September 29, 2020

Leaving Room For Churches To Be Wrong

disUPDATE II: Phillip Winn has an excellent response to this post.

UPDATE: Moderation is on. My apologies that I have to do this so often.

Bill Kinnon reviews DeYoung and Kluck’s newest book, Why We Love the Church. I haven’t read the book, and won’t, but Bill did, and talks about it.

Tim Challies reviewed the book in early July.

A sympathetic DeYoung reader/hearer makes some very pertinent observations about the direction of things.
My mailbox is the constant recipient of the stories of those who have left the church, are considering leaving, or are wondering why they haven’t. Their stories are a large part of what I carry with me when I write or speak. Some of their stories are typical of leavers, and would not impress those who love the church. Other stories, however, are clearly stories of churches that are wrong. Deeply, painfully, often irreparably wrong. These stories make me angry that there exists people who, in the name of the infallibility of Christ, claim their church is right in situations of heinous and obvious wrongdoing.

I often get links to websites where individuals and groups in particular churches are using the internet to air their grievances against their church. I tend to believe a lot of what I read because it comports with human nature, but I respect the process churches may be using to deal with these situations, so I don’t ever publish those links. That may be wrong, but it’s a choice I’ve stayed with, so I am not an unaware critic with an agenda to tear up ministries and churches. Far from it.

We’re in an interesting cycle. A bunch of Protestants- Protestants, mind you- are constantly writing and blogging about the church in a way that leaves little room for their churches to be wrong and no way for the churches of their theological opponents to be right.

So if a Calvinist stalwart X rents a storefront, appoints his eight best friends as elders and announces a series of sermons exposing N.T. Wright as a heretic, they’re a church and you’d be wise to not criticize. On the other hand, if open theist Y is pastor of a church that’s a hundred years old in a denomination with an orthodox confession and real oversight, you’re advised to get out of that church as soon as possible, because it’s a den of damnable false teaching.

The latest 2 day theology conference can issue a confession and render opinions on all matters related to family, gender and church order, but the Roman Catholic Church is not a church.

If you leave a church you’re disgruntled, a whiner or spiritually rebellions, unless you leave an emerging church (see furnished list), in which case you’ve obeyed the Holy Spirit.

Here are some verses that go together. Pay close attention:

Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever….17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Jesus talked a lot about the nature of power in leadership, usually in some version of calling leaders to be servants:

Matthew 20:25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now let’s assume that a leader or leaders do not imitate Jesus. Their lives are not worthy of imitation. They see the ministry as an advantage to themselves, not to you. They assume the posture of “great ones,” never the posture of servants, and they are constantly redefining servant leadership to mean whatever they happen to have done recently, i.e. promote the new building program.

In many quarters today, because there is not an explicit passage saying “here’s how to leave,” it’s common to hear those who leave such a situation described as whiners, immature, church haters and disgruntled. That’s a form of seeking to intimidate the critic into silence, and it needs to be called what it is.

In many, many cases, such persons have experienced actions that involve serious manipulation and pain. They may have decided they cannot stand to be brutalized in the pulpit week after week. They may have concluded that last week’s sermon on how tattoos are an alternate baptismal symbol indicating you’re on the devil’s team was the last straw in the legalism department. They may have decided they don’t want to put their children in the church’s children and youth program where they will be trained in entertainment and consumerism masquerading as discipleship. They may have observed instances of ministerial malpractice, but they know being the person to blow the whistle will cost them dearly.

Now you can say whatever you want about such persons, and you may be right in some points, but it is hard for me to see how these are disgruntled whiners. And short of a view that certain Protestant congregations are the only portals to eternal life, it is hard to say that those who leave these churches are imperiling their souls. For many people, the peril of their souls is exactly why they are gone.

Further, the churches being defended are deeply different in their approach to ministry. Church A may be a full menu traditional church, while church Q is a multi campus, preaching heavy, small group oriented church. If members of A or Q hear Frank Viola and decide to take up with a group of organic Christians or house worshipers in their community, why are they not serious? How have they abandoned the bride of Christ?

If our hypothetical church leavers simply step away from the institutional church to see where the Kingdom of God can be found in their world, are they in the position of being traitors, or are they perhaps doing exactly what the church needed to do all along, i.e. send missionaries out into the community and world for the sake of the Kingdom?

I just mention these thoughts to make a simple point: The current defense of the church may be necessary, but many of the assertions being made are not necessary and have about them the scent of males in power having far too much fun flirting with infallibility. The Christian ministry is one of the few places in our world that men can assert that they and their institutions must be submitted to in the name of God. That’s heady stuff, and I’m not even close to being prepared to buy the bona fides of everyone who claims it.

Choices about the church are very fundamental. I do not believe Protestants can ever underestimate the seductive lure of high ecclesiologies and their claims of authority for those who fear their church is not getting proper respect. On the other hand, the low ecclesiology of the New Testament makes the church’s entire value its connection to Jesus, its organic head. (I can do no better than the Sweet/Viola Jesus Manifesto on that one.) When Protestants begin talking about the church in terms that Roman Catholics would recognize as being their own view of infallibility and salvation, it’s time for a serious review of what’s going on.

The Reformation was a wonderful thing, and its failure to avoid the state-church connection or to establish the church as a missional movement was its great failing. The good news was that the Reformation gave Protestants to tools to repair their own ship, rather than scuttle it. Many readers will fault Bill Kinnon for saying that Deyoung and Kluck are throwing cheap red meat to the galleries and will point out that emergers do the same. I acknowledge that may be true, but I also must acknowledge that for all they get wrong and for all their youthful arrogance, the emergers will seldom be found touting the centrality of “Submit to your leaders” or sounding like their churches are too right to ever be wrong.

The current defenses of the church do well to laud it as the bride of Christ, but when those who have been abused, berated, manipulated and stuffed full of legalism must endure the epitaphs of being whiners and immature, selfish agitators in order to question the church or tell their story, the defense is itself flawed. That’s “do as I say, not as I do,: baptized and dressed in ecclesiastical gear. It deserves to be ridiculed. It’s foolish and it’s dangerous.

I have no grievance with the call for loyalty and confidence in the church. Just place all of this in the context of the kinds of churches we read about in Revelation 2-3, and with plenty of room for the church and its leadership to be very, very wrong.

I cannot and will not stand with a church no matter what it does. There are times to walk away, and times to speak critical, truthful words. Our defenses of the church must preserve the centrality of individual integrity and the superior loyalty we have to Christ over any institution.

NOTE: I want to be clear that I love the church and believe it is normal and Biblical for Christians to be part of community. There are some things in the Christian life that are not possible outside of community. I am NOT insisting that believers leave the church, but I am asking for a more sophisticated discussion of what that leaving or distancing may mean. We live in an era when many churches act as if they are the Kingdom. They are not. Many act as if Jesus does not work outside of them. That is not true. For example, listen to part of the Challies review of the DeYoung and Kluck book:

The authors show how the church is central to all that God is doing in the world and prove well that without the church there is no Christianity. They take the historic view that participating in the church is normative for the Christian life—that under ordinary circumstances we should not expect a person who deliberately remains outside the visible church to be a true believer.

The words “normative” and “ordinary” are helpful, but saying all true believers are part of ??? visible church is confusing and wrong. Challies rejects the RCC and many, many other churches as being illegitimate. And what do you make of the causality of the sentence “without the church there is no Christianity?” I find it utterly astonishing and thoroughly worthy of the applause from the Romans in the room. The Old Testament covenant, the OT remnant, Christ, his movement, his disciples, his apostles: all precede the institutional church. The church is the great evidence that Jesus has sent the Spirit into the world. But I am not surprised- at all- to find someone saying that without the church there is no Christianity. I’m just surprised it’s not a statement defending the RCC.

When Jesus threatens to remove a church’s candlestick, but says he stands at the door to have fellowship with anyone who opens the door, we ought to think more carefully about what he is saying and to whom.

A well known reformed blogger has written “Here’s the thing: the church is a consequence of the Gospel. That is, the Gospel causes the church.” That’s absolutely correct, and why the church always stands under the Gospel, hence Revelation 2-3.


  1. 1. I’ve heard the phrase “you need to be more committed to the church” at least 10,000x in my 52 years as a Southern Baptist.

    2. I can’t think of a phrase more wrong in every way. It almost defines the addiction of evangelicalism to itself and its starvation for Jesus.

    3. Satan must really like it. He probably has t-shirts.

    • I read the above and told myself, “SURELY that is an overstatement”….and then I did a mental rewind of when I’ve heard that phrase used in the last 30plus yrs….. no, on second thot, sad to say, but when I’ve heard it trotted out, it was most often by someone with a BIG agenda, running short of warm “vision-fodder”. I’m sure it’s possible to use it in a Christ honoring way (I think), but in my experience, it’s been a ‘weapon of choice’.

      This whole topic has made me see the emergents in a more sympathetic light (along with the responses to “one-true-churchism”).

      Here’s to preaching a JESUS that people WANT to be committed to.
      Greg R

  2. Thank you, Michael, for the link, and thank you, Steve Scott, for the kind words.

  3. J. Michael– wow. That’s so scary. Unfortunately, it’s exactly true (all the statements– the divorce analogy, the pressure not to leave, etc.). I really think that, when you boil it down, most people in a local body really do view a departure as a kind of betrayal. I read the comment in I-monk’s other article where the author posited the idea of all the local congregations comprising The Church in (insert city name here). I think this is a revolutionary, paradigm-shifting, liberating concept. But I have never met a person in leadership (or in laity for that matter) who really acted like this were true.

    Realty: you leave a congregation, all kinds of relationships are strained or broken. I’ve been on both sides of this, and it’s really hard. Right now, we’d probably be looking around, except that all of our immediate family goes to the same church we’re at. If we left, it would cause nothing but huge problems. So we duck our heads and try to ignore all the personality-based, hyped, mega-church-wannabe, legalistic, backwoods traditional, frustrating horse hockey. It’s really, really hard to realize what the church ought to be, and see it play out so very differently. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

  4. Thank you, thank you, Michael, for this post! The NT church is ek-klesia — the ones called out. What I’ve seen more and more is that the ones called out are called out of the institutions calling themselves “churches” but which are really based on power, ambition and self-interest — with a distinctively male flavor that tends to exacerbate the disempowerment of women already disempowered by the people in their lives.

  5. When I made the decision to leave the church I had been at for 15+ years… well, it took me four of those 15+ years to get the courage to do so. I had been involved in every aspect of the ministry, but was shriveling on the vine, so to speak. Don’t get me wrong, the pastors meant well. And even though I tried my best to leave in the “right” way, I know it hurt them for me to leave. After all, I had grown up there. But I knew that either my faith or mental health would be on the line if I had to face one more progam-filled holiday season where the Big Show was more important than experiencing and communicating (as Robert Webber would say) the “Christ-Event.”

    One of the things I had been most involved with was leading the worship band. I recently remembered something interesting. Several years before I left, I was considering turning the music ministry over to someone else. We didn’t really have a “someone else” in mind, but I was pretty burnt out. I took a “Christian Worship” class at a local college that used Webber’s Worship is a Verb as the main textbook. I left that class pumped up about worship and my role as someone who is to help the congregation worship God. After a couple months of me being pumped up, the entropy of the Big Show finally won out. By the time I left the church, I was once again questioning whether I should have even taken the “job” of music guy.

    Recently, though, as I’m helping the new small fellowship I’m with work out the form the worship service will take, I rediscovered Webber’s book. Again, I’m pumped up. But this time, I’m working with a leadership that doesn’t value style over substance. I’m working with a leadership whose #1 priority is the little flock they’re over. And I think we’re going to end up with something really, really good.

  6. Christiane/L's says

    “Leaving Room For Churches To Be Wrong”

    I am thinking about the role of a Christian’s conscience as informed by the Holy Spirit.
    I was once advised by a priest:
    consider the teachings of the Church,
    consider the reality of my situation,
    pray about it, and follow my own conscience.

    For me, there can be no ‘I did /did not it because an Authority told me to do (or not to) do it’ excuse on the Day of the Lord. I will be held accountable for the way I followed or did not follow my informed conscience under the Guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    Is this, in any way, what concerns the topic ?
    I mean as far as ‘room to maneuver’ in the realm of the sanctuary of private informed conscience; or is the topic strictly on the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of doctrine; i.e. ‘The Doctrine Wars’ ??

  7. Imonk,

    I hope maaaaaaannny people read your post and think on it. As you have already alluded to in your post, Jesus addresses both the church collectively and the individual as well. Rev. 2:5 & 3:20 are both in the good book. You are right.

    Grace to you,


  8. “I cannot and will not stand with a church no matter what it does. There are times to walk away, and times to speak critical, truthful words. Our defenses of the church must preserve the centrality of individual integrity and the superior loyalty we have to Christ over any institution. “:

    I grew up in the SBC and can remember when Priesthood of believer was hammered into our little heads. There was very little celebrity pastor idolatry going on back in those days. Perhaps because it was before the advent of celebrity pastors except for a few well known evangelists.

    But times have changed. Now too many tend to follow Paul or Apollos.

    Now I realize the indwelling of the Holy Spirit makes us part of the Body of believers wherever that may be.

  9. Good post, thank you. As a church elder I do have one request of those who choose to leave. Tell us why you are leaving! We’ve tried to contact people who have chosen to leave our church to find out why and see if there are things we can do to change their minds or, if that is what is needed, change ourselves. There is an old saying “The only common factor in all your problems is you.” If people leaving a church have valid reasons I can accept and agree with their decision and look hard at myself and my church to see the lesson there is for us. We as elders in our church have always taken a stance to never “bad mouth” anyone who chooses to leave. But what do we get when we ask why? Most commonly some sort of unassailable Christian platitude. “We feel in our hearts that the Spirit is calling us to move on.” or something like that.

    Churches and church leaders do err and do need to learn, grow and even at times repent. I can also see that sometimes, when nothing is wrong, God will move good members on for plans that are beyond my comprehension. But it is very frustrating to be left guessing what issues are behind some departures. So my request is, just tell us.

    • With all due respect, and speaking as someone who has left because of disagreements, if you’re looking for reasons that are ‘valid’ or to find things you can do to change their minds, people are going to shut down.

      Elders and pastors and such are usually excellent communicators and persuaders, so getting on the phone with one can be something to be avoided. They’re going to ‘win’ the conversation, and on top of their talent and skill they’ve got that God card to play.

      Also, for someone to say “this is wrong, change it for me” would make the person leaving feel selfish. There are plenty of people happy with things the way they are, so why mess things up for them?

      Email can be a way of communicating things someone would never say in person, but the problem there is no one wants to have a candid email forwarded to God knows who. And it’s so easy to be mistaken about the emotions involved.

      Perhaps a trusted third party could serve as a go-between.

      • Tom, I agree with Jjoe. Valid reasons to party A may not be valid reasons for B. And if someone isn’t walking away from Jesus, it really shouldn’t matter why people are leaving, if we continue to believe that a heart for Jesus is a GOOD HEART, not one of stone (as Ezekiel says), but one of flesh.

        When my family and I left the congregation we were with, there was nobody asking us. No elders, no pastors, nothing. And when people DID ask us where we were going, we told them, “We’re not going anywhere because God is wherever believers are.” I liken where we are at to when Abraham was told to leave his family. God didn’t tell him WHERE to go, just TO go.

        Several well-meaning people have told us we NEEDED the fellowship of believers. “Yeah, we have that.” Whenever we can, we have people over to eat with us, to talk about our struggles, etc. And we encourage each other through those struggles and hurts. There are people who know us (and us them) more intimately and love more thoroughly outside of any congregation.

        This time, my website link (above) details an open letter I wrote to work through forgiveness and pain last summer when we left. I had committed a while ago to leave, but there were some things going on that delayed that. The final visit to a service was Labor Day weekend last year.

        And when God calls us back, or somewhere else? We’ll follow the still small voice where He leads.

        But, yeah, when attendance continues to rise, and so does the giving (including the pastors’ salaries), people don’t care why you left. If they notice.

        • This is a great article that everyone should read. However, there is truth, there is authority. Christ and His Word are final in both. Those of us that are tired of the disjunct however with the institutional church (sign me up) and biblical teaching need to prayerfully consider our alternatives. Derek, I agree with most of what you say but we need caution when we are thinking the whenever, wherever I go argument. You really do need a local body to fellowship with, I don’t care if its in a yard, garage, etc. Think about it……who are we to be accountable to in regards to the Lord’s table which should be withheld in a discipline issue? What do we do with the issue of discipline (this is completely ignored in most churches as well)in regards to the teachings of Jesus and Paul on the matter? I am most afraid of trading one incorrect system where men/institution have absoulute authority for one where I assume the same role….it does seem that accountability to one another is important……granted many will take the chance to Lord that over someone…..we need to make sure we are not Lording over our own errors.

    • “As a church elder I do have one request of those who choose to leave. Tell us why you are leaving!”

      This only works to a good when the Elders are willing to listen. Ours were not. Not in any way shape or form. Well a little then when it became clear they were a part of the issues they became quite deaf.

      • I heard a story of a “church health” consultant in an unnamed denomination who was invited to help out a church. He read all their stuff and got a feeling for what they were about and was asked by his superiors to go visit them. He called up the head elder and they discussed a few things and they said, “We’ll do whatever you tell us to do to get things rolling again.”

        He said, “I’d like your elder board to resign,” to silence on the other end of the phone. The man in the troubled church thanked him for his time, but they would not be needing his services.

        He was contacted by his superiors and asked to explain himself. He said, “These people said they were willing to do anything to rebuild their church membership. They lied.”

        Men who are not willing to sacrifice their position of authority for the sake of reconciliation or (ahem) church growth really don’t care why someone left.

  10. Christiane/L's says

    Is it possible that sometimes a church leaves the person?
    I think it must happen when I hear testimonies about those missionaries who were forced to sign a man-made document or to ‘retire’ from service over having a ‘private prayer language’.
    Sometimes it is the people in a church that force other people to leave because they no longer have a home there. Everyone can understand why such people leave a toxic situation.

    Then, sometimes those who are troubled choose to stay and work for the day when the persecution ends. They realize that not everyone CAN ‘walk away’: not the children, or the extremely elderly for whom ‘church’ is a life-line, or the mentally challenged.

    I believe these people who stay are heroes who endure difficulties for the sake of helping the vulnerable and less fortunate in their church community . Their ‘witness’ to the other church members is a powerful force for positive change ‘in community ‘ because they caring more for the welfare of others than they are worry ing about their own angst.

  11. Jeff Kursonis says

    It’s funny, when I read the blog post title, “Leaving room for churches to be wrong” when linking over from Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s blog, I thought it would be about counseling emergers to be more patient with all the obviously silly/wrong/weird stuff that churches do, and for emergers to be more patient toward churches hoping they will eventually come around on their own without us having to tear them a new one…

    …which seemed like good advice…like allowing someone you love to figure out their own issues without constantly blasting them in the face about it. Just because you know what’s wrong doesn’t mean you should always say it.