A Concerning Trend
It seems that it has become increasingly popular for self-professed evangelicals in the U.S. to leave the Church and “deconstruct” their faith. I write “Church” with a capital C because I’m referring to the invisible church, that group of chosen, true believers within local church bodies across the world. And when I say, “leave the Church,” I mean it in the sense of removing oneself from any local church body that is teaching the orthodox, historical Christian faith and has elders who are shepherding the flock.
My aim in writing this is to sternly warn true believers against succumbing to this trendy social contagion. This warning will have no effect on those who profess a false faith, but my prayer is that God would use it, by the power of His Spirit, to lead true believers away from this deadly error in both thought and practice.
The main idea that fuels this trend of leaving the Church is that someone can “follow Jesus” without participating in “organized religion,” and that it may actually benefit one’s ability to “follow Jesus” to do so. It may be claimed that all the denominations and doctrinal divisions and specifics of church practice “get in the way” of one being truly “spiritual.”
At first glance, this may seem to be a persuasive argument, especially when someone then supports these claims by relating personal experiences of being sinned against by others in their church, church leaders doing wicked things, observation of rank hypocrisy, and so on. And, indeed, this argument is persuasive to many in this age.
But is it what the infallible, unquestionable Word of God teaches?
There are three primary points of doctrine, drawn directly from the Scriptures, which refute the lie that someone can “follow Jesus” and not be in active, in-person fellowship, or membership, within a solid, local church body.
1. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” – 1 John 2:19 (ESV)
The first is that John unequivocally states that leaving the church, or excommunicating oneself from the fellowship of true believers, is the equivalent to apostasy, or leaving the faith altogether. “If they had been of us,” or if they had been true believers, “they would have continued with us.” A tangible mark of the true believer is that he refuses to leave the Church, no matter how hard it gets.
This was a time of intense persecution against Christians by the Roman state, but John wasn’t sympathetic to this concern. He reveals the deeper significance of their leaving the church: that they never had saving faith to begin with. Fellowship with believers in the Church is so central to the faith of the gospel, that leaving the fellowship of believers (permanently) is the sure sign of apostasy.
2. “We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” – 1 John 4:19-21 (ESV)
Secondly, it is an express command from God for Christians to love their brothers and sisters in Christ. Love is described in 1 John 3:16 as “laying down one’s life” for your brother. But how can you love your brother in Christ if you do not have fellowship with him?
How can you have true fellowship with your brother in Christ if you do not worship Christ together on the Lord’s Day, sing psalms together, share in the Lord’s supper together, sit under God’s Word together? How can you help bear your brother’s burdens, thus laying your life down, if you don’t have fellowship with him in the Church?
3. “… waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” – Titus 2:13-14 (ESV)
Thirdly, Paul’s letter to Titus clearly reveals that the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross was to redeem and purify for Himself a people. The text does not say that He redeems and purifies individuals who live their lives isolated from others. The Father chose a people to give to the Son, and the Son gave His life to purchase and renew this “holy nation” and to present it mature and blameless before the Father (John 6:35-65, John 17:6-26, 1 Peter 2:9-10).
In other words, Jesus died for His Church. The Church is the bride of Christ, and Christ laid down His life to sanctify her (Eph. 5:25-33). The Church is the object of God’s love (because the Church glorifies God), so to hate the Church by leaving it is to be in radical opposition to the faith.
For those of you who are tempted to give up on the Church and leave it, I implore you to reconsider. You will not be following Jesus if you are not counted amongst His bride. True faith in Christ only exists within the context of the true body of Christ, which is His Church (1 Cor. 12:12-27). You cannot be in Christ and not also be a member of the body of Christ.
Maybe you’ve been sinned against, maybe there is hypocrisy, maybe there seems to be good reasons to leave. The life of the Church is messy and sinful, just read Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. Strive to confess and confront sin, wherever you find it. Strive to forgive and be reconciled.
Our ability to genuinely and consistently be reconciled to one another is something that uniquely sets the Church apart from the World.
Maybe you do need to leave your local church body to find another because the errors and failures are too great, too consistent, too systemic. This can be necessary, but don’t do this in haste. And don’t dawdle on your way to finding a more solid local church.
In whatever circumstance you find yourself, do not leave the Church, the people of God, your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Your life depends on it.