A few weeks ago in response to my blog about church membership, member vows, and what might be a valid reason to leave one’s church, a reader wrote that she didn’t think I answered the question. She also expressed her opinion that when church leaders become abusive that a very good reason to leave one’s church exists. So, I thought I should write a bit more about what I believe about a church member feeling that circumstances may establish grounds for leaving one’s church.
First, I believe that this reader is correct in saying I didn’t answer the question, at least not in the way she thought I should. My purpose in writing here at Redeeming Church Conflicts.com is not to provide specific answers to specific questions that a person would then use to make a final personal decision, but rather to help questioners think through for themselves what should be the way of asking the best questions, at the right time, in the best forum, for the right reasons, and with the application of biblical truth driving every aspect of that process. (Please see Tara’s and my “About Us” page and our “Disclaimer” statement on this site.) Not only that, please remember Proverbs 18:17: The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him. In this format we cannot be expected to have all of the information from both sides relevant to any story or comment.
In this instance, our reader’s comment concerning her belief that a valid reason for leaving a church was when church leaders become abusive indicates that she is seeking an answer to confirm or deny that that reason is valid and one based on, in her opinion, biblical principle. She cited Ezekiel 34 as an example of unfaithful shepherds and how that provided her argument that that reason was a valid one for leaving one’s church. But, in my opinion, there are so many other better questions that should, and must, be explored first before closing the door on this important issue.
Let me rephrase what seems to be our reader’s core question: “Is it biblically valid to break one’s church membership vows and leave the church when church leaders become abusive?” This question can be further subdivided into: (1) When is it biblically valid to break one’s church membership vows and leave the church?” and (2) When can a church leader’s behavior be labeled “abusive?” The second question may be one way to a potential reason or answer to the first so I am not going to go into the many potential forms of pastoral abuse here since the list would be very long (such as breach of a church member’s confidentiality, sexual abuse, counseling abuse, greed, failure to shepherd, intentional lying to protect self, not preaching the Gospel, etc., etc.). Those may all be valid reasons to label a leader’s behavior as “abusive,” but they may not all be valid reasons to leave one’s church. So, the first of our subdivided question becomes the key one on which to focus.
Breaking a vow, any vow, is a very serious matter. Breaking a vow of church membership is one of the most serious because it was one made as a promise to both God and God’s under-shepherds, and the people who inhabit the pews with you. Vows should never be taken lightly. My first question back to our reader may be something like: “When you became a member of your church did you know everything you possibly could about how the leaders of the church would undertake their shepherding responsibilities toward you and others?” I believe too many people make decisions too quickly about joining a particular church before knowing everything they can about it. That is why “potential new member’s classes” are so important. But, it also takes some time to see if what was taught in such a class is what is actually practiced in the church. A rash vow can be a dangerous thing (see the account of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges, chapter 11).
Because a church membership vow is so important it is also wise to think through, “what is the nature of this vow really?” That is, is it a unilateral vow where all responsibility for fulfillment is solely mine or is this a reciprocal situation where the church is also making a vow to me? If the church breaks its vow to me am I free to break my vow in return? What about my responsibility to quietly use my position as a member to seek to correct the breach? If a church leader is not living up to his responsibility should I not seek to help this leader see that and change? This is an aspect of accountability that many church members don’t embrace when things aren’t going as they should in the church based on a biblical standard and from a biblical perspective. What about those who have spiritual authority over church leaders? Can they hear your concerns and appropriately be brought into the situation so that errant leaders can have the benefit of correction? If you have joined a church where there is no meaningful accountability for leader behavior and practice you have likely not fulfilled your responsibility to take a vow wisely. Every church leader needs the benefit of being under meaningful accountability. That is a question of “polity” (church governance structure) and should be one of the most important subjects taught in a potential new member’s class and completely understood before a church membership vow is taken.
The question we are focusing on is a very difficult one to find a completely satisfactory answer to because God took his own vow one day long past that stands as a model for us of the severity of vow-taking. You can read about it in Genesis, chapter 15. Because God can make a binding promise on nothing higher than himself this vow is called a self-maledictory oath (it includes the punishment as part of the vow if broken). The best discussion of this vow that demonstrates how seriously God took his own vow is in Tim Lane’s and Paul Tripp’s book How People Change at pages 68 and 69:
What is going on in this strange encounter? Abram is struggling to believe God, so God helps him. He tells him to cut some animals in half. That night, a smoking firepot and a blazing torch pass between the animal halves. God was saying, “If I do not keep my promise to you, may what happened to these animals happen to me!” This is called a self-maledictory oath. God is saying, “If I don’t keep my end of the bargain, may I be ripped asunder!” Over two thousand years later, God the Son hung on a cross, crying out, “My God! My God! Why have we been ripped asunder?” God allowed what should have happened to us to happen to Jesus. We were the ones who failed, yet the triune God was torn asunder so that we might be united to him and to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. The perfect love, unity, and joy that existed between the Father, Son, and Spirit were demolished, for a time, for our sake.
This is the ground on which we build all relationships. Every time you are tempted to shun another believer [be that a church leader, pastor, or fellow member], remember that the Father, Son, and Spirit were torn asunder so that you might be united. When you sin or are sinned against, you are to move toward your sibling in Christ aware that Father, Son, and Spirit were torn asunder so that you might be reconciled! If we approached relationships in the body of Christ with that in view, it would transform our friendships. In Ephesians 4, Paul says that to the degree you do this, you will be “built up,” “become mature,” “ attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ,” and “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”
I hope that all of our readers have a better understanding of vow-taking and vow-keeping in the church when they reflect on Genesis 15 and the words above. To the reader who asked the direction question weeks ago: Yes, leaders may be abusive and you should leave if that is true and you have no avenue open to you for holding them accountable for their abuse, but first take responsibility for the fact the fault may have been yours for taking the church membership vow in the first place. Did you agree to be in submission to these leaders without knowledge? Did you know if they were men under meaningful ecclesiastical accountability? If not, acknowledge your sin for taking a vow perhaps a bit too rashly. Humbly acknowledge that the fault was yours and try your best not to fall into the same situation the next time you join a church.