I don’t agree with what is happening but I’m not leaving .... When should you leave a congregation?

When “your” church makes serious changes in its worship, activities and direction often people are left uncertain as to their next move.  Should they just ignore the difficulty and stay? What about worshiping at a place where there are real concerns and problems?  However, going means finding another church – often leading to the question “where would we go?”  It is a very difficult situation to be in, isn’t it?  What can be done?  What, from the perspective of the Bible, should be done?

First, let’s understand what won’t work.  Blaming others for the problem while doing nothing won’t work.  This is, however, probably the most common approach to these tough circumstances.  People simply shrug and say “I don’t agree with what is going on but I’m not an elder – they decided, not me.”  Yet no Christian can pass the buck for his spirituality, and for his choices of where to worship and what he fellowships and participates in to someone else!  Paul is clear “He will render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6).  2 Corinthians 5:10 adds “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”  Perhaps the most significant point here is that we must not imagine that God won’t hold us accountable for what the leaders of the congregation have done.  Jeremiah solemnly warns against false prophets and false teachers, but then also warns the people they will be punished in captivity for following these false men (Jer 14:15-16).   The people were not given a “free pass” by God because they were deceived by false teachers, nor were they told “you were just following your leaders so it’s okay.”  No, God expected them to investigate, think and discern the truth so they could obey God not men!  

If we think about it, we know that to be so.  For example, what if the elders announced the church would practice segregation, and began discrimination against various races?  What if the elders decided to spend the congregation’s treasury on personal luxuries and made no secret of how they were using the Lord’s money?  Who would continue to worship with such outrages?  Even if the elders demanded we submit to such we could not, in good conscience, do so.  If someone said “It’s just the elders’ decisions, not mine” we would immediately say “You cannot remain and support such sinful activity!”  That brings us to the second point . . .

Secondly, we need to remember that the local church is a relationship that requires our support and encouragement.  For some church has become little more than a weekend hobby, something to be done on Sunday morning.  Yet the New Testament teaches the church is much more than the worship assembly.  The church isn’t the building, but in fact is the body of Christ.  Because it is a body we sustain a vital relationship to each member (1 Cor 12:12-26).  We have responsibilities to encourage one another (Heb 10:24-25), to rebuke one another if someone is in the wrong so they will be restored (Gal 6:1-2).  We give of our money to the church each Sunday (1 Cor 16:1-2; 2 Cor 8:1ff).  We are to strive for unity in the Body (Eph 4:1-2).  When we have serious differences with what the church is doing, teaching and practicing, we can’t fulfill our obligations to that relationship can we?  If the local church started teaching that only red headed people could be saved I could not encourage that teaching with my presence each Sunday.  I wouldn’t want to give my money that would be used to pay a preacher who would say that, or to finance the printing of material claiming only red heads can be saved.  I couldn’t ask my unsaved friends to go to church with me and hear error.  In short, all that I am supposed to be doing in a local church would be short-circuited by the church’s error on the crucial matter of salvation.  Teaching that only a certain class of people will be saved directly contradicts 1 Tim 2:4 and limits the Gospel.  That’s not some minor issue, like what color carpet to put in the building or whether to have padded pews.  When a church is practicing or teaching error I cannot be a part of that.

Let’s make clear application to the Richland Hills situation.  The Richland Hills church is using instrumental music in its worship services on Saturday night.  This practice does not reflect the will of Christ for His church.  It is unauthorized and therefore wrong.  There is simply nothing in the New Testament that one could even begin to construe to say that instrumental music is right before God.  What should those who disagree with the decision to add instrumental music do?  Some might say “It’s not a problem - just go to the other services that are non-instrumental.”  But that doesn’t work because this isn’t about where or when to go to services but about the church relationship!  How can I attend a different service, giving my endorsement and approval to the church, when I don’t agree with what the church is doing on the fundamental matter of worship?  Can I invite my friends to church, wondering if the next week they’ll say “Hey, I’ll go to the Saturday night service?”  I believe that service is sinful!  Can I give my money to the treasury, the same treasury that is used to pay for the instruments that I believe are scripturally wrong?  Can I say “amen” to the preaching that says instrumental music is okay?  No, I cannot.  Can I pray for the musicians who perform on Saturday nights?  Again, I cannot.  Instead of encouraging and supporting the church and its activities, like a member should, I need to be trying to convince folks that what is going on is a mistake and sinful!  But that might cause division and trouble and turmoil and no Christian wants to be party to such.  It’s a mess – a mess that I cannot continue in, can I?

That is the bottom line: the local church is a fellowship arrangement.  Fellowship means to be “partners with” or “joint partakers of” (note 1 John 1:7 - our fellowship with Jesus).  Christians cannot be in fellowship with what they know to be sinful and wrong.  We are to have no fellowship with sin (Eph 5:11).  What Richland Hills is doing in their worship services on Saturday night is not right.  That means those who remain at Richland Hills even if they do not attend the instrumental services are supporting the elders decision to practice error and giving their endorsement to error by their continued presence, contribution and support of all that Richland Hills does.   

So should someone leave if the congregation they are part of practices sin?  The answer to that is “Yes.”  Notice what happened in Old Testament times when Rehoboam raised up idols at Dan and Bethel for Israel to worship.  “And the priests and the Levites who were in all Israel presented themselves to him from all places where they lived. For the Levites left their common lands and their holdings and came to Judah and Jerusalem, because Jeroboam and his sons cast them out from serving as priests of the Lord,  and he appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat idols and for the calves that he had made. And those who had set their hearts to seek the Lord God of Israel came after them from all the tribes of Israel to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the Lord, the God of their fathers. They strengthened the kingdom of Judah, and for three years they made Rehoboam the son of Solomon secure, for they walked for three years in the way of David and Solomon” (2 Chron 11:13-18).  When leadership decides to do wrong and won’t change those who want to do right have little choice but to go somewhere else where they can do What is right.  That is what the people of northern Israel did when Jeroboam led the northern ten tribes into apostasy and that is what people need to do today when the congregation they are a part of practices error: go and strengthen others who are trying to do right!

Sometimes folks think they can stay and convince people to make a change.  After Rick Atchley’s three sermons on instrumental music such seems doubtful at Richland Hills doesn’t it?  Please realize as well that this introduction on an unauthorized practice at Richland Hills won’t be the last.  Once people are acclimated to instrumental music on Saturday nights how long till they are heard on Sundays occasionally and then more and more?  Rick said in his sermon that instrumental music was necessary to evangelism and reaching the lost - how long will he want to restrict the evangelism “gain” of instrumental music to Saturday nights?  What other innovations do the elders at Richland Hills plan on introducing, now that instrumental music has been accepted?  In short, what else could they do that would cause a person to leave, if this doesn’t?  Folks who don’t leave now will find their resistance steadily worn down as they get more and more comfortable with what is happening at Richland Hills.  That means the time to act is now, not later!

Our hearts go out to people who deeply troubled by Richland Hill’s use of instrumental music.  Leaving a church you’ve long been a part of is traumatic and difficult.  However, remaining and continuing to be part of a church practicing error cannot be right.  Rick Atchley made clear in his three sermons on “The Both/And Church” that Richland Hills will not back up on this decision and the leadership at Richland Hills is content to “run off” folks who cannot worship with a church that uses instrumental music.  That is sad and unscriptural but it certainly makes clear the course set for those who wish to follow the New Testament pattern for the church, doesn’t it?  Let the elders there no you cannot remain in good conscience.  Explain they are forcing you out because of their decision to bring in the instrument.  It is hard to imagine that such will do much good but one can always try.  Be kind and speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15).  Then you can move forward in finding a place where New Testament Christianity is being practiced in its simplicity.  Only then will you be able to truly worship in spirit and in truth and truly be a part of the work and worship of the local church where you are a member!  May the Lord bless you during these difficult days and in these difficult decisions.