This may just be the strangest blog I’ve ever written.
It’s on a topic that I hope you never need to use, “How to leave a church with integrity.”
I will start with some honesty. I don’t like it when members decide to go to another church. It hurts my pride and even my feelings. But it does happen. And in today’s church culture, it happens more often than it used to and more often than it should. Sometimes I understand why people leave my church. Sometimes I don’t.
So let me first talk you out of leaving a church. Then, if you must leave, let me give you my best advice on how to leave a church.
First of all, never leave a church mad. Churches are made up of imperfect people, and it’s human nature to offend and to be offended. But that’s never a reason to leave a church. The Bible is clear that we are to be reconciled to our brothers, and walking away does not allow for reconciliation. First take whatever steps are needed to be reconciled to your brothers and sisters; then you may not feel like leaving. If you leave mad, you leave broken relationships behind you and you are very likely to repeat that pattern in the next church.
Secondly, never just walk away without explanation. A church is a family, so it’s never right to leave a family without explanation. I’d rather have an honest conversation with someone who has decided to leave the church and can tell me why he is leaving than to (1) wonder why someone has left or (2) receive dishonest or evasive answers.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t enjoy the honest conversations that begin with, “Pastor, we have decided to leave the church and I felt like it was only right to tell you why.” Those conversations are never fun, but at least they’re honest. I understand why the family is leaving. I have a chance to explain or clarify. I have a chance to see my church through the eyes of others. And, occasionally, I can rectify a problem and retain members. But even if I can’t, I respect the face-to-face honesty.
Thirdly, don’t look around for the “latest and the greatest.” Yes, a large church pastor might be an outstanding communicator. And the worship band across town might be better than the one in your own church. And the facilities in the new suburban church might be incredible. And the megachurch might have more ministries and programs. But God’s work is strongest when all churches are strong and getting stronger. And a church is strongest when the members live nearby and can serve more often. I would rather see 10 strong neighborhood churches than one super-strong megachurch.
There are, of course, reasons to leave a church. If you’ve moved and need to serve in a church that is closer to where you live, you may need to leave. If a church is not preaching the Bible—and you’ve pointed it out to no avail—you may need to leave. If you’ve tried to rectify a serious problem and you can’t, you may need to leave. If you’ve tried everything you can to support a church and you cannot do so with integrity, you may need to leave.
But if you leave, do it right.
Be reconciled to any and all people you’ve offended. Talk to the appropriate pastor or ministry leader and give them the honest reason why you’re leaving, without any anger or harsh words. Leave on good terms with all of the members and refuse to burn any bridges. Never lead a revolt and take others with you. And decline any and all opportunities to talk down or gossip about your old church. They may not be perfect, but they are trying to do God’s work, and negative words make God’s work much more difficult.
Have you picked up on my underlying philosophy? A church is like a family. It functions best when members make a long-term commitment to the church and work out differences with God’s help rather than walking away. Leaving the church is a last resort. And even when that becomes necessary, it must be done with integrity, honesty, and compassion.
These words have been focused mostly on church members, but they apply to church pastors and staffers as well. I stayed in my first church as pastor for 13 years. I’ve been in this church for nearly 17 years. (Don’t do the math. It will make me sound old.) I’ve had to work through numerous issues and relationships. There have been days (yes, pastors have those days too!) when it would have been easy to put out my resume, find a new church, and move on.
But I’m glad I didn’t.
And God’s church is stronger as a result!
I believe in religious liberty.
I don’t just believe in religious liberty for Christians. I believe in religious liberty for all people.
So I am deeply frustrated when politicians make statements that indicate that they don’t understand religious liberty. I’m offended when candidates say they want to refuse to accept immigrants of a particular religious persuasion. I understand the necessity of stopping terrorists from reaching our country; that’s a goal I highly commend and support. But barring all people of a religious group simply because they are a member of a religious group is a violation of religious liberty and cannot be supported by those of us who believe strongly in religious liberty.
I am saddened when a candidate (and one who has loudly proclaimed his faith) says that we should “empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods.” We should do all we can to stop terrorism, but paying particular attention to a neighborhood simply because it has a large percentage of Muslims is a violation of religious liberty and cannot be supported by those of us who believe strongly in religious liberty.
Does a neighborhood have a large concentration of criminal activity? Then by all means pay close attention to that neighborhood. Does a neighborhood have a large concentration of terrorist activity? Obviously, that neighborhood should get extra law enforcement attention. Does a neighborhood have a large concentration of threats, terrorist recruitment centers, bomb-making, or plots? Then pay extremely close attention to that neighborhood.
But religious liberty means that we cannot infringe on anyone’s freedom or “secure” a neighborhood simply because of their religion.
It is often forgotten that early Baptists in America fought hard for religious liberty for all people, and Baptists were insistent that the Bill of Rights include a strong statement on religious liberty. And Baptists didn’t just fight for the rights of Baptists or just for Christians. We insisted on religious liberty for all. John Leland, for example, a leading Baptist preacher during the constitutional era, said, “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever . . . Governments should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely . . . The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans, and Christians.”
John Leland was a strong believer in Jesus and He preached Jesus constantly. But at the same time he preached that every man, including Turks (Muslims) and Jews and even Pagans, should have full freedom to think and speak and that government should protect that right.
I will continue to preach Jesus with all of my heart and might, but I expect no legal advantage over any other group in doing so. Muslims have the right to live in full liberty while they preach their religion, as do Jews, “pagans,” and even those who espouse no religion at all. And we have no right to limit the freedom or the rights of anyone simply because of their religious persuasion.
I am not saying that I believe all religions are equally valid. I believe that Jesus “is the way, the truth, and the life” and that He is the only way to God. But I am saying that I want no preferential treatment when I claim this nor do I want to limit the freedom of any other group that preaches anything else. I will rely upon speaking the truth and on the power of the Holy Spirit to be at work. I need no other advantage.
I believe in the long-held ideal of “a free church in a free state.” And I encourage candidates for office and for voters to insist on this ideal and insist on real religious liberty.
When I say I believe in religious liberty, I am voicing a belief in religious liberty for all. It’s not just for Christians or for evangelicals or for Baptists. If we reduce religious liberty for some groups, then we don’t really believe in religious liberty at all.
We can’t back down from our belief in religious liberty for any reason.
I understand that strong anti-Muslim statements by candidates are highly applauded in today’s political climate. I understand the fear that terrorism has brought to today’s world. I understand the frustration that Americans feel over an ineffective and inconsistent immigration policy.
But we can’t allow ourselves to be caught up in the fear or the political propaganda or the frustration of the moment. Religious liberty is too important to back down for any reason.
Unless religious liberty is for all people, it isn’t really religious liberty at all.
It is well known at FSBCA that I don’t endorse candidates in my position as a pastor. My role is to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus, to lead the church, and to show God’s love to members and people in the community. I don’t ever want my political opinions to get in the way of that.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have strong political opinions. And since these political opinions are heavily influenced by my belief in God and my understanding of the Bible, it’s natural that I would at least share how I come to my political opinions and how I choose a candidate, for that is heavily shaped by the Bible and a Biblical worldview. To be honest, it’s more than natural. I believe that it’s part of my responsibility as a teacher of God’s word to apply the Bible to the political world.
The truth is that my reluctance to publicly endorse candidates does not mean that I am not political. Far from it. I live by the following three political truths on a personal level:
First of all, I view participation in the political process as a God-given privilege. Not everyone in the world has this privilege in the same way Americans do. I thank God for it, and I take advantage of it.
Secondly, I believe that it is more than just a privilege; participating in the political world is part of the responsibility we have as disciples of Jesus to influence our communities and even our nation for Christ.
And because of these two beliefs, I spend time educating myself on the issues and the candidates. I read news items from various persuasions so I am not unknowingly and incorrectly persuaded. I listen to debates. I check the stances of candidates. I look at the voting records of candidates. I read about their lives and not just their politics. I am actively involved in the political world.
Right now, our country is in the process of selecting a new president. And for me, when it comes time to look and choose from the many candidates, I pray and think through several issues.
I start with the character of the candidate; this is even more important to me than his stand on the issues. Is he honest? Does she have integrity? Does he have a strong set of values and morals that he lives by both personally and professionally? Does she handle her own finances well? Is he a strong family man? Is she a woman of faith and does she live by that faith? Is he personally generous and does he give to God and to worthwhile causes? Is she kind and compassionate on a personal level?
Secondly, I want to know that he or she has the experience and leadership ability to do the job, and I have very high expectations for a president. Can he lead? Does she communicate well? Does he have the necessary knowledge? Are her political persuasions backed up by real facts and not just opinions? Can he work well with those who agree and those who disagree? Can she be both honest and diplomatic? Can he disagree with members of his own party? Does she inspire confidence? Would he represent our country well among the nations of the world?
Then I look at his or her stands in areas in which I believe the Bible is very clear. I need to tell you ahead of time that some of you will find this section offensive, for I do not see Jesus as either a conservative or a liberal in the current thinking of our day. I am much more interested in being “Biblical” than I am of being faithful to a modern political party or philosophy. As a result, I want to support candidates who support Biblical concepts and a Biblical worldview. Here are just a few of the Biblical questions I ask of a candidate:
Does the candidate have a high regard for human life from conception to the grave?
Does the candidate have a high regard for racial equality?
Does he or she believe in a Biblical concept of family?
Does he believe that the Earth is created by God and that we are to care for the planet and all that is in it?
Does she believe in religious liberty?
Does he believe in both mercy and justice for all people of all colors, faiths, and economic status?
Does she have a Biblical understanding of finances that would translate into leading an economy that rewards hard work, paying bills, and reducing debt?
Does he believe in and actively work for peace in the world?
I also want to know his or her stand on the United States of America as a nation. Personally, I believe that God had His hand in the founding of our nation and that He has given our country great privileges and also great responsibilities. So I have some questions for a candidate that I want answered both in words and in his deeds: Does he love our country? Does she understand and support our constitution? Will he lead our country to be a force for good in the world? Does she understand and support our ideals of freedom, justice, personal responsibility, opportunity for all, compassion, and religious liberty? Can he work with the legislative and judicial branches of the government?
And, since I have a practical mind, I want to know if he or she has a plan to deal with some of the real problems that we face. There are some real problems and issues in American life that are not usually addressed by politicians running for office. Will he address these issues with forcefulness, honesty and understanding of the issues? For example, I’d like to know how the candidate would address issues like these:
Does he have a plan for reducing our growing debt?
Does she have a feasible plan for solving a looming Social Security crisis that will be fair both to workers and those who are retired?
Does he have a plan on reducing the number of murders in this country while still preserving our freedoms?
Does she have a plan for reducing the huge number of drunk drivers in this country and for a huge national “drug” problem?
Does he have a plan that will keep America safe in a world of war, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction?
Does she have a fair and workable plan to deal with our borders and our broken immigration system?
Does he have a plan on how the government can help the needy without creating a large group of people who expect to be taken care of by the government?
Does she have a plan for improving our tax code that is fair to families and businesses, and that supports our government adequately?
Does he have a plan for cleaning our environment without destroying our economy?
Does she have a plan on how to deal with terrorism both nationally and internationally?
Does he have a have a plan for when to get involved in–and when to stay out of–international conflict?
Does she have a plan for dealing with issues like a growing infrastructure problem, a water problem (especially in the west), an energy problem, a climate change challenge, and the myriad of other issues we face?
As you can see, I have very high expectations for a President. I ask a lot of questions from both a Biblical and a practical perspective. I’ve never found a “perfect” candidate and I know that I never will. But I do take my role as a Christian and as a voter very seriously.
And if you are a Christian, I encourage you to do the same!
PS. You can’t fully participate unless you are a registered voter, and in Arizona you can register online at www.servicearizona.com. You can also check your status, change your address, or change your party affiliation. If you’re not registered, why not follow the link now and do so?
In my current sermon series, I’m answering questions submitted by FSBCA members. I won’t have time to answer all of them in a sermon, so I will be answering some of them in my blog. Here’s a good question that came in:
If God’s plan was and is for one man and one woman, then why was it okay for the Old Testament Patriarchs and others to have multiple wives and even concubines? Was this polygamy common in New Testament times? Do the Mormons and other groups use this to defend polygamy?
One of the things that I like about the Bible is its honesty. It tells the story of men and women as they really were and not how they were supposed to be. So it talks about Abraham and his wife Sarah as well as his relationship with Hagar. It tells the story of Jacob and his two wives. It tells David’s story honestly. He was a man after God’s own heart but he also committed adultery and was an accessory to murder. It tells of the excesses of Solomon with his many wives and concubines.
It tells the story accurately as it happened. But telling the story is not the same as showing approval. It wasn’t okay for these men to have multiple wives. As a matter of fact, their stories show the hurt and the pain that came from their abuses of God’s plan. Abraham had his heart broken when Ishmael was sent away, and his sin had negative consequences for centuries. Jacob’s wives burned with jealousy and this was passed on to their sons. David’s family was an absolute mess and his sons had serious issues that impacted the nation. And Solomon’s kingdom fell apart because the sons of different queens couldn’t get along.
The truth is that God showed his plan for one-man-and-one-woman to come together in marriage from the very beginning. He created Adam and Eve and brought them together. And after they were brought together, Genesis 2 tells us “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
That is God’s plan. And when it is broken, there are consequences, hurt, and pain. God knows what is best for us. He created us and He gave us instructions that work. When we do it our own way (whether it’s David of 3000 years ago or the couple down the street today), we find that there are harmful consequences in the long run.
God’s way is the best way. It works.
PS. Years ago, the Mormons did use the Old Testament as part of their justification of having multiple wives. They officially gave up that practice in 1890, though there are still unofficial groups that practice it. And there are still serious negative consequences to the practice that harm both young men and women. In the New Testament times, polygamy was still an issue in some cultures, though it wasn’t practiced in Jewish life.