At 26 years old, I’m still coming to terms with how naive I can be and that I sometimes fail to see how complex the world actually is. I was reminded of this again this past year as our national church (Mennonite Church Canada) struggled to stay together.
For most of my life, I believed that churches that separate could have done things differently or should have worked harder to stay united. This simple-minded thinking came out of my own study of churches who split because of relatively insignificant things (e.g. the language used in church, instruments, etc.). My involvement in the church has definitely included problems and stress, but I have never really experienced large-scale disagreements before.
Over the past few years, however, our Mennonite churches have been torn apart by questions of sexuality. We have seen it on a national, regional, and local level. We simply are not of one mind on this subject. Although we have decided to remain united in the midst of our disagreement as a national church, some churches and individuals have decided to leave.
As much as I would love to see our national church stay together, I can see now that it simply isn’t possible. When we wrestle with questions so close to our hearts, we can expect people to follow their convictions by leaving one church for another. For some Christians, these are foundational issues and I don’t fault people for following their convictions in a mature way (i.e. without accusations, name-calling, denouncing, etc.).
In light of this, I would like to offer a guide to leaving a church. It seems like there isn’t a lot written about how to do that well. Is there a way to leave a church because of disagreement that is both respectful and God-honouring?
First of all, I think it’s important to say that this guide comes with a myriad of assumptions about the Church (capital “C,” meaning the body of Christ). I know that not everyone sees the Church, or local churches, as I do. And that’s okay. But different beliefs about the Church determine how we live out our faith, so I think these assumptions are important to identify.
Here are some of my assumptions about the Church:
- The body of Christ transcends time, location, language, culture, and most of all, denominations. The Church existed long before our denomination or local church started and will be here long after we are gone.
- The Church is not a show or a product. We have let the North American culture infiltrate the Church when we believe that a church is about what we get out of it. Was the music good? What activities do they have for our kids? These questions are important, but they concern programs and production, not the Church.
- Faith is lived out in the context of community. Even though the Church is bigger than our local congregations, belonging to a local church is important. It’s the way we care for one another, share the gospel, and stay accountable to each other and to God.
- A local church is a group of b elievers united together, covenanting to live out their faith in their context. We are not members of a club like the YMCA, where your interaction with other members may be irrelevant. But we, as the members, are the church.
If this isn’t representative of what the Church means to you, then this next part might not make much sense. But if it is, and you are still thinking about leaving your church, think about these next few points before you make the switch. This isn’t a guide for people who are just looking for better programming or want more friends in their age group. This is for those who are committed to a church, yet are faced with significant, doctrinal differences that weigh too heavy on them.
- Reflect on your place in your church. Are you a member? What did you agree to when you became a member? Are you involved in leadership? What obligations do you have? For example, if you and your church agreed to support a missionary together, you would have to consider what your leaving would mean for that missionary. Fulfilling your responsibilities and not simply walking out on people who rely on you without conversation isn’t just a requirement of Christian love, it’s simple human decency.
- Reflect on the reasons for wanting to leave. Do you disagree with where the church stands on a certain issue? Do you disagree with the pastor? If so, what have you done about it? Have you spent enough time in study, prayer, and discussion to really understand what the disagreement is about? Do you understand where your church is coming from? Have you done your part to share where you stand? Your church may need your presence more than you know, especially if you are not making your voice heard.
- Reflect on the effects of disagreement in your church. There may be some pain that you have experienced that is part of the reason why you want to leave. Perhaps you were misunderstood, or it seemed like everyone was against you. Your church needs to know about this. Sometimes we just don’t realize the kind of pain we are capable of inflicting. What steps has your church taken to make amends? Have you given them the opportunity? What steps are you going to take to make things right when you are at fault?
- Reflect on where you are going. As sad as your church might be to see you go, they will understand. As Christians, we always want what is best for each other. We want former members to find places of worship in which they can be actively involved and develop meaningful relationships. But always remember that no church is perfect. Leaving one for another may be a good change, but each church and denomination has their own struggles and disagreements.
- Reflect on how to leave. Opportunities for blessing and sending are not often there because of how quickly things may happen in a disagreement. Remember, even if you leave your church for another, you are still part of the same body of Christ. What are some ways that you can pray for and bless your church before you go? Have you given them the opportunity to pray for and bless you?
When someone’s convictions on an issue leave them no choice but to leave their church, there are still God-honouring ways to end the relationship. This isn’t a comprehensive guide, so feel free to add your own thoughts and steps as well. My hope and prayer is that disagreements in the church would be opportunities for us to listen and learn from one another. May we treat each other with kindness, gentleness, patience, and respect. May the love we have for one another be stronger than our differences, even when those differences lead us apart.