Others have told me that my teaching on leaving a congregation has been confusing, so my hope is to clear the air so that this issue will begin to be taken seriously here in the northeast. In future, I would like to take opportunity to speak of related issues such as the assembly, marking, and congregational autonomy.
First of all, while it is possible that I have not taught clearly on the matter, I have never said directly or implied that one could never leave a congregation to which he is joined. There is no such command or direct statement in the scriptures, which in-and-of-itself, does not prove anything. We do not look for the absence of a direct statement to prove a practice. On the contrary, there are examples of authorized reasons one may leave a congregation; therefore, we would not expect a statement saying one could never leave.
The first point leads me to the second. Since we as Christians put ourselves forth as people who live by the Bible in the way that we understand it, we must have authority for all things that we do and say, Colossians 3:17. Anyone who refuses to give authority for his actions is operating against authority. Leaving a congregation is no different, though some treat it differently (maybe indifferently is the better word). We must have Biblical authority for leaving a congregation. In general, we do have such authority. The concern, however, is not that the practice is generally allowed but is about the specific “reasons” for and manner of our leaving.
Another preacher suggested to me that by concentrating on the leaving I may be obscuring the real problems, such as dishonesty. While this point may be true, I have said that the leaving is a symptom of a deeper problem. Read the other material I have on this site.
Interestingly, something becomes evident to me if I take the leaving out of the equation. Is it wrong to have unresolved aught against a brother? Is it wrong to lie? Is it wrong to harbor bitterness? Is it wrong to hate a brother? Is it wrong to revile or slander? Is it wrong to bear false witness? Rhetorically, yes. Who would not agree? Are these things not just wrong but also sin? If we don’t know that answer, we are either new Christians or those the writer speaks of in Hebrews 5:12-14. Of course these things are all sinful and must be repented of and reconciled. What happens, though, is that if I frame the same questions in terms of someone who has left under those conditions, others are reluctant to call it sin. Is it sin if someone leaves a congregation because they have unresolved aught against a brother (Matthew 18:15-17), if they have lied (Ephesians 4:25), if they have harbored bitterness (Ephesians 4:31), if they hate a brother (1 John 4:20), if they have reviled (1 Corinthians 5:11), or if they have borne false witness (Matthew 15:19)? Why would the answer suddenly be different? One may say, then, that the real sin is not the leaving but the original unrepented-of sin. Even by saying so, we must acknowledge that the leaving that resulted from the sin is also, then, sinful.
Someone’s leaving is always prompted by a reason. It is not as if a person would leave for no reason. That reason is always subject to authority. Often, in the situations we face, the announcement of leaving is the first real indication we have of a problem. The email tells us that something is missing in the spirituality of the leaver. So the leaving becomes tied to the reasons for it, if they can ever be truly found out. It is the nature of these situations that the problems manifest themselves in someone’s leaving.
Either way we want to think about it, with or without the leaving, one who leaves because he has committed any of the sins above is not leaving with the authority of the scriptures. Many people to whom I have spoken have not committed to this point, though they offer no contrary scriptural backup. We continue not only tacitly to condone this practice generally but also to facilitate it by accepting those into our congregations who have not repented of such sin in the congregation from which they came.
So, in the end:
1) A Christian is joined/bonded to a congregation. Acts 9:26
2) Said Christian may possibly leave that congregation. Acts 20:1
3) He must, however, have scriptural authority for his reason to leave. Colossians 3:17
4) Any unresolved sin cannot justify his leaving. Matthew 18:15-17
5) Though he changes location, his sin remains. Hebrews 10:26-7
6) To be right with God, he must resolve the sin and reconcile. 1 John 1:9
7) He must deal with any scriptural obligations – false teaching or sin in the camp before he leaves. 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Titus 1:9, 1 Corinthians 5:4-5
8) He must be honest with his brethren as to his reasons for leaving. Ephesians 4:25
9) He must be concerned for the well-being of the congregation as a result of his leaving. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Hebrews 10:24-5
Why should any of these points be contested? Let’s make sure that what we believe about this issue is in harmony with God’s will. Many with whom I have spoken hold views that are not in harmony and are without authority. If you, dear reader, do not understand or do not agree with something I have said here or elsewhere on this site in regards to leaving, please contact me. Show me my scriptural errors or ask questions. I would be happy to provide scriptural answers. Resolve the issue in your own mind according to God’s will and not man’s traditions or default teachings, Matthew 15:9.