“…And do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to heed its discipline?”
“We do,” replied the new and excited family.
“We welcome you to the fellowship of our church…,” beamed the pastor.
* * * * Years Later * * * **
The pastor was dismayed: “You did not follow Matthew 18?”
“Look,” retorted the father, “that family is full of self-centered jerks. We can’t stand to talk to them, let alone be with them in the same room. Sometimes I want to punch them.”
“Such anger is a cancer eating at your family. You should not have waited five years. Why did you not talk to them or to the session?” bemoaned the pastor.
“They won’t change and you wouldn’t have done anything anyway—we’re leaving the church.”
And so the new and excited family chose to become the old and agitated family. Their only concern was to make life easier for themselves—even if it meant making life hard for the church.
Throughout this nation, many church members ignore their responsibility to God and His church. Even Reformed people do not seem to understand what is their duty. Christians think leaving a church is like leaving a club—one day they simply do not return. Or others may give a reason to the session only to mask their true intent through trite excuses.
But God has a better way. Many of the readers probably know that offenses should be dealt with immediately, advise should be sought liberally and submission and humility should be practiced daily. Yet, through our weak flesh, we tend to know these truth when applicable to others, but readily make ourselves the exception.
Instead of simply outlining the relationship between members and their respective church, perhaps listing the psychological consequences of ignoring God’s way may prompt Christians to loving seek the good of others through obedience to God.
1. Propagation through Imitation . This is true between spouses and amongst children. To maintain peace in the house the wife or husband begins to rationalize that their spouse may have a legitimate complaint. Children, being more perceptive than we realize, begin to see imaginary faults in those whom the parents resent. This in turn is used as evidence bolstering the spouses original anger.
2. Offended People Avoid the Obvious. Hanging on to offenses only twists your thought processes and expresses itself in your actions. So, typically, what you thought was obvious (following Matt. 18) is avoided like the plague. You avoid the offender and in return become more cold toward others.
3. No Man Is An Island. Since you are made in the image of God, you tend to act consistently in your life: one relationship will affect another. That is why Christ tells you to deal with the issue before coming to worship (Matt. 5). It will affect not only your relationship with God but with other Christians.
4. Its Always the Church’s Fault. Since the offender has not been confronted nor the session consulted, one result is a sinful rationalization process that believes since the offender has not been dealt with by the church oh these many years, then there is something wrong with the church. People are blind to the sin and the session is covering for the offender—or so you think.
5. Delaying Tactics. You rationalize that you are not offended. After blowing up at your spouse a few times, you realize there is an offense, but it is the sin of the one who offended you. You can’t talk to the man since he is so obviously pig-headed. You even tried a few times to tell him the problem (albeit subtly and indirectly—hey you’re a sensitive guy, right?). The session is obviously too busy to talk to—isn’t this only an issue between you and him? Aren’t you supposed to quietly suffer for Christ’s sake? Thus the embarrassment of Matthew 18 is thoroughly avoided by paltry excuses.
6. The Final Solution. You stop attending bible studies. Church members are no longer invited for dinner. Eventually, you attend other churches. It’s obvious that your church cannot deal with this man. Attending another church will remove you from the situation into a better environment. (Who says that Christians can’t be humanistic behaviorist!) The session, taking Hebrews 13:17 seriously, seeks you out for a home visitation. To stiff arm the session, you explain that this problem has been going on for years and will not change; that man cannot change. You like the church, the teaching and the people but just not him. Thank you and have a nice day.
Of course, there are many paths taken other than this list. Leaving a church is not like changing a job or a club; it is more like changing a family. The church members have invested time, prayer and energy into their relationships—into your relationship. Leaving under such circumstance hurts the church: the minister wonders if he offended them; the session worries that they are not doing their job adequately; members doubt their ability to relate to others. But, then, since there was no open communication from the beginning, most members will never know and always doubt.
Naturally, those who left never come back. Relationships change. In situations where the two churches cooperate in events, the offended family may never attend another meeting lest they met that dreaded person again. Normally, communication is cut-off even from families that were good friends because they are not seen again for weeks or months. Attending another church means creating new friends in a new family.
Leaving a church in such a manner actually says more than many realize. In spite of all the affirmations that “its not you, pastor,” or “we love the church, but..,” or “we’ve learned so much, but…,” what is actually being said is: “Pastor, you’ve got a problem to deal with; but we don’t want to be part of the solution.” Ultimately, by not following God’s path of Matthew 18 or 5, the above scenario (repeated more than people will ever know) is a display of unbelief. Taking such a course of action manifests not only a lack of confidence in the session but an attitude of suspicion: either suspecting that the offender does not want to change or that the church does not want to change.
In other words, the underlining attitude is: “This offense is so serious in my eyes that no matter how much I learned from the pastor’s teaching, grew from the elder’s oversight or fellowshipped with my Christian siblings I would rather lose these gifts of God instead of facing my offender.” A very selfish approach indeed.
My brothers and sisters, this ought not be! “Be kind, one to another, tender-hearted forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). This insidious and long-lasting problem needs to be dealt with. And the first place to start is within our hearts.