My maternal grandfather died in 2009 at the age of 90. I wrote a bit about him here several years ago. In my mind he was and is a supreme example of what a Christian man should be: hardworking, gentle, eager to serve, prayerful, well-versed in the scriptures, and active in his church. Concerning that last item, he did something that was perhaps unremarkable at the time he was born but exceedingly rare by the time of his death—he was a lifelong member of a single congregation. Neither my parents nor I can claim something like that. While my folks were by no means “church hoppers” they did move to different congregations a few times, usually for good reasons. My wife and I haven’t had the most stable ecclesiastical existence, either, having moved to different cities and states several times during our marriage in addition to experiencing a sort of “theological upheaval” as we left our Southern Baptist roots to become Reformed Baptists and ultimately Presbyterians. That might lessen my credibility as a writer on this topic, but at least the reader will know at the outset that I am not saying that there is never a good reason to leave one congregation for another.
And there certainly are good reasons that one might leave a particular church to seek membership elsewhere. Moving to a new community is the most obvious example. And if, God forbid, a previously faithful church starts preaching and teaching false doctrine, that is another perfectly legitimate reason to leave, as is a situation where known moral failings among the leaders or members are not properly addressed. Changes of theological understanding are trickier. Having studied our Bibles and come out of it as “five-point” Calvinists, my wife and I determined that the best thing for us would be to move to a church that shared that conviction, and then again when we came to embrace paedobaptism. In retrospect, though, in both of these cases I wish we had figured out a way to make those changes in a more humble and tactful manner. After all, both times we were leaving one Bible-believing church for another because of a change of conviction on a secondary doctrinal matter. Although I think we were right to change congregations in both instances, special care must be taken in such cases “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), as the convictions prompting such moves are small differences between brothers and sisters in Christ, not rifts between believers and unbelievers.
Sadly, these aren’t the kinds of reasons for which people usually leave a congregation for another, or even abandon church attendance altogether. Sometimes it is a personality conflict between a person and the church leadership or among fellow members. Perhaps a new ministry is being conducted in a way with which one does not agree, or is simply “not the way we’ve always done it.” Maybe the liturgy is being changed, or the style of music (believe it or not, even changes in those areas would have to be pretty drastic for me to consider a change of church membership). Maybe the issue is a personal slight—one feels like his service has been adequately recognized, or that he has been passed over for a leadership position for which he felt eminently qualified. And maybe, just maybe, there are instances of perceived or even actual hypocrisy among the membership.
In other words, a person says “There is sin in that church, and I’m not going back!”
To such a person I can only reply “Of course there’s sin in that church, and you contribute to it.” I do the same in my church. A faithful church is not one where perfectly holy people gather to celebrate how holy they are, but one where broken sinners, redeemed by the blood of Christ, gather for instruction, communion, exhortation, encouragement, and, yes, admonition. Consider the following passage from Hebrews 10, often rightly cited as a biblical command to attend church regularly.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
Christians are commanded here to meet together, but consider also why we are told to gather. To promote love and good works, to encourage each other, to help one another to hold firm to our Christian profession. In the church we partake of those wonderful means of grace which God has given us to help us to hold fast to Christ and to grow in grace and in the knowledge of him. Are there perfect churches to be found in this life? Of course not, but there are plenty where one finds folks who are faithfully striving “more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 34).
To the church member who might be considering leaving one church for another because of some perceived imperfection, please consider your reasons carefully. There are good reasons for leaving a congregation, but these are relatively few. Differences in personal taste don’t qualify, and certainly the feeling of having been somehow slighted does not. Is your church full of sinners? So is every church. Commit to the people with whom you now worship and serve, and strive together to grow in grace and in service.
To the professing Christian who is not a member of a church, imperfections in churches are not a reason to forsake church attendance or membership—we are commanded to gather, and to do so for our good. Tomorrow is Resurrection Sunday, and many churches will be filled with folks who don’t attend regularly. That will be as good a time to start as any. Likewise, if you don’t know Christ, find a Bible-believing church and go. It won’t be perfect, but it will be good, and they will tell you how to find forgiveness of sin and the promise of everlasting life by grace through faith in Him.