Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Amputated Church

What is the Church of Jesus Christ? A body. A bride. A family. An army.

And where do we see this manifested?

In the local church.

It is in the local church where we exercise our gifts. (Rom. 12)

It is in the local church where our love for the saints is expressed. (John 13:34+35)

It is in the local church where church authority is exercised to punish sin and guard and lead the flock. (1 Cor. 5)

It is in the local church where we fill roles as members of the body of Christ. (1 Cor. 12)

It is in the local church where we celebrate the New Covenant Passover. (1 Cor. 11:23-27)

It is in the local church where we labor together for the cause of Christ and build the bonds of family-friendship. (1 Tim. 5:1-2)

It is in the local church where all the functions of the Church towards the believer and of the believer towards the Church become real and practical. The Bride of Christ is a global institution, but we cannot fulfill our Scriptural duties towards the global Church without fulfilling them at a local level.

So how we relate to the local church is very, very important; choosing a church, attending a church, tithing to a church, joining a church, being invested in a church, and leaving a church are all matters to be taken very seriously.

The Scriptural picture of church fellowship requires deep relationships, pastoral involvement, confession of sin, accountability, fellowship, hospitality, generosity, prayer, perseverance, humility, the pursuit of Christ, and lots and lots of love. Real love. A love that says and does the hard things when it needs to.

And this requires commitment. Hard-charging, long-term commitment to a local body.

Today, it seems that the church is not taken so seriously; choosing a church is a buffet-style proposition. A little of this, a little of that, go back for more of the one you like.

It is certainly appropriate to vet a church before becoming a member. We should indeed examine the doctrines taught, consider the practices modeled, and see living Christian love in the fellowship.

But the first and foremost question must be "where does The LORD want me to plug in?" The decisive question must not be one simply of preference or comfort but of submission to the will of Christ and a desire to be used by Him to fill a need in His bride. As in every area of the Christian walk, we should be driven by love for God and for others- not by self-focus.

That's all foundational to the title of this article- the amputated church. That's what happens when someone leaves a local body.

If we are all members of the local body- "individually members of one another"- what happens when one leaves? Pain. Loss. A hole in the fellowship and the efficacy of the church.

If it's easy to leave; if there is no pain; if nobody misses the family that stopped attending- these are signs that something was already awry in the bond of fellowship.

It should be hard to leave. This doesn't mean that it's never right to leave a church; there are very good and legitimate reasons for doing so. However, leaving a church should be done with the seriousness and formality of amputating a limb- not with the impulsive or emotion-based decisiveness (or indecisiveness) of no longer eating pizza on Friday nights.

Before an amputation, there is first and foremost a significant reason for making such a drastic decision. Leaving a church should be a matter of "doctor, I have leprosy spreading up my leg- I think we need to cut it off"- and not a matter of "hey doc, my elbow hurts a bit after yesterday's baseball game- would you do me a favor and pull out your bone saw?" There are valid reasons- and they are not limited to problems with the local church, either. God could be calling you elsewhere. Regardless the reason, there should be a reason for breaking the fellowship of the local body. Like the founding fathers declaring independence from England, a proper farewell to a local body involves a list- either of grievances or simply of rationale for why God is calling you elsewhere. It doesn't have to be a physical list, but there should be real reasons.

Sharing those reasons with the church, or at least with the elders of the church, not only clarifies why you are considering leaving the fellowship, but it gives them the opportunity to hold you accountable if your rationale is not Scriptural, to repent if they are convicted that you are right, to agree that what you are seeing is a problem that needs addressed, or maybe just to agree to disagree. Even in that last case, at least both parties know what they are disagreeing over!

An amputation is only done after much counsel has been sought and any other way to solve the problem has been considered. Doug Wilson, in his Practical Christian Living talks, points out that generally we are prone to see defects in the thing we are gifted in. Someone God has gifted with teaching will notice that the sermon wasn't very well organized. A servant will notice that nobody is doing the dishes after the potluck. An evangelist will wonder why the stack of Gospel tracts by the door always seems just as tall.

We are remarkably good at turning good things into reasons for pride. "I'm so good at expressing these difficult doctrines. Most of the people here just don't get it as clearly as I do." "No one notices just how often I serve everyone. People here just don't love others enough." "If the folks in this church really loved Jesus, they would be evangelizing more."

"I have the gift of humility and I'm proud of it."

Before leaving a church because of a deficiency in its battlefront, perhaps we might consider that God has put us in that body to fill that void. Maybe the church doesn't evangelize enough because they need someone passionate about evangelism to come in and start poking them. Maybe the music isn't very good because no trained musician has ever come in and said "hey, I can help y'all with that!"

Maybe you see that problem in the local fellowship because God sent you there to fix it. If the focus is not on ourselves but rather on the Kingdom of God and the brethren, will we not be hungry and eager to fill those very voids?

If the problem is not a deficiency but rather an issue of sin or conflict, then healing must be sought through the Biblical patterns of conflict resolution. Fleeing from a problem only causes it to fester, and it destroys the freedom and openness of fellowship that should happen between brothers and sisters in Christ.

Even doctrinal problems are opportunities. It is one thing to decline to join a church because of bad doctrine; it's another to leave a church because they are compromising. If you are a part of that family, maybe God has you there to strengthen the hands of your family in the faith against the lies that are deceiving them. Or maybe God is showing you something that they haven't seen yet- that is your chance to edify the brethren. But maybe you're wrong... and that's their chance to edify you. Regardless, Scripture encourages dealing with stuff. Sin stuff, doctrinal stuff, conflict stuff. Deal with the stuff- don't run from it.

There will be stuff everywhere we go.

An amputation is decisive. People know when it happens and why. So if there is a doctrinal issue that cannot be resolved; if the pastor will not confess his sin; if you've tried every means to "be at peace with all men" that you can, but the conflict is still destroying the fellowship; if The LORD is just calling you to go elsewhere- then do so decisively. Please don't fade away and leave the brethren to wonder what happened. Let them throw you a party and send you away with their blessing- or, if necessary, let them know that you feel you've done all you can and are leaving them and praying for God's mercy on them- something. But don't, please don't leave the limb half-amputated; those don't heal very well.

It leaves others behind hurting. Missing you. Wondering what happened and if they should hope to see you again... or if they should resign to an occasional chance encounter in a room featuring an elephant and a floor of eggshells.

And it cheapens and devalues the realness, the depth of intimate Christian fellowship- just as divorce cheapens marriage. Is it real? Will it last? Can I be so open and vulnerable to this family? Or will they leave too, and take a piece of my heart with them?

If The LORD does want you to leave a good church, and it's not because they are failing to be a faithful body, then don't worry- He will bring someone to fill the void you leave. And the tears of goodbye, like those shared by the pilgrims on the shores of the old country before they left for the new one- they will be sweet tears. And the reunions, the chance encounters, the wedding invitations and the Facebook pictures will be marked with the signs of Christian fellowship- love, joy, wholehearted openness, the good old honest pain that comes with missing a dear friend.

That kind of love for one another will proclaim to the world that we are truly disciples of Jesus Christ.

Those aren't amputations.

They're transplants.