a lot.

What evidences of commitment would convince you a church is serious?

IC: You obviously can’t tell what individual hearts are thinking. And even when someone says something from the platform, how sure can one be that he meant exactly what you thought he said? And how fanatical should we be about reacting to that? Anyway, who’s to say that someone who says such a thing cannot learn to be wiser? We’ve got to cut each other a lot of slack here, because we’re all flawed creatures. But I think that when a church is consistently given to teaching a particular bad doctrine, and that doctrine has been understood by the leadership and they have decided to persist in it, then the moment of decision comes. Is that fair?

Terminal Heresy

Tom: Yes, I think that’s reasonable. What sorts of bad doctrine are you thinking about? (We’ll assume it’s coming from a non-atheist, because that’s just a bit too obvious.)

IC: Let’s suppose your group teaches things directly contrary to scripture, such as that God is responsible for sin, or the gospel is not the exclusive message of salvation, or that there is no danger of a lost eternity, or something false concerning the nature of the Lord himself. You point out the error gently and respectfully, and the elders of the church persistently deny that you have any point, and keep teaching it ...

Tom: Fair enough. Now, I’m sure the circumstances are not identical in every case, but when a large number of congregants feel simultaneously driven out of a church they have happily attended for years, something drastic — something almost unimaginable — has obviously taken place.

Weariness and Weakness

Lay out for me, if you can, the process by which a healthy, orthodox local church becomes so infected with false doctrine that the elders start to promote it and won’t hear a word against it.

IC: Is there one process? I’m not sure. But I don’t think these things usually happen expectedly or suddenly, and they certainly aren’t announced.

One way it can happen is this: a congregation has been functioning quite well under the guidance of a humble and godly man or men; but a gradual weakening and attrition in leadership, often through age, creates a weariness and weakness; and a new man comes in. He has the energy that the dwindling eldership does not. At first he plays by the current rules; but he has another agenda in the back of his mind — a way in which he wants to change the church to suit his vision, preferences or beliefs, and when the existing leadership is weak enough, he starts asserting it. Everybody is so relieved just to have somebody willing to lead that they back him for a long while, excusing his little excesses and doctrinal, financial or personal indiscretions because he’s essentially become the only functioning leadership. But increasingly he’s unmoderated by the wisdom and counsel of others, and eventually his behaviour becomes vexing to those left in the congregation who have any discernment …

Tom: This week I was part of an online conversation initiated by a man who was contemplating leaving his church and looking for advice. As he tells it, his church had two strong pastor/teachers. One was suddenly and unexpectedly pushed out by younger, more liberal “elders”, and the second was eventually co-opted by the same faction. The church is now consumed with social justice activism rather than its biblical core functions. I don’t know the whole history, obviously, but it suggests, as you say, that there’s more than one way these things happen.

Spiritual Leadership

The problem is he’s married to a woman who loves the church’s new direction. What do you do when that happens?

IC: I would say you negotiate what you can; but at the end of the day, have to decide who the rightful spiritual leader of the family is. If it’s really a matter of compromise with intransigence and seriously errant doctrine, then some personal strength of conviction is the only answer, regardless of how others feel.

Tom: You mentioned the “how to” of leaving. Coming to agreement within the family is part of it. But say your entire family is on board, either in agreement with you about the severity of the false doctrine or at least willing to follow your lead. What then?

IC: I’ve been faced with that, and I’ll tell you what I decided was the answer, at least for my situation. I felt that it was hugely important to have done things the right way. The first recourse was going to an elder to express concern. But I knew it was NOT to share my concerns with friends, or circulate my feelings generally. I kept it private. After that, I sensed I should resist the impulse to broadcast dissatisfaction with the elders’ non-responsive stance. Who am I, I thought, to create an insurrection? My conviction was that the church belongs to no one but Christ, and what would happen was ultimately up to the Head of the Church himself. His church, his will, his timing, his outcome … not mine.

Taking Stock

I took stock: I asked myself if I really believed that, and I decided I did. Thus, the right thing was to commit the situation in prayer into his hands, believing that nothing I could do could be more important or effective than what he would do. I asked the Head of the Church to deal with the situation as he saw fit. Moreover, I resolved that I would not make myself the issue. To do so would distract from the real conflict, which was between particular persons and their true Head.

Tom: So you move on quietly, having done everything you think you can. What do you do if the phone starts ringing and people wonder what’s going on?

IC: It doesn’t, at first. People can be away from a place for various reasons, and it’s only realized gradually that a pattern of absence is forming. Most people, even close friends, are relatively slow to ask one, unless one has already been guilty of agitating discontentment and they suspect the answer already. If you keep your own counsel, then anyone asking happens only slowly; and you can always decide how much to say and how much to keep silent. Until you see what the Lord wants out of the situation, my recommendation would be to keep as private about it as possible.

What Comes Next?

Tom: So then the question is what comes next? This is happening to a lot of people. It used to be that you’d hear about people leaving churches. The story now, more often than not, is “My church left me”.

IC: That’s a very good question. Getting “orphaned” by one’s local church is rather painful and unexpected. So there isn’t always a particular place to go to before one can leave from the former church. That means a search ensues … and often a grieving process with it … at least in the cases in which those who are “orphaned” genuinely loved and wished the best for their fellow believers, and did not expect to be leaving at all. It’s not a situation that is without emotional wrenching.

Tom: We’re not living in the first century. When someone feels compelled to shake the dust off their feet and leave their local church, there’s a smorgasbord of denominational and even sometimes non-denominational choices out there. Is this a good or a bad thing?

The Elective Church

IC: Sociologist Peter Berger talks about how in postmodern days and in the large cities especially, “church” has become an elective thing. People shop for churches in a way similar to how they shop for shoes: does it fit, do I like the look of it, how does it suit my style, what do I think of the quality of what it offers me, how much can I afford to invest, and so on. At the same time, he says, churches have had to become “consumer friendly”, catering to people who can simply vote with their feet and leave anytime they want to.

It’s a cynical view, but there’s some truth to that. You certainly can’t exercise local-church control like you could in the days when, perhaps, there was only one church of a particular kind in one geographical area, or when people knew each other in their communities. But I don’t think it’s become entirely a matter of church-shopping either: after all, there’s still a very limited selection of congregations that correspond to particular theological beliefs.

It’s not always easy to move. And that’s good AND bad.

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