“Why on earth have so many committed believers left the structured, man-controlled thing that in our day is called The Church?”
“Do each of us have a different reason, or are there just a few basic causes for the mass exodus that has been taking place?”
“Are all reasons valid?”
“What is God’s view on this and what is His purpose in it?”
REASONS FOR LEAVING
As I see it, most folk who have taken this sometimes dramatic, very challenging and perhaps even quite hurtful step have abandoned structured church life for one of just a few reasons. Here they are:
1. They believe the particular local church they have been involved with has become heretical in preaching another Gospel which undermines the message of Calvary and/or is now endorsing moral standards that demean the cause of Christ.
2. The church leadership they have been under has either become too manipulative, demanding and controlling, or is now not living an acceptable standard of Christian life and is not now a clear testimony to the grace of God. Church politics have become unbearable.
3. They feel disquieted by the way in which the Scriptures are either no longer the basis of church teaching and decision making, or that which is being taught is incompatible with their own understanding of Bible truth.
4. A conviction has deepened in their hearts and minds that their sovereign Lord is leading them in a way that is in conflict with the beliefs, activities and leadership of the body of believers they have been identifying with. They have decided that they must obey God rather than men, and yet have no heart for creating division and strife among those seeking to follow Christ. Some may never understand this, but many of us have been clearly led by the Holy Spirit to move into a radically new and different situation.
Let me illustrate this: Some years ago I was speaking in a large church gathering in England. During a tea or coffee break between sessions a man spoke with me. He had been led to the Lord years before by a man whose strong emphasis was a call to walk with the Lord Jesus in an ongoing deep and personal intimate love relationship. Who could argue with that?
However he had a real dilemma. When he gave priority to that emphasis he found that the church fellowship he had joined took second place. His pastor had called him aside and rebuked him for not being faithful enough. He tried diligently to please the pastor, but found that when he did so the keen edge of his love relationship with Jesus was dulled and he began feeling dry and stale in his Christian life. What should he do?
Once when we were visiting South Africa I wrote to a pastor in the United States whose church I had ministered in on several occasions. Apparently he had stated publicly that I was responsible for some of his flock leaving that church. I wanted to assure him that neither publicly nor privately had I spoken against him or his church and nor had I encouraged or endorsed anyone’s departure. His written reply was most illuminating.
The pastor replied that he knew that I would never stoop to a thing like that. However the main emphasis of my teaching – the priority of an intimate love walk with our precious Lord Jesus, and a sensitive and obedient responsiveness to the Holy Spirit inevitably led to some folk leaving the church. Really?
Be very sure of this: No one was led to leave whatever they left so that they could have their own way, but so that God could have His way – not so that they were free to please themselves more, but so that they could freely obey the Lord in every aspect of their lives.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
It would be very delightful indeed if leaving the church automatically enhanced our walk with the Lord, heightened our understanding of His heart and His ways and brought about a wonderful new day for the church of Jesus Christ. Alas, this is not so!
Some who leave the structured church actually become somewhat dry spiritually, seem to lose a clear sense of direction, become more involved with earth things and seem to be less sensitive to God’s hand on their daily lives. It is dangerous to leave the structured church, but at least sometimes it’s more dangerous to stay in it.
Others who leave the structured church gladly link with brothers and sisters of like mind into some kind of informal fellowship group. I know a couple in New Zealand who did this, but after some time awoke to the fact that a leadership had developed that was as manipulative and dominating as in the place they had walked away from. They moved on, but became entrapped again in a similar situation.
We should never become isolationist, nor judgemental of others. There is a way forward, probably unique to each of us. We need revelation from God to discover it, rather than relying on human reason and activity to discover it.
What is God’s desire and point of view in this matter? There is no doubt whatsoever that He has a higher plan and fuller purpose in leading anyone away from a sub-standard church situation than they could ever have. We do well to consider His perspective and diligently seek to align ourselves with His highest purposes.
I trust that the following points will find an amen in your heart.
1. God’s primary desire is to marvellously deepen and enhance our love relationship with the Lord Jesus so that He will be honoured and glorified through the consistent godliness manifest in these redeemed vessels of clay. He wants to bring about a knitting of our hearts with His so that we live in utter dependence on Him and His life is lived out through us. The cross currents and busy-ness of traditional church life are a hindrance to entering more fully into God’s highest plans for our lives.
2. This is ever so important: It is in God’s heart to bring even the very least of us to a place where our lives are controlled by the Holy Spirit and we come to a deep awareness of the Holy Spirit’s leading in our lives. He wants us to have a clear discernment of His voice within and to maintain a tender sensitivity and responsiveness to His every desire. We well may have been led away from voices that sometimes are in harmony with His voice, and at other times are contrary to it.
3. Here is something which comes from a deep cry within my own heart: I am certain that God wants to bring everyone who professes to be free from man-made and man-controlled religiosity to a higher, better way to share His love and introduce unbelievers to the wonders of salvation grace. God yearns for there to be a deep desire within each of our hearts for the lost to be brought to Him. There is a desperate need to discover how folk like us can effectively proclaim the Gospel, as believers did in the New Testament.
4. How ever could Jesus have asked, When the Son of Man comes will He find faith on the earth? There is no shortage of faith teaching or faith churches and even seminars on how to get whatever we want from God – supposedly by faith! Why didn’t He wonder whether there would be Christian activity on the earth? . . . or prayer meetings? . . . or evangelistic crusades? . . . or church conferences of one kind or other . . . or . . . or. .?
We should see clearly that God wants to break us free from the curse of relying on human leadership, and on natural reason, human experience, wisdom, activity and self-reliance, bringing us to utterly rely on Him which is an exercise of faith. Each of those norms of sub-standard Christian living are contrary to faith and therefore a hindrance to one’s walk with the Lord. If we hear such things too clearly we will certainly not hear God clearly enough.
One of God’s desires in bringing us to where we now are is to teach us how to trust Him, not primarily for ourselves but for Him to accomplish His will in whatever He lays on our heart. We need to learn the implications of walking by faith, not by sight. Lord increase our faith.
5. Do we have a clear insight regarding the place the Scriptures should have in our lives and understanding? I am convinced that the main purpose of the Scriptures, and also of God speaking within our individual hearts, is first of all to reveal Himself to us, and then to reveal His redemptive provision to bring us into compatibility and conformity to Himself. I am ever so glad that regarding the Bible I learned as a young man that Whatever is vital is clear, and whatever is not clear is not vital.
Surely God wants to free us from the jot and tittle of legalistic and humanistic interpretation that today’s churches misuse to prove the rightness of their particular persuasions. It is easier for natural man to enjoy the kind of teaching that increases intellectual understanding but does little or nothing to alter a person’s growth in grace and in the experiential knowledge of the Lord Jesus.
WHY HAVE SOME RETURNED?
Why have some who were convinced that God wanted them to leave a humanistic church structure, and have perhaps been free from such a thing for years, returned to their old ways again?
It is easy to understand why anyone who left for a sub-standard reason should return, and thankfully most who are truly led and directed by their Lord to take such a step remain true to what God revealed to them. In this paper I am not addressing sub-standard issues such as leaving because one has taken umbrage, felt slighted or been ignored or hurt. Nor am I focussing on some who have simply followed others – perhaps because they considered them wise and godly, or because they were accustomed to following their leadership.
Some return because they miss the social interaction they enjoyed among church people. Surely we should see that coming away from that may be God’s way of teaching us the alone-ness of godliness as He draws us into a more intimate relationship with Himself. Happily many of us discover that though we may have fewer friends now there is a delightfully new depth to the friendships we have.
My persuasion is that we can actively look to the Lord to open new doors of friendship for us, including becoming friends of sinners. Can we trust God to grant divine aid in bringing some such new friends to Jesus?
Some say that they go back for the sake of their children. It is right, proper and necessary to have a deep concern for the spiritual and social well-being of our youngsters. However, since God has led us into a new way of walk and worship, can we not find a way to involve our children in it?
One or two folk I know who have again become part of a church system have done so because of unanswered questions. They have wanted to understand how God is building His kingdom, how the Bride of Christ is being perfected and many other such things.
I love the story of the old preacher who was being pestered by endless questions about why God was doing or not doing what the questioner expected. The old man replied, “I don’t know! I am in sales, not administration.” Such people may need to hear the Lord say, What is that to you? Just follow Me. Lack of understanding is not really the problem, lack of following trustfully is!
It seems to me that such people want to be able to see and understand what God is doing, and feel that they are not doing enough for the cause of Christ. Some feel that time is passing by and their gifts are not being used. Would to God they saw their questions and desires as a strong stimulus to both an earnest crying out to God for divine intervention in our day and as a challenge to the exercise of adventurous faith.
Some declare that God Himself has led them into a specific situation for a specific purpose. In the latter years of my travelling ministry I talked with Father about accepting invitations to speak in all manner of churches. I wondered why Jesus and Paul went into synagogues and spoke on God’s behalf there – when they knew that Father God planned a higher and purer way.
In such places Paul boldly proclaimed the word of God, whether it was palatable and acceptable or not. I recall a close friend of my youth when he told me way back then that he intended attending the kind of theological college that I shrunk from. When he noticed my reaction my friend asked, Is there any way I could make you happy about my going there?
My reply was, Yes. Just assure me that whenever you hear something taught that you disagree with you will stand up and say so. He said that he wouldn’t do that, knowing that he would soon be kicked out.
For me, I believe the Holy Spirit showed me that I was in no way to endorse the church system that I was invited to speak in. You can be sure that I had no hesitation in joyfully responding when the Lord indicated to me that that season of my life had come to an end.
So, what about anyone who believes they should return to a church system again? One cannot deny the possibility that God leads a person to take such a step. All I can say is that several friends have indicated such a thing to me, but I have had no inner witness that God was really involved in their decision. They remain dear brothers and sisters in Christ. No doubt He will bless and use them in whatever measure He can, though I fear that this well may be His second best for their lives.
We dare never be distracted by someone returning to an old path, but rather hear the Lord saying, What is that to you, you follow Me.
May I urge each person who reads this article to linger in thought at God’s high purposes for their lives right now, and to continually love Him with all their hearts and minds. Let us continually walk in the footsteps of the master, regardless of the cost. This way the cross, and this way glory!