Written By Tay Boon Jin
Boon Jin has been a staff with Singapore Youth for Christ for the past 15 years. She now serves in Malaysia—reaching children through the teaching of English.
I was a young Christian when I witnessed my first church split. There was an exodus of members from the congregation I worshipped with. I had no clue how to make sense of what was happening. I don’t really remember who was in the right or the wrong; I simply remember the sadness that lingered when brothers and sisters in Christ part ways under unpleasant circumstances.
Some years later, I faced the prospect of leaving the very same congregation. It was a tough decision. By then I had grown to know some of the brothers and sisters well, and had become co-workers with them in ministry. Now I felt not only sadness, but also the pain of parting and the hurt of misunderstanding.
I have since joined a new congregation. Here also, brothers and sisters in Christ come and go from our midst for various reasons, and I would be lying if I said I have never thought about leaving this church too. But God has been teaching me to grow in love for the community He has placed me in. Loving people is a very difficult thing. Yet though I am difficult to love, my friends in this church have shown me much grace.
As I look back on each time someone leaves a congregation, I thank God for lessons learned. Some, I rejoice with them as the Lord beckons them to places where their presence with us would be impossible, and some, I continue to pray that God may see them well-placed in another community. Whether we are watching someone leave or leaving ourselves, I pray that the following pointers may help us continue to witness to the Lord’s headship over us—we who are the body of Christ.
1. Are you honoring Christ as head of the church?
Passages like Colossians 1 and Ephesians 2 clearly speak to Christ’s headship over the church. Some argue that when a Christian leaves a local congregation, he still remains a part of the body of Christ. Of course the body of Christ is greater than just the local church! But just as Christ is the head of the universal church, so is He the head of each local congregation.
When issues arise in a church, we often decide whether to leave or stay based on our emotions. I urge that we not be hasty, but carefully consider whether our response honors Christ’s headship. And this is not just about whether we stay or leave, but how do we respond to the initial issue that sparked such a question? Are we complaining loudly and adding to the division in the church? Or are we building up the body of Christ?
2. Are you living out the new commandment?
Speaking to a group of followers who did not always get along, Jesus commanded them to love one another (John 13:34-35). And He explained why: that the world may know that we are Jesus’ disciples.
We were commanded to love. The command still stands even when we are the hurting party, or when we are bystanders watching the drama unfold. As difficult as it can be, we need to put aside our hurts and grievances so that we can act according to this love. Are we praying for the other party? Are we coming together (even though we might disagree on different issues) to pray for one another—for the grace of God to be shown in these circumstances?
Whether we choose to leave or stay, whether to bless another’s departure or retain them, we need to consider if we are acting in love. Loving others will be difficult and draining, but that is what Jesus commanded.
3. Are you seeking the unity of the Spirit?
Sometimes when we fight over who is in the right, we become hostile to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Scriptures urges us otherwise:
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
In hostility, there is only pride, retaliation, and impatience. These are hardly ingredients for the unity of the Spirit. Even when justifying to third parties or questioning the reasons for someone’s departure, we often seek subtly to undermine the people involved. Wisdom can hardly do its work to help us make good decisions when we indulge our resentful spirits.
In making such difficult decisions, we need to pray that the Lord will guard our minds and hearts. Do we seek mediation from people who may see the issues more clearly than we do? Do we adopt an attitude of humility in seeking counsel from wise members of the church, or do we merely want an affirmation of our decision?
4. Are you actively building up the church?
Sometimes people leave a particular church because they feel like they are not experiencing spiritual growth, or that the preaching is not solid enough. This can be a subjective judgement. Spiritual growth is inevitable, since the Spirit is given to every believer. So perhaps our expectations need to be re-considered. Perhaps our over-reliance on a Sunday sermon is the problem. Spiritual growth should be an everyday experience!
Some of us might be spiritually mature, and find the current church lacking in the same maturity. If so, we have a responsibility to build up the body of Christ. We may have to find different resources to bring the Word to people around us so that they may grow too. If mature believers leave a congregation which lacks growth, then we leave behind a group of brothers and sisters poorer in their understanding of the Word of God. Good sermons and even good online theological courses are now prolific; as others build us up, let’s pray that God may use us to build others up.
Another common reason people give for leaving is that the church is “cold”. The thing is, relationships take time to grow. When I first stepped into the current church that I worship with, I felt out of place for a couple of years. If anyone had asked me to describe my church in a word, I would have said “cold”. However, I knew that my lack of effort in getting to know people played a large part in it.
I was serving in the youth group and spent all my time and energy with the youth. As years went by, I learned to broaden my circle of meaningful interaction by attending church prayer meetings or finding other ways of meeting people. And now I would describe the very same group of people as genuinely concerned for God’s work and His people. If anyone is contemplating leaving their church because it is cold, I would really ask you to consider not leaving, but being more involved!
We are not simply bound socially because we come to “do” something together every Sunday. We are all mysteriously bound—in love and peace—by God’s redeeming work. I cannot explain the sadness and pain experienced when people leave the congregation.
When we were redeemed by Christ, God called us His children and made us family! When there is love and peace among us, we reflect the very character of our Father, who demonstrated His great love in sending Christ and reconciled hostile sinners to Himself. We must then ask, do we respond to one another as a family member would?
Paul writes, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). So whether we choose to leave or to stay, let us bear witness to the love and peace Christ bought for us with His precious blood.